Monday, February 17, 2020

Who wrote John's Gospel?

The answer to the question "who wrote John's Gospel?" does not come easily, and across the world of scholarship there is no agreement whether the author is (1) John the son of Zebedee (2) another John (3) someone else (but somehow the gospel became associated with John the son of Zebedee). Then there is a parallel keenness of interest in whether the author (whatever his name) is the disciple described as the one whom Jesus loved (the Beloved Disciple).

These two debates meet in John 21 (though it is possible that talk in that chapter about the Beloved Disciple being the writer, verse 24, is only referring to this chapter which may be an epilogue to the gospel rather than a part of the whole gospel).

For the first and only time we have a reference to "the sons of Zebedee" (verse 2). And the Beloved Disciple (verse 20) is one of the seven disciples mentioned in verse 2. The seven disciples are:

Simon Peter,
Thomas called the Twin
Nathanael of Cana in Galilee,
the sons of Zebedee,
two others of [Jesus'] disciples.

Given that the Beloved Disciple is not Simon Peter (because Simon Peter asks Jesus a question about the Beloved Disciple) and unlikely to be Thomas or Nathanael (since there is no intrinsic reason why we wouldn't have the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Nathanael if this were so), the Beloved Disciple is either James or John (sons of Zebedee) or one of the two unnamed disciples.

Christos Karakolis makes a point I have never previously thought of or heard of:

"It is striking that the three named disciples of 21:2 are the only disciples to have made a confession of faith referring directly to Jesus." [p. 666, see below for full bibliographical details]

Karakolis provides John 6:68-69 (Simon Peter's confession), 20:28 (Thomas' confession) and 1:49 (Nathanael's confession) as the texts supporting this claim.

There is another observation which Karakolis makes which I hadn't thought of or heard of before. When Peter says he is going fishing (21:3) and the others agree to follow him (within a gospel which has not previously informed readers of the fishing background to Simon Peter, Andrew and the sons of Zebedee),

"This information reveals in an indirect way that all disciples present, including the sons of Zebedee, share a fisherman's experience, although it is not clear whether this is their actual profession. Only thus can their spontaneous response be explained, a response in which everyone in the group immediately agrees to follow Peter in a nighttime fishing expedition on a rather unpredictable and dangerous lake. A man without fishing experience would not have followed so willingly." [p. 664]. 

That is, we can reasonably surmise two motivations re the names given in the list. On the one hand, the author says to us his readers, for this third and final resurrection appearance of Jesus, the three "confessors" were present (from a narrative perspective, a closing of a loop in the story). On the other hand (and assuming a bit of knowledge of the other gospels), that author tells us that at least three known fishermen were present in a group of people motivated to respond to a lead by Simon Peter to go fishing.

It is an odd way to finally but uniquely mention the sons of Zebedee who otherwise appear near the beginning of the other gospels. And even odder seems to be a lack of mention of Andrew, another known fisherman, whose prominence otherwise in the Gospel of John could lead us to reasonably presume that he was one of the seven.

What to make of this in respect of determining the name of the author of John's Gospel?

First, the reference to the sons of Zebedee need have nothing to do with the authorship. They are mentioned because they strengthen the idea that this particular group were not crazy or foolish to join Peter in his fishing expedition. Secondly, even if we surmise - for fishing reasons - that Andrew likely was one of the unnamed disciples (though puzzling as to why he is not thereby named), we are still left with one unnamed disciple who could be the Beloved Disciple and if the latter is the author then we do not have a name for the author.

Yet we have a gospel traditionally associated with one of those two sons of Zebedee. What does Karakolis say?

"The implied reader should identify the Beloved Disciple, who makes his appearance later on in the narrative of this chapter [ch. 21], with either one of the sons of Zebedee or with one of the two unnamed disciples of 21:2. However what seems like a riddle to the modern reader of the Gospel would probably have been obvious to the implied readers of the Gospel." [p. 669]

Karakolis then goes on to argue that because the Greek re the sons is, literally, "the [plural] of Zebedee" that the implied readers would have understood that this "meant the sons of Zebedee" and thus that we can safely conclude that "the implied readers knew the individual names of the sons of Zebedee" [p. 669]. Further,

"The Beloved Disciple is very close to Jesus and a person that is often compared to Peter and found to have superior faith and a closer relationship to Jesus than Peter has. From the perspective of the implied reader this person should therefore be a most significant apostle and not an unknown and insignificant character. From an historical point of view John of Zebedee was such a person." [p. 669]

Karakolis goes on to work through the pros and cons of the still possible identification of the Beloved Disciple with one of the two unnamed disciples and concludes,

"Although such an interpretation remains possible the odds are in favour of the identification of the Beloved Disciple with one of the sons of Zebedee." [p. 676].

