The Heythrop Journal

The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History and Theology in the Gospel of John. By Richard Bauckham


Pp. 320 , Baker Academic , 2007 , $29.99 .

This is a fascinating collection of essays, though without the unevenness that the genre sometimes dictates. As is well known, Bauckham believes that academic writing on John's gospel has largely got it wrong, notably in the form of the tendency over the last few decades towards confident reconstruction of the Johannine community's various stages of development. The effect of this tendency is to downplay the historicity of the fourth gospel and the accuracy of ancient traditions about apostolic authorship. For Bauckham, all 21 chapters are the work of a single author, a person of theological and literary competence, and a disciple of Jesus, though not one of the 12. Bauckham identifies the author with the Beloved Disciple, and even names him, as ‘John’, though not Zebedee's son of that (not uncommon) name. Bauckham denies that it is possible to reconstruct the context in and for which this author was writing, and he insists on the unfashionable, but striking, point that ‘the Gospel's theology itself requires a concern for history’ (p.14). Bauckham raises some penetrating questions of the ‘genre’ that really ought to have been generated by the ‘two-level’ (the history of Jesus and the history of the Johannine community) reading of the Fourth Gospel: if the gospel is indeed a bios, then it is about a person and not about a community. Bauckham offers a fascinating account of the difference between the way speeches are used in the Synoptics and in the Gospel of John, and argues that the latter is clearly not a sectarian work (it is not written in any sort of code, for example), but instead invites the reader into the mystery, partly by way of the Johannine irony, the ‘constant misunderstandings that invite the reader to do better’. We are offered a very attractive account of how the differences between the Synoptics and John might be explained. The following lines are worth quoting in full, to give the flavour:

‘If the Gospel of John were based on the eyewitness testimony of one of the Twelve, moreover one who belonged to the inner circle of the Twelve (Peter and the two sons of Zebedee), then it would be incomprehensible that the story it tells is so different from the Synoptics. But it is comprehensible if the beloved disciple was not one of the Twelve but a nonitinerant disciple of Jesus, resident in Jerusalem, who moved in circles of disciples rather different form that of Peter and the sons of Zebedee: other disciples outside the number of the Twelve (Nathanael; Mary, Martha and Lazarus; Nicodemus) and members of the Twelve who are prominent in John but not in the Synoptics (Philip, Thomas, Andrew, the other Judas). John provides a different angle on Jesus' story, other memories of Jesus, a different selection of events, because his sources are different, not inferior. This is the direction in which the dominant approach's emphasis on the independence of John from the Synoptics should have pointed, rather than generating the fantasy of a sectarian history of the community’ (pp. 27–28).

Bauckham argues indeed, rather against the run of play at present, that the Fourth Gospel is closer than the Synoptics to the canons of ancient historiography, and insists that the document bears all the marks of being written for all Christians, not simply for an ‘in-group’. All the evidence suggests that those early Christians travelled a good deal, and had a sense of belonging to a world-wide movement, especially in the case of John's gospel, with its evident sophistication and careful structuring. Bauckham argues that as a matter of fact the fourth gospel seems aimed at a wider readership than many NT documents. In the very interesting chapter 7, Nicodemus is identified as a result of some painstaking scholarly detective work. Chapter 8 offers the helpful notion of ‘protective anonymity’ for the unnamed woman in Mark 14 who anointed Jesus; there is a very sensible chapter (11) on ‘Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John’, which contains some illuminating insights on the ‘Christology of divine identity’, with the different kinds of ‘I Am’ sayings set against the OT background. Bauckham makes the observation (plain as a pikestaff once you think about it) that whereas all our NT authors knew the LXX as their primary access to the OT, they were also acquainted with the Hebrew text; and this familiarity was what enabled the fourth evangelist to preserve Jewish monotheism, while simultaneously redefining it as Christological monotheism. As a general comment on this book, one may say that for Bauckham the Gospel is not (merely) an object for academic study, but a text that actually makes a difference in the world, without in any way undermining the rigour proper to academic enquiry. Not all NT scholars will therefore instinctively warm to it; and they may be further deterred by chapter 13, which in the course of an admirably sensible account of the final chapter of the gospel as an intrinsic part of the entire work, produces some gematrial arguments that will make them blench. I have to confess that I found it very hard to know how to cope with the observation that there are 496 syllables in John 1:1–18, and that 496 is the ‘triangle’ of 31, while 153 (the number of fish caught in John 21) is the ‘triangle’ of 17, which provides a link with Ezekiel 47:1. Indeed Bauckham almost undermines his case by admitting that it is perfectly possible to read the text without ever adverting to these numerical oddities (and I have only given the merest hint of the calculations to be met with in this chapter). We shall have to wait and see what the response will be; but that minor reservation should not deter readers from getting to grips with the challenge to the majority approach to the Fourth Gospel that this excellent book represents.