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Were the Gospels Generally Written for “Communities” of Christians: Guest Post by Hugo Mendez

Here now is Hugo Mendez’s second post in his thread (started yesterday, if you haven’t seen it yet), challenging whether the writings of John all emerge from a specific “community,” as I argued in my previous thread.  In this post he points out how scholars have called into question whether the idea of “communities” is helpful at all for understanding the early Gospels.

Hugo will be happy to address your questions!  Just post yours as a comment to the post.

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 Challenges to the Idea of “Gospel Communities”

As I noted last time, my most recent article questions the existence of the Johannine Community.

There’s an early tendency when some hear of my project to confuse it with some other recent attempts to challenge the idea of “gospel communities.” Before discussing the terms of my own proposal, then, I’d like to catch you all up to speed with the current state of that debate over “communities” and where I “fit” into this discussion

Today, New Testament scholars seem to fall into one of roughly three camps on this question.

Majority:

The idea of gospel “communities” is a meaningful concept.

The first camp should be the most familiar. Far and away, the majority continue to hold that the idea of gospel communities is worth preserving.

Minority 1:
Gospels were not written for “communities” but for “all Christians”

A second group—what I’ll call the Gospels for All Christians” camp—is smaller but commands a significant following in more conservative circles of biblical scholarship. In 1998, a group of British scholars led by Richard Bauckham published a landmark collection of essays entitled, The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking Gospel Audiences. The book’s first line states its purpose clearly: “the aim of this book is to challenge and to refute the current consensus… which assumes that each of the Gospels was written for a specific church or group of churches; the so-called Matthean community, Markan community, Lukan community, and Johannine community.”

In the lead essay in the piece, Bauckham observes that…

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Was There One Author Behind the Four Johannine Writings? A Community? Guest Post by Hugo Mendez
WAS there a Community behind the Gospel and Letters of John? Guest Post by Hugo Mendez

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  May 6, 2020

    Again, thanks for this 🙂

    So would you argue that the heightened divinity of Christ in the gospel of John is down to time, rather than a community echo chamber?

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      To answer your question, I think we can and should entertain all sorts of possibilities; there’s no need for a “rather than.” It’s very possible that the author’s views of Jesus were shaped within the experience and evolving tradition of some local churches. (Those churches may not be the “Johannine Christianity” scholars imagine, but our author almost certainly belonged to some sort of local congregation). But it’s also possible the author’s own reading, influences, and other social circles played a decisive role in shaping these ideas.

      I’d introduce only two nuances. First, we shouldn’t lose the author himself; we have to respect that he might have had an individual creativity and genius. Secondly, I’d say is that we probably shouldn’t think of early Christian groups as “echo chambers.” I think Bauckham is right that these groups were interconnected and were cross-pollinating ideas—ideas that could have influenced our author. Hope that helps!

      • Avatar
        WhenBeliefDies  May 6, 2020

        Hugo – this (as well as your comment on my previous post) is very helpful, so thank you!

        I was interested when you were talking about ‘encountered the works of Philo in another setting—perhaps, own private reading interests, a circle of friends who read philosophical literature, or a local philosophical guild’. I had never really thought about the first century like this, groups reading and talking overworks together. I am aware this was a question, rather than a statement of fact, but still something to mull over.

        All too often we hear about how ‘illiterate’ the disciples were, but clearly, these illiterate disciples played a massive role in influencing literate individuals who engaged with and were influenced by works not know to the general populace (possibly) and then these new ideas mingled with philosophical underpinnings that created something very new and explosive.

        Cheers for the amazing responses – keep sharing with us, it’s much appreciated 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Poohbear  May 6, 2020

    I wonder how much of modern, militant atheism rose from communities?
    While Judeo-Christianity stresses the importance of the private experience and personal reflection, the modern anti-religion themes appear to have a more corporate life. Dialectic materialism, postmodernism and deconstruction doctrines for instance involve a lot of ideological group think, tribal behavior and political correctness.
    Atheist doctrines foster ideological communities with religious fervor. For instance, ridiculing the idea that postmodernism can’t be the truth when postmodernism says there are no truths can label you as a disbeliever, or even a heretic.
    There’s no proof Gospels and letters from Paul, Peter, James and John were written by communities. That idea just serves atheist communities and their agendas.

