Joe Hinman asserts that in recent decades there has been “a trend involving many scholars” in which “John has a new credibility”. Because Hinman makes these assertions in response to my claim that the 4th Gospel is HISTORICALLY UNRELIABLE, and because Hinman quotes Kermit Zarley’s assertion about three NT scholars arriving at the conclusion that “the Fourth Gospel is historically reliable”, it is clear in this context, that Hinman is claiming that there is a recent trend in NT scholarship that involves MANY NT scholars who have adopted the view that the 4th Gospel is HISTORICALLY RELIABLE.
This view of NT scholarship is CLEARLY FALSE and is based on a huge dose of WISHFUL THINKING by Joe Hinman.
In order to evaluate the view of NT scholarship that Hinman implies, I will examine the views of seven key NT scholars who have been identified by James Charlesworth as representing the NEW VIEW of the 4th Gospel that Hinman and Zarley are talking about. If these key NT scholars have NOT concluded that “the Fourth Gospel is historically reliable”, then that will show that Hinman’s view of NT scholarship is CLEARLY FALSE and probably based on WISHFUL THINKING.
Q1. Did C.H. DODD conclude that the 4th Gospel provides an historically reliable account of the life and ministry of Jesus?
The Evangelical NT scholar D.A. Carson wrote an article on C.H. Dodd’s view of the 4th Gospel:
Carson notes the following about a key book on the 4th Gospel by Dodd:
…his [Dodd’s] work [in Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel] is rich in asides which affirm the historicity of this or that detail, although it boasts an almost equal number of asides which deny the historicity of some other detail.
If Dodd DENIES the historicity of details from the 4th Gospel about as often as he AFFIRMS the historicity of details from the 4th Gospel, then Dodd clearly does NOT believe that “the Fourth Gospel is historically reliable”.
To believe that the 4th Gospel is historically reliable involves believing that this gospel is accurate and correct in the vast majority of cases. Clearly Dodd does NOT believe that the 4th Gospel is accurate and correct 90% of the time. Clearly Dodd does NOT believe that the 4th Gospel is accurate and correct 80% of the time. It appears that Dodd believes that the 4th Gospel is correct about 50% of the time, maybe 60% of the time (at most). If Dodd believes that the 4th Gospel is correct and accurate 50% to 60% of the time, that is insufficient to consider this gospel to be HISTORICALLY RELIABLE.
Carson provides a long quote from another NT scholar about Dodd’s view of the 4th Gospel that makes it clear that Dodd’s view does NOT imply that the 4th Gospel is HISTORICALLY RELIABLE:
W. Beare spells this out more pointedly; and, for a final extensive quote, I [Carson] shall cite him at length:
Professor Dodd has greatly strengthened the case for taking the Fourth Gospel seriously as a quarry for historical facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth. I am left with the feeling that when its evidence has all been sifted and weighed, it does not add greatly to the meagre store of facts which are supplied by the Synoptics. Where it differs from them, it is not to be automatically ruled out of consideration; the ‘pre-canonical’ traditions which it has employed have as much title to be looked upon as reliable as those which the Synoptists had at their disposal. But I wonder if the total effect of this investigation may not be misleading, in that it does not take into account the unreality of the general picture of Jesus in this Gospel. These fragments of ‘historical’ traditions are embedded in a complex theological structure from which they can be recovered in any degree only by an extraordinary exhibition of critical virtuosity on the part of the searcher. To set the matter in perspective let us recall briefly that John the Baptist did not in fact hail Jesus as the Lamb of God (the question here is rightly put by Dodd: ‘What measure of historical truth, then, if any, can we assign to the statement of the Fourth Gospel that John the Baptist bore witness to Christ?’ – p. 301). Jesus did not talk to a ruler of the Jews about regeneration, did not talk with a woman by a well in Samaria about his own Messiahship and about the spirit-nature of God; did not discourse to the multitudes about his descent from heaven as the Bread of Life… Above all, the Jesus of history did not address his hearers in the structured dialogue and monologue of the Fourth Gospel; and if there are bits of teaching―parables, sayings, brief dialogue here and there―which may be traced to a pre-canonical tradition (as Dodd has succeeded in doing), it must be said that in the Gospel these are submerged in the Evangelist’s own constructions and all but dissolved in his theological expositions… And in general, the value and interest of this Gospel surely lie in the developed theology of the Evangelist and not in such occasional fragments of actual verba Christi as may be uncovered by patient search.
This is not to suggest that Professor Dodd himself fails to give due weight to these considerations. It is a caution, rather, to his readers against an over-enthusiastic reversion to the historical approach to this Gospel. British scholarship has an unquenchable longing for brute historical and biographical fact, and there is a perpetual danger that the wish may give birth to the persuasion that the facts are more readily ascertainable than is actually the case. After all has been said, and every last particle of primitive gold-dust extracted, the Fourth Gospel is in its total character a much less reliable source of historical (especially biographical) information than Mark, even though it may in some instances preserve a more accurate recollection of what occurred.
The ‘new look’ on the Fourth Gospel has already, in my opinion, set a number of my colleagues dancing down a false path….
