|Earl Doherty's Jesus Puzzle: On John's Epistles|
[Organization of 1 John] [The parakletos] [Eschatology] [1 John 5:6-12] [1 John 2:27] [Alleged Internal Inconsistencies] [Opponents in 1 John]
We now look at one of Doherty's supplemental essays, in which Doherty attempts to bring the Johannine epistles into evidence.
The Organization 1 John
A key to much of what Doherty writes is a supposition that the letter of 1 John (hereafter 1J) is of such a disorganized and fractured nature that it must have had its origins as a variety of separate documents that were clumsily pieced together at a later date. This supposition, if defeated, renders much of what Doherty has to say later on the subject innocuous.
But of course, it must be defeated first, and let us start by seeing what he has to say about it:
The puzzle of 1 John, a phrase that has become almost a cliché, is usually presented in terms of the epistle's fundamental incoherence. J. C. O'Neill (The Puzzle of 1 John, page 1) declares that "the whole attempt to find a connected train of thought in the Epistle is misplaced. Progression of thought from one paragraph to the next is usually unclear . . ." Different and contradictory ideas are found juxtaposed. Specific themes and terms are concentrated in one section of the letter but nowhere else; or they may occur at widely separated intervals. J. H. Houlden (The Johannine Epistles, page 22, 31) has called this epistle "a puzzling work," and suggests that "to try to find a single logical thread . . . is liable to lead to infinite complexity or to despair."
Now here I must pause. Doherty has once again misused the works of NT scholars, failing to address their solutions to the problems they mention. In the first case this matters little: J. C. O' Neill's solution, that 1J is an adaptation of several Jewish mini-expositions to Christian expression [One.P1J], has some good points but is far too speculative to be more than a curiosity; Doherty here could safely ignore O'Neill's solution, though it would have been polite for him to mention it in passing.
With the second case, however, Doherty has undertaken some rather serious misrepresentation. Houlden had a great deal more to say about 1J, and Doherty does a grave injustice to Houlden by not allowing him to speak for himself, thus (with selections by Doherty highlighted) [Hould.JE, 22]:
It is, after all, a puzzling work. No early Christian writing is so repetitious, so monotonous in its grammatical constructions, so narrow in its vocabulary. The picture of the venerable elder, whom old age has endowed indeed with profundity of wisdom (Johannine fashion) but also with a natural incapacity to venture far in its formulation, is entirely understandable.
Having said that, Houlden proposes that 1J be reckoned as being a work in a "spiral" fashion, in which arguments move in cycles, starting with small ideas that pick up steam as they progress and overlap. He then goes on to say, after looking at various other ideas about the work's composition [ibid., 31]:
But whether the process of composition was by the 'treating' of an underlying source or by direct writing, it seems more useful to suppose that 1 John consists of a series of independent sections, bound together with varying degrees of smoothness and with additions giving the outward semblance of a single composition, than to try to find a single logical thread. Insistence on the latter approach is liable to lead to infinite complexity or to despair.
Here, as in other places, Doherty has taken valid observations and misused them to his own ends; not a word is breathed of the various propositions to understand the structure of 1J - which, incidentally, may be "incoherent" by modern, Western standards, but not necessarily by the standards of 1J's Jewish background, which included reasoning-forms which are foreign to the Western "logical" and linear mind.
But that leads into our own "solution" for this puzzle, which we shall develop shortly; for now, here is what else Doherty has to say:
That 1 John is a document which has been 'assembled' from multiple sources, or was composed over time by having new elements added to earlier layers, are ideas that have been around for many years, although there are commentators who steadfastly refuse to see any layering at all.
Now one may suppose that such "layers" exist, but their mere existence does not automatically lead, of course, to Doherty's solution that "the epistle was added to over time" in the sense of a long period that somehow reflects the growth and evolution of the mythical Johannine "community". (On this concept of "communities" for each Gospel, see Bauckham's The Gospels for All Christians.) One author could just have easily been responsible for that "layering" over a series of rough drafts done on wax tablets.
But indeed, after having the usual doubting of Johannine authorship of the works assigned to that worthy, we find here a moment of agreement of Doherty when he describes this concept thusly:
Much has been written about the nature and location of the community (or perhaps a circle of communities) which produced the epistles and the Gospel, for it is recognized that Johannine ideas are often worlds apart from those of the Synoptics. Indeed, scholars often treat the Johannine community as though it were some ancient Shangri-la, a mountain fastness penetrated and converted by some mysterious apostle from Jerusalem, only to shut itself off from the wider world of the Christian movement and evolve in its own unique fashion.
