The historical value of John’s Gospel: ‘one of the biggest gulfs between New Testament scholarship and the ‘man in the pew’

On the question of the historical value of John’s Gospel there is probably one of the biggest gulfs between New Testament scholarship and the ‘man in the pew’. In preaching and devotional Bible study the assumption is regularly made that all four Gospels are straightforward historical sources for information about what Jesus did or said. Whereas scholars have almost always found themselves pushed to the conclusion that John’s Gospel reflects much more of the early churches’ understanding of Jesus than of Jesus’ own self-understanding. There is Christian interpretation in the other three Gospels, as we have seen, but in John’s gospel there is much more of it. Again, evangelical or apologetic assertions regarding the claims of Christ will often quote the claims made by Jesus himself (in the Gospel of John) with the alternatives posed, ‘Mad, bad or God’, without allowing that there may be a further alternative (viz. Christian claims about Jesus rather than Jesus’ claims about himself). Or again, ecumenical pronouncements will frequently cite Jesus’ prayer, ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21), without ever raising the question as to whether the prayer was formulated by Jesus himself or at a later date.

How then are we to understand John’s Gospel? The issue here is obviously a peculiarly sensitive one. And the answer to it will have wide repercussions on our use of John’s Gospel at all these different levels (preaching, evangelism, etc). It is important therefore that the Christian community at large should recognize how scholars see John’s Gospel and why they see it that way. That is our task here.

James DG Dunn The Evidence for Jesus pp. 31-32


James Dunn (PhD Cambridge) was for many years the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham. Since his retirement he has been made Emeritus Lightfoot Professor. He is a leading British New Testament scholar, broadly in the Protestant tradition. Dunn is especially associated with the New Perspective on Paul, a phrase which he is credited with coining during his 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture.

Categories: Bible, Christianity, Jesus, New Testament scholarship, Recommended reading

2 replies

  1. As has been argued before (for years, in fact), there doesn’t seem to be a clear methodology for measuring how much “interpretation” (read: fiction) there is in John, and that might be good grounds for understanding if the man in the pews is unwilling to just accept a conclusions that there is a greater preponderance of “interpretation” in John. Dunn went on to appeal to differences in vocabulary and style, but that can arise easily if the different authors are boiling down a larger cloud of traditions in different ways.

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