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Does John "narrate theologically"? On the perils of theological theory in history

I have noted in other posts the unjustified rhetoric that is often leveled at the Gospel of John to the effect that he is less historical than the synoptic Gospels. (See also Craig Evans's extensive comments to this effect here.) John is the red-headed step-child of historical Jesus studies. He is always assumed to be a problem, frequently assumed to be historically dubious on the flimsiest grounds. When something (like the fact that Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus' cross) is found in the synoptic Gospels but not in John, the question is: What's historically wrong with John? When something (like the "I am" sayings) is found in John but not in the synoptic Gospels, the question is: What's historically wrong with John? Double standard duly noted.

In this post I want to examine some passages from the commentaries of eminent and learned New Testament scholar Craig Keener that illustrate the unwarranted bias against John and that also illustrate the negative effects of an undue mingling of theological interpretation with the attempt to answer the simple question, "Did this really happen?"

It goes without saying that my criticisms of Dr. Keener's ideas in these commentaries are in no way, shape, or form a personal attack but rather a part of our mutual search for truth concerning God's word.

I'm going to start with a passage (including one footnote) from Keener's commentary on Acts in which he mentions John's gospel, because I think it provides a good illustration. Keener is talking about Pentecost in Acts 2 and its supposed tension (which I'll discuss more in this entry) with John 20:22 where Jesus breathes on his disciples on Easter day:

[D]o John and Luke refer to distinct events? Or has John invented the setting to include the event before his narrative closes? Because I believe that John takes many more symbolic theological liberties with his story than does Luke, my John commentary addresses this question somewhat more fully than does the treatment here, which rehearses some of my discussion and conclusions there. I believe that there may have been historical experiences behind both reports but that Luke is accurate about a subsequent setting for the Spirit's empowering the church for mission...[T]he Johannine "Pentecost" (John 20:19-23) shares some common features with Luke's Pentecost, but their primary relationship is their mutual affirmation that Jesus imparted or sent the Spirit shortly after his resurrection. John's report is far less dramatic and does not occur in the era of Christ's exaltation, but John completes his account before the promised exaltation...and hence presses into this event the narrative fulfillment of Christ's promises concerning the Spirit. It is possible that historically the disciples experienced a foretaste in 20:22 that was fulfilled more dramatically on a later occasion....But for those who must choose one account or the other and regard Luke's as too dramatic: Luke seems more likely to report the events as he has them from his tradition than does John. John takes significant liberties with the way he reports his events, especially in in several symbolic adaptations in the passion narrative ([footnote] 105), whereas Luke follows, where we can test him..., the procedures of a good Hellenistic historian....Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vol. 1, pp. 790, 793

Footnote 105 reads thus:

E.g., Jesus gives Judas the sop (John 13:26; contrast Mark 14:20); he appears to be executed on Passover (John 18:28; contrast Mark 14:14); he carries his own cross (John 19:17; contrast Mark 15:21).

In his commentary on John, Keener makes it fairly clear (see quotes below) that he is casting doubt upon the historicity of John 20:19-23 and undeniably clear that he believes that John has changed the day of Jesus' crucifixion to have Jesus crucified on the afternoon of the first day of Passover, whereas that was not historically when he died. He uses the phrase "theologizing narrative" (p. 521) in the commentary on John for what he here calls "symbolic adaptations" and "tak[ing] significant liberties."

Keener uses this same list of examples to call John's literal historical accuracy into question in his John commentary:

A close examination of the Fourth Gospel reveals that John has rearranged many details, apparently in the service of his symbolic message. This is especially clear in the Passion Narrative, where direct conflicts with the presumably widely known passion tradition (most notably that Jesus gives the sop to Judas, is crucified on Passover, and carries his own cross) fulfill symbolic narrative functions. (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 42-43)

I want to take several of these examples given by Keener one at a time and show how they illustrate a bias against John's historicity, haste in casting doubt on historicity, and the role that theology plays in encouraging these problems.

Jesus breathes on the disciples on Easter

Let's start with the case of Jesus breathing on his disciples as recorded in John. John gives this account, which is almost certainly referring to the same meeting recorded in Luke 24:36ff, like this:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23)

I will not quote all of the several pages of Keener's commentary on this passage either in his Acts commentary or his John commentary. One of the most unfortunate features of that discussion, to my mind, is its lack of clarity as to what Keener is saying about the historicity of the events. The Acts commentary quoted above is very slightly clearer than the John commentary. One concludes that Keener thinks there may, just possibly, have been some separate, real, historical event when Jesus was on earth, in addition to the historical Pentecost recounted in Acts 2, but he appears to think that we know little about it and that we should not take John's account at face value as historical reportage. Here are some portions of the commentary on the passage in John:

Views on the relation between this passage and a later impartation of the Spirit, such as Acts 2 depicts, vary. Some would argue that John retains a distinction between Easter and a later Pentecost, perhaps by John 20:22 symbolically pointing forward to the historical Pentecost. Whatever its historical plausibility, however, the view that Jesus merely symbolically promises the Spirit here does not pull together an adequate narrative climax on the literary-theological level of John’s earlier promises of the Spirit. Certainly the verb for Jesus breathing on the disciples means more than mere exhalation. Whether John might use Jesus’ breathing symbolically, however, is a different question than whether Jesus is portrayed as acting merely symbolically in the story world. Keener, John, p. 1196

So did it happen, or didn't it?

Part of the conflict between views here may be semantic: are we speaking of the historical events behind John’s Gospel or of the theological points he is emphasizing by the arrangement of the elements in his narrative? [LM: I'm not really very interested in a commentator's opinion on the latter. I'm really interested in the former and would much rather we didn't use distancing phrases like "historical events behind John's Gospel" as opposed to "What really happened."] Some of Turner’s observations may suggest legitimate complexities or incongruities in John’s language. These in turn may suggest that John is aware of a subsequent Pentecost event and lays emphasis on an earlier event that also provided an encounter with the Spirit.

As in the Acts commentary, this looks like an extremely cautious and qualified acknowledgement that maybe something like the event described in John really happened.

Even if the giving of the Spirit in the tradition behind 20:22 represents merely a symbolic or partial impartation, it must bear in John’s narrative the full theological weight equivalent to Luke’s Pentecost.

But if its narrative function (in terms of its full theological weight) is in some sense symbolic of an outpouring of the Spirit, one need not seek a chronological harmonization with Acts 2. As Burge emphasizes, Luke-Acts itself provides a similar chronological situation: because Luke must end his Gospel where he does, he describes the ascension as if it occurs on Easter (Luke 24:51) even though he will soon inform or remind his readers that it occurred only forty days afterward (Acts 1:3, 9). Likewise, “knowing his Gospel would have no sequel,” the Fourth Evangelist theologically compressed “the appearances, ascension, and Pentecost into Easter. Yet for him, this is not simply a matter of literary convenience. . . . John weaves these events into ‘the hour’with explicit theological intentions.”

This quotation from Burge, which Keener apparently gives approvingly and with which he ends the discussion, gives the distinct impression that he thinks that the event in John did not happen historically in anything like the form that John records it. His remarks taken all together in both commentaries cast significant doubt on the historicity of the events. (On the allegation that Luke "describes the Ascension as if it occurs on Easter," no, he does not. I've dealt with that claim here, inter alia. In any event, the analogy is very poor, since this breathing of Jesus on the disciples bears no recognizable narrative resemblance to Pentecost, whereas Luke is undeniably telling about the ascension in Luke 24:51. Jesus is personally, visibly, tangibly present in John 20:22, as he is not in Acts 2. There is no rushing, mighty wind in John 20:22. Jesus speaks specific words to the disciples in connection with the breathing in John 20:22. Etc.)

Mike Licona expresses great doubt about the historicity of the event more succinctly than does Keener, though he throws in the word "perhaps" as he so often does:

Pertaining to Jesus’s breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22), perhaps John, knowing he would not be writing a sequel as had Luke, desired to allude to the event at Pentecost. So he wove mention of the ascension into his communications with Mary Magdalene (20:17) and of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost into his communications with his male disciples (20:22). (Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 180)

Keener's strong degree of historical doubt is doubly odd since he makes some comments that indicate a provisional openness to a separate event. What strikes the reader most of all about John's description of Jesus' actions and words at this point in John 20 is their brief and cryptic nature. If there were some historical "earlier event that also provided an encounter with the Spirit," why would it not have looked like this? One can scarcely decide such things a priori. Why think that John has taken any liberties at all at this point in his narrative, much less that he may well have invented the event?

To someone not steeped in the subculture of New Testament studies, all of this looks passing strange. Why should we consider that there is the slightest doubt at all about the historicity of this part of John's narrative, unless we have an exceedingly low view already of John's historicity? There is no contradiction, not even an apparent contradiction, between Jesus' words and actions here and any other resurrection narrative, so what's the problem?

It is at this point that one begins to realize how great a role theology and presumptions about theology are playing in all of this. It is not a helpful role. The alleged contradiction, evidently, is supposed to be with Acts 2.

But why? Once again, Jesus often did strange and cryptic things that his disciples didn't understand. There are things that Jesus said that we still argue about the meaning of 2,000 years later. Why should we assume that John means to convey some clear, definite, theological meaning here to Jesus' action? Indeed, its strangeness is part of the reason for accepting its historicity. If John wanted to talk about Pentecost, there was nothing stopping him from writing about Pentecost. As D.A. Carson points out (p. 514), if John's readers thought he was really investing this event with all of the theological significance of Pentecost, would they not simply have been confused? For surely they knew about the events on Pentecost. We should take seriously the possibility that this odd event is there because it is historically real; John told it because it happened, even though he doesn't explain what it meant.

There is not even a prima facie contradiction between Jesus' act of breathing on the disciples, along with his saying something very much like these words, and the events in Acts 2.

It is apparently almost impossible for NT scholars to acknowledge this because they are insisting on resolving a purely theological question as a prerequisite to resolving an historical question. Lurking somewhere in all of this, implicitly, is something like the following deductive argument:

If Jesus, as portrayed in John, is really, seriously giving the disciples the Holy Spirit on Easter Day, then it is impossible that both the events described here and the events described in Acts 2 could have occurred as narrated.

Jesus, as portrayed in John, is really, seriously giving the disciples the Holy Spirit on Easter Day.


It is impossible that both the events described here and the events described in Acts 2 could have occurred as narrated.

Hence, when D.A. Carson defends the historicity of John's narrative in his commentary (pp. 511ff), he takes a fair bit of time to argue that Jesus' action there was merely symbolic. That's not by any means a dumb view and may well even be true, but should it be necessary to argue it in order to defend historicity? No, it shouldn't. When Keener apparently finds a purely symbolic theological interpretation of Jesus' actions in John unsatisfying, he automatically assumes that this theological disagreement over the significance of the events as John reports them casts doubt upon their historicity.

But it shouldn't be like that. Jesus' action in breathing on the disciples in John 20:22 may have been mysterious to the disciples themselves, and it is not necessary to provide a fully intellectually and theologically satisfying explanation of precisely what Jesus was doing in order to take the verse at face value as historical.

It cannot be said too often: What the gospels tell us Jesus said is one thing. Our interpretation of what that meant is another. The latter should not be used to cast doubt on the historicity of the former, not because that is impious but because it is historically unreasonable.

Jesus carries his cross

Let's turn to some of the other examples Keener gives in footnote 105 in which John supposedly takes historical liberties in the Passion narrative for theological reasons. In the footnote, Keener implies a contradiction with Mark on the question of whether or not Jesus carried his own cross. And in his commentary on John, he went so far as to list this as a case of "direct conflict" with synoptic tradition. John 19:16-17 reads,

So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.

