Friday, December 7, 2012

The Forensic Character of St. John's Gospel: An Exploration of the Johannine Community Concept of Witness and Testimony

The Four Evangelists all devote a similar amount of material to Jesus’ trial before the Roman and Jewish authorities.  The trial, crucifixion are central for all writers, however, only in the Fourth Gospel does the whole narrative proceed as one sweeping cosmic trial between God and the world, with Jesus standing at the very center.  The Word of God comes to His own people and they do not accept him (1:11), and though He comes to save the world, he also comes to condemn the lack of belief and to expose evil (3:17-21).  The narrative of “signs” either evoke belief or unbelief.  The verbπιστεύω occurs ninety-eight times in the Fourth Gospel, and is employed always with reference to Christ as the object of faith.  It seems to me that John may be the most “forensic” of all books in the canon, due to its consistent testimonial and evidential character.  This paper is far from being an exhaustive treatment on this theme, and will aim to explore the breadth of the juridical nature of the Fourth Gospel and implications for the church today.       

It is difficult to begin to grasp the agenda of John’s Gospel if the reader does not take seriously his intent, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in you” (20:30-31).  These verses expressing the intent and purpose of the book, bring to mind the image of a lawyer sifting and selecting the most compelling article of evidence to the jury, who then must decide what they believe.  This begs the question, who is the intended audience in the case?  Is the case made primarily to strengthen and comfirm those within the Johannine community itself, or is it intended for new converts outside the community, maybe the Samaritans?  It has also been proposed that the testimony of John’s Gospel is a skillful apologetic to the Jews who remained curious about Jesus and needed to be brought out of the synagogue worship to confess.[1]  It seems to me however, that the Fourth Gospel is broader and more universal in scope than any of the synoptics.  Bultmann does not see in John any such limited missionary activity to a specific group of non-believers:

So far as the Evangelist is concerned it is irrelevant whether the possible readers are already ‘Christians,’ or are not yet such; for to him the faith of ‘Christians’ is not a conviction that is present once for all, but it must perpetually make sure of itself anew, and therefore must continually hear the word anew.[2]
John concludes his account with these parting words: “This is the disciple who testifying (μαρτυρέω) to these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony (μαρτυρία) is true” (21:24).  In John’s account he is speaking of the person and work of Jesus Christ – His life, death, and resurrection.  Whereas the synoptics make consistent reference of Jesus work as “gospel”(εὐαγγέλιον), John never uses the word.  From Matthew, Mark, and especially Luke, the idea of “Gospel,” as good news to be eagerly received by the Mediterranean world is prevalent.  There is a great deal of optimism about the spread of the gospel with choral motets and composed hymns to fulfilled OT prophecies.  An argument can be made that John does not really provide a “Gospel” in the case of the synoptics, but rather a case and testimony.  If John’s account is known as a book of signs we may as well consider it a collection of evidence by key eye-witnesses.  The “evidence” that I hope to highlight suggests that John is not presenting an account of good news necessarily, although it truly is good news, but rather an account of judgment and wrath between those who come to believe in Jesus and those who refuse.

The central trial between God and “the world” in the person of Jesus is not just presented in His arrest and trial but in a series of confrontations with people who either receive or reject Him.  Each encounter is a sort of dramatic vignette between Jesus and each witness.  Each encounter also holds an intimacy with Jesus, unparalleled by the synoptics.  The Fourth Evangelist holds a series of encounters each with minor variations.  Either one is called to believe the testimony, escape judgment, and therefore receive life, or one will bring judgment upon himself by rejecting the message.  In the juridical narrative, either witnesses certify Jesus’ status as the Son of God, the truth and the light, or those who encounter Him accuse, judge, and execute Him.  

It is of utmost importance that John make an appeal and case for his own credibility and status as a writer.  His prologue may be the most dramatic introduction to any book in the Bible, while appealing to the Genesis and Wisdom tradition.  Culpepper observes that John is making use of Jewish and Hellenistic Jewish rhetorical strategies, given that before an orderly account, he must establish his credibility (ethos), identify favor with a audience (pathos), and lay out a convincing discourse of arguments and evidence in favor of his claims (logos).  Culpepper notes John’s use of self-authenticating rhetorical strategies.

