Baker Academic

Monday, August 29, 2016

"eyewitness" in Johannine tradition

I've begun working on my paper for the John, Jesus, and History meeting at this year's SBL Annual Meeting in San Antonio. My paper is called "What is History? Reading the Gospel of John as a Historical Text" and will apply discussions of memory and media to refine what we mean when we look for the historical Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. I'm a newbie to the world of Johannine scholarship, so I'm looking forward to learning a lot about this obscure (to me) section of the canon.

As I start writing, I'm working through many of the essays published in Robert Fortna and Tom Thatcher's edited volume, Jesus in Johannine Tradition (Westminster John Knox, 2001). Arthur Dewey's essay, "The Eyewitness of History: Visionary Consciousness in the Fourth Gospel" (pp. 59–70) is causing some problems for me, and I thought I'd throw those up on this particular wall and see if anyone here has any comment.

Dewey's essay strikes me as at the same time deeply insightful and deeply flawed. I will try to lay out the issue I'm highlighting quickly and then explain what I think about it. Dewey makes the following claims about John's "historical interest" (which he helpfully differentiates from FG's "historicity") and the notion of "the eyewitness" in FG:
FE [the Fourth Evangelist] was creatively engaged in what should be called a "visionary consciousness." An "eyewitness" for FE is not a simple observer of raw data. Rather, through enlisting the symbolic presence of the Paraclete (Spirit), FE provides the means for every reader to become an active participant in the epiphany of the death of Jesus. . . . (59–60)

As for the identity of the "one who saw this [and] has testified," "that one" is not the Beloved Disciple found in 19:25–27. Rather, "that one" must be the Paraclete, who arrives at the moment of Jesus' glorification and reminds the reader of the truth of revelation. The text, in effect, mirrors the creative recollection of scene and scripture in the mind of the audience. It deliberately delivers a mimetic presentation: anyone who closely follows the text can do what the text is doing. Each reader can connect these things in memory and become, thereby, a "witness" to Jesus. . . . (67–68)

"[H]istory" becomes meaningful when the deeds of Jesus (in this case, his death) and scripture come together in remembrance. The one who "sees" the events is the Paraclete, not the Beloved Disciple (perhaps that is the cautionary note of John 20:9?). The recollection or rehearing of all the echoes in FG helps the reader/listener understand the message. Thus, the eyewitness account is not a simple report given by an individual. Rather, it is a revision through memory, enlisting both the Gospel story and the resources of Jewish scripture. The effect of this is that the eyewitness to the past is happening now. It is an ongoing eye witnessing—open to all who come to share FE's collaborative vision. (68; emphasis in the original)
There's a lot that's helpful here, I think. I agree with Dewey that, for FE, the status of "eyewitness" depends on more than simply having seen or heard something. In John 2, for example, when the disciples see and hear the events of Jesus in the Temple, they are not yet "eyewitnesses" of the Temple incident because they do not yet understand what they have seen and heard. Rather, as John explains in a narrative aside, "When, therefore, he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had been saying this, and they believed the Scripture as well as the word which Jesus spoke" (John 2:22). It was not until after Jesus' resurrection and the bestowal of the Spirit/Paraclete (20:22) that the disciples were empowered by the Spirit to properly understand what they had seen and heard and, therefore, be eyewitnesses. So I strongly agree with Dewey: "An 'eyewitness' for FE is not a simple observer of raw data." (For more on memory and the Spirit and the question of eyewitness testimony in John, see Tom Thatcher's essay, "Why John Wrote a Gospel: Memory and History in an Early Christian Community," in Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, edited by Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher; SemeiaSt 52 [Atlanta: SBL Press, 2005], 79–97.)

But he and I draw strikingly different conclusions from his insight on the more complex notion of eyewitness in FG. I use this as a limiting principle that excludes some witness to Jesus' actual life and teachings. That is, some people witnessed the events of Jesus' life but were not eyewitnesses because they were not empowered by the Spirit to offer proper testimony to those events. Dewey, on the other hand, uses this insight as an enabling principle that broadens the scope of Jesus' eyewitnesses to include everyone empowered by the Spirit, whether or not they actually witnessed Jesus' actual life and teachings. In theory, the status of eyewitness—in this proposed Johannine sense—is still open today; it certainly was at the end of the first century CE.

As I see it, the Johannine author stressed rather than marginalized the physical senses in his view of eyewitness-hood. "And the Word became flesh and took up his dwelling among us, and we have seen his glory" (John 1:14). "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, with we have beheld and our hands have touched concerning the word of life" (1 John 1:1; see vv. 1–4). Moreover, he strongly differentiates those who have actually seen from those who haven't, and he portrays Jesus pronouncing blessing over those who have faith despite not having actually been an eyewitness to Jesus' resurrection: "Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and nevertheless believe" (John 20:29). Finally, the strong affirmation of FG's link with eyewitness testimony in John 21 makes a comparable distinction: "This is the disciple who testifies about these things and who has written them. And we know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24). The editor/redactor responsible for John 21 does not include himself among those who are offering testimony; the status of "eyewitness" is closed to him because he has not seen, he has not heard, he has not touched the things which are recounted in FG.

Those of you more familiar than I am with the stream of Johannine scholarship: What would you say about these things? And those of you who are more interested in John's Gospel than I am (whatever your scholarly credentials): What say ye?


