Hoaxer or historical witness: The Johannine Dilemma

Hoaxer or historical witness: The Johannine Dilemma

by Lydia McGrew
September, 2017

In C.S. Lewis’s exposition of his famous Liar, Lunatic, or Lord trilemma concerning Jesus Christ, he says,

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

I mean to argue for a similar dilemma for the author of the Gospel of John. As discussed in the previous post, John comes in for a lot of fashionable talk to the effect that he would have considered it completely legitimate to change things deliberately, relating non-factual claims as if they were factual, and that this would have been acceptable in his own time because the ancients were more concerned with Truth than with mere facts. In that post I gave a quotation to that effect from classicist Richard Burridge, who also does work on the New Testament. Here is a similar quotation, also about John, from New Testament scholar Michael Licona, who also does work on Roman history.

John often chose to sacrifice accuracy on the ground level of precise reporting, preferring to provide his readers with an accurate, higher-level view of the person and mission of Jesus. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 115 Emphasis added

Licona footnotes Burridge’s chapter on John, from which I debunked a couple of examples in the last post, in support of this sweeping declaration. Note how strong a claim this is. This isn’t just a claim that John occasionally made a slight mistake or that John didn’t always make clear what chronological order he was implying or that John sometimes paraphrased people’s words rather than quoting verbatim. This is a much stronger claim than any of those. And indeed Licona’s own examples bear out the fact that he really is saying that John often changed things deliberately to what was non-factual in order to make a better story or a theological point.

To give only the most striking example in the book, Licona quite seriously suggests (though he does not definitely come down in favor of) the hypothesis that John invented (“crafted”) the Doubting Thomas sequence “in order to rebuke those who, like Thomas, heard about Jesus’s resurrection and failed to believe.” (p. 177) Licona suggests this as a possible resolution to the supposed discrepancy in the fact that Luke says that Jesus appeared to “the eleven” (Luke 24:33) while John, apparently speaking of the same appearance, says that Thomas was not with the group, making only ten (out of the original twelve) present (John 20:19-24). Licona is unenthusiastic about the far simpler idea that Luke was using “the eleven” as a generic idiom for the group without intending to convey the precise number of disciples present at that moment. He does not even contemplate the also far simpler hypothesis that Luke happened not to be informed that Thomas was not there on that occasion and thus assumed from being told that “the disciples” were there that eleven disciples were present. John, on this simple theory, gives the more exact account. This, of course, would make John even more knowledgeable about precise details than Luke, a direct counterexample to the picture of John that Licona gives in the quotation above.

These sorts of claims about John are the parallel to what Lewis calls the “really foolish thing” that people say about Jesus. In the case of Jesus, people didn’t want to say that he was God or that he was a liar or insane, so they invented a merely great human teacher Jesus. Lewis says, rightly, that Jesus didn’t mean to leave open that option. Similarly, those who make such statements about John don’t want, for some reason, to say either that John was always intending to report literal historical facts (and therefore that, if he gets something wrong, he gets it wrong while trying to get it right) or that John was a clever propagandist and liar. Instead they want to present us with a tertium quid: John had “literary license” to make things up or change things to be non-factual and put them in his Gospel (Burridge explicitly uses the word “fabricate”), without any signal to his readers that he is doing so and while appearing to give literal reportage. But this doesn’t count as a deception despite the fact that it makes him unreliable “on the ground level” of literal fact, because of…literary and genre reasons rooted in the supposed different ways people thought back then, from which we can conclude that John’s audience wouldn’t have minded this sort of fabrication.

I want to challenge that tertium quid and press back to the dilemma: Either John was an historical witness with the intention of being historically accurate “on the ground level of reporting” or he was a highly creative liar.

I want to start with the prima facie meaning of several statements made by John.

And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. (John 19:35)

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24)

On the question of whether John 21:24 was written about himself by the author of John or is interpolated by an editor, see this interesting post. I do not consider that the use of the third person for John or of the plural “we” is decisive here in the direction of its being added by another hand. But if it was added, it was very early and shows how John’s Gospel was taken by his original audience. It is also quite strikingly similar in wording to John 19:35 and endorses the author’s own view of himself in that verse.

Here is what Acts attributes to John and Peter when confronted by the Sanhedrin:

But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19:20)

Here is John again in his own words, using the same language of telling truthfully what he has heard and seen.

