Biblicist Assumptions: Brown on the “Community of the Beloved Disciple”

Having discussed some basis Biblicist assumptions, let us consider Raymond E. Brown’s use of the theory of “The Community of the Beloved Disciple.” This came to the fore in his 1979 book of the same name.

Now, my first question about this is, what flows from this thesis? Why bother with questions about the Gospel and specific communities. If the Gospel of St John was written in or even for one community, where does that leave us? The Gospel states that it is intended to bring “you” to faith and hence to life (John 20:31). The natural way to read this is to understand it to refer to the entirety of the Gospel’s audience, at any time, at any place. Not being addressed to anyone, it is unrestricted. This is how it was understood in the early Church: see the early Fathers as recollected by Eusebius in his Church History, who states that St John had the Synoptic Gospels, but that he was urged to record those matters which had been omitted (Church History, 3.24). This fits in quite well with the document known as the “Muratorian Canon,” from the mid- or late-second century. Irenaeus in 3.11 of his treatise against heresies, adds that much of the flavour of St John’s Gospel comes from the fact that the evangelist was also attacking the Gnostic Cerinthus. These matters taken together, suffice to explain the unique nature of this Gospel, which (a) basically follows the skeleton of the Synoptics; but adds many additional scenes, often correcting them; (b) includes significant theological discourses; and (c) presents the Apostles as working together, rather than placing all the attention on St Peter.

So, for sound reasons, we should see the Gospel as being intended for all, not for a discrete group. But Brown does not even consider this as a possibility; instead, he states at the outset “my interest here is the applicability of the religious term ‘sect’ to the Johannine community in its relationship to other Christian communities at the end of the first century” (15). That is, having assumed that there is a Johannine community, and that there are “other” Christian communities, he will then “investigate” its “sectarianism.” Brown has already assumed what he is going to find: that the “Johannine community” had an uneasy and shifting relationship with other Christian “communities.” All he is investigating is his own belief.

Now, the word “community” is hard to define, but it probably means, in Brown, a group of people who follow Christianity according to the preaching of St John (although Brown may not have believed that it was the historical St John). However, that entirely begs the question. In what does this group consist? It is entirely unclear whether these people live in one place, a town, village, or a city, or over a countryside, or in two or more of them. Did they live in Rome? Rome and elsewhere? Ephesus? Ephesus and elsewhere? Or in one or more other places? Did they mix with other Christians in daily life, from time to time, through correspondence only? Did they read the other Gospels? The letters of St Paul? Or any other epistles? All this is left unaddressed.

This very strategy isolates the reading of St John’s Gospel from that of the other Gospels. Bauckham and others have set out excellent reasons to believe that St John had at least one of the other Gospels, and would have assumed that the readers of this Gospel did, too. Now, if the Gospel is read as one among the others, Brown’s entire argumentation falls apart. To take but one example, he argues that John’s portrayal of the Lord is “quite foreign” to the Gospels (45). That is not how the ordinary person reads the Gospels. Brown’s position can only be maintained if the Synoptic Gospels and that of St John are practically taken as belonging to separate worlds. But as we have seen, the ancient testimony is that they were meant to be read together, with St John’s supplementing the others. I think it is also fair to say that St John thought it necessary to correct some errors (e.g. the day of the week on which the crucifixion took place, and the length of the Lord’s ministry). This is further evidence that he had the Synoptics.

Brown’s method of reading the evidence in the light of his own conclusions leads to some remarkable incidents. For example, he says that the expulsion from the synagogues noted in John 9:22 and 16:2 refer to events after the life of Jesus (22). But John 9:22 states: “the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue.” The Gospel explicitly claims that this process had begun during the life of the Lord and not – as Brown says – as a result of some meeting at Jamnia and a curse to be recited in synagogues against Christians and other “heretics” from after the year 85. This means that to maintain his thesis Brown has to treat the Gospel as wrong in this particular. If it is, then in which respect can it be accepted, for anyone’s purpose, his own ours?

A major root problem is that Brown thinks that he knows more about the ancient world than in fact any of us today possibly can. The evidence, and this is the evidence, is that a decision had been made concerning expelling Christians from synagogues, and that the Lord predicted it would be implemented, and worse would come, too. How does Brown know that this is wrong? Behind all these arguments is the idea that the expulsion cannot have taken place like the Gospel says, and that our own fragmentary knowledge is all we need to reconstruct history.

Then, Brown sees the Gospel of St John as introducing a different idea of Christ, one which “nurtured a widespread unconscious monophysitism … in which Jesus is not really like us in everything except sin, but omniscient, unable to suffer or to be tempted, foreseeing the whole future” (163). Yet, he notes that the Gospel has been “the mainstay of the great orthodox faith of Nicaea” and that it can be read with the Synoptics, in “tension” (163). Let us say it is tension. So what? The whole point of St John was to express the great mystery of faith.

The portrait of the Lord in the Synoptics does not exclude that of St John, rather, they leave unstated many things which he adds: and the two pictures fit together quite neatly.  After all, and I do not think Brown’s “reflection” can survive this: the Transfiguration is clearly found in the Synoptic Gospels. A more supernatural revelation of the Lord, demonstrating his inherent divinity, can hardly be imagined. But this sort of aspect is not at all emphasised in the Synoptics. It has a higher profile in St John.

There is a great danger in the Brown type of analysis: it analyses in the very worst sense of the word, separating what should be kept together. It not only allows, it practically forces one to separate out the message of St John from that of the other evangelists, and to sideline John’s as historically inaccurate. But I do not reject his thesis because I do not like his conclusion. It is because I think his argument is wrong-headed, counter to the evidence and to logic alike, that I reject his thesis.

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