First of Two Parts

As an adjustment to the destructive biblical criticism of the last century and this one, much of Protestant theology has attempted to shift the Christian faith from an objective to a subjective footing. Christians have been told that the facts of biblical history do not matter for the life of faith, that our subjective understanding of Jesus is more important than historical knowledge of the events of his life and ministry. Many argue that theology and anthropology, not history, should be the concern of Christian thinkers.

This argument has an element of truth, for there is more to Christianity than historical facts; as a personal relationship with the living God, it has an indispensably large subjective element. But we cannot divorce the subjectivity of Christianity from its objective basis without destroying the nature and power of the Gospel. Christianity is a historical faith, and the events to which it refers are of its essence. Where the Church forgets that Jesus Christ actually lived and died in Palestine, that he demonstrated the truth of his claims to be the Son of God and Saviour of the world by his resurrection from the dead, there the force of the Gospel is lost and Christianity is inevitably swept away by the ebb tide of history.

On the other hand, where these events are recognized as true, there Christianity stands. For it rests upon the supernatural activity of the eternal and omnipotent God. The facts are essential for Christianity. Hence, the historical reliability of the Bible and particularly of the New Testament documents is immensely important for the advance of Christian faith.

The reliability of the New Testament is also important for the progress of theology, for theologies that do not regard the New Testament documents as trustworthy and authoritative inevitably decline into varying degrees of subjectivity. If the New Testament documents are not to be trusted, who is to say what happened in Palestine nineteen centuries ago and what did not? And if these events are unknowable or irrelevant for Christian faith, what is to keep that faith from merely conforming to or reflecting the cultural and intellectual thought-patterns of the theologian? Valid reasoning must have a valid point of reference. Hence, even the theological enterprise depends upon the reliability of the basic documents.

A purely historical approach to Christianity has its natural limitations. It cannot prove the theological significance of an event, for instance. Nor can it always deal adequately with what we know as miracles. It cannot establish the claim that the Bible is God’s revelation to men, or that it is entirely authoritative or infallible. Nevertheless, a defense of the reliability of the New Testament documents can emerge as a defense of the historical basis of the Christian faith and thus as a proclamation of those mighty acts of God which God himself sets before mankind.

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Are the New Testament documents reliable? For over a century faith has answered its Yes in opposition to the adverse verdict of influential scholars. Today, however, thanks in large measure to advances in biblical and archeological studies, a significant shift is taking place in certain areas of biblical studies and scholars such as William Albright, Oscar Cullmann, F. F. Bruce, and Joachim Jeremias are arguing that the New Testament is in fact “what it was formerly believed to be: the teaching of Christ and his immediate followers between cir. 25 and cir. 80 A.D.” (William Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, p. 23). They are noting that much of the historical content of the New Testament is increasingly vindicated by archaeological research.

New postures in biblical scholarship are nowhere more apparent than in approaches to the Gospel of John. A generation ago all but the most conservative scholars gave John an exceptionally late dating, and few would credit the book with historical accuracy. For many writers, the Gospel of John was to be placed in a literary category of its own as something very much like theological fiction. Today, rejection of apostolic authorship is increasingly coming under attack as an inadequate explanation of the Gospel and its origins, and a renewed claim is being raised for the historical reliability of its narrative.

The so-called shift in scholarship has been pointed up by a number of authors, among them Cullmann, who speaks of “a new approach” to the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Expository Times, 71, pp. 8–12, 39–43), and J. A. T. Robinson, who writes of the “new look” in Johannine studies (Twelve New Testament Studies, pp. 94–106). Comparing contemporary approaches to John’s Gospel, with the critical orthodoxy of the first half of the twentieth century, these scholars detect a tendency today to perceive a genuinely historical and even apostolic tradition in the Fourth Gospel and even to go so far as to recognize the evangelist (although perhaps not the author of the Gospel as it now stands) as a contemporary of Jesus Christ and an eyewitness of the events described. At least five factors have contributed to this new approach:

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1. Increased knowledge of the New Testament period has led to general acknowledgment of the existence of a non-conformist Judaism in Palestine before the Christian era, a Judaism embracing genuine Hellenistic tendencies not far removed from the supposedly Greek elements that have always been noted in the Fourth Gospel. This increased knowledge is due in large measure to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and their publication in subsequent years. In particular, there is a growing readiness to recognize that the life and the literature of the Qumran community may represent the historical milieu out of which John the Baptist emerged with his message of repentance and baptism and also the historical background of the author of the Gospel.

