Reviews of

The Legacy of John: Second Century Reception of the Fourth Gospel

In Brill, Charles E. HILL, Dan Batovici, John, New Testament, NT reception history, Second century, Tuomas RASIMUS on January 17, 2011 at 8:37 am

2011.01.02 | Tuomas Rasimus, ed. The Legacy of John: Second Century Reception of the Fourth Gospel. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 132. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010. Pp. xi + 406. ISBN: 9789004176331. Hardback

Reviewed by Dan Batovici, University of St Andrews.

The book is a fine collection of twelve essays on several second-century texts and their relation to the Fourth Gospel. The editor mentions in the very dense introduction the need to ‘abandon the old division between “orthodox” and “heterodox” forms of Christianity as misleading and anachronistic.’

It is commendable, indeed, to seek for the early reception of John beyond such a distinction, and this fresh view stands well in a context in which the two most recent major contributions on the early reception of John tend to focus on either the “orthodox” or the “heterodox” reception.

However, the distribution of the papers seemingly tips the balance in favor of the later group: the eight such papers focus on the Gospel of the Acts of John (I. Czachesz), the most beloved disciples of Jesus (M. Meyer), the Trimorphic Protennoia (P.-H. Poirier), the Apocryphon of John (J. D. Turner), Ptolemaeus (T. Rasimus), Heracleon (E. Thomasen), Eugnostos (A. Pasquier), and early Montanism (T. K. Seim). By comparison, only four deal with ‘orthodox’ texts; these papers are focused on the Johannine letters (R. Hakola), the reception ‘in the Great Church’ prior to Irenaeus (C. E. Hill), the Diatessaron (N. Perrin), and Irenaeus (B. Mutschler). The included essays are indeed very useful though, admittedly, in different ways, and most of them offer fresh insights to the given topic.

Few brief examples

R. Hakola offers an account of the similarities and then of the differences between the Fourth Gospel and 1, 2, 3 John, and argues that all these can be best explained by regarding the gospel and the Johannine epistles as ‘independent witnesses of the shared traditions’ (18); also that ‘the Johannine epistles should not be read as reaction to the alleged schism prompted by the excessive interpretation of the gospel’ (43), but as testifying for a tendency of reducing the Johannine diversity ‘into controllable categories’ (44).

I. Czachesz analyses the relation between the Fourth Gospel and the Gospel of the Acts of John (chapters 87-105 of the Acts of John), and argues similarly that both GAJ and John stem from a common source, rather than depending on one another. Czachesz takes this a step further and postulates a Proto-John as the common source, who ‘was probably accessible to the authors in the form of an oral gospel narrative’ (65) and then sets out for a ‘tentative reconstruction of the content of Proto-John’ (65). Dating it in the early second century (69), by analysing the common material, he suggests that ‘the speeches of the Fourth Gospel containing the “I am” sayings offer written elaborations of elements of the original Hymn of Christ’ (66).

M. Meyer’s article is a useful survey of opinions – and a good discussion – on the identity of the beloved disciple of Jesus in John, and in a good wealth of “Gnostic” texts. The discussion includes the Secret Gospel of Mark: while the author acknowledges Carlson and Jeffery’s denunciations of this text as being a hoax, he nonetheless assumes its authenticity ‘for the sake of this essay, and in recognition of the distinguished career of Morton Smith’ (75).

N. Perrin contributes an interesting article on the relevance of the Diatessaron for the reception of the Fourth Gospel in the pre-Irenaean church. On the one hand he argues, based on an analysis of the sequence of the pericopae, that Tatian actually holds John’s Gospel in high regard – as ‘John seems to have been the foundation stone on which the building block of synoptic material were laid; […] For the author of the Diatessaron, John is a kind of primus inter pares’ (308) – while on the other hand he shows that ‘the Assyrian’s high estimation of John cannot be credibly attributed to his change of views’ (302).

B. Mutschler’s article is a very useful survey of the bibliography on Irenaeus’ treatment of John, as well as a scrutiny of Mutschler’s own books on the matter, published in 2004 and 2006.


