Why Did Jesus Weep in John 11:35?

Why does Jesus weep in John 11:35? The crowd assumes it is because his friend Lazarus died. Jesus has a typically human emotional reaction to death. But most commentaries point out the vocabulary used to describe Jesus’s emotions go beyond sorrow. In fact, the verbs in John 11:33 have the connotation of indignation and anger.

Barrett says the view that Jesus was angry “beyond question” (John, 399). Beasley-Murray argues the verb ἐμβριμάομαι  should be read as“became angry in spirit” (John, Second Edition, 192-3). That Jesus is moved “in his spirit” is an indication this is a deeply internal emotional reaction.

Jesus WeptThe second verb in John 11:33 is ταράσσω, a verb associated with deep turmoil and In the next chapter, Jesus will use the same word to describe his spirit prior to the passion events (John 12:27). In Matthew 14:26 it is used to describe the terror felt by the disciples when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. In Luke 24:38 the verb describes the terror of the disciples when they encountered the resurrected Jesus. In each cases, there is a feeling of dread since a sinful person is encountering a divine being.

Whatever the combination of these terms means, it cannot be said Jesus was shaken by the death of Lazarus since he had predicted it. We cannot say he is expressing emotions similar to Mary and Martha, who are mourning their dead brother. Jesus knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead so his tears are unlikely sorrow over Lazarus’s death.

A slight variation of this view is Craig Keener who suggested Jesus was angry at the unbelief of the mourners (John, 846). Raymond Brown suggested Jesus was angry at Satan and the domain of death itself, or possibly Jesus is angry “at death” in general (John, 203).

When Jesus does cry, it is not the same as Mary and Martha, or the other mourners. They are “wailing” (κλαίω), while Jesus “weeps” (δακρύω). The word is rare in the LXX, appearing only a few times (for example, Job 3:24, Job’s tears). I am not sure there is enough evidence to say that Jesus’s tears were more or less sorrowful based on vocabulary, perhaps John simply varied the terms in order to avoid repetition (as he does elsewhere in the Gospel).

Perhaps a better way of looking at Jesus’s frustrated emotional response is to see it in the light of Mary and Martha’s lack of understanding that he is the “Resurrection and the Life” and their apparent unbelief in his status as the giver of Life. Jesus just told Mary and Martha he is the resurrection and the life. Rather than some distant eschatological resurrection in the future, Jesus is about to demonstrate his power over life and death. But none of the disciples seem to understand this!

The power of the coming age is present in Jesus’s ministry.  But even the closest disciples do not fully understand who he is until after the resurrection.

Jesus’ Prayer of Thanksgiving (John 11:42-44)

Jesus prays a “prayer of thanksgiving” before commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb. This prayer has been discussed with respect to the possibility of historicity – is it the type of prayer that Jesus might have prayed in this context?  Some scholars dispense with the historicity of the prayer as an addition by the writer of the Gospel.  For example, R. H. Fuller, (Interpreting the Miracles) wrote that:

To the modern reader this prayer is irritating, if not offensive. The whole thing looks like a put-up show, anything but genuine prayer. Jesus knows he need not pray, but apparently stages a prayer to impress the bystanders.

Rather than an “irritating prayer”, this is actually a Prayer of Thanksgiving as prayed by Jews commonly in the context of first century Palestine. Following J. M. Robinson, Bingham Hunter has demonstrated that there are formal parallels to a Jewish thanksgiving prayer. As a Jewish Hodayoth, the prayer is intended to be heard by the audience for which it is prayed. The cited article lists many examples (including in the Pauline and Qumran literature) indicating that this sort of prayer was not only common enough in the first century, but expected in a religious context such as the one Jesus finds himself in John 11.

Because of its form the prayer seems to be genetically related to and a part of a tradition of piety exemplified by the Jewish personal thanksgiving psalm. Thanksgivings of this sort are characteristically prayers that both God and spectators are meant to hear.

With respect to the scholars that find offense in the prayer, Hunter points that the offense is entirely modern. Read in the context of the first-century, the prayer is exactly the sort of thanksgiving prayer we might have expected.

Bibliography:  R. H. Fuller, Interpreting the Miracles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963); W. Bingham Hunter, “Contextual And Genre Implications For The  Historicity Of John 11:41b-42” JETS 28:1 (March 1985) 53-70.

