June 18, 2024

Having written this post almost two months ago, I placed it on the back burner while I’ve been busy with numerous other projects in my life. With Lydia McGrew’s recent post against the supposed monologuing Jesus, I decided to publish it now with some updated material.

In the McGrew-Evans debate there was some discussion over the “I am” discourses in the Gospel of John. Sadly, the term was not explicitly defined in a way that a philosopher might define a term that is used. But Evans did give some description (more on that later). Since there was no precise definition provided, I provide here two prominent New Testament scholars on some of the features of a Gospel discourse, in order that we might better understand what NT scholars mean when they talk about Gospel discourses:
[blockquote2]Yet another key feature of the Gospels are the discourses that Jesus engages in. Now full discourses aren’t all that common in the Synoptic Gospels, even though the Gospel of Matthew is built around discourses. It’s built around five discourses: the Sermon on the Mount, in chapters 5–7; a missionary discourse, in chapter 10; the Kingdom Parables Discourse, in chapter 13; the call to appropriate community, in chapters 16–18; and then the Olivet Discourse, in chapters 24–25. Along with that, there’s a different kind of discourse in the Woes to the Pharisees, in chapter 23. So discourse material makes up an important part of at least the Gospel of Matthew. Mark only has two discourses, for example—the Kingdom Discourse and the Olivet Discourse.
There are also discourses in the Gospel of John, of which the most outstanding is the Upper Room Discourse that Jesus engages in before He goes to His death, in John 14–16. There also is, in the Gospel of John, a unit of what is called the Book of Signs: a series of seven miracles that control the beginning part of that Gospel, and that link to the discourse material on the other end as the indications that Jesus is who He claims to be, before He reveals in the discourses what the rest of the program of God is all about, in the Gospel of John. (Darrell L. Bock, BI100 Learn to Study the Bible, Logos Mobile Education (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014))[/blockquote2][blockquote2]Jesus’ discourses in the Fourth Gospel fit a relatively uniform pattern. As Dodd and others have noted, John develops most of his discourses the same way: Jesus’ statement, then the objection or question of a misunderstanding interlocutor, and finally a discourse (either complete in itself or including other interlocutions). John usually limits speaking characters to two (a unified group counting as a single chorus) in his major discourse sections, as in Greek drama. Repetitious patterns might provide analogy and unity of presentation, as in the speeches in Acts. Thus Ben Witherington suggests that, while there is likely some authentic material in the discourses, John took artistic liberties in expressing them, given the dramatic mode of biography in which he wrote. D. A. Carson suggests that John provided the substance rather than verbatim reports; the Fourth Evangelist used his material in his sermons before revising it for his Gospel. Thus virtually all scholars concur that Jesus’ discourses in the Fourth Gospel reflect Johannine editing or composition. (Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary & 2, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), pages 68–69.)[/blockquote2] The key takeaway from these is that monologues are not a necessary condition for a Gospel discourse. Bock knows it. Keener knows it. And even Craig Evans knows it. In the episode of Unbelievable, Evans described the Johannine discourses as passages where Jesus speaks “on and on and on for many verses.” He thinks, “There are about seven of them. They’re very thematic. They’re very theological. They have a very high Christology. And Jesus speaks more or less as Wisdom speaks.” I’m not persuaded by his last sentence, but we don’t need to be persuaded of that in order to understand what he’s trying to convey about the existence of discourses in John’s Gospel.

As a hearer of Evans, I’m trying to understand what he’s saying. It’s evident that Evans is not using an academic way of explaining the Johannine discourses with his use of “on and on and on.” That’s not an academic phrase. That’s a type of statement you say to someone who has little-to-no background knowledge and you want that person to get the gist of what you mean; it’s a statement made toward a popular-level audience. Evans is no dummy. It would be rash to believe that Evans’s actual position is that a discourse is of only Jesus speaking. Thus …

It should be of no surprise, then, that Lydia McGrew (who lacks experience in the New Testament field and mercy in charitably interpreting some people) takes Evans to mean something he does not. Again, it is important to understand one’s audience and Evans was evidently speaking toward a popular level (or slightly above that) audience. Evans was not providing answers as if in an academic conference; this is observable from many of his statements and broad explanations … even his curiosity about whether McGrew knew about the Synoptic problem(!). She very likely took that as an insult, but I think Evans asking that was out of his ignorance of who his debate opponent was. Most assuredly, Evans would never have had to ask that at an academic conference among his peers. So, the evidence suggests that Evans believed his audience was different than the one McGrew was expecting.

