Review of Why John Wrote a Gospel

Published in JETS 50.2 (2007), 396-98. Posted here by permission.

Why John Wrote a Gospel: Jesus–Memory–History. By Tom Thatcher. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006, 193pp. $24.95. 

Tom Thatcher, Associate Professor of New Testament at Cincinnati Christian University, sets out to explain Why John Wrote a Gospel. His thesis is hinted at in the subtitle, Jesus–Memory–History

Seeking to explain why John would commit a Gospel to writing, Thatcher argues against the view that John sought to provide a historical archive of what Jesus said and did so that others would trust Jesus. Thatcher contends that the Gospel of John testifies against this way of understanding its author’s purpose. Discussing texts such as John 2:17, 22; 7:37–39; 12:16, 31–33; 13:6–11; 20:9, Thatcher suggests regarding John 12:32–33 that the disciples “subsequent recall of the saying was thus somewhat different from, and in John’s view better informed than, their first memory of Jesus’ words” (30). But these texts in John do not tell us that it was the disciples’ recall that was different. The texts say that it was their understanding of what was recalled that was different. John does not say that the disciples remembered something different than what actually happened. Rather, he recounts what happened, and then he notes the disciples’ post-easter insight into what happened. 

This is a crucial point because it informs the whole of Thatcher’s argument. Thatcher writes, “In these three cases [John 7:37–39; 12:31–33; 13:6–11], as with John 2:22 and 12:16, the disciples’ memories of Jesus—the initial recollections of those people who witnessed his actions, based on their empirical experiences—must have been altered in light of the deeper understanding to follow” (30, emphasis added). He then suggests that John’s account of what happened has undergone “revision through memory,” such that John was “oblivious” to the “problem” that he “consistently postures his images of Jesus as someone’s direct ‘witness,’ yet makes these recollections contingent upon a subsequent faith in Jesus’ resurrection and the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible” (31–32). This explains Thatcher’s subtitle: Jesus–Memory–History. The “history” is “Jesus” once he has been revised through “memory.” 

It is important to point out that John is claiming to describe what actually happened during Jesus’ life, then explicitly noting how his interpretation of those words and deeds changed after the resurrection. On the basis of these places where the author presents a historical incident, notes a misunderstanding, and then notes later understanding, Thatcher is claiming that John was unable to distinguish between what happened and his own altered interpretation of what happened (“John . . . apparently oblivious to this problem . . .” [32]). 

According to Thatcher, “John portrays memory as a gift of the Holy Spirit to all believers after Jesus’ death and glorification” (32). He argues that in John’s view the anointing of the Spirit described in 1 John 2:20–27 makes a written historical archive unnecessary (32–33). He claims that most of John’s contemporaries would have been illiterate or would have had no access to texts of the Gospel. He claims that written documents have “symbolic value” (40). Then the conclusion is posited, “It seems likely, then, that John wrote a Gospel primarily to capitalize on the potential symbolic value of writing” (48; cf. 142). Each of the premises on which this conclusion is based are, being as kind as possible, questionable. Can Thatcher’s reading of 1 John 2:20–27 bear the weight he puts on it? Does John present the Spirit functioning in lieu of, or in conjunction with, his own eyewitness account of what happened during Jesus’ life? What if more people could read than Thatcher thinks? If there is so much symbolic value in written documents, why did the AntiChrists (see below) not write their own “gospel” until much later, and why were these not more successful? The early Christian rejection of spurious documents, the loss of many other written documents, and the careful preservation of the biblical texts would seem to indicate that biblical books were understood to possess more than merely “symbolic value.” Can the “symbolic value” of the biblical texts account for the astonishing growth of the church in spite of its inauspicious beginnings, regular persecution and disadvantage, and the martyrdom of key leaders? 

Thatcher argues that the Epistles of John were written first, and then in order to counter the AntiChrists John wrote the Fourth Gospel. The Gospel of John was not written as a historical archive of what actually happened. John has the Spirit, he does not need the written record. Further, “the persuasive power of appeals to ‘what the book says’ is enhanced by the fact that most people can’t check the book to challenge these claims” (142). The Gospel served a symbolic function. The people who sided with John pointed to the authoritative written text to settle disputes, even if they could not check what it said for themselves. Does Thatcher suppose that ancient people would be persuaded by the symbolic power of a document whose contents they could not verify? Thatcher describes John and his allies as exploiting the “vagueness inherent in memory” (153). The evidence in Richard Bauckham’s recent Jesus and the Eyewitnesses would weigh against such suppositions. 

Some sections of this book seem to legitimate the position held by the opponents of John (see esp. 74–81). Thatcher does not argue for the position held by the AntiChrists, but he does write, 

“Applying these principles to the problem at hand, it seems that the AntiChrists were a threat to John, not simply because they disagreed with his theological position, but because they were able to create a coherent and appealing Christian countermemory [sic] of Jesus. . . . There is, in fact, no clear evidence that the AntiChrists rejected John’s traditional database or doubted that Jesus did most of what John claims that he did. Nor is it clear that the AntiChrists developed their vision by importing alien, Gnostic elements into the orthodox Johannine framework; certainly there is no evidence to suggest that they thought they were doing this or intended to do so” (79–80).

What is perhaps most surprising about this book is Thatcher’s audacity. He overturns the authority of the Gospel of John by unhinging it from historical reality and reshaping it into John’s creative attempt to make Jesus relevant to his situation (85). He then suggests in many places that the way John remembered things is analogous to the way that he has remembered and interpreted his own experiences. Thatcher gives many of his own experiences as examples of the ways all people remember things—he tells of the time he threw a rock through a church window (54–58), of the way he remembers how to operate his lawnmower and advise students (59), of what happened among some Roman Catholics who claimed visions of Mary in his home town (93–99), of the way he [mis]remembers the Wounded Knee Massacre (112–119), of reading to his son about an African spider-god (120–21), and of the way he believes he saw a World Series game in person, even though he knows he wasn’t at the game, and then he tells of how he is not sure whether it was a World Series game or a regular season game and does not know the year it took place (145–46). If I believed all this was analogous to the way John remembered, I would be very depressed, yea, hopeless. Thatcher expresses his greetings to a doctoral student who may be writing a thesis “a century from now” on “the major concerns of Johannine scholarship in the twentieth century” (159), but a surprisingly small amount of space in the 167 pages of this book is given to discussing the actual words and concepts found in the Gospel and Epistles of John. The Gospel of John will continue to command attention, but I find it difficult to even take the argument of Why John Wrote a Gospel seriously.

3 replies on “Review of Why John Wrote a Gospel”

  1. Does Thatcher at all address the numerous Johannine passages (in both his gospel and epistles) that state emphatically that the author is speaking the truth? (e.g. John 19:35-37, 1 John 1:1-4)

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