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How Reliable is the Gospel?

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The idea of reliability within the context of Biblical criticism is, in itself, infrequently used; through external sources shedding light on the Gospel and through the Gospel itself prompting work on the context behind its own composition, scholars might be able to piece together theories which hold water, seem convincing and could easily be true, but the process is still largely speculative and the ‘reliability’ of various proposed backdrops for Biblical interpretation is difficult to measure. Establishing a so-called ‘reliable context’ for analyzing and interpreting the Gospel of John, therefore, is no easier, especially given the scope for interpretative depth which the Gospel provides. In this essay, I will aim to examine the enigmatic Johannine figure, the ‘Beloved Disciple’, considering whether an academic reconstruction of the character can be reliable and, in turn, whether any interpretative work done off the back of this reconstruction can be reliable. In similar fashion, I will explore what can be said regarding the so-called ‘Johannine community’ if, indeed, anything, and the effect this might have on our analysis of John as a text. Ultimately, I will seek to sustain the line of argument that although the reconstruction of these historical areas is useful in that it allows us to progress in terms of textual analysis if some such theory is true, we cannot establish the reliability of these reconstructions and therefore cannot strictly rely on them as a solid contextual basis for further analysis. Instead, we must continue with the mantra that the field, as a whole, is speculative.

The mysterious Beloved Disciple is often described as the ‘hero of the Johannine community[1]’; the figure does not appear within any of the other Gospels but is particular to John hence, I think, the intrigue. The anonymity also naturally grasps the interest of the reader and has compelled scholars throughout history to investigate further. The epithet ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ is utilized six times within the Gospel; at 13:23-25, we read of the disciple reclining beside Jesus at the last supper, he is given at the crucifixion to Jesus’ Mother as her ‘son’ (19:26-27), John 20 depicts the Beloved Disciple as the first to reach the empty tomb after Mary Magdalene discovers it, he also appears in chapter 21 as one of the fishermen involved in the miraculous catch of fish. In addition, chapter 21includes a conversation prompted by Peter asking what will become of the one whom Jesus loved, to which Jesus replies ‘if I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’ The Beloved Disciple is also clearly known to the High Priest since he is the only disciple allowed to accompany Jesus into the High Priest’s palace. Finally, the last chapter of the Gospel categorically asserts that the Gospel was written on the basis of the testimony of the one whom Jesus loved. It is clear, then, that the Beloved Disciple must be treated as one of the most integral aspects of the Johannine Gospel; this figure is present at most of the defining moments within the Gospel and is depicted almost obviously as the perfect follower of Christ, often acting as a foil for other characters, specifically Peter. It is not difficult to understand, then, the extent to which reliable knowledge regarding the identity of the Beloved Disciple would open up the Gospel textually and historically.

With this in mind, it is worth attempting to decipher who the Beloved Disciple was. Some have suggested attributing to him authorship of the Gospel; this is unsurprising and, to a large extent, sensible given the assertion at the end of the Gospel that ‘ this is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true’ (21:24). We are blatantly told about the authorship; why should we doubt this? However, certain facts should make us inclined to doubt this seemingly blatant attribution; firstly, as Brown explains, It is generally agreed that the Synoptic Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. When one compares material in John to roughly parallel material in the Synoptics, sometimes John seems to have older (and, at times, more historically likely) material; other times, and probably more frequently, the Synoptics have material of that quality. If John were written by an eyewitness and the Synoptics were not, one would expect more consistency in the antiquity and reliability of the Johannine tradition[2]. In addition, it does perhaps seem unlikely that an author should refer to himself as ‘the one whom Jesus loved’ if for no other reason aside from modesty. It sounds rather more like a respectful, reverent title bestowed upon him by a community or a following of some kind. The number of times this title is utilized, therefore, perhaps suggests alternative authorship. We can be almost certain of the fact that the Beloved Disciple did not write all of the Gospel; chapter 21 distinguishes the disciple from a certain ‘we’ who complete the Gospel. Given 21:23, we might perhaps assume that the disciple had died by the time chapter 21 was composed, this passage seems like a qualification of Jesus’ assertion that ‘if it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’, an explanation as to the disciples’ passing. Evidently, we cannot assert that just because someone else completed the Gospel, the Beloved Disciple did not compose the majority of it. Then again, coupled with the implausibility of him referring to himself as beloved, it perhaps seems unlikely that he wrote any of it, at least in the strict sense of putting words on a page.

