I went to the Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s Bible study on I John. The pastor gave a presentation, and it was impressive. He made literary references—-one to Jonathan Livingston’s Sea Gull, and another to Les Miserables. He talked about history: for instance, he said that Domitian and Diocletian were the Roman emperors who proactively tried to stamp Christianity out, whereas other emperors did not do so to that extent; he stated that some North African governors may have attempted to do so. One could probably ask “But what about?”s here, but his grasp of historical nuance was impressive. He performed form criticism: he noted that I John, like Hebrews, lacks a salutation and is like a homily and was intended to be read aloud, as a homily; a letter may have accompanied it. He also drew parallels between ancient heresies and modern religious beliefs: he compared Christian Science to docetism. See here for a post about that.
There were things that he said about which I had questions, though I did not ask them in class. He said that the historical-critical method is still taught at Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, but not so much at Harvard, Yale, and Duke. The latter embrace a narrative-historical approach to reading the Bible, one that takes the Bible as more of a unity. I was at Harvard Divinity School about eighteen years ago, and granted, some of the professors focused significantly on the history of interpretation, but I would not say that the historical-critical method was absent there. How much that has changed, I do not know. While I agree with the pastor that source criticism can be a bit of a dead end—-since there is so much difference of opinion about what the sources are and when to date them—-I don’t think that it can be easily chucked, since there are places where the Bible does not read smoothly, and source criticism is a way to account for that.
The pastor said that the Gospels were attributed to the people who bear their names ten years after they were written, as they were circulated to churches. I wonder if that is true. My understanding is that Irenaeus was the first to explicitly identify the Gospels with the people who bear their names. Before that, Justin Martyr referred to the Gospels as the Memoirs of the Apostles, and that can fit Matthew, John, and Mark (who supposedly conveys Peter’s testimony), albeit not Luke so much (unless one wants to say that Luke conveys apostolic testimony that he gathered in his research). Justin Martyr and Irenaeus lived in the second century, more than ten years after the Gospels were written. Of course, they did not necessarily make up the tradition, and they could have been drawing from an earlier tradition, but can we know how early that tradition was? Regarding manuscripts, Gospel manuscripts bearing the names, as far as I know, are more than ten years from the time that the Gospels were written (see what Bart Ehrman says here). Perhaps the pastor had in mind Papias’ remarks on some of the Gospels, as Papias claimed to receive his information from elders he thought had a connection with the apostles.
The pastor said that Islam is similar to docetism in that it said that Jesus did not technically die on the cross. The pastor said the rationale for this belief is that God cannot die. I am sure that he knows, though, that Muslims do not believe that Jesus is God; he may have been saying that the docetists did not think that God could die. But I have a question: if the Muslims do not think that Jesus is God, why do they care if he died or not? This article addresses that question.
Now for what the pastor presented about I John. The pastor said that John wrote I John in Ephesus to the churches in Asia Minor, after 81 C.E. John was combating docetism, which held that Jesus only appeared to be human, but actually was not. Drawing from his own experience, John affirmed that he saw and touched Jesus, meaning Jesus was not a phantom. Whereas John drew from his own eyewitness testimony, the docetists were attempting to reconcile Christianity with Greek philosophy and thus rejected the notion that the divine could become flesh, suffer, and die. In II John, John discouraged Christians from welcoming docetists, in a time when hospitality was prized. Because the fellowship of the church is founded on Jesus Christ becoming a human and suffering a dying for people’s sins, the docetists, by denying that, were excluding themselves from the Christian community. They were committing a mortal sin in their refusal to accept Jesus as the means of atonement, whereas believers received forgiveness through the blood of Christ on account of their belief in Jesus.
The pastor did not explicitly talk about John’s emphasis on love for the brethren in I John. Some commentators have argued that the docetists were not showing love for the Christian community in that they were excluding themselves from it, and that resembles the pastor’s point: that the Christian community was not really excluding them, but they were excluding themselves. Those commentators’ argument rubs me the wrong way: if the docetists do not believe the way John’s church does, why is it unloving for them simply to leave?
I’ll probably be going to this study in the future. I liked the format, and, like I said, the presentation was impressive.
I’ll leave the comments on, in case anyone wants to chime in. Don’t insult me, though. Also, it may take me time to get to the comments.