John 7:8 – “My Time Has Not Yet Come”

When his brothers encourage him to go up to Jerusalem, Jesus initially refuses their request because “his time has not yet come.”  However, he does eventually go to Jerusalem in secret.   His apparent refusal leads to some textual variation, since it is clear that Jesus says one thing and does another.  One way to explain this is that Jesus said that he would not go now, but he would go later, separate from the family.

SuccothD. A. Carson, for example, tries to explain that when Jesus says “my time has not yet come,” he means that his time for leaving for the Feast has not yet come.  Carson thinks that the next line (you can go anytime but I cannot) means that Jesus is simply thinking about when he was leaving for the Feast.  This is possible, since the point of the rest of the chapter is to argue that Jesus does not act unless the Father directs him.  Perhaps this simply means that the  Father directed Jesus to leave a few days later than his brothers.

It is also likely this is another example of Jesus initially refusing a request but eventually granting the request.  In John 2, Jesus appears to refuse Mary’s request to “do something” about the wine.   Just as Mary’s request was on an earthly level and Jesus’ answer was on the higher, messianic level, so too here with his brothers.  They are thinking solely of Jesus’ status as a religious leader (“Go to Jerusalem where those sorts of people hang out”), Jesus is thinking about his real mission to die on the cross at the next Passover.   (Nicodemus and the woman at the well also mix up the earthly and the spiritual, except in those cases Jesus says something spiritual and they take it as earthly.)

The timing of Jesus’ death is to be at the Passover, not the Feast of Tabernacles.  If he appears there at the beginning of the Feast, there may be a unintentional “triumphal entry.”  His actions would therefore be seen as messianic and probably develop into a riot!

Jesus “time” is therefore the time of the crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification.

Red Letters in John 3:16?

In John 3, where do the words of Jesus end and the words of the John begin?

Many “red-letter” Bibles will mark the entire section as the words of Jesus.  The ESV, for example, marks the whole section red, but drops the quote marks at 3:15 with an explanatory footnote.  The NIV2011 drops the red letters starting in 3:16, while many editions of the KJV run the words of Jesus through the end of the section.  The fact that an edition of the Bible prints letters in Red is a an editorial decision.  The pew Bibles in my church do not have red letters at all. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the first Red-Letter Bible was printed only in 1900!  For many people, the “red letters” are more important that the “black letters” because they are the words of Jesus.  In fact, I recently spoke to someone who told me they only read the Red Letters.  I suppose that limits one’s reading in the Old Testament, but I think his point was that he wanted to read the Words of Jesus and the color helped him in his Bible reading.

While this tradition of printing the words of Jesus in red is relatively recent, the tradition of decorating the “special words” in the Bible goes back to medieval manuscripts.  For example,the tenth century Codex 565  is considered one of the most beautiful of all texts, and is housed now at the public library in St. Petersburg.  The Gospels are written on purple vellum with gold lettering.  The 14th century manuscript Codex 16 contains the Gospels in Greek and Latin written in four colors of ink.  The regular text is vermillion, the words of Jesus and the angels, and Jesus’ genealogy are in red, words quoted from the Old Testament and the words of the disciples, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and John the Baptist are in blue.  The words of the Pharisees, the centurion, and Judas are in black.

Most often Bible editors break off from Jesus’ words after 3:15, making 3:16-21 an exposition of Jesus’ words by the author of the gospel.  John 3:13-15 are though to be the words of Jesus since uses the title “Son of Man,” a phrase used elsewhere only by Jesus to refer to himself.  The beginning of 3:16 implies an explanation of the preceding section (Köstenberger, John, 114).  There is quite a bit a of difference between scholars on where to end the words of Jesus.  For example:  Raymond Brown and Francis Maloney think that Jesus’ words continue through verse 21  Ben Witherington starts John’s section a 3:12. Schnackenburg starts John’s section at 3:13.

In addition, the use of μονογενής, “only born son” in 3:16 is an echo from John’s prologue (1:14, 18).  Clearly the prologue contains the words of the gospel writer, not Jesus.  The light / dark motif in 3:19-21 is typical of John as well, from the prologue and the epistles of John.  That the gospel writer should step in and comment on the words of Jesus is not unusual in John – it occurs again in 3:31-36 where the words of John the Baptist are expanded.

