The not uncommon view is that the Gospel of John (henceforth: gJohn) is purely or primarily theological rather than historical, a perspective held, for example, by the former Jesus Seminar. Scholar Paul N. Anderson explains this critical outlook well,
“Because John is the most theological of the Gospels, and because the Johannine Jesus speaks with the language and thought forms of the Fourth Evangelist, these features call into question the historicity of the Johannine text. As a result, John’s highly interpretive presentation of Jesus and his ministry make it all too easy to reassign its witness to canons of theology rather than historiography” (1).
This view has, however, been challenged on grounds that history and theology need not be mutually exclusive (2). Nonetheless, how much history versus theology is found in gJohn is debatable and should one (rightly) point out that the gJohn’s has a strong theological perspective, that would not itself make it impossible for a historian to pull out historical nuggets from the text (3).
Richard Bauckham, a New Testament scholar and specialist in the Gospel of John, argues that the gJohn is ancient historiography and cites supportive characteristics for this view such as precise topography, selectivity, narrative asides, and claims to eyewitness testimony (4).
What Bauckham argues regarding these characteristics is considered in this article. Bauckham asserts that “far from appearing the least historical of the four Gospels, to a competent contemporary reader John’s Gospel will have seemed the closest to meeting the exacting demands of ancient historiography” (5).
1. The gJohn’s Topography
The gJohn’s author, an early Christian historian penning his account towards the first end of the first century CE, was likely expected to possess some knowledge of the places where the events of his history on Jesus took place. The gJohn contains signs of this mostly because the author’s topographical references are numerous.
The gJohn mentions just shy of three dozen places and locations (6). In order of appearance, these are: Jerusalem; Bethany beyond Jordan; Galilee; Bethsaida; Cana of Galilee; Capernaum; Temple; Judaea; Aenon; Salim; Jordan; Samaria; Sychar; Joseph’s field; Jacob’s well; Sheep Gate; Bethesda (Bethzatha); Sea of Tiberias (Galilee); Tiberias; Capernaum synagogue; Temple treasury; pool of Siloam; Solomon’s portico; Bethany (near Jerusalem); Ephraim; wadi Kidron; garden; high priest’s house (with courtyard); Praetorium; Gabbatha, the Stone Pavement; Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Other named or specified places, not used to locate an event, are: Nazareth; mountain (Gerizim); Bethlehem; and Arimathea.
Scholars who have studied these references conclude that they are generally accurate and that the author must have been familiar with the areas of Palestine in which the events of his narrative take place, including Samaria and Galilee as well as Jerusalem (7). According Anderson,
“… John has more mundane and archaeologically-verified details than all the other Gospels combined. Therefore, the mundane character of John’s narrative must be taken into consideration as well as its theological inclinations. As a result, in addition to being called “the Theologian”, the John’s author might also be fittingly regarded as “the Historian” (8).
But this perspective has been challenged as some scholars argue that the gJohn’s topographical details are more symbolic than historical. This view will be considered shortly. Nonetheless, the gJohn fits within the Greco-Roman historiographical framework in which ancient writers were required to possess knowledge of the places where the events of their histories took place.
Although Graeco-Roman authors like Athenian historian Thucydides (c. 460 – c. 400 BCE) and historian Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BCE) focussed predominantly on military matters, it was also desirable for narratives of travel to be included, which is an important feature of all the Gospels (9).
Returning to the symbolic reading of the gJohn’s topography as having primarily theological significance (10). Here it appears theology and history are considered mutually exclusive. If one writes theology then one does not write history. The retort is that having a theological motive does necessarily imply an author, such as of the gJohn, simply invented geographical references because the author attempted to emphasize theological significance.
Indeed, sometimes the gJohn’s geography has theological significance. For example, Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well supports the claim that Jesus is greater than Jacob because the water he gives supplies not merely mortal but eternal life (John 4:6, 12-14).
But the question remains whether or not one can convincingly read all of the gJohn’s matter-of-fact details as imbued with symbolic meaning. As Bauckham notices, “Most scholars feel that the attempt to do so produces forced or tenuous explanations in some cases. If a symbolic reading cannot be sustained comprehensively, then it is hard to maintain that the evangelist’s only or even primary interest in topography is theological symbolism” (11).
Another perspective regarding Johannine geography is the community-historical reading, an interpretation of the geographical references in the gJohn in light of a two-level reading of the text as embodying the history of the Johannine community (12). It attempts to correlate the major regions of Palestine in the gJohn with responses to Jesus: rejection in Jerusalem and Judea, acceptance in Samaria and Galilee. These are then suggested to reflect the experiences of groups of Johannine Christians in Palestine. According to Bauckham, this has the opposite implication because what begins as a symbolic reading ends as a literal one, except that the geography is understood literally at the level of Johannine community history rather than at the level of the history of Jesus.
