(Sermon 20 Mar 22)

Precis – Why we need to understand John’s gospel as one of the two eyewitness accounts and what it might mean for us.


When I spoke at Epiphany I said during the talk that I was waiting for a chance to come and talk to you about John and its dating. So when I volunteered to fill this gap for Carol and saw that the readings were about the next phase in Jesus’ story after his baptism AND that the words were from John, it was clear that ‘the angel of the Lord hath delivered’. HALLELUJAH J

Now this has ended up being a little more detailed than I intended but the gardening group need not worry. There’s no test after and I don’t expect you to remember it all. All I’m looking for is a general understanding. If you want to follow it up at all I have a copy of the text on my phone so see me after and it’s also one of those times where Wikipedia is pretty accurate on all the names I quote.

One of my greatest frustrations sitting in the pews listening to most sermons is that people preach in cartoon terms. They read words from scripture as though they were dictated by God in English; and that the meanings of words didn’t shift through changes of languages & context. But words AREN’T set in stone The Renaissance was kicked off by the early Christian Greek texts becoming available when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and it inspired a new breed of Christian Humanists like Erasmus to study the words in their original context – which is what Humanist originally meant. So for example the Word of God is Jesus – not the bible. The phrase ‘Word of God’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘Logos’ which meant ‘arm of God’ to the Jews and the underlying logic of the universe to the Greeks. It’s why that famous sentence in verse one of John’s gospel – the Word was God and the Word was with God – is so clever. John makes sense of Jesus as Logos in a way that means two different things to two different communities. My mother is a Greek and Latin specialist and she tells me that Greek is a subtle and nuanced language, so whilst Logos meant that theologically it also meant ‘word’ or speech’ in the daily world. Latin is far less subtle and so when the Greek was translated into Latin they translated Logos as ‘Word of God’. It has nothing to do with the written word nor the bible though. 

When we think in cartoon terms we miss a whole level of understanding about our faith and we limit the way we develop ideas. The obvious one is the ‘virgin birth’ and so Christians went up in arms when the late great David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham, pointed out the known & accepted questions about it. Modern bibles don’t use the word ‘virgin’ in Isiah because the original Hebrew actually says ‘young woman’ and it was the Greek Septuagint translation from the world of Alexander the Great, that got it wrong; and that’s the version that the early Christians had access to. This is not to argue whether it happened or not but rather is to accept that there is doubt. As David Jenkins said, he had no doubt that God COULD do it but he personally doubted that God WOULD. 

Now there are similar issues all over the place. They aren’t threats to our belief. Rather, like any historical document through antiquity we need to take time to understand what is being said. So for instance there have been debates about the source and dating of John’s gospel since Eusebius in the 3rd/4thC. In fact after the explosion in critical thinking post enlightenment, and particularly in the influential 19C German schools, the gospel came to be seen as a product of a time 200 YEARS after the death of Jesus; though the accepted dating has now come back nearer. 

As I’ve said before, a combination of tradition, records from the time and serious biblical scholars all tell us that Mark’s gospel was the first to be produced – around 70 AD, so 40 years after Jesus’ death. It’s accepted to be based on Peter’s memories; possibly by the John Mark mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles;  and Papias, who was a Bishop from modern day Turkey around 60 years after the death of Jesus and who is our main source for much of this detail, quotes John the Elder saying  that he got all Peter’s details down correctly but in the wrong order.

Scholars generally accept that Matthew and Luke take the events and chronology of Mark and add to it a record of Jesus’ teachings from the lost source know as Q; and datings for Luke and Matthew vary from end of that first century into the beginning of the next. The puzzle though has always been John. His chronology is very different and the way he talks about Jesus – his Christology – is far more advanced. The date of John is now taken as being around 90 to 110 AD, like Luke and Matthew; and until 1938 John was seen as another derivative of Mark. That started to change in ‘38 and not long before he died in the mid 80s John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich and noted Johannine scholar, produced a radically different chrononology that has the clear ‘smell’ of truth about it. 

Firstly he points out that John’s gospel CAN be no later than 90AD because of fragments found in the dead sea scrolls at Qumran. He goes on to illustrate ways in which John gets the little details so right as to say that we clearly have an eye witness account from someone who was there. Now he is careful just to argue that John needs to be taken seriously as a lead eye witness account but it’s clear that he believes there is a strong possibility that it was written by John the apostle and he argues for a dating of ALL the gospels of 40 to 65AD – 30 to 50 years earlier than was accepted and 10 and 30 years after the death of Jesus – with John’s gospel being a prime account. 

