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Lydia McGrew vs. Craig Evans on the Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Full Transcript)

Justin: Well, today on the program we’re asking, Does John’s gospel present a historically accurate picture of Jesus? Craig Evans is a distinguished New Testament scholar currently serving as professor of Christian origins at Houston Baptist University. His books include: Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened (with N. T. Wright), and most recently Jesus and the Remains of His Day: Studies in Jesus and the Evidence of Material Culture. You can find out more about Craig, his many books, articles and activities in historical biblical studies at CraigAEvans.com.

                Now Craig has been involved in a number of dialogue events over the years. And back in 2012 he debated skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman on the question of whether the Gospels provide a historically reliable portrait of Jesus. However, it is only recently that some of the statements Craig made in that dialogue have provoked consternation in some quarters of the evangelical Church. Critics claim that Craig questioned the fundamental historical reliability of John’s Gospel. Well, one of those critics is Lydia McGrew.

                Lydia is a widely published analytic philosopher, blogger, and wife of philosopher and apologist Tim McGrew, whose also been on this show in the past. And recently Lydia has also focused on issues around New Testament reliability. In fact, she and Tim cowrote the article on the resurrection of Jesus for the “Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology”. And last year she published “Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts”. She was on this program talking about it. And that defends the reliability of the New Testament using a long-neglected argument from incidental details. More about Lydia and her books at LydiaMcGrew.com.

                And in the context of this program, Lydia believes that Craig has given away too much ground to skeptical views of the historicity of the Gospel of John. So, today we’re going to be allowing Craig to lay out what exactly he does and doesn’t think we can take from the gospel of John when it comes to the historical Jesus. And Lydia will be responding. So, a very warm welcome to you both, Lydia and Craig.


Lydia: Thanks for having us, Justin.           .


Craig: Thank you.


Justin: It’s great to have you both join me on the show today. Craig, I think, the second time you joined me on the show (it was some time back, now) that you were doing a discussion on Islam and Jesus and Isis and that kind of thing. But coming on to debate something and to talk about something quite different today. You’ve been involved a long time now in historical studies on Jesus, particularly recently I know a lot of your focus has been on the Dead Sea Scrolls; you’ve been involved in a number of exciting finds and things like that. There are some interesting things going on at the moment in that area, aren’t there?


Craig: Oh, yes. We continue to make discoveries and continue to publish this very rich trove of material from the Dead Sea. And its, what’s been so good about it is it clarifies everything in the New Testament. That’s not really an exaggeration. And so it sheds light on James, Hebrews, Paul’s letters (especially "works of the Law," for example), and a number of important teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. One of the Dead Sea scrolls, I think, decisively shows that Jesus did indeed have a Messianic self-understanding in his reply to John the Baptist. Another scroll shows, I think – again, decisively with respect to the annunciation in Luke 1 that the expectation of a Messiah who would be called Son of God is indeed a pre-Christian idea. It is not something that occurred to the Church later when they were preaching Jesus as the Messiah and encountered the Graeco-Roman world, which talked about ‘sons of god’. So it is just things like that. And the scrolls, like archeology, over and over again show that the Gospel writers knew what they were talking about. They were describing the real Jesus of the first century Jewish Palestine, and not some later fiction.


Justin: And from everything you've just said there it’s evident that you have a lot of confidence in the Gospels, in their historical provenance and so on. But just give us a sense of what transpired, in your view, in this debate you had with Bart Ehrman several years ago, now. Because I know a number of people flagged up concerns with some of what you said around the Gospel of John. We’ll get to the specifics of that, but do you want to give us the context of what this debate was, or what exactly you were discussing, and what it is you pointed out when it comes to the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, compared to the Ggospel of John.


Craig: Well, I think the backdrop of that debate with Bart Ehrman . . . I think the title had something to do with, Are the Gospels Reliable? And he was arguing, No, they're not; and I was arguing, Yes, yes, they are. But what I find in debating Bart is that he likes to take a very fundamentalist pose, which he of course rejects, and Bart likes to keep it as black and white as possible. And so, either you have a very naïve and uncritical understanding of the Gospels: as if to say it’s videographed, audio-recorded history of what Jesus said and did. And if that’s true, then when you find these discrepancies where the wording is not identical, and sometimes even the locations appear to be different, when you compare the parallels, then you have a big problem. And that was the tack he was taking, trying to make it sound like either you embrace everything word for word and don’t see any contradictions or discrepancies or anything at all, or you concede that the Gospels are not reliable, that they’re full of contradictions, mistakes, dubious history and so on. That was his tactic, and in my debates with him since, I think he’s nuanced it a little better. He knows it’s difficult to get away with that, at least when, you know, he’s debating with me.

                And what I’m coming from . . . how I’m responding to that . . . and this is where some Christians, I don’t' think, quite get it . . .but Bart should know, and I think he in private probably does know, that the way history was written 2,000 years was a bit different, and the pedagogical goals of Jesus were not the same as ours today. And that’s just not well understood. But we’re not guessing here. We actually have the educational handbooks from antiquity. We know how people were taught, how people would take the teachings of the great ones, the philosophers, the great teachers, and memorize their teaching and package it, so to speak, in a way that could communicate effectively with diverse audiences, perhaps even in different languages. And that is what I was dealing with. And I think the Gospel of John exhibits some of those characteristics, and that is why John is so different from the Synoptics.

                But that same observation explains why Matthew, Mark, and Luke are not identical either. And so, when we talk about the Gospels as historically reliable, we can say, Yes, indeed they are. They give us a very true portrait of the historical Jesus, but there are these interpretive elements at work, which Jesus himself told his own disciples to do. And this so isn’t a question of faulty memory or just wild imagination, making up stuff, that sort of thing; that’s not my position. I think the Gospel of John is indeed historical, but it’s a mixture: it’s not just history, but it’s also interpretation. And I think that’s what, you know, caused some problems with some conservative listeners.


Justin: We’ll bring Lydia in at this point to talk about that. But, effectively yes. You felt there was a false dichotomy being painted by Bart, and you think there is a more nuanced way of understanding the Gospels within their own genre, within their own time, that does not negate their historical reliability. Let’s cross to Lydia now. Lydia, because it was really you were the one who was interested in discussing this with Craig. I know Craig isn’t the only person with whom you obviously disagreed with on the length to which they’ve perhaps questioned the historical reliability of aspects of the Gospel of John and so on. I think Mike Licona . . . you’ve also had some interaction with on this. So, what are your main concerns here, Lydia, coming to this yourself?


Lydia: Right. Well, one thing I would like to discuss that I do feel that in what Craig is saying right here right now, he’s making John sound more like the Synoptic Gospels than what he has implied in the past. And so, for example, I’d like to zero in a little bit on that statement about John being a mix of interpretation and history. There was definitely a sense that John is in a completely different category from the Synoptic in some of the discussion with Bart. It wasn’t just a matter of some of these ideas that Craig has concerning even the Synoptic Gospels (that they felt free to expand on the teachings of Jesus . . . we might disagree with that too, in fact, I suspect that we do). But there was a pretty strong distinction. So, for example, in that discussion, Craig you said concerning the I Am statements and particularly, 'Before Abraham was, I Am," you said, 'This aspect of the Gospel of John I would not put into the category of historical. It's a genre question.' And for example, you said, 'The Johannine statements, the distinctive ones, with a few exceptions, there the ones like I said earlier, are of a different genre altogether, that something that only incidentally has historical material in it, but otherwise is a completely different type of literature.' And you said that some of these look like places where the, as you called it, Johannine community has dramatically recreated things that were not historically said by the historical Jesus in a recognizable fashion, but that reflected their own theological reflections. And you contrasted that with the Synoptics very strongly. So, I think we can get to your views of John by moving beyond this notion of pedagogic practices of the time, which you would apply to the Synoptics as well, to this distinction you are wanting to draw between them. And I would like to get you to, you know, state clearly what your position is concerning the historicity of, for example, the dialogue where Jesus is talking to the Jewish people and ends it by saying, "Before Abraham was, I Am." And then they throw stones. And I just want to clarify before you answer that I am not asking whether John recorded these things word for word or verbatim, but I am asking, Was that incident . . . occurred in addition to any incident recorded in the Synoptics in a historically recognizable fashion?


Justin: I mean, you let right in there, Lydia. Before we do come to Craig for some responses to that, what for you in a broader sense is, you know . . . what kind of difference does this make? Why, for you, is it so important that we do understand John as having a very real, if you like, historical pedigree in the terms of these are not, in a sense, recreated episodes or in any sense simply formed out of a Johannine community or whatever, that these really do relate to historical things that Jesus did and said?


Lydia: Well I think it's great that we have four Gospels rather than three, let me put it that way. I think that it is a great thing that we have the Gospel of John. And, I think that the Gospel of John is historical throughout, I think it displays its historicity everywhere. I don't think it switches on and off, like 'I'm historical now, oh now its allegory' or something like that; it's historical throughout. And it's important, because there is great material in there, and it's giving us additional material that we do not find in the Synoptic Gospels. So we want to know what the historical Jesus did and said and who he was, what his teaching was, and I think John does give us that; and it gives us material that is not simply duplicating what is in the Synoptics, so when someone appears to be saying that where John is unique he is really representing the reflections of a community, rather than incidents that happened with the historical Jesus, and I think that is false, then I actually want to come and challenge that and say, 'No, I think that's false.' I think we actually have evidence to the contrary, and it’s good for us to have this fourth, historical Gospel, giving us this additional material. Obviously, we want to know what Jesus said.


Justin: I mean I was going to say the one, you know, particularly among more conservative scholars, who, you know, subscribe to a particular view of inerrancy . . . that, I know, they had concerns with some of the things Craig and other scholars have said in this regard, because they don't think you should be able to treat the Gospels differently, to them being effectively being reported speech.


Lydia: Well, that's not where I'm coming from.


Justin: But, you're not coming from that, because you don't hold that position yourself, do you? I just want to be clear on that.


Lydia: That's correct.


Justin: Yes.


Lydia: I want to be very clear on that. I think the documents are very reliable, and my concerns here are historical and evidential. I think there is ample evidence that the Gospel of John is historical in nature everywhere, again, not switching on and off; and is highly reliable as an individual source for Jesus' life and teaching, and I'm glad we have the Gospel. So I am defending that not because of a commitment to inerrancy. That is correct.


Justin: Well, let's, before we come back to you, Craig, just give a shout out for any listener who would like to get in touch about today's discussion. [Announcements, which I skip.] There's a lot that Lydia brought up there, Craig. So, I don't know where you want to begin. I don't know whether it would be worth looking at that central question she had around, What do you believe is the nature of the statements Jesus in terms of the I Am statements, and particularly that one, 'Before Abraham was, I Am.' Now, is that something Jesus said, or is that something that, as it were, words put into his mouth by a later community expressing more the tradition around him, in a sense? Where do you go with that?


Craig: Well, I think, in the I Am statements you have Jesus' teaching but not always his exact words. I didn't talk about 'Before Abraham was, I Am,' that particular statement in John 8. I don't recall that coming up with Bart Ehrman. I think, if I recall correctly, Bart just asked me if the I Am discourses, such as they were, represented the actual words of Jesus. And it was in the context of 'how do we account for John being so different from the Synoptics.' And what I conceded in that conversation is that I did not think that the I Am discourses were . . . you know, if you had been there with Jesus running a tape recorded, I don't think you would have heard a I Am discourse from top to bottom in that form.


Justin: And forgive me for interrupting. Just for all those who are not as familiar as you obviously are with these texts, could you just remind us what some of those statements are in that I Am discourse.


Craig: Of course. In John's Gospel, and this is one of the most distinctive features about John, is where Jesus just begins to speak at length, you have nothing like this in the Synoptics, in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But in John, Jesus will say, 'I Am the light of the world,' and he'll go on and on and on for many verses, or, 'I Am the bread of life,' and he'll go on and on for many verses explaining what that means and in what sense he is the bread of life coming, you know, from heaven, and everything else. 'I am the Truth,' 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,' 'I am the Resurrection of Life.' These are the - 'I am the good Shepherd' - these are the I Am discourses; they're about seven of them, and they're very thematic, they're very theological, they have a very high Christology, and Jesus speaks more or less as Wisdom speaks. If you compare, for example, the book of Sirach chapter 24, Sophia or Wisdom speaks this way also. And this is why many scholars see the Gospel of John as something of a hybrid. It's, sure, it's loaded with history - we have the historical Jesus, we have itinerary, we have places, real people, real events, including the threat to stone Jesus. We have, probably, important information about Jesus' ministry prior to the chronology that we find in the Synoptic Gospels. And so, John . . . I agree with many things Lydia has said: that John is an invaluable source for additional information, and that does explain a lot of the differences; it's supplemental, it's additional, it isn't simply covering the same ground as Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But there is this stylized speaking as Wisdom for many, many verses in a row, and this is where scholars suspect that the evangelist or his community have taken Jesus' teaching and fashioned these lengthy discourses so that it is a teasing out in greater detail the actual meaning of Jesus's teaching as well as specific things that he said.

                The Synoptic writers do that a little bit, also, especially Matthew in creating these discourses (five major discourses) in his gospel. But John seems to take it a step further, and shapes the discourse in a way that it does sound like Wisdom is speaking. And that was the only point I was trying to make to Bart Ehrman. I think he wanted me to try to defend or feel pressured to defend that the I Am discourses in John were verbatim, you know word for word. And, no, I didn't think so; they were interpretive, but that doesn't mean they don't reflect what Jesus actually taught.


Justin: Okay, Lydia, go ahead.


Lydia: Yeah, I'd like to go ahead here. Craig, I just really want to say that two of the most notable statements that Jesus makes which were explicitly addressed by Bart were, 'Before Abraham was, I Am,' and 'I and the Father are one.' Neither of those take place in the context of a lengthy discourse. 'Before Abraham was, I Am' takes place at the end of a dialogue that Jesus has with the people, and 'I and the Father are one' takes place at the end of a very short discussion that is set in the portico of Solomon were Jesus has . . . ttalks about being the good shepherd, and say, 'No one can pluck them out of the Father's hand,' and then he says, 'I and the Father are one.' And in that case, they take up stones to stone him. Neither of these are a lengthy discourse, and again, as I said before, I'm not asking whether you think that this is recorded verbatim. What I am asking, let's just take those two cases, and I'd just like to get a clear yes or no, do you think that those two incidents where Jesus was in these places and was having these discussions and these dialogues and culminated by saying, in the one case, 'Before Abraham was, I Am,' and in the other case, 'I and the Father are one,' and they went to stone him. Do you think those incidents where he said those things occurred in a recognizable way in history? What is your opinion on that?


Craig: I think they did. The only thing, again to go back to the Bart Ehrman thing, had to do with the I Am discourses. He wasn't asking my opinion about the whole of the Gospel of John, or about these specific sayings here where Jesus remarks in a way that angers people. We see that in the Synoptics also where there are these one liners, where Jesus says something or he is accused of something and there are threats made. I . . . There is high Christology made throughout Jesus' ministry; that's why at the top of the program, I mentioned one of the scrolls from Qumran that I think, now that it's been found (it's 4Q521), we realize now Jesus' reply to the imprisoned John the Baptist was indeed a Messianic reply. If I were to go further into that, the 4Q521 is alluding to one of the psalms where it is describing the works of the LORD, Yahweh the God of Israel, and so now we realize, not only is it a Messianic reply to John on the part of Jesus, it is a very high Christology, where he is basically claiming to do the very works of the LORD, the works of Yahweh, and that has encouraged scholars in the last twenty years (mostly evangelical scholars, to be sure), but it's encouraged scholars to start speaking about a very high Christology that's in the Synoptic Gospels, not just in John. And so, I think that's very helpful and that's narrowing the gap, you might say in some ways, between John and the Synoptics.

                I just don't want to be misunderstood on this. What the whole point was, Are the I Am discourses, the lengthy discourses, verbatim reports of what Jesus said? And I said, I don't think so, because of the pedagogical practices of the time, the way history was written, the way Jesus himself instructed his own disciples to interpret and apply his teaching.


Justin: And if I could cross to Lydia. You yourself have actually said you don't think they are verbatim. But what do you think they are? What distinguishes what you think was actually said and what you think Craig thinks has actually happened with these I Am discourses and statements.


Lydia: First of all, I really just disagree with this phrase 'I Am discourses' and I also disagree, you know . . . I mean obviously Craig probably hasn't rewatched the debate footage recently, but Bart definitely asked, 'Did he say 'I am the Father are one?'' He said that; he asked specifically about that. He asked specifically about 'Before Abraham was, I Am.' He did not simply ask about lengthy discourses. So, I actually think there is a little bit of recreation of history going on here. That's less important to me than the actual facts of the matter.

                As far as being or not being verbatim, that's really not a super important matter. For one thing Jesus may have been speaking in Aramaic, so just to begin with there would have to be some translation going on. Obviously if it were, you know, 'Before Abraham walked around in Canaan, I Am,' you know, there can be these slight differences . . . the important point to me is that it is recognizable in history, and that it occurs separately from what occurred in the Synoptics. So, for example, I mean again, at that time, 'The Johannine sayings, the distinctive ones, with few exceptions look like,' as I said earlier, 'a different genre altogether, something that only incidentally has historical material.' Not merely, he did not merely say, 'the long discourses,' though, he did also discuss long discourses, but also Johannine sayings.

                Now, its great if he's changed his mind about that. But what I would want to say is that all of John shows this impact of history, and in fact even the longest discourse, which is known as the Farewell Discourse, in John has these interesting crossovers with the Synoptic material. And I have specifics on that: where Jesus is saying things there in a different context (because it is the last supper) but that are exact parallels to synoptic sayings. It's also possible that that discourse is partly a composite, the way some people thing the Sermon on the Mount may be a composite, a putting of somethings together in one place that may originally had said at different times.


Justin: But what I'm hearing from you, in that sense, Lydia, is that whether, however it is put together, the material is gathered, Jesus did say things that were of this nature, of this high Christology: these I Am sayings were said by Jesus -


Lydia: And in an extremely recognizable, and in particular when there were scenes that were different from anything in the Synoptics, these unique scenes occurred, and these unique sayings occurred in a recognizable way.


Justin: We're running out to our first break . . . [announcements, which I skip] But coming back to you first of all, Craig, on this front, I mean, you've said already actually there's a lot you can agree with in what Lydia is saying about certain aspects of the historicity of John's Gospel. I think there is a difference, though, of opinion on these particular sayings, these I Am statements; and regardless of whether, which particular ones you were or weren't debating with Bart Ehrman. I think it is important for Lydia, even if the material has been, perhaps, arranged and, you know, it's not the exact words that were said, and perhaps things have been brought together in some way, nevertheless, what they are reporting are claims Jesus made of himself, that he did say in some fashion, 'I am the bread of life,' 'I am the light of the world,' 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.'

                Now, is it not so important for you that Jesus literally said those words (whether they be in Aramaic or whatever)? Is it okay for a Gospel to effectively put words into Jesus' mouth by, as it were, a kind of adapting, and in a sense theologizing that he . . . that they are aware of in a historical sense?


Craig: Well, it is very important, and Jesus' teaching has to be understood correctly, and then what is said, how he is summarized, or paraphrased, or elaborated on has to be true to the original intent and true to the entire context of his ministry and his teaching, and very true in light of the Easter event. I, as a starting place, I go to Matthew 13:52, where, after his . . . these parables on the King of God, he asks his disciples if they understand what he's taught. And they say that they do, and then he goes on to say that the scribe, every scribe who is discipled, trained from the Kingdom of Heaven, knows how to pull out of his treasure box (literally) things that are new as well as things that are old. And I take that, in step with the pedagogy of antiquity, where you really don't know your master's teaching if you simply repeat it word for word. Anybody can do that; a trained parrot can do that. But you demonstrate your knowledge, the fact that you've been discipled, that you truly have learned your master's teaching when you are able to elaborate on it, expand it, or contract it, link different sayings together (and it's called chreia in the singular, chrei in the plural). Papias, the early Church Father, early second century actually uses that word in describing the teaching of Jesus complied by Mark, the teachings passed on to him by Peter. And we see that this is very much in play in the Synoptic Gospels.

                I'm not saying this, I'm not saying anything new. Scholars were making that observation thirty years ago. And I think we have something similar going on in John; the difference, though, is (and this is what we've been talking about) John is so different, and we don’t' have Synoptic-Johannine Gospels: we only have one. And we have three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), so we can compare them, we can horizontally compare them, and we can see a multitude of differences. Most of them are very small, minor, where the wording has been changed. Or perhaps sometimes the saying is in a new location. And instead of having a crisis of faith, or wondering, 'Oh, what's going on here, these are contradictions,' we have a very good idea of what's going on, and it’s the pedagogy of the time at work, which Jesus himself enjoined on his disciples. That is what makes the Gospels so effective; and so, we don't just have one gospel, we have four. We have three synoptics which cover the same ground essentially, and speak so well to three different settings, three different contexts, and apply the ??? tradition so effectively.

                John is a bit of an outlier in that what makes John more complicated is John is used . . . is using mostly wholly different material. And so that's why this discussion is a little bit complicated. We don't have a point of comparison in that sense. So, when we look at Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we can see the same story in two or three of the Gospels, and we can actually see the change in the wording. And, that has to be accounted for. And those who say that 'Well, these changes represent mistakes or failures of memory,' I think they are incorrect; that is not the right explanation for it. But when we see the differences in John, they are of such a magnitude compared to Matthew, Mark, and Luke it's a little more difficult to sort that out and to explain what's going on. Part of it is, as Lydia has said, it's simply different material. And I agree with that. I think a big chunk of it is that, as the early Church Fathers knew, is that it was actually previous ministry experience and teaching, that occurred before Jesus was baptized by John; that is part of it. And some of it is geographic, that is, John gives us a lot more material in the south, in Samaria and Judea and in Jerusalem. John even talks about visits to Jerusalem that are not recorded in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. So that does explain some of it. But once we make the observation that the Evangelist did have the freedom - and I would argue, the obligation - to reshape Jesus' teaching, as Jesus himself taught them to do, I think that is what addresses this problem very well. And, we then have no reason to have a crisis of confidence in the Gospels.


Justin: [Starts talking]


Craig: I was just going to say the disciples were taught well and it shows. And so we have truth. What we have in all four Gospels is what Jesus taught, even if we don't always have the exact words and in the same sequence and the same location.


Justin: So, as it were the chreia removes the crisis, in the terms of the understanding the . . . what was acceptable to do in terms of this reframing and reshaping of the teaching and so on; and this is being done, to some extent, with other material, to some extent in John's gospel. Lydia, where do you want to begin what what, because . . .


Lydia: Yeah, I think I would like to go to the distinction that Craig seems to be making between what he calls the long discourses in John and (apparently what he is now admitting the distinct historicity of, which is) those two places where Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I am," and, "I and the Father are one." (Presumably because, as has been pointed out, they did not occur in the course of long discourses.) So now it appears that, where he thinks John is distinctive from the Synoptics . . . and again, I want to point out that Craig believes this chreia elaboration was allowed in the Synoptics as well, but he has also emphasized very strongly a distinction with John (and even somewhat in this conversation) concerning the so-called long discourses. So, I'd like to address that a little bit.

                The distinction between John and the Synoptics on the length of Jesus' discourses is to some extent an illusion and has been exaggerated. There has . . . with a Unitarian scholar named James Drummond in the early 1900s, he put together a chart showing that this idea that John has much longer discourses than the Synoptics is actually false. Matthew actually has longer sections in which Jesus speaks uninterrupted. There are not lengthy I Am discourses in the Gospel of John, that are just like are really long, and there's nothing that long in the Synoptics. That's not true at all. The Sermon on the Mount is actually longer than any portion of the so-called Farewell Discourse in John that is not broken up by dialogue. Richard Bauckham has also pointed out that the aphoristic style that Jesus uses in the Synoptics might actually be the artifact, and that the more connected style of Jesus in, for example, the Farewell Discourse or the Bread of Life Discourse may be more realistic. Now, Bauckham himself is not saying that that’s verbatim what Jesus said. he might even think it is even more contrived than what I think it is. But his point is that we should not take the choppy Jesus of the Synoptics to be the historical Jesus and the connected Jesus of John to be ahistorical; that, in fact, it would look more realistic for him to speak in a connected fashion.

                I would also like to point out that, and I'm just going to go to the so-called Farewell Discourse, because some of the ones that Craig has cast some question on here, such as what are called the I Am statements with a predicate, like "I am the vine, and you are the branches," these kind of things that occur allegedly in long discourses, occur on that last night. That last night is confirmed by some of the undesigned coincidences that I've discussed. (For example, why did Jesus wash their feet? Because they were quarrelling and squabbling. And what did Jesus mean in Luke by saying, "I am among you as the one who serves," and then that’s explained by the washing.') And some of these discourses are interspersed with dialogue that he's had with them that night. So, I think we do have reason . . . again, maybe there is some composite going on there in that period from John 14-16. But, I don't think we have reason to believe that passage is any more expanded or the words of the Johannine community or anything like that than what is in the Synoptic Gospels.

                And, in fact, here is a really interesting parallel I found. In Matthew 7:7, we have the famous, "Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be open unto you." In John 16:24, which is right smack in the middle of one of these so-called long Johannine discourses, Jesus says, "Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you shall receive." Similarly, Mark 13:13, again a different setting, a different context, he says, "You will be hated by everyone on account of my name." In John 15:19, he says, "Because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore, the world hates you." Same thought, same concept. I think, this is the same Jesus, absolutely, and I think he is in no less historical, and, in fact, I would say we have reason to believe that he said things that were recognizably like this, possibly even many of them on that night. In fact, the references to the vine: there are vineyards in Jerusalem. And he says, "Come on let's go," at the end of one chapter, and they could have been passing those vineyards.


Justin: I mean, you're starting to bring in some of this area that you believe is evidence of the historical reliability of John and so on, these undesigned coincidences, cross-referenced against details of the Synoptic Gospels here, Lydia. But we've moved, in a sense, from those I Am statements and discourses, Craig, to more this Farewell Discourse, which, again just to set the scene a little bit here, we obviously have all got the full Gospel accounts, which contain an account of Jesus' last supper, and the events of the crucifixion. But John's Gospel gives Jesus a great deal more dialogue overall within that, a lot more expansive, if you like, statements and reassurances to the disciples and so on, on that last supper.

                So, and Lydia's view is, firstly, there is no reason to assume that somehow the Synoptic Gospels are more historical because we have a more choppy, shorter sort of version of Jesus, of what Jesus says compared to these longer more flowing sort of statements of Jesus in John. And secondly, I think, that there is every reason to see a lot of connections between what Jesus says there, in that longer discourse as reported in John, compared to the shorter sort of moments in the synoptic Gospels. So, what's your view personally, first of all, on that Farwell Discourse? Again, how much do you think, you know, if you had been there at the time, Jesus would have actually been saying, how much do you think is a sort of elaboration or paraphrase or restatement of his teaching by a later writer or community. Where do you stand on that, that particular element of John's Gospel?


Craig: Well, I have no reason to cast any doubt or raise any questions about either the veracity or historicity of the Upper Room Discourse. It is an intimate conversation. The disciples are all there, we have the beloved disciple, a mysterious figure much debated on in even the early Church Fathers as to who he is, and that's the sort of thing that I wouldn’t be surprise at all if it represents a very good synopsis, verbally and so forth, of things Jesus said, even if it only represented a small portion of what was said over those long hours together that evening.

                But there is an important point, and this is where I do disagree with Lydia, and I think this is ultimately most of the issue that is behind this discussion and her criticism of me, and it's just how the gospels were composed. It's not so much a question of historicity or veracity, it's just understanding how they're composed. And I go back to what she said about the longer discourses in Matthew. The problem here is these discourses have been constructed out of disparate materials. And she mentioned the Sermon on the Mount, that's a great example of it. When you look at Luke, the parallel there, and it’s half a chapter, it's Luke 6:20-49, the so-called Sermon the Plain, and in Matthew it becomes three chapters, five, six and seven. And all critical scholars of the Synoptics, and I mean evangelicals, not just, you know, non-evangelicals, recognize this assembling, this constructing of these discourses out of materials. And if Lydia rejects that and says, 'No, that's not what happened; it's a recording of what Jesus said on one particular occasion,' she's very much out of step with critical gospel scholarship on this point. Maybe she doesn't understand the views of most of us hold to: Markan priority, the existence of a collection of Jesus' sayings which Matthew and Luke independently of each other used and supplemented their Markan narrative in creating their own Gospels of Matthew and Luke. So I think there is a major difference between us there, and I think that this lays the foundation for some of these disagreements on other features that reach out and touch John as well.


Lydia: I would like to address that, if I may, and clarify what I do and don't understand. Would that be okay?


Justin: Go ahead.


Lydia: First of all, actually, I've explicitly, right here in this conversation, repeatedly raised the possibility of composite discourses, both for Matthew and for John. I'm open to either possibility there, that it could be either composite or non-composite. I actually tend to think that critical scholars, of whose views I am aware, that Craig is mentioning, are pretty definite on what is composite and what is not. But I think, if anything critical scholars need to be a little more open that the possibility that something may have happened or been said recognizability all at a given time. But I'm not going to be dogmatic about that at all. I'm certainly aware of the two source hypothesis, I'm also aware of more or less rigid versions thereof. I'm also aware of arguments for, for example, Matthean authorship; and unfortunately the very rigid notion of Markan priority are sometimes used to not allow Matthew to have his own access to these events and actually be adding eye-witness material. I have evidence that he did so from undesigned coincidences, but . . . and the same way with John. But, I am not at all unaware of the notion of a composite discourse.

However, again, in other statements that Dr. Craig or Dr. Evans has made, he has cast additional doubt on John, more particularly and especially for these sayings here in this conversation more so for the I Am statements followed by a predicate, in the earlier conversation with Dr. Ehrman it encompassed the I Am statements without a predicate, like 'Before Abraham was, I Am,' or the statement 'I and the Father are one.' That there is something especially questionable about these, and here he seems emphasize that he thinks it’s because they're embedded in long discourses. In fact, the possibility of a composite discourse actually means there is no more reason to attribute that to the Johannine community than any other portion of the Gospel, because if one thinks it might be to some extent a composite of sayings Jesus said at another times, then it is not the product of later reflection on the part of the Johannine community. Jesus might very well have said, "I Am vine," or, "I Am the bread of life." (I just want to mention concerning the 'bread of life', Craig Blomberg has a very interesting discussion on that as a . . . Jesus engaging in a midrash on an ancient Hebrew text, not someone else inventing what Jesus said. And he says at least that . . . since Jesus was a rabbi and this supposedly took place in a synagogue, that would be a very appropriate setting for this kind of show of rabbinic knowledge on Jesus' part in the Bread of Life discourse.

                So, I really think that what I'm chiefly pushing for right at this moment is a greater openness to the possibility that these things were uttered at a given time, but I'm certainly not at all unaware of critically scholarly work on these matters.


Justin: Of course, and in that sense, Lydia, you're saying, 'Okay, maybe there's this composite sort of stuff going on. You're fully aware of what these critics say. But you want the critics, as it were, to be more open to the idea that the long dialogues and parts of John's Gospel being genuine, you know, that they're based on the historical sayings of Jesus, what he said in particular settings and places. And you're concerned, for instance, quoting from what Craig said in one of those dialogues with Bart Ehrman, when Craig, for instance, said, “I would be very surprised if we caught him,” as in Jesus, “uttering 'I Am this' and 'I Am that.'”


Lydia: Exactly. I think we would have caught him uttering, 'I Am this,' and, 'I Am that.' And I don't see any reason to cast doubt on that historically, even if it does occur in a longer discourse (but sometimes it doesn't occur in a longer discourse).


Justin: I mean, let's allow Craig to clarify. I mean, Craig, I think we're coming back to the original question which we began with, which is, Are you actually saying Jesus didn't actually say, 'I Am the bread of life,' 'I Am the light of the world,' 'I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,' that these things didn't come from the mouth of Jesus, but rather they were this chreia, this kind of elaboration of his teaching by the community, or person who wrote the Gospel of John? Obviously, Lydia feels there's no need to go this far. You don't have to. There's no reason to treat the Gospel of John so differently from the Synoptics in these sorts of statements. But, you, if you are saying that he didn't actually say those things, you've gone on further then you need to, you've caused more skepticism upon these, the historical reliability of these statements than you need to. So, go ahead, Craig; what's your response there?


Craig: It begins with a series of observations. We don't find the I Am discourses in Matthew, Mark, or Luke; we just don't. And, we have three Gospels, we have a pretty broad coverage of Jesus' teaching and activities. Sure, of course, we don't think Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain everything Jesus said and did. And so, the fact that John comes along and has material and sayings and deeds that are not recorded in Matthew, Mark or Luke that's not in itself problematic. But it is strange that the style of teaching that is common place in John is not represented in Matthew, Mark and Luke. And so, that's the first observation that's made. So, we have the I Am discourses in John. We do not have equivalents in the Synoptics: first observation.

                The second one is the I Am way of speaking ('I Am this' and 'I Am that,' and various attributes) is a feature we find in Wisdom tradition, both in canonical Scripture and outside (in the approximate time . . . the century or two leading up to the Church). And so, that then makes us wonder, Hmm, maybe John is taking Jesus' teaching, which you do find in the Synoptics, including teaching that perhaps is not found in the Synoptics, that's unique to that southern perspective in the Johannine community, and taking that teaching and presenting it in as though Jesus was Wisdom speaking. And so, there is some creativity, much more creativity than we see in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. So, when we look at the handbooks of education in antiquity and historiography, we realize that that fits within it, even if it's at the edges of it.

So, I'll have to ask Lydia, Does she allow for paraphrase? Jesus seems to be teaching his disciples that way in his own example where he repeats parables other things in various ways in various settings, and they're a little bit different. And so, Jesus seems able to restate his own teaching, paraphrase his own teaching. Matthew 13:52 seems to be an instruction that his disciples to do that. So, does Lydia allow for paraphrase? Can the evangelist . . . is it legitimate, have they been instructed to adapt and paraphrase Jesus' teaching, even expand it? And if the answer to those questions is, ‘Well, yes,’ well maybe that does help explain (not everything, but at least) somethings with respect to the Gospel of John. And if she goes that far, then I think we are basically on the same page, even if we might differ here or there as we work our way through each passage.


Justin: Just one minute to respond and we'll have to go to our final break, Lydia.


Lydia: Okay, wow, that's a lot to respond to. First of all, I think we need to be really careful not to misuse the word “paraphrase.” If Jesus never uttered the 'Bread of Life' discourse in some recognizable fashion (I'll just pick that one), where he's comparing himself to the bread of life, then that's . . . and then,  John, or the author of John wrote up an entire discourse that did not occur in any recognizably historical fashion. I would say it's not a paraphrase. I think we need to use the word “paraphrase” in a way that is more recognizable.

                Secondly, I would say that I certainly disagree with Craig's interpretation of that verse in Matthew about bringing out things old and new. In fact, the author of John often distinguishes between what the disciples understood later and what Jesus actually uttered at the time. So, I actually think he's actually scrupulous about that.

                So sure, I would allow paraphrasing in the normal sense of "paraphrase," but not in this extremely expansive, and I would say idiosyncratic way, that certain scholars are using it, that I don't think people understand: that what they mean by "paraphrase" could be making up an entire discourse that never historically occurred. That, I just don't really see we have any reason to believe the authors did.


Justin: And in terms of Craig's question that he particularly wanted you to answer, Do you believe Jesus gave permission for people to elaborate on, paraphrase, interpret his teaching, and this is effectively what's happened in the Synoptics and John's Gospel.


Lydia: Sure, I would say he wants them to teach, and the Holy Spirit comes and guides them to teach. But there is a big difference between their teaching as apostles, using their authority as apostles (and he gave them that for a reason), and their teaching in such a way as to make it appear to that Jesus himself actually made the statements. Those are two different things, and they have to be kept distinct. In fact, Ben Witherington has noted that the Holy Spirit is seen a source of continuing revelation in John 14, but it's not confused with the role of reminding the disciples of what Jesus himself said during his earthly ministry. So, I think those need to be kept distinct. Certainly, they were to teach the early Church, but I don't see them teaching by making up discourses that Jesus never said and then putting them into the mouth of Jesus. I don't see a reason to believe they did that.


Justin: We’re going to go to our final break. [SKIP] Well, we're concluding today's program as we ask, Does John's Gospel present a historically accurate picture of Jesus? There’s been a lot of ink spilled and a lot of debates had over the nature of John Gospel compared to the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the way in which he presents Jesus and the words of Jesus there. And Craig Evans, a distinguished New Testament scholar, has been talking to us on the program today about the way he conceives of the way John is set out, and what the purposes were of those who wrote down the life, teachings, and sayings of Jesus there. And says . . . agrees with our other guest, Lydia McGrew, that there's an awful lot of valuable historical data in the Gospel of John. But that’s . . . we do have to treat the way they present sayings of Jesus in a somewhat different way than the Synoptics. There's more elaboration, there's more chreia, in a way, going on. That's the technical term for this sort of paraphrasing, elaborating on, and retelling the teachings of Jesus.

                Lydia McGrew is concerned that scholars like Craig have been too quick to dismiss the historicity of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John. And she's already spoken a little bit about the ways she thinks there is actually a great deal of historical basis for some the . . . for various of the sayings . . . . And just in that last segment, again I think, Lydia was essentially restating some of her concerns, Craig, that she feels that, you know, that there is no so much reason to cast so much doubt on these particular sayings, that we're entitled to take from John, you know, the same sort of lessons we do from lot of the Synoptics; and while we're not saying these are verbatim, that these are essentially . . . if we go the length of actually saying these are effectively made up, Jesus never said anything in any historical context akin to the I Am statements, then we've got a problem on our hands. And she just doesn't see we have to go down that route. And I think you're a bit more prepared to go down that route, to say, it’s . . . yes, it is more than possible that Jesus never actually made the I Am statements, and these are effectively, not made up, but rather these are extrapolations, if you like, of Jesus' teaching by the Johannine community or author of John. So, is it just a fact that you are prepared to prepared to go a bit further than her on that basis, Craig?


Craig: I suppose so. You could put it that way. It's just that we can say John the Evangelist has a different writing style and a different agenda. And, you know, Matthew, Mark, or Luke have their respective agendas. But, the point is we're still talking about Jesus. And so, you have virtually nothing (I think there are a few verses in Matthew 11, which could be exceptional), virtually nothing in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that sounds like, and looks like, Jesus in the Gospel of John. So, we have to ask as historians, at this point, is there just some other Jesus we just didn't know about? Does Jesus simply just behave and talk very differently in some circumstances (maybe when he's down south, when he's in Samaria, Judea, in and out of Jerusalem and Bethany)? Or, is it a lot more due to the way the Evangelist chooses to write the story? And I opt with the latter.

I think it is the same Jesus, and I think he is presented very differently . . . and I guess I’m counting votes: it's three to one. Matthew, Mark, and Luke present him a certain way; John presents him a very different way. And I suspect, given the parallels with Wisdom literature, for example, that John is presenting Jesus in a much more interpretive light. He's being more aggressive in the paraphrasing, the theological expansion (extrapolation is a good word, too). It's dramatic, it's literary, but that doesn't mean the history is lost or that it no longer reflects Jesus actually taught.

                Sometimes the analogy I use is the parables. Jesus taught in parables, especially if we're talking about Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (And by the way, the parables as such don't even appear in John.) But throughout Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus' teaching is characterized by parables. Mark actually says Jesus did not teach without parables. And parables are fictions. Some of them are very realistic and reflect the ways people behaved; some of them don't. But the point is, Jesus' greatest teaching on the Kingdom of God, who God is, and how we should live, is presented in parables. And I think in a sense that this is what John is doing. Now, I wouldn't say that John is a parable. It's not a fiction. But what John's doing is taking Jesus' teaching and his activities (and I would agree with the idea that the Holy Spirit deepens the understanding of John and other disciples of Jesus, especially in the post-Easter setting) . . . and so he's presenting in hindsight Jesus as the very incarnation of God, the very incarnation of God's Wisdom. And expansively interpreting Jesus' saying in light of that.


Justin: And just before Lydia comes back in, one question that's been buzzing around my mind while you've been speaking there, Craig, is . . . A lot of skeptics listen to this program, a lot of skeptics who, in a sense, you know, may be really interested and intrigued and want there to be as much, as you like, difference between what the historical Jesus may have said and what the Gospels actually report him to have said. And I can imagine a lot of them, right now, saying, “Well, if a Christian like Craig expects me to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior on the basis of what he said about himself, who he claimed to be, how can I possibly do that if I can't be certain that he did say any of these things about 'I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,' 'I Am the Good Shepherd,' 'I Am the Light of the World?'” What's your response to that? Because, I think that is the problem that I think Lydia sees . . . is if you're, what you're potentially doing, is undermining the Deistic claims of Jesus and his Lordship there.


Craig: Well, what I would say is that we have Jesus' divinity expressed in all four Gospels, in different ways. And we have his divinity expressed by those who knew him, talk about him, witnessed him as the risen Lord: particularly Paul, for example. And so, the New Testament as a whole bears witness to Jesus' Divinity, to his saving ministry, his saving death on the cross, his resurrection. And so, it doesn't just ride on the Gospel of John and the sayings we find there, however we are to understand their development and how they came to . . . came into this form that we have of them in John. If we understand the whole witness of the New Testament, if we understand - and I think we do now - much better the high Christology of the synoptic gospels, then we do recognize we're in a position to say that what we find in John is not unbelievable, it's not a distortion, it's not fiction, but truly does represent what Jesus taught.


Justin: Thank you so much, Craig. Lydia, let's come to you, and we'll start to wrap things up. What . . . does that allay any of your concerns in any way?


Lydia: I'd like to say just a couple of things in wrap-up here that I think that I think will be interesting to the audience. First of all, earlier in this conversation, I kind of pinned Craig down a little bit, concerning specifically the incident where Jesus has a dialogue with the Jews, and then he says, "Before Abraham was, I Am," and they try to stone him. I asked, Did that happen incident occur recognizably in history separate from anything in the Synoptics? And at that time, he said yes, that he thought it did. Which is very different from what he appeared to be saying in 2012. Now, here toward the end toward the end of our program, he seems to be coming back and sort of taking that back again. Because, when he talks about 'I Am,' and the use of the term 'I Am' being, quote unquote, “Jesus talking like Wisdom.” There's really no reason to apply that then to, "I am the bread of life," or, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," but to say what he says: "Before Abraham was, I Am” . . . that really historically occurred. So, I don't think in the past Craig has drawn a sharp distinction between those, and I doubt that he really means, even now, to draw a sharp distinction between those. So, I think there is real ambiguity about where he's coming from concerning the recognizable historicity (again, not verbatim), but of a couple of those strong claims to Deity that Jesus makes in John. And I just want to draw attention to that ambiguity.

Then, the next thing I want to address is his statement that John presents Jesus as so different. And I completely disagree with that; I think the nature and personality of Jesus are clearly the same in all four Gospels. And I have many, many examples of this, but here in the time we have, I can't give them in detail: but his use of sarcasm, his modes of thought, has rapier sharp wit, his love for his friends, his weeping with compassion, his ability to read thoughts, even his characteristic metaphors and turns of phrase, his use of object lessons. John's presentation of Jesus is actually very strikingly the same as the Synoptics; and the differences between them are exaggerated and incorrectly stated by critical scholarship. By the use of vivid vignette’s John shows us, not an allegorical abstraction, but a solid and intensely real person. And he is the same person who we meet in the Synoptic Gospels. And we can tell that by reading them; that's not just something we believe by faith. That's actually right there in the text of the documents. And I've been enjoying doing some researching on that, discovering how that’s true in great detail.


Justin: I'm just going to give you both just thirty seconds for a final thought before we close out today's show. I'll start with you, Craig.


Craig: Well, I think that's not a very realistic understanding of John. And that's the reason why the vast majority of scholars don't see it that way. John does present Jesus in a very different way. I agree that it's the same Jesus, but the portraits in John and the Synoptics are very different. And we, I think we, should take that difference into account. And just to assert that it's the same thing just won't do it.


Justin: Thank you very much for joining me today, Craig. If you want to know more about Craig and his work: Craigaevans.com. Final word to you, Lydia, just as we close out. Again, if you could keep it to thirty seconds or less.


Lydia: As far as the vast majority of scholars, I certainly think we need to consider the democracy of the dead when we're considering this here. C. S. Lewis compared John's portrait of Jesus to Boswell's "Life of Johnson", which was certainly a very close-up, very historical memoir. Of course, I'm not saying, simply asserting they're the same. I have pages and pages of examples, such as Jesus' way of talking about Sabbath controversies in Luke 13 and John 7. They're different Sabbath controversies, and yet his wit and what I'd call his conceptual punning is exactly the same. Even his physical gestures (the way he looks up to heaven when he prays) . . . So, I actually have many examples; I'm not merely asserting this. And this was noted by older scholars on numerous occasions. I've been enjoying a book by Stanley Leathes, (L E A T H E S) from the nineteenth century, where he has pages and page and pages of parallels between the Synoptic and the Johannine Jesus. So, this is actually supportable by very concrete data that the portrait is actually . . . has an enormous amount of overlap, and John's own differences of linguistic style should not be allowed to obscure that.


Justin: Well, that you both for joining me on the program today. Thank you for what was obviously a spirit disagreement on the nature of what exactly is going on with the Gospel of John. But I do so appreciate you coming on to take the time to talk about it. So, Craig and Lydia, thank you for joining me on today's program.


Craig: You're most welcome.


Lydia: Thanks for having us.

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About this blog

Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.

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