An excellent illustration is to be found in the so-called Gnosticism of the Fourth Gospel, upon which much Johannine scholarship is built. This has often been considered a product of Hellenistic Christianity. Today it is increasingly recognized that the closest parallels to these Johannine themes are found, not in the thought of Asia Minor, but in what Bo Reicke, a Scandinavian scholar, calls the “pre-Gnostic” thought-forms of the Qumran community (New Testament Studies, 1, pp. 137–41). A. M. Hunter writes, listing K. G. Kuhn, Albright, Millar Burrows, W. H. Brownlee, Jeremias, and Reicke for support:

The dualism which pervades the Johannine writings is of precisely the same kind as we discover in the Dead Sea Scrolls; not physical or substantial (as in the Greek Gnostics) but monotheistic, ethical, and eschatological [Expository Times, 71, p. 166].

It is also to be noted that other themes apparently Hellenistic (the Logos, life, and light) are essentially the products of Jewish modes of thought.

This argument for the reliability of the Fourth Gospel asserts, not that the fourth evangelist himself emerged from the environment of Qumran—few would argue this—but that the Dead Sea Scrolls provide tangible evidence for the existence in Palestine, even in the southern and most Jewish sectors of the country, of a body of ideas perfectly adequate to account for the distinctive beliefs and thought-forms evident in the Gospel. Robinson, assessing the historical background, says:

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I detect a growing readiness to recognize that this is not to be sought at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, in Ephesus or Alexandria, among the Gnostics or the Greeks. Rather, there is no compelling need to let our gaze wander very far, either in space or in time, beyond a fairly limited area of southern Palestine in the fairly limited interval between the crucifixion and the fall of Jerusalem [Twelve New Testament Studies, pp. 98, 99].

He adds that the Dead Sea Scrolls “may really represent an actual background, and not merely a possible environment, for the distinctive categories of the gospel.”

2. The reliability of the Johannine topography, vindicated by recent archaeological discovery, also points in its own way to the author’s familiarity with southern Palestine and to the historical trustworthiness of the narrative. The evangelist mentions several places known to the Synoptic writers that might therefore be known generally through tradition: Cana of Galilee (2:1; 21:2), the Praetorium (18:28, 33; 19:9), and Bethany (11:18). But he also speaks accurately of Ephraim (11:54), Sychar, which is probably to be identified with Shechem at Tell Balatah (4:5), Solomon’s Porch (10:23), the brook Kidron, which Jesus crossed to reach Gethsemane (18:1), and Bethany beyond Jordan, which he distinguishes from the other Bethany only fifteen furlongs from Jerusalem (1:28). In recent years the reliability of the writer’s knowledge of Jerusalem has received additional verification by the discovery of an old reservoir with five porticoes near the sheep gate, undoubtedly correspond-to the Pool of Bethesda (5:2), and by identification of the Pavement of judgment, Gabbatha (19:13), as an area in the northwest corner of the temple enclosure bordering on the tower of Antonia.

The most striking of the archaeological discoveries is the probable identification of Aenon near Salim, where there were “many waters” (3:23), with Ainun (“little fountain”), lying near the headwaters of the Wadi Farah. The author’s accurate reference to such an obscure site indicates a remarkable familiarity with the area of the Jordan, and the general knowledge of Jerusalem and its environments he displays argues strongly that his information about Palestine was firsthand.

3. Of equal importance with the increased knowledge of conditions in Palestine during the Christian era is a greater sensitivity to the uniqueness in content of the Fourth Gospel, resulting from an intensified comparison of the text with the Synoptic narratives.

