Review of Urban von Wahlde’s ECC The Gospel and Letters of John (Vol 1)

[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…”).

5 thoughts on “Review of Urban von Wahlde’s ECC The Gospel and Letters of John (Vol 1)

  1. Nijay-

    Thanks for this review. I was wondering quite a bit about these volumes when I was reading through Michaels’ NICNT volume. There is something refreshing about reading the text as it stands, something Michaels’ approach highlights through and through.

  2. 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.

    Urban C. von Wahlde
    Professor of New Testament
    Loyola University Chicago

  3. Firstly, thank you Prof. von Wahlde for taking the time to respond to my review. I want to apologize for coming across as “damning.” That was not my intention. However, I stand by my review. It is true that I am only engaging in volume one, but each volume must stand on its own, at least to some degree in my opinion. If you only will find valid reviews of the complete set, I am sorry to say there will be few reviewers I think – not because the book is limited in content, but because it is very lengthy. Had I known the disappointment you would issue at the idea of a review appearing on only volume one, I probably would not have written the review. So, mea culpa for that.

    I won’t take the time to respond to each and everything Prof. vW writes. Clearly we do not see eye to eye. I want to make a couple of notes.

    First, I never said that I thought 2 Corinthians was an edited work. I actually DON’T think it is for the very reasons I found vW’s argumentation flawed. I say that we have the “problem” of chapters 1-9 and 10-13. I admit that I could have clarified that while I find the transition problematic, I don’t think there is enough evidence to argue for a position of there being two separate letters. In fact, most commentators on 2 Corinthians today shy away from claiming 2 Corinthians is two, or three different letters. I find this new trend more reasonable.

    Secondly, my biggest concern is that when we work so hard to peel back the layers of John, we are largely working with too many guesses. It works that way for the Pentateuch as well, which is why so many scholars have chosen to work only with the final form. I don’t think we have a good set of internal diagnostics to detect where the seams are. That does not mean they are single-author documents. It just means that we don’t have tools available to break the document down into its layers. For example, I wrote an article recently with a friend on Ephesians. We both added things to each other’s sections. Now (and it has been less than a year), there is no way I could go back and figure out exactly who did what. It would be guess work, and if you tried to figure out my theology versus Fred’s you would certainly fail. You could make some good guesses, but that is all you have at the end of the day. I am arguing this: what profit is that?

    Thirdly, I think my level of engagement of the book (vol 1) is selective without misrepresenting the book as a whole. I know that Prof vW disagrees. I am sorry that Prof. vW did not like what I had to say and I will put a disclaimer at the beginning that I am not going to engage in all three volumes. When I started to read volume 2 and 3, I felt that these latter volumes were consistent with volume 1, but provided no convincing support for his theories (at least, not convincing to me).

  4. Thanks to the both of you for your engagement with these volumes. I admit I’m very partial to canonical approaches simply because this provides me with the least problematic way to work through texts, namely, their final form. I have always found other approaches (i.e. formal or redactional)to demand too much from the scholar/reader in the sense that these approaches do not equip him or her with the ability to “prove” these theories to be true. In my estimation, these approaches, while at times helpful, in the end, prove too speculative for my tastes. For example, I used to hold that 2 Corinthians was a composite document, but have since changed my mind, mostly due to the lack of textual evidence and other rhetorical considerations.

    Once again, thanks so much for this dialogue.

  5. From a person who has not yet read the three volumes on John by Prof. von Wahlde, it looks like he has made a strong case against the criticisms of Prof. Gupta. Nevertheless, what a pleasure to read these lines where they engage with one another. Yet, regarding 2 Corinthians, I wonder if either of them has looked through the arguments of Gregory Tatum in his “New Chapters in the Life of Paul” (Cath. Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 41)) where he argues not only that there are two letters in that instance, but that 10-13 are written first, followed by Galatians and Philippians, only then followed by 2 Co. 1-9. More food for thought as we work at cobbling together a sensible reading of the New Testament as a canonical whole.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s