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§ 84. Critical Review of the Johannean Problem.


See the Liter. in § 40, pp. 408 sqq., and the history of the controversy by Holtzmann, in Bunsen’s Bibelwerk, VIII. 56 sqq.; Reuss, Gesch. der heil. Schriften N. T.’s (6th ed.), I. 248 sqq.; Godet, Com. (3d ed.), I. 32 sqq.; Holtzmann, Einleitung (2d ed.), 423 sqq.; Weiss, Einleitung (1886), 609 sqq.


The importance of the subject justifies a special Section on the opposition to the fourth Gospel, after we have presented our own view on the subject with constant reference to the recent objections.


The Problem Stated.


The Johannean problem is the burning question of modern criticism on the soil of the New Testament. It arises from the difference between John and the Synoptists on the one hand, and the difference between the fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse on the other.

I. The Synoptic aspect of the problem includes the differences between the first three Evangelists and the fourth concerning the theatre and length of Christ’s ministry, the picture of Christ, the nature and extent of his discourses, and a number of minor details. It admits the following possibilities:

(1.) Both the Synoptists and John are historical, and represent only different aspects of the same person and work of Christ, supplementing and confirming each other in every essential point. This is the faith of the Church and the conviction of nearly all conservative critics and commentators.

(2.) The fourth Gospel is the work of John, and, owing to his intimacy with Christ, it is more accurate and reliable than the Synoptists, who contain some legendary embellishments and even errors, derived from oral tradition, and must be rectified by John. This is the view of Schleiermacher, Lücke, Bleek, Ewald, Meyer, Weiss, and a considerable number of liberal critics and exegetes who yet accept the substance of the whole gospel history as true, and Christ as the Lord and Saviour of the race. The difference between these scholars and the church tradition is not fundamental, and admits of adjustment.

(3.) The Synoptists represent (in the main) the Christ of history, the fourth Gospel the ideal Christ of faith and fiction. So Baur and the Tübingen school (Schwegler, Zeller, Köstlin, Hilgenfeld, Volkmar, Holtzmann, , Hausrath, Schenkel, Mangold, Keim, Thoma), with their followers and sympathizers in France (Nicolas, d’Eichthal, Renan, Réville, Sabatier), Holland (Scholten and the Leyden school), and England (the anonymous author of "Supernatural Religion," Sam. Davidson, Edwin A. Abbott). But these critics eliminate the miraculous even from the Synoptic Christ, at least as far as possible, and approach the fourth hypothesis.

(4.) The Synoptic and Johannean Gospels are alike fictitious, and resolve themselves into myths and legends or pious frauds. This is the position of the extreme left wing of modern criticism represented chiefly by Strauss. It is the legitimate result of the denial of the supernatural and miraculous, which is as inseparable from the Synoptic as it is from the Johannean Christ; but it is also subversive of all history and cannot be seriously maintained in the face of overwhelming facts and results. Hence there has been a considerable reaction among the radical critics in favor of a more historical position. Keim’s, "History of Jesus of Nazara" is a very great advance upon Strauss’s "Leben Jesu," though equally critical and more learned, and meets the orthodox view half way on the ground of the Synoptic tradition, as represented in the Gospel of Matthew, which he dates back to a.d. 66.

II. The Apocalyptic aspect of the Johannean problem belongs properly to the consideration of the Apocalypse, but it has of late been inseparably interwoven with the Gospel question. It admits likewise of four distinct views:

(1.) The fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse are both from the pen of the apostle John, but separated by the nature of the subject, the condition of the writer, and an interval of at least twenty or thirty years, to account for the striking differences of temper and style. When he met Paul at Jerusalem, a.d. 50, he was one of the three "pillar-apostles" of Jewish Christianity (Gal. 2:9), but probably less than forty years of age, remarkably silent with his reserved force, and sufficiently in sympathy with Paul to give him the right hand of fellowship; when he wrote the Apocalypse, between a.d. 68 and 70, he was not yet sixty, and when he wrote the Gospel he was over eighty years of age. Moreover, the differences between the two books are more than counterbalanced by an underlying harmony. This has been acknowledged even by the head of the Tübingen critics, who calls the fourth Gospel an Apocalypse spiritualized or a transfiguration of the Apocalypse.10841084    See p. 419 sq., and my Companion to the Greek Testament, pp. 76 sqq.

(2.) John wrote the Gospel, but not the Apocalypse. Many critics of the moderate school are disposed to surrender the Apocalypse and to assign it to the somewhat doubtful and mysterious "Presbyter John," a contemporary of the Apostle John. So Schleiermacher, Lücke, Bleek, Neander, Ewald, Düsterdieck, etc. If we are to choose between the two books, the Gospel has no doubt stronger claims upon our acceptance.