The book making the case is 400 pages long and this is just one little fragment of detail. It’s the one I remember most easily J. When Mark describes the feeding of the 5000 he uses the word ‘icthus’ to describe fish – wriggly things what swims. It is only John who uses the word ‘opsarion’, which is a fish relish that was Galilee’s main product and the only way to transport fish down to Jerusalem around 120 miles away without it going off. John knew the industry.

Apart from perhaps one tiny fragment, Mark is writing at second hand. He wasn’t there so he records the detail of Jesus’ ministry in way that reflects Peter’s, let’s say, topic based teaching so he uses an chronology that puts all of the Jerusalem stuff at the end and all the Galilee stuff at the beginning. In contrast John gives us a plausible chronology that sees Jesus carrying on from John’s work down on the Jordan river in the south, going back to Galilee and describing a mobile ministry that sees Jesus going down to Jerusalem for festivals as well preaching in Galilee. In fact our traditional understanding of a three year ministry comes from John – though it’s actually two and a bit, with one Passover festival at the beginning and ending two Passovers later. As to people who say that John is dramatized history C S Lewis, who was himself a professor of medieval literature, says that this would have meant novels were invented 1500 years than accepted. 

What we have here is actually an alternative perspective, from a very different angle and one that has an eyewitness credibility. Whoever wrote it, it is the record of somebody who was there and it may be even from the son of Zebedee himself. If we come to an understanding that Mark gives us the headlines, John gives us general colour & chronology along with selective detail and Matthew & Luke give us the body of Jesus’ teaching, we get a three dimensional look at the events in Jesus’ ministry. We need all four accounts to make sense of it all. Oh and this is one of those times where Wikipedia is fairly accurate in informing you of what is conventional accepted.

What does this mean to us? Well in one sense nothing. We all have faith in the modern sense and our continued presence in this beleaguered little community shows that we have faith in the way Jesus and Paul use it – of commitment & loyalty to Jesus. What it DOES do is help us understand the human Jesus better. The term Son of God originally meant a supreme agent of God. After 200 years it came to mean the human face of God; and, for me, is best explained as expressing the nature of God; but the second of the two big councils – first Nicea in 325 AD and then Chalcedon in 451 – confirmed Christian belief that Jesus was both human AND divine: his divinity demonstrated in his total openness to the will of God, in whose name and by whose power, his miracles were done, whilst his humanity is shown in the blind alleys he follows and the changes he then makes. So combining John and Mark, Jesus overturns the moneylenders tables in the Temple and then retreats to the wilderness to rethink his mission. Later in the Mark, Mathew & Luke he starts by himself, then sends the 12 and, then later in Luke chapter 10, he as another go at shaking tree by sending the 70 out, before finally setting his sights on a big showdown in Jerusalem.

I originally intended to finish with a conventional ending to the effect that we know we have a God that shares our doubts, worries, fears, misery & pain. Except that, whilst it might be true, I’ve never found that it helps when things go wrong or I’m overwhelmed with life. For me – and maybe it’s just me – I’m not looking for comfort. I have loyalty and commitment to the God that we see in Jesus because THAT IS WHAT HE DEMANDS; and the more accurate accounts we have of his life and the more true a colour we have, the better it helps. As to do I believe in the God and the God we see in Jesus? Well I’m tempted to give you Pascal’s wager as a reason: that the risks of not believing in God, and being wrong, far outweigh the risk of believing. The truth is more that, whatever misery and evil the established church and Christian rulers have done throughout the ages, the example I saw in my parents’ life and in the actions of people like Carol’s husband Nobby in setting up shelters for the homeless denotes something intrinsically worthwhile. At the end of the day though I want to fall back on the scene in C.S.Lewis’ Narnia story, The Silver Chair, when the witch has caught the children & Puddleglum the marsh wiggle trying the free Prince Rillian from his enchantment so that he can return to Narnia and to Aslan. She casts a hullucigenic powder on the fire and is convincing them that the sun, grass, flowers & Aslan are just a dream. Puddleglum stamps out the fire with his bare webbed foot and, I quote:

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia”. Now I happen to think there is but whatever, I’m going to live as a Narnian even if there isn’t any Narnia and I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t an Aslan to lead it.