Tuesday 6 April 2021

An eye-witness eye-for-detail in the Fourth Gospel ("John") - by Esther O'Reilly

From an essay by Esther O'Reilly, published in The Spectator 5 April 2021. This lucidly spells-out what was very obvious to me, in many ways both large and small, throughout my reading of The Fourth Gospel as if it was our only source of knowledge of Jesus.  

[First]... there is the matter of John’s eye for precise detail. It is commonly assumed that the author sacrifices on-the-ground accuracy for the sake of theological symbolism. But what symbolic meaning could plausibly be attached to oddly specific numbers like, say, the six waterpots at Cana (each containing 'twenty to thirty gallons')? Or the 'hundred fifty-three' fish in the great post-Resurrection catch? Or the 'twenty-five or thirty' stadia (~3 miles) that the disciples had rowed across Galilee when they saw Jesus walking on the water? See also the frequent 'approximate hours' given for various incidents, or awkwardly meticulous descriptions such as the exact positioning of the grave-clothes in Jesus’ tomb. 

The number of stadia relates to another puzzle for John’s detractors: the author’s intimate knowledge of his location. Not only does he accurately place the disciples 'in the middle' of the lake, as Mark more vaguely puts it, he also knows that this body of water had more than one name (Galilee or Tiberias). This from the same writer who mentions, by the by, that one goes down from Cana to Capernaum (2:12). Further, the gospel’s action, including miraculous action, is grounded in numerous specific sites around Palestine. These include the famous Pool of Bethesda, whose 'five porticoes' fuelled many a flight of academic fancy as to their deep symbolic meaning until they were literally excavated in 1964. 

In the information age, we can forget the significance of such easy local familiarity. For instance, suppose I, a hobbit-like American writer sitting in my armchair, became suddenly curious about the geography around and under 1980-something Piccadilly Circus, which in the intervening decades has been completely remapped. It’s not as easy as you might think to recover even this recent piece of history, even in 2021. Now imagine instead that I am a Greek writer in the late first or early second century, hoping to fabricate a convincing memoir of the pre-70 A.D. life and times of an itinerant Jewish peasant. Wish me luck in this hypothetical, because I’ll need it. 

Numerous details like these certainly appear to mark John as the work of a Jewish writer up close to the facts it relates. Much ink has been spilled over whether that writer is 'the beloved disciple.' But there are a number of clues. Note, to give just one, the apparent gap in the crucifixion narrative after Jesus commands said disciple to take charge of mother Mary. This suggests that the writer himself took her away immediately but returned for the bitter end. We then see the eye for detail once again in the vivid clinical shock of blood and water pouring from Jesus’ pierced side, stamped with the seal of eyewitness testimony. 

The gospel narrative’s lifelike quality demands to be reckoned with. Characters major and minor leap off the page, from impetuous Peter to doubting Thomas to the barb-tongued man born blind. This is to say nothing of Jesus himself, whose complex personality, teaching style, habits and even small tricks of diction are carried with uncanny unity across all four gospels (significantly weakening the claim that 'the Johannine Jesus' and 'the Synoptic Jesus' are two different entities). 

Then there are the layers of dramatic complexity in sequences like the raising of Lazarus, whose lead-up is fraught with rich emotion as Jesus first contends with the strong-willed Martha, then falls nearly speechless at tearful, heart-broken Mary. See also the unique touches that set the Last Supper on a knife edge of tension – the beloved disciple’s quiet question as to who will betray, or the observation as Judas stands at the open door, on the threshold of betrayal, that 'it was night.' And finally, on Easter morning, the crowning moment of the gospel, perhaps of all Western literature, the mother of all eucatastrophes contained in a single word: 'Mary.' 

The full picture John offers, in all its vividness, in its peculiar combination of high drama and mundane precision, confronts the honest reader with the same dilemma that confronted C. S. Lewis: Either its writer unaccountably invented the modern realistic novel fifteen centuries early, or else we are dealing here not with fiction, but with history. In this voice, we hear the ring of truth...

The above article mentions approvingly this reading of the Fourth Gospel by David Suchet. It uses the New International Version translation; which is a verse by verse paraphrase popular with evangelicals. Suchet is a great actor, and apparently a serious Christian. 

My own preference is strongly for the Authorized Version (King James Bible) - because I believe it to be uniquely divinely-inspired among English-language Bibles; also it is one of the very greatest works of world literature - read here by Max Maclean. 

Note added by BGC: Of course, for this aspect of the Fourth Gospel really to strike home, the reader must at least entertain the possibility that it really is what it purports to be: the work of a truthful and informed eye-witness. Most modern readers have already-decided that miracles are impossible, God is not real, and therefore Jesus cannot have been divine nor risen from the dead and ascended to Heaven. 

But if such things could be regarded as at least hypothetically true in principle, then the Fourth Gospel might have a remarkable and transformative power; especially if the reader could set-aside (for the moment) everything he thinks he knows about Jesus and what he taught. 

H/T for this link to my nephew Tom. 


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"What's the truth about John's Gospel?" -- illustrated with a photo of Paul's Epistle to the Colossians. Even in an article specifically about the Fourth Gospel, "the Bible" means Paul!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - While it might be a subtle plot by subversive Protestant academic Biblical Scholars on the staff of The Spectator; having once been a part-time journalist, I don't accord this illustration much specific significance.

The author has no control over the title or illustration; and the illustration will be chosen by a busy and uninterested sub-editor who (by the looks) went straight to Getty Images online (where, presumably, the Speccy has an account), searched for "Bible", and took the first that looked even vaguely OK and fitted the space.

But then again - there are no accidents, nothing in this world is truly 'random'- so...

Alex said...

One thing I find fascinating, but haven't researched in depth yet, is how certain apostles have historical continuity with second-generation Christian writers. So, St Clement knew St Peter and St Polycarp is said to have been taught by St John. Going through those sources, like the Epistle of Polycarp, and extracting mentions of Jesus' deeds from the apostles, would be interesting. If I'm not mistaken, there are also direct sayings of Jesus in those sources which are not in the Bible. One example, from the Epistle of St Clement to the Corinthians:

[...] being especially mindful of the words of the Lord Jesus which He spoke teaching us meekness and long-suffering. For thus He spoke: "Be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as you do, so shall it be done unto you; as you judge, so shall you be judged; as you are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you; with what measure you measure, with the same it shall be measured to you."

Not strictly related to your post, but I find it interesting that there are sayings of Jesus, and continuity with the apostles, to be found in sources outside of the Bible proper.

Joseph A. said...

Yes, English speakers should use the KJV, at least during liturgical gatherings. It is majestic -- fitting in many ways for worship.