Does this issue matter?  The fact is that John is recording Jesus’ words in his own language, making it very difficult to sort out when he is offering a commentary on the words of Jesus and when he is reporting Jesus’ teaching. For many, the idea that Jesus did not say John 3:16 is a shock, although the content of that verse is echoed in the dialogue with Nicodemus.  Some editors have decided that Jesus’ words in in 3:15 for good reasons and communicate that decision with a splash of red-ink.

To me, this is a matter of truth – what did John intend when he wrote John 3?  It seems as though his intention was to offer a theological explanation of Jesus’ words, developing several themes which he originally raised in the prologue.  Certainly the whole passage is authoritative, whether the words are from Jesus or the inspired author of John.

Bibliography:
Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to St. John I-XII (AB 29A; New York: Doubleday, 1966).
Andreas Köstenberger, John, (BENTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008).
Francis Maloney, The Gospel of John (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1998).
Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John (trans. C. Hastings; 3 vol.; New York: Crossroad, 1990).
Ben Witherington, III,  John’s Wisdom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990).

Who was Apostle Philip?

John’s gospel quite different from the synoptic Gospels in that he includes a few stories from the “other disciples.” For example, in Galilee Jesus finds Philip and simply tells him, “follow me.” Philip is featured in John in several contexts (6:5–8; 12:21–22; 14:8–10). In the other gospels Philip. only appears in the lists of apostles.

St PhilipAt the feeding of the 5000, Philip does not anticipate the miracle, but focuses on the problem of feeding such a large group (John 6:5-8). We know that Jesus’ question was a test, and we have a sense that Philip did not “pass” the test. But what is it that Philip should have said or done?

In this context, what was Philip to think? Jesus asks him where they were to buy food – the only answer to that question would seem “nowhere” since we do not have the money, nor is there a place to buy sufficient food. Perhaps Philip was to search his memory for a scriptural context for the event in which he was about to participate. If he knew the scripture well (as was implied at the time of his calling), then he ought to have recalled that the Lord did in fact provide food for Israel in the wilderness, and that one of the images of the messianic age was supposed to be provision of food, so that no one would be hungry in true Israel. Philip therefore looks at the problem from a perfectly acceptable human perspective (this is too great of a problem to handle!), while Jesus looks at the problem from a divine perspective – God owns all the food in the world and provided for his people in the wilderness in the past.

Near the end of Jesus’ ministry, several Greek converts to Judaism ask to see Jesus.They ask Philip to arrange this meeting, but Jesus has told the disciples not to go to Gentiles. This raises a problem, so Philip tells Andrew (John 12:21-22). This too can be taken as a misunderstanding of the scripture. It is not that Gentiles will never be able to come the to the Messiah, Isa 25:6-8 makes it clear that the nations will come to Zion at the time of the Messiah’s banquet. But there is a stream of Judaism which did not think any nations would survive this encounter! Of all the disciples, Philip (the guy with the Greek name) should have understood this most clearly. If he lived in a gentile city, what did he think would happen to his neighbors when messiah came?

At the last supper, Philip misunderstands Jesus’ statement “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:8-10). Jesus says that he is about to go back to the father, but Philip cannot seem to understand this rather complex theological statement. Just show us the father, Philip says, and forget about these theological claims about yourself. “Philip’s words here are easy to understand because they represent the general human longing to gain a firsthand personal and practical confirmation of theological ideas and assertions” (Borchert, John 12-21, 112).

Here is the problem: Philip’s misunderstanding prevents him from hearing Jesus’ statement about himself. Jesus is claiming to be God here, Philip sets that aside rather easily. Jesus rebukes Philip, although Jesus does uses the plural pronoun. All the disciples misunderstand that the messiah is not just a deliverer, but the Glory of God incarnate.

Was Philip a rationalist? (Borchert says this, more or less.) Not really, but his pre-conceived ideas about who messiah could be has blinded him from hearing this (somewhat clear) revelation form Jesus that the Messiah is in fact God, dwelling among men, so that he can solve the problem of sin once for all.

Who was the Apostle Andrew?

We know far less about Andrew than Peter, James and John, although he is often listed along with these three in the gospels. Andrew and Peter were brothers, as were James and John, working in the same fishing village in Galilee when they are called to be followers of Jesus. But all four seem to have been looking for the coming of the Messiah, as we see from reading John 1.

AndrewWhen John the Baptist was still baptizing in the Jordan, Andrew is following him. They encounter the Lord and John the Baptist announce that Jesus is the Messiah. In John’s gospel, this is the third day, usually significant in the Bible! The witness of John starts a “chain reaction” as Jesus is followed by Andrew and another disciple of John the Baptist (1:35-39).