At the same point in the narrative, Mark (with which Keener suggests we should contrast John) has this:

And they led him out to crucify him. And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. Mark 15:20-21

In his commentary on John's gospel, Keener suggests some degree of ahistoricity to John's narrative at this point, while simultaneously acknowledging that it is both externally attested on this precise point and also easily harmonized with Mark's:

More significantly from the standpoint of Johannine theology, John is emphatic that Jesus carried ... “his own,” cross (19:17.... Just as Jesus gave the sop (John13:26) rather than mentioned that one had dipped “with him” (Mark 14:20), just as Jesus “laid down his life” (10:18) and “delivered up” his spirit (19:30)...so here he remains in control in the narrative. A condemned criminal normally carried his own patibulum, or transverse beam of the cross, to the site of the execution, where soldiers would fix the patibulum to the upright stake...that they regularly reused for executions....

In the Synoptic tradition and probably the broader passion tradition, Jesus is too weak to carry his cross, and it is carried by Simon of Cyrene. Given the unlikelihood that the soldiers would simply show mercy to a condemned prisoner, scholars are probably correct to suppose that Jesus was too weak to carry the cross and that his executioners preferred to have him alive on the cross than dead on the way....

That the Synoptic report is undoubtedly historical does not render impossible a historical basis for John’s account: it is in fact most likely that the soldiers would have sought to make Jesus carry his own cross at the beginning, following standard custom, until it became
clear that he could not continue to do so. But merely reporting (or inferring) those initial steps is hardly John’s point; by emphasizing Jesus’ carrying his own cross, he emphasizes Jesus’ continuing control of his passion. Just as condemned criminals must bear their own instrument of death, Jesus chose and controlled his death. As Drury puts it, in John Jesus bears his own cross “as befits the one who alone can bear the sin of the world.” (John p. 1134)

Both the bias against full Johannine historicity and the negative influence of theology in such a negative evaluation are on display here, and even more so when Keener expressly states that this is an instance of "direct conflict" with the synoptic gospels. I stress again: Keener acknowledges that John's statement that Jesus carried his own cross (the cross-beam of the cross) is externally attested by our other historical information. So this very point in John, the very point which Keener lists elsewhere as an example of his "tak[ing] significant liberties with the way he reports his events, especially in in several symbolic adaptations in the passion narrative," is actually independently confirmed. Why in the world, then, would Keener question it?

Moreover, after categorizing it as a "direct conflict," Keener later fully admits that, as other commentators have noted, there is really no irresolvable contradiction with Mark! As the Romans would have done, and as we know they generally did do, they began by forcing Jesus to carry his own cross. When he eventually was not able to go on doing so, they impressed Simon of Cyrene to continue. In fact, as D.A. Carson emphasizes (The Gospel According to John, p. 479), the statement that Simon was "coming in from the country" in Mark may provide a hint that Jesus carried his cross as far as the city gate, which is hardly (pace Keener) merely "initial steps." Matthew, at the same point in the narrative, uses the phrase "As they went out" (Matt. 27:32) to describe the time when they found Simon of Cyrene and compelled him to carry the cross. This phrase fits quite well with Mark's "coming in from the country" and with Carson's suggestion of the point at which the switch took place. Why are we questioning John at this point at all?

The question apparently arises from a presumption that John must be manipulating his narrative somehow in order to make a theological point. Keener downplays the amount of carrying Jesus did by the phrase "initial steps" and then adds a great deal of theological speculation about John's motives, which also seems to imply (though Keener does not say this explicitly) that John has deliberately suppressed Simon of Cyrene's role in order to make it sound like Jesus carried his cross all the way to Golgotha, and that John does so for these theological purposes.

Speaking as an outsider (which at this point I'm rather glad to call myself), the alleged theological motive is woefully inadequate. Why should Jesus' bearing his own cross for a long distance indicate his being in control of his own death? In concrete terms, it would hardly have looked that way! Instead, it would have been a continuation of the brutal treatment by the soldiers. Jesus was driven, step by painful step, carrying his cross along the via dolorosa. One might just as well say that John's narrative makes Jesus seem more brutalized than Mark's does because John does not portray his receiving the relief of having Simon carry the cross. The "control of his own death" claim is simply a weak theological hypothesis. We have no reason at all to think that this was in John's mind when he narrated those verses. It is much more plausible that the author narrated it as he did because he was present and had a vivid visual memory of Jesus, having just been brutally beaten (as Keener himself emphasizes), bleeding profusely, carrying his own cross. Or, if you prefer to speak in terms of human sources and want to prescind on the question of Johannine authorship, because someone saw the scene and vividly remembered this aspect of it.

One could, if one wished to be even-handed in one's attribution of complex theological motives, as easily ask why, since Jesus carrying his own cross is "undoubtedly historical," Mark left that part out! What was Mark up to, theologically? Ah, I have it: Perhaps Mark, by leaving out the picture of Jesus carrying his own cross and mentioning only Simon's role in those final steps, making it sound like Simon carried the cross the entire way, wishes to emphasize that we must all be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha. (Compare Mark 8:34) See how easy it is to construct such theories?

But it is sad and interesting to note how often they are constructed, specifically, against John, using Mark as a wrench with which to dismantle the historical reliability of John.

At a minimum, Keener implies that John exaggerates the extent to which Jesus carried his own cross and suppresses Simon of Cyrene. But this is an utterly unforced error--a type of error all too common among NT scholars. There is not the slightest reason whatsoever to think that, at this point in his narrative, John is writing symbolically rather than literally and historically.

A note on the day of the Last Supper

I have discussed elsewhere (see here) the claim that John "has" the Last Supper occur on a day other than Passover as part of (allegedly) changing the relationship of the crucifixion to Passover and "having" Jesus die on the first day of Passover. Esteemed Husband deals with it at the beginning of his video here. Craig Blomberg has done thorough work bringing into contemporary NT scholarship the insights that were known to older scholars. The claim that John changes the day of the crucifixion and the day of the Last Supper has been thoroughly answered again and again. Put bluntly, it just isn't true. In endnote 105 in the Acts commentary, Keener briefly refers to John 18:28 as indicating that the Passover had not yet taken place, though his commentary on John (p. 1103) shows that he knows (his knowledge really is encyclopedic) that the reference here to ceremonial uncleanness for eating "the Passover" could refer to a chagigah meal in the rest of the feast, such as the meal at noon. There he says that that is not "the text's most obvious sense," but in point of fact, as Blomberg and others have pointed out, it is historically a more plausible sense than a reference to a first Passover meal that evening, since any ritual uncleanness from entering Pilate's hall could have been readily taken care of by washing at sundown. So it is actually more likely that 18:28 refers to some meal that is coming up sooner, such as the noon chagigah. Keener does not (that I have found so far in the John commentary) deal with this point and (as the Acts commentary shows) continues to cite John 18:28 as being in conflict with the chronology in Mark. He also refers to "other clues in John's narrative" and even goes so far as to say that John, taken alone, would lead us to "assume the reading" that Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover. But again, this has all been thoroughly answered elsewhere, showing that actually John does not imply that Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover. In any event, reading one historical document in isolation from other accounts of the same event is not good historical practice.

I will discuss here only one small additional point to illustrate how careful we should be about taking the word of just one expert on a subject in NT studies.

On one of the occasions when Keener states that, in John's gospel, the Last Supper occurs prior to Passover, he brings in a particular detail to support this conclusion--namely, the statement that when Judas went out the other disciples thought perhaps Jesus had sent him to buy something needed for the feast (John 13:29):

[I]n John’s story world it is not yet Passover. Thus Judas can be thought to be buying something for the feast (13:29), even though after sundown, once the Passover had begun, the bazaars would be closed. John, pp. 919-20

Note the use of the phrase "story world," a frequent usage in this commentary that implies that John's narrative and the real world come apart at various points.

So Keener is declaring with great confidence that this detail makes it impossible that this should have been after sundown of the first day of Passover and that the disciples could have been eating a Passover meal with Jesus, because Judas wouldn't have been able to purchase anything at that time.

A reader might well feel that this is a very telling point, taking Keener's statement at face value. And if asked for further details, Keener could argue in support of his point (Leviticus 23:7) that the first day of the Passover was treated like a Sabbath and that laborious work was forbidden on that day; hence, the shops would not have been open after it was night, since Hebrew days begin at sundown. Case closed, right?

Not so fast. It might come as a surprise to the same reader to find that Craig Blomberg makes precisely the opposite argument, stating that the shops would have been open on that night for people to make last-minute purchases for the feast! (See here, for example.) So Blomberg is arguing both from this point and from the reference to Judas's possibly giving alms to the poor that John 13:29 is evidence for harmony between John and the synoptic gospels.

D.A. Carson gives helpful further explanation:

These objections are far from convincing. One might wonder, on these premises, why Jesus should send Judas out for purchases for a feast still twenty-four hours away. The next day would have left ample time. It is best to think of this taking place on the night of Passover, 15 Nisan. Judas was sent out (so the disciples thought) to purchase what was needed for the Feast, i.e. not the feast of Passover, but the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the hagigah), which began that night and lasted for seven days. The next day, still Friday 15 Nisan, was a high feast day; the following day was Sabbath. It might seem best to make necessary purchases (e.g. more unleavened bread) immediately. Purchases on that Thursday evening were in all likelihood possible, though inconvenient. The rabbinic authorities were in dispute on the matter (cf. Mishnah Pesahim 4:5). One could buy necessities even on a Sabbath if it fell before Passover, provided it was done by leaving something in trust rather than paying cash (Mishnah Shabbath 23:1). Moreover, it was customary to give alms to the poor on Passover night, the temple gates being left open from midnight on, allowing beggars to congregate there (Jeremias, p. 54). On any night other than Passover it is hard to imagine why the disciples might have thought Jesus was sending Judas out to give something to the poor: the next day would have done just as well. Carson, The Gospel According to John, p. 370)

Nor am I just taking Caron's word for it, either. Here are the relevant rabbinic authorities, helpfully collected in a work by Darrell Bock. (The Internet is amazing!) And indeed, Sabbat 23.1 does allow for obtaining needed items after the beginning of a day (that is, after sundown) in which work was not to be done, provided that it was done by a barter system of "leaving security" rather than by paying in money.

I bring this point up to illustrate the importance of checking things out, particularly when it is claimed that a gospel author cannot be narrating historically because of some contradiction with other information. It is of course possible that there could be an error in a narrative. But long before we conclude the highly complex hypothesis that the author is actively changing facts, we should look at other alternatives. It is unfortunate that the claim of contradiction between John and the synoptics on the day of the Last Supper and the crucifixion, and the claim that John is therefore narrating "theologically" (aka altering fact) should continue to be repeated after it has been so fully disposed of. This makes it all the more valuable that commentators like Blomberg and Carson have gone into the nitty-gritty historical details that are alleged to support this conclusion.

Jesus gives the sop to Judas

What, precisely, is supposed to be the "direct conflict" between John and the synoptics about whether or not Jesus gives the sop to Judas?

Other than the fact that the incident of Jesus giving the sop to Judas is not recorded in the synoptic gospels, it is rather difficult to see what could possibly qualify as a "direct conflict." But Keener tells us to contrast John 13:26 with Mark 14:20, so let's look at those, beginning with the passage surrounding John 13:26.

After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus' side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” (John 13:21-27)

Now Mark:

And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Mark 14:18-21)

I'm still not seeing any "direct conflict." Keener explains a little more in his commentary on John 13:

[W]hat may be more striking to those familiar with the Markan line of tradition is that Jesus does not identify the betrayer by the betrayer’s choice but by his own. In the Synoptics, Judas stretches out his own hand “with” Jesus...(Mark 14:20). Given how widespread the pre-Markan passion narrative that Mark used probably was, this tradition was probably known to John’s audience. Here, however, Jesus, rather than Judas, appears in full control of the betrayal.... John, pp. 918-919

Keener is apparently taking it that the narrative in John in which Jesus gives Judas the sop must be seen as a competitor to the narration in Mark in which Jesus says that betrayer is dipping bread into the dish with him. To get any conflict here whatsoever requires an extremely wooden interpretation. The only way that seems to work is to take it that, in Mark, Jesus is making it a signal or sign to the disciples that the person who puts his hand into the dish to dip at the same time as Jesus at some particular moment is the one who betrays him, and then he leaves it up to Judas to choose that moment. Then, one would have to take it, according to Mark this signal was given instead of the signal recorded in John.

