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WAS there a Community behind the Gospel and Letters of John? Guest Post by Hugo Mendez

Here we begin a series of posts written by my colleague at UNC, Hugo Mendez.   Hugo has had an intriguing and impressive career.  He did an MA in Religion at University of Georgia, but then his PhD was in Linguistics, also at Georgia.  He went from there onto a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Yale and “retooled” to become a New Testament scholar through some, well, incredibly intense study.  He came to UNC as a postdoctoral fellow in 2016 for two years, after which we were fortunate to hire him as an assistant professor on tenure track.

Hugo’s skills are remarkably wide-ranging.  He knows far more ancient languages than I do (on his CV he lists:  Indo-European: Ancient Greek, Latin, Classical Armenian, Gothic, Old Church Slavic, Sanskrit (Classical, Vedic). Aramaic (Biblical Aramaic, Classical Syriac), Classical Hebrew, and Akkadian.   Really.  OK then.

If you’re interested in checking out his C.V. (hey, is this guy qualified?  J ), it is here:   https://religion.unc.edu/files/2020/05/CV_2020_Mendez_abbr.pdf

Hugo has just started his publishing career, and is doing so with a bang.  One of his (rather many and broad-ranging) areas of expertise is the Johannine literature of the NT – the material I’ve been posting on over the past couple of weeks.   This last year he wrote an article that is making some serious waves, something that rarely (very rarely) happens in the NT academic community (articles hardly ever make much of an impact, though books sometimes do).  It is called “Did the Johannine Community Exist?.”   If you’ve been reading my posts, you know that the answer most of us have is, YES, and, well, we have thought for a long time that it’s rather IMPORTANT.   Hugo challenges the consensus, and has agreed to write a series of posts on it.

The article appeared in an important international academic journal, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament; it is open to the public, and can be read here, if you are so inclined:  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0142064X19890490

Hugo has been on the blog for a long time, and has agreed to post his views about the topic for us, at a level everyone should be able to understand.   We’ve talked about (he and I) having a back-and-forth about it all when he’s done posting – but that may be a while, because it will take him some time for him to lay out his views and their rationale.  So far I’ve found much of what he has said convincing (it coincides with a lot of my other views of things); but a couple of things I disagree with.  Isn’t scholarship fun?

So here is the first post.   An important note: Hugo has agreed to respond to your comments.  I’ve suggested he *start* doing that; if it gets too overwhelming, I may have to cut it off, for his sake.  (Several guest bloggers in the past have told me they can’t BELIEVE how much time and effort it takes!)

So please, out of fairness, if you have a question, keep it succinct and to the point, and ask only *one* question per day, not a whole string of them.

****************************************************************

 What Do We Mean by “Johannine Community?”

It’s a pleasure to introduce myself to you all. I’m the other (fairly new!) New Testament faculty member at UNC’s Department of Religious Studies and a long-time reader of this blog.

As many of you have heard, I published a piece last month in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, entitled “Did the Johannine Community Exist?” (March 2020). Simply put, the article argues that the “Johannine community”—the hypothetical setting in which the Gospel and Epistles of John were written—never existed. The piece has received significant attention in the weeks since its publication. In the next few blog posts, I want to condense my article for this audience and address some common questions about my work.

In this first post, I want to begin by clarifying what I mean when I use the term “Johannine Community.” I’ve found that some people tend to use the term in imprecise and slippery ways, so defining the language I’ll be using will help us moving forward.

 

The Settings of the Johannine Texts

Let me start by stating the obvious: clearly, the Johannine texts were written somewhere—in some kind of social context(s) or matri(ces). After all, human beings are social creatures. Nearly all of us belong to some social group; in fact, we typically belong to several groups simultaneously—including, families, networks of friends, neighborhoods, congregations/communities of worship, workplaces, ethnic groups, etc. Undoubtedly, the Johannine authors participated in local groups and gatherings (e.g., Christian assemblies); they probably exchanged ideas with people they knew; their own views were probably shaped by memories, ideas, and texts circulating among people they knew in various settings; and when writing their texts, that these authors probably tailored their message to the needs of those around them. In other words, they clearly belonged to, and wrote within, some social circle(s).