John declares that Jesus is the lamb of God, this time some of his disciples begin to follow Jesus, in effect transferring from John’s ministry to Jesus’. Andrew is one of the disciples simply mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels. In John he figures significantly in several stories.  In each story, he is described as bringing someone or something to Jesus.  This other disciple may be the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in the second half of the gospel.  Andrew declares that Jesus is a teacher and Messiah, and bring Simon, Cephas (Peter) to Jesus.

The next day (the fourth over all), Andrew invites his brother Simon to follow Jesus (John 1:40-42).  Andrew confesses to Simon that they have found the Messiah.   This is a unique occurrence of the word Messiah rather than the common Greek translation, “Christ.” It is significant that Peter’s brother makes this confession early on, later Peter will make the same statement in 6:68, although he uses the title, “holy one of God,” something of a higher Christological statement than Andrew. Andrew is therefore the first disciple to actually call Jesus the Messiah in John’s gospel, although we are not at all sure to what extent he understood the term.

The second time Andrew appears in the story of John’s gospel is at the Feeding of the 5000 (John 6:1-14). John contrasts two disciples, Phil and Andrew.  Philip, we are told, was tested and his response is a bit flat.  Perhaps Andrew too was tested, although I wonder if his response is a great deal better. Obviously he sees the same problem as Philip, it is going to be impossible to feed all of these people.   But rather than state the impossibility of the situation, he begins to find a solution. He made a start at the impossible task, even though it looks a bit weak to the other disciples.

Jesus honors Andrew’s offering, weak as it was, and uses the five loaves and two fish to not only do a great miracle, but also to demonstrate something very important about himself – he is the bread of Life, just as Israel had manna in the wilderness, so too Jesus gives food in the wilderness. This is an extremely important connection, given that this is around the time of Passover.

Andrew therefore did the right thing, although it seemed fairly insignificant at the time.

Who was Nathanael?

The identity of Nathaniel is a problem since he is not mentioned as a disciple in the synoptic gospels.  Usually he is identified as Bartholomew based on the order of the apostles in the Synoptic Gospels. Bartholomew always follows Philip in the lists. Bar-Tholami is the from of the name in Aramaic, meaning “son of Tholami,” therefore his full name was likely  Nathaniel Bar-Tholami (cf. Simon Bar-Jonah). John seems to treat Nathaniel as an apostle, and he never mentions Bartholomew, making the identification quite likely.

Saint NathanaelWhen Philip declares that he has found the Messiah, he describes Jesus in biblical terms: Jesus is the one whom Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets wrote about (John 1:43-45).  That the Law and the Prophets testify to the messiah is clear from other New Testament texts.  Early on the apostles drew together a number of texts which were proofs that Jesus was the Messiah, but their source for much of this material is Jewish thinking about what to expect in the Messiah.

Nathaniel’s response is stunning:  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  (1:46) This seems a rude statement of prejudice, probably because Nazareth was a rather small and insignificant town in Galilee. It is true both towns were small and insignificant, but what should Nathaniel have said?  Presumably he ought to have recalled that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, according to Mi 5:2; or that he should be in the line of David from Psalm 2, or that he will be a king of Israel as in Zeph 3:15, or that he will come as a peaceful king riding a donkey, as in Zech 9:9.  But not that he will be a carpenter form Nazareth!

Is this an irrational prejudice? Most likely, and it is this sort of prejudice which blinds people to the gospels – how can someone like that possible have something to share with me spiritually?  Perhaps we do not suffer from a prejudice, but other people might very well have a real problem with us and will not hear the gospel because we are overplaying a less important issue rather than helping people to encounter Jesus.  In Nathaniel’s case, prejudice does not prevent him from coming to faith in Jesus.  He is able to set aside his preconceptions and encounter Jesus as he really is – the Son of God.

When Jesus arrives he declares that Nathaniel is an “Israelite in whom there is no guile.” The background to this equally puzzling statement is the story of Jacob.  Jesus might as well have said, “here is a son of Israel with no Jacob left in him!” Just as the true heir of the promise was Jacob, not Esau; the true heir of the promise in John are the disciples, not the Pharisees, etc.  That there is a bit of play on the Jacob story is also clear in the reference to “heaven opening” and angels ascending and descending.  Essentially Jesus is saying that Jacob is a true Israelite, a man who is honestly seeking his God and is not distracted by the Works of the Law (Romans 2:28-29, 9:6-7)  In John 8:31 Jesus says that if the disciples abide in his words they will truly be his disciples, the same word is used as 1:47.