But Keener himself notes (p. 919, footnote 217) that such a strong reading of "with me" in Mark makes it hard to see why the other disciples did not understand that Judas was the one who would betray him. If Jesus said openly to all the disciples something along the lines of, "Watch now, folks. The next person to dip with me into the dish is going to be the betrayer!" and if Judas then voluntarily took up the challenge and did so before everyone's eyes, they would all have been gasping in comprehension. But nothing of that kind takes place.

So, once again, where is the conflict?

It is not at all clear that Mark 14:20 indicates an explicit signal of any kind as opposed to a more general use of dipping into the bowl with Jesus to indicate eating with him. Matthew 26:23 uses a slightly different tense: "He who has dipped his hand with me..." and if we assume that this is the same saying as in Mark 14:20, given in just slightly different wording, it doesn't look like an individual, informative signal at all. Luke 22:23 even seems to show the disciples as still asking among themselves who the betrayer could be after this point in time. It is entirely plausible that this is Jesus' slightly modified version of Psalm 41:9:

Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.

In which case the reference to having dipped or dipping the bread is a general reference to eating his bread, as is Luke 22:21, "The hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table."

There really is no conflict then whatsoever. Jesus makes the more general statement, perhaps paraphrasing a verse from a Psalm, that one of his closest companions who is eating with him that night will betray him. The disciples want more specific information. Peter asks (as in John) the beloved disciple, sitting right next to Jesus, to find out who it is. Jesus tells the beloved disciple that it is the person to whom he will give the sop, and he gives it to Judas.

Notice that in John itself we have reason to believe that this information was not heard by everyone, since the other disciples don't know what Jesus means by telling him to do what he is going to do quickly:

So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. John 13:26-29

Even though, as we have already noted in comments here, the gospel authors don't seem to say if someone is whispering or speaking sotto voce, the narrative itself implies as much. In other words, the beloved disciple had special information that the others did not have. What more likely, then, than that John's narrative, with its special connection to the beloved disciple (John 21:24), would be the one to contain this information?

Again, there simply is no conflict and no evidence whatsoever that John is inventing an incident in order to make a theological point about Jesus being in control of his passion, or for that matter any other theological point. Rather, it looks like he tells this part of the story because he knows this part of the story, perhaps even because he remembers it from his own intense, personal experience. (See my discussion of the vividness of the Last Supper narrative in John here.)

Again and again, critics miss the sheer artlessness and witness qualities of the narratives in the gospels by imposing illusory theological patterns. "Conflicts," which exist only in the minds of critics, are strung together to make "patterns," which also exist only in the minds of critics, to support trends of "theological narration," which also exist only in the minds of critics.

One is tempted to ask how John could have told that part of the story more historically. There is nothing particularly "theological-looking" about it. It looks like a bare narrative of fact. One can be sure that, if Jesus in John, like Jesus in Mark, had appeared to be (plausibly) quoting a Psalm at this point in the story, that fact would have been brought up to support the allegation that this is a theological addition! But no such accusation is brought against Mark. And rightly so. Jesus quoted the Old Testament all the time. I merely bring it up to point the double standard and to emphasize the arbitrary nature of questioning John's historicity here.

Another alternative is that perhaps Peter (a probable source for Mark) and Matthew were not sitting as close to Jesus as the beloved disciple and heard somewhat unclearly Jesus' words about dipping into the dish and gave their version of what Jesus said somewhat less precisely than does John. If anything, John could be take to have the more privileged access to what Jesus said historically, if one insists on placing the two sayings in competition at all. But I do not think that is necessary. There is no reason why Jesus could not both have made the more general comment about the betrayal of a friend who is eating with him (as recorded in the synoptics) and given the specific sign for the benefit of the beloved disciple (recorded in John).

Dr. Keener is by no means a strongly liberal New Testament critic, and he is immensely learned and tries hard to consider issues of historicity from a variety of points of view and upon consideration of a great deal of evidence. Readers will note that he wrote the foreword to Hidden in Plain View, for which I am very grateful. In multiple places in his commentary he speaks against any wholesale dismissal of the historicity of John's gospel, and it appears to me (thus far) that his view of John's historical reliability is higher than that of Craig Evans (to take one example). It would be, I think, fair to call Keener a "moderate," at least in evangelical circles, on the question of John's historicity.

I bring these labeling points up both to illustrate that I am well aware of gradations on such matters and, perhaps more importantly, to show that the world of New Testament criticism does not divide neatly between those properly labeled liberals (who cannot be trusted at all to give due weight to the probability of historicity) and those labeled conservatives (who have no biases against historicity and imply ahistoricity only when the evidence is strong). Matters are by no means that simple, and presumptions against robust historicity, especially for John, are rife at nearly every level of biblical studies, regardless of labels. If a younger, less well-established scholar nowadays were to take the positions taken by Carson and Blomberg on the historicity of all of these passages in John and on John's gospel generally, he would probably be considered "ultra-conservative"!

Keener's oft-repeated claim that John imaginatively changes or adds things to his narrative in the service of a theological agenda, and the thin arguments on which this is based, do unfortunately show a somewhat low view of John's reliability. Nor, when one thinks about it, is this just a matter of itsy bitsy details. After all, if John invented Jesus breathing on his disciples and saying the things that accompany this act, that is the invention of an identifiable, separable incident in the gospel, though it occurs within the larger context of the first appearance of Jesus to his male disciples. If John invented the exchange between Jesus and the beloved disciple and the handing of the sop to Judas, this is the pure invention of dialogue and events which prima facie appear entirely historically serious when one reads the narrative. Why should we think that John ever did that? And where else did he do it, if he is that kind of author?

The time is long past for a global reconsideration of John as an historical source fully the equal of any of the synoptic gospels. For that to happen, scholars must shake off the undue influence of theological theory-making over historical evaluation. Once that shift has taken place and the unsupportable prejudice against John's historicity has been abandoned, scholars can give John's plain assertions their due weight in our picture of Jesus.

Comments (48)

I guess this shows us that "conservative NT scholar" no longer means what it used to mean. You can no longer rely on the modifier "conservative" to mean conservative in its standard sense, or to mean anything related to a strong emphasis on the historical simple facticity of the accounts stated in the gospels. You put any scholar in a category, you have to search out, with each such scholar, what he says, and try to deal with (a) his intentional obfuscations, (b) the (possibly) unintentional but very real ambiguity of the language employed, and (c) the further devolution of meaning, in trying to generate 50 shades of "not historically true", that even the scholars cannot tell what the other guy is claiming to stand by. Not to mention that any one of them has his position morph over time, so that he no longer likes to say what he once said. It thus becomes very difficult indeed to communicate clear ideas in this milieu, and once again Babel rears its confusing head. By someone's design, perhaps?

That the Synoptic report is undoubtedly historical

"Undoubtedly"? Going by the standards and methods they apply to John, nothing in the Bible is "undoubtedly historical". Nothing at all. At the very most, the honest descriptor would be "since we have so far favored the hypothesis that much of the Synoptic report is more historical than not..." Boy, talk about double-standards.

it is in fact most likely that the soldiers would have sought to make Jesus carry his own cross at the beginning, following standard custom, until it became clear that he could not continue to do so. But merely reporting (or inferring) those initial steps is hardly John’s point; by emphasizing Jesus’ carrying his own cross, he emphasizes Jesus’ continuing control of his passion.

What a wooden-headed approach to John's Gospel. And tin-eared. John knew that Matthew had already mentioned Simon, and indeed his sons were (presumably) known in the community. So, since he didn't consider it his task to repeat the information already provided in the other gospels, he didn't need to go into detail at that level. "Emphasizing Jesus' continuing control" in the face of common knowledge that Simon helped carry the cross is kind of goofy to think of. And, of course, trying to make a contradiction out of it, for Keener to make HIS theological point, is even worse than John making up the story to push a theological point.

When will these scholars even get the reality that you cannot make an argument for the truth of some theological assertion on the strength of Jesus' life and words, if Jesus didn't actually say or do it? The scholars make John out to be a dunce who in effect asks his hearers to believe a new theology because of fairy tales.

I'm wading into risky territory here speculating about the true motives and inner workings of a certain strain of scholarship, but I think that, fundamentally, they just don't think the stuff is actually true. For liberal scholarship, it is clear they don't take the text seriously, and it is a pretext for their advancing of their own theories, political views, and virtue-signalling. If the text describes accurately things that really took place in the space-time continuum, there goes a lot of justification for speculation and theorizing.

What I don't get is why supposedly conservative scholarship has bought into the same assumptional framework that ultimately proceeds from thinking that this stuff really isn't true. Who wants a religion based on subjective, emotive things, when you could instead base it on stuff that really happened and the revelation attested to by such aforementioned stuff?

I'd rather go all in on Christianity (and possibly be proven wrong, though I won't know it because my consciousness will cease if materialism is true), with its multiple fronts being exposed to possible falsification and attacks over the last two millenia, than go with some fluffy, cuddly subjective religion that is anodyne and makes no claim of history and metaphysics. The Jesus of liberal scholarship is not worth venerating and trying to dedicate your heart/mind/life to, but the Jesus of some wings of so-called conservative scholarship doesn't command much dedication either, it seems. I'd rather be shown that (say) the feeding of the multitudes didn't really happen than to be told that it doesn't matter if it happened or not, and the story regardless teaches us to be good little socialists who support whatever fashionable cause is in vogue this week. If this stuff didn't happen, it really is game over; there's nothing to salvage.

What I don't get is why supposedly conservative scholarship has bought into the same assumptional framework that ultimately proceeds from thinking that this stuff really isn't true.

They don't realize that they are doing so. It's one of the saddest things I've discovered in the last two or three years. They really believe that all of this theological speculating, all of this downplaying of the historicity of John (for example), all of this "finding" of tensions and "direct conflicts" and theological agendas, *is objective scholarship*. So they have to work within it (so they think). Okay, what historicity can we salvage from such-and-such a gospel despite the fact that we are forced to recognize the results of modern critical scholarship that he sometimes "narrated theologically," etc.?

I find it really painful. And I don't know what to do about it except what I am doing: Pointing out, point-by-point, carefully and in detail, that there is absolutely no reason to go this direction, that the arguments are flimsy, that robust historicity stands up, that these theological patterns of fact-bending are illusions in the critical mind, and that witness memory and saliency to witnesses is by far the better hypothesis. Perhaps some (indeed, of all living scholars, I think Keener might well be one) will find such a conclusion welcome, if they can see it to be true.

Btw, Joe, I'm reading Morris and really enjoying it. I need to take more notes.

I'm glad you like Morris' volume on the fourth gospel. Even though "modern scholarship" will probably just dismiss his work and conclusions, his volume to me represents what true, careful scholarship is. Morris is clear about the objective facts vs his conclusions that he draws from the facts. I almost sense an exasperation in his essay on the authorship of John in having to deal with critical scholarship. Besides all the solid argumentation in that volume, it is good psychologically to see that not every scholar buys into this arcane modern-style criticism and simply lets the text speak for itself. It keeps me from feeling too isolated (so do your posts here).

It was an excellent $5 that I spent a few years ago to obtain that volume. It's the sort of stuff my namesake would've written.

Leon Morris? Commentary on John?

Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel.

The writing is also enjoyable, clear, straightforward, at times humorous. Also, one can always tell what he is saying about historicity. Not a hint of jargon.