The question is: what kind of groups or gatherings—what contexts or circles—stand behind the Gospel and Epistles of John? How many were there, and what did they look like?

 

The “Johannine Community”/“Johannine Christianity”

We can imagine a number of possible contexts behind these texts, but most scholars limit themselves to one option. They believe these texts were written within a single entity called the “Johannine Community” or “Johannine Christianity.” Note carefully that the “Johannine Community” is not a catch-all title for any and every possible setting for these texts. Rather, as I’m using the term (and as scholars generally use the term), it’s the name for a very specific concept of where these texts were written with very specific characteristics.

Specifically, the “Johannine Community” is conceptualized as “a single, close-knit network of ancient churches sharing a distinctive theological outlook” (Méndez 2020: 350). Let’s unpack that a bit:

 

“A single, close-knit…”

Scholars don’t think the Johannine authors came from very different contexts. They believe they came from a single context—that is, from the same group—and that they probably knew one another through this group. That group may or may not have been limited to the same place (it’s possible that these authors lived in different towns, but kept contact by letter-writing), but it was a single entity. That’s why we speak of a singular Johannine “community” rather than “communities.”

 

“…network of ancient churches…”

Scholars conceptualize the “community” not merely as a set of authors but as an entire set of ancient Christian congregations or churches, which formed some sort of network. The reason, as we’ll see, is that some of the Epistles refer directly to “churches” and hint at internal schisms, and leadership struggles.

 

“…sharing a distinctive theological outlook.”

Scholars assume that this group shared a body of distinctive views in common—the same views we find in the Gospel and Epistles of John. It was, to put it another way, a “Johannine” community.

The claim, then, is that John, 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John emerged in a single ancient Christian movement or sect with real members (“Johannine Christians”) and distinctive beliefs and practices (“Johannine Christianity”). Scholars imagine that this movement existed parallel to others on the landscape of first-century Christianity, including so-called “Jewish Christianities,” “Pauline Christianity,” and so forth.

 

My intervention

Enter my paper. My paper argues that the “Johannine community”—at least as scholars have conceptualized it—never existed. By this, I mean that there was probably no coherent, distinct movement of “Johannine Christians” in the first century, as scholars have assumed for at least a half-century.

Although these texts emerged in some social context(s) somewhere, they did not emerge in the kind of setting scholars imagine. In my work I suggest, for instance, I suggest that these texts might have been written…

… in multiple settings or contexts…

…by authors who did not know one another or have personal contact…

…and whose views may not have been shared with others…

 

I’ll explain why I think this is the case in my next few posts.

 


Were the Gospels Generally Written for “Communities” of Christians: Guest Post by Hugo Mendez
The Johannine Letters in Sum

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Comments

  1. sschullery
    sschullery  May 5, 2020

    How does the alleged Johanine community differ from the trivial communities that presumably must have existed that used the other gospels? Surely, the only alternative to a “community” of some sort is a crackpot hermit writing in a cave.

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      Thanks for the question!

      I think the difference is how elaborate the concept of “Johannine community” is. Where other gospel communities are two-dimensional (i.e., scholars claim they existed but not much more), scholars reconstruct many specific things about the Johannine community, including individuals, events, conflicts.

      Also, if it helps, I’m not suggesting the Gospel and Epistles of John were written by a hermit in a cave. They definitely lived in communities somewhere. The question is: did they live in a “single, ancient network of churches sharing the same theological outlook?” Or is it possible they lived in several separate settings, with no direct contact with one another, etc.? (The latter is closer to what I think.)

  2. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  May 5, 2020

    I am really looking forward to reading this in more detail over the coming days. It sounds fascinating!

    Did you work this all through yourself, or are their other scholars who have said similar things that you have built upon or worked with?

    I would be interested in reading around the subject, so any pointers to books, podcasts or articles (other than the one you just wrote – linked above) would be really helpful.

