Thucydides and the Fourth Gospel


Having now finished The Age of Wonder the next long book I have started is Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. I’ve been reading it for the last week and am only just past the first 100 pages (out of ~600) so don’t expect the review any time soon. In his introduction, however, there’s a very interesting paragraph which I here quote:

“In this history I have made use of set of speeches some of which were delivered just before and others during the war. I have found it difficult to remember the precise words used in the speeches which I listened to myself and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty; so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion was called for by each situation.”

The speeches that follow are quite long and reminded me somewhat of the discourses in the gospel of John (particularly chapters 14-17). Unlike the short anecdotes (pericopes, if you’re being technical) in the synoptic gospels, it seems less likely that the Fourth Gospel was the product of a generation or two of oral history.

I freely confess I’ve not read much critical literature on the origins of the Fourth Gospel, though I know the view that Richard Bauckham espoused in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that it was based on a single eyewitness account is somewhat controversial. The trouble I have with this point of view hinges on the length of some passages. They just seem too long for one individual to remember verbatim, considering that John’s gospel was seems to be one of the later written gospels, written at least 30 years after the events described, possibly up to 60. Some people have very good memories and could recite them, but the author of John’s gospel does not state that his intention is to make a fairhful record. Rather,

“these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Contrast this with Luke’s methodology:

“I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

Luke’s approach is far more similar to the early historians such as Thucydides or Herodotus. John, on the other, almost admits that his writing is a piece of propaganda. He doesn’t go so far to say that he has interpreted Jesus or put words in his mouth, as Thucydides seems to admit, but I cannot help but suspect that the longer sections of John’s gospel contain not only eyewitness testimony, but also words and sentences that have been put there because that what was the author thought, in their opinion, was called for by each situation.

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