But is this approach comprehensive in explaining all topographical references as referring to places with which the Johannine community was associated? Questions are raised (13): For instance, were the pools of Bethesda and Siloam used for baptism by Johannine Christians in Jerusalem? What of the Praetorium, Gabbatha, and the high priest’s house? “The community-history interpretation”, claims Bauckham “rapidly dissolves in unverifiable speculation”,
“What both these approaches fail to do is to recognize precise topographical references as a characteristic feature of the Gospel in need of a comprehensive explanation. Piecemeal interpretation of this or that item of geography proves inadequate once we recognize the contours of the material as a whole… When we view the Gospel as a whole, it becomes clear that precise topography is just as much a characteristic of John as high Christology or light/darkness imagery or various other ideological features distinctive to this Gospel. That needs explanation” (14).
Further, many of the events in the gJohn are located fairly precisely, such as in a named town or village. These events are “placed not just in Galilee, but in Cana or Capernaum; not just in Jerusalem, but at the pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate; not just in the temple, even, but in Solomon’s Portico” (15). The only two exceptions to the gJohn’s lacking precision are the feeding of the 5000, located generally in the hill country east of the sea of Galilee (6:1-3) and the final appearance of the resurrected Jesus, which was simply “by the Sea of Tiberias” (21:1). Bauckham compares the gJohn’s precision to the Synoptic Gospels,
“[T]hroughout this Gospel we always know where Jesus is, usually very precisely. The Synoptic Gospels are very different. Alongside many quite precisely located events are just as many that are placed no more specifically than in Galilee or Peraea or Samaria, or given the vaguest of settings, such as ‘a certain village’ (Luke 10.38; 11.1), ‘a certain place’ (Luke 11.1), in ‘the grain fields’ (Mark 2.23; Matt 12.1; Luke 6.1), a synagogue (Luke 6.6; Matt 12.9) that could be anywhere in Galilee, several unnamed mountains or hills (Mark 3.13; 9.2; Matt 5.1; 8.1; 15.29; 17.1, 9; 28.16; Luke 6.12; 9.28, 37)” (16).
This suggests that the authors of the Synoptics (gMark, gMatthew, and gLuke) incorporated Jesus traditions and stories that often (although not always) provided little to no indication of place, perhaps except for Jerusalem and its immediate surroundings. This lack of precision would have left readers with a general impression that Jesus traveled around Galilee or on his way to Jerusalem. Bauckham explains that this places the Synoptics within the conventions of the bios, which in distinction from biographies of politicians and military leaders, often lack much geographical reference (17).
As observed, the gJohn’s topographical precision appears consistent, which leads Bauckham to argue that the few inclusions of topographical details lacking topographical precision, such as the feeding miracle and the last resurrection appearance, could support trustworthiness in reassuring readers that the author does not go beyond his reliable information (18). The author is not one to speculate but rather intends to, except for these two examples, be confidently specific.
Further, the gJohn’s author is concise regarding his topographical descriptions as he “He does not indulge in unnecessarily prolix topographical descriptions; his references are concise but also precise” (19). This characteristic corresponds quite well to the category of geographical references in first-century historian Josephus Flavius’ work that scholar Pere Villalba i Varneda calls “simple geographical explanations” (20).
The gJohn’s Meta-History
Although the gJohn shows clear signs of historiography, one also needs to account for its theological dimension. Almost everything in the gJohn has theological significance. One might, in light of this fact, term the gJohn as theological historiography.
The gJohn incorporates history into meta-history (21). Consider the author framing this-worldly history by reference to the beginning of time, as in his Prologue, and to the end of time, as in Jesus’ last words in the Epilogue (21:23). It is also a personal meta-history of the subject, in this case Lord Jesus, who was at the beginning and will come at the end. This raises the question already noted earlier: Does theology rule out history? Because of the gJohn’s many references to topographical precision and chronology (see below), Bauckham does not think so,
“… this grand metahistorical framework does not cancel the this-worldly character of the historical story the Gospel tells. The Word became flesh and lived a human life in space–time history. Nothing keeps readers more constantly aware that the story is that of the Word made flesh than the topographical and chronological precision of the narrative. The story can be located and dated like any other human history” (22).
