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Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel: Some quotations

At the repeated suggestion of reader "Joe Lightfoot," and upon being assured by Esteemed Husband that he owned a copy of the book and could locate it in his huge personal library, I began reading Leon Morris's Studies in the Fourth Gospel, Eerdmans, 1969.

I've found it especially refreshing to read an author who, writing as relatively recently as 1969, evokes the style of the authors of the 19th century. Morris writes without jargon or equivocation. It's always possible to tell what he is saying. And he does not take with undue seriousness highly complex theories of factual alteration. He is occasionally more concerned about something than I think he needs to be, but he has a balanced enough mind to recognize that there are always going to be things we don't know. For example, he seems (to my mind) unduly puzzled by Jesus' open statement to the Samaritan woman that he is the Messiah in John 4:26 in contrast with the alleged "messianic secret." But Morris, though not as satisfied by it as perhaps he should be, is open to the theory (which to my mind is correct) that the contrast between this clear statement and Jesus' attempted secrecy elsewhere (e.g., Matthew 16:20) is explicable in terms of attempting to keep his Messianic claims from raising the wrong idea in the minds of those likely to take them in a revolutionary direction.

I need to make more notes from Morris's book, as there is much useful information there, some of which was new to me. For this entry, I want to give my readers some beautiful quotations.

In the "let ancient people speak for themselves" department, here is Morris:

We have already noticed some who deny that John had any intention of being factual. This seems to mean that he has composed fictional narratives in order to bring out theological truth. Those who take up such positions usually assume them....They assert that in antiquity this was a recognized and respected procedure. If we wanted to bring out the truth about Jesus, they might say, we would distinguish carefully between, for example, what Jesus actually said and what we deduce from his words. But in the first century a man would regard it as perfectly acceptable, for example, if he were quite convinced that Jesus thought of Himself as the Messiah, to report that Jesus had claimed this. Thus we must expect that John would compose "sayings" of Jesus and manufacture incidents in which Jesus' character and claims are made plain.

It is this kind of a priori approach against which I wish to protest. Though it is widely assumed that this procedure was rife in the ancient world little evidence can be found for it. That is to say, little evidence can be found that careful and serious writers practiced it. There are examples of people, like the authors of the apocryphal gospels of a somewhat later time, who valued edification above fact, and who did not hesitate to manufacture their incidents. And there are careless and bungling historians, who took little care to be accurate. But these should not be regarded as the standard. Specifically John should not be classed with either...The widespread modern view that the men of antiquity were quite ready to distort the facts if only they could bring out the truth, is not supported by the statements of the men themselves. It is simply assumed. But only the second-rate did this (for that matter the second-rate in modern times are not exempt from guilt in this matter; but we do not therefore argue that this is standard practice). The express statements of the ancients make it plain that we must take seriously the historical statements of any careful writer who purports to give us facts.

This does not, of course, mean that without further ado we must assume that John is to be accepted as accurate. That is a matter for further examination. But it does mean that we must not make the facile assumption that he must have been careless about his facts, for that was the way men wrote in the first century....And if we are to convict John of doing this we must produce some clear evidence. Studies in the Fourth Gospel, pp. 68-70

There are so many good things about this. For one thing, what Morris says here shows that memes (such as recent statements by Richard Burridge and others) to the effect that ancient people cared more about some other kind of capital-T-Truth than about "mere facts" have been around for quite some time. They are not the conclusion of some objective, recent discovery either by Burridge or by anyone else.

Then there is Morris's balanced, intelligent invocation (implicitly) of something like the flowchart for deciding if something is a fact-changing literary device, which recognizes the burden of proof. It also recognizes the old adage, "When you see hoofprints, think horses, not zebras." If a bungle on the part of Plutarch (say) will do to explain something, a literary device is unnecessary complication. If an author purports to give historical fact, the assumption that he is engaging in elaborate literary alteration of (what appear to be) factual statements requires evidence. Simply saying "the ancients" over and over again, or repeating in a weary and mildly exasperated, insistent voice, "We must understand the authors according to the standards of their time" does not discharge such a burden of proof. Indeed, if it did, we would scarcely know where to start--what to question and what to take as intended to be historical. It would be a shot in the dark, which is unfortunately sometimes the impression one gets from New Testament scholars, so light are the grounds on which they allege historical alteration or invention. Morris is a welcome corrective to all of this, and his comments are similar to those of Colin Hemer about twenty years later, apropos of the genre of Luke's gospel.

Here is Morris again, on theology and history:

It is important to be clear that the Evangelists had a strong interest in the historical Jesus, and that this was a controlling factor in their writing. When systems like Docetism and Gnosticism appeared they were rejected. Those who evolved these systems put all their emphasis on theology and paid scant attention to the historical. They were interested in ideas, not facts. But the orthodox could never take a similar line. They felt that what they taught was bound up with the actual person of Jesus of Nazareth, and with the things He said and did. They could not substitute their sanctified imaginations for the traditions that had been handed down to them.