    Cheers,
    Sam (aka – When Belief Dies)

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      Thanks Sam! Most New Testament scholarship is individual (few people co-author anything or work in research teams). But yes, I definitely build on the work of others—from scholars who have authored classic works on the authorship of these texts (e.g., Dodd, Brown) to more recent ones that have questioned the historical existence of the Beloved Disciple (e.g., Attridge, Litwa).

      If you’re interested in this literature, you can find many works cited in the footnotes to my original article (see the link above). As for podcasts, I’m not sure but I’m sure you can find some great discussions on Mark Goodacre’s “NT Pod” and the “NT Review” podcast done by two of Mark’s students. Hope that helps!

  3. Avatar
    fishician  May 5, 2020

    To paraphrase John 1:46: “Can any good thing come out of Georgia?” Yes, apparently, based on Dr. E’s comments about you! (I’m a Florida Gator) Really looking forward to your posts on this topic.

  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  May 5, 2020

    I think the beloved disciple is certainly intended to be John son of Zebedee.

    A disciple who refers to himself as “the one Jesus loved” is likely to cause tension with the other disciples. This tension between the Zebedees, who see themselves as superior and closer to Jesus, and the rest of the disciples is clearly shown in all three synoptics.

    As is the fact that Peter and the Zebedees are part of Jesus’s inner circle in the synoptics – and Peter and the “beloved disciple” are in John.

    The omission of John son of Zebedee from the gospel of John, despite being one of the close confidantes of Jesus in three previous biographies and named as a pillar of the Jerusalem church by Paul, can only be explained by his hidden reference as the “beloved disciple”.

    This connection would I think have been recognised by contemporary readers, including the authors of 1,2,3 John.

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      That’s a valid suggestion. Some would agree with you—for instance, our colleague at Duke, Mark Goodacre, definitely believes the Gospel intends to single out John, the son of Zebedee in particular. I’m a bit different; I tend to think the author of John invented a new, anonymous eyewitness and didn’t mean to identify him with any particular disciple. I think that debate can rage on!

      As for 1, 2, and 3 John, it is interesting to me that their authors remain anonymous. In that respect they’re different from later texts that seem to definitely know a tradition attributing the Gospel to John (e.g., the Apocryphon/Secret Book of John).

  5. Robert
    Robert  May 5, 2020

    Thank you, Professor Mendez for posting here!

    To what extent is your view that the Johannine epistles are forged, ie, that the common view of the Johannine community did not really exist and that the Johannine epistles are forgeries, necessarily tied to the idea that the the implicit or explicit claims or literary pretense of the fourth gospel is false, ie, that its source(s) of information were couched in the fabricated testimony of an especially beloved disciple, at least part of which is supposedly written by him (ὁ γράψας ταῦτα, 21,24), and/or dependent upon an acquaintance of the high priest (18,15-16), and/or a group of early disciples of John the Baptist (1,14)?

    Maybe that’s too complex of a question. In other words, perhaps the author of the fourth gospel was a little bit deceptive about his early sources but there was in fact a community or collection of loosely affiliated house churches existing as his audience. What do you think?

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      Thanks Robert. That’s very possible. Yes, you can easily imagine that “perhaps the author of the fourth gospel was a little bit deceptive about his early sources but there was in fact a community or collection of loosely affiliated house churches existing as his audience.” But my article would poke at this a bit and ask how similar would this community be to the very specific construct of the “Johannine Community?” As I’ll discuss later, I think certain features of the “Johannine Community” would translate, but other features might not.

  6. Avatar
    Nichrob  May 5, 2020

    I read the article published in the JSNT. It’s brilliant….!!! Touché…..!! I have an odd question. In my latter years of life, I started reading Bart, Crossan, White, Pagels, Spong, etc., With fresh eyes, I re-read the NT. When I got to The Gospel of John, I interpreted it as a comedy or satire. I’m not kidding…. The author starts with “does anything good come out of Nazareth” and then right into turning water into wine… I thought to myself, after reading what appeared to me to be the longest string of narcissistic self acclamation of “I’s”, no “god” could be that narcissistic…… so I concluded that the Gospel of John must have been a “satire”. My question is: Am I the only one? Is John a satire? (Notice I had to get one “I am” in my question…. LOL)

  7. Avatar
    edhipp  May 5, 2020

    Great teaser opener. I’m hooked.