However, though there may be holes in the view that the Beloved Disciple physically penned the Gospel, this does not exclude him from having been the effective composer of the work, the one who’s testimony formed the basis for John. Once again, the final passage of chapter 21 provides the most obvious clue; we are explicitly told that the testimony is that of the disciple, the use of the ‘we’ here suggests perhaps a group of writers desperately attempting to convince the reader of the authenticity of this text. Though this group may have constructed the Gospel, it is a possibility that they entirely attribute its content to him as a mark of respect for a recently deceased pillar of their community, school or small discipleship. In addition, they perhaps emphatically wish to relinquish any real credit in writing the Gospel in order to intensify the purity of the testimony they are providing. Strongly asserting that the Beloved Disciple, an eyewitness, has written the Gospel certainly has more of an air of testimonial purity to it than this group having composed a Gospel based around what they had heard from an eyewitness; it removes any Chinese-whispers-style doubts. This idea is reinforced at 19:35, ‘He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.’ The use of the title, on this model, could potentially be a literary technique, assigning their witness the status of ‘the one whom Jesus loved’ in order to increase his status as a witness of his ministry and as one with insider knowledge. Brown does suggest that the Johannine community would perhaps have utilized the ‘Beloved Disciple’ epithet as an expression of their belief in his close relationship with Jesus; as Brown notes, ‘the Beloved Disciple probably played a major role in guiding the community through its vicissitudes and helping it to acquire theological perspective. In fact it is probably in this period that he became ‘Beloved’, since the depth of insight that he gained was seen as a mark of Jesus’ special selection and love[3].’ They perhaps thought that this title would convey this message to the reader or, if we affirm that the Gospel was written solely for one community, this may have just been the common method by which to refer to him. The Beloved Disciple could have written the Gospel in terms of being the stem of it, the one through whom the stories came orally to the eventual composers; ‘ the BD might be the authority behind the Johannine tradition (and in that broad sense the author of the community’s tradition) without being the writer of the Gospel[4].’ I think it perhaps seems most sensible to think of the Beloved Disciple as a teacher within the community, one who provided the eyewitness stories which a group within the community then composed into the Gospel; this interpretation would, I think, cater for the reference to him as the ‘beloved disciple’ and eliminate the problem of differing Biblical knowledge to the Synoptics. In addition, if the disciple had recently passed away, as discussed above, the compilation of his stories of witness, attributed to him, would be the ultimate symbol of respect. I think that this idea of him as a respected, ‘father of the community’ works as a potential theory; as Brown summarizes, ‘…the figure of the BD is important. He is an ex-disciple of JBap, a follower of Jesus from the start of his ministry but not one of the twelve. This outstanding historical personality, the ‘father’ of the community, serves as a link between the historical Jesus and the Johannine community[5].’