In my [Carson’s] view, Beare’s analysis of HTFG is profoundly accurate, irrespective of whether or not one wishes to follow him in his degree of scepticism.
Dodd believes that particles of “primitive gold-dust” can be extracted from the 4th Gospel, but he also believes that these “fragments of ‘historical’ traditions are embedded in a complex theological structure from which they can be recovered in any degree only by an extraordinary exhibition of critical virtuosity on the part of the searcher” and that this extraction is from a Gospel that contains a “general picture of Jesus” that is “unreality”, that is to say: unhistorical.
Given that Dodd frequently DENIES the historicity of details found in the 4th Gospel, and given that Dodd believes that only bits and pieces of historical truth can be found here-and-there only by the extraordinary exhibition of critical virtuosity by accomplished NT scholars, and given that Dodd views the general picture of Jesus in the 4th Gospel as unhistorical, it is clear that Dodd did NOT conclude that “the Fourth Gospel is historically reliable.”
Q2. Did RAYMOND BROWN conclude that the 4th Gospel provides an historically reliable account of the life and ministry of Jesus?
James Charlesworth specifically points to the two volume work by Raymond Brown called The Death of the Messiah as an early example of the NEW VIEW of the 4th Gospel. One needs only to read the first page of this huge two-volume work to find out that Brown does NOT believe that the 4th Gospel is HISTORICALLY RELIABLE:
The subject for discussion is the passion of Jesus. Understandably there is a desire to know what Jesus himself said, thought, and did in the final hours of his life. Yet Jesus did not write an account of his passion; nor did anyone who had been present write an eyewitness account. Available to us are four different accounts written some thirty to seventy years later in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, all of whom were dependent on tradition that had come down from an intervening generation or generations. That intervening preGospel tradition was not preserved even if at times we may be able to detect the broad lines of its content. When we seek to reconstruct it or, even more adventurously, the actual situation of Jesus, himself, we are speculating. (The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1, p. 1, emphasis added)
This is a VERY SKEPTICAL statement about the Gospels and specifically about the passion narratives found in the Gospels. Since the passion narratives constitute a significant portion of each of the four canonical Gospels, this skepticism applies to a significant portion of each Gospel. Furthermore, the trials, crucifixion, and death of Jesus are clearly very important parts of the Gospel accounts of Jesus, so if these key portions of the Gospels are NOT HISTORICALLY RELIABLE, then there is good reason to doubt the HISTORICAL RELIABILITY of other sections of the four Gospels. This makes it VERY CLEAR that Raymond Brown, one of the greatest NT scholars of the 20th century, did NOT arrive at the conclusion that “The 4th Gospel is historically reliable”.
Q3. Did J.P. MEIER conclude that the 4th Gospel provides an historically reliable account of the life and ministry of Jesus?
First, Meier appears to be somewhat skeptical about the reliability of ALL FOUR gospels. One conservative cleric complains about J.P. Meier’s skepticism in general towards the four canonical gospels:
… Meier concludes that: Jesus may or may not have been virginally conceived; that He was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem; that Mary had other children than Jesus. He also concludes that many of the Lord’s miracles are not historically accurate, but are simply creations of the first century church—miracles such as Christ’s healing of the ear of the centurion’s servant cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ’s walking upon the water, His stilling of the storm, and His changing of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana. More might be said, but you get the idea.
It looks like Meier does not believe that ANY of the four canonical gospels is HISTORICALLY RELIABLE, and thus he does NOT believe that the 4th Gospel is HISTORICALLY RELIABLE.
Second, although Meier believes that the 4th Gospel should not be ignored by scholars who study the historical Jesus, he does make an important qualification about his view of this gospel:
…despite my refusal to rule the Fourth Gospel out of court a priori as unhistorical, I recognize that special caution is called for when treating the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel. …while the Fourth Gospel is not to be rejected out of hand as a possible source for the historical Jesus, even its ardent admirers usually admit that the Evangelist’s theology has massively reshaped the tradition reflected in his Gospel, especially the sayings tradition. (A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, p.118)
If the “tradition reflected in” the 4th Gospel has been “massively reshaped” by the author’s theology, and this massive reshaping has occurred “especially” in the “sayings tradition”, that implies that the sayings attributed to Jesus in the 4th Gospel are NOT HISTORICALLY RELIABLE in general. Meier here implies that the theology we find in the sayings of Jesus in the 4th Gospel might often be the theology NOT OF JESUS but rather the theology of the author of the 4th Gospel.
Third, if we look at examples where Meier REJECTS the historicity of events in the 4th Gospel as well as some examples of where Meier ACCEPTS an event or detail from the 4th Gospel as historical, we can clearly see Meier’s significant doubts about the historical reliability of the 4th Gospel.
