The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple
Dr. Craig Blomberg's review of, "The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John," by Richard Bauckham.
Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. $29.99. 313 pp. ISBN 978-0-8010-3485-5.
Many collections of a biblical scholar’s previously published articles on a topic seem not to merit yet one more book in an already glutted industry. No one can fairly accuse this volume of falling into that category. Richard Bauckham, recently retired from the University of St. Andrews, has a distinguished career as a prolific writer on an amazing array of topics, arguably none of them more important than his works on the Gospel of John. Although all of the offerings of this volume are reprints or revisions of essays that have appeared elsewhere (one is a reworking of a section from a recent book of Bauckham’s), many were tucked away in little-known sources and all deserve the wider audience and context that their presentation in this volume will afford.
The opening study reviews Bauckham’s case for John the elder (not the apostle) of Papias’ testimony as the beloved disciple and eyewitness to the events of the Gospel. Particularly important is that he is never named, whereas the sons of Zebedee appear in 21:2 as distinct characters from the BD. Following logically from this study is Bauckham’s work on the BD as ideal author, to be distinguished from those who have viewed him as ideal disciple. He witnesses to Jesus, even if his potential avoidance of martyrdom proves uncharacteristic.
“Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John” present elements that link this document more with history than biography, or at least more so than in the Synoptics. These include accurate details of topography and chronology and the use of eyewitness testimony and numerous speeches or dialogues. None of this makes the Gospel necessarily accurate in all it presents but it leaves the door open for such a conclusion given the literary genre that results from this study. “The Audience of the Gospel of John” demonstrates how poorly J. L. Martyn’s influential approach of a two-level reading of the narrative (a few things truly from Jesus’ life but most transparent of end of first-century realities) actually works. The excommunication passages may not reflect any empire wide birkath-ha-minim, numerous characters do not obviously stand for anyone in John’s community or its opposition, and Patristic use regularly viewed John’s audience as the broadest, not the most sectarian.
A comparison of the dualism in the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially with respect to light and darkness, shows that the parallels with John are not as close as sometimes maintained. Scholars were right to swing the pendulum away from Greco-Roman backgrounds to Jewish ones for this and related phenomena, but the case for doing so can be made even better by looking simply at Old Testament parallels. Rabbinic literature and Josephus refer to at least two powerful, wealthy Jewish leaders by the name of Nicodemus in the elite Gurion family. Probably neither matches the one in John, but given the frequent practice of reusing family names and the rarity of this particular name outside of this family, everything in the Fourth Gospel about Nicodemus bespeaks verisimilitude.
Lazarus, Mary and Martha, on the other hand, were extremely common Jewish names. So the appearance of the resurrected Lazarus in John 11 need not require hypotheses of borrowing from the parable of Luke 16:19-31. After all, no resurrection is requested there, only a temporary apparition from the realm of the dead. On the other hand the portraits of the two sisters do show the right combination of similarities and differences between Luke 10:38-42 and John 11-12 to suggest that John may well be providing historically accurate portraits without simply borrowing from Luke. Similar logic supports the authenticity of the footwashing scene in John 13-coherence with the Synoptic servant logia without close enough parallelism to suggest dependence at any point.
In a study of Jewish Messianism in the Fourth Gospel, Bauckham shows how the various portraits of Jesus as Christ, prophet like Moses, and Son of man all reflect the right balance of coherence with Jewish backgrounds and fit with Jesus’ progressive self-revelation as to be credible in the contexts to which John ascribes them. In his focus on monotheism and Christology in this Gospel, Bauckham shows how Jesus’ oneness with the Father, the I-am sayings and other examples of his exercise of divine prerogatives are never phrased so as to suggest a compromise with monotheism. Indeed, the relevant Old Testament backgrounds show that what is predicated of Jesus is exactly that his relationship with the Father “is integral to who the one God is” (p. 252).
The holiness of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is to be mirrored in the holiness of the disciples, except that it is not absolute for them and (thus) they do not atone for the sins of the world, as Christ did. But it separates them from the world so that they can be his message-bearers to the world. The mysterious number 153 for the amount of fish caught in John 21:11 should be understood as highly symbolic, given the prevalence of Jewish gematria in John’s day. In addition to endorsing certain previous suggestions, Bauckham observes that the numerical equivalents of the Greek of the four key words in the first “ending” of the Gospel in John 20:30-31 for “sign,” “believe,” “Christ” and “life” are 17, 98, 19 and 36, respectively. 153 is the “triangle” number of 17 (the sum of the numbers 1 through 17, and the sum of 98, 19 and 36 also is 153. Whatever else all this implies, it certainly suggests the same person behind chapter 21 as wrote the rest of the Gospel!
A short review can scarcely evaluate each of these contributions in any detail. One wonders if Bauckham’s John the elder, who so closely resembles the son of Zebedee in profile, would have been quite so readily recognized as distinct from him, especially since the only character named John in the Fourth Gospel is the Baptist, but he is never given this epithet. Would anyone other than John, son of Zebedee, have been able to do this without fear of ambiguity, especially once the Gospel did circulate widely beyond its initial Ephesian addressees, as Bauckham stresses it did? Must we choose between Bauckham and Larry Hurtado, for example, who stresses the partial antecedent variegated monotheism in various strands of Judaism bordering on binitarianism? Despite the remarkable coincidences of numerical sums, do we have any controls on such gematrial speculation to give us any confidence John actually intended this?
But these are minor quibbles. Overall, this is an extraordinary meticulous, creative, even ground-breaking collection of essays, each of which merits careful study, and almost all of which deserve widespread acceptance. Buy this book, marvel at it and digest it. May Bauckham be as enlightened and lucid in his retirement as he has been during his illustrious career!
Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament