The early English defense of the Fourth Gospel

If you are someone who thinks modern New Testament criticism contains unanswerable arguments against the historical value of the Fourth Gospel, I think you have never studied the critical defense of John’s Gospel by English scholars of the nineteenth century.

Beginning about 1848, the British scholars who took up the task of refuting the negative German criticism of the Fourth Gospel followed in the footsteps of Germans who had already begun to counter the negative arguments point by point on valid historical and textual-critical grounds. But fundamentalists beware – the best of this early defense of John’s Gospel (both English and German) was not buttressed by special pleading for plenary inspiration.

So I’m saying that a ‘battle of modern scholars’ was fought over 150 years ago and was by 1900 fairly won by the side supporting the Fourth Gospel’s authenticity. I can’t blame you if you ask – Why then do we find so many scholars of repute today who hold the Fourth Gospel in less esteem than the other three? I can only urge you to consult the ‘British defense’ and judge for yourselves whether it has had a fair hearing among negative critics.

Here is a story told by archdeacon Henry Watkins, canon of Durham Cathedral in 1889, of a conversation he had with the Bishop of Durham, J.B. Lightfoot.

“One day while walking with the late Bishop of Durham, when we hoped he was regaining strength, I took the opportunity of asking him how he accounted for the fact of the frequent assertion that the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel was disproved by modern criticism, in the presence of the strong and accumulating evidence in its favour.” (Modern Criticism Considered in Relation to the Fourth Gospel, 1890, p.viii)

Lightfoot was age 61 at the time and suffered from an illness which was to end his life that same year. It was at the bishop’s urging that Watkins prepared a review in rough outline of the chief issues of the convincing 40-year campaign to defend Johanine scholarship against the negative critics. Bishop Lightfoot then gave the last effort of his life to securing the archdeacon’s appointment as the next Bampton Lecturer at Oxford.  “No subject,” he wrote before his death, “could be more useful at the present day, and I think that the time has arrived when it can be effectively treated”.

Last year I began a defense of the historicity of John on this blog, and I mean to keep pushing this point.  Last month I found Watkins’ 1890 Bampton Lectures in my favorite old seminary, and I want to get some results of reading posted in the near future.

It should come as no surprise that I feel the history of fundamentalist bluster against the higher criticism can play no real part in the issues at stake with John’s Gospel.  The evangelical mind seems to have neither taste nor capacity for this kind of argument – due to its habitual abdication of reason in the presence of texts conceived to be almighty.  Even the ex-evangelical mind seems unsuited to the task of positive criticism.  The negative German critics themselves were often ex-evangelicals who, after losing their belief in the Bible’s divine authorship, also lost their way in critical scholarship.


7 thoughts on “The early English defense of the Fourth Gospel

  1. +Rowan Williams has an excellent essay in his excellent little book “Anglican Identities” on “Anglican Approaches to St. John’s Gospel,” which looks at Westcott, Hoskyns, Temple and J.A.T. Robinson. Sounds right up your alley.

    Also, I too do not understand the persistant skepticism. I recall sitting through a sermon by a former bishop who went out of his way to apologize for the fact that we were reading St. John and dealing with his Jesus, who apparently the bishop had never really liked. I thought how curiously ironic it was considering that the Gospel is all about how people react to his Jesus when they meet him.

    • I like Rowan Williams, thanks for the tip.

      Last week I was reading the biographical-memoir of Westcott by his son which appeared shortly after his death in 1901. The future bishop was reading Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection at Cambridge in 1849 (age 24) the year after George Eliot’s translation of Strauss’ Leben Jesu appeared (along with the ET of August Neander’s great counter-punch, his Leben Jesu Christi).

      Your comment on the anti-Johannine ‘feeling’ is perfect.

  2. Thanks, John, for the thoughtful treatment of an important subject!

    As I worked through the character of John’s Christology, it became apparent to me that theology alone cannot account for the bulk of the Johannine tradition–nor can dependence on Synoptics (only 20% of John overlaps with Mark, and none of that is identical) or dependence on alien sources (diachronic evidence is empirically lacking). So, finding a way to get the discussion going critically has been the task of the John, Jesus, and History Project, now in its 10th year at SBL (see website:

    The Rowan Williams essay is included in The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, along with several other good essays.

    Say more about Polanyi; what if his approach to epistemology and history were applied to gospel studies and Johannine historicity in particular? If Matthew and Luke built upon Mark and John (at least its first edition) built around Mark, might that go some distance in accounting for John’s witness to Jesus?

    I develop such possibilities–laying out generously 36 of John’s critical problems: theological, historical, literary–in The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel, just out a couple of months ago.

    Let me know what you think if you get a chance, and thanks for the good work!

    Paul Anderson

  3. Dr. Anderson, right away I can say that I appreciate your work on John, and thanks for the new link – I had your first book from the library last year to get a feel for the ‘new discussion.’

    Before I take a look at your recent paper, I will say that what goes a heck of a long way toward solving these issues is an acceptance of the excellent historical arguments of Lightfoot and Westcott against the theories by which Baur and Strauss tried to establish a mid-second century date for John. Once we are back to a 95-105 AD date for John, I see no reason to doubt a priori that an eyewitness disciple was still living 70 years after the crucifixion – the living source of the bulk of the fourth gospel.