And in spite of this poetic description - Doherty apparently accepts that some form of this Shangri-la, this lost Atlantis or Pellucidar, actually existed as such. Did it? To answer the question is beyond our scope; we only remind the reader that evidence for such "communities" - reckoned as parties hostile to and often surreptitiously sniping at one another in their own gospel document - are thus far in the game mere figments of critical psychology. Not a shred of archaeological, literary, or social evidence exists for such sects, designed as they are to explain Christianity as the product of natural evolution.
What then of our own answer to the structure of 1 John? The "spiral" suggestion is attractive, and in line with the Semitic thought-background of the text; for it is a given that linear, Western thought-patterns are entirely unlike those of the Ancient Near East - the comparison having been said to be, that Eastern thought was not linear nor logical, but circular, as if rolling up a ball of yarn or a garden hose.
But perhaps just as attractive, and doing just as much justice to the social context of 1J, is Watson's thorough study identifying the use of Greco-Roman rhetorical technique within the epistle. [Wats.AT] In particular, Watson identifies the use of weightier affirmation as a key to the rhetorical style of 1J, of the sort recommended by Longinus and Cicero. Another writer in rhetoric, Pseudo-Longinus, wrote: "...(A)mplification always goes with quality and a certain degree of redundance." [ibid., 103]
Watson also identifies in 1J the specific tactic of expolitio, or "dwelling on the same topic and yet seeming to say something ever new" - along with a host of other rhetorical tactics, such as strong words, augmentation, comparison, and accumulation.
Our bottom line, then: The "puzzle" of 1 John is one caused by our own lack of clarity and understanding of first-century and/or Semitic thought. It is only when we divorce a work from its social context and judge it by modern standards of "sensibility" that we discover problems.
Chicken or Egg
As a preliminary, Doherty explores the question of whether the Gospel of John of 1J was written first. For our purposes this question may simply be addressed by saying that it really does not matter: Whether the Gospel was committed to writing before or after 1J, it is abundantly clear that the ideas contained in the Gospel are presupposed in 1J.
Nevertheless, we have much to say in regards to some of the arguments used by Doherty to put First John first, and some of it will be familiar:
In theology and doctrinal points, in language and expression, the epistles are more primitive than the Gospel; even those who argue that the Gospel came first acknowledge this impression. In 1 John, not a single Gospel detail is brought in, no teachings are attributed to a human Jesus; there is not even a specific reference to the cross and nothing at all about a resurrection.
The answers here are fairly basic. We have pointed out many times that primitive/simpler = earlier is fallacious; moreover, this argument ignores the genre of the two documents. The Gospel, as a type of ancient biography, and being much longer than the epistle, would certainly contain more space to develop and explain theological ideas; the epistle, on the other hand (which has been reckoned to be in a genre other than epistle, but for our purposes, it makes no difference), is directed to specific problems and issues.
Finally, this is the same argument we have seen in other essays regarding details, so no more need be said here.
Those who argue for the priority of the Gospel view the epistle as an attempt to reestablish more traditional principles in the face of a kind of "runaway" interpretation of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel. Those using the Gospel, so the theory goes, were moving in dangerous directions, specifically toward Gnosticism. Now, it is true that some form of the Gospel of John first surfaces as a favorite of second century Gnostics. Consequently, it seems to have been regarded with suspicion by orthodox circles until it was "revamped" around the middle of the century and brought into the ecclesiastical fold. But nowhere in 1 John does the writer allude to such a situation, let alone spell it out. If he is countering a segment of his community which has "misused" the Gospel, how can he fail to refer to that Gospel? How can he avoid pointing to specific features of it in the course of defending a "proper" interpretation of Jesus? Why have the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel simply dropped into a black hole?
We do not necessarily agree with the idea that the actual Gospel document was being misused here. But here again, can Doherty not recognize that the process he suggests for the 1J writer would be circular reasoning on his part? If the document is indeed at issue, then simply pointing back to it won't do a lot of good. The heretics would agree on the content of the document, but not on the interpretation of the document.
