Monday 14 May 2018

When was the Fourth Gospel composed?

Leaving aside the actively-misleading irrelevance that is Bible scholarship (which almost-always has been based-on the secular assumption that Scripture is Not divinely inspired, nor divinely protected, nor sustained and transmitted with divine assistance... In other words, Bible 'scholarship' operates on the basis that Scripture is Not scripture)... Leaving that aside:

The Fourth Gospel is, uniquely, an eye-witness account of the life and teachings of Jesus - written by Jesus's most beloved friend and disciple; the first written and most important Gospel; written independently-from the other three 'synoptic' Gospels (none of which claim to be eye-witness accounts, and which were, from internal evidence, compiled and created some time after Jesus's death).

But when was the Fourth Gospel written? From internal evidence (with a qualification, which I will mention) it was written soon after the ascension of Jesus, while the events were still fresh and vivid in the mind of the author; accounting for the detailed and extremely convincing vignettes that jump-across the millennia into the mind of the reader...

The exception is the last chapter of the Gospel. The early-written Gospel finished at the end of Chapter 20 with the words: "30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: 31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name."

The words of the final verse (coming after the 'Doubting Thomas' episode) complete and summarise the message of, and reason for, this Gospel: all throughout. Who Jesus was, and what this means for each of us: what we need to do-about Jesus.

Chapter 21 was written later, after the death of Peter; and is mostly 'about' Peter, his relationship with Jesus; including and the mission Peter was given by Jesus. (That is, when Jesus once says feed my lambs, and twice repeats feed my sheep. (The meaning of this episode needs to be the subject of a separate post.)

Chapter 21 concludes with a reference to Jesus having correctly foretold the manner of Peter's death - signing-off with a reference to the Fourth Gospel author's apparent immortality, and a reassertion of his identity and eye-witness status. 

Chapter 21 is therefore of the nature of an appendix to the main body of the Fourth Gospel - in terms of its discrete subject matter - and was presumably added some decades later than the bulk of the gospel. 

Is this stuff important? Well, yes - because a late date for the whole Fourth Gospel has been a major source of error in understanding the New Testament; relegating what truly is the single most important (and the only essential) part of the Bible, to the status of a late commentary upon The Synoptics. 

Knowing the early date and unique authoritativeness of the Fourth Gospel (which is really only a matter of taking Scripture seriously, in its own terms) transforms the way we read the rest of the New Testament; and indeed greatly clarifies the nature and meaning of Jesus. 



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

The usual evidence for a late date for "John" is:

1. It's different from the synoptics.

2. It refers to Christians being put out of the synagogues (9:22), which external evidence suggests didn't happen until around AD 90.

3. The earliest church fathers (Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp) don't refer to it at all.

4. It's really, really different from the synoptics.

That's about it, as far as I know. Not the most impressive argument I've ever encountered.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - wrt: 2. There is, of course, a possibility of small (inessential) 'editorial'/ transcriber additions to any ancient text during composition and transmissions - so we should be cuatious about using these in dating.

wrt 3: It seems clear to me that to assume that the writings of early Church Fathers 'got it right' is itself a very big assumption; and one I do not hold (since I believe that they mostly adhered to an already-existing, false, non-scriptural, monotheistic/ credal-Trinitarian metaphysics, which they fitted-Christianity-into.

This 'philosophy first' implicit bias operates as early as Paul, who seems compelled to devise an 'original sin' explanation (and other ingenious complexities) to patch some of the internal inconsistencies arising from this perspective which he knew so well and had internatilsed.

These in order to account for the incarnation/ death/ resurrection of Jesus being *necessary* to salvation; and that salvation was something that could not be accomplished by The Father unaided (despite The Father being an infinitely competent 'omni God'). And the core problem, for a strict monotheist, that there was and could-only-be one God - yet Jesus was wholly divine.

The simple polytheist (henotheistic) solution, and the obvious inference from the Fourth Gospel (including that Jesus created this world - if not its 'people'), was ruled-out by these deep assumptions.

As we know; these analyses and critiques come from Mormon doctrine/ theology.

Anonymous said...