  8. Avatar
    forthfading  May 5, 2020

    Dr. Mendez,

    Dr. Ehrman said your scholarship is getting lots of attention and stirring up some things in the world of academia. I imagine that has to be thrilling! As an amateur biblical enthusiast ( I have a BA in Biblical Studies), I can appreciate when new ideas, opinions, and paradigms take hold, but what is it about your thesis that is attracting so much attention? I assume it’s just another day at the office for historians when another scholar presents a fresh idea, so I am intrigued by your work. Thanks!

    I am a UGA alumni as well (Doctorate of Education, 2017) Go Dawgs!!!!

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      Sic ’em!

      One thing that’s different is that I’m arguing that all four of John, 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John are forgeries. Many scholars have raised questions about one or more of these texts, but never about whether the entire Johannine tradition is unreliable. That’s probably the key turn.

  9. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  May 6, 2020

    Thank you!

    For me, the Christology seems to be different from the other gosples, and have tendencies towards a docetic view, or even a Gnostic view not unlike the Jewish mystic’s views. One example is “the Odes” who seems to be connected to this “community” and seems to have a lot of similarities with the Gosple of John and also Gnosism.
    In addition to that, we have the Revelation of John, which uses symbols and a methology which is not very different to other Gnositic / even Jewish mystic stories. For me this leads me into the the idea that the Revelation of John is just another “mystic” story of the soul ascend and to the marriage of the lamb, a symbol which is (also) particular used by the Gnostics.
    The story of a spiritual ascend (beside the creation) through different level of consciousness seemed to be ideas which was around at that time, hence Gnosism/Jewish Mysticism/different mystic Greec thoughts (eks. Phythagoras), and even “flat out” mainstream religious ideas as in Hinduism and Buddhism.
    My question is, do you think the “community” if any, was influenced or took part , or developed itself into these mystic branches (for example Gnosism)?

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      I don’t think tend to think about “community” here, but an author and his text (for reasons I’m fleshing out over the next several posts). But yes, the Gospel itself definitely sits within this field of reflection and thought, broadly conceived. First, I think its author was engaged in a similar project as these other works insofar as it synthesizes Christian teaching with other currents of Hellenistic philosophy (e.g., “Logos” Christology in John 1). Secondly, the Gospel was certainly read widely, and an influence on later Christian writers engaged in the same project (e.g., think of its influence on the Gospel of Truth, Apocryphon of John, etc.)

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 6, 2020

    Interesting and clear so far. Keep going. How many authors, but I am sure you will be getting to that soon.

  11. Avatar
    JonA  May 6, 2020

    I usually think of Christianity as a very proselytizing religion. I’ll be interested to hear why ” [their] views might not have been shared with others”.
    Thanks very much for your time and effort in participating here.

  12. Avatar
    Actual_Wolfman  May 7, 2020

    Hello Dr. Mendez,

    This is coming from a complete novice who is not familiar with these types of internal biblical discussions, but the Johannine Community be thoughtof, as we understand today as a denomination? Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc, are spread throughout the country but in theory, share a single vision of the Gospel. If one member of that denomination were to write a text reflecting on scripture, you could see he/she’s speaking in *that voice*.

    Thanks!

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 8, 2020

      I think an analogy like that works. The idea is that, yes, someone on the ground would have seen an appreciable distinction in practice, language, etc.

  13. Avatar
    RuthanneRoussel  May 16, 2020

    Hello Professor Hugo,

    I read this as a layperson (i.e. neither clergy nor ot academic) who absorbed too much Derrida, de Man and Barthes as a small child. Thank you for your provocative post and for generously making your work available here.

    The author(s) of John writing to a non-monolithic audience? It had not occurred to me otherwise. But it does not shock me that putting that idea forward would get some people very worked up.

    I look forward to hearing more. No question or expected reply, just know that many are engaged and listening. Carry on.

  14. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  May 23, 2020

    Did you come up with the idea that the Johannine community never existed or did someone else? How well is this idea shared with New Testament scholars?

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