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Johannine Scholarship: The Road Ahead

Stephen Neill famously stated that the Germans never bury their scholarly corpses or, as he puts it, “no ghosts are ever laid in Germany.” He remarked that in the writings of Bultmann, for example, “we encounter the full procession of the ghosts.” I’m not sure if those of us in other countries are doing any better. Regardless of where the truth lies in a given instance, surely, not everything proposed by scholars should be regarded as genuine progress. But if not, then at least some of our scholarly work is in fact a step backwards (though most of us will of course find this difficult to admit), unless you are a hard-core postmodernist (if there is such a thing). This leads me to the question I am posing for us to discuss today: “What constitutes progress in biblical studies generally, and Johannine studies in particular?”

To my mind the most fascinating issue raised by Don Carson’s essay is precisely that of “progress” in biblical scholarship. As recently as in 1990 Moody Smith could state without fear of contradiction that Lou Martyn’s version of the “Johannine community hypothesis” constituted one of the assured paradigms in Johannine study on which others could confidently build their hypotheses. A decade and a half later, this consensus has significantly eroded. In fact, some former proponents of the hypothesis have publicly renounced it, while others have severely criticized it as inadequately taking into account the testimony of the early church and as being at odds with first-century Christianity, not to mention the difficulty the Johannine mission theme presents for radically sectarian readings of John’s Gospel.

What only a short while ago seemed to be a common foundation of Johannine scholarship has thus given way to a state of things in which “the center does not hold.” Don Carson speaks of the “balkanization” of Johannine studies and notes the absence of widely accepted paradigms. In fact, it appears that, efforts at integration notwithstanding (such as our discussion here today), the discipline is in considerable ferment if not disintegration.

This state of affairs, in my view, is tied to the notion of “progress” in biblical scholarship. Too often, certain views in Johannine scholarship have been overturned not on the basis of new, better evidence, but owing to different philosophical presuppositions that led scholars to abandon established views in favor of those more in keeping with their larger perspectives on Scripture. At the end of his essay, Don Carson suggests that there may be certain benefits to what he calls “confessional” Johannine scholarship (as well as perils to “dogmatic anti-confessionalism”). I think he has put his finger on a key question, namely whether rejecting various doctrinal commitments as out of bounds for biblical scholarship has really advanced the discipline and led to discernible progress.

In fact, I would go even further than Carson. To the extent that recent Johannine scholarship turns out to be a blind alley (a Sackgasse), if not a step in the wrong direction, rather than politely compliment such scholarship for its valuable contribution to the field, we should refuse to call this “progress.” “Progress” in Johannine scholarship should not be conceived in evolutionary terms as if “more recent” necessarily meant “more accurate.” Rather, the burden of proof should be placed on newer theories to show how they are superior to established ways of conceiving of the nature of John’s Gospel.

So I ask: Is it possible that what is viewed by some as progress may in fact be regress? In this postmodern world paradigms are increasingly rare. Most likely the future will witness increasing atomization and polarization between “confessional” and critical scholarship. Ideally, the text of John’s Gospel and the available evidence could serve as common points of reference and as a proving ground for the hypotheses of scholars from a variety of viewpoints and faith commitments.Time will tell if this is a realistic possibility.

In the meantime, I think, perhaps we should follow Nicodemus’ (and Joseph of Arimathea’s) example and give some scholarly theories in Johannine studies their well-deserved burial. In the salvation-historical scheme of things, burial precedes resurrection. Thank you very much.

Note: Dr. Andreas J. Köstenberger delivered this address at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, CA, on November 19, 2007. The address is adapted from his essay in the book What We Have Heard From the Beginning: The Past, Present, and Future of Johannine Studies (ed. Tom Thatcher;Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007).