At one time the very uniqueness of the final Gospel would have been taken as an argument for its historical unreliability and as a sign of the distance in time between its composition and the events it describes. Today this is no longer so. With the shift in interest in New Testament studies generally from specific problems of authorship to the gospel traditions that the individual compositions represent, there has come a new awareness of the potential reliability of any independent testimony and a willingness to accept the unique Johannine traditions as being at least as old as the traditions represented by the Synoptics. Many scholars today regard the case for a literary dependence of John on the Synoptics as unproven and improbable. Some even consider the possibility of a dependence of the Synoptics upon John. The weightiest work in English to advance the case for literary independence is the exhaustive examination of Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd. Although Dodd prefers to leave the question of authorship in abeyance, his whole work is designed to show that “behind the Fourth Gospel lies an ancient tradition independent of the other gospels, and meriting serious consideration as a contribution to our knowledge of the historical facts concerning Jesus Christ” (p. 423).

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In this area of Johannine studies, few dismiss the theological nature or even the original character of John’s work; but many now regard his teaching to be at least as old as the Pauline theology and, in terms of the tradition, as historically reliable as the Synoptic Gospels on those points where the narrative is to be taken as a history.

4. The new recognition of the possibility of John’s authorship of the Fourth Gospel or of a genuine eyewitness experience as a basis of the traditions it incorporates has been given added stimulus by the attempts to find within the Gospel traces of Aramaic idiom or of original Aramaic documents that are supposed to underlie it. This area of research has been controversial. But though the case of Charles Burney and C. C. Torrey for an Aramaic original of the Fourth Gospel (in Torrey’s case of all four Gospels) has hardly met with general acceptance, it seems quite probable, nonetheless, that a strong Semitic idiom does underlie part of the Fourth Gospel, if not the whole. This may be indicative of a Hebrew- or Aramaic-speaking author who composed his narrative in Greek. Dodd observes that “the evidence for an underlying Semitic idiom is irresistible” and that “this in itself brings the gospel back into a Jewish environment, of which we must take account” (The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p. 75).

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In itself this factor may not prove the existence of an Aramaic-speaking author, but it does make it difficult to associate the Gospel solely with Hellenistic thought-currents or to locate its historical background exclusively in Asia Minor and see it as a representation of Greekspeaking Christianity. Taken together with the other items mentioned, this factor substantially increases the probability that the witness who stands behind the Gospel and to whom must be attributed a share of the actual composition, if not the authorship of the whole, was a Jew of Palestine and thus a possible eyewitness of the events of Christ’s ministry.

5. The final factor that has weighed heavily in an assessment of the Johannine authorship of the Gospel is the belated discovery by critical scholars that the so-called theological (Clement calls it a “spiritual”) interest of the Gospel does not militate against an equally serious attention to the facts.

Not many would doubt today that John is concerned with what has been called for lack of a better term “the Christ of faith.” He affirms indeed that “the flesh is of no avail” (6:63) and asserts repeatedly, as in the account of the post-resurrection appearance to Thomas, that belief must take precedence over sight. But for John the Christ of faith includes the Jesus of history, and belief, though it represents a step beyond the evidence, nevertheless is based upon it. In fact, as Robinson believes, the notion that the Christ of faith can be had apart from the Jesus of history is “exactly the error which, to judge from the prologue and the epistles, he was most concerned to combat” (Twelve New Testament Studies, p. 100). A recognition of these facts has led some scholars to speak of a twofold concern in John’s approach to history, a concern, as Cullmann expresses it, for “faith in the Jesus of history as the ‘Christ’ ” (Early Christian Worship, p. 38). Or as Edwyn C. Hoskyns writes, “The visible, historical Jesus is the place in history where it is demanded that men should believe” (The Fourth Gospel, p. 85). If these two interests are really interwoven, then it is hard to see how the spiritual interests could be maintained without an equally serious attention to the history and how the historical interest could be genuine without an equal concern for verified historical material. It is contributory to this line of thought that John places an exceptional importance on the facts and in particular upon verification of the facts by those who witnessed them.

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It would be unwarranted, of course, to suggest that the question of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel is now receiving an answer radically different from that given by scholars a decade or two ago. Because of the opening up of these new interests, the question of authorship has actually assumed a less important place and has received much less direct discussion. At the same time, however, it is warranted to speak of a shift in Johannine studies according to which scholars more readily admit the possibility of apostolic authorship and speak even more surely of a primitive and reliable tradition underlying the historical material of the Gospel.

[To be continued]

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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