(3.) John wrote the Apocalypse, but for this very reason he cannot have written the fourth Gospel. So Baur, Renan, Davidson, Abbott, and nearly all the radical critics (except Keim).

(4.) The fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse are both spurious and the work of the Gnostic Cerinthus (as the Alogi held), or of some anonymous forger. This view is so preposterous and unsound that no critic of any reputation for learning and judgment dares to defend it.

There is a correspondence between the four possible attitudes on both aspects of the Johannean question, and the parties advocating them.

The result of the conflict will be the substantial triumph of the faith of the church which accepts, on new grounds of evidence, all the four Gospels as genuine and historical, and the Apocalypse and the fourth Gospel as the works of John.


The Assaults on the Fourth Gospel.


Criticism has completely shifted its attitude on both parts of the problem. The change is very remarkable. When the first serious assault was made upon the genuineness of the fourth Gospel by the learned General Superintendent Bretschneider (in 1820), he was met with such overwhelming opposition, not only from evangelical divines like Olshausen and Tholuck, but also from Schleiermacher, Lücke, Credner, and Schott, that he honestly confessed his defeat a few years afterward (1824 and 1828).10851085    Before him Edward Evanson, an ex-clergyman of the Church of England, had attacked John and all other Gospels except Luke, in The Dissonance of the Four generally received Evangelists, 1792. He was refuted by the Unitarian, Dr. Priestley, who came to the conclusion that the Gospel of John "bears more internal and unequivocal marks of being written by an eye-witness than any other writings whatever, sacred or profane." See his Letters to a Young Man (Works, vol. XX. 430). And when Dr. Strauss, in his Leben Jesu (1835), renewed the denial, a host of old and new defenders arose with such powerful arguments that he himself (as he confessed in the third edition of 1838) was shaken in his doubt, especially by the weight and candor of Neander, although he felt compelled, in self-defence, to reaffirm his doubt as essential to the mythical hypothesis (in the fourth edition, 1840, and afterward in his popular Leben Jesu, 1864).

But in the meantime his teacher, Dr. Baur, the coryphaeus of the Tübingen school, was preparing his heavy ammunition, and led the second, the boldest, the most vigorous and effective assault upon the Johannean fort (since 1844).10861086    Ueber die Composition und den Charakter des joh. Evangeliums, an essay in the "Theol. Jahrücher" of Zeller, Tübingen, 1844; again in his Krit. Untersuchungen über die kanon. Evang., Tüb., 1847, and in his Kirchengesch., 1853(vol. I., pp. 146 sqq., 166 sqq., third ed.). Godet (I. 17) calls the first dissertation of Baur justly "one of the most ingenious and brilliant compositions which theological science ever produced." He was followed in the main question, though with considerable modifications in detail, by a number of able and acute critics in Germany and other countries. He represented the fourth Gospel as a purely ideal work which grew out of the Gnostic, Montanistic, and paschal controversies after the middle of the second century, and adjusted the various elements of the Catholic faith with consummate skill and art. It was not intended to be a history, but a system of theology in the garb of history. This "tendency" hypothesis was virtually a death-blow to the mythical theory of Strauss, which excludes conscious design.

The third great assault inspired by Baur, yet with independent learning and judgment, was made by Dr. Keim (in his Geschichte Jesu von Nazara, 1867). He went beyond Baur in one point: he denied the whole tradition of John’s sojourn in Ephesus as a mistake of Irenaeus; he thus removed even the foundation for the defence of the Apocalypse as a Johannean production, and neutralized the force of the Tübingen assault derived from that book. On the other hand, he approached the traditional view by tracing the composition back from 170 (Baur) to the reign of Trajan, i.e., to within a few years after the death of the apostle. In his denial of the Ephesus tradition he met with little favor,10871087    From Wittichen and Scholten. but strong opposition from the Tübingen critics, who see the fatal bearing of this denial upon the genuineness of the Apocalypse.10881088    Especially from Hilgenfeld. The tradition of the Ephesian sojourn of John is one of the strongest and most constant in the ancient church, and goes back to Polycrates, Irenaeus, Polycarp, and Papias, the very pupils and grandpupils of John, who could not possibly be mistaken on such a simple fact as this. The effect of Keim’s movement therefore tended rather to divide and demoralize the besieging force.

