Is Gene Boring Right about John’s Compassion-less Jesus?

Currently I am enjoying reading M. Eugene Boring’s new massive reference book An Introduction to the New Testament (WJK, 2012). I will have much more to say about this book on another occasion, but I will say right now that Boring is extremely well-versed in almost every major critical issue in the study of the NT. However, one statement he made in his chapter on John’s Gospel took me off guard. I am curious what you think:

In general, the Johannine Jesus is portrayed as without compassion, as divinely aloof. God’s compassion for the world is manifest in the Christ event itself, not in the individual stories in which the ultimate act of God is symbolically portrayed (p. 668)

Is this true? Is john’s Jesus lacking in social concern? Is he void of empathy for the downtrodden?

I have some responses that come to my mind, but please share your thoughts in the comments!


8 thoughts on “Is Gene Boring Right about John’s Compassion-less Jesus?

  1. I don’t know how many exceptions he addresses, but that is surprising to me given that the first story that came to mind was Lazarus. There are few stories in the gospels I turn to more to highlight the compassion of Jesus. I would also include in this category the story of Mary anointing Jesus and the way in which he dealt with her. Does Boring qualify that statement at all?

  2. Wow, that is surprising. I suppose it all depends on how he defines “compassion”. If he was referring to how Jesus spoke, I suppose I could understand his assessment because some of Jesus’ toughest statments are in John’s Gospel. But to say “God’s compassion is…not in the individual stories in which the ultimate act of God is symbolically portrayed,” I would have to disagree. His reaching out to the woman at the well (4:1-42), his healing of the official’s son (4:46-54), his healing at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-17), his feeding 5,000 (6:1-14), his healing of the man born blind (9:1-41), his crying over and resurrecting Lazarus (11:1-44), his allowing Mary to anoint his feet (12:1-8), and his washing of his disciples feet (13:1-20) all sound compassionate to me.

    1. Many of these are presented as “signs” rather than explicit acts of compassion. He heals the official’s son as a sign. He heals the blind man as a sign. While Jesus comforts the sisters of Lazarus, he first says, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”

      Some of the others are iffy. Washing the feet is given as an example of what the disciples should do. Compassionate? I don’t get that sense even though the beginning of the passage is “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

      My take would be that the whole of John’s gospel is not interested in humanizing Jesus so his compassion is not on full display.

  3. Let me count the ways off the top of my head about compassion – God so loved the world…..Jesus wept……If you love me feed my sheep…..

  4. well, jesus’ weeping over lazarus might be associated with his being deeply moved 11:38, his being incensed. i think boring’s statement could be sustained if one weeds out compassion from what ‘love’ means in john’s gospel.

  5. The intimate accounts of John 11 alone certainly belie Boring’s generalization. He may well be referring to how Jesus “treated” His mother in Jn 2, how he responded to the nobleman, the Samaritan woman, his brothers’ insinuations and of course Nicodemus. But I doubt if these very intimate situations depicted by John support such a general conclusion. The synoptic gospels do not feature that many intimate situations as John does.

  6. Bruce,

    I disagree with the argument that John 11:35 has anything to do with being angry for many reasons

    1. Chrysostom assumes it was because of grief
    2. The Judeans said, “See how he loved him!” – this agree with Bruner and Ridderbos
    3. We should grieve with those who grieve
    4. If there was anger it was against the power of death in combination with grief
    5. The word here rendered in John 11:33 as “groaned” does not mean “sighed” or “grieved,” but rather “powerfully checked his emotion”–made a visible effort to restrain those tears which were ready to gush from His eyes.

  7. I’m not sure the Jesus of the 4th Gospel is compassion-less, but I do think that, in comparison to the synoptics, he is never motivated primarily by compassion. In the synoptics, you often get the sense that his compassion for the people in front of him changes his plans (he was going off to pray, for example, but compassion led him to feed the 5000 instead) — it even seems that Jesus is concerned that his compassion-induced healings are undermining his real mission (to go to all the villages and preach the nearness of the Kingdom). I don’t think it makes sense to say the Johannine Jesus doesn’t feel compassion — how would we know that? — but his reason for doing what he did was always his larger mission; he never “gave in” because of compassion.

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