It is undeniable that the Beloved Disciple also serves a literary function; he represents the model of perfect discipleship earning himself Jesus’ ultimate affection. Simultaneously, he acts as a positive counterpart for Peter. He demonstrates perfect loyalty to Jesus in accompanying him into the palace of the High Priest; Peter cannot get in and subsequently denies his association with Jesus. The beloved disciple reaffirms his loyalty in his reception of Jesus’ mother into his own home following the crucifixion. In addition, he perhaps symbolically outruns Peter to the empty tomb where, upon seeing, he believes without question despite his lack of understanding, the only one mentioned who sees and instantly believes. The beloved disciple recognizes Jesus before the other disciples on the water and identifies him correctly: ‘ That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”’ (21:7) The disciple’s reclining on Jesus’ chest represents ultimate closeness, one unrivaled within any other Gospel. Meanwhile, Peter needs the Beloved Disciple to gain information from Jesus. As Bauckham summarizes, the beloved disciple is given a superiority to Peter only in respects that qualify him for his own role of perceptive witness to Jesus…the fact that the beloved disciple is present at the cross makes him superior to Peter, not simply as a disciple, but precisely as that disciple- the only male disciple- who witnesses the key salvific event of the whole Gospel story, the hour of Jesus’ exaltation, toward which the whole story from John the Baptist’s testimony onward has pointed.[6] Bauckham also suggests that the anonymity of the Beloved Disciple places him in a ‘different category[7]’ to the other disciples. The Beloved Disciple, then, seems to contain all of the traits of a standard literary device; to some, this might suggest his being fictional, a mere didactic tool. However, this doesn’t at all seem to fit with the frequently reinforced notion of the Beloved Disciple as testifier. There is no reason why the Johannine writers, in their desire to depict the father of their community in a positive light, might not have made him this exemplary follower, the model for the rest of the Gospel’s readership as he was for the community. It seems, then, that we are able to establish a number of sufficiently supported potential theories regarding the identity of the Beloved Disciple for the Johannine writer/writers and, although one might be more inclined towards the plausibility of one theory over another, these theories are certainly not reliable, as such. In my opinion, it seems that the only two features of the disciple which are close to reliable are that he is fairly obviously depicted as a model for discipleship, and that he is real (this seems like a sensible conclusion given the constant reinforcement of his testimony.) All else, however, is merely educated speculation and therefore can’t provide a strictly reliable context for analysing the Gospel; it could potentially be very misleading. Scholars have certainly endeavored to offer interpretations in light of certain theories regarding the Beloved Disciple and these theories do hold water but they also rely on assumptions which are highly dubitable. Brown, for example, observes that ‘in counterposing their hero over against the most famous member of the Twelve, the Johannine community is symbolically counterposing itself over against the kinds of churches that venerate Peter and the Twelve- the Apostolic Churches, whom other scholars call the “Great Church.”‘ This theory, however, presupposes the Beloved Disciple to be the ‘hero’ of the community. We have to be careful with this kind of claim since if we begin to align the Beloved Disciple with the identity of the Johannine community, we would be forced to jump to multiple conclusions about the community itself and, as we shall see, it is not even undisputed that there was one. And if there was, it is certainly speculative that they wished to be presented as over and above their opposing churches. Our knowledge of the Beloved Disciple, therefore, is not great enough for us to really claim that we have a ‘reliable’ basis for further interpretation.

The question as to the Johannine community is an important one since so much of the recent interpretation of John has been conducted with a specific Johannine community in mind. As Bauckham points out, ‘the option that each Gospel was written for a specific Christian community- has been taken entirely for granted in most Gospels scholarship for some decades now[8].’ Yet, if this picture or scholarly reconstruction of the community is misrepresentative, so much of the subsequent analysis is completely misleading. For example, if there is no specific Johannine community we have even less reason to suppose that the Beloved Disciple represents the perfection of the Johannine church over rivals. Hence the reason why, ideally, we would like to be able to construct a reliable picture of the community in which the Gospel was written and the audience to which it was attempting to appeal.

Bauckham famously argues against the idea of a distinct Johannine community towards which the Gospel was aimed; ‘ an evangelist writing a Gospel expected his work to circulate widely among the churches, had no particular Christian audience in view, but envisaged as his audience any church (or any church in which Greek was understood) to which his work might find its way[9].’ Bauckham argues that the four Gospels should not be viewed like the Pauline letters, written with a specific community in mind. Bauckham assigns the Gospels to the genre of ancient greco-roman biographies and, as such, he believes they would have warranted a larger audience. In addition, why would the Gospels have been written down if only to be circulated around the Evangelist’s own community; he argues that Paul would communicate orally within his own community reserving letter-writing for communicating over distance. Bauckham also argues for a network of churches in close communication with one another as opposed to a series of isolated churches with specific church communities; he believes that the Evangelists might have travelled around the expanding Christian world attempting to bring others round to their Christian interpretation. Bauckham does not aim to remove the Gospels from any historical context, he simply aims to demonstrate the likelihood of the Evangelist’s aiming their work at the broader Christian world as opposed some kind of isolated district. However, there are numerous points of debate here. Sim draws attention to the inconsistency of Bauckham’s idea of a worldwide Christianity by appealing to the numerous disagreements across the religion; the early Christians were divided into at least two distinct and very different groups…to put the matter in simple terms, one faction required all followers of Jesus Christ to belong to the people of Israel and to follow the Torah, while the other did not…it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of very different Christian movements rather than a single Christian movement.[10] Sim also makes use of Paul to launch a counter attack against Bauckham; he maintains that in Gal. 1.18-21. Paul talks of visiting Jerusalem around the year 36 and not returning until the year 48. During the next decade, he did not seem to have contact with Jerusalem or Antioch. These kinds of facts do not conjure up the image of Christian communication and development which Bauckham espouses. In addition, it is noted that ‘when the early Christians travelled they mostly did so within their own regional networks, so any churches the Evangelists visited would have been similar to their own. It is, in any event, a very large leap of faith to infer from the mobility of some Christians that any of the Evangelists were well travelled[11].’ Sim even suggests that Evangelists would be largely against the spreading of their Gospel to other communities for fear of them being misinterpreted or deliberately altered, as was the case with Mark. Baukham’s idea that the Gospels would not have been written down if not intended for a wider community is also strongly undermined, as Ashton points out, by the existence of the Qumran literature, famously written for an isolated community who could have equally communicated their ideas via the oral method. Esler also reminds us that the use of the Beloved Disciple as a character does not scream universality in the case of John’s Gospel: ‘are we really to believe it more probable that John was writing for ‘all Christians’ rather than his own community when he refers to an important character by nothing more than the designation of ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved[12].”