The gospel makes use of virtually all of the devices available for heightening the credibility and authority of a narrative: appeal to tradition, a reliable narrator, inspiration (the Paraclete), eyewitness testimony, the authority of an esteemed figure (the Beloved Disciple), and the approval of a community.  Internally, the provision of historical, geographical, and descriptive detail which is either demonstrably true of verisimilar serves to confirm the claims the narrative makes for itself.[3]
It is Culpepper’s observation that John makes an extremely wide use of “literary weapons” in order to persuade, move, and convince the hearer that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and Son of God. 

John the Baptist has unparalleled significance as “witness” in the Fourth Gospel.  The prologue in fact emphasizes John’s identity of witness even above his status as “John the Baptizer.”[4]  The presentation of John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel has a significantly different emphasis than that of the Synoptics.  Whereas the Synoptics note John the Baptist’s clothing, fiery preaching, eating habits, baptism, incarceration, and beheading, John has rather one concern – that witness that he bears to Christ.  John’s work of baptizing is no doubt secondary, as the baptism of Jesus is even omitted in favor of repeated reference to his witness (1:7, 8, 15, 19, 32; 34:26, 5:33). 

There is also stress laid on precisely what John the witness is not.  There is a strong repudiation that he “was not the light” but rather a shining λύχνος.  One of the primary goals of John’s Gospel is to refute the exaggerated claims made by the sectarians of John the Baptist.[5]  Was John the Baptist thought of as “the light” – as day dawns from on high to those who sit in darkness, as referenced in Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined” (9:2).  The Fourth Gospel certainly seeks to rectify whatever misunderstanding may have taken place regarding the role of John the Baptist in pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.  The Prologue hymn seems to bracket together the witness (μαρτυρία) with the Isaiah voice in the wilderness proclaiming the coming light.  This of course is not unique in the Fourth Gospel but shared by Matthew in his showing Jesus to be the fulfillment of OT prophecy concerning light (4:16).  I am interested whether the themes of light shining in darkness also makes an elucidation of the juridical metaphors, and the on-going case in the fourth Gospel.  It does not seem pure speculation to understand the crucial witness of John the Baptist as pointing to the light and bringing to light the eye-witness proof that Jesus is the Son of God.  Today, even in our understanding of the legal system it seems normative to grammatically speak of “bringing to light of the evidence” and so forth.  I have not discovered any commentaries or articles exploring the light themes as an expression of the juridical proceedings in John’s Gospel.
          The Fourth Evangelist closes out the testimony of John the Baptist in the context of a dispute between his disciples and a Jew concerning purification.  John likely knowing that he was unable to provide the true purification, gives a final witness to the identity of Jesus.  John the Baptist has one function – to serve as μαρτύριον, and in turn introduce Israel to her Messiah.  He likens his role to a friend of the bridegroom, who hears him and rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.  Therefore, John by his own admission is to decrease as all eyes moves toward Jesus, who is the true light.  Now that the identity of Jesus is revealed and witnessed, his joy is now “complete” as he has borne witness to the truth.

 John and the Synoptics
Richards Bauckham has made a case that John is more concerned with a precise historiographical account than the synoptics.[6]  It seems clear that there is a very conscious, defined, and detailed chronology and topography.  Bauckham briefly highlights some of these precise details, “not just in Galilee, but in Cana or Capernaum; not just in Jerusalem but at the pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate; not just in the temple but in Solomon’s Portico.”[7]  The Gospel as a whole, is also structured around key Jewish festivals such as Passover (chapters 2, 6, 11-20), the Tent festival (chapters 7-8) and Hanukkah (chapter 10).  It seems to me that Bauckham’s observations concerning eyewitness testimony translate into an important element of the juridical concept of trial and sure testimony.  In any credible trial, precise historical details are indispensible in developing the case.

This brings to mind unique details, such as the foot race to the empty tomb.  Here Simon Peter takes careful note of particular details (“evidence”): “He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself” (20:6-7).  Whereas John often excludes certain details more common in the Synoptics, it seems to me, that he omits or expands and amplifies based upon how that detail relates to the chief point of the case: in this case Jesus’ resurrection.  If one was seeking to set forth the finest evidence and testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and therefore his identity as verifiable Son of God, it seems an exceptionally relevant inclusion by an eye-witness.  Based upon the evidence of the empty tomb and the neatly folded up shroud we soon find that the disciple “saw and believed.”   
Jesus discourse on His Sabbath work (5:31-40) provides a helpful look into the Johnannine theme of witness.  When Jesus is accused of being His own witness concerning the infraction of healing at the pool on the Sabbath, he provides a list of His key witnesses.  Brown makes the connection here with Deut 19:15, where it is states that a man cannot be convicted of a crime on the testimony of one witness.[8]  Deut 17:6 and Num 35:30 demand that the testimony of several witnesses are necessary in the case of a trial regarding the capital offense – in this case the breaking of the Sabbath.  Matthew 18:16 also makes clear that several witnesses must confirm a case against one guilty of a serious transgression.  John however, is not using witnesses to condemn a man but rather to confirm another’s testimony. 

