My church started a new Bible study last night. We’re going through John’s Gospel: Wisdom from Ephesus, with Michael Card.
What impressed me most last night was the openness of people in the group, and Michael Card on the DVD, to scholarly ideas about the composition of the Bible. The pastor was saying that he learned from the History Channel’s miniseries on the Bible that the John who wrote the Gospel of John was not the same person as the John who wrote the Book of Revelation. Someone else in the group, who is rather conservative and evangelical yet is part of the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), said that he was in a Bible study group about the Book of Revelation, and it was discussing the question of whether the same person wrote the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation.
I had something to contribute to this discussion, for I got back into reading Lee Harmon’s Revelation: The Way It Happened (and my blog posts on that book will appear starting June 25). I happened to read the night before my Bible study Lee’s discussion of the authorship of Revelation, so the issue was fresh in my mind. I told the group about reasons that many scholars believe that John’s Gospel and Revelation are by different people (different Greek styles), while also explaining the arguments of conservative scholars who maintain that the same guy wrote both books (i.e., literary reasons for the stylistic differences, and patristic ascription of Revelation to the apostle John). I’m happy when I can come across as smart, as rarely as that happens!
On the DVD, Michael Card was saying that Matthew and Luke base the outline of their story on the Gospel of Mark, so he was essentially agreeing with Markan priority. While Card believes that John, the author of John’s Gospel, was an eyewitness to Jesus, he seems to think that there’s more to what John is doing than simply writing down what happened. According to Card, John’s Gospel was written much later than the synoptics, and so John had more time to reflect about the significance of Jesus. The implication of this is that we see in John things that happened, mixed with John’s retrospective and theological reflections about Jesus’ significance.
I enjoyed hearing Michael Card talk about some of the differences between John’s Gospel and the synoptics. John leaves out some of the things that other Gospels have, while going in a different direction. John, unlike Matthew and Luke, does not have a birth story about Jesus, but John does discuss the incarnation. John does not have a Last Supper scene, but he does describe what happened after the Last Supper. John, unlike the synoptics, does not have parables, but Jesus in John’s Gospels is himself a parable—-Jesus is the light of the world who goes on to open the eyes of the blind, and Jesus is the bread of life who feeds the multitudes.
I’m appreciative whenever an evangelical acknowledges some human element in the Bible, because that is a good counterweight to the ideas about the Bible that a number of conservative Christians hold: that all of the Bible’s words were spoken or dictated by God. I know that there are many conservative Christians who would distance themselves from this model of revelation, but there are still a number who hold fast to it.
I’m doubtful that some of the people in my group would be open to other conclusions that biblical scholarship has made: the view that Moses did not write the Pentateuch but that it contains contradictory sources or layers, or the idea there there are multiple hands in the Book of Isaiah. It doesn’t really tax one’s faith to say that different Johns wrote John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation. After all, even according to traditionalists, the Bible contains the work of more than one author! But to say that Moses did not write the Pentateuch does not sound right to a number of conservative Christians, one reason being that Jesus seems to attribute parts of the Pentateuch to Moses. The same would go for the question of how many Isaiahs there are. And, for some reason, there are a number of conservative Christians who wouldn’t be open to the idea that Paul did not write all of the letters attributed to him. I think that the reason for their discomfort here is that such a view would make the letters less authentic—-they’d like for a letter that is attributed to Paul to be from Paul, not from some unknown who was pretending to be Paul.
Moreover, I’m not sure if people in the group would acknowledge that the Bible contradicts himself. Some in the group are more open to that than others. When John’s Gospel is different from the synoptics, that’s not a contradiction, in the eyes of many conservative Christians. Rather, John’s Gospel and the synoptics are highlighting different aspects of the truth.