Lydia is on a great crusade as to the historicity of the gospels, in particular John. It all sounds so very good, who would want to oppose that? No one, for we all agree (even the conservative scholars she continues to mis-portray as anti-historical) that the historicity of Christ is a given.

But what Lydia fails to understand is that she is not on a mere history campaign, but a historicity crusade insisting upon modern levels of ultra-preciseness. She perceives that what concerns her modern mind, concerned them, for she demands the ancients write as do we moderns today. But they didn’t. She and her husband would do well to learn the style in which the ancients wrote, so as to better understand the rich nuance of the sacred text’s message, let alone she could begin to relax her unwarranted pervasive attack she is leading against the spectrum of conservative biblical scholars.

Indeed, to the original authors, the original voice, and to us, the historicity of Christ Jesus is a given. But the authors/Author had additional concepts they consider incredibly important to convey in addition to conveying his long awaited presence. Sacred concepts. A short list includes: Who was Jesus? I mean, who really was he? What was he really about? And what were the implications of such things to the Jew first, let alone to the Gentile? No small matters.

It’s hard to know where to begin (and no, we shall not discuss her every modern insistence placed upon the ancient manuscript) but what Lydia fails to understand is that the ancients wrote quite differently than us. What is not apparent to those in Western modernity is that the ancients wrote thematically. That is, they selected the material to be presented and arranged their subject’s history in a thematic fashion to convey the major themes they desired to present. And while her goal appears to be to meld the gospels into one story, she should know that every author has their unique sacred beautiful witness with unique concepts to convey. Which makes the overall message of truth far more robust, far more wonderful, bringing even more awe and wonder.

While Lydia and Tim claim to be aware of such things as the ancient’s love affair with chiastic structures -- but one example of the ancient’s poignant thematically-arranged literary structures, they do no appear to begin to grasp their pervasive implementation, nor the implications. Some incorporating entire books and even multiple books of the Bible -- books they even discuss - yes on a first order basis thematically arranged to make incredible points. Hence the start of their misunderstanding/misrepresentation as to the expressions of the biblical scholars. Lydia should be aware that even moderns rearrange their writings and plays with flash backs and the like to make their historical, truthful point. All it takes is an inquisitive mind to roll up the sleeves in study to begin to enter the ancient world so as to better understand them, for thematic writing was their style, no matter the genre.

What she rants about all sounds so incredibly good to the modern Western mind. This will sound foreign to those without language exposure, especially ancient language exposure for the thematic writing style was the deal for a vast amount of the ancient world, including the ancient Semitic languages that includes ancient Hebrew, in addition also Greek – both Classical and Koine, as well as into the Latin. Hence her vying to force the Western modern style upon the sacred text unwittingly battles against the vastness of the ancient world. It’s simply how they wrote, enabling them to frame their superlative points, one after the next. While we have bold faced font, it turns out their thematic arrangements work much more powerfully modulating and stating their message well once one enters their world.

Hence all the arguing as to the precise moment by moment historicity, for example of the Passover meal, sidesteps the original author’s point. John would lament that we are hung up on this nuclear clock of ours, for his point was not to provide a second by second accounting of Christ’s activities but to convey to the Jews that it was in fact Christ who was the ultimate Passover Lamb (who takes away not only the sins of the Jews but amazingly the sins of the world!). In a book that has the audacity to begin by echoing the very opening phrase of the Torah, “In the beginning. . .” it turns out John is far more interested in arranging the historicity of Jesus per the Torah’s thematic arrangement – not to prove the second by second movements of Jesus – but rather show that Jesus is indeed the one greater than Moses – the One the Jews so greatly longed for and desired even to this day! Their longings and prayers answered! Christ Jesus fulfilling the Torah in every regard, only not just for them, but shockingly to the world! Yes, us!

Beginning with John’s creative version of the Torah’s creation narrative, revealing a light seven-times over (indeed, Christ himself), leading to his cleansing of the temple-garden echoing Gen three, let alone the establishment of God’s community via patriarch’s of the most shocking variety (indeed, the first one is Jewish but hardly all that effective and then look out. . . ). And then on to a seven-times burning bush-esque "I am” revelation of Christ’s identity, his essence. God himself. Let alone the shocking revelation that he is not only the Good Shepherd, the One greater than Moses to lead us out of slavery, but as mentioned, that shockingly he is in fact the Lamb. . .

But adhering to modern writing norms – arguing against what we do not know -- all we do is bicker as to the precise moment by moment historicity – all the while ignoring the original Voice’s beautiful intent, its sacred, thematically divine redemptive message.

And in bickering in our modernese over what the original voice never intended to voice (though those stuck in the modern Western ways of communicating will fail to see), we bypass some of the most beautiful thoughts ever. . . His Word.

And the Strawman of the Comments Section* award goes to(drum roll please).... Steve!

I don't know who you are reading, but it's not Lydia. She's fine with achronological writing, she's fine with chiasm, and other things like telescoping. What's not fine is writing something as if it really happened when it did not.

She's also given examples of scholars who are dehistoricizing the Gospel of John. Craig Evans for example demotes John to something like a parable, with only "nuggets" of history. Licona seems to have flip flopped on it, but he was endorsing Evans' view on John. Then there is the fact that when you actually go and read things like Plutarch, and Lucian you don't find the fictionalizing literary devices. In fact in Lucian you find that such fictionalizing is disdained. Alexander the Great is said to want to throw Aristobulus overboard for writing false things about him. Eulogies that had been popular at the time are seen as disgusting for putting out such bald faced lies.

He does talk later about style, but style that is "agreeable without being false", which is very different from making up events to make a point.

If any one takes some admixture of the agreeable to be an absolute necessity, let him be content with the independent beauties of style; these are agreeable without being false; but they are usually neglected now, for the better foisting upon us of irrelevant substitutes.


This whole idea about something made up being "more true" because it somehow points to some "higher truth" without being real is not something I find in any ancient writings. Sure, there are parables and fables, but I see no one saying they are "more true" than history. They are also clearly labelled as fables and parables, and not made to look as if they are history.

Oh, and if you'd been reading Lydia's works you would know she has already addressed the idea that John changed the date of Jesus' crucifixion. It doesn't fall on the right time to have signified Jesus as the Passover lamb anyway, so it fails as an explanation.

The one ranting here is you Steve. She's making arguments based on evidence.
At this point I see you as one of the Emperor's council telling him how wonderful his new clothes are. Unwilling to see just how naked he really is.

1 Corinthians 3:18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.

*Well, so far anyway.

Naw, my chiasm reference was merely one example of the ancient's pervasive thematic (not atomic clock) style. Until one studies the ancients, their style being so different from ours, it's rather opaque to the modern Western mind so knowing nothing else we force our ways on the message, often misconstruing it. The ability to be able to toggle back and forth from the modern to the ancient forms is absolutely essential.

Ironic that their thematic forms serve to frame/draw forth superlative constructs. That's right, the original voice's beautiful supreme/emphatic concepts that sadly tend to go unnoticed in the modern read. Certainly the scholars could do a better job in how they communicate the ancient's thematic approach, and we don't have to agree with everything put forth (why she gives them grief for using qualifiers is another mystery indeed) but until one is able to toggle over to their ways, this group will continue to love to misunderstand them and the beautiful nuance of the sacred text. In humility we strive to study the word in its context, not ours.

I'm not going to respond to every one of Steve's statements, but I will point out that simply asserting over and over again that

But what Lydia fails to understand is that she is not on a mere history campaign, but a historicity crusade insisting upon modern levels of ultra-preciseness.

Does not make it so.

In point of fact, pace Steve, I have *repeatedly* used the fact that an author is probably *not* narrating a chronology *at all* or indicating the precise amount of time that something took in order to *counteract* claims of "literary devices." It is an enormous irony that it is the literary device theorists who, while talking about not being anachronistic, will assert that Plutarch or Luke etc. are implying that something to place on such-and-such a day (precision) when in fact there is no reason to think they are implying anything of the sort.

In one place where Michael Licona claims that Luke has chronologically *moved* something (this is the saying about the millstone and little ones who believe on Jesus) but has left traces of the moving through "editorial fatigue," it was *I* who pointed out that Luke appears at that point for a couple of chapters to be writing a "sayings" section that has no one particular chronological setting but rather groups material thematically. Hence, Luke is not "moving" anything, for he is not giving a chronological setting. So much for my not understanding ancient thematic grouping.

Steve also obscures the distinction between, e.g., achronological and dyschronological. We actually have no evidence for an ancient "device" in which dyschronological writing was accepted.

Indeed, the literary device theorists and I sometimes *agree* that a chronology is present--e.g., that John actually means to narrate that Jesus cleansed the temple early in his ministry--but they think there could not have been two cleansings and hence hold that John must have *moved* the Temple cleansing chronologically. Neither of us in that case is merely talking about narrating achronologically, nor am I objecting that achronological narration never occurred. I just don't think this happens to be an instance thereof, and neither do those with whom I'm disagreeing about the claim that John moved the Temple cleansing.

Something similar applies to the date of the crucifixion. Licona, Keener, et. al. are not saying that John *does not have* a chronology for the crucifixion and the Last Supper. On the contrary: They are emphatically saying that he *does* have one and that it is *different* from that in the synoptics. They are claiming that John made a thematic point by *changing* chronology.

If Steve wants me to ignore the distinction between narrating achronologically and narrating dyschronologically, he will be (paradoxically) making it impossible for me even to agree with Keener, Licona, et. al. concerning the day of the Last Supper and crucifixion, since they themselves have a definite position about chronology, not that it is merely absent here and replaced with thematic narration.

In short, the sort of talk that Steve is engaging in at length simply does not decide the issues between me and these scholars.

So why such harsh condescension towards the scholars? Why give them grief over even their uncertainties? Whether 'a' or 'dys' 'different' 'does not have' chronology - seems you (and they) are acknowledging a thematic arrangement to convey great concepts (though most of the articles I have read - and I don't read all as they tend to be quite harsh have you going hard for moment by moment, blow by blow, historicity). And instead of scholars saying this appears to have taken place at a different time, perhaps they would better state what is in view is a thematic construct.

The articles I have read come across that you are often hung up on the precise timing. Meanwhile, the ancients understood the beautiful superlative truths being conveyed through the thematic constructs and so the message was received as "Truth." And yes, having said all that, there is a general chronological layout to the story (of course). Just not in a modern ten decimal place precision we would prefer, for indeed, one huge point of John is that Christ indeed fulfulls Passover, in every regard, pointing out quite early that Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, let alone the development of this as Christ goes to his glory.

the ancients understood the beautiful superlative truths being conveyed through the thematic constructs and so the message was received as "Truth."
Indeed, to the original authors, the original voice, and to us, the historicity of Christ Jesus is a given. But the authors/Author had additional concepts they consider incredibly important to convey in addition to conveying his long awaited presence. Sacred concepts. A short list includes: Who was Jesus? I mean, who really was he? What was he really about?
Hence her vying to force the Western modern style upon the sacred text unwittingly battles against the vastness of the ancient world.
It’s simply how they wrote, enabling them to frame their superlative points, one after the next. While we have bold faced font, it turns out their thematic arrangements work much more powerfully modulating and stating their message well once one enters their world.

Was their message received as "Truth" by the first disciples to read the gospels, but not as "Truth" to the second, or third or 20th generations? Is not Christ Himself the Truth?

Which "original voice" are you talking about? The original voice of God the Father from the clouds at Jesus' baptism, or at the Transfiguration? Jesus own voice in the Sermon on the Mount, in his Bread of Life discourse, in his miraculously healing the centurion's servant without visiting the home, in the Last Supper events? From the cross? Or the "original" voice of the apostles, Peter, repeating to the crowds on Pentecost what he had heard originally from the Jesus who was raised? That original voice? Or some other original voice?

Was the ancient world more vast than ours? Was the critical moment of salvation history more vast to the ancient world than it is vast to us> In what way is "vastness" applicable to the ancients but not us?

