Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Gospel of the Second-Person Pronoun

The Gospel of John is obviously different from the Synoptic Gospels, written as if the others were already known to the reader, with long discourses and detailed dialogues. A lot of scholars of the historical Jesus variety are skeptical of John in particular as a result, but I'm reading a book by Richard Bauckham now that turns such thinking on its head. He points out that John is the only gospel that contains direct eyewitness claims by the author. It's also the only gospel with a prominent anonymous disciple, the disciple who Jesus loved, who is pretty clearly the author. One of Bauckham's claims is that the John who wrote this gospel was actually John the Elder, not John son of Zebedee, and I'll review that argument when I finish the book. But the striking thing that deserves its own blog post is Bauckham's point that, if anything, John makes more claims to eyewitness account than the supposedly more historical gospels, and beyond that, at two crucial points, the author steps out and directly addresses the reader, both at the crucifixion and near the end of the book:

34 But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. 35 And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. (John 19)

30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20)

Compare this anonymous author directly addressing the reader in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, and note how different it feels:

"Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. [59] But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. [60] But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord ... " [Raymond Brown's translation]

One of the questions is, whichever John wrote this book, why did he keep himself anonymous if speaking as an eyewitness was so important to him?

(And it was important, consider John 1: 14, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." and 1 John 1:1 "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life." From a certain angle, these verses reflect a historian's and scientist's desire for touching and knowing directly. It is integral to the message of the gospel and can’t be explained as a superficial apologetic maneuver.)

The anonymity of the author seems to be the only way to show how he was there without drawing attention away from Jesus. “He must increase, I must decrease,” put into action in the very writing of the gospel. At two crucial points John steps out and (still anonymously) emphasizes his role as witness – not to magnify himself as author, but to put the question to YOU, the reader. John is saying “He is why I'm doing this and you are why I’m doing this” without using the I (like I so clumsily did just now!). Maybe the pale-imitation gnostic gospels can get away with using “I” and “me,” but the author who wants to say “It’s all about Jesus, not me,” does so most effectively by avoiding the first person (except in plural at the beginning and end of John) and, sparingly but effectively, employing the second person to say, this is about you and Jesus. It’s not about me.

And now I will use the first person too much again.

It’s very easy as a blog post to put myself into it. After all, these are personal reflections, and it goes along with the genre to do so. There’s possibly nothing inherently wrong with that. I just want to note that it’s very easy to make it “all about me” and perhaps that is the greatest temptation of the author.

It’s not just the gospel of John. The other gospels are third person, and most of the stories in the Bible are third person. Off the top of my head, I think of prominent first-person usage (outside of quoted dialogue) in poetry (the Psalms, the Song of Solomon), and in the letters (Paul’s and others’, although I’ll have to think about 1-3 John in this light and the beginning of Revelation). First person is OK, but sometimes there’s a point to be made by avoiding it.

It looks like John did just that, and very effectively so. It’s all about Jesus, not John. “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”


Anonymous said...

Just a quick thought, which translation of the gospel of John did the author base the eyewitness account of John on?

BenMc said...

Not sure I follow. Bauckham doesn't translate at all but goes from the original Greek. The Greek manuscripts agree to the extent that it doesn't make sense to distinguish them unless you're drilling down to one of the words different among them (the first part of John 8 being an exception that proves the rule). It doesn't make sense to talk about translations at the level we're working at here; we're pretty much using the original Greek that goes back as far as we can go (incidentally, one of the oldest fragments extant is of the end of the Gospel of John, and it's likely from the range 100-150AD).