Ethics in the Johannine Literature, Part 3 (Skinner)

The TwelveIn the last post we looked at the old scholarly consensus that the Johannine literature lacks ethics altogether. Today we will look at the second of three major views.

(2) The ethics of the Johannine literature are sectarian, exclusive, negative, or oppositional

For the past five decades, scholars have paid particular attention to the sectarian nature of the Johannine literature. Beginning in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a handful of scholars began setting forth serious historical reconstructions of the Johannine community. In particular, the groundbreaking work of J. Louis Martyn (along with important contributions from Raymond E. Brown, Wayne Meeks, D. Moody Smith, and R. Alan Culpepper) revolutionized contemporary readings of the Fourth Gospel; their work continues to be foundational for modern understandings of Johannine sectarianism.[1]

Martyn’s argument for a two-level reading of the Fourth Gospel was a watershed moment in contemporary Johannine studies, shaping the way scholars understood the Sitz im Leben of the community.[2] Martyn argued that the Johannine community was embroiled in a theological controversy with the local synagogue, a claim he attempted to validate through an examination of three passages in which the term aposunagōgos (“out of the synagogue”) is used (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2).[3] There is no need to rehearse the finer points of Martyn’s theory here, as it has been a topic of nearly continuous conversation in Johannine studies. Suffice it to say that while there remains debate over the details of Martyn’s proposal, there is still fairly wide acceptance of the two-level hypothesis.[4]

Related to the claim that Johannine ethics are sectarian and exclusive is the observation that the Johannine literature is oppositional inasmuch as it is rooted in the pitting of different groups against one another. In the Gospel a group known simply as “the Jews” (Greek: hoi Ioudaioi) is consistently at odds with Jesus, while the Epistles portray a conflict within the community that has led to a departure of some Jesus-followers who hold a different Christological point of view. These observations have led some to conclude that the ethics of the Johannine literature do not reflect the universal quality of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the NT. For example, Luke’s Jesus encourages his followers to love their neighbors (10:25-37), while Matthew’s Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies (5:43-45), both of which can be applied universally. However, both the Johannine Jesus and the author(s) of the Epistles encourage love for “one another.”[5] In the context of the Johannine community’s ongoing conflicts, is this the same sort of inclusive love we see in Matthew and Luke, or is there an inherent tribalism embedded in this love?

In his analysis of the love relationships in the Gospel and 1 John, Fernando Segovia examined Johannine love language against the backdrop of the community’s proposed history. Segovia groups John’s love commands into seven distinct categories: (1) the Father’s love for Jesus, (2) the Father’s love for the disciples, (3) Jesus’ love for the Father, (4) Jesus’ love for the disciples, (5) the disciples’ love for the Father, (6) the disciples’ love for Jesus, and (7) the disciples’ love for each other.[6] His broader interest in the study was to better understand the redaction of the Fourth Gospel vis-à-vis 1 John, though he also argued for the sectarian character of the love commands expressed in these writings.[7] In this same vein, Wayne Meeks has commented that the “only rule [of the Johannine Jesus] is ‘love one another,’ and that rule is both vague in its application and narrowly circumscribed, being limited solely to those who are firmly within the Johannine circle.”[8] Ernst Kasemann has written that there “is no indication in John that love for one’s brother would also include love toward one’s neighbour.”[9] Similarly, Frank Matera wonders, “What is the content of this love? How do disciples exercise this love in real life situations? Whom does this love include? Is this a universal love such as is found in the Gospel of Luke, or has love become exclusive and sectarian in the Fourth Gospel?[10] Thus, one serious implication from observations about the various community conflicts is that while there are ethics in the Johannine literature, they are not suitable within the broader context of what could be termed “Christian” instruction. In a well-known denunciation of John’s “moral bankruptcy,” Jack T. Sanders has written:

Precisely because such [fundamentalist] groups, however, now exist in sufficient abundance to be visible, perhaps the weakness and moral bankruptcy of the Johannine ethics can be seen more clearly. Here is not a Christianity that considers that loving is the same as fulfilling the law (Paul) or that the good Samaritan parable represents a demand (Luke) to stop and render even first aid to the man who has been robbed, beaten, and left there for dead. Johannine Christianity is interested only in whether he believes. “Are you saved, brother?” the Johannine Christian asks the man bleeding to death on the side of the road. “Are you concerned about your soul?” “Do you believe that Jesus is the one who came down from God” “If you believe, you will have eternal life,” promises the Johannine Christian, while the dying man’s blood stains the ground.[11]

While there is some truth to this rhetorically powerful caricature, we can confidently say that Sanders has substituted one contemporary appropriation of the Gospel of John with the gospel itself.

The same sort of criticism Sanders raises against fundamentalist readings of John could also be raised against the egregious examples of anti-Judaism that have been justified by some readings of the Fourth Gospel over the centuries. While there is no doubt that many illegitimate actions have been justified by specific contextual readings of the NT, as we move forward in our series of posts we will keep our reflections on the nature of Johannine ethics in the context of the history of the Johannine community rather than specific appropriations of Johannine texts.[12]

The recent history of research has produced countless similar denunciations of Johannine ethics. While the most prominent arguments in favor of recognizing ethics in the Johannine literature have also argued that those ethics are negative, sectarian or inward looking, more recent treatments have argued that the ethics of the Johannine literature are positive and potentially viable within broader schemes of Christian ethics. Our next post will consider some of those arguments.


[1] See in chronological order, J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968); Wayne A. Meeks, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism,” JBL 91 (1972): D. Moody Smith, “Johannine Christianity: Some Reflections on Its Character and Delineation,” NTS 21 (1974-1975): R. Alan Culpepper, The Johannine School, SBLDS 26 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1975); and Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Lives, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York: Paulist, 1979).

[2] John Ashton has written that Martyn’s book was “the most important single work on the Gospel since Bultmann’s commentary” (Understanding the Fourth Gospel [Oxford: Clarendon, 1991], 107).

[3] Among those who doubt the existence of a Johannine community are Richard Bauckham and his former student, Edward W. Klink. See also the recent proposal of Urban C. von Wahlde, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century: The Search for the Wider Context of the Johannine Literature and Why It Matters, LNTS 517 (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015).

[4] For a recent treatment of these questions, see Jonathan Bernier, Aposynagōgos and the Historical Jesus in John: Rethinking the Historicity of the Johannine Expulsion Passages, BIS (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[5] E.g., John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; 1 John 3:11, 14, 16, 23; 4:7,11.

[6] Fernando F. Segovia, Love Relationships in the Johannine Traditions: Agapē/Agapan in 1 John and the Fourth Gospel, SBLDS 58 (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982).

[7] In a related study, Segovia notes that “number of recent exegetical studies on the different levels of the Johannine tradition have adopted the position that the community behind that tradition was consistently ‘sectarian’ in nature” (Fernando F. Segovia, “The Love and Hatred of Jesus and Johannine Sectarianism,” CBQ 43 [1981]: 258).

[8] Meeks, “Ethics of the Fourth Evangelist,” 318.

[9] Ernst Kasemann, The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in Light of Chapter 17, trans. Gerhard Krodel (London, SCM, 1968), 59. Similar denunciations abound. See Mary E. Clarkson, “The Ethics of the Fourth Gospel,” Anglican Theological Review 31 (1949): 112-15; Victor Paul Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), 144-48; Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francicso: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 139-40.

[10] Frank J. Matera, New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 92 (emphasis added).

[11] Jack T. Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 99-100 (emphasis added).

[12] A conspicuous example of using NT texts to justify illegitimate behavior can be found by looking at the arguments of American slaveholders against those advocating for the abolition of slavery. Slaveholders commonly used Pauline statements about “slaves obeying their masters” (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22; Tit 2:9) to justify slavery as a God-ordained institution.


