Words such as poetic, beautiful, challenging, baffling, and perhaps even confusing can come to mind when reading or studying the Gospel of John. The fourth gospel is believed to have been written after the three gospels known as the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and unlike the synoptic gospels which share similar backgrounds and sources, John's Gospel takes a completely different direction.
Raymond Brown, a respected scripture scholar, and perhaps the best known Catholic scripture scholar, gives the reader an excellent introduction to the community behind the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine epistles. He discusses this gospel, narrated by the so called "Beloved Disciple" who may or may not have been John, the struggle this community had with Jewish leaders, as well as the community's struggles with other Christian groups. This community was from a different geographic locale than many of the other Christian groups, most notably the Pauline churches, and theologically different from these groups as well. This history of this community spans a period of time that includes the Apostolic era, the Fall of the Temple, and its aftermath. We see the struggles of this community in the gospel itself, and how it derived strength and purpose from the Jesus Christ in the Gospel who is not afraid of controversy.
This book was published in 1979 and it has become a standard in studying John, at least from a Catholic perspective. Brown is not without controversy. Throughout his life he was always first and foremost a scholar and at times his writings ruffled a few feathers of more traditional Catholics and no doubt, some people who read the Bible literally. A few of the stronger negative reviews of this work and other works by Brown have stressed the difficulties some have with the writings of the late Fr. Brown. Brown did touch some nerves when he wrote, particularly his writings on the birth of Jesus Christ. For those who are concerned about this book based on some of the other reviews, I do not recall any major doctrinal errors in this book and found it to be solid theologically and biblically. Know too, I do not dismiss such concerns lightly. I did find when I was studying that this work did help me sort through the sometimes confusing elements that are part of John's Gospel and the work has helped me when I am preparing Bible studies and preaching.
on August 30, 2006
It is rare indeed for a specialized monograph to still be the authority on its topic of choice after nearly thirty years. In the case of this book, "The Community of the Beloved Disciple," which stirred controversy at its publication and still does today, it is even more remarkable. Building on the seminal work of his associate, J. Louis Martyn, at Union Theological Seminary, Brown explicates a fully fleshed out historical and textual criticism of the Johannine Corpus. And what did Brown posit that still manages to raise such passions? He posits five persons named John plus an unnamed Beloved Disciple as responsible for the corpus instead of one solitary John the Apostle. For Brown, these persons named John were John the Apostle, John the Evangelist, John the Redactor, John the Presbyter, and John the Revelator. The only one that might not be important for the development of the Johannine corpus in Brown's read is the Apostle John.
Mainstream Reformed Protestant seminaries are still willing to to deal with only one John who was the Apostle and the Beloved Disciple and all else rolled into one. Generally, Conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants along with Fundamentalist Protestants all find Brown's work in this book anathema. Apostolic authority seems to be the rock upon which their textual acceptance is built in the case of the Johannine corpus. Therefore, against all odds and facts, they firmly reject Brown's well grounded historical analysis and textual criticism for what appear to be little more than dogmatic reasons. Upon the Reverend Father Brown's death recently, the Catholic Commonweal Magazine opined that American Catholicism had lost its greatest scholarly treasure. Few are willing to deny that Raymond E. Brown was one of the greatest if not the greatest of recent Johannine scholars. As well as this book, almost all his other far less controversial works are magisterial. In almost every other matter orthodox, in this case, Brown chose to depart from received orthodoxy based on the facts as he read them.
Anyone, deeply interested in the Johannine corpus must deal with this work. This is not a book for a beginner in Johannine or New Testament studies. However, considering the complexity of the material covered, the book is clearly understandable and very readable. Nothing here is surpassed or outmoded by later scholarship. Are there other ways to look at the Johannine corpus from a historical point of view? Certainly there are, but single author attribution is not one of them. The facts militate against such a reading. The work of Gunter Stemberger and others place the Johannine community in the Galilee/Syrian border area not in Ephesus. Unfortunately, most of that scholarship is not translated out of the German language. Can one avoid this controversy? Most assuredly, Leon Morris in his magnificent commentary on the Johannine corpus in the New International Biblical Commentary Series says nary a word about historical analysis. However, this work explains a great deal quite persuasively while still leaving intact a marvelous, faith affirming set of sacral documents for the reader's edification. I recommend this book most highly.
