Thursday, February 26, 2009

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 5

Josh McDowell's use of evidence from the Gospel of John is based on an assumption about the reliability of John:

(ROJ) The Fourth Gospel is a reliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus.

If ROJ is incorrect, then most of McDowell's evidence for the main premise of the Trilemma is worthless, and the main premise would be left with very little support.

In my previous post on this topic, we saw that Gunther Bornkamm and Joachim Jeremias, two leading Jesus scholars in the new quest for the historical Jesus, both reject ROJ. James Robinson and Norman Perrin are two more prominent Jesus scholars who were part of the new quest, and they too reject ROJ.

In an introduction to the New Testament, Norman Perrin makes this comment when comparing the Synoptics to John:

Outside of the synoptic gospels the New Testament offers little resource for arriving at historical knowledge of Jesus. The gospel of John is so much the end product of intensive meditation and reflection, and so absorbed with the interpretation of Christ as the descending-ascending redeemer, that no way has yet been found of deriving historical information about Jesus from it. (The New Testament, an Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History by Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling, 2nd ed., 1982, p. 410)

James Robinson also views the Fourth Gospel as being historically unreliable:

Indeed, the Gospel of John is the latest of the four, from the last decade of the first century, and reflects more of the church's gospel about Jesus than it does the gospel of Jesus himself. It is the most important gospel for the history of theology, but the least important for the quest of the historical Jesus.
(The Gospel of Jesus by James M. Robinson, 2005, p.4)

So, four key scholars of the new quest for the historical Jesus agree that ROJ is wrong.

What about the scholars of the more recent third quest for the historical Jesus? We have already seen that E.P. Sanders, a leading Jesus scholar of the third quest, rejects ROJ, but do other prominent third-quest scholars agree with him?

Geza Vermes, Ben Meyer, Marcus Borg, and John Meier are all prominent Jesus scholars who are part of the third quest movement, and each of these scholars rejects ROJ, as we shall see. Vermes asserts the unreliability of the Fourth Gospel in his book The Changing Faces of Jesus (American edition published by Viking Compass, 2001):

...the so-called Gospel of John is something special and reflects not the authentic message of Jesus or even the thinking about him of his immediate followers but the highly evolved theology of a Christian writer who lived three generations after Jesus and completed his Gospel in the opening years of the second century A.D. (p.8)

Next there are the texts [in the Fourth Gospel], a mass of them, in which the evangelist makes Jesus speak of himself. The words which Jesus utters are mostly of John's own creation. The difference between the ideas of John's Jesus and the Jesus of the first three Gospels is particularly striking; they are indeed irreconcilable. (p.26)

Vermes asserts that the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John do not come from the historical Jesus.

The article on "Jesus Christ" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, one of the best Bible reference works in the English language, was written by the third-quest Jesus scholar Ben Meyer. In this article, Meyer gives his view of the reliability of Gospel of John:

Moreover, though the Johannine gospel tells the story of Jesus in distinctive fashion and affirms this story to be charged with historic truth, the key to the discourses of Jesus, to individual narrative units, and to the total sequence of events is not memory but sustained religious reflection of a high order. What the gospel affirms is not so much the actuality of remembered words and acts as it is the historic truth of Johannine theological themes. When applied to a work of this character, the standard indices to historicity turn out to yield relatively little.
(The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1997, 1992.)

Clearly, Meyer views John as an unreliable source of the words of the historical Jesus, so he would reject ROJ. Meyer's skepticism about John appears to be more qualified than that of Norma Perrin (new quest scholar) and Geza Vermes (third quest scholar), because he allows that there are historical facts that can be discovered from study of the Fourth Gospel:

Nevertheless, on numerous matters ... the Fourth Gospel clearly seems to have retained significant historical data unavailable in the Synoptic tradition.

But the ability of scholars to find bits and pieces of historical truth in John does not make this Gospel a reliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus.

Marcus Borg is another leading Jesus scholar who is part of the third quest for the historical Jesus. Borg contrasts John with Mark (and the other Synoptic Gospels) in an essay he contributed to the book Jesus at 2000:

One of the greatest differences [between John and the Synoptic Gospels] is Jesus' self-proclamation. In John, Jesus speaks frequently of his own extraordinary status. In the great "I am" statements (found only in John), Jesus speaks of himself in the most exalted language. These include:

"I am the light of the world" (8.12, 9.5).
"I am the bread of life" (6.35).
"I am the resurrection and the life" (11.25).
"I am the way, the truth and the life" (14.6).