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us— what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. I John 1:1-3

And for good measure, here is Peter apparently explicitly disavowing the creation of fabrications:

For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 2 Peter 1:16

Again and again the emphasis here is upon empirical evidence and truthful testimony to what was seen and heard.

These sorts of verses are also consistent with the general consideration that the subject matter would have been extremely important to the disciples and their original audience and that it is therefore on the face of it unlikely that their audience would have taken kindly to their manufacturing incidents or deliberately altering facts.

All of this creates a consistent picture of the intention of normal, factual accuracy and a strong prima facie case that should take a lot of toppling. Burridge (as we saw in the last post) has to admit that John keeps talking about the importance of truth. Then Burridge has to dismiss that by making sweeping generalizations to the effect that it doesn’t really mean what it appears on the face of it to mean. I contend that neither Burridge nor Licona has come close to satisfying the burden of proof for such dismissals of the literal meaning of these verses, and if someone wishes to press their literary dismissals, I would request that he do so with specific arguments that I can address rather than simply pointing out the credentials of those who make such claims and/or the sheer existence and popularity of such claims. Those statements about John’s factual inaccuracy and about his lack of an intentionof factual accuracy fly in the face of John’s own words and require a complex reinterpretation of those words.

This past weekend I had the privilege of hearing J. Warner Wallace speak at a conference. In one of his presentations he talked about the statement in John that blood and water came out of Jesus’ side when it was pierced with a spear. Wallace pointed out that this is well explained by the presence of fluid in the lungs which would have come out along with blood when the side, heart, and lungs were pierced. He also rather wryly discussed ancient commentaries on the text that attempted to give a purely symbolic meaning to the “blood and water,” and he argued that this shows that the literal, scientific significance of the blood and water was not well understood and therefore that John apparently put them in there not to make some kind of evidential point but rather because this was really observed. This, of course, makes the evidential significance of the statement (e.g., for our confidence that Jesus was really dead) that much more striking.

While listening to this, I remembered that the “blood and water” observation comes immediately before John 19:35, where the author is so emphatic about his witness status:

So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.

The sequence in these verses is important. What we have here is a highly explicit, empirical set of observation statements, followed by an emphatic insistence that they have been attested to truthfully by a witness.

This is quite strong evidence that, when John talks about “telling the truth,” he means the literal, empirical truth, not some “higher-level truth” to which literal truth could legitimately be sacrificed. And as Wallace points out, the literal accuracy of the statement is independently corroborated by its consistency with scientific fact. Also, the literal accuracy of the statement about breaking the legs of the thieves is corroborated by crucifixion practices.

In addition to the point about blood and water, here is a short list of just some of the factual details in John that are corroborated in other ways. This is only a sample:

–The five porticoes of the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-9), corroborated by archaeology. Loisy in the early 20th century tried to give them an allegorical interpretation, not taking the story seriously as literal reportage. Then the pool was found, and it just literally had five porticoes.

–The time of year of the feeding of the five thousand as shortly before Passover (John 6:4), corroborated by two undesigned coincidences. (See Hidden in Plain View)

–The fact that the water jars at the marriage at Cana were empty at the time when Jesus was going to perform his water-into-wine miracle (John 2:6-7). Confirmed by an undesigned coincidence, as discussed in Hidden in Plain View.

–The fact that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before Passover, confirmed by an undesigned coincidence (John 12:1). (See Hidden in Plain View.)

–The reference to Caiaphas as “high priest that year” (John 11:49 and 18:13). Confirmed by external evidence that the Romans took upon themselves the power to depose and appoint high priests, so that the high priesthood was no longer, as in ancient Judaism, a lifelong position.

–The dialogue between Pilate and Jesus in John 18, confirmed by multiple undesigned coincidences. See Hidden in Plain View.

The confirmation of these political and empirical details gives us reason to believe two things:

1) John was trying to get it right and report accurately, in a literal sense.

2) John was quite successful in this endeavor.

What these emphatically disconfirm is the picture of an author who believed that he had literary license to invent and alter ground-level facts.

Now I invite the reader to consider the many empirical details in the Gospel of John for which we have no such independent confirmation directly. Notice how pointless these are. Nothing heavy turns on them. They’re just there. The density of details is, I would estimate, higher in John’s Gospel than in any other, though of course it depends on how you count, and I don’t at all mean to say that the other Gospels don’t also have lots of details. (Luke likes to bring up details of political fact, as in Luke 3:1, and medical details, as in Luke 8–the story of the woman with an issue of blood.)