Were their superlative points more superlative than JESUS CHRIST's superlative points? If WHAT JESUS SAID was what made believers out of them, then would they not have repeated what Jesus said, in HIS original words? If WHAT JESUS DID was what made believers out of them, would they then not have repeatedly told what Jesus did?

If I didn't know better, I would almost conclude that Steve is being ironic and hyperbolic to make fun of the same NT scholars that Lydia has so well shown deficient. For his arguments are not only full of holes, they are goofy and they patently ignore what Lydia actually has said repeatedly. No, I'll amend that: the arguments are not full of holes, for Steve only talks in generalities, and doesn't even bother to arrange an argument, all he does is sermonize about what Lydia misses, and praise his "thematic" concept as if it were a sacred totem that overturns the mountains of concrete evidence that Lydia has put forward. But it is obvious that this "thematic" concept is no more valid in NT scholarship than any of the fictionalizing "devices", the compressions, the "bioi genre", the chreia, etc: just words without actual evidence.

I'll mention, again, that the underlying assumptions of the "greater Truth" concept are invalid right from the start. First: unlike humans, God can (and does) arrange actual historical events so that they provide the "story" he wants told, so that He does not have to resort to fiction in making LARGE TRUTHS known. He does this throughout the OT, so we are very familiar with the fact.

Second, since the apostles so regularly DID NOT clearly and perfectly understand what Jesus meant or why he was doing things (before his death, that is), they COULD NOT clearly and definitively express what God wanted expressed about Jesus' sayings and doings by MAKING UP THEIR OWN STORIES. They might miss something God intended to come out of Jesus' own words. Or they might put ideas and thoughts in God's mouth that He did not want expressed, if they made up their own events and their own sayings. The apostles did not feel themselves free to make up their OWN stories, because it wasn't THEIR truth they were passing on, it was God's. And God had already told His version of "THE STORY" in the actual events of Jesus' life, and in Jesus own actual words. The apostles had the real goods, in being able to recount what Jesus said, they did not have to manufacture words for Jesus.

The notion that they could better represent the "Truth" through fiction than through actual events is just not valid.

Tony reveals to us the entire problem. The issue is we need to realize the sacred text must be read in its original voice as understood in the original language and audience. Not ours. Let alone makes statements arguing against and ridiculing matters of which he does not know. How sad. Because the thematic constructs are anything but fiction. But rather than teach him how to read the ancient Hebrew. . . let alone it was God-breathed through the apostles after-the-fact -- not in any state of confusion. To the Jew first as conveyed via their language. For all of us to humble ourselves and learn through the sacred text they wrote and preserved.

But I appreciate the clarification of your stance, Lydia.

Let’s be clear, extreme classifications need not be invoked. To be a sequel, does not imply total dyschronological disorder at all. Rather we talk in nuance, that within a general historical event, thematic writing style of the ancients tended to arrange event thematically. While we come to the Bible demanding precise chronological order, they went for thematic order within an overall general chronological narrative.

But if I understand you correctly, you have three boxes of understanding for the ‘historicity’ of a narrative.
They include:

1) Historically accurate events in every regard, adhering to modern standards
2) ‘Achronological’ thematic arrangements having nothing to do with time/history
3) ‘Dyschronological’ shuffling of detail within an overall event that you do not appear to accept whatsoever.

For something to be truth, and in the Bible, you appear to contend it must fall into categories one or two. Meanwhile category three is not at all permissible and something you tend to greatly vie against.
Yet in doing so you are yet placing modern Western precise-historicity over the thematic construct style in which the ancients wrote, for you reject every suggestion of this from the scholars.

Yet we see as early as the original “In the beginning. . . “ narrative, the author placing the creation of the sun, moon and stars after the creation of the earth, the sea, the land, and vegetation.
Indeed, the author has shuffled the events, the chronology, just a bit, to construct his incredible thematic literary structure. A lit structure to well convey his incredible superlative thematic points. Hence the point remains the same, we must read the sacred text in the context it was written. The ancient knew the themes of the thematic construct was most important to the author to convey to us. Oh to be sure there is a general history to the account, just not the precision the modern Western worldview demands.

But the original audience knew what was of greatest importance were the themes being conveyed in the various structures. Themes constructed in superlative constructs that ironically, sadly, we ignore, often arguing no end over matters the constructs do not address. For we come demanding our precise Western historicity. Or apparently, no history.

So from the beginning it turns out that box three is valid in the ancient ways. And Tony, it is anything but fiction, rather the greatest truths of all. They did align detail thematically within a larger historical framework. That real history was thematically woven into literary constructs conveying the greatest of truth-themes imaginable within the history.

I encourage you to sit in on lit classes in the ancient Semitic languages, Hebrew, as well as Greek (let alone sit down and discuss such things with the Classical Greek scholars), let alone Latin. Learn and grow comfortable with the thematic ways of the ancients, how they presented things thematically, working hard to convey their superlative ideas, so in such public discussions you can teach people the beautiful superlative truths of the sacred text.


What I think you are missing is the way that these NT scholars are using literary devices to claim that many of the events in the Gospels are not even intending to convey actual events in Jesus's life. It looks like you haven't actually read anything Lydia has written on this subject. Here is a good place to start.

Do you believe, for instance, that John 19:28 intends to report that Jesus said something like, "I thirst" from the cross? Or, do you think it does no damage to the historical value of John's Gospel to go along with the literary device interpreters who claim that John (or "John" or the Johannine community) wrote this with the intent not to convey that Jesus said any words like this from the cross. Instead, many of them maintain that this passage has been theologically redacted by John with the express purpose that it should be taken as the dynamic equivalent translation as "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

This isn't about trying to preserve some naive surface-level reading of the Gospel. Lydia is trying to save the basic description of the life of Jesus given in the Gospels from being redacted away by NT scholars who are standing on a flimsy scaffolding of assumptions that are unchallenged in NT studies. Simply because some of the wording is different in one Gospel or an event is missing or placed in a different chronology, NT scholars read "between the lines" to assert the true theological motives of the Gospel writer (or the community that somehow took liberties to shape the gospel as they saw fit). Sometimes a variation is just a variation. There's no deeper explanation than that! And even if there were some ideological motivations that led a Gospel-writer (or community of such story-shapers) to redact the Gospel stories, recovering such motives with any degree of plausibility surely would be a hopeless task. At best, we could only come up with conjectures.

So, Lydia is bringing to light some of these weak assumptions in NT scholarship. She is also challenging whether the genre considerations of ancient history are as flexible as literary device theorists claim (i.e., these devices are not actually found in ancient literature). Finally, I see her as challenging the evidential strength of the arguments that are being mustered for these claims even if one grants such devices were used in ancient history. These all seem like fair points of criticism that we would expect from a keen observer who is an outsider to NT studies. These are precisely the sort of assumptions that insiders miss because they are on the inside.

(I see Steve just posted something, to which this is not a direct reply.)

But what Lydia fails to understand is that she is not on a mere history campaign, but a historicity crusade insisting upon modern levels of ultra-preciseness. She perceives that what concerns her modern mind, concerned them, for she demands the ancients write as do we moderns today. But they didn’t. She and her husband would do well to learn the style in which the ancients wrote, so as to better understand the rich nuance of the sacred text’s message, let alone she could begin to relax her unwarranted pervasive attack she is leading against the spectrum of conservative biblical scholars.

You have Lydia confused with the more odious of the modern "new atheists" or internet skeptics. Those are the people who hold scripture to "modern levels of ultra-preciseness" and then smugly dismiss Christianity because of some failure to conform to that standard. And then they write articles with titles like "643 Bible Contradictions" to posture to their fellow basement dwellers and signal their clearly superior intellect.

If "conservative" today means inventing fictionalized times for alleged events or flat-out making up things that didn't actually happen in the manner described (whether or not the author is imprecise or leaves out details that we wish he's have left in) and saying that this points to higher truth, then I'll have to stop paying my dues to the society of conservative scholars and forfeit my prime parking spot at the secret meeting location.

Steve, I know of your interactions with others on Facebook and have little hope of communicating in any profitable way with you. Nor am I obligated to type all over again, just personally for you, the many words I have written elsewhere on precisely these topics concerning (e.g.) chronology.

I can't even tell if you know what I mean by dyschronological narration--e.g., actually changing a day. Your statement

To be a sequel, does not imply total dyschronological disorder at all.

is well known to me already, as you would know if you paid enough attention to what else I have written, including my earlier comment, and has nothing to do with what we are talking about. Licona et. al. do not merely claim that John or others narrated things in a different sequel sequence. Rather, they claim that these authors *actually changed the days and even years when things happened*.

(Nor is chronology the only issue anyway. Sometimes the claim is that entire sayings or incidents were invented.)

Waving the word "ancient" around over and over again is completely unhelpful (as is an allusion to Genesis 1) to support the contention that such deliberate change was accepted by the gospel authors or carried out by them. Or even, for that matter, by Plutarch. Just *saying* that I'm wrongly applying modern standards in some way doesn't make it so, so I advise you to save your pixels and stop repeating yourself and then pontificating on the basis of your own repetitions. I have argued at length, elsewhere, against the arguments for the alleged changes of chronology and even against the claim that Plutarch shows us that such changes were "accepted at the time." That is to say, I've responded *in detail* to the supposed arguments for these changes and for these "devices." "Ancient peoples" is not a magical incantation that establishes Licona or anyone else as right in those cases.

That is to say, I've responded *in detail* to the supposed arguments for these changes and for these "devices." "Ancient peoples" is not a magical incantation that establishes Licona or anyone else as right in those cases.

Unfortunately it seems like many today think that it is indeed some kind of magic incantation. Said people tend to also think that one must have a Ph.D in Greek and Hebrew to even hope to understand their views. If you don't have such training then you can just trust them because they are the experts. Experts* are apparently to be trusted without question. Just forget about the man behind the curtain, nothing to see there.

*And certain scholars of their choosing too.

"Ancient peoples" is not a magical incantation that establishes Licona or anyone else as right in those cases.

No, no, you forgot "superlative". Oh, and "great", as in the "great concepts". The evangelists were so high minded and superlative that food did not turn into sh*t in their intestinal tract. It would not become men who thought such great concepts. When you use "ancient peoples" in connection with "superlative" and "great concepts" it is equivalent to "abracadabra" and you get to assert any damnfool thing that some scholar in the recent past alleged might possibly be tenable, perhaps. As long as it's great, or if it contradicts 1900 years of Christian teaching.

I encourage you to sit in on lit classes in the ancient Semitic languages, Hebrew, as well as Greek (let alone sit down and discuss such things with the Classical Greek scholars), let alone Latin.

Steve, are you conversationally fluent in ancient Hebrew? When you hear ancient Hebrew being spoken, can you discern not only the surface meaning but the deeper layers of meaning right off the bat?

I cannot. If you can, good for you. I suggest that you listen to the ancient Fathers (the ones who "were the original audience knew what was of greatest importance were the themes being conveyed in the various structures") on how to interpret the Bible, and then apply it: There are 4 "senses" available: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. The "Important Truths (tm)" that you keep pointing to on are often covered in the latter 3 senses. Good for you if you look for them and search them out. The critical point, though, is that the 3 latter senses rely on the literal sense and depend on it. This is fundamental and crucial: without being tethered to the literal sense, you could try to attach ANY meaning at all in search of the allegorical or anagogical. The literal sense is what pins the meanings to specific and determinable things, and not to every imaginable meaning that any weird drug-addled fool wants to believe. (The literal sense includes metaphors, idiomatic usage, and other tools of ordinary language.)