To me, it seems unlikely that the Evangelist would not be appealing in some way to his own community; Bauckham does talk of individuals traveling from community to community which suggests that the Evangelist would have had one himself. It is unlikely that the Evangelist would have composed the Gospel entirely in a vacuum entirely ignoring any potential problems which he felt needed addressing within his own church. However, it does seem unlikely that, given the successful spread of the other three Gospels, the Evangelist would have been completely averse to the idea of his work traveling. Even if this is not what he wanted as an author, it is probably unlikely that he was able to compose the Gospel without the thought at the back of his mind that he might be writing for a wider audience. In this sense, then, we can perhaps say that the Evangelist was writing for both his own community and the wider Christian world. In addition, purely from an egotistical perspective, surely the Evangelist must have had some hope of his own theological outlook or that of his community being spread with the same enthusiasm as the preceding Gospels. This theory might explain both the elements of the Gospel which seem to appeal to a specific community such as the ‘beloved disciple’ epithet and the idea of this character as representative of the Johannine community, and also the elements which make the Gospel the Gospel of inclusion like the idea of universal salvation.

If we can establish that there was a community to which the author was appealing, then we can perhaps assume some kind of appeal to them throughout the text and we can therefore infer things about the community from the Gospel and, in turn, interpret the Gospel in the light of the community. However, although we can put together a reasonable case for the idea of a Johannine community, we can only do so on the basis of the way the rest of the Christian world functioned and through second guessing the thoughts of the Evangelist. These methods don’t necessarily lend themselves to talk of a ‘reliable’ reconstruction upon which critics can build. This is not to say that we cannot still interpret the Gospel in light of the idea of a community, but we must do so keeping in mind the caveat that some such thing is the case only if our unreliable assumptions about community are correct.

In conclusion, the identity of the Beloved Disciple and his role in the Johannine community remains a mystery; though it seems to me most plausible that the figure was a well-loved teacher within the community to whom the Gospel was attributed due to his contribution of oral stories, this, I must maintain is not a strictly reliable view. Similarly, though it seems most plausible that the Johannine community existed and is referenced throughout the Gospel alongside the wider Christian community, it must be kept in mind that this assumption relies on dubitable evidence and speculative methods. An academic reconstruction of an identifiable figure (the “Beloved Disciple”) and a distinct Johannine community, therefore, cannot soundly provide a ‘reliable’ context for analysing and interpreting the Gospel of John, but this is not to say that we cannot continue our interpretation of the Gospel using them as a basis provided we maintain the idea that the process is largely speculative.

[1] Brown, R.E., 1979. The Community of the Beloved Disciple (London: Geoffrey Chapman)

[2] Brown, R.E., 2003. An Introduction to the Gospel of John, ed. F.J. Moloney (New York: Doubleday) [

3] Brown, R.E., 2003. An Introduction to the Gospel of John, ed. F.J. Moloney (New York: Doubleday)

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Bauckham, R.J., 2007. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic)

[7] ibid.

[8] Bauckham, R. (ed.), 1998. The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark)

[9] ibid.

[10] Sim, D.C., 2001. ‘The Gospels for All Christians: A Response to Richard Bauckham,’ Journal for the Study of the New Testament 84

[11] Sim, D.C., 2001. ‘The Gospels for All Christians: A Response to Richard Bauckham,’ Journal for the Study of the New Testament 84

[12] Esler, P.F., “Community and Gospel in Early Christianity: A Response to Richard Bauckham’s Gospel for All Christians.” Scottish Journal of Theology 51 (1998)

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