  3. Avatar
    MichaelM  May 6, 2020

    Do you think there is value in comparing these communities to, say, religious debates between protestant denominations in the 19th century? In a published diary, I read an entry about such a debate where the two principal speakers discussed whether or not water baptism was required to be a christian. The diarist left the 2-hour debate convinced that baptism was only by the spirit. No doubt others left the same debate with the opposite view. That specific belief certainly contributed to the self-identification of membership in one of two groups of thought, which no doubt also influenced the physical membership in a particular denomination. To what extent do you think membership in a protestant denomination (and it’s associated beliefs) parallels ‘membership’ in a gospel community, or a Johannine like community?

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      I think that’s a useful analogy to some extent.

      As I tell my students, many Christians tend to think of Christian division/disagreement as a later, post-apostolic phenomenon (an idealistic myth repeated in all sorts of religious circles). But everything about the New Testament tells us that Christians were no less diverse and fragmented in the first century CE (Paul v. James, Matthew v. Mark, John v. the Synoptics). And of course, in many cases, those early tensions—found across the NT—play out in Christian disagreements today (Lutherans developed their views on justification from Paul while Catholics tended to read Paul through James).

  4. Avatar
    Pegill7  May 6, 2020

    In your previous post you said that the Gospel of John and I,II,III John were forgeries. While it is true that we don’t know who wrote the gospels, that the names Matthew, Mark,
    Luke, and John were added by a later scribe or scribes, why would the original writer not make it quite clear that he was the Apostle John? Of course he does say : “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” John 21:24.

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      It’s a good question: why not simply identify himself with an in-text character?

      David Litwa has a compelling response to this: “The anonymity of the eyewitness [in John] is another technique to prevent invalidation. If the reader knows the name of the eyewitness, the eyewitness can more easily be revealed as a literary device. One of the reasons that scholars today doubt the existence of [invented eyewitnesses in other Greco-Roman texts] is because they are names elsewhere unattested. By leaving an eyewitness without a name, however, the eyewitness is in a sense neither attested nor unattested. It is impossible to prove that an anonymous eyewitness did not exist on the grounds that his name is unattested elsewhere. The anonymous eyewitness does not have an identity beyond the fact of being an eyewitness. In short, the eyewitness in John is unverifiable (and therefore, to a certain degree, unfalsifiable as well).” (“Literary Eyewitnesses: The Appeal to an Eyewitness in John and Contemporaneous Literature” NTS 64 [2018]: 358).

      • Robert
        Robert  May 6, 2020

        “… By leaving an eyewitness without a name, however, the eyewitness is in a sense neither attested nor unattested. It is impossible to prove that an anonymous eyewitness did not exist on the grounds that his name is unattested elsewhere. The anonymous eyewitness does not have an identity beyond the fact of being an eyewitness. In short, the eyewitness in John is unverifiable (and therefore, to a certain degree, unfalsifiable as well).”

        Excellent quote. I like to say that the narrator has committed the perfect crime by killing off this fictional and anonymous beloved disciple (Jn 21,23). There can be no evidence to disprove his fraud. For me, following Frans Neirynck, one need not assume that the Epilogue in Jn 21 was composed and added by a later author than that of the rest of the gospel.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 6, 2020

    How in the world did you master so many languages?

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      Ha! It has everything to do with the structure of Historical Linguistics as a field of study. In that field (especially in my major area—Indo-European), Ph.D. coursework and exams are mostly devoted to learning the comparative grammar of as many ancient languages as possible.

      The list may look rich, but it still pales before my doctoral advisor’s expertise; he also teaches Hittite, Avestan, Old Irish, Old Norse, etc.

  6. Avatar
    brenmcg  May 6, 2020

    “It’s not an accident, for instance, that Mark includes explanations of Jewish customs (7:3–4); it presumes that a specific audience—one that was (all or mostly) gentile. But when Matthew copies these sections of Mark, he omits these explanations, probably because he’s envisioning a Jewish audience.”

    I think the better explanation is Matthew wrote first and for the whole church which at the time was mostly Jewish, and Mark wrote later for the whole church, which had become mostly gentile. And therefore Mark felt the need to add in explanations of Jewish customs to Matthew’s original.

  7. Avatar
    Stephen  May 6, 2020

    Prof Mendez thanks for your contribution to this forum!
    Could you comment a bit on your opinion of the relationship between John and the synoptics? Specifically how much does your view of John depend on there being some relationship?

    Thanks!