One aim of any edited volume – and this one definitely accomplishes this task – is to offer several relevant perspectives on a given topic. As such, it is rather rare to have, in a collective volume, an explicit methodological unity. Yet some observations are in order. First, it is a bit surprising perhaps that the discussion on the dating of John – potentially relevant when assessing John’s reception in earliest texts – plays a rather meager role in the volume. Only two articles even mention it, of which one does take note of (and accepts) the implications on this matter of Nogbri’s later dating of P52 (I. Czachesz, 69, n. 69), while the other simply mentions the old dating of the same papyri, ‘94-127 CE,’ implicitly as terminus ante quem for John’s dating (A. Pasquier, 229, n. 44).

It can also be noted that ‘reception’ is construed in this volume in a broad sense. While some articles address specifically the question of (textual) reception of John in the text on which they focus, others are rather comparisons of common features.

Moreover, the reception of New Testament texts in the early second century is a topic that still generates significant debate as to how the reception can itself be ascertained. It is perhaps regrettable for the reader that the essays that focus on texts in which the reception of John is questionable do not engage with this debate, and that they generally do not address this specific bibliography.

While most of the authors of this volume are rather wary about claiming literary dependence on John of the analysed texts – namely, Hakola (18), Czachesz (50, 65), Poirier (101), Turner (106, 109), Pasquier (215) – T. Rasimus’ article, who endeavors to argue that ‘Ptolemaeus adopted his way of using the Fourth Gospel’s prologue as a proof-text for Valentinian theology from an anti-Marcionite Roman discourse from the 150s’ (145), might have benefited from such a discussion. From the perspective of the mentioned debate, Rasimus can be construed to be rather on the optimistic side in saying that ‘there is plenty of evidence suggesting a general acceptance of John’s Gospel in Rome at an early date’ (156). Indeed, some methodological considerations would have seemingly strengthened his case, especially since the implication of his argument is that the Roman ‘congregation had accepted and used the Fourth Gospel as apostolic by 150 CE’ (156).

The notable exception is C. E. Hill, who addresses at some length the issues raised in the bibliography on the early reception of the text that was to become the New Testament. For this reason, his essay is a follow-up of his 2004 book – RBECS review here – where he engages with the criticism his book met since its publication. Hill introduces historical consideration in the assessment of the reception of John in a second-century author, to add up to the possibility of establishing that the later author knew John: ‘I seek to allow contextual or circumstantial factors to play their parts. I believe such an approach is historiographically superior to one which focuses on the “textual” features […]’ (241). His stance is therefore broadly the same: ‘I am not so much concerned whether we conclude that the author “quotes” John, paraphrases it, alludes to it, or echoes its thoughts, but rather, first of all, whether we can say with any kind of assurance that the author knows the Gospel of John […]’ (236). This still begs the question of whether it is possible at all to establish that an ancient author knew a source in the absence of demonstrable textual reception, without being too speculative.

Hill does takes in the possibility that a fragment of Johannine ring might be dependent on a source of John and not on John (237). Then he engages with authors who have assumed a more minimalist approach, mainly with Koester and the subsequent scholars who accepted his criterion: Koester ‘argues that one should not claim another author’s knowledge of one of the Synoptic Gospels unless one could show that the parallel entailed Matthew’s, Mark’s, or Luke’s final “redactional” material […]’ (237). Hill then shows, with success, I believe, that this is not that easy to apply to John, given that ‘the precise contents, however, of John’s “sources” or “traditional material” are not always self-evident to all scholars, and attempts to establish them sometimes involve debatable assumptions about the composition history of the gospel’ (238). The conclusion is that ‘perhaps the best we can do, without pleading for an individual theory on Johannine composition history, is to ask in each case whether it is possible or relatively likely that the material in question could have passed to the secondary writer as part of oral tradition about Jesus apart from the written gospel’ (240).

All in all, this is indeed an exciting volume, which offers a wealth of information and stimulating discussions on the relation of the Fourth Gospel to indeed a large spectrum of second-century texts. Equipped with a learned introduction from the editor and three indices at the end, it is surely a useful instrument for all who are looking for different perspectives on the presence of John in the second century.

Dan Batovici
University of St Andrews
db47 [ at ]


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