Tom Thatcher. Why John Wrote a Gospel: Jesus—-Memory—-History. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
I got this book at a low price from Christian Book Distributors. It looked like it would be a good book for me to read for two reasons. First, I have read more than once in the biblioblogosphere that historical Jesus studies are moving away from the longstanding criteria of authenticity, and towards a focus on memory. For a long time, and even today, scholars have applied criteria to the Gospels in order to determine what parts of the Gospels are historically accurate. For example, if the Gospels say something embarrassing about Jesus, then what they say in that case is probably accurate, since why would Gospel authors make up something that is embarrassing about Jesus? If the Gospels present Jesus saying something that is discontinuous from the teachings of early Christians, then Jesus most likely said it. Nowadays, scholars are saying that there are weaknesses in the criteria (i.e., what we may consider embarrassing about Jesus may not have been thought to be so by the Gospel writers), and many are saying that we should look at memory, particularly social memory. I have read a number of blog posts about this topic, and yet there are gaps in my mind about it. I have wondered: Does the focus on memory imply that the Gospels stem from eyewitness testimony, from people who were in Jesus’ presence and remembered what he did and taught, even if they interpreted or applied those things in different ways? Because Thatcher’s book contains an extensive discussion of social memory, I figured that I might find some answers there.
Second, I have long had questions about writing in the ancient world. Why were things written down in the first place, when there was oral culture and people passed down traditions by word of mouth? Why would Gospels need to be written down? Who did the writing, since writing in those days may have required some wealth or influence due to the costliness of writing materials?
Tom Thatcher’s Why John Wrote a Gospel addresses the question of why the Gospel of John was written down. He raises some of the same sorts of questions that I have: Why write, when most people arguably could not read, and when there was an oral culture? But he also asks questions that rest on other considerations. Why did the author of the Gospel of John see a need to write a Gospel, when he said that the Holy Spirit would bring things about Jesus to people’s remembrance (John 14:26)? If the Holy Spirit could cause believers to remember what Jesus said and did, would it not be unnecessary to write those things down to preserve them and to keep them from being forgotten? On a similar note, did not I John 2:27 tell believers that they needed no one to teach them because they were anointed by the Holy Spirit? If John believed that they were so anointed and guided directly by the Holy Spirit, why would he write a Gospel so that they could be taught or remember what Jesus said and did?
Thatcher’s answer is that the author of John’s Gospel was writing the Gospel down to create an official and permanent version of what Jesus said and taught, in opposition to the Antichrists whom I John criticizes. The Antichrists were denying that Jesus Christ came in the flesh: they may have been saying that a Christ spirit came upon the historical Jesus of Nazareth and left Jesus when Jesus was about to be crucified, or that Jesus only appeared to be human but really was not, but rather was a divine figure. The Antichrists maintained that they were faithful to the memory of Jesus—-and they may have even claimed that they were witness to new revelations from Jesus. But the writer of the Johnannine literature did not believe that their interpretations of Jesus’ life were accurate, for he thought that Jesus came in the flesh and died as part of God’s plan. Consequently, the Johannine author wrote his Gospel. Writing in those days served to give permanence or stability to certain recollections or versions of a story, which was what the Johannine author wanted to do: once something was written down, that was hard to change, and it was even official, in some sense. Moreover, because most people could not read, they tended to revere the written word.
I found Thatcher’s book to be useful and helpful for a variety of reasons. I appreciated his reference to ancient Christian sources that actually specified why the Gospels were written down: to preserve what Jesus said and did. Thatcher’s discussion of memory was also valuable. He pointed out that the Gospel of John itself maintains that memory is about more than what Jesus said and did, for it also includes the correct interpretation of those events. The Gospel of John, after all, says that some of Jesus’ words were misunderstood until after he was resurrected (see, for example, John 2:22). Moreover, Thatcher argued that memory is social. Even if we remember doing something in solitude, we did what we did within a social context, and, if we wanted to share what we did with others, we would have to communicate it in a way that would make sense to our social context. I should also note that Thatcher’s cartoons and visual aids in the book clarified to me what he was arguing.
In terms of criticisms, I have four. First of all, although Thatcher made a fairly decent case that most Jews could not read in antiquity, he should have interacted with scholarship that argues the opposite, such as Alan Millard’s Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (see here, both my post and the comments). Second, Thatcher states that people may not have even read the Gospel of John, but he should have interacted with the question of whether they would have read from it in church services, as Jews hear the Torah being read in synagogues. Third, I wish that Thatcher addressed the question of who in the ancient world would have had the wealth, power, or resources to write a Gospel, or to contribute to the writing of one. That could have launched a profitable discussion about the role of social interests in defining what is orthodox and heretical. And, fourth, I was not always clear about Thatcher’s definition of memory. I often thought that he believed that it related to eyewitness testimony—-people remembering what they saw—-but he seems to indicate in places of the book that memory can be broader than that: that it can include believing something about the past, or even encountering events through reading a book.
Although Thatcher did not address all of the questions that are in my mind about social memory and writing, I did find what he said about the Gospel of John to be interesting and thought-provoking. His personal anecdotes also made him a pleasure to read.