This is of the essence of the matter as the New Testament writers understood the faith. It was a bold, and for most of the ancient world a novel doctrine that God had willed to reveal Himself in history. In fact so bold a conception is this that sometimes men still shrink from its implications. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that some scholars have feared to trust God to history. The world of history is such an uncertain world...It is safer to rescue God from the whole world of history.

[H]owever, God has...preferred to reveal Himself in the historical, and it is there that we must find Him. Unless we affirm that Jesus has come "in the flesh" we are not on God's side. We align ourselves with the antichrist (I John 4:2f)....We cannot flee history into a safe world of ideas and still remain authentically Christian. (pp. 89-90)

C. Braaten speaks of the view "that the intention of the Gospels is not to transmit historical information about Jesus, but to portray him as God's eschatological deed of salvation." But if the Evangelists had this intention why did they not write epistles? The New Testament affords ample evidence both that this form was congenial to the early Christians and that it was an efficient way of conveying teaching....In the light of this it is fair to ask, What is the point of writing gospels at all unless to convey historical information? And if the intention of the Gospels is "not to transmit historical information" why do they contain so many precise notes of locality, time, etc., which appear to serve no theological purpose? (pp. 95-96)

In point of fact John was scarcely in a position to manufacture his incidents and his sayings. It is agreed by nearly all students that one of the aims of this Evangelist was to deal with opponents of a Docetic type....They denied the reality of the experiences attributed to Jesus, or at least they denied their reality as having happened to the Christ of God....In the face of such teaching John stressed the actuality of the incarnation. But he could do this only by keeping strictly to historical events. He was on safe ground only as long as he kept to the facts. The moment he made use of a fabricated incident he laid himself open to the accusation that he was proceeding along exactly the same lines as did the Docetists....John was thus compelled by the nature of the opposition he faced to stick to events that both he and his readers could recognize as factual...A general respect for history was not enough. He had to carry this over to the concrete examples he used. In the face of those who assert that to John the spiritual significance is everything and the historicity immaterial, the question must be pressed, "What is the theological meaning of something that never happened?" The very idea of bringing out theological significance seems to imply respect for the facts. What did not happen can scarcely be called redemptive. pp. 123-124

It almost looks like Morris was reading "Fake Points Don't Make Points."

The book is full of bits of interesting, commonsense reasoning, coupled with charming prose, like this. (Morris is discussing the odd bit after the feeding of the five thousand where John tries to describe how the crowds took boats to follow Jesus back again across the Sea of Galilee.)

John 6:22ff. is a very complicated little section and it has given the commentators a few headaches as they tried to sort out the Greek. But in the process not a few have found themselves convinced that it must come from someone who was there--no one else would have left us with such a tangle of words....The crowded nature of this passage is evidence of someone who knew what he was talking about but who was trying to compress his statement to the limit. Anyone else would surely have produced a more tidy sentence. p. 155

With regard to one critic's rejection of the piercing of Jesus' side and the flow of blood and water on the grounds that they might have arisen out of John's theology, Morris says this:

Barrett's rejection of the view that the passage is due to an eyewitness is based on his view that it fits in with and could have arisen out of John's theology. John is indeed perfectly capable of selecting his facts so that they agree with his theology, but that does not mean that they are any the less facts....We need more than an affirmation that a statement is congenial to John's theological position before recognizing an historical inaccuracy. pp. 200-201

And finally, this magisterial comment on the Gospel of John as a whole:

It seems to me that John is a greater figure than has been reckoned with. He is so supremely master of the situation and the tradition that he is able to bring out his essential point without distorting the facts. Many recent critics have found it impossible to believe this. They have reasoned that he must have been ready to distort facts, for his concern was with the interpretation of the facts, not with historical accuracy. This a priori approach should be firmly rejected. John tells us that he is bearing witness and his testimony should be taken with the utmost seriousness. Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel, p. 213

We read to know that we are not alone.

Comments (3)

Interesting. I was beginning to think that scholars stopped supporting such thinking much longer ago than 1969. By the way Licona and others talk you would think it went out in the 1800's.

Then there are inconvenient people like Colin Hemer and John Wenham writing in the same vein. Not to mention DA Carson, who hasn't died yet, unless I missed it.

Excellent quotes, thank you. He sounds eminently sensible, at least in the broad brush strokes. Assuming that a story is made up because it "fits" John's theology turns things on their head: has the person stopped to even begin to wonder "where did John learn that theological point from anyway?" He had to get it from somewhere. Maybe from something Jesus said or did. So if John learned it that way, why would he not want to pass it along the same way he got it?

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