The Jews seeking to accuse Jesus often appeal to these OT legal principles, “You are your own witness, and your testimony cannot be verified” (8:13).  In response, it seems that Jesus meets these accusations and challenges, and in fact takes them seriously, recognizing the prescriptions of the Law.  Jesus, in response, provides four key witnesses, appealing to the testimony of John the Baptist (vs. 35-37), His own miracles (vs. 36), the Father Himself (vs. 37-38), as well as the witness of the Scriptures (vs. 39).  The appeal to John as chief witness can hardly be overemphasized (as noted earlier).  John the Baptist is the “man sent from God” to “bear witness to the truth,” a “burning and shining lamp,” in order that “all might believe through him.”  Next, Jesus sets forth is own miracles that provide a clear testimony of his actions – healing on the Sabbath.  The works that He has been given to do are the works given by the Father Himself.  Jesus testifies that He is in fact doing these works, which themselves “bear witness” about his true identity.  The next appeal of Jesus surely would have been the most shocking to His hearers, for He appeals to the testimony of the Father Himself, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me.  His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen (vs. 37).  It seems unclear whether we ought to look to a particular testimony of the Father at a theophony-type event or if this refers more to the authority of Jesus throughout His entire ministry.  It may be a reference to His baptism, although in John there is no voice from heaven that is recorded.  It seems more plausible and in keeping with the narrative that this testimony is also linked with the belief of those confessing Jesus as the Son of God.  In 1 John v.9-10 we see this connection: “This is the testimony that God has given about His Son.  He who believes in the Son of God has this testimony within Himself.”  The fourth witness is the Scriptures (vs. 39), likely the Law itself.  Raymond Brown has the following observation of this fourfold testimony set forth by Jesus:

But it is obvious that nowhere in the Synoptic Gospels do we find such a logical and completely developed apologetic for Jesus’ claims.  We may well surmise, then, that what we have in John is the product of the apologetic of the Christian Church against the Jewish objections to Christ, an apologetic of the Christian Church against the Jewish objections to Christ, an apologetic grounded in Jesus’ own arguments, but now systematized.  The whole of chapter five fits in vey well with the purpose of the Gospel to persuade Jewish Christians to leave the synagogue and openly to profess their faith in Jesus.[9]   
The Johannine Jews however, remain unbelieving and form a striking contrast to those whose the signs and come to believe.  By the Jews stubborn refusal to take the evidence seriously, they shut themselves off from eternal life, and display an ignorance of the true meaning of their own scriptures.  Given the appeal to their own scriptures, in addition to the signs of Jesus, and the multiple testimonies, why do Jews fail to believe?  John makes frequent use of the “witness of the Father,” also that “no man can come to me, unless the Father whom has sent me draws him” (6:44).  Therefore, besides the clear and external testimony and work of Jesus Himself there is a witness of the Father whom exercises an internal divine witness that leads to faith.

            Jesus ends the discourse in chapter 5 by appealing to Moses as a prosecuting witness in the charge against the Jews.  The Jews are at fault when they cite Moses to oppose Christ (vs. 45).  Jesus responds that Moses “wrote of me,” not calling to mind a few Messianic references but rather the totality of the Law, which point to Him alone.  Due to the Jews’ refusal to see, Moses ultimately becomes their accuser, “There is one who accuses you: Moses on whom you have set your hope.  For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (vs. 45-47).      

            The lawsuit over Jesus’ claims become much more intensified with the Jews, likely after his bread of life discourse.  The Jewish leaders are now making moves to have him arrested and put to death (7:1), as Jesus makes his case against the ‘world,’ “I testify of it that’s its works are evil” (7:7).  The debates that follow are formed by three critical groups, the Jews (7:14-24), some of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (7:25-31), and the chief priests and Pharisees (7:32-36).  Jesus’ dialogue with the Jews asserts two things.  First, the person who desires to do God’s will must recognize the source of Christ’s teaching.  Second, the devotion of Christ to the Father who sent him is a “sign” of his truthfulness.  The great irony is that though they profess a full devotion to the Torah, they are preparing to murder the one who has come to fulfill it.  Here, we see Jesus boldly accusing and rendering a verdict.  Judgment is God’s business.     

