[DISCLAIMER: I am only reviewing the first volume of a three-volume series]
[UPDATE: Prof. von Wahlde has written a response to my "review" in the comments. In respect to some of his concerns, I have lightly edited some of my harsher comments and I encourage you to read his response to get a sense for how he reacts to my thoughts.]
Apparently a massive undertaking, Urban von Wahlde (UvW) recently wrote a commentary on the Johannine Literature (Eerdmans). The first volume, covering introductory issues, reaches almost 700 pages alone!
Why would such a lengthy volume be necessary?
UvW has developed a rather sophisticated solution to what he sees as the problem of an incoherent and heavily redacted final form of the text of the Gospel of John. Drawing considerably from the work of Bultmann and to some degree from Brown (and Wellhausen, seriously), he has established a reading theory that separates the final form of John into three layers or “editions” as he calls them.
Edition #1: Written probably between 60-65AD offers the skeleton story of the Gospel as it currently is. This ground layer has a low Christology, uses “signs” as the keyword for Jesus’ miracles, focuses on a broad range of terms for the antagonists (Pharisees, chief priests, rulers), and develops a plot line where such enemies of Jesus grow in anger until they plot to kill him. This first author was probably Jewish and had a strong knowledge of the Jesus tradition. His purpose is evangelistic and his writing community probably had contact with or deep knowledge of the ministry of John the Baptist.
Edition #2: This redactor edits the text with a theological agenda, and neglects and even obscures the narratological progression of the text. This edition focuses on the antagonists simply as the “Jews”. It is this edition especially that intends to communicate to Jewish Christians who have been rejected by the synagogal community. A high Christology is woven into the text at this point. This edition probably was produced 65-70AD.
Edition #3: This redactor has even less of an interest in the narrative and make purely theological changes. He infuses the perspective of the Elder (1 John written prior to this edition), brings an apocalyptic perspective, adds the prologue, and develops the eucharistic language. This edition was produced 90-95AD.
UvW recognizes how this reconstruction might sound to a modern guild of NT scholars that have “moved on” away from diachronic readings to treat the canonical text from a literary perspective. Yet UvW is relentless in his argument (hence the massive volume) that such a multilayered approach is absolutely necessary. I find his reasoning flawed, and yet I respect the fact that he presents as thorough a case as possible. In the end, though, the complexity of his own re-construction is not a manageable, provable or satisfactory resolution. Below I will engage with his series of arguments. I will present some of his claims (I can only do so much!), and my own responses.
Claim: The text of the Gospel of John needs to be studied diachronically, because it is a “cacophony” (his words, 3) that needs sorting out.
My Response: UvW does not like some of the tensions and ostensible inconsistencies in GJohn. However, I am really concerned with the idea that we (in our time and culture) have the right ears attuned to sort out the noise and find the symphony. If UvW were to convince me that GJohn is obviously unreadable as a coherent Gospel, I would have liked to hear about Patristic concerns of the same kind – where they also felt uneasy with GJohn in its extant form. That would confirm, to me, that we are not just use to a different style of music. Even today, scholars like Barrett and P.N. Anderson accept that the “tensions” in Christology, for example, may very well be internal (dialectical, dialogical), rather than external; within the mind of one author.
Second Reponse: UvW seems to prize simplicity, coherence, and smoothness. But, is this really an ideal that we have real examples of? Why is it that he can presuppose that the original author prioritized smoothness, but the final editor (who has fooled so many people in history) is essentially tone-deaf?
Claim: Unlike today, it was conventional in ancient history for books to undergo several editions (p. 10) – such as the Pentateuch.
Response: This is actually a decent argument. However, the Pentateuch was edited over hundred of years. UvW is talking about an editorial process happening over 30-40 years and we have no (clear) evidence from manuscripts of earlier editions. Besides, Greek and Roman biographies were becoming more common at the end of the first century which established a genre (at its most basic form) for the Gospels – I wonder if we have evidence that such bioi went through editions?
Claim: The removal of additional (secondary and tertiary) layers will offer a “cleaner” and “crisper” text and sequence – one that is “coherent and logical by any modern standard.” (34). He offers the example of 13:33-37 which would read more smoothly if vv. 34-35 were removed. Then Peter’s response to Jesus would be direct and uninterrupted by Jesus’ mention of the love commandment.
Response: Again, I would say to UvW, what standard are you using for coherence? Apparently you think the first author possessed a kind of narrative sanity that not only was uncharacteristic of the later editors, but somehow the editors have also fooled so many. Can you offer an example of a coherent, logical Gospel – pick any canonical or non-canonical one. If your ideal is a smooth text, can you supply at least ONE example where it is free from aporias? Does Mark count? If we cannot find an ideal text (free from aporias), how do we know what the ideal (original, crisp) standard was other than using a “modern standard”. Again, either clear manuscript evidence (that lacks vv. 34-35) or Patristic discussion of incoherence would seriously bolster his argument.
Another response I would have deals with the movement UvW makes from a more difficult text to a more simple text. His reasoning is that the more complex and unreadable the text, the less likely it is to be original, presumably because people do not think and write in such a way. However, doesn’t this logic run against the well-known text-critical principle of lectio difficilior – the more difficult reading is probably the more authentic? The key idea is that scribes/editors/redactors are not stupid – they would more likely harmonize a text rather than complicate it further. UvW’s logic runs the other way – redactors muddle up clean and coherent readings with their theological agendas. Would we call this lectio facilior? When has a text-critic relied on this? Why should it be different on a larger scale – especially when we don’t even have a “variant reading” so to speak?
Claim: “For some, the difficulties for interpretation presented by a multilayered text may seem sufficient to reject the enterprise altogether and to return to a “simpler age.” But the problem here is no different from those problems involved in attempting to do a “theology” of the New Testament…[which] does not speak with a single voice.” (p. 41)
Response: Firstly, yes…the complexities of UvW’s theory seems too untenable. In terms of his canonical analogy, he makes a nice attempt, but the key difference is that ANYONE can distinguish the dividing lines between the various canonical texts. While we have things like the problem of 2 Cor 1-9 and 10-13, by and large we know when one book ends and another begins. While we may have a hard time harmonizing Mark’s Christology with Revelation’s, we can still clearly speak of a Christology of Mark and one of a distinct book called Revelation. It is difficult to get to this analytical point with UvW’s proposal simply because we cannot agree on the nature, extent, and substance of the editions. Can UvW name anyone that will agree with even 80% of his reconstructed editions?
Conclusion: While reading this heavy tome, I was reminded of Doug Campbell’s revisionist reading of Romans – both see too many problems in the text as it stands and both construct elaborate theories that require numerous point-counterpoint arguments. Again, this is where Occam’s Razor comes in – once the theories get to a certain level of complexity, they decrease in probability. While such proposals may have covered basic questions with intelligent responses, they continue to seem conjectural. Sadly, I do not think I will consult the commentary much, as UvW weaves and works out his theory into the 2nd and 3rd volumes. Others, of course, may find his reading more convincing.
Review Rating: 2.5/5: Points for creativity and thoroughness, but I find his 3-edition theory to be too elaborate, thinly based, and ultimately reductionistic. Also he uses the word “clear” too often and quite loosely (“It is very clear that…”).