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 6, 2020

      Thanks Stephen! I don’t think my view depends on whether John knows the Synoptics. As I recall, my article doesn’t even raise the point until the conclusion. But yes, I do think it’s more plausible that John knew (one or more of) the Synoptics. Admittedly, this idea has really only recently seen a resurgence, but some pretty impressive names are coming out in its favor (Attridge, Frey, etc.).

      As I see it, it’s just too much of a coincidence that John structured his gospel exactly as Mark did (from the baptism of Jesus through the resurrection). Also, John even seems to presuppose his readers know stories from other gospels (3:24; 11:2). Some scholars are convinced that John didn’t know Mark, Matthew, or Luke since he didn’t copy large sections of their text, but most late gospels—e.g., Thomas, Mary, Judas—didn’t either. (And as I argue in my article, John has some pretty striking features in common with these late gospels.)

      This is a pretty brief reply given the limitations of a comment, but I hope it helps!

      • Robert
        Robert  May 8, 2020

        Hugo: “I do think it’s more plausible that John knew (one or more of) the Synoptics. Admittedly, this idea has really only recently seen a resurgence, but some pretty impressive names are coming out in its favor (Attridge, Frey, etc.).”

        Attridge’s treatment of the fourth evangelist’s likely creative use of the synoptic gospels in the the Oxford Handbook of Johannine Studies is very good. Note that he gives a great deal of credit to the Leuven School for this resurgence (both Sabbe and Neirynck’s works are cited in his bibliography more than anyone else). Already D Moody Smith admitted that the “the Gardner-Smith consensus is now significantly eroded,” and too credited Neirynck and the Leuven school. Full disclosure: I wrote my licentiate thesis under Neirynck so I am very biased! Are you familiar with his work?

        • Hugo
          Hugo  May 8, 2020

          Yes, the Leuven school was definitely ahead of, and leading, this curve. Fortunately, other corners of the academy are finally at the point of appreciating their arguments.

          I sympathize with Neirynck on a number of other points too—for instance, deemphasizing sources, working with John as (more or less) a literary unity, and centering the Johannine author. You are welcome to be quite proud of his work and quite biased!

  8. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  May 7, 2020

    Thank you Hugo for your post.

    After reading your post an idea came to me. Is it possible that the Gospels went through many stages, overtime, of what the gospels were meant to be? It is widely believe that the lost gospel of Q had the sayings of Jesus and the Signs gospel had the early accounts of Jesus preforming signs. These early gospels, in some ways, were preserving the memory of Jesus and that was the main concern at that time. Later on different authors added more material to the Gospels to prove their theological point of view when the movement was changing in different ways. So could it be that the first wave was for a general audience when it came to Q, Signs, or any lost Gospel and the second wave; Matthew, Mark,, Luke, and John; was for a particular Christian community?

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 7, 2020

      It’s possible to imagine all sorts of scenarios, and you should feel free to let your imagination run with this.

      Since you mention Luke, it’s worth noting that of the hypothetical gospel communities, the so-called “Lukan” community is the most difficult to sustain. Part of it is that Luke names his audience under a single name—”Theophilus.” The name leaves a lot of questions (is this a patron? is this someone who would copy and share his text? is this a cipher for other readers?), but it also bends the idea that gospels were always meant for a “particular Christian community.” “Particular audiences” is probably the safer expression.

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  May 8, 2020

        I personally think that Theophilus was a person that commission an author to write a gospel for a particular community. Because the Gospel, along with “Acts”, is a very large book to write for a one person audience. If that’s the case, did Theophilus have any input In shaping and even writing the gospel that we call Luke-Acts today?

        • Hugo
          Hugo  May 9, 2020

          “Shaping” feels more correct than “writing,” and even then, you might run into some difficulties. Luke’s preface definitely seem to anchor the work firmly in his own initiative and agency rather than Theophilus’.

  9. Avatar
    SamHarper  May 8, 2020

    It seems to me that a gospel could be written for a wide Christian audience while, at the same time, focusing on things that are mostly relevant to a particular community. That’s the way a lot of people write today. They write for a broad audience, but they do so in light of their own community. After all, each person is *part* of a community, and one can’t help but write from their own point of view. So even if the gospels were written for a wide Christian audience, we may still be able to glean information about the communities the authors were a part of.

    • Hugo
      Hugo  May 8, 2020

      I’m very sympathetic to this. My paper works with the possibility that an author could have an initial and* secondary (broader) audience in mind.

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