It is noteworthy that double amen in John occurs 25 times.  This has usually been read simply to indicate a great emphasis, that something is indeed ‘verily’ true.  The use ‘Amen’ in the Old Testament however, is used commonly as a customary response to a promise, curse, or blessing, in a juridical context.  In Deuteronomy 27, the six tribes of Mount Ebal respond to each curse by saying “Amen.” (vs. 15-26).  Another response is to an oath taken in Nehemiah when a litany of charges is leveled against those who deal in corruption.  The crowd yells out “Amen” to the charges (5:13).  In John’s account, the amen is always in its double form, and is only said by Jesus, prior to a “truly I say to you.”  The amen serves as an expression of witness and sure testimony.    

Some scholars note a very close parable between the fourth Gospel and Isaiah chapters 40-55.  In fact, Dr. Allison A. Trites in The New Testament Concept of Witness has dedicated a whole book specifically to this parallel.  In Isaiah a great controversy in the form of a lawsuit takes places in which Yahweh and His witnesses are placed beside the gods of the nations and their supporters.  The false gods and the nations are challenged to produce a case and are invited to set their best witnesses and arguments forward to prove that they can stand.  Their inability to make a case, witnessed by their silence, is evidence that they cannot stand and must forfeit the case.   

Israel has been judged for her unfaithfulness and rejection in the relationship with Yahweh (43:21-28).  Those who are in error however, are invited to repent and recognize that Yahweh is Lord.  Against the false gods, Yahweh is the accuser.  The charges leveled against Yahweh cannot be proved and no witnesses can defend the false gods and “the world”(46:2).  It is the observation of Trites, that in the sustained lawsuit it is really a lawsuit between “God and the world.”  God is represented by Israel and the world is represented by the pagan nations.  The debate is over Yahweh, as creator and true Lord of history:

The lawsuit between God and the world involves parties who serve both as witnesses and as advocates, and in this respect Isaiah 40-55 follows the general practice of the Old Testament legal assembly.  It is the task of the witnesses not only to attest the face but also to convince the opposite side of the truth of them…Isaiah 40-55 think of Israel both as God’s witness and servant.  This combination appears later in the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus and the disciples are described in this dual capacity.[10]    
In the Gospel of John, the debate is over the Messiahship and divine Sonship of Jesus (3:15-16, 20:31).  Of course in the Fourth Gospel it is the Jews who step into the role of the pagan unbelievers, as God Himself, comes into their midst to conduct His own case and trial.  It is Trites observation that the debates with the Jews all follow OT legal assembly rubrics and take the form of a contest between the hostile unbelieving world and God.         

The work of the Holy Spirit appears to be interpreted in a juridical way in the Fourth Gospel.  Not only is a παράκλητος a juridical term (“to call alongside”), but his activity is in perfect keeping with the term.  In John’s Gospel there is a heightened confession of the Holy Spirit as “advocate” and “witness.”  We see this also in the Johannine Epistles, notably 1 John 5:6, “And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.”  John’s use of the word is akin to a defense attorney, not simply in defense of Christ, who must be accused but rather as an attorney who will console the disciples at Pentecost but also condemn the unbelieving world. The role of the paraclete is that of a prosecuting attorney proving the world guilty.  Brown writes:

We find that no one translation of paracletos captures the complexity of the functions, forensic and otherwise, that this figure has.  The Paraclete is a witness in defense of Jesus and a spokesman for him in the context of his trial by his enemies; the Paraclete is a consoler of the disciples for he takes Jesus’ place among them; the Paraclete is a teacher and guide of the disciples and thus their helper.[11] 
If we take seriously the possibility that the Johannine community was in fact “sectarian,” or at least somewhat isolated, there seems to be reason for the amplified role the Paraclete in such a community.  If the key eye-witnesses, particularly the Beloved Disciple himself were to die, a critical connection needed to be maintained with the person and work of Jesus.  The Paraclete is needed in a community whom is oppressed and in some ways is cut off.  After all, the Paraclete dwells within all Christians who love Jesus and keep His commandments (14:17).  