Here are some from John:

–The precise location where John the Baptist was baptizing.–John 1:28

–The series of days on which John the Baptist made statements about Jesus as the Lamb of God–1:29, 35, see also vs. 43 and John 2:1

–The time of day (the “tenth hour”) when the two disciples of John went with Jesus to his lodging.–John 1:39

–The number of water pots at the marriage at Cana (six) and their size (containing twenty or thirty gallons)–John 2:6

–Jesus’ exact actions in cleansing the Temple–making a scourge out of cords, pouring out the coins of the moneychangers, and overturning their tables–John 2:15

–The number of years that the Jews said it had taken to build the Temple (46)–John 2:20.

–The time of day when Nicodemus came to visit Jesus–John 3:1.

–Another precise location where John was baptizing–3:23.

–The scrupulous qualification that Jesus himself did not actually baptize anyone, after having previously used locutions that might have been construed otherwise–John 4:2

–Jesus’ precise route from Judea into Galilee–4:3-5

–The time when Jesus was sitting by the well at Sychar (the sixth hour)–4:6

–The number of days that Jesus remained in Sychar after the conversation with the woman at the well (two)–4:40

I’m just going to stop there, and I’m only through chapter 4. The Gospel of John is just like that. Fast-forwarding to the Last Supper, here is a trenchant comment about the stark phrase, “And it was night” when Judas left to betray Jesus in John 13:30.

“…Judas opened the door to leave the tense and puzzled group. An oblong of sudden darkness seen for a second stamped itself on one mind forever; and remembering, the writer comments, ‘And it was night’.” E.M. Blaiklock, Jesus Christ: Man or Myth, p. 69.

John apparently had an intensely visual memory, to which these examples attest–both those for which we’re lucky enough to have independent corroboration and those we don’t happen to have corroborated.

Am I saying that a clever liar never adds lots of detail to his story? No, I’m not saying that. This past weekend J. Warner Wallace was talking about liars he’s known, how creative they are, and how some of them add unnecessary detail to their stories to make them sound true. Of course, I can’t help pointing out that the fact that such detail makes them sound true means that such detailed discourse is in fact some evidence for truth. (Generally, as an epistemic matter, if it “makes it look like x” for a deceiver to add some property y to a situation, that is ipso facto an admission that property y is some evidence for x.)

But the point I want to press here is this: John gives no indication in the text that any of these details are not intended literally. To the contrary. The whole flow of the text and the numerous, specific details give exactly the opposite impression–namely, that John intends the reader to take him to be reporting accurately at the “ground level.”

And when we do find such a detail confirmed, as in the list above, we rightly take this to be support for John’s reliability. But if we think of the alteration of such details as allowed by “literary license,” why would we find them confirmed? We can’t have it both ways. We can’t triumphantly point to the confirmation of detail as support for John’s reliability when we have it while elsewhere talking as if he didn’t intend his details to be taken as literal reportage in the first place!

I conclude from all of these considerations that, if John was not at least attempting to be accurate in his reporting, he was a deceiver. He was in that case attempting to get his readers to accept his reports as literally true and adding detail for that purpose, even though he knew that he was changing and inventing (“fabricating,” to use Burridge’s word, or “crafting” to use Licona’s) material that was not true.

This is the dilemma for interpreters of John. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about John’s being a great literary artist who sacrifices accuracy on the ground level in the service of higher truth, which his audience would have understood and accepted. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Originally posted on What’s Wrong With the World.

Lydia McGrew

Lydia McGrew

Dr. Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher specializing in formal epistemology, probability theory, and philosophy of religion. She is the co-author, with her husband Tim McGrew, of the article on the resurrection of Jesus in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009). Her articles have appeared in many professional philosophical journals, and she is the author of the entry on historical inquiry and theism in the Routledge Companion to Theism (2012). Her recent book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, revives a largely forgotten apologetic argument for the reliability of the Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline epistles. Without using any technical terminology, Lydia brings to bear her training in the evaluation of evidence and argues that this internal evidence strongly supports the eyewitness nature of these books of the Bible.

More posts by Lydia.


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