“At the same time, there is a further dimension. The Word became flesh in order to enable those who believe in him to transcend flesh. He takes mortal life up into eternal life, and becomes himself the place of God’s presence and God’s worship, no longer centred on Mount Zion or Mount Gerizim, but available universally. This fulfilment and transcendence of holy space and holy time is enacted in Jesus’ historical attendance at the festivals in the temple. Ordinary history is transcended in meta-history, but this can only happen through Jesus’ real presence in ordinary history. Thus the story bears emphatically the marks of historiography at the same time as it bursts the boundaries of space and time” (23).
Further, the Synoptic Gospels are closest to Graeco-Roman biographies that most resemble those of philosophers and teachers (24). But the gJohn, despite its meta-history, is different in important respects,
“The Johannine Jesus, however, is not primarily a teacher. His teaching is ancillary to his deeds. His mission is to do the works that his Father has given him to do for the salvation of the world. He is a pre-eminently public figure, engaged almost from the start with the leaders of the Jewish theocracy in the Temple, ultimately engaged with Rome itself in the person of Pilate, and a king, though not from this world. None of the subjects of Graeco-Roman biography come near to the history-making and world-changing significance of this human life. John’s biography of this man aspires, in its own remarkable way, to be the universal history that Polybius and others considered the ideal kind of history” (25).
Ancient historiography emphasized the need to define the most appropriate starting point and the most appropriate finishing point for a history For example, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 60 – c. 7 BCE), writing in the first century BCE, criticized Thucydides on this point,
“Some critics also find fault with the order of his history, complaining that he neither chose the right beginning (archēn) for it nor a fitting place to end it. They say that by no means the least important aspect of good arrangement is that a work should begin (archēn) where nothing can be imagined as preceding it, and end where nothing further is felt to be required” (26).
Polybius also shows this concern,
“Such then was the occasion and motive of this the first crossing of the Romans from Italy with an armed force, an event which I take to be the most natural starting-point (archēn) of this whole work. I have therefore made it my serious base, but went also somewhat further back in order to leave no possible obscurity in my statements of general causes. To follow out this previous history… seems to me necessary for anyone who hopes to gain a proper general survey of their present supremacy (1.12.5-7)” (27).
In the gJohn’s case, the selected earliest possible starting point is creation, before which quite literally no previous event could be imagined (28). The latest possible end point, the one that brings all history to a full conclusion is the parousia.
2. The gJohn’s Chronology
In the gJohn, chronological indications are primarily the named Jewish festivals: three Passovers (2:13; 6:4; 12:55) and the feasts of Tabernacles (7:2) and Hanukkah (10:22) (29). Additionally, there are the two weeks of counted days, one at the outset of Jesus’ story (the week of his manifestation: 1:19-2.11), the other the last week of his story (the week of his glorification: 12:1-20).
Since a large part of the action takes place either at or in strict relation to the last named Temple festivals, a large part of the gJohn’s narrative is very precisely dated. Other events can be placed within about six months of one of the three Passovers. One can compare this to Thucydides’ system of relative dates being attached to a few fixed points (30).
Further, the gJohn links the whole sequence of precise dates from the first Passover onwards to an absolute dating, when “the Jews” at the first Passover say that “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years” (2:20) (31). Although the starting date for this calculation may be obscure, it was evidently not to the author. There seems to be no explanation of the precise figure here (46 years) other than a claim, at least, to precise chronology.
According to Bauckham, this is another unique characteristic of the gJohn when contrasted to the Synoptics: “It remains the case that this Gospel dates all the events much more precisely than any of the Synoptics date any events other than those at the beginning (in Luke’s case only) or the end of Jesus’ ministry. Luke alone provides an absolute dating for the whole narrative (3.1–2), though for modern readers this is as difficult to calculate precisely as John’s is” (32).
It is worth noting that in the body of each of the Synoptic Gospels, the reader notices that the apparent chronological sequence is a narrative convention covering a frequently topical, rather than chronological ordering of material (33). This was not uncommon for ancient biographies to deploy chronology only at their beginning and end, arranging the intervening material topically and not always with any clear principle. Which was almost the rule for lives of philosophers and artists (34).
The influence on biographies of the requirement of chronological sequence in historiography is evident in those written by Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 119 CE) and the Roman historian Tacitus (56-120 CE). Relevant is that Philostratus (c.170 – c.247), introducing his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, promised to provide “a true account of the man, detailing the exact times at which he said and did this or that”. Although Philostratus’ work did not meet this promise of precise dating, he felt the pressure of a historiographical ideal. Bauckham explains,
“It is surely the case that the prevalence of precise chronology in the Gospel of John would have made it look, to competent contemporary readers, more like historiography than the Synoptics. John conforms to Lucian’s advice that the historian ‘follow a chronological arrangement as far as he can’” (35).