Also in John, Jesus speaks of himself as one with God and as the revelation of God: "I and the Father are one" (10.30), "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (14.9), and "No one comes to God except through me" (14.6).

In Mark, there is none of this. Jesus never refers to himself with any of these exalted images and phrases.
(Jesus at 2000 edited by Marcus Borg, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997, page 131.)

In the same essay, Marcus defends his view that the Gospel of John is unreliable in much the same way as E.P. Sanders does:

That is, Jesus' exalted status is not part of Jesus' public teaching in Mark. It is not part of his message. The contrast to John is stark, where Jesus regularly proclaims his identity.

There are other sharp differences between the synoptics (as represented by Mark) and John. In the synoptics, Jesus performs many exorcisms; in John, none. In the synoptics, Jesus most commonly teaches by using short sayings (called aphorisms by scholars) and memorable short stories (the parables); in John, Jesus often teaches in long, complex discourses. In Mark, Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem in the final week of his life (indeed, it is the cause of his arrest); in John, Jesus does so at the very beginning of his public activity (at the end of Chapter 2). In John, Jesus' message is to a large extent about himself; in Mark, Jesus' message is not about himself but about the Kingdom of God.

Cumulatively, these differences have persuaded scholars that a foundational choice must be made: The historical Jesus was either more like the Jesus of the synoptics or more like the Jesus of John. The differences are so great that the synoptic and Johannine portraits of Jesus cannot be harmonized into a single whole. For mainline scholars, the choice is the synoptics.
(Jesus at 2000, p. 132)

Like Sanders, the contrasts between John and the Synoptic Gospels are focused mainly on the form and content of the teachings of Jesus. Thus, Borg like Sanders would clearly reject ROJ.

There is an article specifically on "The Teaching of Jesus Christ" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and that article was authored by Marcus Borg. He is more to the point in his comments on John in that article:

First, within the NT the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are the primary sources. John’s gospel is not seen as a historical account of Jesus’ message. Rather, John portrays what Jesus had become in the lives of post-Easter Christians; Jesus as a figure of history did not speak as he does in John’s gospel.

In the next post on this topic, I will cover the views of some more prominent Jesus scholars (John Meier, Raymond Brown, and James Dunn).


Yirmeyahu said...

History--your earliest Church historian, Eusebius--dictates "neither of the above"; that the original Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi rejected the NT in its entirety and excised Paul as an apostate.

It just doesn't square with the Christian belief system that Christians insist on assuming.

Answers, rather, are found at

Kirk Yetton said...

Dear Bradley

While I cannot comment specifically on these issues (I am not acquainted with these scholars nor the arguments regarding the Gospel of John), I can make some points regarding some of the historiographical premises that appear in the arguments that you quote.

The fact that "John" has developed some theology before writing his gospel does not necessarily mean that what he represents is not historical fact. I deal with historical sources regularly which contain ideologies based upon the events they describe in the same way that these scholars suggest is the case with the Gospel of John, but that does not mean that the events they describe did not take place in that way. Sometimes they did not, that is true, but other source material often does support what is said. In short, the argument is not a strong one. All historical sources are written with some form of agenda, but that does not mean the events they describe cannot be accepted.

The differences that are suggested between John and the synoptics again do not necessarily mean that the information contained is not true. It may be a resulted of the sources used by the authors. If, as generally believed, the synoptics shared a common source this may explain why they share much common information and attribute report a similar style of Jesus' speech. As we do not have access to this source we have no knowledge of why its writer may have included some information and excluded others. That "John" did not have access to this source may go some way to explain why the style he attributes to Jesus is different. In addition, the kind of information "John" includes depends upon his audience and purpose. There may be a reason here as to why he chose to use different information and to include Jesus' longer speeches (I'm sure he didn't always speak in parables and short "sound bites").

While these points do not support the reliability of John's gospel, they show, I hope, that these are not reasons to reject its presentation of Jesus. The perspective is not necessarily in contrast with that presented in the synoptics. As an historian, if I were presented with a similar situation regarding the evidence for my own area of focus I would not reject the fourth source for these reasons alone.

Regarding the Jesus Seminar, their methods as described in "The Five Gospels" for deciding the reliability of Jesus' sayings and actions are, quite simply, ridiculous. From an historiographical point of view such 'scholarship' is dubious to say the least, even laughable. I doubt very much whether their work is taken seriously in scholarly circles. Using methods like that, I certainly hope not.

All the best.