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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 62, 2014

LORNE R. ZELYCK, John among the Other Gospels (Wissenshcaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2/347; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013). Pp. xii + 262. Sewn paper. ISBN 9783161523991. €25.00 RRP.

This revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation, undertaken at Cambridge University and completed in 2012, examines the influence of the Fourth Gospel upon the extra-canonical Gospels of the second and third centuries CE. The first chapter defines what is meant by a ‘gospel,’ and categorises the various early extra-canonical gospels into groups based on their for—specifically, the “narrative” gospels, “sayings” gospels, “dialogue/discourse” gospels, and gospel fragments. Zelyck limits his analysis to gospels written in Greek or Coptic and dated no later than the third century CE; he also excludes extra-canonical gospels focusing on the infancy of Jesus, choosing to focus instead on those gospels dealing with Jesus’ adult life. Zelyck considers whether it is useful to categorise the gospels he examines under broad, theological rubrics, such as “Gnostic,” “Valentinian” and “Thomasine,” but eventually decides that these labels ought to be used with caution. Included in Zelyck’s analysis, therefore, are some of the well-known extra-canonical gospels like the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Judas, Philip and Peter, as well as some shorter texts that typically receive less scholarly attention, such as the Gospel of the Saviour, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Egerton Gospel and Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840.

Zelyck’s method of analysis involves identifying “parallels” between each extra-canonical gospel and the Fourth Gospel; he then grades every verbal and thematic correspondence, ranking them along a spectrum ranging from “probable influence” to “plausible influence” and finally, down to “possible influence.” His goal is to assess the degree to which an extra-canonical author was influenced by the Fourth Gospel, and, briefly, to ask what practical shape that influence took on: was it due to literary dependence on a version of the Fourth Gospel, or was it due to secondary orality, or to memory? Each subsequent chapter in his monograph attends to an individual extra-canonical gospel, outlining its date and provenance, assessing its relationship to the Synoptic Gospels, and then considering which “parallel” texts it shares with the Fourth Gospel fit into his three-fold categorisation (probable/plausible/possible). Each time, Zelyck rejects the thesis that, where commonalities are found, it is because the extra-canonical author and the author(s) of the Fourth Gospel relied—independently—on a common source or tradition. Zelyck argues, instead, that the Fourth Gospel influenced the respective extra-canonical works.

While Zelyck’s approach is methodical, it is not, in my view, theoretically sophisticated. Zelyck’s approach is an exercise in relative probability, and not much more than that—a dense cataloguing of literary or thematic parallels, with not enough analytical work. Zelyck’s goal is to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question of Johannine ‘influence’ upon the extra-canonical gospels, but rarely to ask ‘how’ or ‘why.’ Significant terms in his book, such as “influence,” “reception,” and “parallel,” invite theoretical reflection but do not receive it; in an age of scholarship on biblical ‘inter-textuality’ and in the decades following Samuel Sandmel’s incisive essay on ”parallelomania” (JBL, 1961), this seems a particular oversight. Zelyck’s approach is firmly author-focused, that is, he assumes that second- and third-century authors deliberately evoked the Fourth Gospel, but in the end it is due to the modern reader’s (here, Zelyck’s own) critical perspicacity to determine those evocations and parallels. Some consideration of reader-centered theories of intertextuality and allusion would not have gone amiss in Zelyck’s discussion.

No doubt Zelyck’s strong point is his comparative reading of early patristic interpretations of the Fourth Gospel, and the reception of the Fourth Gospel in the extra-canonical gospels. Zelyck’s last chapter (a short conclusion) discusses how early and widespread were the ‘traditional’ (i.e. patristic) interpretations of John’s Gospel, based on what he finds in the extra-canonical material. These observations are Zelyck’s most fruitful and analytical, and they open up avenues for further study on the reception of the Fourth Gospel in other Christian traditions. Most fascinating, in my mind, was Zelyck’s attention to the directions taken by the Gospels of Thomas and Philip in reusing and reapplying John’s polemical language. Hopefully Zelyck can address these issues in future publications.

Review by
Broken Bay Institute