Who wrote John's Gospel? We cannot rule out the possibility that it was John the son of Zebedee. But neither can we confirm it!


Christos Karakolis, "The Sons of Zebedee and Two Other Disciples: Two Pairs of Puzzling Acquaintances in the Johannine Denouement," in Hunt, Steve A., Tolmie, D. Francois and Zimmermann, Ruben (eds), Character Studies in the Fourth Gospel: Narrative Approaches to Seventy Figures in John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2013, pp. 663-76.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Whither eschatology?

When will Jesus return?

He has promised to do so.

We are getting ever closer to the exact point when it is 2000 years since Jesus taught about his Second Coming (though no one knows when that anniversary will be reached, only when it will have been reached, c. 2034).

Does it matter whether it is 2000 years since?

Here is a thought: in the year 4020, if the Lord has not returned, will we Christians be any more or less anxious about the not yet fulfilled promise?

Is Christianity - as a faith movement, as a way of living, as an aspiration to rule the world [kingdom of God] - timeless or time bound?

Can we continue - as long as the sun shines on our planet - just being faithful, quietly ignoring the promise to return?

Or will we get anxious as we confront the challenge of the end - eschatology - as Jesus taught it? (By "confront" I mean have a wide ranging, earnest, global, potentially church splitting debate agonising over "what Jesus really meant" ... as we do over, you know, Another Topic.)

Of course the challenge has been faced before!

I am old enough to remember the 1970s and the excitement which Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth induced (or was it surfing a wave already heading towards Christian shores?).

In NT itself there are signs of distancing between the inaugurated eschatology of the Synoptic Gospels and Paul (e.g. 1 and 2 Thessalonians) and the realised eschatology of John's Gospel - between the former's conviction that Jesus would be returning very soon and the latter's disinterest in the matter.

Yet, if Revelation is the last NT document to be composed, the ending of the collection of new sacred scriptures fans the flames of urgency and anticipation about Christ's return.

As best I understand periods of renewed urgency and anticipation in the history of the church, Revelation is the much invoked scripture which continues to fuel such flames.

One of the puzzles in 2020 - I venture to suggest - is that when we live in a world anxious about its future (if Coronavirus doesn't kill us, it will destroy the global economy; if global warming doesn't fry us, it at least raises the question whether we humans deserve to call Earth our home, so perhaps we should all leave), there is not a new outbreak of eschatological fervour, a renewed yearning for Christ to Return, to release us from the mess we are in.

And, surely on past performance, the corollary of eschatological fervour, the enthusiasm to identify the AntiChrist would have no shortage of candidates to consider, starting with one Donald Trump.

I mean, look at how many Christians more or less idolise the ground upon which he walks!

So, a question, "whither eschatology?"

Will we show a renewed interest in the matter?

Will we engage with some decent depth of commitment in the exegetical puzzle of what Jesus meant when he taught the imminent end of the world, even before the generation hearing his teaching had passed away?

Monday, February 3, 2020

What has Christianity Ever Done for Us? I mean apart from ...

I reckon that Dominion by Tom Holland is a great book - a must read on the history of Christianity and the history of the world since Christ. For all sorts of reasons. I may draw attention to some of these in coming posts.

Meantime, here is Tom Holland writing a snapshot or three from his book for a UK magazine, with a nice riff on a famous line from The Life of Brian.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Anglican Communion: with See or Chair?

In the most recent and second update to the previous post, I linked to an interview with Archbishop Greg Venables, who is not at all as cheery about the recent Primates' Meeting as its communique is.

I note that in the course of the interview ++Greg says this:

"Regarding the way forward we considered, as we often do, the structures of the Communion and the Instruments of Communion and the difficulties encountered when differences arise. There was passing reference to the incongruity that the Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen by the English government and just presented to the Anglican Communion. Now some people are talking about a mechanism for the Primates to choose one of our number to be the Chair, but it would be a Chair that we pick. Archbishop Justin (Welby) even made reference to that when he first came into office, and his openness to it. We also talked about our identity as Anglicans."

The larger section here is "Anglican identity" and a number of other things are said which I am not attempting to discuss here.

I am simply intrigued with whether it makes any difference to the Anglican Communion if the Archbishop of Canterbury is no longer the Chair (of the Primates' Meeting ... of other Communion bodies such as the Lambeth Conference itself).

For the ABC to no longer be the "convening bishop" or the "primus inter pares", would that matter?

For instance, for some of us, including myself, a critical element of Anglican identity is that one (as individual, as an Anglican church) is in communion with the See of Canterbury and I see this as essential to membership of the Anglican Communion.

But would this be a somewhat moot point if, say, the ABC goes to various meetings simply as "one of the bishops"?

It need not, of course, because we could distinguish the historical importance of the See of Canterbury to all things Anglicans from the human body which inhabits the role of Chair of this or that meeting or conference.