Nathaniel is a True Israelite, and if the disciples really understand and internalize his Jesus’ words they too will be True Israel.

Origins of the Gospel of John

The differences between John and the Synoptics provide an opportunity for scholars to study the formation of a gospel from a different angle. John may have used other Gospels, or purposefully ignored them. Often complicated scenarios are created in order to describe multiple versions of the Gospel of John. Raymond Brown suggested a plausible multiple edition theory to explain how John’s gospel developed over a period of time. In most “multiple editions” theories there was a single base document which underwent several revisions, possibly at the hand of the original author, over a number of years.

John EditionsBrown’s first stage was the actual public ministry of Jesus and his disciples. After the resurrection, the twelve apostles publicly preached the resurrection of Jesus. The synoptic gospels reflect this apostolic preaching. The tradition that Mark preserve the preaching of Peter may indicate that the outline and content of the book as the content to of the apostolic “trust.” Matthew and Luke make use of Mark, and possible Q (or Matthew has the Q material, either way, Matthew and Luke reflect the Galilean disciples of Jesus).

According to Brown, John reflects the preaching and teaching of the disciples of Jesus in and around Jerusalem. This accounts for the different sorts of information that was remembered and passed along, for differences in tone and language, for the emphasis on Jerusalem and the Jewish festivals, and possible (so says Brown), the Light / Dark theme that is parallel to what we read in the Qumran materials.

It is possible that the Johannine Community included Samaritans, based on John 4 and 8:48 (Jesus is accused of being a Samaritan.)  Jews and Samaritans sharing fellowship in a single religious community would have been scandalous, especially in pre-70 Judea. Brown suggests that Jews that accepted Jesus as the Messiah convinced in synagogues.

But relationships between these Jews and Samaritans would have been tense. Discussion of Jesus as Messiah generated a number of “homilies” preserving Jesus’ teaching as attempts to convince Jews he was the Messiah. It is possible that some time before A. D. 70 these Jewish Christians were expelled from the synagogue, ostracized and persecuted (as implied in John 1:11, 10:28-29; 15:18, 16:2 and the “not of this world” theme in 15:18, 16:3, 16:33).

The Gospel of John therefore could be aimed at Jewish Christians that are still in the synagogue (“crypto-Christians” in Brown) who are not fully “Christian” in the opinion of the author. They need to come out and be separate from the Synagogue. A second aim would therefore be to continue to try and convince Jews and Jesus was the Messiah.

Brown’s work is well-respected and is always discussed in recent study of the Gospel of John, but it does not appear this scenario has convinced everyone, as Paul Rainbow comments in his recent introduction to Johannine Theology, scholars “amass tomes trying to squeeze theories from the almost dearth of information that we have about unknown authors and redactors” (53).

Nevertheless, there is something to Brown’s contention that the Gospel of John is a kind of reflection of the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity in the last third of the first century. This accounts for the Jewishness of John’s Gospel while also reflecting a fairly well-developed Christology. If this Gospel is some kind of a Jewish-Christian missionary tract, how would our reading of John change?

Are there specific elements in John that are more “Jewish” than often assumed?

Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels

It is well known that the gospel of John is considerably different than the other three Gospels.  One of the reasons that the Gospel of John seems so different is that the three synoptic gospels are so similar.  Because of the similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke some theory of literary dependence must be given to explain the close relationship.

Gospel of JohnFor example, there is no birth, baptism or temptation in John. While Jesus does seven miracles, they are called “signs” and there are no exorcisms. There are no parables, despite Mt 13:34 and Mk 4:34 which indicate that Jesus primarily spoke in parables in the second half of his ministry.

There are several extended dialogues which have no real parallel in the synoptic gospels. Jesus does not re-interpret the Mosaic law, as in the Sermon on the Mount, nor does he predict the fall of Jerusalem (cf. Mark 13 and parallels.)  In fact, there is no prediction of a second coming in John, although Jesus does promise to send the Paraclete to the disciples after he returns to heaven (14:25-26, 16:7-15).  The Last Supper is not described as an ongoing celebration, rather, John describes Jesus washing the feet of the disciples (13:1-16).  While the arrest and crucifixion is described in similar ways to the synoptic gospels, there is no agony in the garden of Gethsemane.