One of these, for example, is the Paraclete. This concept is paramount in the Gospel of John: Jesus promises to send, once he is gone, "another to be your Advocate (parakletos), who will be with you forever, the Spirit of truth" (14:16). This Spirit promised by Jesus will guide believers until he returns. Now, 1 John is a polemical document. It attempts to counter various opponents it labels liars, deniers and Antichrists. In 4:1f it speaks of true and false "spirits" claimed by different factions of the community; those which agree with the writer are "from God", those holding differing views are false. But not only does the author show no knowledge of Jesus' promised Paraclete in all this, he lacks even the fundamental idea that any appeal can be made to traditions of belief or authority going back to Jesus. The world of the epistle writer functions according to current "spirits" claimed from God, nothing more; as such, it conforms to the wider Christian picture we see in Paul, of inspiration from the Spirit. That the author would either be ignorant of or choose to ignore the entire Spirit/Paraclete tradition as recorded in the Gospel, if this was already in existence, is impossible to accept.
From here, Doherty goes on to suppose an evolutionary process for the idea of the Paraclete, that it was read and written back into the thought of the Johannine Jesus. But in fact, Doherty steps right over the solution to his manufactured problem. Let's first look at the four places where the Gospel refers to the parakletos:
John 14:16-7 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor (parakletos) to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
John 14: 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
John 15:26 When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.
John 16:7-13 But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
Note that in 3 out of 4 places in the Gospel, the equation is made: Counselor (parakletos) = the spirit of truth. So then, what of this from 1J?
1 John 4:1-6 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
Well enough does Doherty stop his quotation of this passage at the first verse, for this is clearly knowledge of the concept of the Paraclete, even though the word itself is not used. It is significant here that "the Spirit of God" is in the singular, while "every spirit" indicates the plural. This author recognized only one "Spirit" from God, and that was the Spirit of truth - by another name, the Paraclete. The author is not ignorant of the concept, and he has not chosen to ignore it at all.
While the Gospel of John has almost completely abandoned the expectation of an immediate end of the world, the epistle speaks of living in "the last hour" (2:18). The progression from imminent apocalypticism to an acceptance that the church faced a long-term future was a feature of Christian development as the first century passed into the second. Yet we are to believe that the writer of 1 John "returns to a more primitive eschatological awareness." (J. H. Houlden, The Johannine Epistles, page 13.) Such patterns of regression rarely if ever take place, and no scholar has provided an explanation for why such an anomaly would have occurred here. Certainly, the epistle writer gives no indication that he is reverting to something previously abandoned.
Doherty next appeals to the "equally improbable regression" from "Christo-centricity to Theo-centricity" between the two documents. More could be said on this, but generally, the argument fails on the same points as above, failing to consider the genre and purpose of the two documents, and their relative length, and also fails to consider the theological orientation of the Johannine literature, which offers the most explicit equation of Jesus with theos.
Doherty next concerns himself with the prologue of 1J and a comparison of it to that of the Gospel of John, which he feels proves the priority of the epistles. Little needs to be directly addressed here, for it is mostly the same fallacious simpler = earlier dichotomy we have already seen. Only a few additional aspects need be considered:
First, that Doherty claims that, "That the writer of the epistle would have so adulterated such a lofty thought (as is found in the Gospel prologue) is hard to believe."
One wonders why this is so: How can Doherty simply assume that the writer of the epistle ascribed such literary value as he does to the Gospel prologue? How does he know that the epistle-writer would have regarded his prologue as an "adulterated" version of the Gospel prologue? This is merely presumption of personal literary values upon the text.
Second, "Nor can we believe that he would simply have eliminated the ringing concept of Jesus as the Logos, the personified heavenly partner of God."
Blood, Water and Tears
Our next section concerns a 1J passage that has been the focus of a great deal of discussion - 1 John 5:6-12. It reads in our NIV:
This is the one who came by water and blood--Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. We accept man's testimony, but God's testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.
What is the meaning of this passage? A majority of commentators say without hesitation, "Jesus' baptism and crucifixion," and this is quite agreeable, though a few (such as Witherington [With.WB]) prefer to see "water" as meaning Jesus' birth, in line with general usage in the OT, the ANE, and even in the Gospel of John of the word "water" associated with birth.
But Doherty of course can have none of this for a Christ-myth thesis, and so we are told that "there is a much less strained explanation for these terms." Thus:
Though their exact significance is lost to us today (Houlden labels them "enigmatic"), they show all the signs of referring to sacramental or mystical elements within the community's beliefs and practices, through which knowledge of, or benefits from, the Son are perceived to flow. The author points to the three elements of Spirit, water and blood as belonging to a common category: all three "bear witness", all three are "in agreement". Since Spirit clearly belongs to the realm of revelation, it follows that water and blood are also, at least in part, revelatory channels. All three are presented as part of the witness of God, and God works through revelation. It is too great an anomaly to have the first refer to the manifestation of the prophetic voice and the latter two refer back to supposed events in the life of the Gospel Jesus, a story studiously ignored throughout the epistle.