3. The gJohn’s Selectivity
A hallmark of a historian in the Graeco-Roman world was selectivity. In his De Historia Conscribenda, rhetorician Lucian of Samosata ( c. 125-180 CE) advises the historian “to run quickly over small and less essential things, while giving adequate attention to matters of importance; indeed, a great deal should even be omitted” (36). He is also critical of historians and writers who omit important events and dwell on insignificant ones (37).
This is a criterion of importance in which the historian, who wanted to retain his readers’ attention, employed the principle of selectivity. This effort was also connected with a criterion of variety as shown in the Roman scholar Cicero’s (106-43 BCE) Epistulae ad Familiares (38). Further evidence is in Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ criticism of Thucydides for his lengthy, monotonous, and redundant “description of a single war, stringing together battle after battle, armament after armament and speech after speech” (39). According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Thucydides should have focused on just a few of these events and with greater length, which would entail omitting other information and also incorporating other types of material. The gJohn’s selectivity in the events narrated is a major factor that makes his Gospel look different from the Synoptics. Bauckham continues,
“While Mark rushes breathlessly from one event to the next, John typically develops his narratives at considerable, though varying, length, often with extended dialogue or discourse. While Matthew and Luke give the impression of attempting to write comprehensive compendia of all the Jesus traditions they knew, John seems to do the opposite, rigorously selecting only what he thought of primary importance. While Mark has eighteen miracle stories, Matthew twenty and Luke eighteen, John has only eight (including ch. 21), not at all because he thinks miracle stories unimportant, but because he selects the most impressive (e.g., the blind man had been blind since birth [9.1], Lazarus had been dead four days [11.17]) and those most significant in terms of their spiritual meaning as signs. The selectivity gives him space to develop the significance of the signs. The themes of Jesus’ teaching are also far fewer in John than in Matthew or Luke. While John’s selectivity is doubtless guided by judgments of relative importance, it also secures the desirable historiographical goal of variety. There are vivid narratives, striking miracles, dramatic actions, friendly conversations and polemical dialogues, parables and riddles, discourses and prayer” (40).
4. The gJohn’s Narrative Asides (or Parentheses)
Narrative asides are another important characteristic of ancient historiography (41). A narrative aside is an intrusion of the narrator’s voice into the narrative, commenting on the story or telling about the story rather than telling the story (42). Notice how Dionysius of Halicarnassus praises the work of ancient historian Theopompus (c. 380 – c. 315 BCE) above all other historians for his “ability, in the case of every action, not only to see and to state what is obvious to most people, but to examine even the hidden reasons for actions and the motives of their agents (which most people do not find it easy to discern), and to reveal all the mysteries of apparent virtue and undetected vice” (43).
Many examples of this exist in the gJohn and are highly characteristic of his account (44). The number of narrative asides in the gJohn is over one-hundred whereas, for example, in the gLuke there is just eighteen. But why does the author of the gJohn use narrative asides? He does so for such purposes,
“… as to indicate the location or time of an event, to translate Hebrew or Aramaic words, to explain Jewish customs, to cite OT passages, to clarify the inner thoughts, motivations and feelings of characters, to explain what the words of Jesus or another character mean and to comment on the significance of events, especially with the benefit of a perspective later than that of the characters in the narrative. Such parentheses, used for broadly the same range of purposes, are common in Graeco-Roman historiography and biography. More investigation is needed before anything more precise can be said about the similarities between the Johannine asides and those of other narrative literature, but we can at least say that in this respect the frequency and variety of the asides in John’s Gospel align it more closely than the Synoptic Gospels with Graeco-Roman historiography” (45).
5. The gJohn’s Claims of Eyewitness Testimony
Graeco-Roman historiography views with significance the firsthand testimony of eyewitness participants in events (46). This characteristic is stressed in the Gospels, which has been highlighted by New Testament scholar Samuel Byrskog’s Story as History, History as Story (47), as well as in Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (48).
The historiographical ideal for an ancient historian was to have access to eyewitnesses of those events he could not himself have witnessed. Dionysius of Halicarnassus praised Theopompus’ historical work because “he was an eyewitness (autoptes) of many events, and conversed with many of the eminent men and generals of his day” (49). Bauckham argues that in a literary context of this kind, the gJohn would seem to meet the contemporary requirements for reliable historiography,
“Its claim, whether authentic or not, is to authorship by a disciple of Jesus who notes his own presence (in the third person as was the normal historiographical convention) at key events in the story he tells, and makes it plain that he belonged to a circle of other disciples from whom he could be reliably informed of other events. Widespread failure to recognize that this Gospel’s claim to eyewitness testimony is at least a straightforwardly historiographical one (doubtless it has also a theological dimension) has resulted from the influence of the dictum that this Gospel is theology, not history, and the consequent isolation of it from its literary context in ancient historiography” (50).