    If I hold John as sourced to an eyewitness, the difference between John and the 3 earlier gospels causes me no problem. Because I think the fact that the first three books ‘see together’ can only be used as a criterion of historical and literary dependency for the latter two – not a criterion for exclusion of the fourth. Luke and the author of Matthew (not being eyewitnesses) needed the outline of Mark as a framework for the introduction of their own traditions of acts and teachings not included by Mark. But the eyewitness source of the fourth gospel was bound in no such way to the alleged ‘historical’ outline.

    Much more remains to be said – but as far as Polanyi’s insights go, I like the idea of undoing the effects of ‘detachment’ and phony ideals of objectivity which have insinuated themselves into Jesus studies. In illustration, I think it’s a little funny that, with all the alleged objectivity and detachment among ‘Jesus historians,’ we still see the rebellious Irish peasant Crossan presenting Jesus as a rebellious peasant 🙂 . In my view the only way to guard against human ‘projection’ in Jesus studies is to gracefully accept his divinity along with his humanity.

    Thanks for writing.
    [Note: fourth paragraph of this comment revised Sun Jun 5, AM]

  4. I’m having a hard time figuring out what you mean by “historicity of John.”

    If Jesus really said “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true” (John 5 I think) only to be later caught testifying about himself “Aha! You testified about yourself, your testimony is not true,” and his response is “although I testify of myself, my testimony is true,” (John 8 ) what does this say about him? Do you really want this to be historical?

    Again, in that same place (John 8 ) he also says “It is written in your law, the testimony of two witnesses is true. I am one witness and my Father is another.” Well, actually, that is NOT written in the Law. The Law says not “he testimony of two witnesses is true.” The Law says “you shall not put a man to death on the testimony of one witness. There must be two or three.”

    What kind of an odd law would it be to say that anything that two people testify to is true. If I could get two friends to testify that they saw me raise a man from the dead, it would by law be true, if such a law really existed. That is ludicrous.

    Further, how can he be a witness for his own self? Especially after saying so categorically in John 5 “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true?” Why not rather, then “John the Baptist is one witness, and this paralyzed guy I healed is another,” and so on. What sense, by the way, does it make to call the Father in as a witness, when the Father does not speak audibly, and if he were to call the Father as one of his two witnesses, why make himself the other witness, rather than the Holy Spirit? The author of John missed a great opportunity to put some profound words in Jesus’ mouth. Instead, he makes Jesus come off as a rube, who doesn’t know what the Torah says, and who can’t think well on his feet.

  5. rey, the Jews have been making these kinds of legalistic attacks on the words of Jesus and the New Testament texts from the beginning.

    It stands to reason that if the Jews of John’s time were making a big deal alleging that in one case ‘he testified about himself’ and in another case ‘he said self-testimony was untrue,’ we might find in a late eyewitness text like John a write-up showing how the alleged conundrum went down. These kinds of apparent embarrassments are pretty strong evidence against an out-right fraud, actually.

    The Gospel of John can be considered an historical source without having to pass an arbitrary bar of purity with the enemies of Christianity.

    Whoever does the will of God will know that the teaching is true.

  6. Yes, these are really important issues, and finding the right way to go about the inquiry is essential. The reason critical biblical scholarship claims reasoned authority is that it endeavors to build its analyses on the basis of objective analysis. Therefore, given that all have access to biblical texts, the question is how to interpret them–independent of one’s theological interests or aversions. That being the case, critical scholarship (“critical” refers to using analytical judgment) upholds the promise of being equally compelling to believers and nonbelievers-even between believers of differing theological stances.

    For this reason scholars expect each other to put their theological investments on the shelf while they conduct their investigations openly and honestly. Put otherwise, sometimes the best interpretation of a biblical text may go against one’s theological convictions; if that is the case, the biblical scholar must privilege the text rather than distort its meanings to fit one’s own beliefs. Conservative interpreters are sometimes guilty of distorting or evading biblical content as well as liberal interpreters, and as John points out, the danger is coming up with an interpretation that is a bit too convenient or close to one’s own biases. So, seeking the truth about a text’s best meaning(s) is always the best way to proceed. Having approximated such, though, the next challenge is how to integrate one’s inferences with one’s convictions.

    Rey, the reason the Gospel of John is such a historical problem is that it is very different from the Synoptics, while being the only gospel claiming eyewitness derivation. If Jesus spoke in parables, John has no parables; if Jesus cast out demons, John has no exorcisms; if Jesus healed lepers, the deaf, and the mute, John has none of those miracles; if Jesus cleared the temple at the end of his ministry, John presents it at the beginning. Conversely, if Jesus spoke in I-am sayings, went to Jerusalem several times during his ministry, turned water into wine and raised Lazarus from the dead, none of these features are in the Synoptics. And, since John is so highly theological, scholars since the 19th century have looked to the Synoptics for the Jesus of history, looking to John for the Christ of faith. I have written an extended treatment of these issues (plus laying out a dozen historical problems in John) in The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel (ch. 3).

    Another reason scholars have preferred the Synoptics over John for historical-Jesus studies is that it might seem safer to go with three against one where John and the Synoptics differ. As scholars are adverse to risk, leaving John out seems “safer” to some. The problem with such an approach, however, is that it must discount the possibility that John has independent historical knowledge or tradition as a basis for its differing accounts. Yes, John’s Jesus speaks and acts in ways that accord with the narrator’s own language and rhetorical interests, but does this fact eliminate John’s historical claims or does it simply qualify them? These are the sorts of questions I’m hoping to raise among scholars.

    Important issues, here!

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