Now it is fair to ask if Doherty provides anything other than presupposition and personal theory-preference for his own interpretation of this verse. Well:
A non-historical Jesus, Doherty tells us, is "strikingly clear" in this verse, 1 John 2:27:
As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.
Of this, it is said:
This anointing (chrisma) seems to be an initiation rite for entry into the sect, and no Christian writer who knew of a teaching Jesus, or who possessed any information whatever derived from him through oral or apostolic tradition, could possibly have said such a thing.
Is this true? A few things say no:
Layer on Layer
Much of what comes next seeks to highlight supposed "inconsistencies" in 1J that prove that more than one author composed the text. We begin with "examples of insertions which stick out like proverbial sore thumbs" - quoted thus:
". . . and we are being cleansed from every sin by the blood of Jesus his Son" (1:7d).
"He (Jesus Christ) is himself the propitiation for our sins, not our sins only but the sins of all the world" (2:2).
It is claimed that "Such sentiments clash with ideas found in adjoining sentences," for in verse 1:9, "the earlier layer told readers that 'if we confess our sins, he (God) is just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every kind of wrong.' " Conclusion made: "At this earlier stage, the Son was apparently not perceived as involved in forgiving sin."
This is incorrect: The two verses above in no way exclude what is read in 1:9. Jesus is consistently the propitiation and the advocate, even in the Gospels; the Father is the forgiver who accepts the propitiation. Indeed, what governs the interpretation of either verse is ancient notions of patronage, within which Jesus played the role of the broker for the Father's patronage. In both passages, the act of sacrifice is that of a broker offering a method of entry into the covenant.
A second claimed incongruency:
At several points, the writer seems to hold the view that the true child of God is without sin, that he is incapable of it (as in 3:9); yet at others he speaks of forgiveness for sins committed, as in 2:1, and even cautions that claims to sinlessness are "self-deception" (1:8).
Let's look at these verses:
1:8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
2:1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
3:9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.
Our NIV here applies a typical solution by seeing the reference as one to "continual" sin - i.e., a regular practice of sin. Does this hold up under scrutiny?
It well might, but there is really no need to find out. Once again socio-literary context provides a clue. 3:9 is not an anomaly, for it presents no more of an absolute than Jesus' "Be ye perfect..." or Seneca's "A wise man cannot fall." [BrowR.JE, 413] It is a polemical absolute, one designed to stress the need for sin to come to a screeching halt in the life of the believer. Doherty's reading here isn't sufficiently nuanced.
Cited next are 1 John 2:6 and 3:16:
"Whoever claims to be dwelling in him (God) ought to conduct himself as Christ (ekeinos) did (literally, ought to walk as Christ himself walked)" (2:6).
"It is by this we know what love is: that Christ (ekeinos) laid down his life for us" (3:16).
Doherty wishes to make a point here by highlighting that Greek word. As he puts it:
...(B)oth passages quoted above, as well as several others, Christ is referred to obliquely by the pronoun "ekeinos", meaning "that one". This is peculiar, and no one has provided a convincing explanation for it.
From here Doherty goes on to promulgate from this his own thesis, that this word usage supports his spiritual-Christ theory, for it "has an impersonal character out of keeping with the idea of a recent historical person or distinct human personality."
Well, if this is so, one wonders how this word could also have been used in the Gospel of John to refer to God (5:19, 6:29, 8:42), the Paraclete (14:26, 15:26, 16:8, 13, 14), and Jesus himself (1:18, 2:21, 3:28-30, 9:37) - and by the Pythagoreans to refer to their own dead master, and to Jesus again (disparagingly) in later Judaism. [BrowR.JE, 261]
Certainly in these cases we are hardly "out of keeping with the idea of a recent historical person," etc. The most likely explanation for this usage is that it is honorific for the followers of Christ.
We move now to an examination of the identity of the opponents of the writer of 1J. We begin by noting, again, our agreement with Doherty on the single matter that docetism is probably not as issue in this epistle, and thus will skip to this statement, which says that the dissidents:
...simply do not confess the belief the writer holds. These dissidents are rivals, not apostates. We cannot even be sure that a schism is involved here. It may simply be a case of competing congregations holding differing views.
Now our question here is, where does Doherty get this idea that the dissidents are merely rivals and not apostates?
