History or Propaganda? These stark options and much in between have caught believers in a milieu of confusion with regards to the reliability and usefulness of John’s gospel over the last 150 years. While the Betty Ford clinic has often struggled to successfully rehabilitate high profile young Hollywood stars, developments of 21st century scholarship have succeeded in breathing new life into Johannine studies.
During the heyday of Liberal Theology, and especially through the influence of Strauss and Bultmann (Burge’s p. 18, Carson p 30-32), John came to be seen as the “gospel outsider”. The Gospel was thought to primarily reflect a Greek worldview, to be influenced by Gnosticism or Christian myth making, and to have been written very late. In sum, it was thought by general consensus to be “the least historically credible of all the canonical gospels” (Carson, 30).
While earlier writers, even from amongst the modernist German’s had maintained support for the gospel (see Schleiermacher’s position in Burge, 17), it was primarily three dramatic movements that brought credibility back into the discussion.
THREE TURNING POINTS
First, archeological evidence surfaced, knocking most of the presuppositions of the Liberal construction out from beneath their theories. The Dead Sea Scrolls provided a framework for the sociological and theological milieu of John, which moved it away from a Greco-Roman and back into a Palestinian context (Carson 32-33). Coupled with this, discoveries of manuscripts, best represented in the John Ryland’s Papyrus, dated to ca 125AD conclusively pushed the Gospel’s dating back into the Apostolic era (Kostenberger, 211).
Secondly, the “new look” movement re-evaluated John in light of its internal witness and these archeological developments, and argued persuasively that John represented an independent historical witness to the life and teachings of Jesus; “from the same wellspring as that of the Synoptics” (Burge, 25). One critical writer of this movement is Gardner-Smith, whom Carson notes, “has taken hold of much of Johannine scholarship” with this thesis (32). Accounts from the history must no longer be viewed as “fictional” but have “historical worth” (Burge, 27).
Third, the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls and new analysis (tied to this ‘new look’ school with J. A. T. Robertson leading the way), has really placed emphasis on the Palestinian/Jewish context of the book. Moving the theology away from a Grecian context, has led to significant re-interpretation of the meaning of the “signs” and re-interpreted the purpose and meaning of the main plot. (Kostenberger, 212).
Bringing up images of adventure and discovery, a la Indiana Jones, the Archeological discoveries of the last century revolutionized much of biblical scholarship. The confidence that it grants and the context it provides to a Biblical book is invaluable to the preacher and the apologist. If one includes the theological and sociological insights provided by the manuscripts of the Dead Sea, the message of John is dramatically enhanced, making this perhaps the most valuable foundational aspect of these movements.
It is important to note, however that despite the encouraging direction of much of this rehabilitation, like the restructuring of Tiger Woods moral compass around Buddhism, it has not necessarily led to Christian orthodoxy in modern scholarship. This is seen in the Johannine School hypothesis of Robertson, which argues that a separatist movement of John’s disciples was responsible for the final draft (see Kostenberger, 212-13), and various other new theories. The cautiously identified ‘cutting edge’ of modern thinking on this Gospel, Carson notes is “literary criticism” (38). This school of thought often assumes the final form of the gospel, as is, without getting too deeply into questions of authorship thus leading to textual analysis that can be helpful, but also tends to look to identify ‘sources’ within the text, or political agendas. Thus this “rehabilitation” has both gifts to offer and minefields to avoid (38-40).
Burge, Gary M. Interpreting the Gospel of John. Baker Books, 1992.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Eerdman's Publishing, 1991.
Köstenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John. Baker Books, 1999. ISBN0-8010-2603-2.