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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 67, 2019

JÖRG FREY, Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel: Tradition and Narration (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018). Pp. xiii + 241. Hardback. US$35.95.

In 2018 Jörg Frey presented a series of lectures at Yale Divinity School and these lectures provide the basis for this text. He has courageously tackled the issue of historicity within the gospel of John. On the one hand there has been the tradition of considering John the “spiritual” gospel and not looking to it within the search for the Historical Jesus. On the other hand, in recent years the “John Jesus History” section within the SBL has made a strong claim that there is reliable historical information in John. So this book navigates the waters flowing between “theology” and “history,” and examines the manner in which the evangelist has taken traditional information to shape it into his unique narrative vision. This is a highly commendable project, which Frey presents with skill and clarity while drawing on his breadth of previous studies, often only available in German. Reading this book for a review was difficult, as a brief review cannot do justice to it.

The introductory chapter is an excellent synopsis of J. Louis Martyn’s argument in his History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (1968), and the revolution this made to Johannine studies. Martyn situated the gospel within the world of Judaism, not Hellenism, and shifted the historical focus from Jesus to the community’s experience at the time when the gospel was written. While Martyn’s emphasis on the 18th Benediction has been strongly challenged (8), his insight that the gospel needs to be read alert to two levels is still sound: the time of the earthly Jesus, and the time of the later Johannine community. Frey reverses Martyns title, taking as his starting point the theology of the gospel and offers a more nuanced hermeneutical approach “in which both levels are fused” (11).

The next chapter can be summed up in one sentence: “In John, Christology is expressed as theology, while on the hand, theology is inseparably linked with Christology” (19; italics in the original).The challenge this poses to both the Hellenistic and Jewish world is then noted before moving into the heuristic distinction between higher and lower Christology, and the very dubious claims that this distinction can be a source for multi-layering of the development of the gospel, e.g. Fortna, Brown (1966) and von Wahlde (1989). This chapter addresses the range of titles and epithets used of Jesus in the narrative, but places greater emphasis on Jesus’ divine authority as depicted in the narrative and the discourses. Chapter 2 moves to the historical tradition in the gospel. Here, Frey addresses the long history (from the time of Clement) of putting John aside when looking to find historical accuracy about Jesus of Nazareth, then the various “quests” for the historical Jesus. Without looking for sources behind the gospel, Frey lines up closer to the Leuven rather than British view, that John knew and drew upon synoptic traditions, and in particular the Gospel of Mark (70–77). This leads into a critique of recent approaches defending John’s historical reliability, by demanding greater clarity in historical methodology. Even if John is using methods that align with ancient historiography, this does not ensure historical accuracy (93). He examines the historically valid information in John, its familiarity with Hebrew and Aramaic languages, its topographical knowledge of Jerusalem, knowledge of Jewish festivals, history and theology. He adds the caution that John’s account, while more plausible than the Synoptics, is not driven by historical concerns but theological. The chapter concludes by describing three ways the evangelist has used and modified historical traditions: replotting, such as in the Temple scene, re-narrating, such as in the Passion, and reimagining such as in the fictitious dialogues between Jesus and Pilate, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, where there was no eye-witness to “overhear” these conversations. Finally, he affirms the biblical truth of the Gospel, but in terms of its theological presentation of Jesus’ identity and mission, i.e., “his true divine dignity” (142).

The final chapter asks how can John legitimate “his enormous liberty with regard to history or to his traditions?” (144), and this means examining the role of the Spirit-Paraclete. Jesus promised the community the gift of the Spirit to guide their remembering and understanding. So this gospel is told deliberately in retrospect following the Passion-glorification of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit to the community. The Spirit enables a better, more creative reading of the Scriptures, enabling the community to reach a deeper level of understanding the Jesus’ story, particularly the meaning of his death (summarised on p. 194).

A brief conclusion follows these chapters. Frey concludes with: “If the hermeneutical task is to ‘let John be John,’ we are left with the task of accepting and appreciating John’s unique design, his claims about the remembering Spirit, and the ultimate priority of theology over history in the Fourth Gospel” (209).

Frey’s book is a must read, and a must have for libraries, and I would add graduate students and scholars of John. Its strength is the obvious breadth of knowing the literature, the major issues in the interpretation of John and Frey’s ability to synthesise this scholarship.

Review by
University of Divinity, Melbourne