The fourth Gospel is also commonly known as the “book of signs.”[12]  After Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, the Jews demand a sign, “What sign can you show us, for doing these things!” (2:18).  It was expected that Jesus produce ‘signs,’ thereby serving as evidence for his claim of divine Sonship.  In the consciousness of the Jews there was certainly an expectation that a true prophet provides signs that verify his identity as an agent of God.  When Moses sensed his difficulty God enagled him to perform works or signs.  The words of Jesus: “but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38).  That is to say “accept the evidence presented to you that you may know!’ 

The use of “signs” in John’s Gospel must be carefully distinguished from the signs in the Synoptics.  The narratives of miracles in the Synoptics most always end with a description of amazement of fear of the crowds.  In the Fourth Gospel, this reaction to the miracles and signs is simply non-existent, being replaced by the reaction that people simply come to “believe” (2:11, 4:48, 54; 6:2; 11:45; 12:18-19).  The Fourth Gospel is also consistent in calling all the miracles, signs (σημεῖον).  These signs are not a cause for amazement or fear but are consistently linked with people “believing” and therefore coming to a saving faith (or refusing to believe and being condemned).  Given that the signs of Jesus all lead toward belief, the narrative is indeed structured that the greater miracle is in fact the belief itself.

It has been observed that there are seven signs of Jesus, following John the Baptist’s testimony and the conversion of the disciple.[13]  Fortna organizes the sequence as follows: the miracle at Cana (John 2); Jesus and the Samaritan woman (4:1-42); a nobleman’s son healed (4:43-54); a man of a thirty-eight year illness is healed (chap. 5).  This is followed by the feeding of the multitude (chap. 6); a man born blind from birth is healed (chap. 9); Lazarus is raised (chap. 11); a miraculous draft of fish (chap. 21).  Fortna groups the healing of the men together.  The final sign is the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

In John 11 the raising of Lazarus seems to present a dramatic climax to Jesus’ signs.  In the cosmic trial in John, this sign seems to have a great deal of weight and evidential value, as we find that many of the Jews saw what He did and “believed in Him” (11:45).  Now, even the enemies of Jesus are forced to acknowledge the miracle, even while they miss the obvious significance.  The Pharisees call a meeting (συνέδριον, note legal assembly) to put Jesus to death.  By Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus at last overcomes the world.  His claims and status are vindicated, and God’s case is won.  Now, in John’s Gospel the case for Jesus is made individually to its hearers, as the Father and Spirit continue to testify on Jesus’ behalf.   
  There is much about the juridical character of the Fourth Gospel that might help shape and inform life in the church today.  The Johannine community is at odds with the world.  The optimism about the Gospel of Jesus’ going to the ends of the earth and claiming the whole Mediterranean world is heavily contrasted with John’s theology of opposition from “the Jews” and “the world.”  The world is not simply some unplowed field waiting to be tilled, watered, and harvested.  The world is inherently against Jesus and has met judgment by its rejection of Him, preferring light to darkness.  The themes of bearing witness, believing, and coming to faith dominate the narrative.  The amplified teachings on love inform how the church lives in community and in relation to the world.  As hostility to the church heightens, particularly in the Western world, it seems to me that the Fourth Gospel serves as a model to inform how a community lives within the tension caused by rejection from outside.         

[1] Brown, Raymond Edward. The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 72-73
[2] R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), pp. 698-699.
[3] R.A. Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (FFNT, 1; Philadephia, Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 48-49. 
[4] εἰς μαρτυρίαν signifies “for witness,” not to be a witness.”  It is the activity of witnessing rather than the man who receives the emphasis. 
[5] For extended commentary see R.E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (Vol. 2., Garden City., 1966), Intro. V:LXVII-LXX. 
[6] Bauckham, Richards. Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, The: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
[7] Ibid., p. 99
[8] Brown, p. 223
[9] Brown, vol. 2, p. 228
[10] A.A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
[11] Brown, vol. II, p. 1137
[12] Speculation on the existence of a source(s) of signs predating the Fourth Gospel goes back to the beginning of the 20th century and reaches a high point with Rudolf Bultmann’s Das Evangelium des Johannes.  This work proposed a “signs source”
[13] Fortna, Robert Tomson. The Gospel of Signs: A Reconstruction of the Narrative Source Underlying the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge University Press, 1970.

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