I am following Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and his Letters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009). Köstenberger follows B. F. Wescott’s observation that John’s Gospel was written after the success of the (Pauline) Gentile Mission, after the destruction of Jerusalem, and at the same time as the emergence of Gnosticism as competitor to Apostolic Christianity.

For Köstenberger, the Fall of Jerusalem is the most important factor.  I am sure that the rise of Gnosticism is a major factor, but I am not sure that the success of the Gentile mission is as much of a factor than sometimes assumed.  John wrote the gospel some thirty years after the death of Paul, from Ephesus, the city where Paul had his most success among Gentiles. Yet the Gospel has very little to say about Gentiles. The Samaritan Woman (John 4) is a possible example, but Samaritans are a in many ways neither Jew nor Gentile.  The healing of the official’s son in John 4:46-54 is sometimes offered as an example of a Gentile who encounters Jesus, but if he is John certainly does not make this explicit.

On the one hand, the Gospel is evangelistic.  John wrote to Jewish readers who might be open to Jesus as an alternative to the Temple and the festivals.  But there are a few stories which are could be described as drawing Gentiles to Jesus.  The story of the blind man who is healed in John 5 may show that Jesus is superior to Asclepius, a Roman god of healing.  Given the number of allusions to the Hebrew Bible and the importance of the Jewish story of redemption, it is clear that the main target of the Gospel is Jewish.

On the other hand, the Gospel is apologetic.  John wrote to Christians (either Jewish or Gentile) in order to clarify who Jesus was as an answer to growing questions raised by developing Gnostic theology. There is a serious theological challenge developing in the church, John must address this as insufficient for explaining who Jesus was.   John describes Jesus as the Word, equal with God because he is God. But Jesus is also flesh, fully human. These two facts are stated in the prologue and supported throughout the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John is therefore a window into the end of the apostolic era. Christianity was making progress against paganism, but needed to to develop a theology of Jesus in the face of an internal challenge. Can we draw other implications from the differences between John and the Synoptics?

Book Review: Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher, John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel

Horsley, Richard, and Tom Thatcher. John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2013. 201 pp. Pb; $20.00.  Link

Richard Horsley is well-known to New Testament scholars for his studies of Jesus that set Jesus in the social and historical world of the first century. Tom Thatcher has already contributed several excellent monographs on the Gospel of John (Greater than Caesar: Christology and Empire in the Fourth Gospel, Fortress, 2009). Both scholars are often associated with using the insights of economic and social sciences for understanding the world of Jesus as well as so-called “anti-imperial” research.

Jesus, JohnThis new book intends to treat John’s gospel as a “coherent narrative” that comes from a formative community” (p.4). As such, the authors are not interested in the so-called high-Christology that occupies most studies of John’s Gospel in the last two centuries. While there may theology gleaned from John, Horsley and Thatcher are interested in reading Jesus against the background of the first century both religiously and politically. The authors indicate in their introduction that this book is only a “provisional sketch” of what might be a much larger project. Indeed, and under 200 pages of text with limited interaction with other scholarship, this book is clearly introductory.

While John’s gospel is not a source of theological reflection on the life of Jesus, it is also not a source for “tidbits” of historical information gleaned from a comparison with the Synoptic Gospels. While there is an interest in the historical Jesus, Horsley and Thatcher do not engage in the tedious application of criteria of authenticity. Rather, they have a general acceptance of John’s gospel as having the ring of truth. The Gospel as a “verisimilitude,” even if that cannot be verified via historical methods. In fact, the details of Jesus’ life in the Gospel are simply treated as real events set in a particular time and place. Since the goal of the book is a study of John’s presentation of Jesus as a social and political figure, what the “real historical Jesus” may have said or did is less important. The book includes a brief epilogue dealing with historical issues, but the bottom line is the general story of John is historical, although examination of every detail must wait for a more technical book (p. 178).

The book is also not interested in any sort of theory of composition of John. These theories can be complex and often distract attention from the text of John in favor of a critic’s theory. Whether there was a complex history of composition or not is not an issue for Horsley and Thatcher since they intend to read the whole gospel as a narrative.

