Wednesday, 14 December 2016

"The Gospel and Epistles of John"

In Chapter IX of Redating the New Testament, Robinson comes at last to the gospel and epistles of John. I say "at last," because in the introductory chapter he had noted that it was doubts about the standard dating of this literature to the 90s that led him on the course of research that eventuated in Redating. That his real interest is ultimately in the dates of these four texts is reinforced by the fact that his next, and last, monograph was The Priority of John, which although not quite complete at the time of his passing was published posthumously. In this blog post, I'll focus specifically upon the Gospel of John, and in another upon the letters.

An initial word must be given regarding Robinson's use of "priority." When I hear the word "priority" in relation to the gospels I think in terms of source relationships: to say that John has priority is thus to say that it is a source for one or more other texts. What Robinson means however is something closer to what I would call "primitivity." What he is responding to is the idea that John represents a relatively advanced theology, whether its in its Christology or its pneumatology or its soteriology or whatever. This is crucial for dating purposes, because it was the idea that John represented an advanced Christianity that led F.C. Baur to date it into the late-2nd century. A date that late is today a non-starter, largely due to the work of J.B. Lightfoot a generation after Baur, but there remains a lingering supposition that John must come last of all the gospels, and must be late enough to allow its advanced theology to develop (although how we can know whether that development must have taken sixty years rather than thirty, I've never been entirely clear. Robinson makes much the same point with regard specifically to Brown's five-stage theory of the development of John's Gospel: one could in fact affirm those five stages and date the gospel to the 60s rather than the 90s, as Brown insists one must do). Robinson affirms and builds upon the work of C.H. Dodd, which aimed to show that John in fact builds extensively upon an early, "primitive," tradition that was in direct contact with the Jewish-Christian circles of the first Christian generation. Where he moves beyond Dodd is in asking why, if on Dodd's own arguments, everything that in John's Gospel could have existed by 70, does Dodd need to place the gospel in the 90s, following the consensus position built by Lightfoot.

Thus does Robinson open up for discussion the hypothesis that John's Gospel predates 70. He recognizes however that he needs to consider the relevant data more carefully before he can affirm that hypothesis. He looks at whether or not John's Gospel evinces an awareness of the events of the Jewish War, especially the fall of Jerusalem and, concludes, I think rightly, that it does not. Here we must be careful about the argument from silence: this line of argument merely establishes that the events of 70 are no impediment to dating prior to 70, not that one should thus date the text. Robinson examines the apparent reference after the fact to Peter's death (cf. John 21:18-19), and concludes that indeed this passage likely postdates that event (which he earlier dated to 65). He considers 21:22-23, which are often seen as evidence that by the time that these last section of the Gospel was written the Beloved Disciple had already passed away, and notes correctly that this is not a necessary reading of the passage. Thus he is able to establish c. 65 as a likely terminus post quem for the Gospel.

Robinson concludes that the gospel was completed c. 65: thus allowing for the knowledge of Peter's death, but also bringing it into close temporal contact with the Palestinian Jewish-Christian circles with which Robinson, following Dodd, believes it is in contact, and also explaining why it evinces little to no awareness of the Jewish War. I find his argument that John's Gospel could be as early as 65 generally compelling, as well as his suggestions that it coheres best with a pre-70 milieu. I find his arguments from silence regarding the Jewish War less compelling, and would counter with one of my own: if, as Robinson insists, the Christian literature of the late 60s is dominated by reference to the Neronian persecution then why is probable reference to that persecution limited to the notice about Peter's death? One might say "Well, the nature of a gospel narrative is such that it tends to resist references, even the most allusive, to contemporary events," but that then vitiates the argument that the gospel should contain references to the Jewish War. My own thinking is that this is again an instance wherein his treatment of Nero is problematic. Robinson wants to think that the events of the Neronian persecution were so significant that they are referenced everywhere in the NT; he wants to state that the events of the Jewish War were so significant that they should be referenced everywhere in the NT if the bulk of the material post-dates 70; yet is unphased by the fact that a text that seems to clearly reference the Neronian persecution bears little evidence of being effected by its events beyond a simple notice about Peter. Frankly, I think that Robinson engages in a degree of special pleading, wherein types of arguments that he would not allow with regard to the destruction of the temple he quite happily uses in regard to the Neronian persecution.

Those reservations about Robinson's argument notwithstanding, I do think that a date in the mid to late 60s makes a great deal of sense. The notice about Peter does show that the Johannine evangelist, or subsequent redactor, is prepared to make reference to events that post-date Jesus's life. The fact that this is the most recent event thus referenced would seem to carry some weight: the more time elapsed between the events of c. 30 and the final composition of the Johannine gospel, the more likely we would find more and later such editoralizing. Combine this with the argument from Dodd that the tradition is quite at home in a pre-70 milieu and I think that something in the mid to late 60s makes better sense than something in the 90s.

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