In several previous publications Daniel B. Wallace, professor at Dallas Seminary, has argued for a pre-AD 70 date of composition for John’s Gospel on what may appear to be a fairly inconspicuous feature: the use of the present tense form of the verb “to be” (eimi) in John 5:2: “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.” According to Wallace, the present tense indicates that the structure here described was still standing at the time of writing. Since archaeological evidence suggests that the structure was destroyed in AD 70, John’s Gospel must have been written prior to AD 70.
To Be or Not to Be?
In my commentary, I have adduced possible instances of present tense forms of eimi that may be past-referring, which would invalidate Wallace’s theory. Specifically, I mentioned John 10:8 (“All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers” NIV) and John 19:40 (“This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs”). Wallace has now responded. He claims that neither passage is a genuine parallel and continues to argue that there are no instances of the past-referring present tense forms of eimi in the New Testament. He also continues to argue for a pre-AD 70 date for John’s Gospel. With regard to John 10:8, Wallace contends this is an instance of “extending from past present” (with reference to Fanning), not a historical present. He does not give any reason why John 19:40 is inadmissible other than asserting that it is not a genuine parallel and citing certain English translations.
I am not going to engage in detailed interchange on minor or ultimately immaterial points here nor respond to arguments or information that I consider less than completely accurate, because my purpose here is more broadly to reassess the likelihood of Wallace’s reading of John 5:2 and the possible light it sheds on the date of John’s Gospel.
A Minority Proposition
First of all, regarding the date of composition for John’s Gospel (on which I have blogged previously), only a very tiny minority of scholars argues for a pre-AD 70 date. I continue to be puzzled by Wallace’s strong interest in arguing for such a date. In my view (and also that of Craig Blomberg, D. A. Carson, and others), the tense form of a single Greek verb in John’s Gospel is hardly able to bear the heavy weight Wallace puts on it in proving the date of composition of the entire Gospel. Not that the majority is necessarily always right in biblical studies, but it must be said that there are good reasons why the virtual consensus of Johannine scholars holds to a post-AD 70 date.
Second, I continue to believe that we must be careful not to dismiss too quickly the possibility that a present tense form of eimi may be used in biblical narrative within a temporal scope that includes the past. In fact, by calling the use in John 10:8 “extending from past present” [sic], Wallace acknowledges that the past may be part of the temporal scope of eimi in a present tense form, even though differences may obtain with regard to the use of eimi in John 10:8 and in John 5:2.
The Relevance of John 19:40
The use in John 19:40 seems to be closer to John 5:2, and Wallace does not advance any actual argument that would disqualify understanding the use of the present tense form of eimi in this passage as past-referring, other than possibly hinting at the fact that burial customs at the time of Jesus may still have obtained at the time of writing John’s Gospel. This, of course, is a point that cannot be established on the basis of New Testament Greek. Suffice it to say that there is evidence that Jewish burial customs did in fact change in the second half of the first century AD (see Keener, in commenting on John 19:39–40, speaks of “Jewish burials in this period,” p. 1163 [emphasis added]), so that it cannot be assumed that no change occurred. Moreover, note that in other cases, too, John mentions Jewish customs prevailing at the time of Jesus (John 2:6; 11:5; 18:28) that should be taken as referring to the level of the original time frame of the narrative (past time) rather than as necessarily still in place at the time of writing (present time).
For these reasons I disagree that John 19:40 is irrelevant for our understanding of John 5:2. I also contend that on a narrative level it is far more natural to read the references in John 5:2, 10:8, and 19:40 as past-referring rather than as John moving from past reference to present reference (which would be considerably more intrusive) and back to past reference. A case in point is the NIV’s and TNIV’s rendering of John 19:40 as “This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.”
In any case, I do not expect that many students of John’s Gospel will believe that the date of John’s Gospel can be established by a disputed use of one single verb tense in the Gospel (of course, Wallace may dispute that this point is disputed, but I dispute this!). In the end, we must turn to a variety of other, more significant and more weighty, factors that suggest a post-AD 70 date for John’s Gospel, factors I and many other commentators have set forth for quite some time (see in this regard David Croteau’s helpful summary article on the date of John’s Gospel in Faith & Mission 20 : 47–80). For these reasons I think it is unwise for anyone to champion the view that John was written prior to AD 70, whether on the basis of the present tense form of eimi in John 5:2 or otherwise.