Is the Gospel of John History or is it Theology?

Michael Kruger asks

Is the Gospel of John History or Theology? | Canon Fodder.

But answers, in my opinion, wrongly. As a snippet, he relies too heavily on Richard Bauckham.

For instance, he notes, “In the ancient world, good history was eyewitness history. For a historical account to be credible, a historian either needed to have witnessed the events himself…” Except you have Virgil, Livy, and others who wrote about the history they did not see but received an authoritative reception. Count in Strabo and Plutarch as well. A good history was not one told by eyewitnesses, but one that made sense — and usually, this meant not angering anyone at the top and preserving whatever historical myth was needed. That’s not to say all of the historians were liars, but the narrative they created proves Hayden White too right.

He cites the geography of John. I would contend John has had years to consider the mythical geography of Mark (which was somewhat corrected by Matthew because it did not fit his purpose). Because John was not writing with the same theological spin on geography as Mark, he could afford to do it “right.” Further, the geography of John does not mean it is the geography of Jesus, but of the Johannine community.

And I could tackle the length of discourses, but this is a rather odd argument to make. I mean, John could have developed the discourses from several sources. And it was noted in the ancient world how discourses were often developed, compact or otherwise, and present as historical.

I’m not sure I would I would go so far to say as Jim has that the entire bible is theology. I would allow for some history in John, but this is going to be reserved to a literary, canonical, and theological history.

I would love to have John as more historical, or even simply good, plain history, but it is not. John shows signs of using the Synoptics, and I would say Mark, to develop his Gospel. Watson believes John used what is now known as the Egerton fragment/gospel. If this is the case, then John is long removed from being an eyewitness.

And again, the only possible eyewitness to Jesus is Mark, but that didn’t stop him from (re)writing (his theological) history of Jesus.

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Joel L. Watts
Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

2 thoughts on “Is the Gospel of John History or is it Theology?

  1. When it comes to the ancient view of history I always remember Thucydides saying something like, ‘when I don’t know what they said I wrote what they should have said.’ I think that’s very telling.

    There’s a reason Herodotus is both the father of history and the father of lies.

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