Thus, when the evangelist recounts Jesus using spit to make mud of dirt and put it on a man's eyes, undoubtedly the impressive, great, superlative ideas that God is using this event to teach us are very valuable, but they hinge on the fact that Jesus actually spit on dirt in the process of healing the man. The evangelist can convey interesting and important theological theses by telling a story of a healing through using saliva. But the evangelist cannot sufficiently convey a reason to accept that theological thesis ON FAITH without claiming that the thesis originates in Jesus actually using saliva. My faith in not primarily in John and his theological insight, it is in Jesus. Without knowing Jesus through the Gospels, what I have is faith in a chimera, or in John. But that faith has to take a specific form, e.g. that Jesus is both God and man, that he is one divine person among a Trinity of divine persons. I cannot have an amorphous faith about what and who Jesus is. But when the evangelist recounts the stories or words of Jesus that teach us these truths, it is not on account of the evangelist being very theologically astute that I believe in the divine and human Jesus, it is on account of the truth of the evangelist's words in the literal sense first, on which I can build to discern the other meanings.

You are using false either/or (and straw man) arguments Lydia.
Let alone you are coming across as belligerent.

However, what is most sad is that you have not educated your "flock."
Apparently they are not aware of and/or do not value the ground zero language/communication 101A most basic concept of the original voice.

No one desires to be misconstrued, not you, not Tony, no one.
We do not desire to play the telephone game and have our message at the end of the circle be a mess.
We desire to know what a person said and meant.
How much more true is this of the Bible.

For example, we do NOT use ancient Hebrew to understand you or Tony when you speak.
We use everything about modern American English to hear and attempt to understand your voice.
Even more-so with literature. The richest of literature at that. Anything but superficial Tony, but rather to go deep.
To get to the original Author's intended messages, the richest, deepest, most profound beautiful truths of all.

So as you are Lydia with those around you, why not be consistent with the sacred text?
Why not study it utilizing all the aspects of the languages in which it was recorded?

It may look like English --- indeed the scholars you so often trash have done a great job translating it.
But the thoughts are composed and flow in the constructs of the languages of the ancients.
Just as we seek to understand you via English, we must seek to understand them via theirs.
All aspects of their great languages, even those you dislike, that are strange, foreign.

Hence while we are more than comfortable with the modern ways of precision based chronological statements of truth (though these get abused in the modern world), thematically ordered statements of truth catch us off guard. Some like to falsely label these as false/untruth and worse. That is until we become familiar with them and then we find them to be ever so powerful at making the original author's statements. That it is no wonder God used these languages to reveal himself and make his case. Typically accomplished via their various superlative constructs. Ironically, sadly, tragically, supreme truths. Disavowed. By the those trapped in egocentricity.

So as you read His Word, I would encourage you to be seeking out the thematic patterns and the beautiful truths the author is striving so very hard to say via these arrangements. Certainly not fighting them. For starters.

Cheers friend.

Steve, if I "come across as belligerent" it is because a) I know a lot more about your interactions from other contexts and b) you are not providing any arguments and c) you are being rather ridiculously patronizing and high-handed *despite* providing no arguments but rather assertions and *despite* not showing that you have actually grappled with the extensive arguments I've provided on these topics. You simply aren't in a position to patronize as you are doing. It's kind of amusing, actually, though unintentionally.

As far as an "either-or," that makes no sense. Postmodernism is false. It actually is true that either John moved the day of the Last Gospel as narrated in his Gospel or he didn't. The law of excluded middle holds. Licona and company (whom I am not "trashing" but rather criticizing in reasoned, scholarly terms) think he did. I think he didn't. They and I are presumably capable of understanding the difference of opinion between us, but to do so requires the use of so-called "either/or" thinking. That is not false thinking but true thinking. Either their theory of what John did in some particular place is true or it isn't. We cannot even carry out scholarly dialogue on that question if we dismiss either/or thinking.

There is no additional content in your comment, nor any actual interaction with the points I have made, and at this point I'm going to consider that it is spamming the thread for you simply to keep repeating over and over again such contentless rhetoric, so I'm going to ask you to stop doing it.

Lydia writes, "a) I know a lot more about your interactions from other contexts"

Interesting, I have had very little interaction elsewhere.

How we discuss things is incredibly important for a number of reasons.
To do so in good faith and more is essential.

Yes, absolutely, well said, we are to absolutely move away from post-modernism into the language and culture of the writings.

Breaking through to understanding the ancient's thematically arranged writing and the truth conveyed verses our modern chronologically arranged writings (and labeling the other false) takes great study and contemplation. With study eventually you should be able to toggle back and forth the thought process to match the writing.

No doubt escape velocity from one's own cultural ways is difficult. In the meanwhile you might tone down your attacks.

Most of all, you take care Lydia.

More contentless rhetoric, I'm afraid. Please stop doing that.

One last comment. Since people might believe the misrepresentations you post, one of the more critical ones needs addressing. You state,

"b) you are not providing any arguments and c) you are being rather ridiculously patronizing and high-handed *despite* providing no arguments"

Now certainly you are accustomed to posting on your terms, feeling you negate any and all differing points, in this case that I provide "no arguments." Stated thematically -- twice! Sounds authoritative. Sounds convincing.

So no argument? And yet the deal is I have been forced to go back and bring up the very basics in language interpretation. The core concept of foreign (let alone ancient) language interp 101a, the need to pursue the original voice. The context, the ways and literary devices of the language in every regard. Under their terms, not ours. Something your flock doesn't seem exposed to, let alone you dismiss with your comments.

Well. . . the concept of the original voice could not be more essential, the result being you interpret the ancients in a modern fashion (after all -- it's the water we swim in -- it's all we tend to know) while trashing those seeking to understand and convey the original voice. So until this most essential "what's wrong with the world" topic is understood/desired, that is, until the goal of understanding the original voice is esteemed/adhered to, nothing else need be discussed, whether you continue to misrepresent me or not.

Cheers Lydia.

Yes, you've been forced. Because obviously the "very basics of language interpretation" are what tell us that John changed the day of the Last Supper. Funny thing, though: You haven't shown that to be the case. And in fact, I've provided detailed argument elsewhere, and so has my husband, and so has Craig Blomberg (for that matter) that the details of language interpretation and the customs surrounding the Passover (such as the way that the word translated "preparation" was used and the facts surrounding ritual impurity and how it was cleansed) actually support harmonization between John and the synoptics on this issue and the related issue of the day of the crucifixion. That is because we deal in specifics and argument rather than in unhelpful, repeated generalizations.

Why do you vehemently make up and argue everything I do not say? I merely point out that while you seem to be only too often hung up on battling out the precise timing to modern standards(at times forgoing the ways of the ancients), in understanding the original voice the ultimate point in view is that Christ lived, was crucified and rose again. What John wants you to know above all else (hence his lack of explicit timing details) in this is that Christ is the Passover Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Another principle of interpt being we are to major in the majors.

Steve, I repeat: do you read ancient Hebrew with conversational fluency, so that you understand the language without having to mentally translate it to a language more known to you?

And the same with first century Koine Greek?

These are simple questions. Please answer.

in understanding the original voice the ultimate point in view is that Christ lived, was crucified and rose again. What John wants you to know above all else (hence his lack of explicit timing details) in this is that Christ is the Passover Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Do you mean to assert that John did not intend for the reader to think that Jesus held a Last Supper, at which he instituted a form of covenant that He wished his apostles to repeat in the future? That John did not intend for the reader to think that Jesus stood before Pilate, nor that Pilate tried to wiggle out of imposing crucifixion before finally imposing that form of execution? That John did not intend the reader to think that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey? That John did not intend the reader to think that Jesus instructed his disciples to baptize?

That details don't matter?

Actually, both those I am disagreeing with and I agree that JOhn is indicating a day for the Last Supper and the crucifixion. We just disagree about whether he changed it. Neither of us is saying that he is just vague because he's trying to make a theological point. Indeed, it would be impossible for him to make a theological point as they envisage by being vague. He's supposedly making it *by* being precise--precisely changing the facts. Indeed, Dr. Licona states that John "goes out of his way" to make it appear that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal. So precision vs. imprecision is not in view. They do not believe that he has a mere *lack* of "explicit timing details." Very much to the contrary. They think he has explicit details that point to Jesus' death on the day the Passover lambs were killed. They are certainly right that John has details. He doesn't have a lack of details, contrary to what you are saying. But they and I disagree about what his details point to.

Lydia, not sure why you are always desiring to put words in my mouth.
It comes across that you have soundbites in which you desire to destroy others arguments you desire they would make for you.
Quite distasteful as I've said nothing to these effects.

I'm sure as you well know, in good literature, let alone great literature, it must be studied. Wrestled with. At great length. That we are all works in process as long as we avail ourselves to the study of their ways. After a few decades of study, what I tend to excel at are the thematic structural arrangements (that sadly many scholars are not aware or ignore).

The various constructs that modulate their train of thought and make their superlative statements. Some fairly simple, some complex, that are everywhere in the Bible. For example, John cannot help himself, he starts of with an introductory [thematic] chiasm, within which is his seven-times mentioning of "Light" which is all within his over all greater chaism and thematic structural arrangements (When confronted by this I just could not help but conclude, he loves to employ them -- as did the others.). One just has to grow into becoming aware of the them. Sadly Christendom appears to greatly lag Classical Greek and the other languages in their understanding.

God has seen fit to place me in a number of places in the study of them. Beginning with Blomberg and other NT scholars, OT scholars, buried in many a commentary, Classical Greek students, and above all, growing to familiarize oneself with them as one reads.
So yes, in adhering to their modulation of the text, tend to major in the majors and do not like to see individuals bloodied over the minors, let alone see debates over the precise modern levels of detail occlude the major points John worked so very hard for us to know, adore and witness about.

So indeed, Christ drank our cup thank God. He indeed entered Jerusalem on a beast of peace, not a stallion of war, saying much in this alone.

But starting from the top and framing these in the framework of the author from memory, Christ Jesus is God (as early as the initial chiasm beginning and ending with this key concept), who thank goodness sets his tabernacle among us. The one greater than Moses the people long awaited, shockingly the God-man being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (for the old covenant's slaughter of the other sheep is done away with), who desires to dwell with his children (wonderful news at the focus of the first chiasm). Who calls us to him as his disciples in a superlative [supreme] thrice-fold calling. . . just some of the key literary focal points that exist as one goes through John. So yes, at this point I am fairly wired for the ancient's various constructs of their superlatives. They are powerful.

Quite tired here, I hope you have a great evening.

Which doesn't answer anything I have said nor any of the arguments I have made concerning the points at issue between me and literary device theorists nor show me to be wrong in any respect whatsoever. Please, I need to ask you to stop now. You are filling the thread with material that is not advancing the conversation. I have asked before.

For others: Steve is apparently engaged in a different endeavor than Lydia. For Steve, the issue of how much of John is simple reporting of what the apostles saw and heard is irrelevant, because he is not doing what Lydia is doing. He is pursuing the layers of teachings in John beyond the surface layer. In such an endeavor, the validity of the surface layer is a given, because you don't get deeper layers without the surface layer. For this purpose, whether Christianity is true, and whether the gospels are reliable, doesn't even come up, because you've already moved past that point.

But many people who read various NT scholars like Blomberg and Evans and Licona HAVE NOT already moved beyond those points, and for them they quite reasonably want to know "why should I accept John?" If I don't have a reason to think John is a trustworthy guide, I won't know whether to seek out (and then to conform myself to) the deeper layers of meaning that lie behind the surface layer. Maybe his deeper points are just plain wrong. For these (and for many of the NT scholars, who do not believe John is trustworthy), they cannot properly undertake a study of the deeper layers because they have not even grasped yet the surface layer. Indeed, they think the surface layer is to be pulled apart and dissected, to determine which parts are historically accurate and which parts have unhistorical material. And thinking they have discovered vast tracts of John which are concocted by John out of partial or whole cloth, they don't even have the proper starting point from which to jump off into a search for the deeper meanings.

