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.