Based upon Bauckham’s argument, the evidence suggests that the gJohn is historiography, which is a perspective and argument that begs to be taken seriously. As Bauckham concludes,
“The historiographical characteristics… align John closely with those ancient biographies that display some features typical of historiographical best practice and most closely resemble works of historiography. The discussion… shows that the discourses and dialogues of Jesus in John’s Gospel conform to good historiographical practice at least as well as those in the Synoptics” (51)
1. Anderson, Paul N. 2013. “The Jesus of History, the Christ of Faith, and the Gospel of John”. In The Gospels: History and Christology: The Search of Joseph Ratzinger–Benedict XVI, edited by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 63-81. p. 65.
2. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. “Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John”. New Testament Studies 53:17-36.
3. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 17.
4. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 19-24, 24-27, 27-28, 28-30, 29-36.
5. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 19.
6. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 22.
7. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 23.
8. Anderson, Paul N. 2013. Ibid. p. 66.
9. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 19.
10. Brodie, Thomas L. 1993. The Gospel according to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary. New York/Oxford: Oxford University.
11. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 21.
12. Kundsin, Karl. 1925. Topologische Überlieferungsstoffe im Johannes-Evangelium. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht; Meeks, Wayne A. 1966. “Galilee and Judea in the Fourth Gospel”. Journal of Biblical Literature 85:159-169; Bassler, Jouette M. 1981. “The Galileans: A Neglected Factor in Johannine Community Research”. Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43:243-257; Scobie, Charles H. 1982. “Johannine Geography”. Studies in Religion 11:77-84.
13. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 21.
14. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 21.
15. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 23.
16. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 23.
17. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 23-24.
18. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 23.
19. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 23.
20. Varneda, Pere Villalba i. 1986. The Historical Method of Flavius Josephus. Leiden: Brill. p. 121–123
21. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 26
22. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 26.
23. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 26-27.
24. Van Belle, Gilbert. 1985. Les Parenthèses dans l’Évangile de Jean. Leuven: Leuven University/Peeters; Hedrick, C. W. 1990. “Authorial Presence and Narrator in John: Commentary and Story”. In Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings, edited by J. E. Goehring, C. W. Hedrick, J. T. Sanders, and H. D. Betz. Sonoma, 74-93. CA: Polebridge; O’Rourke, John J. 1999. “Asides in the Gospel of John”. In The Composition of John’s Gospel: Selected Studies from Novum Testamentum, edited by David E. Orton, 205-214. Leiden: Brill.
25. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 25-26.
26. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, De Veterum Censura 11, quoted in David Moessner, “The Appeal and Power of Poetics (Luke 1:1-4): Luke’s Superior Credential, Narrative Sequence, and Firmness of Understanding for the Reader”, in David Moessner, Jesus and the Heritage of Israel, 1999. p. 111.
27. Quoted in Richard Bauckham. 2017. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 207. (Scribd ebook format) and quoted in David Moessner. 1999. “The Appeal and Power of Poetics (Luke 1:1-4): Luke’s Superior Credentials (παρηκολουθηκότι), Narrative Sequence (καθεξῆς), and Firmness of Understanding (ἡ ἀσϕάλεια) for the Reader”. In Jesus and the Heritage of Israel. Harrisburg: Trinity.
28. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 26.
29. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 24.
30. Fornara, Charles W. 1983. The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome. California: University of California Press. p. 44
31. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 24.
32. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 25.
33. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 25.
34. Burridge, Richard. 2018. What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. Waco: Baylor University Press.
35. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 25.
36. De Conscr. 56. cf. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 27.
37. De Conscr. 27. cf. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 27.
38. Epistulae ad Familiares. 5.12. cf. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 27.
39. Ep. ad Pomp. 3. cf. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 27.
40. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 28.
41. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 28.
42. Sheeley, S. M. 1992. Narrative Asides in Luke–Acts. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.
43. Ep. ad Pomp. 6. cf. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 29.
44. Van Belle, Gilbert. 1992. The Four Gospels. Peeters.
45. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 28-29.
46. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 29.
47. Byrskog, Samuel. 2000. Story as History – History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. Philadelphia: Coronet Books Inc.
48. Bauckham, Richard. 2017. Ibid. p. p. 807. (Scribd ebook format)
49. Ep. ad Pomp. 6. cf. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 30.
50. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 30.
51. Bauckham, Richard. 2007. Ibid. p. 36.