Meier REJECTS the historicity of the famous story of Jesus turning water into wine, a story found only in the 4th Gospel (in John 2:1-11):
In sum, when one adds these historical difficulties to the massive amount of Johannine literary and theological traits permeating the whole story, it is difficult to identify any “historical kernel” or “core event” that might have a claim to go back to the historical Jesus. Put another way: if we subtract from the eleven verses of the first Cana miracle every element that is likely to have come from the creative mind of John or his Johannine “school” and every element that raises historical problems, the entire pericope vanishes before our eyes verse by verse. (A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, p.949)
Meier REJECTS the historicity of the famous story of Jesus walking on water, a story found in Chapter 6 of the 4th Gospel:
…the basic point remains firm: a number of considerations make it likely that the story of the walking on the water is a creation of the early church and does not go back to an incident in Jesus’ public ministry. (A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, p.923)
Meier REJECTS the historicity of the “Bread of Life” sermon (and of other sermons) allegedly given by Jesus according to the 4th Gospel:
…at least some of Jesus’ lengthy discourses in John’s Gospel are now deemed by scholars to be Christian homilies, which developed sayings or deeds of Jesus into a type of Christian midrash. This is the case, e.g., with the bread of life discourse in John 6. …In John 6:34-58, Jesus himself is the bread of life that has come down from heaven. … A christian homily on the eucharist has in the course of the Johannine tradition become a homily of the earthly Jesus, teaching in the synagogure at Capernaum (6:59). (A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, p.900)
So, Meier REJECTS at least two of the famous miracle stories found in the 4th Gospel as being UNHISTORICAL, and he REJECTS the “Bread of Life” sermon by Jesus in the 4th Gospel as being UNHISTORICAL. This is hardly in keeping with the view that the 4th Gospel provides an HISTORICALLY RELIABLE account of the life and ministry of Jesus.
But Meier does sometimes find something of historical value in the 4th Gospel. Meier finds some historical value in the 4th Gospel concerning Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist, and some historical value in the 4th Gospel concerning the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. But if we read the details of how Meier analyzes these two aspects of the 4th Gospel, it is clear that even in these cases he is fairly skeptical about many of the details in the relevant passages from the 4th Gospel.
Here is how Meier summarizes his findings concerning the 4th Gospel’s account of Jesus relationship to John the Baptist:
In section III of this chapter we examined the key data that critical analysis can extricate from the highly Christianized picture of the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel: namely, that for a short period Jesus was probably a close disciple of the Baptist, that he may have drawn some of his own close disciples from the Baptist’s circle, and that he continued John’s practice of baptism. Almost everything else in the Fourth Evangelist’s portrait of the Baptist must be assigned to the author’s desire to make the Baptist a key witness to the Word made flesh (John 1:15,30), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). (A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, p.170, emphasis added)
Yes, Meier finds some parts of the 4th Gospel’s account of Jesus and John the Baptist to be historical, but he also concludes that a large portion of this account is FICTIONAL or UNHISTORICAL.
Meier also finds some parts of the 4th Gospel story of Jesus raising Lazarus to be historical, but notice his qualifications:
… the Fourth Gospel’s story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is not a pure creation of John the Evangelist but rather goes back to a miracle story circulating in the Johannine tradition before the Gospel was written. …At the same time, one must be cautious about making historical claims; the tradition passed through many decades and many modifications before it came to the Evangelist. (A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, p.831)
This story is “not a pure creation” of the author of the 4th Gospel, but “one must be cautious about making historical claims” based on this story, because it has “passed through many decades and many modifications before it came to” the author of the 4th Gospel. Clearly, Meier has some significant skepticism and doubt about the HISTORICAL RELIABILITY of this story.
Meier attributes a significant portion of this story to the creativity of the author of the 4th Gospel:
…by now so much of 11:4-16 has been assigned to the Evangelist’s creativity that it seems reasonable to suppose that 11:4-16 as a whole is the Evangelist’s contribution. (A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, p.814)
Most likely, then, in both chap. 9 and chap. 11 the disciples are the literary instruments of the Evangelist, introduced by him into the stories in order to clarify the theology underlying the narrative. In particular, the typically Johannine vocabulary and style of vv11-15 make it likely that Jesus’ second dialogue with his disciples was also composed by John. Hence I would venture the opinion that most of 11:4-16, from the initial theological comment of Jesus down to the final glum comment of Thomas, is the creation of the Evangelist.
(A Marginal Jew, Volume 2, p.814, emphasis added)
So, we see that even when Meier views some part or aspect of the 4th Gospel as having some historical value, he is still very skeptical about the HISTORICAL RELIABILITY of the passages of the 4th Gospel that contain those bits and pieces of historical information.
In sum, Meier is skeptical about the HISTORICAL RELIABILITY of all four canonical gospels, and he is especially skeptical about the HISTORICAL RELIABILITY of the sayings and sermons of Jesus found in the 4th Gospel, and he REJECTS some of the very famous miracle stories found in the 4th Gospel as being UNHISTORICAL, and even when Meier finds some bits and pieces of historical information about Jesus in the 4th Gospel, he still is very skeptical about the HISTORICAL RELIABILITY of those stories and passages which contain those bits and pieces that are of historical value.
Clearly, J.P. Meier did NOT conclude that “the Fourth Gospel is historically reliable.”
To Be Continued…
This article is archived.