The Interpretation of the Gospel of John – A Dialogue with Urban von Wahlde

A few months ago I wrote a review of the first volume of a three-volume commentary set by Prof. Urban C. von Walhde. Prof. von Walhde recently wrote a response to my review, taking issue with a number of my comments and also the nature of my review as a whole. I thought it helpful to repost the whole discussion – see beneath my own review for the response from Dr. von Walhde. I welcome further comments.

Nijay K. Gupta: 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…”).

Response by Dr. Urban von Wahlde:

Since Prof. Gupta has published a review of my book in blog format, I think it may be helpful to the reviewer and to the reader to have my own reflections on Prof. Gupta’s review. In his review, the reviewer makes a number of quite harsh and damning comments: “the reasoning is flawed,” the proposal is “hardly manageable, provable or satisfactory,” it is “way too untenable.” I think these comments are unmerited.
My first observation would be a general one: there seems to be no evidence in the review that the reviewer read beyond page 41. I hope I am wrong, but as I said, there is no evidence of this among the quotes of my “claims.” It is also surprising that there is no reference at all to Part Four of Volume One, which is summary of the theological development of the Johannine tradition through the four stages of the tradition evident in the gospel and 1 John. It presents a first-ever history of the Development of Johannine Theology.

Second, from the review, it also seems (although I may be wrong) that the reviewer does not have Vols 2 and 3. The publisher sent out all three volumes at once to reviewers. Perhaps the reviewer has not been asked to review the volume but only decided to do it “freelance.” Perhaps he only bought Vol 1 and is basing his judgment on that. I would argue that to do so would be problematic also since the project cannot be judged only on Vol 1.

Third, it seems the reviewer has essentially one complaint about the Commentary. He does not think that there is evidence of editing in the gospel, tensions maybe, but not editing. The reviewer rejects possible parallels to the type of editing and also rejects the proposed standard of coherence and consistency (which would indicate such editing)saying that it is too modern. On p34 of Vol 1 of my commentary, I provide a Section entitled “What Sort of ‘Coherence’ Is to Be Expected in First-Century Texts?” My answer is there for the reviewer and others to read. The reviewer does not mention or engage this material.
I would point out that the standard I propose is the standard of the text of the gospel itself when editorial additions are removed. If this is not a sufficient standard, I would ask what the reviewer judges the standard to have been in the analysis of the Pentateuch and of other documents such as 2 Cor and 1QS? It is nothing other than this — along with repetition, interruption, etc, the features that are called “aporiai.” Once again the reviewer is inconsistent in his acceptance of such standards for use in analyzing some documents but not sufficient for analyzing the Gospel of John. He really cannot have it both ways.

Fourth, closely related to the issue of insufficient evidence of editing, the reviewer indicates that it is significant that we do not have manuscript evidence for earlier editions of the gospel and that we have no evidence of Patristic concern with an inconsistencies or aporias in the gospel in its present form.
It should be pointed out that we do not have manuscript evidence of the various strands of tradition in the Pentateuch – only the internal evidence within the texts themselves.
The reviewer recognizes 2 Cor as an example of a text that has been edited but does not discuss it at all. He does not mention that we do not have any manuscript or Patristic evidence that 2 Corinthians is such a compilation. The analysis is done by means of factors internal to the letter itself.
Finally, the same is true about editing in the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g. 1QS). It is done by analysis of factors internal to the letter itself.
If the reviewer accepts the validity of internal analysis of these other documents and the conclusions, then it is inconsistent to refuse to do the same for the gospel of John. It is clear, at least to me, that he cannot have it both ways.
The reviewer missed the point of my comparison of the various theologies present in the Gospel of John with the variety of those present in the New Testament. I did not mean to imply that we do not know the boundaries of the various documents. That would, of course, be absurd. My point is that the Christian community established a canon of documents that represented a “measuring rod” by which the true and authentic message of Jesus could be gauged. Yet, at the same time, modern scholars have pointed out (as the reviewer himself did) that the theology of Mark might be difficult to reconcile with the theology of Revelation! Those who established the canon were not concerned about such variety and inconsistency. They were obviously comfortable with a multiplicity of theologies within the unity of the canon. First century writers undoubtedly had different levels of “tolerance” for the amount of both theological and literary variety permissible in the canon and within a document such as the Gospel of John. In short, our questions are not always their questions.

But There Is The Larger Question Of How Such A Proposal As I Put Forward Should Indeed Be Critiqued.
I welcome serious engagement with (and critique of) the validity of the criteria I propose. If the reviewer had engaged the criteria with individual passages, something that is done throughout the second volume, he would perhaps have been in a position to make informed judgments about the proposal.