on March 25, 2008
Raymond E. Brown was perhaps the greatest Johannine scholar of the twenty-first century. In this book, Brown endeavored not only to reconstruct the history of Johannine community in the first century but also, by implication, attempted to give us an account on the formation of the Christian faith. He approached the matter predominantly from the perspectives of the Gospel of John and the Johannine Epistles. I suggest that both the Gospels of John and Epistles of John, and Luke-Acts (perhaps Paul?) are necessary to reconstruct the origins of Christianity. So these documents are invaluable tools to help us discover how everything had started. At any rate, this notion is a matter of considerable discussion among New Testament scholars, so let's go back to Brown.
As I mentioned above, Brown's basic purpose in this volume is to find out how the Johannine community had emerged throughout its history. He did through a successful investigation of both the Gospel of John and Epistles of John. By the way, the hypothesis Brown employed in this work is questionable by many reputable Johannine scholars, but he has strong arguments.
INTRODUCTION: Problem and Method in Discerning Johannine Ecclesiology
The introduction deposits Brown's plan for the book. He hopes to study the history of the Johannine community by treading primarily the Gospel of John, then, John's Epistles on various different levels. By taking this approach, Brown assures us that both the story of Jesus and the Johannine community could be accessed and reconstructed. Brown's method here is parallel to that of Bultmann's and Wellhausen's; the latter contended that chiefly the four Gospels inform us about the Sitz im Leben of the church in which they were written, and only in secondary about the life of Jesus which prima facie they depict . By applying this principle, Brown approaches the matter by employing various reading levels and adopting four different phases:
1.Phase One, "the pre-Gospel era, involved the origins of the community, and its relation to mid-first century Judaism." The composition of the fourth Gospel occurred prior to the expulsion of Johannine Christians from the synagogues (John 9:22; 16:2). The basis of this incident related to what "they were claiming about Jesus" (22).
1.Phase Two, "involved the life-situation of the Johannine community at the time the Gospel was written." Brown maintains the traditional date for the writing of John, A.D. 90. However, he accentuates that the main writing of John took place during that year, not the final product. Another difficulty in the Gospel is the continuous presence and echo of (the) "Jews" ("Ioudaioi"). Brown also believes within the Johannine community there existed the insistence on a high Christology, "made all the more intense by the hard struggles with the `Jews.'"
2.Phase Three, involved "the life-situation in the now-divided Johannine communities at the time the Epistles were written" (A.D. 100?). Brown appeals to 1 John 2:19 to describe the trajic division occurred between the Gospel and the Epistles, which he explains in this term, " ... the struggle is between two groups of Johannine disciples who are interpreting the Gospel in opposite ways, in matter of christology, ethics, and pneumatology. The fears and pessimism of the author of the Epistles suggest that the secessionsts are having the greater numerical success ( I John 4:5), and the author is trying to bolster his adherents against further inroads of false teachers (2:27; II John 10-11). The author feels that it is "the last hour" ( 23; I John 2:18)." That was the BIG DEAL according to Brown!
3.Phase Four, "saw the dissolution of the two Johannine groups after the Epistles were written. The great departure happened between the secessionists and the conservation side of the Johannine community. So they disfellowshipped among themselves, and were no longer in community. According to Brown, it was the secessionists' initiation to divide because of their misuse of the Fourth Gospel. As a result, there arose publicly various sects or groups in the second century inclining toward, Docetism, Gnosticism, Cerinthianism, and Monanism.
PHASE ONE: Before the Gospel -Johannine Community Origins
Brown's argument is basic but profound. He contends that in the early period of the life of the church consisted of Jews whose belief could be labeled as both "low Christology" and "higher Christology." By "low Christology," "involves the application to Jesus of titles derived from OT or intertestamental expectations (e.g., Messiah, prophet, servant, lord, Son of God)--titles that do not in themselves imply divinity, whereas, "high Christology," "involves an appreciation of Jesus that moves him into the sphere of divinity, as expressed, for instance, in a more exalted use of Lord and Son of God, as well as the designation "God." In other words, some Jews highly regarded Jesus as divine, while others rejected his divine nature.