The most distinctive evidence for a later composition of John is it's highly developed Christology, i.e. Jesus is presented much more as defined by his divine, than by his human, attributes. There is a confidence in the style of John lacking (for the most part) in the synoptics. The synoptics present disciples who were confused, did not understand the full import of Jesus and indeed held to a highly Jewish conception of what Messiah-ship should mean. These issues have been "worked out" in John, which many scholars and theologians take to mean that this more highly developed Christology was worked out and thought through over time.

One can also use Paul's Epistles as a reference point since they are by most the earliest Christian writings: is the Christology of Paul more similar to the Fourth Gospel or to the Synoptics? That is a question I do not have confidence to answer at the moment.

Another highly distinctive aspect of John compared to the Synoptics is that Jesus is far more vocal and upfront to those OTHER THAN his disciples about who he is and what he represents. The Synoptics present a Jesus who wants his identity (as Messiah) to be hidden from others: time and again he tells the disciples or the beneficiaries of his healing powers NOT to tell anyone else. In John, in contrast, Jesus explicitly uses his miraculous powers to prove his identity to the larger world and to the Jewish priestly class in particular. Thus, when asked whether the blind man or his parents had sinned (and thus brought about the man's blindness), Jesus says "neither". Rather, the man was blind so that the power of God might be made manifest in Jesus to the world. Similarly with Lazarus. This distinction with the Synoptics does not necessarily go the question of dating in that the way that I think the Christological argument does, but it is a highly prominent difference between the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel in any event.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Samuel - Thanks - Your comment emphasises what a big difference assumptions make.

sykes.1 said...

John A. T. Robinson, in his "The Priority of John," makes the case that John is early (probably the first Gospel composed) and authoritative, and where it differs from the Synoptics John is correct.

I read Robinson's book a number of years ago, and it is revelatory. It should be required reading for all Christians.

Mike said...

Are you a Trinitarian? To be fair, I'm a catholic.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mike - I don't think anyone would call me a Trinitarian; but certainly a Roman Catholic would not! I think the whole *issue*, which led to the development of Trinitarian disputes and wars, theories and creeds; is an (unfortunate) Red Herring - consequent on intellectuals trying to fit Christianity into pre-existant philosophy.

I believe that Jesus is 100% divine, is necessary for salvation, is the Son of God, creator of this earth etc. But how I explain it, and the relation to the Holy Ghost, is Not Trinitarian.

TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

Since I don't believe chapter 21 was amended later, I've maintained that the whole book was written after Peter's death.

In support of this I'd point out that John names specific persons in relating the events in Chirst's arrest- Caiaphas is identified as leading the conspiracy, Peter is identified as the apostle who attacked one of Caiaphas' servants, and the servant is identified as Malchus. This seems like sensitive information that wouldn't have been revealed until after the people involved were all dead. Mark avoids identifying these individuals when describing the same incident, either because he doesn't know who did what or in order to protect their anonymity. If John were written before Mark then those details would have been generally known and there would have been no point in concealing them. The most logical explanation to me is that Mark was written, as traditionally thought, by a companion of Peter while he was still alive, and John was written later after Peter's death, while the other two synoptics followed Mark's lead and could have been written before or after John.

Though I think the last Gospel written was actually Luke.

- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@Carter - They don't strike me as strong arguments; especially since the author of the Fourth Gospel did not abandon Jesus when he was arrested but stayed with him throughout the trials and crucifixion - not a man to be intimidated about 'naming names'. Also, it is probable that the book was written for a specific, closed group. (Also, Lazarus could not be killed - because he had been resurrected! - and I believe the text tells us explicitly that Lazarus was *resurrected*, and not merely brought 'back to life'.)

TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

Whether or not the author of John could die is irrelevant to whether his writings could get Peter or other Christians killed by members of Caiaphas' family.
- Carter Craft

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Any ideas as to why Lazarus suddenly becomes anonymous ("the disciple whom Jesus loved") halfway through the story? I would have assumed it was for protection, because there was a plot to kill him (John 12:10-11), but that doesn't make sense if he couldn't be killed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I assume it was because after his resurrection Lazarus had become a 'new person' and probably had a different name or designation... it feels like the author expected the intended audience to know such matters already.