It should be pointed out for those unfamiliar with my Commentary that Volume 1 is divided into four “Parts.” The first three “Parts” provide the materials for the analysis of each of the three editions of the gospel. Each “Part” has three “Sections.” The first “Section” of each “Part” is an overview of the edition; the second is a listing and discussion of every criterion used to identify the material of that edition (I list 28 criteria for identifying the first edition, 34 criteria for the second edition and 56 criteria for the third. The reviewer mentions briefly only four criteria for the first edition and one for the second but nothing beyond that). Finally the third “Section” of each “Part” is a synthesis of the thought (structure, theology, historical value, relation to Synoptics, date, author, location, etc.) of the material of the edition identified by those criteria.
This will help the reader know a bit more about the thoroughness of the study. But the real question, I believe, is how to judge the proposal of the Commentary. I would suggest the following.

How to Judge the Adequacy of the Proposal Put Forward in My Commentary
First, the critic must determine whether the listed features occur consistently and exclusively in the stated material [i.e. do the features of the first edition really occur and overlap (providing redundancy) in the material of that edition and not in the material of the other editions?]
Second, when a body of the material in the gospel is isolated by the listed criteria, does that body of material yield the consistent and coherent theology, narrative structure and other elements claimed for it in Section Three of the analysis of each edition?
Third, does the thought of 1 John confront a theology similar to that which emerges from the second edition? And does the theology that emerges from the author of 1 John’s own thought echo that of the material identified as belonging to the third edition of the gospel?
Finally, is it correct that when the eleven major categories of theology (Christology, belief, pneumatology, eternal life, eschatology, knowledge of God, soteriology, ethics, anthropology, ecclesiology, attitude toward the material world) are analyzed as they are in “Part Four,” do we find a notable progression and development of each topic in each edition of the gospel, i.e. from the first to the second edition, from the second to the theology of 1 John, from the theology of 1 John to the final edition of the gospel?
If it is shown in the Commentary (as I believe it is) that the application of the stated criteria to the material of the Gospel of John yields three bodies of material, each of which has a distinct structure and theology (as well as a number of other distinctive features), then I believe that fact alone indicates the analysis is correct. And if any reader is still reluctant to see this as editing, I believe the burden would be on that person to explain the consistency of the factors described above.

But as I did say in the Commentary, for some, the effort involved in truly testing a theory such as this is simply too much work. As the reviewer says early in his review, “I can only do so much!” I can appreciate that. It takes a lot of work. Yet at the same time, I believe that one not up to doing the work necessary should not attempt it and cannot claim to provide an assessment that is adequate.

Thank you, Dr. von Wahlde for your comments. Here is my response to these statements.

Nijay K. Gupta: Here I would like to respond to a number of statements made by Dr. von Wahlde in his first response to my review.

Firstly, he expresses concern over some of my terminology finding it “damning.” I want to apologize, because I never intended for my statements to be taken that way. When I say “the reasoning is flawed,” I don’t mean that as “damning,” but that the line of argumentation does not convince me.

Secondly, Dr. von Wahlde did not find my review to be thorough. Let me just say that I did read past page 41, but if you look at the shape of the whole 781 page first volume, the theoretical background is really found in the first 41 pages. After that, he follows his process of interpretation and explains how the three volumes work. Also, when he says that it appears I did not read much past pg. 41, I find this somewhat surprising as the first thing I do in the review is go over his three-edition breakdown. Much of the information about these three editions come from information in the rest of the first volume. (His concern is with my “claims” and “responses” but I found the first 41 pages to be the most important part of the first volume.) I will admit that each reviewer (print or blog) must decide what the discuss and not to discuss. I felt that I focused on the most important section, but I am willing to accept fault for not drawing from more areas.

Let me say that, personally, I did not want to write an extremely lengthy review, because it is not conducive to the blog format and few readers would make it through a 2500-word review. I realize now that there are limitations in my choice, and I know that Dr. von Wahlde disagrees that I should have done the review if I wasn’t up to doing a more thorough analysis.

Thirdly, Dr. von Wahlde wishes that I had reviewed all three volumes. I find it acceptable, if a book is as long as his is, and if it is divided into three parts, for it to be reviewed as stand alone volumes, as along as they are reviewed sequentially (so I wasn’t going to review vol 2 without doing vol 1). Otherwise, why does the publisher allow Amazon to sell volumes independently? They should always be sold together. (Note, for example, that Craig Keener’s two-volume set on John is sold together.) Fair enough, though. Sorry that I only reviewed volume one. I see now how this could be upsetting to an author.

Dr. von Wahlde would want me to clarify whether or not I think editing takes place within Biblical documents. I wish to admit that when it comes to the Pentateuch, certainly editing took place. However, I will say again that took place over hundreds of years. When it comes to 2 Corinthians 1-9 and 10-13, I never said I thought it was a composite text. I said the transition from 9-10 is problematic, but I think it is hard to prove that these are separate documents. Take the example of Philippians; very few scholars think that we have several letters stitched together, but people like Helmut Koester have argued this. It is not that it is impossible, it is that there is no or very little external evidence. Theories  based on internal readings are a very messy kind of work as any text critic will admit.