As for me, I like to look into the writings of the ancient Fathers from time to time, because they HAVE ALREADY done much delving and much pondering of the gospel, and in their writings they show how one can move from the surface meaning to deeper meanings, how to pull out important truths that I might otherwise have missed. And then they lead me toward still more effort, to my own pondering, not necessarily so as to learn more truths, but also to simply wonder and to rest in what truth has been shown. But of course, the ancient Fathers naturally accepted John and the other gospels for what they were, and did not pursue questions like "which parts of John were concocted in order to present an important concept?" You won't find them tackling that kind of question. Ever.

Steve, this is not an invitation to respond. Please don't.

Speaking for myself, I really don't know for sure whether Steve thinks John changed the day of the Last Supper or any of the other things discussed in the main post. I assume, given his hearty indignation on behalf of the scholars I'm disagreeing with on this point and his saying that I'm "trashing" them, that he agrees with them on these points, but it's difficult to know for sure. Nor can I muster a whole lot of interest in where he's coming from on that.

But the surface truth certainly isn't a given for someone who *does* think as Evans does or, in places, Keener. In fact, the apparent surface truth might actually be false. E.g. That Jesus carried his own cross.

Steve certainly sounds like an "ancient" to me. I haven't the faintest what he is literally going on about! I wonder how the earliest church fathers like Polycarp understood the gospels. Higher truths like Jesus was God incarnate and rode into Jerusalem on a beast of peace rather than a stallion of war. So, Polycarp's flock may ask, what animal, exactly, did Jesus ride in on? Ahh, he may respond, what a meaningless question! Let's not stand on ten decimal precision here! All that matters is that Jesus was the messiah who fulfilled the prophesies of old. Puzzled, the flock continue, but surely he had to have rode in on an actual animal in order to fulfill it?! Polycarp is annoyed. Haven't you been to Hebrew and Greek lit class 101?

Indeed, quite the good sport attempting to flay my attempts to address Lydia's misportrayals of me.

All I am saying is that we must learn to read as an ancient.
To read as they wrote, in their style.

To major in their majors focusing on their superlative literary structures -- for they arranged their writings thematically within the overall historical context -- (subtle but major difference from we moderns yes. Stuff you can have good sport with no doubt.) to make their great statements. One after the next.

Making thematically-arranged superlative statements we often fail to recognize, instead arguing over other things we insist it be (majoring in the minors). All the while seemingly enjoying attacking others in the process.

And yes, there is no point in any further discussion as the foundational concept of the original voice-original audience appears to be either unknown, abused or entirely rejected here.

I will be the first to admit, developing the ancient approach to communication requires much study and effort. Freeing oneself from our modern ways we have taken for granted does not happen without hard work.

So have good sport misportraying these foundational concepts and all.

And yes, there is no point in any further discussion as the foundational concept of the original voice-original audience appears to be either unknown, abused or entirely rejected here.

Seems you've topped yourself when it comes to strawmen Steve. Bravo, bravo!

“All I am saying is that we must learn to read as an ancient.
To read as they wrote, in their style.”


This is the classic mistake of the modern historic-critical method. In fact, one cannot read as an ancient. In fact, that can’t be the correct way to read Scripture.

It is a silly part of the Modernist stance to consider Scripture as merely another ancient text to do with as we please, such as evidenced by the two streams of Modernist Scripture scholarship : 1) the idea that text must be re-interpreted for every age and 2) the idea that every age must restore the original and restricted reading of the text. Both the fluid and restoration isn’t approaches to textual interpretation forget the crucial point: the Bible is not just any old ancient text. God is, ultimately, the author of Scripture and He, certainly, would not allow a time-bound text to be produced, either bound to the past or the present. The Bible is a trans-temporal document. It says exactly what God wants it to say in order to reveal to us what we need for our salvation. To claim that God had to wait for 2000 years for someone to discover the secrets of Bible construction would imply that God had failed for those 2000 years until the proper gnosis was revealed.

That’s not how theology, as a science, works. Modernist Scripture scholars attempt to apply a purely empirical “scientific” methodology to Scripture, ignoring the fact that the primary data for the theological sciences is revelation, which must be the same for all times. Thou shalt not commit adultery does not apply merely at any particular moment in history, to be interpreted over and over again for each culture. It applies identically for all times.

Language mutates, over time. Given an object, it might have an attribute set {a1...an} at time T, but {a7...am} at time T + delta. So, the “rock” that a 1st-century Hebrew might conceive will, necessarily, be different that the “rock” that a 21-century Hebrew might conceive. There is a stable overlap set and there is the stable object, in itself, but the accidents might change over time and an historical reading is no more certain to retain the substance than a presentist reading. The question was never, what is in the mind of the author, but what is in the mind of God.

I have a class, but I will write more, later.

The Chicken

With regards to the Gospel of John, John is a mystic and writes like a mystic. In that sense, the text is best interpreted using the techniques of mystical theology. The thing is, many Protestant denominations do not have a well-developed mystical theology, so they substitute other methods, which might hot, actually, get at the mind of either the author or God's intentions. As far as we know, mysticism does not change over time, so again, the Gospel of John must be read with at least the understanding that the text is meant to be read in a fashion that preserves the revelatory aspects of the text.

Beethoven wrote his late string quartets in a totally non-classical style. If one attempted to listen to them as a "Classical" listener, an ancient, they would sound awful. Beethoven wrote the works for a later generation. How do we know that John didn't write his Gospel, likewise? Reading or listening to a text or music as an ancient is not, always, the best way to make sense of the text or music.

The Chicken

All I am saying is that we must learn to read as an ancient. To read as they wrote, in their style.
To major in their majors
as the foundational concept of the original voice-original audience appears to be either unknown, abused or entirely rejected here.

There are so many errors, omissions, mistakes, and inadequate underlying assumptions here that it is impossible to know exactly where to start. Still...

First: there isn't one specific class of writing that can be called "the ancients" here. The human writers of the Bible spanned nearly 2000 years, wrote from vastly different backgrounds (Moses was raised as an Egyptian, Daniel was taught as a Babylonian, David was a shepherd, and so on). The books range from historical accounts to proverbs to prophecy to songs. The writers had as many different "voices" as there were different writers - indeed, more so, because one writer can speak with different voices in different parts of what he writes. Not all of one writer's output is written in the same style, mode, purpose, or method. There was not one style, there were a great many. Not all used "the thematic approach" to carry their intentions in every part of what they wrote.

Second, even when a writer did write thematically in a specific section, it is idiotic to focus all the attention on the major theme and ignore the details. This might be adequate for some modern like Steve if he tried to write thematically, but it won't do for the Bible. The inspiration that God endowed the writer with guided his understanding not only to the major themes he intended to convey, but also to the tools and details with which he carried that through. For the theme is made up of sections, and the sections made up of sentences, and the sentences made up of clauses, and the clauses made up of individual words - each one of which carries meaning. God, unlike us, can pay attention to the larger AND to the smaller points without any effort. Indeed, the smaller points often are the very construction blocks by which the larger points are made, so one must pay attention to the construction blocks. Sometimes, instead, the smaller points are the pointers and way-signs directing the traveler along the way - you cannot arrive at the main thesis without following the signs. God intended each word to help the reader understand the whole, and when the whole includes small parts, God intended the small parts as well as the larger parts. Just as the ancient Fathers did, we must use every scrap of the Bible to understand what God is saying, and use every construction piece and every road sign. This does not imply getting "hung up" on little things, for that is beside the point - no more should we get "hung up" on major themes either.

Third, there is no way to "read as an ancient" if you mean to read it as if you had actually lived the life of the ancient writer; learning his language as a child the way he learned it; learning the local idioms the way he learned them, through funny, odd, or useful events that highlight this idiom or that; learning to think in the terms of the locally defining categories and connectors the way HE learned those modes of thought, etc. We are not living in that specific ancient world, Babylon of 450 BC, or Palestine of 65 AD. We cannot experience his world the exact way he did.

Yet we can attempt to come as close as present day tools allow us to, in order to think with the writer. And if a person is taught properly in a good educational program, (e.g. a classical liberal arts program as that used to teach), this is exactly what he begins to learn: because human nature does not change over time, and the physical world we inhabit has the same laws over time, we have good reason to hope that ancient writers can communicate well with us. It's usually not that hard to slip into their way of saying things. And when we learn to read the works of Aeshylus, Plato, Homer, and Xenophon (with others), we feel considerable confidence we can penetrate to their meaning because we can make sense of it, and learn a writer's style and idiom, his approach to description or to dialogue or to explanations.* Even in translation! The same goes for reading works by Seneca, Cicero, Virgil, and Augustine, even though they wrote in vastly different modes of presentation. And the same goes for the Hebrew writers. So the notion that reading the books of the Bible is some esoteric skill that can only be achieved through several decades of immersion is foolish - not to mention means that it puts Christian religion beyond the reach of the mass of humanity.

And fourthly, because Steve ignores the necessity of grounding the apprehension of the writer's meaning with and through details as well as larger structures of style, Steve misunderstands that to some extent he and I, or he and Lydia, or he and Blomberg, simply disagree on the character, nature, or meaning of the larger structure. Not that we didn't seek it out, but that we saw something different (and perhaps opposed to) what he thought he saw, and it's a dispute over the larger structure's actual content, not a failure to seek one. Many times the dispute CANNOT be solved without resort to the details, that's the nature of the issue. And it is idiotic to insist on paying attention only to the major themes in such a dispute.

And yes, there is no point in any further discussion

I am heartily glad that Steve recognized that there is no point in his pursuing his target here. All he could do is keep on repeating, childishly, "superlative literary structures" and "major in the majors". It was as if he thought that repeating his formless mantra enough times would make his confused ideas more clear. He nowhere presented an actual explanation or account that could hold water for a second: no argument, no reference to details, no specificity, no nothing. Formless generalities and mindlessly repeating what I presume he has picked up from some other writers who should be sued for malpractice.

* This does not imply "reading as an ancient", exactly, but more like "reading as a human being" (which we have in common with the ancient writer), making an effort to get together with the ancient through what we have in common and respecting what we have in difference. Thus the great works are timeless in some ways, which explains in part what Chicken said. It does mean respecting the mode of each writer, some of whom might have written thematically, or dramatically, or proverbially, and using our knowledge of different techniques to understand them all. But (again) this is not some esoteric skill, it used to be the common result of getting a classical liberal arts grounding.

I've noticed that those who go on and on about the "deeper meaning of the text" that is "more true than mere facts" almost never give what that meaning is. The ones I meet who do usually have ideas so far out there as to be considered insane. Like that God was a fire breathing dragon, or Jesus was really an alien.

Well, I do remember one alternative that wasn't insane, but it wasn't a "deeper meaning", it was just vague and unhelpful. Like saying Genesis 1 only teaches that God created everything and nothing more. If that's all that was intended by Genesis 1, why not just stop at the first verse?

Thanks for the post Lydia. I know it's a lot of work to wade through this sort of literature, and I appreciate you sparing the effort to do so.

Thank you! Follow on Facebook (if you have not already done so) and you'll see updates when I post something new in this series.

I would love to if I hadn't quit Facebook a while ago. I'll be sure to check in here at least semi-regularly, however.

It seems to me that the people who most complain about conservatives reading the Bible with a "hyper-literal" concern for factuality are actually the ones most guilty of it. It is the liberal scholars who think that if Matthew has Jesus saying "hi" and Luke has Jesus saying "hello," then this is a difference of such enormous significance that it can only reasonably be explained by imagining that there must have been some theological agenda on the part of the writer that motivated him to twist a "hi" into a "hello." The most tortured liberal ideas (like the "I thirst" being an alteration of "why have you forsaken me") seem to reveal that the scholars expect a painstaking level of similarity between the texts.