Of course, it is something of an oddity that I and others argue that communion with the See of Canterbury is vital to Anglicanism while having no say in which inhabits the See - that being up to the British government, on advice from the Church of England, and only on that advice.

At least when the Pope is elected, Cardinals from all around the globe get to vote!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Anglican Communion: alive and, it appears, quite well [UPDATED x2]

UPDATE (2): ++Venables has a some what different understanding of what went on, here.

UPDATE (1): insight and questions here ...

ORIGINAL: A week or two ago I put down this marker for a first post:

While not intending to blog until later in January, I am happy to put down a marker towards that anticipated post by noting this press release about the forthcoming Primates Meeting in Jordan, noting that 36/40 primates intend being there ... which seems pretty significant in the year of Lambeth.

How significant remains to be seen ... perhaps the aforementioned blogpost might reflect thereupon and thereunto!

Actual first post ...

The recent Primates' Meeting in Jordan appears to have gone quite well ... certainly no hiccups or speed bumps on the way to Lambeth 2020. On the one hand, "the usual suspects" chose to stay away (and a few others could not make it) and on the other hand, a large majority of Primates turned up (33/40 provinces represented).

The Living Church has a report here.

The official communique is here.

The report has a few bits to chew on, coming out of a press conference, relative to the situation we Down Under Anglicans are in ...
- an intention not to dwell on the negative of a new Anglican church being established;
- a hint that various doors are open to (so to speak) better futures.

But, the marker in the sand is pretty clear re doors to new futures: the Anglican Communion is what it implies on the tin: a communion of those in communion with the See of Canterbury.

For myself, I fail to see how a definition of Anglican (whatever else it includes) can exclude communion with the See of Canterbury if it is to be a definition which accords with the history of being Anglican which is always about the Church in England (pre H8) and the Church of England (post H8).

Speaking of what it means to be Anglican, ++Cranmer in his blog makes an interesting point or three as he segues from an observation of ++Rowan's ... here.

Relating to all such matters Anglican, however, is a critical matter, as the Jordan reports and communique bring out: within the communion of Anglicans in communion with the See of Canterbury, there are differences, and these differences can be lived with ...

At this current time there appears to be a resolve to live with differences, at least by 33+/40 provinces.

Is this resolve stronger than in 2008?

So, all in all, in the run up to Lambeth, I think we can say that the Anglican Communion is alive and, it appears, quite well.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Incarnation Reflection: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Annual Blog Holiday

This blog is on holiday, from 17 December 2019 to around 21 January 2020.

UPDATE 3: Are you, like me, a bit frustrated with some “Christmas” comments floating around social media (e.g., along “God became one of us to share our pain” lines)? In 2019, some 2000+ years on from the historical moment of the Incarnation, do we not need a theology of the Body of Christ conjoined with proclamation of the Incarnation as beneficial for humankind? That is, does God share our pain through the humanity of Christ via the local presence of the body of Christ, that is, via you and me as “the Body of Christ”? In turn, does not this mean that we are offering mere sentiment when we focus on “God became one of us to share our pain” without ourselves sharing and bearing the pain of those we share the message of the Incarnation with?

UPDATE 2: Thanks Christchurch Press for publishing on Christmas Eve.

UPDATE 1: This YouTube Video has not gone viral!

TOWARDS CHRISTMAS 2019 ...An Incarnation Reflection

Over the past few months I have found myself reflecting on the nature of God - on, if you like, God's Godness.

Such reflection is prompted by a whole bunch of things we say (or sing) as Christians which seems to anthropomorphize God - to make God somewhat in our image - a bigger and better version of ourselves, albeit with a bit more mystery ... I mean, we would answer everyone's prayers, right? But God doesn't always do that, but being much wiser than we are, no doubt has a good reason for not doing so.

So, I have been thinking about how we really need a shift in our "theology" - our understanding of God - so that we stop boxing God into dimensions we can grasp, cease over-personalizing God (e.g. making him out to be a kind of Celestial Bestie), and put an end to a breezy familiarity with the God who is not only bigger than the universe but beyond it.


(A lot of theology starts with that word, doesn't it?! The Old Testament ... but ... the New Testament. You deserve to die for your sins ... but Jesus saves ...).

But Christmas. But the Incarnation. But the Word became flesh. But Emmanuel: God with us.


Also a great theological word!

Dangerous though it is to anthropomorphize God, isn't it more dangerous to understand God apart from Jesus Christ?

If we meet God in Jesus Christ, then we meet one who was intimate in friendship, who personally and directly responded to requests for healing and deliverance, who was an anthropomorphism of the Divine.

The joy of Christmas is that the Impersonal God is revealed as, in fact, the Personal God.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Again, Romans 14-15

Two Mondays back I posted again re Romans 14-15 and the comments thereupon have been brilliant, profound, and, frankly, sometimes above my pay grade.