  1. I would agree with you, that in this Gospel and eyewitness is someone who both saw with their eyes AND saw the spiritual reality also being foregrounded.
    There is a continual refrain "come and see" in the Gospel, (most evident in the first chapter e.g. where Jesus invites the 2 disciples to come and see where he dwells). One author (that I can't remember) says that the author writes with 2 layers/dimensions always in mind so that every word groans with the weight that it is being asked to bear.
    There is a continual theme of "to see but not to see" so that that man who was blind now sees, but those with sight can't see.

    This probably sounds rather under-grad thinking to many of the readers here, and I appreciate that. Suffice to say I love John and as a missiologist dabble in exegesis of John and continue to find fresh depths.
    Thanks for highlighting this.

    1. Thank you, BF. I think you're on the right track with this.

  2. I would agree that John's "spiritual" notion of seeing Jesus is limiting. Or at least it is in the FG itself. The FE would have us believe that not every person in proximity to Jesus had eyes to really see Jesus. But it also seems that the FE wants to recruit more followers of Jesus with spiritual sight. FWIW.


    1. Yep. Or Yup. Whichever you prefer. 🤓 But these "followers of Jesus with spiritual sight" ≠ "eyewitnesses," wouldn't you say?

  3. Sight is not insight in John: everyone may see, but not everyone understands or truly sees (as Anthony says). John, like other ancients (Heraclitus, eg.) thinks "eyes are surer witnesses than ears" and often prizes seeing more highly than hearing. Note that the resurrection appearances in John are couched in the form "We have seen the Lord" echoing other formulations (We have seen his glory, etc.). As the encounter with Thomas suggests, however, not all will have the opportunity that Thomas and the other disciples have had; the Gospel is written for those who cannot or do not see Jesus in the flesh. But they may have the insight of faith.

    1. Thank you, Prof. Thompson. I agree with all of this. Am I right in reading your comment as agreement?

  4. Anthony,
    From my perspective, the FE gives us a dual perspective of eyewitnesses. First, often just because someone is an eyewitness does not mean they are going to grasp the reality or significance of what they have seen, even the disciples to include John. Second, for the eyewitness whose understanding has been opened through the Paraclete, this one really sees. This duality has unique significance for the FE. His eyewitness account can be trusted because he was there and saw, touched and heard Jesus and has received insight, for lack of a better expression, from the Paraclete. Additionally, the Good News is that the readers can have this same duality, John' enhanced eyewitness account and the hearers own experience of Paraclete which insures that the message is accurate and true.


    1. Thank you, Tim. I think I would agree with all of this, except perhaps that last statement. When you say "the Good News is that the readers can have this same duality," I would agree that FE is claiming that his readers receive (and can be confident in) eyewitness testimony, but this does not make them eyewitnesses in the Johannine sense. Or are you saying it does (in which case you'd side more with Dewey)?

  5. Rafael,
    First, sorry for mistaking Anthony for you😎
    Second, my thought was intended to express that the readers were 'eyewitnesses' because they could trust John's account and have the indwelling Spirit.


  6. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Hi Rafael, I'm wondering if we should understand Jesus in some way as his own eye witness.

    We find the FE saying at 3:31ff. "The one who comes from above is above all...He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Who ever accepts his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the spirit without measure."

    And then, of course, Jesus goes on to testify to himself throughout FG. So can we say that Jesus is an eye witness to the spiritual dimension, he fails as an eye-witness to convince those whom he was sent to convince, the paraclete is an intervening convincer who has some success in opening eyes to Jesus' self- presentation, the author(s) of FG are beneficiaries of the paraclete.

    If there is additional eyewitness testimony apart from the paraclete, how would we identify it?

  7. Rafael,
    John and his readers knew the difference between an eye-witness and an imagination-witness. It's not a hard distinction to make. What one perceives and accepts on the basis of faith is, by definition, more than just what one observes with one's eyes, but when someone says, "I saw events A, B, and C," he is clearly referring to his observation of historical events, so as to augment the persuasive force of his testimony. He is not using the term merely to refer to a perception or an epiphany, even though the same verb might be employed; for instance, in the sentence, "I now see how wrong it is to pretend that social memory theory is a valid basis for exegesis."

  8. I believe that a major theme in the New Testament, is the debate on the importance of material physical evidence, versus spirit. Overall I believe, the Bible actually settles on stressing physical material, not spiritual, evidence. "Fruits," "works," "signs," deeds, "proof"s. Things on this material "earth," as "observe"d with our physical, literal "eyes." Often using literal "science" (Dan.1.4-15 KJE; Mal. 3.10; 1 Kings 18.20-40).

    But for a long time, there's a continuous, active debate between the importance of physical things, versus spiritual. And in John? He begins in your key passages above, with an immaterial "Word." Which may merely be in part, a personification of written texts, immaterial ideals. And though he hints this word has become matter, flesh, the material references are rather abstract. John speaks if "flesh" here; but not simply a walking, talking man with a name, like Jesus.

    So in spite of some enthusiasm here for materiality, in that passage I see more of the continuing equivocal debate on materiality vs. spirits. That debate is settled elsewhere, more than here.

    Though you are partly right; materiality, flesh, is at least invoked. Though for many lines, this "flesh" is not yet clearly say, a "man."