On the other hand, conservative scholars seem to be happy to understand that, for example, "hi" and "hello" are interchangeable and hence would not need to be explained as anything other than the kind of common differences that occur in the way people remember trivial details. Conservative scholars almost always prefer to harmonize texts than assume redaction or theologizing because conservatives they hold the common-sense view that the real world is a complicated place that is difficult to understand and capture accurately. Hence disparate descriptions of events ("I thirst" vs "why have you forsaken me") are thought to be possible to harmonize a priori, even if the harmonization is complicated, because real life and human behavior is complicated. It is the liberal scholar, hiding under the cloak of the "original voice of the ancients", etc, who is far too easily disturbed by even simple harmonizations because the liberal scholar rejects the ancients' facts because they (supposedly) aren't up to modern standards.

To Steve's point, conservative scholars are not the ones arguing about "precise moment by moment historicity." It was the liberal scholars who brought in that modern sensibility and, precisely because they assume that ancients play fast and loose with facts, go on to argue that the specific minutiae of every little story must actually be different than what the authors recorded. It is not as if conservatives are arguing pure historicity while liberals are arguing deeper meaning, which is the picture Steve paints. Rather, liberals are actively arguing against historicity, and conservatives are responding to those (bad) arguments.

Conservatives are also not guilty of the false dichotomy here. It is the liberal scholars that seem to think that a passage isn't historically accurate if it has a deeper theological meaning. They appeal to "the way the ancients thought," not to gain access to a richer, deeper meaning that the historical fact was blocking (hence their lack of concrete examples), but rather to deny historical facts while maintaining the meaning (hence the conservative suspicion that liberal scholars are motivated by a desire to be taken seriously in the modern academy). One does not need to deny historicity to gain access to the theological meaning of the text. Moreover, the conservative sentiment is that the theological significance of an event is greatly increased precisely because the event actually happened.

Well said, Joseph. An item of evidence in line with what you are saying about "hi" and "hello." It took me a while, but I finally realized that some scholars, when they speak about paraphrasing even in moderate ways, are of the opinion that the author *knew* the exact words and *changed* them for some special reason.

I was rather astonished when I realized this. I figured previously (silly me) that when we were talking about some extremely moderate and no-problem paraphrase like, "You are my beloved son" vs. "This is my beloved son" that the *only* problem was that the theorist was trying to extrapolate from that to the legitimacy of some other wild change that shouldn't be called "paraphrase" at all. But gradually I realized that some of these theorists (both Licona and, I'm sorry to say, sometimes Craig Keener as well) will attribute even moderate paraphrase to a deliberate desire to make something better or more literary or to make a theological point. Hence, Matthew *believed* that the exact words of the Father from heaven were, "You are my beloved son," but he deliberately *changed* it to "This is my beloved son" to make it "more personal" for the readers and hearers.

This is an astonishingly rigid notion of the process of composition. Nobody writes about or even remembers events that way. It is like the normal process of just stating things as best one can remember them or getting words from a witness who is recounting as best he can remember has disappeared from view entirely.

Similarly, the literary theorists will often assume that the author intended to convey chronological order by narrative order and then will assert that the author *changed* chronological order. They have no separate concept of achronological narration. This, again, is a very wooden, hyper-literal way to interpret documents.


I agree that this does seem to be the dividing line between "conservative" and "liberal" scholars. It is not conservative word-for-word literalness versus liberal openness to variation. It is liberals saying that the differences are best explained as the result of intentional manipulation of known facts, whereas conservatives see those differences as occurring within the normal range of variation that is to be expected from having multiple people remember and telling a single story.

It is extremely hard for me to understand how the liberal view isn't just considered "lying." How else can you describe "intentionally changing the story to fit your agenda"? That seems to me to be exactly what it means to lie, to knowingly misrepresent the facts so that your own aims are better served. It almost seems like a form of moral relativism to say "It's ok because everyone did it back then, and they all expected each other to lie."

This whole notion that the ancients had a much looser relationship with the facts seems dubious anyhow. It is really hard to read, for example, John 19:34-35 and think that John may have invented that fact to serve a theological agenda when (1) no theological explanation is ever given and (2) he makes a really big deal about how he actually saw it and isn't lying. I get the feeling that the main difference is that ancient people understood symbolism and modern people don't, not that ancient people cared more about "Truth".

"Y'honor, I can't say whether my facts ever occurred historically, but I can tell you that they point to a larger, deeper Truth, which is that my client is entitled to ten million dollars in damages. I rest my case."

The claim is that it isn't lying because it's like when we read a novel or go to a movie "based on true events." Since we know ahead of time that some things might be changed, then no matter how realistic the movie or novel is, it isn't lying, because it occurs within the overall context of a work where we're supposed to know as a kind of metalevel fact that this type of work is partly changed.

Btw, we would normally call that "partially fictional" or "partially fictionalized." What is weird is that the literary theorists will make these analogies to movies themselves but then will get extremely offended if one uses a phrase like "partially fictionalized" which would be considered the *correct* phrase to use to describe what they are talking about in the case of the movie. It's very bizarre, and I can only conclude that the aversion to the term "fictional" or any cognate thereof is a result of a pure rhetorical desire not to say anything, or allow anyone else to say anything, that might upset people. God forbid we should be really *clear* about what we are saying. That might scare the horses, or the people in the pew. So make an analogy to partially fictionalized movies, but don't then call the Gospels partially fictionalized as you would *of course* refer to the movie, because...I dunno...that doesn't sound good. Or something. Drives me crazy.

Anyway, so the idea is that there was this very strong sense of genre, just like we have a strong sense of genre for a biopic, that absolves the author of the charge of lying just like it absolves the moviemakers of the charge of lying. If you are not naive, and if you understand what biopics are like, you're supposed to know going into the theater that you should not treat this as an original historical source.

I go into all of this in a lot of detail in my forthcoming book. The biggest problem with this thesis is that it's completely false. The theorists have no idea just how *strong* a thesis this is. We have overwhelming evidence for the existence of the genres of partially fictionalized movies, historical novels, etc. We have author interviews, "making of" documentaries, explicit articles comparing the movie to the real events, and so on and so forth. We have *nothing remotely like this* even to show us that there *existed* a similar genre at the time of the Gospels. To show not only that such a genre existed but that the Gospels are such documents would take a *lot* of evidence, and they not only have no idea how much it would take but also no idea how lame their own case is.

Consider, for example, the fact that the vast majority of early church fathers (Origen being the only named exception I know of) clearly thought that the Gospels were literally factual, not partially fictionalized. Augustine, who had a formal training in secular rhetoric (!!) harmonizes like an old-fashioned conservative inerrantist and undeniably takes the Gospels to be literally historical, not partially fictionalized.

Making matters worse, the theorists themselves will point repeatedly to places where the authors, *according to them*, are going out of their way to "make it look like" something is happening realistically in the books even though that isn't the way that it happened. Licona even says at one point, "John appears deliberate in his attempts to lead the reader to believe that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal," even though it was, and Licona thinks that John knew that it was.

This definitely makes it sound like John believed that his readers might be very confused by his narrative about the facts, *not* like his readers realized that his book was like a partially fictionalized movie and hence wouldn't take him seriously!!

(It is one of my goals in my writing to make that statement of Licona's about John and the day of the Last Supper very widely known. It's really rather a jaw-dropping statement.)

Yeah, John says in many places about he, the Baptist, Jesus, etc. testifying to what they've "seen or heard" so we might know. When, for instance, the Baptist saw the 'spirit descend and remain on him," he didn't just invent that did he?

The fact that John mentions miracles and deeds Jesus did but which John has no need or room to mention doubly argued against his inventing miracles or deeds for Jesus. First, if there are so many things John could write of, such that "if written, I suppose the world could not contain the scrolls that would be written," why invent fake ones? Surely He could have found deeds more affable to the specific aspect of Christ he wanted to emphasis among these than invent one. It seems odd to give us fake ones when real ones were available. It's like filing a movie - documentary, histroical fiction, whatever - about WWII and making up some other invasion instead of mentioning D-Day. Why?

Second, John seems to group the narrated miracles and deeds of the Lord into one group with those left out of his Gospel, the common denominator that unites them being 'Jesus did them' and not just 'we usefully say Jesus did these things, some of which he actually did'. ("Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples which have not been written in this book, but these have been written so that you may believe," and, "Jesus did many other things, which if they were all written down, I suppose the world could not contain the scrolls that would be written.") Hence if the latter really happened, so did the former. Or else how could they form one group? Or, if some of the narrated ones didn't happen, then some of the ones that did happen but which weren't written down. At least, what he would mean is: "Jesus did many other things and we can also say he did other things even if he didn't, but these things he did or I'm saying he did have been written down so you may believe, partially."

On the view of the evangelicals I'm answering, all or most of the miracles actually happened at some point or other, but they were dressed up, moved around in time, and altered in various ways. And not just miracles. Hence, for example, they will say that the story of the Temple cleansing isn't "fictitious," but that John "moved" it to early in Jesus' ministry. But that would have to mean that John invented various aspects of it, such as the religious leaders saying that it has been 46 years since the Temple began to be rebuilt.

And the distinction between "moving" and "inventing" is not easy to maintain. For example, Licona says that perhaps John "relocated" the appearance to Mary Magdalene. If John did this, then the *real* appearance post-resurrection to Mary Magdalene happened with the other women as they were leaving the tomb, as Matthew records. But that is a *very* different scene from the appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20. It wouldn't be just the same scene "relocated" twenty yards to the left or an hour later or something. It would mean that John invented the whole scene. In John 20 Mary Magdalene has not already believed the message of the angels that Jesus is risen. She is weeping and still believes Jesus is dead. She is not leaving the tomb with joy to tell the disciples. Etc. But he prefers not to put it that way, so he just refers to "relocating the appearance."

Wholesale invention of a miracle story is rarely something they hypothesize, and then usually it is cloaked in some other terminology. For example, they hypothesize that Matthew invented the early healing of two blind men before John the Baptist's disciples come. This is cloaked in the language of "creating a doublet." In this case that means inventing an entire healing miracle.

More commonly, there is an attempt to say that "the event" happened but that some aspects of it have just been altered.

When it comes to Jesus' words, however, they are more often talking about more wholesale invention, though even there the language is obscure. Several discourses in John are supposed to be wholesale extrapolation on the basis of Jesus' other teachings, as are the scenes and sayings where Jesus openly claims to be God, etc. But this is obscured by talk of "paraphrase," even though it isn't anything like what anyone would normally call "paraphrase."

It's actually interesting to see how seldom the events that come closest to being allegedly invented wholesale are miracles, though they may be related to miracles in the case of appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. I think that the evangelical scholars are lulled into a more receptive mindset when the higher critical theory in question is that some dialogue, discourse, or other non-miraculous event was invented, because they think that the denial of historicity can't spring from an anti-miraculous bias. Hence, if John invented the scene where Jesus says, "I and the Father are one" and the people try to stone him, that isn't a miracle per se. So they think the denial of it doesn't spring from some invidious liberal bias. Of course, that doesn't make the arguments for its being invented any better! But they end up being very open to the idea that this is an example where John's portrayal of Jesus is somehow at odds with the Synoptic portrayal, so it is a questionable scene. And in fact, if we're going to talk about historical biases, the higher critics of the 19th century were hyperskeptical about *many* things that weren't intrinsically miracles--the reports of pretty much all of Jesus' doings, the authorship of various books, and so forth. Questioning the historicity of the Gospels was a whole cottage industry, and of course that involved questioning many non-miraculous things as part of questioning the general historical reliability of the documents.

But the genetic fallacy is a fallacy no matter who does it and why. It is irrelevant to the strength of the arguments for those *proposing* the argument to say, "I got this from So-and-so, a well-respected evangelical scholar, so you should accept it because he *can't* be influenced by an anti-miraculous bias." And it is irrelevant to the strength of the argument to point out (even if truly) in response that, say, David Strauss made similar arguments and used a similar methodology to question the historicity of various scenes in the Gospels over a hundred years ago. The question is whether the arguments are any good or not.

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