Another thing to note is that "Jesus Christ" in the writer's mind cannot simply equal "Jesus of Nazareth", since this would make the statement a tautology: "Jesus of Nazareth (a flesh and blood person) has come in the flesh."
From this it is concluded that the writer has Doherty's spiritual-Christ in mind; but hold on a moment: If we are dealing with an adoptionist-type heresy here, then no one on either side would doubt that "Jesus of Nazareth" came in the flesh; but they WOULD deny that Jesus Christ came in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth in terms of the "blood" aspect noted above.
So this would be a tautology if docetism were the issue; but not if adoptionism or a similar assertion were. (Incidentally, how strange here that Doherty thinks this writer incapable of tautology when he suggests that the writer ought to COMMIT a tautology by appealing back to the historical records.)
Even more amazing, in 4:5 the writer reveals that to these deniers of the incarnation "the world listens." In 2 John 7-11, we can see that some Christian circles welcome such "deceivers" into their houses and give them greeting! How could such a radical rejection of traditional belief and history itself gain this kind of hearing?
How? Well, first of all let us remember that the word "world" (kosmos) in Johannine literature often carries the meaning of "those who do not know God" or as we might say, secular things (cf. John 14:17; 1 John 2:15; etc.) - so that saying that "the world listens" to these people is not exactly a compliment.
As for the second verse set, Doherty is mirror-reading a little too heavily here: The warning is, "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work." This does not necessarily imply that some have ALREADY welcomed such people, but it does allow that such people might seek refuge and hospitality by deception of pretending to orthodoxy.
But even if they were welcoming such people into their homes, knowing what they taught, it would not have been beyond the guiding principle of love (not to mention rules of hospitality for the period) to put up with such people - assuming that the hosts were sufficiently cognizant right away of what was (or was going to be) being taught, of course. It's not like the false teachers knocked on the doors and asked if anyone inside wanted some heresy taught to them!
The next text of concern is 1 John 2:19-22 -
They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist--he denies the Father and the Son.
Doherty notes that this, of course, has been taken to be a statement about the historical Jesus. But he registers two objections to the traditional view:
After this, Doherty takes a few moments to defend the idea that there are two sets of dissidents from different layers of 1J, not just one set. His reasons are:
From here, Doherty goes on to provide his own spiritual-Christ interpretation of this and other passages, and of the various alleged "strata" in 1J documenting this conflict between the parties and the "communities" behind them; the alleged invention of the Beloved Disciple and the supposed story behind the "conversion" of the Johannine sect to historical-Jesus-ists -- but there is really no need to look at it. His attempt to "spiritualize" the verses above has failed.
A single point that we would like to address, however: Attempting to show evidence for strata, Doherty goes back to verse 3:16-7 -
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?
Doherty counts 3:16 as a later insertion, saying that it:
...is painfully out of place here, for the text goes on in verse 17 to descend with a dull thud from this lofty idea to the remark that if a man has enough to live on he should give to a brother in need. This latter verse, in its tone and motifs, follows logically from verses 14 and 15. Some scholars (Houlden, Grayston) have recognized the unhappy sequence of ideas here and perhaps need to be more courageous in their implication that 3:16 may have been lacking in the original text.
Houlden does say that the sequence is "surprising" - but he does go on to point out that v. 17 following 16 "may well be a revealing symptom" of the setting of 1J [Hould.JE, 100] - he in no way implies that 3:16 was lacking in the original text at all.
In fact, what we need here is a certain essential perspective on the problem of first-century poverty. The poor of this day, often living hand-to-mouth, in constant threat of disease, war, starvation, etc., were often at the mercy of those with possessions to allow them to survive within the client-patron relationship. Rather than a "dull thud", this is a quite lofty ideal in the perspective of the first century: And if one is not willing to give of possessions to others after considerable exposure to their need (the verb here indicates prolonged awareness of the situation - Small.123J, 196), then how could they have been expected to be counted on to lay down their lives?
We likely had here, as we had in Corinth, a "rich vs. poor" dichotomy that aggravated the situation; but even if not, the admonitions go hand-in-hand from a first-century social perspective. (Not to mention the principle of Jesus, re being trusted with small things.) Or, as Grayston puts it, while it does seem to be a "sudden drop", it is not an unhappy sequence at all, for, "if each member may be called upon to surrender his life for the benefit of the community, how much more must he be willing to surrender his property to help a needy brother." [Gray.JE, 113-4]
As before, the arguments of Earl Doherty for a mythical Christ are without foundation. The first epistle of John is no more supportive of his thesis than any NT document he has examined thus far.