Harnack: The Gospel of John

You know, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to approach some of this stuff. I don’t want to be locked into explaining the basic tenets of why racism is bad, but I also don’t want to disappear so far up into the Discourse that it’s totally unreadable. I try to find a balance, knowing that sometimes people are going to come with such different backgrounds that it’s frankly impossible to meet them all under one roof. Take this Harnack shit, for instance. In his lectures at the University of Berlin in 1900, titled ‘What Is Christianity?’, the Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack took a historical lens to the Gospels. His second lecture declared the first three Gospels to be the central texts and authorities on the actual historical life and sayings of Christ, and sidelined the Gospel of John as theology rather than history:

“In particular, the fourth Gospel, which does not emanate or profess to emanate from the apostle John, cannot be taken as an historical authority in the ordinary meaning of the word. The author of it acted with sovereign freedom, transposed events and put them in a strange light, drew up the discourses himself, and illustrated great thoughts by imaginary situations.”

And obviously you can imagine a range of responses to that argument. Some Christians might accept it at face value. After all, John opens with that big rhetorical flourish (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”). Compare that to Matthew, which opens with an account of Christ’s lineage – it’s clearly more interested in laying out the historical situation and context of Christ. John refers to events that none of the other Gospels mention, such as the resurrection of Lazarus. It uses language that you don’t find in the others, it talks about problems that the others don’t care about – if you check the Wikipedia page, actually, it has a whole section on the differences between John and the other three Gospels. Maybe the Synoptic Gospels do share some common basis in actual historical fact, and maybe John later draws on the story of Christ without trying to be a proper biographical account. Some readers might accept that – at least as a possibility. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, some readers might insist that everything in the Bible is historical and exactly as it seems. Mark was written by Mark, Matthew was written by Matthew, John wrote John and Luke wrote Luke. They were all there alongside Christ, and they all saw everything, and even if they don’t record the same things, everything they do record actually historically happened.

So how do you speak to both of those groups at once? They’re both probably wrong, they’re both probably too extreme, but how do you bring them into a conversation? How do you ease the second group into the basics of historical criticism without boring the first group? How do you talk about source criticism without getting cancelled for heresy? It’s not a totally unfamiliar question – Harnack had to deal with it too. In his case, he was exploring the implications of historical criticism as a method for investigating the Bible, and spoke as an heir to decades of tumultuous scholarly debate:

“Sixty years ago David Friedrich Strauss thought that he had almost entirely destroyed the historical credibility not only of the fourth but also of the first three Gospels as well. The historical criticism of two generations has succeeded in restoring that credibility in its main outlines.”

Strauss’s book, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, argued that the miracles of Christ in the New Testament were stories made up by the early church to justify their faith. It’s a controversial argument, but it’s also important, raising as it does a genuinely valid question: are the Gospels entirely historically accurate? Isn’t it worth at least questioning whether some bits might have been tacked on or fabricated? Isn’t it worth using that historical lens to see what we can discover? Harnack continues the historical inquiry, but also offers a rebuttal to Strauss: regardless of whether the Gospel are or are not entirely historically true, they testify to Christ’s works and mission. The impression they give you about the historical Christ is just as important – maybe even more important – than whether or not it’s all historically true:

“These [Synoptic] Gospels are not, it is true, historical works any more than the fourth; they were not written with the simple object of giving the facts as they were; they are books composed for the work of evangelisation. Their purpose is to awaken a belief in Jesus Christ’s person and mission; and the purpose is served by the description of his deeds and discourse, as well as by the references to the Old Testament. Nevertheless they are not altogether useless as sources of history.”

From Harnack’s perspective, then, Strauss jumped the gun. He saw miracles and freaked out, and denied that the Gospels were historical at all. But, Harnack says, that didn’t need to happen. You can portion and segment the Gospels, seeing some parts as historical and other parts as tools for evangelism, as things that speak to Christ’s nature regardless of their historical accuracy. Like Schleiermacher said, if you think a miracle happened, if it stimulates your faith and belief in God, maybe that’s more important than whether or not it actually happened. Harnack therefore argues that the miracles were largely just stories (“That the earth in its course stood still; that a she-ass spoke; that a storm was quieted by a word, we do not believe, and we shall never again believe”), but claims that they still serve as useful testimony to a mighty and powerful God:

“It is not miracles that matter; the question on which everything turns is whether we are helplessly yoked to an inexorable necessity, or whether a God exists who rules and governs, and whose power to compel Nature we can move by prayer and make a part of our experience.”

And – I mean, this is where I’ll start sledging Harnack a little bit. If there is a God, who really does rule and govern, why is it so weird to believe that miracles exist? Why accept the existence of a divine being but then also be like nah miracles are silly? It kinda seems like Harnack wants to move away from believing in the supernatural as a real and present force in the world – he almost seems embarrassed by it. I’m not arguing that his opinions are necessarily invalid – I’m just noting that even where he’s trying to offer supposedly neutral historical analysis, he can’t avoid getting sucked into pretty specific, subjective assumptions about how the world works. From a scholarly, academic, historical-critical perspective, he claims, the Gospel’s depiction of miracles is not historical because miracles are obviously silly and fake.

Really, I see Harnack as similar to Strauss. Their conclusions might be wrong, but both offer really valuable additions to how we think about Christianity and the Bible more broadly. Strauss was right to get us thinking about the historicity of the Gospels. And Harnack was right to suggest that the Gospels can hold spiritual truth without being perfect historical records. Those tools remain as part of our conceptual approach to the Bible, even as the specific beliefs of those scholars fade away.

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