I recently read Richard Bauckham's fascinating book, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007). Below is a review.
The only thing more impressive than Richard Bauckham’s 2006 award-winning study, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, is its author’s refusal to rest content in its warm reception. Bauckham’s most recent work explores further some lines of thought already developed at some length in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses as well as in various previous publications. Indeed, twelve of the thirteen chapters are reworked publications from earlier research. Nevertheless, the collection as a whole, while not a tightly progressing argument, provides a unified, integrated and convincing portrait of the Gospel of John that diverges in numerous ways from recent prevailing trends. Bauckham has just concluded a long and fruitful tenure as professor of New Testament studies and Bishop Wardlaw Professor at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
The aim of Testimony of the Beloved Disciple is to challenge what Bauckham labels “the dominant approach” of Johannine study since the 1970s, inaugurated by J. Louis Martyn’s 1968 study History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel and significantly advanced by Raymond Brown throughout the 1970s. The opening pages of the introductory chapter outline seven characteristics of this approach: (1) a neglect of patristic voices; (2) reading John as theology, not history; (3) a confidence in source criticism; (4) seeing a Johannine community as central to the Gospel’s formation and reception; (5) viewing the Gospel as having emerged from this Johannine community; (6) an impulse to reconstruct this community’s history through accounts in the Gospel; and (7) a belief that that the Johannine community was predominantly Jewish. Bauckham divulges that in recent years (due largely to the influence of Martin Hengel) he has been “abandoning one by one all of these elements of the dominant approach” (12). He then crystallizes his own perspective: “the Gospel is an integral whole, including both the prologue and the epilogue, and was designed as such by a single author. I have returned to the traditional view that the distinctiveness of the Gospel . . . is due . . . primarily to a theologically creative and literarily skilled author” (ibid). Insisting that the Gospel’s genre be put front and center of any serious study, Bauckham writes that “what most Johannine scholars have notably failed to take seriously is that the Gospel’s theology itself requires a concern for history” (14, emphasis original). The remainder of the introduction summarizes what is to follow in the chapters ahead, divided into discussions of the Gospel’s authorship (ch. 2-3), genre (ch. 4), audience (ch. 5-6), historicity (7-10), theology (11-12), and literary unity (ch. 13).
Bauckham first examines external and internal evidence to suggest that the author of the Fourth Gospel—the “beloved disciple”—is not John son of Zebedee but John the Elder, a Jerusalem disciple (though not one of the Twelve), who administered as high priest for a short time. Chapter two inspects external evidence from Polycrates and Papias, while chapter three turns to internal evidence, commending an understanding of the beloved disciple not as ideal disciple but as ideal witness. Challenging the common maxim that John’s Gospel is not history but theology, chapter four observes traits of ancient historiography to argue that this Gospel, on the contrary, would “have looked considerably more like historiography than the Synoptic Gospels would” to a competent first-century reader (112). Chapter five upends another alleged misunderstanding of the Fourth Gospel, fueled largely by J. Louis Martyn: that it was produced by and for a specific sectarian community, unlike the more broadly targeted Synoptic Gospels. Bauckham argues that John is actually more universal in scope than the Synoptics, writing not only to the entire Christian community but also to unbelievers. Chapter six adds that John has written to Jews, and that his light/darkness imagery ought not to be rooted in a similar dualism found in the Dead Sea Scrolls but in the Hebrew Bible.
Moving to issues of historicity, chapter seven proposes that Nicodemus was a member of the wealthy Gurion family, independently referenced by both Josephus and rabbinic sources, both of which are meticulously analyzed. In chapter eight Bauckham asserts the historicity of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in John 11-12, appropriating Gerd Thiessen’s “protective anonymity” hypothesis to explain the absence of this striking miracle story from the Synoptics. Based on internal evidence, comparisons with the Synoptics, and Patristic sources, chapter nine defends the historicity of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet in John 13—a study that provides much food for thought for any pastor preparing to teach on this passage. Chapter ten demonstrates that “John knew pre-70 Jewish Palestine accurately and intended to set his story of Jesus plausibly within that chronological and geographical context” to argue that this Gospel is more reliable than the Synoptics not only historically but also in its portrait of first-century Jewish messianic expectations (238).
Transitioning from history to theology, chapter eleven develops some elements of Bauckham’s 1999 study God Crucified (1999), identifying seven signs, seven “I am” predicate statements, and seven “I am” absolute statements. Bauckham proposes Deuteronomy 32 and Isaiah 40-55 as the soil from which these “I am” statements have sprouted (rather than Exodus 3:14). Chapter twelve explores the holiness of Jesus in this Gospel and how that holiness extends to his disciples in light of Jewish understandings of sanctity and purity. Chapter thirteen, finally, tackles the perplexing issue of the significance of the 153 fish in John 21, suggesting that this number can be seen on multiple levels to affirm this final chapter as part of the original Gospel.
Many strengths of this work could be mentioned. First, Bauckham conscientiously places himself under the text, submitting his own thinking to the aims and theological substructures of the biblical writer. This willingness to observe and receive the biblical text rather than look through and reconstruct it, echoing the core conviction of Adolf Schlatter a century ago, is a methodological word-in-season to contemporary biblical studies. Second, these studies consistently exhibit the extensive grasp of both primary and secondary material that we have come to expect from Bauckham (without flaunting this knowledge in a wearisome or counterproductive way). Third, in his analysis and explication of the primary sources, particularly the Patristics, Bauckham expertly combines meticulous care with unimpeachable good sense, making his proposals very convincing indeed. Fourth, he writes in clear and uncluttered prose, rendering his lines of reasoning traceable even to the uninitiated.
The cumulative value of this collection of essays makes the identification of weaknesses uncomfortable indeed. Beyond the well-known identity of the author of the Fourth Gospel as John the Elder, a thesis few in Johannine scholarship appear to be swallowing, I will mention just one. Despite a valiant attempt to alleviate such concerns (283-84), Bauckham’s proposals regarding numerical significances at times stretches the credibility of even the most open-minded reader. Noting, for instance, that the Hebrew numerical value of “John” is 129, he writes: “The 129th word from the beginning of the Gospel’s epilogue is the first word (o`) of the phrase ‘that disciple whom Jesus loved’ . . . which is the first reference to the beloved disciple in the epilogue (21:7). By means of the techniques of word-counting and gematria the name of the beloved disciple has been cryptically encoded in the narrative” (282). The breathtaking discernment such a claim requires of the reader (or worse, hearer!) of John’s Gospel may indicate eisegetical ingenuity more than exegetical insight.
The bottom line, however, is that the collective force of these thirteen studies pave a way forward in Johannine scholarship which navigates the Scylla of pre-1970 scholarship that frequently ascribed the source of John’s theological categories to Greek thought (Dodd, Bultmann) and the Charybdis of post-1970 thinking that often envisioned the Fourth Gospel as generated by and written to a small sectarian movement cut off from the Jewish synagogue (Martyn, Brown), all the while blowing the trumpet for a theologically informed yet historically trustworthy reading of the Fourth Gospel. If Bauckham’s thoughtful exploration receives what it deserves, it will be widely read and appreciated.