Nevertheless the effect of these persistent attacks was so great that three eminent scholars, Hase of Jena (1876), Reuss of Strassburg, and Sabatier of Paris (1879), deserted from the camp of the defenders to the army of the besiegers. Renan, too, who had in the thirteenth edition of his Vie de Jesus (1867) defended the fourth Gospel at least in part, has now (since 1879, in his L’Église chrétienne) given it up entirely.10891089    Dr. Weiss (Leben Jesu, I. 106) accords to Dr. Baur the merit of having penetrated deeper into the peculiar character of the fourth Gospel and done more for the promotion of its understanding then the mechanical old exegesis, which had no conception of the difference and looked only for dicta probantia; but he justly adds that Baur’s criticism is "sicklied all over with the pale cast" of modern philosophical construction (von der Blässe moderner philosophischer Construction angekränkelt). We are prepared to say the same of Dr. Keim, a proud, but noble and earnest spirit who died of overwork in elaborating his History of Jesus of Nazara. The most scholarly, high-toned, and singularly able argument in the English language against the Johannean authorship of the fourth Gospel is the article "Gospels" in the "Encycl. Brit.," 9th ed., vol. X. 818-843 (1879), from the pen of Dr. Edwin A. Abbott, head-master of the City of London School.


The Defence of the Fourth Gospel.


The incisive criticism of Baur and his school compelled a thorough reinvestigation of the whole problem, and in this way has been of very great service to the cause of truth. We owe to it the ablest defences of the Johannean authorship of the fourth Gospel and the precious history which it represents. Prominent among these defenders against the latest attacks were Bleek, Lange, Ebrard, Thiersch, Schneider, Tischendorf, Riggenbach, Ewald, Steitz, Aberle, Meyer, Luthardt, Wieseler, Beyschlag, Weiss, among the Germans; Godet, Pressensé, Astié, among the French; Niermeyer, Van Oosterzee, Hofstede de Groot, among the Dutch; Alford, Milligan, Lightfoot, Westcott, Sanday, Plummer, among the English; Fisher, and Abbot among the Americans.10901090    Without detracting from the merits of the many worthy champions of the cause of truth, I venture to give the palm to Dr. Godet, of Neuchâtel, in the introductory volume to his third and thoroughly revised Commentary on John (Introduction historique et critique, Paris, 1881, 376 pages), and to Dr. Weiss, of Berlin, in his very able Leben Jesu, Berlin, 1882, vol. I. 84-198. In England the battle has been fought chiefly by Bishop Lightfoot, Canon Westcott, Prof. Milligan, and Dr. Sanday. In America, Dr. Ezra Abbot (1880) is equal to any of them in the accurate and effective presentation of the historical argument for the Johannean authorship of the fourth Gospel. His treatise has been reprinted in his Critical Essays, Boston, l888 (pp. 9-107).

It is significant that the school of negative criticism has produced no learned commentary on John. All the recent commentators on the fourth Gospel (Lücke, Ewald, Lange, Hengstenberg, Luthardt, Meyer, Weiss, Alford, Wordsworth, Godet, Westcott, Milligan , Moulton, Plummer, etc.) favor its genuineness.


The Difficulties of the Anti-Johannean Theory.


The prevailing theory of the negative critics is this: They accept the Synoptic Gospels, with the exception of the miracles, as genuine history, but for this very reason they reject John; and they accept the Apocalypse as the genuine work of the apostle John, who is represented by the Synoptists as a Son of Thunder, and by Paul (Gal. 2) as one of the three pillars of conservative Jewish Christianity, but for this very reason they deny that he can have written the Gospel, which in style and spirit differs so widely from the Apocalypse. For this position they appeal to the fact that the Synoptists and the Apocalypse are equally well, and even better supported by internal and external evidence, and represent a tradition which is at least twenty years older.

But what then becomes of the fourth Gospel? It is incredible that the real John should have falsified the history of his Master; consequently the Gospel which bears his name is a post-apostolic fiction, a religious poem, or a romance on the theme of the incarnate Logos. It is the Gospel of Christian Gnosticism, strongly influenced by the Alexandrian philosophy of Philo. Yet it is no fraud any more than other literary fictions. The unknown author dealt with the historical Jesus of the Synoptists, as Plato dealt with Socrates, making him simply the base for his own sublime speculations, and putting speeches into his mouth which he never uttered.

Who was that Christian Plato? No critic can tell, or even conjecture, except Renan, who revived, as possible at least, the absurd view of the Alogi, that the Gnostic heretic, Cerinthus the enemy of John, wrote the fourth Gospel10911091    "Tout est possible," says Renan (L’Église chrét., p. 54), "à cesépoques ténébreuses; et, si l’Église, en vénérant le quatrième Évangile comme l’oeuvre de Jean, est dupe de celui qu’elle regarde comme un de ses plus dangereux ennemis, cela n’est pas en somme plus étrange que tant d’autres malentendus qui composent la trame de l’histoire religieuse de l’humanité. Ce qu’il y a de sûr, c’est que l’auteur est à la fois le père et l’adversaire du gnosticisme, l’ennemi de ceux qui laissaient s’evaporer dans un docétisme nuageux l’humanité réelle de Jésus et le complice de ceus qui le reléguaient dans l’abstraction divine." He thinks it more probable, however (p. 47), that two Ephesian disciples of John (John the Presbyter and Aristion) wrote the Gospel twenty or thirty years after his death. Such a conjecture requires an extraordinary stretch of imagination and an amazing amount of credulity. The more sober among the critics suppose that the author was a highly gifted Ephesian disciple of John, who freely reproduced and modified his oral teaching after he was removed by death. But how could his name be utterly unknown, when the names of Polycarp and Papias and other disciples of John, far less important, have come down to as? "The great unknown" is a mystery indeed. Some critics, half in sympathy with Tübingen, are willing to admit that John himself wrote a part of the book, either the historic narratives or the discourses, but neither of these compromises will do: the book is a unit, and is either wholly genuine or wholly a fiction.

