The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John

By Ortlund, Dane | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John


Ortlund, Dane, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. By Richard Bauckham. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007, 313 pp., $29.99 paper.

The only thing more impressive than Richard Bauckham's award-winning study, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), is its author's refusal to rest content in its warm reception. Bauckham's most recent work explores further some lines of thought already developed at some length in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses as well as in various previous publications. Indeed, twelve of the thirteen chapters are reworked publications from earlier research. Nevertheless, the collection as a whole, while not a tightly progressing argument, provides a unified, integrated, and convincing portrait of the Gospel of John that diverges in numerous ways from recent prevailing trends. Bauckham has just concluded a long and fruitful tenure as Professor of New Testament Studies and Bishop Wardlaw Professor at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

The aim of Testimony of the Beloved Disciple is to challenge what Bauckham labels "the dominant approach" of Johannine study since the 1970s, inaugurated by J. Louis Martyn's study History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Harper & Row, 1968) and significantly advanced by Raymond Brown throughout the 1970s. The opening pages of the introductory chapter outline seven characteristics of this approach: (1) a neglect of patristic voices; (2) reading John as theology, not history; (3) a confidence in source criticism; (4) seeing a Johannine community as central to the Gospel's formation and reception; (5) viewing the Gospel as having emerged from this Johannine community; (6) an impulse to reconstruct this community's history through accounts in the Gospel; and (7) a belief that the Johannine community was predominantly Jewish. Bauckham divulges that in recent years (due largely to the influence of Martin Hengel) he has been "abandoning one by one all of these elements of the dominant approach" (p. 12). He then crystallizes his own perspective: "the Gospel is an integral whole, including both the prologue and the epilogue, and was designed as such by a single author. I have returned to the traditional view that the distinctiveness of the Gospel ... is due . . . primarily to a theologically creative and literarily skilled author" (p. 12). Insisting that the Gospel's genre be put front and center of any serious study, Bauckham writes that "what most Johannine scholars have notably failed to take seriously is that the Gospel's theology itself requires a concern for history" (p. 14; italics his). The remainder of the introduction summarizes what is to follow in the chapters ahead, divided into discussions of the Gospel's authorship (chaps. 2-3), genre (chap. 4), audience (chaps. 5-6), historicity (chaps. 7-10), theology (chaps. 11-12), and literary unity (chap. 13).

Bauckham first examines external and internal evidence to suggest that the author of the Fourth Gospel-the "beloved disciple" - is not John son of Zebedee but John the Elder, a Jerusalem disciple (though not one of the Twelve), who served as high priest for a short time. Chapter 2 inspects external evidence from Polycrates and Papias, while chapter 3 turns to internal evidence, commending an understanding of the beloved disciple not as ideal disciple but as ideal witness. Challenging the common maxim that John's Gospel is not history but theology, chapter 4 observes traits of ancient historiography to argue that this Gospel, on the contrary, would "have looked considerably more like historiography than the Synoptic Gospels would" to a competent first-century reader (p. 112). Chapter 5 upends another alleged misunderstanding of the Fourth Gospel, fueled largely by J. Louis Martyn: that it was produced by and for a specific sectarian community, unlike the more broadly oriented Synoptic Gospels. Bauckham argues that John is actually more universal in scope than the Synoptics, writing not only to the entire Christian community but also to unbelievers. …

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