My review of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses continues, albeit after a rather lengthy hiatus. Between my wife’s stay in the hospital and the fact that, frankly, Bauckham is a tough act to keep up on, I slowed down. However, there is only this review and one final one left. For the aforementioned reasons my summary in this article will be a little less thorough than previous reviews.
In Chapters 14 through 17 Bauckham turns his attention to the Gospel of John. He starts off with a fascinating explanation of why he believes the prologue and epilogue are legitimately part of the original document. That this was ever under dispute was news to me, but since reading it I even heard some other Christians make the claim – as though it was a settled issue – that the prologue and epilogue were later additions. Bauckham refutes that by bringing us back into the mind of somebody living at that time and in that culture.
Though he outlines several reasons for drawing this conclusion, the one that struck me as the most interesting was numerical. It turns out there are 496 syllables in the prologue and 496 words in the epilogue. 496 is allegedly an interesting number to the ancients because it is “both a triangular number and a perfect number.” To a culture that was deeply interested in numbers – especially numbers that they felt carried significance – this would have been a meaningful detail that John built into his Gospel; something the ancients would have noticed even if we might not.
I do not know enough about Greek to directly confirm Bauckham’s claim (though it is unlikely he would so openly make such a claim that he knew other experts in the Greek language would read and check) but when I check the Greek New Testament that I have access to through E-sword, I get a count of 510 words in the epilogue; only 14 off of what Bauckham claims (within 3%). Not an exact match, but given my relative ignorance on the Greek language, and given the fact that the number I counted wasn’t something like 217 or 712 (something vastly different from Bauckham’s claim) I have reason to believe his claim about the number of words.
I have no way at all of checking how many syllables are in the prologue; it’s pure faith on that one for me!
A brief numerical tangent
Here’s where I go on a bit of a tangent because I love numbers. This discussion is certainly not necessary to wrap your mind around the book; indeed Bauckham does not even discuss any of what follows. If you don’t care for numbers then just skip to the next part. It turns out 496 is quite an interesting number once you dive into the concepts Bauckham describes. First of all, 496 can be divided by any of the following numbers:
1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 31, 62, 124, 248
These numbers, when added up, give you 496. This is what is meant by a perfect number (see the Wikipedia article linked to above). What else is interestingly, though, is that 496 is the third perfect number after 6 and 28. Three, for anybody with Biblical awareness, is a significant number in several respects, and 496 is the third perfect number.
Furthermore, the largest prime number in the group listed above is 31. Put another way, if we divide 496 into its prime numbers we get:
496 = 2 x 2 x 2 x 31
How many number 2’s are there? Three of them! There’s that number three again.
Moving on to the fact that 496 is a triangular number. These numbers, put simply, are what you get when you add 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 … and stop somewhere. If we stop at “3” then the triangular number is 6. If we stop at 7 then we get 28. If we stop at 17 we get 153.
Any guesses where we have to stop in order to arrive at 496? If you guessed 31 then you are right! 31 is the largest prime divisor of 496 and it is also the largest number in the addition sequence that gives us 496 as a triangular number. Also, 496 is the third perfect number, its divisors include three number “2’s” and the number 31, and the number 31 even includes the number “3” in it. Now I don’t claim this all has theological significance, nor is this proof that God inspired the Gospel, nor that John was sending some cryptic message beyond what Bauckham describes, but as guy who likes numbers it’s all kind of cool! No conclusion beyond that. It was a great excuse to get out the old calculator.
Back to the book…
Moving on, though. Bauckham gives us good reason to believe the Gospel of John as we have it (including prologue and epilogue) is what John wrote.
An obvious question becomes, who was this John? Bauckham argues that, contrary to the traditional view, the John who wrote the Gospel was not the brother of James, son of Zebedee. In other words, the author of the Gospel of John was not one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Bauckham spends a couple of chapters laying out this case which includes reference to several early Church fathers (Papias, Eusebius, Polycrates and Irenaeus) who apparently disagreed with each on the matter. He draw hints and clues from each of them to make his case about why some of them were right and others were not. As with much in the book, some of the details of the discussion went over my head but by and large I think he made a good case to his views, from what I could understand.
Another obvious question is, did John really write it? There are other forged “gospels” after all; could this be added to that list? Perhaps one of the most obvious reasons to answer “yes, of course he did” is described quite eloquently by Bauckham. He spends many pages describing the fact that John was by no means one of the big wigs of the disciples. Then, given the fact that the Gospel itself virtually protests, ‘I may not be one of the head honchos but you can trust everything I say’ (not Bauckham’s words; my interpretation), Bauckham openly muses,
If … the Gospel presumes the Beloved Disciple to be an obscure figure, unknown in other Gospel traditions … needing to establish his place in the readers’ consciousness artfully and gradually … why should a pseudepigraphal author in search of a suitable pseudonym choose such a character? (page 409, my emphasis)
Indeed, that does seem to be a valid question and a fatal flaw in the logic of those who claim it was a forgery. Other forged gospels tend to bear the names of primary characters (Peter, Thomas, Mary, etc) and there seems little reason to write a forged gospel and then claim it was written by one of the minor supporting actors. One does not fake an account of the life of Christ and then make it all the more difficult for readers to accept it by claiming that it was written by an author that hardly anybody has heard of.
Of course, one could argue that the author really was one of the twelve (contra Bauckham’s claim) but then one would have to contend with the case that Bauckham laid out vis-à-vis the author’s identity.
The book is an excellent treatment of the subject – mostly accessible, though at times it stretches one mental stamina (not a complaint!) – and I am glad to have worked my way through it. One chapter remains which gives every indication of being a high-level summary of the book with concluding remarks. This has been a painfully rewarding book to read; I am glad to have read it but I am also glad that only one chapter remains.