When it comes to finding coherence in GJohn, von Wahlde argues that his theory of editing helps  to produce a smoother text. Again, I will ask: why does “smooth” equate “original” or earlier strand? Why would the original author be more competent than the later editor? Again, can Dr. von Wahlde point to a clean Gospel from the early church to set a basis for  judgment? Without an objective standard, how do we know what we are looking for?

Again, I will say, it is not so much that I don’t believe that  NT texts could have gone through  a process of editing. I only doubt that our modern literary tools can uncover  the layers with a useful measure of accuracy. Given the dawning of the age of theological interpretation of Scripture and the thriving of a canonical approach, I don’t think I am alone in this concern. Take, for example, Joshua or Judges. While they very well may be composite documents with layers of editing, very few scholars today feel the capability of sorting out what came from what. Certainly Wellhausen felt this comfortability, but I don’t know many modern commentators that attempt to peel Judges’ layers. To me, the layers may be there, but the final canonizers/editors gave us (or left us?) enough coherence to work meaningfully from the text from a theological standpoint.

I will not get into the detail of how von Wahlde believes his work should be tested. I will only say that I find, again, that his standard is a smooth text. Why is that our standard? To take an analogy from textual criticism, what happened to lectio difficilior?

I will stop there. I hope it goes without saying that I encourage readers interested in this topic to read von Wahlde’s book in depth yourselves and come to your own conclusions about his argumentation and the validity of his methodology. Despite von Wahlde’s concerns that my original review was too negative, I will repeat what I said earlier: his book set happens to be the most thorough attempt to argue for a diachronic approach to John and I appreciate his attention to methodology and detail, even though at the end of the day I disagree with him.

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One thought on “The Interpretation of the Gospel of John – A Dialogue with Urban von Wahlde

  1. I thank Prof. Gupta for his additional comments. I find them much more measured than his previous ones. As I mentioned in my initial response, I believe the essential issue is one’s attitude to the state of the text of the Gospel of John.
    Yes, the principle behind my approach is that authors intend to communicate clearly in coherent texts. I would think the value of this is self-evident. I would wonder what other standard one could hold.
    Prof. Gupta assumes that the principle of lectio difficilior, a principle of textual criticism, is also appropriately applied to the texts of documents where there are no textual variants. There are several weaknesses in this transferal. First, in textual criticism, there are variants, that is the reader is presented with two manuscripts each of which says something different: one manuscript says one thing and another text says something else. The reader is confronted with two choices only one of which can be correct.
    Second, if I were to grant to Prof. Gupta that the principle is applicable (which I do not), it would still be wrong to apply the principle mechanically to all instances in the Gospel (and in principle to all instances in the Bible). As K. Aland (Text 281 “Rule 11” in reference to Rule 10) says, the mechanical application of the principle can be “dangerous” even in textual criticism. Aland also remarks “this principle must not be taken too mechanically, with the most difficult reading (lectio difficilima) adopted as original simply because of its degree of difficulty” (Rule 10).
    Third, and in my view by far the most important, it is simply wrong to apply the principle to inconsistencies in the text. Exegetes have the responsibility to treat the text as we have it with respect. However, to apply the principle of lectio difficilior to a text where the manuscript evidence itself is certain means that the reader in fact has no standard of reading. Or rather, the reader’s standard is that there is no possibility of incoherence or lack of unity in a text. There are no features of the text that cannot be found to be in harmony and explained as somehow in the intention of a single author. Thus there are no problems in the text, only features we have not yet understood. This is a version of Fundamentalism whereby there are no inconsistencies at all and all features can be harmonized.
    It may be that Prof. Gupta is a Fundamentalist and I respect the devotion and seriousness with which Fundamentalists approach Sacred Scripture (which I also hold to be Sacred), but I conceive of how God chose to work to communicate his message of salvation in a very different way. I find the approach I adopt to account much more readily for the concrete features of the documents of the New Testament as well as for the belief that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. (Of course I do not claim anything for my proposal other than the reasons presented for it.)
    The analysis of the gospel and of 1 John that I propose claims to account for the literary inconsistencies of the Gospel and also results in a view of Johannine theology in the pre-canonical period that reflects in a consistent way, an increasingly profound reflection on the mystery of the Christian faith and on eleven specific categories of theology: Christology, the nature of belief, the notion of “knowing” God, the understanding of eternal life, pneumatology, eschatology, soteriology, ethics, anthropology, ecclesiology and the role of material creation in faith.
    If there is development in these eleven categories and if this development is consistent with the proposed analysis of the literary features of the Gospel, then I believe that the burden shifts to the one who would claim that all this is the work of a single author writing a single edition. I do not make this claim wildly and, as I said in my previous comments, I welcome a critique of this proposal.
    But in the end, I would simply restate that since Prof. Gupta has not actually engaged the means by which the proposal can be tested, he does not have a sense of the results that he is denying.

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