Yet in her first critique against Evans, McGrew took him as providing a technical, academic definition:
[blockquote2]That there are not seven, nor even several, “long I am discourses” in John can be seen simply by opening one’s Bible. Check out “I am the light of the world,” which Evans explicitly claims inaugurates such a discourse in which Jesus “goes on and on and on.” On the contrary, it is a short saying that takes up one single verse (John 8:12) and is immediately followed by a challenge from the crowd to the effect that Jesus’ testimony is not true since he is testifying to himself. This inaugurates a back-and-forth dialogue, not about his being the light of the world but about testimony, Abraham, and who their father is and who Jesus’ father is, culminating in “Before Abraham was, I am” in verse 58, at which point they try to stone him. There is no long discourse anywhere in sight.[/blockquote2] She goes one-by-one to analyze the context of numerous ‘I am’ statements in John’s Gospel. She concludes,

[blockquote2]For all of the “I am” statements in John (both with and without predicates) with a single exception (which I’ll come back to in a moment), one of the following is true: Either 1) The statement occurs only in a single verse, followed by dialogue or action, or 2) the statement inaugurates only a brief thematic exposition of its topic.[/blockquote2]

These passages are a perfect example of either McGrew’s lack of depth of NT scholarship (an observation I have continually supported with evidence, including her own damning remarks on Facebook that she has had a limited reading of contemporary NT literature until up to 2 years ago) or her fiercely uncharitable interpretation of Evans’s illocution. As shown above, New Testament scholars today do not believe that Gospel discourses must only be Jesus speaking. Again, McGrew wrote, “There is no long discourse anywhere in sight.” And that’s because McGrew equates a discourse with a monologue, which is her mistake (proof of which is provided above that NT scholars do not make that same equation). In fact, if we were to think of Gospel discourses as Matthean, Mark, Lukan, or Johannine discourses then we could easily avoid this error.

The discourses in the Gospels are discourses of the author, not of Jesus. Jesus certainly spoke at length and sometimes gave monologues in his ministry (and many times he spoke in dialogues), but what we have in the Gospels are an author-filtered relay of Jesus’s teachings. Sometimes these author-filtered teachings come in the form of composites (like the Sermon on the Mount), sometimes these teachings come in the form of monologues, and sometimes these teachings come in the form of dialogues. Gospel discourses, it is evident, can be created at liberty by the author (like the Sermon on the Mount). Discourses are not necessarily monologues. NT scholars, in their academic settings, are clear that these are lengthy passages and that they sometimes include conversations between Jesus and his opponents. McGrew’s attempt to embarrass Evans as some textual idiot (because he can’t understand “simply by opening one’s Bible”) fails badly because she uncharitably and incorrectly interprets Evans for her own gain.

In her recent post, she states, “Evans’s statements about lengthy discourses in John are impossible to salvage, from any angle.” But I can easily think of an angle through which Evans’s remarks are strongly feasible, and it’s one angle that McGrew herself supplies! McGrew acknowledges that in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks at length more exclusively about one topic and there are less aphorisms than in the Synoptics. She writes, “Jesus is more repetitious in John and sticks to one topic somewhat more in John than in the Synoptics–that is, that he speaks less aphoristically in John, even though this is not the same thing as his ‘going on and on and on for many verses’ in John but not in the Synoptics.”

What if we interpreted Evans’s illocution as precisely that? What if Evans simply meant when Jesus goes “on and on and on for many verses” he stays on topic (with interlocutors) for a relatively extended period of time (in contrast to the Synoptics)? If that’s all he meant and not that Jesus spoke in monologues in John’s Gospel, then McGrew’s railing on him is unwarranted. In effect, and what I think is really the case, McGrew is simply bullying. Her rigid assumptions of the text are causing her to attack straw-men through an unforgiving interpretive lens. She wonders why the guild of NT scholars ignores her, and this is another reason why. Her desire to understand the Gospel texts is laudable. However, because she continues to parade her naivete publicly and pridefully, I want to encourage her to cease her critical writing (with her apparent assumption that she intuitively understands the issues) and instead redirect her efforts toward evaluating her preconceived notions about the Gospels by reading what experienced, wise scholars have to offer.


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Kurt Jaros

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