Brown sees both continuity and discontinuity of this notion transmitted in other Jewish churches associated with the apostles.
Concerning John the Baptist-
According to Brown, when the Gospel of John was written the Johannine community engaged in a furious contention with followers of John the Baptist claiming his Messianic status by rejecting Jesus. To fix the problem, Brown notes that the Fourth Gospel presents JBap's role in 1:20 "I am not the Messiah"; and in 3:28: "I am not the Messiah but am sent before him."
On the Role of the Beloved Disciple
The Beloved Disciple is a mysterious historical figure appearing only in the Gospel of John and was the hero of the Johannine community. At his death, he was idealized by the people of the community. The Fourth Gospel clearly identifies him as "the Disciple whom Jesus loved" (13:23-26; 19:25-27; 20:2-10). Nonetheless, Brown agrees that the Beloved Disciple was an "outsider to the group of best-known disciples" (34).
PHASE TWO: When the Gospel Was Written- Johannine Relations to Others
Brown describes the presence of various groups of in the Gospel. The world, the Jews, and the adherents of John the Baptist are categorized as "non-believers detectable in the Gospel." The latter were individuals who made no pretense of believing in Jesus. The Crypto-Christians (Christian Jews within the Synagogues, the Jewish Christian Churches of inadequate faith, and the Christians of apostolic churches are rightly known as "Christians detectable in the Gospel." These individuals expressed explicit faith in Jesus.
PHASE THREE: When the Epistles Were Written--Johannine Internal Struggles
Brown argues the Second and Third Letters of John were written by the same man, whose name was (or calls himself) "the presbyter." The evidence is that relatively the same doctrinal and moral issues are discussed in I and in II John and that "both II and III John are concerned with the acceptance of traveling teachers interlocks the Epistles and makes it likely that all three have come from the same phase of Johannine history."
Eventually Brown would discuss what he termed "The Intra-Johannine Schism." By referring to the secessionists, the group that deviated from the true Johannine Gospel, Brown insists that the secessionists who subscribed to the docetic theology, the denial the reality of Jesus' humanity, were not the main opponents as traditionally conceived. "The adversaries were not detectably outsiders to the Johannine community but the offspring of Johannine thought itself, justifying their positions by the Johannine Gospel and its implications," Brown argues (107). Various areas of theology were subject to dispute in the Johannine community, chiefly the main points of conflict were Christology, ethics, eschatology, and pneumatology. From an ethical point of view, it is important to note that the secessionists claimed, 1) intimacy with God and sinlessness, 2) that they gave no salfvific importance to ethical behavior, 3) that they were accused for not loving the brethren.
PHASE FOUR: After the Epistles -Johannine Dissolution
The "last hour" in the Johannine Epistles is a reference to the split between the conservative side in the Johannine community and the secessionists. As I previously noted above, the secessionists were no longer in communion with the more conservative side of the Johannine community. Brown remarks "the adherents of the author of I John in the early second century seem to have gradually merged with what Ignatius of Antioch calls " the church catholic," as exhibited by the growing acceptance of the Johannine Christology of the preexistence of the Word" (24).
Let's recast Brown main points:
Phase one is the Pre-Gospel era, which represents the origins of the Johannine community. It is also noteworthy during this period the Johannine community maintained a close relationship to mid-first century Judaism. In Phase two, Brown dealt with the life-situation of the Johannine community during the writing period of the Fourth Gospel. During this epoch, Jews who professed Jesus as Messiah-God were expelled from Jewish ssynagogues. In Phase three, we see a great division occured in the Johannine community among those who espoused various ideas about Jesus. Finally, the great dissolution occured in Phase four.
I close this review with a question on the historical reliability of John's Gosepl and would let Brown answer it:
Is John historically reliable?
Here's how Raymond Brown answered my question:
"There is a subtle mélange of history and theology in John. The Fourth Gospel is clearly less historical and more theological than the Synoptics in attributing all this Christology to the first few days of Jesus' ministry; yet the Fourth Gospel may be more factual historically in describing the first followers of Jesus as former disciples of JBap and in having them called in the Jordan valley rather than at the Lake of Galilee" (26).