If you are someone who thinks the 200-year history of New Testament criticism contains unanswerable arguments against the Fourth Gospel as a source of actual words and acts of Jesus and the apostles, then I think you have never studied the critical defense of John’s Gospel by English scholars of the nineteenth century.
But fundamentalists beware – the best of this early critical scholarship on John’s Gospel (both English and German) was not buttressed by any special pleading for plenary inspiration. Beginning about 1848, British scholars like B.F. Westcott and J.B. Lightfoot took up the task of refuting the negative German criticism by following the good example of Schleiermacher, Neander, de Wette, Lucke, Bleek, Bunsen, and B. Weiss in meeting the negative arguments point by point on valid historical and textual-critical grounds.
I know it will be asked – if battle was joined over 150 years ago and fairly won in 40 years time – how do we find today scholars of repute who hold the Fourth Gospel in less esteem than the other three?
Here is a story told by Henry Watkins, archdeacon and canon of Durham Cathedral, of a conversation he had with Bishop Lightfoot in 1889:
“One day while walking with the late Bishop of Durham, when we hoped he was regaining strength, I took the opportunity of asking him how he accounted for the fact of the frequent assertion that the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel was disproved by modern criticism, in the presence of the strong and accumulating evidence in its favour.”
(Henry William Watkins, Modern Criticism Considered in Relation to the Fourth Gospel, 1890, p.viii)
J.B. Lightfoot at age 61 suffered from a physical illness which was to end his life that year, at the height of a very productive scholarly and church career. When Watkins later sent him a review in rough outline of the chief issues of the 40-year campaign, the Bishop gave his last efforts in life to securing the archdeacon’s appointment as the next Bampton Lecturer at Oxford. “No subject,” wrote the Bishop before he died, “could be more useful at the present day, and I think that the time has arrived when it can be effectively treated”.
Last year I began a defense of the historicity of John on the blog, and I mean to keep pushing this point. Last month I found Watkins’ 1890 Bampton Lectures in my favorite old seminary, and I want to get some results of reading posted in the near future.
It should come as no surprise that I feel the history of fundamentalist bluster against the higher criticism can play no real part in the issues at stake with John’s Gospel. The evangelical mind seems – by habitual abdication in the presence of texts conceived to be almighty – to have neither taste nor capacity for this kind of argument. Even the ex-evangelical mind seems unsuited to the task of positive criticism. The negative German critics themselves were in some cases ex-evangelicals who, after losing their belief in the Bible’s divine authorship, were unable to envision any human author for the texts who was not a deceiving rogue or a gullible fool.