Three reasons make a short book like this possible. First, the rise of narrative criticism over the last thirty years has shifted scholarly attention away from source and form criticism. More recent studies of John are willing to hear the whole story of the Gospel rather than fret over potential sources and redactions. Second, there are a host of recent studies on how an oral culture remembers and preforms traditions. Combined with a narrative approach to John’s Gospel, Horsley and Thatcher will argue that John presents the memory of Jesus’ mission as a “historical story.”

Third, there has been an increase in the study of the world of Roman Palestine in the first century. This study is historical, but the insights of other social sciences have been used to place the story of Jesus in an economic and political context. Richard Horsley has been at the forefront of this movement in the study of the Gospels, especially his Jesus and Spiral of Violence (Fortress, 1993); Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (T&T Clark, 1999); and Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Westminster, 2001). John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel owes much to those earlier works.

The first two chapters of the book develop the first step of a suggested method for studying John (or any New Testament text, presumably). The historical and cultural context must be properly understood if the reader is going to understand John’s story of Jesus.  In order to do this, chapter 1 surveys the history of Roman Palestine. Much of this material is condensed from Horsley’s earlier work, but there is enough detail to show that the area in which Jesus did ministry was divided culturally, politically, and economically. This divide is evident in several popular revolts and social disruptions threatening the elite in Jerusalem as well as Rome. Chapter 2 develops these  themes further by sketching the hope for restoration found in some streams of Second Temple Judaism, from the Hasmoneans to the Sicarii.

The second stage of the study is to examine the literary aspects of a gospel. In order to do this, chapter 3 focuses on oral communication and how oral cultures communicated “historical stories. Chapter 4 begins with Mark’s gospel and Q as a sayings source in order to demonstrate how to “hear the whole story” (the title of Horsley’s 2001 monograph). Horsley and Thatcher argue that modern readers of John ought to “take the gospel stories as a whole” and “to focus on their overall portrayal of Jesus’ mission” (p. 63). This means careful study of Jesus’ interactions with his followers as well as the leaders of the people in Roman Palestine.

The third stage of the study is to bring the insights of the first to stages to bear on the actual story John tells. Chapter 5 is a brief overview of the content of the Gospel with an emphasis on setting, characters and plot. Chapter 6 then argues that the Gospel “fits the historical situation in which it was set” as far as can be determined.  The story is grounded in an accurate picture of the economic and political world of first century Roman Palestine.

The chapter’s title is instructive: “Verisimilitude vs. Verification.” While it is ultimately impossible to verify every detail of the Gospel, the story reflects real historical realities in a way that does not raise suspicions. I do not think that this conclusion will please everyone, since more conservative readers will want to hear that John’s Gospel is absolutely historical, and less conservative readers will want to hear that the Gospel is full of anachronisms.  Like the theology of the book, Horsley and Thatcher choose not to get bogged down in that kind of a study and simply state that the book is a fair representation of the mission of Jesus as it was recalled by the author of the John.

In the last stage of the study, Horsley and Thatcher describe what they see as John’s presentation of Jesus’ mission in Roman Palestine. Chapter 8 draws several inferences from Jesus; demonstration in the Temple to argue that Jesus is presenting his ministry (or, himself) as an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem. They argue this from two angles. First, they examine the Temple action itself in the Johannine context (early in Jesus’ ministry as opposed to late). This means that the John intended Jesus’ mission to be understood through the lens of the Temple action.  Second, there are a number of texts in John that present Jesus as having the same function as the Temple. It is well-known in Johannine studies that John 5-10 associate Jesus with the major feasts in Jerusalem, but in each case Jesus is a kind of alternative to those feasts. Third, the triumphal entry is described by Horsely and Thatcher as a “messianic demonstration.” Jesus proclaimed himself to be the messiah in this action and attempted to take a leadership role in a renewal of Israel. This is ultimately the reason for the execution of Jesus: Rome did not tolerate popular resistance movements.

Conclusion. This book is frustrating in its brevity. Horsely and Thatcher only sketch their method with a few examples, leaving the reader wondering about the details. But this is not a problem because the goal of the authors was simply to give an outline of a method that can serve as a template for further study. I was bewildered at times by the sections of the book devoted to Mark and Q, since the book is expressly about the Gospel of John. These sections are foundational, of course, and are drawn from Horsely’s prior work in Mark. It is rare that one reads a book on the Gospel of John as history, especially one that makes serious comparisons between Mark and John. As such, this short book might serve well as an auxiliary textbook for a college or seminary Gospels or Historical Jesus course where John’s Gospel usually receives less time than it deserves.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.