Wayne Meeks: “Renounce the Phrase, ‘The Bible Clearly Teaches'” (Skinner)

Here’s another gem from the Meeks lectures I mentioned yesterday:

So let us renounce the phrase, “the Bible clearly teaches.” And every time we hear it let us immediately be on our guard. Of course, it is a convenient shorthand to personify the Bible as agent, as teacher. St Paul did that when he quoted a text in Romans 10:6 with the introduction, “the righteousness of faith says…” But let us remember that when Paul said that he then proceeded to give that text a meaning that was outrageously different from its contextual, grammatical, plain sense. In our situation, when people say, “the Bible clearly teaches,” instead of, for example, “we can learn from the Bible if we stand within a certain community’s tradition,” or “we can find these ideas in Scripture if we construe Scripture in such-and-such a way”…. When they make the Bible the agent of their assertions, you see—“the Bible teaches,” not “we teach because this is the way we understand it”—when they do that, they are really masking the locus of the authority they are claiming.

52:39 – 53:55 of the Lecture 4 discussed here. (Update: Thanks to Dave Mackinder for pointing out that these lectures were the basis for Meeks’s book, Christ is the Question [Louisville: WJK, 2005]).

Wisdom from Wayne Meeks on the Claritas Scripturae (or Perspicuity of Scripture) (Skinner)

Meeks 2“Specialization [within academic disciplines] enhances concentration and control. It makes possible sustained, intense effort on closely defined tasks. But it also often separates us from just those people to whom we ought to be listening and who might need to listen to us. On the other side of the great divide–in popular culture–we have seen developments that also inhibited the free interchange between professional scholarship and lives of Christian laypeople. First, that radical individualism and subjectivism that has been characteristic of the modern, western world, whose influence on the academic ways of knowing we’ve already talked about in earlier lectures. That individualism and subjectivism have also been deeply embedded in the popular ethos perhaps in North America more than anywhere else on earth. So, as the evangelical scholar James Callahan has pointed out, in the 19th century America, the doctrine of perspicuity–the transparence of Scripture–became a democratized affirmation of religious equality. It was a matter of democratic ideals that anybody’s reading of the Bible was as good as anybody else’s. The Bible thus became ‘the people’s book.’ And with that came that suspicion of the expert, which might have been a healthy antidote to that professionalization and compartmentalization I just mentioned, but in practice, leads rather to something close to anarchy in popular interpretation.”

From 29:41 – 31: 09 of Lecture 4 discussed in my last post.

My own experience in the field resonates with exactly what Meeks is describing here.

Emory Lectures by Wayne Meeks (Skinner)

MeeksI am always looking for resources that I can recommend to students or that I will find helpful for my own thinking about certain issues. Today I have a recommendation that accomplishes both of these nicely. Over at iTunesU, on Emory University’s Jesus and Culture page, I stumbled across a series of lectures given at Candler School of Theology back in 2010 by Wayne Meeks, Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Yale Divinity School. These lectures are obviously five years old, but like my 1998 Dodge Stratus (which I purchased in 2005), they were “new to me.” I had a chance to listen to several of these lectures while working in my yard the other day and they’re quite good (as you might expect).

Here’s a general description of the lectures:

The Alonzo L. McDonald Family Chair on the Life and Teachings of Jesus and Their Impact on Culture is supported by gifts from the McDonald Agape Foundation, chaired by Alonzo L. McDonald. McDonald was a longtime trustee of Emory University. The McDonald Agape Foundation “supports lectures and other public presentations that deal creatively and imaginatively with the person and teachings of Jesus as they shape and form culture.”

If for some reason you don’t have access to iTunes (1) you should probably consider joining the 21st century, and (2) you’ll be able to find Professor Meeks’s lectures here (numbers 11-15 on the list). Their titles are as follows:

(1) “Does Anybody Know Jesus?”

(2) “Memory and Invention”

(3) “A Story to Think With”

(4) “The Bible Teaches….”

(5) “Is Jesus the Last Word?”

Given the particulars of my background and biography (which many readers of this blog know) I found lecture number four particularly insightful. Like me, you can cut your grass and trim your weeds while being instructed by one of the great thinkers and communicators in our field.