The Revd Richard Burridge is Dean of King’s College, London and Professor of Biblical Interpretation. He is recognised as a leading expert on the gospels. His acclaimed work is entitled: What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography.
‘Some modern studies assume that if there is ‘fiction’ in the gospels, then they are inauthentic or unreliable. However, closer attention to literary criticism shows that no one wrote a classical biography to provide a documented historical text as we might capture something with a tape recorder, but rather in an attempt to get ‘inside’ the person. Thus, John’s stress on ‘truth’ is not about documented fact but the higher truth of who Jesus is, which is why he writes in a biographical format. For him, Jesus is ’the way, the truth and the life’, so his Jesus says these words (John 14.16). To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely. This is neither a lie nor a fiction; it is simply a way of bringing out the truth about the subject which the author wishes to tell the audience.’
(pp 67-68 in Jesus now and then published by SPCK 2004.)
Now I strongly disagree with Dr. Burridge when he says:
‘To ask whether Jesus actually ever spoke these words is to miss the point completely’.
I believe that if we wish to do responsible Jesus research then this is precisely the kind of question we must ask. In point of fact most New Testament scholars do not consider the historical Jesus to have actually uttered the famous I am statements (for example ‘I am the light of the world’) which are found uniquely in the last canonical gospel to be written. All of our earliest sources, Mark, Q, Matthew, Luke, M, L, know NOTHING of the great I ams in the Fourth Gospel. If Jesus had gone around publicly saying to people “Before Abraham was I am”, how come Luke who tells us at the start of his gospel,
“I have decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you”
knew absolutely nothing about these amazing claims?
Evangelicals today love to quote from John’s gospel more than any other to ‘prove’ that Jesus is God because he ‘claimed’ to be God. If it is unlikely he actually said these words (as scholars tend to conclude), then the whole missionary project is shown to rest on very dubious foundations.
There is clearly a radical disconnect between evangelical claims in preaching and the conclusions of much New Testament scholarship – an academic subject dominated by Christians.