Nor are the negative critics agreed as to the time of composition. Under the increasing pressure of argument and evidence they have been forced to retreat, step by step, from the last quarter of the second century to the first, even within a few years of John’s death, and within the lifetime of hundreds of his hearers, when it was impossible for a pseudo-Johannean book to pass into general currency without the discovery of the fraud. Dr. Baur and Schwegler assigned the composition to a.d. 170 or 160; Volkmar to 155; Zeller to 150; Scholten to 140; Hilgenfeld to about 130; Renan to about 125; Schenkel to 120 or 115; until Keim (in 1867) went up as high as 110 or even 100, but having reached such an early date, he felt compelled (1875)10921092    In the last edition of his abridged Geschichte Jesu. in self-defence to advance again to 130, and this notwithstanding the conceded testimonies of Justin Martyr and the early Gnostics. These vacillations of criticism reveal the impossibility of locating the Gospel in the second century.

If we surrender the fourth Gospel, what shall we gain in its place? Fiction for fact, stone for bread, a Gnostic dream for the most glorious truth.

Fortunately, the whole anti-Johannean hypothesis breaks down at every point. It suffers shipwreck on innumerable details which do not fit at all into the supposed dogmatic scheme, but rest on hard facts of historical recollections.10931093    As Weiss (I. 109) admirably expresses it: "Ueberall im Einzelnen wie in der Gesammtgestaltung des Lebens Jesu stossen wir auf das harte Gestein geschichtlicher Erinnerung, welches dem kritischen Auflösungsprozess, der es in ideelle Bildungen verwandeln will, unüberwindlichen Widerstand leistet."

And instead of removing any difficulties it creates greater difficulties in their place. There are certain contradictions which no ingenuity can solve. If "the great unknown" was the creative artist of his ideal Christ, and the inventor of those sublime discourses, the like of which were never heard before or since, he must have been a mightier genius than Dante or Shakespeare, yea greater than his own hero, that is greater than the greatest: this is a psychological impossibility and a logical absurdity. Moreover, if he was not John and yet wanted to be known as John, he was a deceiver and a liar:10941094    "Als die Dichtung eines halbgnostischen Philosophen aus dem zweiten Jahrhundert ist es [the fourth Gospel] ein trügerisches Irrlicht, ja in Wahrheit eine grosse Lüge,"Weiss, I. 124. Renan admits the alternative, only in milder terms:"Il y a là un petit artifice littéraire, du genre de ceux qu’affectionne Platon," l.c., p. 52. this is a moral impossibility. The case of Plato is very different, and his relation to Socrates is generally understood. The Synoptic Gospels are anonymous, but do not deceive the reader. Luke and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews honestly make themselves known as mere disciples of the apostles. The real parallel would be the apocryphal Gospels and the pseudo-Clementine productions, where the fraud is unmistakable, but the contents are so far below the fourth Gospel that a comparison is out of the question. Literary fictions were not uncommon in the ancient church, but men had common sense and moral sense then as well is now to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and lie. It is simply incredible that the ancient church should have been duped into a unanimous acceptance of such an important book as the work of the beloved disciple almost from the very date of his death, and that the whole Christian church, Greek, Latin, Protestant, including an innumerable army of scholars, should have been under a radical delusion for eighteen hundred years, mistaking a Gnostic dream for the genuine history of the Saviour of mankind, and drinking the water of life from the muddy source of fraud.10951095    This absurdity is strikingly characterized in the lines of the Swabian poet, Gustav Schwab, which he gave me when I was a student at Tübingen shortly after the appearance of Strauss’s Leben Jesu:
   "Hat dieses Buch, das ew’ge Wahrheit ist,

   Ein lügenhafter Gnostiker geschrieben,

   So hat seit tausend Jahren Jesus Christ

   Den Teufel durch Beelzebub vertrieben."

In the meantime the fourth Gospel continues and will continue to shine, like the sun in heaven, its own best evidence, and will shine all the brighter when the clouds, great and small, shall have passed away.



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