To continue the conversation I pick up just one part of one response (from Bryden Black):

"From all of which, I myself discern the issues being addressed by Paul in Rom 14-15 cannot be near the causes of our present, severe divisions among the Anglican Communion. Nice try, Peter—but pass ... The dynamics at play behind Rom 14-15, whatever they were, would seem to be such that Paul envisaged the real possibility of the different groups being reconciled - even as they held onto their respective positions, in some way. This is NOT what is at stake among the world-wide AC and also locally in provinces and dioceses and parishes. And how any bishop functions in this context I’m really not sure ... For what are the implications re “unity” when the theological foundations are just so incompatible, and the surface symptoms reflecting these foundations mutually exclusive?"

And one from just one part of one other response (from Bowman Walton):

"In the refreshing world of facts, there is a big one that elicits little comment here but adequately explains both sides of That overheated Topic-- since postindustrial people enjoying mass prosperity are less interested in continuing families, they do not use sex mainly for procreation, and their birthrates are quite low. Natives of this economy face a choice, not between being good Israelites or bad Romans, but between rival contemporary secular ways of repurposing the biology and culture of reproduction. (Max Weber's prediction about secularization was wrong, but his other one about sex was obviously right.) So on one hand, the Body has some who are trying to hammer nails into this fluidity because a hammer is the tool that they have, and others who are trying to decide-- given that they must decide-- how to swim in it.

Neither is stupid or faithless. But each is avoiding some elephant in their respective rooms, and they quarrel more to reassure themselves and to fortify their respective avoidances than to persuade anyone. Can the theologically inclined speak more directly to the social texture in which Christians live now? Can theologiphobes discover that the Bible they distrust shows a good way, even the best way, of living with realities exposed by Charles Darwin whom they do trust? Those would be ways forward."


Putting these two comments together - if I am understanding them rightly - we would have compatible theological foundations in the Anglican Communion (indeed in the whole global Christian community) if we talked to each other about those foundations in a spirit of openness to the full implications of living in the context of "a postindustrial people enjoying mass prosperity [who] are less interested in continuing families, [who] do not use sex mainly for procreation, and [for whom] their birthrates are quite low."

That is, we have not yet begun to do the work which integrity requires of us - the integrity of being people who live in this age and not the age of Moses, or Jesus, or Paul and urgently ask what it means to be holy people today (which will always mean a people informed by the Scriptures of Moses, Jesus and Paul).

In frank terms: yes, Bryden, there are - effectively - theologically incompatible foundations and thus some have made the choice which logically flows from that incompatibility, to separate ecclesiologically while others have made the choice to live with incompatibility. But, no, Bryden, following Bowman, there remains a work to be done, if we are willing to do it, in which we ask how there can be such theologically incompatible foundations amidst a people - Anglicans - otherwise either theologically agreed on so much OR ecclesiologically willing to live with so much difference - and so, could it be that this is because we have not yet begun to reflect on "the full implications etc"?

To which and to whit, with time still short, some observations:

(a) That theological genius, Mike Tyson, once said something like this, Everyone has a plan until I hit them in the mouth. The great difficulty with a theology of marriage is that the "plan" is easy to state (marriage is ... sexual sin is a dereliction of what marriage is ...) but responding to the punch in the mouth not so (... divorce ... a single mother bringing her child to baptism* ... a same sex married couple involving themselves in the ministry of the parish ... disciplining the "nature" of sexual drive within a marriage with the "contra-nature" of (artificial or "natural method") contraception, driven by a mix of concerns, including health of wife/mother and sheer economic sense and sensibility ...). Should the church divide because its response to the mouth punch of actual human conditions is various rather than uniform?

*It may be a sign of how far we have come - in the real conditions of modern life - that readers might puzzle over what the issue here is, but a conversation at the weekend reminded me that it was not so long ago that such single mothers were turned away from having their children baptised by some Anglican vicars.

(b) Dare we engage not only in a theology of marriage but also in a theology of justice, mercy and people on the margins of society? Without the latter, I suggest we are in danger of losing perspective on how important some issues are. Alternative question: how has the church come to be seen as an oppressive organisation for homosexuals? Ditto, dare we engage in a theology of theology? We seem to be in grave danger with That Topic of presenting a God to the world who has a soft spot for heterosexuals, even though we have many foibles, and a harsh judgement for homosexuals, unmodified by any intention to commit to a lifelong partnership. What kind of God is that? How on earth can it seem even slightly reasonable that the world thinks of God as homophobic? Surely we Christians couldn't have said anything to prompt such thoughts?

(c) Romans 14-15 envisages one simple common foundation for mutual welcome and acceptance - notwithstanding our arguments here over whether Romans 14-15 does or does not apply to present issues:

"Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God."

Christ - the church's one (ONE!) foundation :)