One of the highlights in every module is preparing for and writing the essays - although its a lot easier to see this in retrospect, rather than when facing deadlines and late nights! I think that it's in the essays that you learn at another level; it's your own work, formulating your own opinions and interacting with the scholars. The Jesus and the Gospels module was no exception. The essay question was What is the Purpose of the Fourth Gospel? A few observations will suffice:
- Some scholars, including Carson, see the statement of purpose in 20:31 as the starting point for determining the purpose of John's gospel. I myself can't see how this is a wise position to take. For a start, it reverses the structure of the gospel - this statement appears at the end, not the beginning and so is to be read in the light of what precedes it. If Carson's view is followed, 20:31 is loaded with such a weight of expectation that it starts to crumble under the weight. Carson has gone into fine detail in examining the Greek tenses as to whether 20:31 means that the gospel was composed so that readers might start to believe or continue to believe. Carson also goes to town on the alternative translations: Jesus is the Messiah or the Messiah is Jesus, in 20:31. This seems misplaced to me. For me, 20:31 is but one component in determining the purpose of the Fourth Gospel.
- It seems probable to me that John wrote with a knowledge of the synoptics - from internal evidence and from the witness of the early fathers, which I think carries more weight than some would acknowledge.
- I found J A T Robinsons work on the purpose very persuasive. He sees the gospel as a document written to a Jewish audience (albeit Hellenistic Jews). That the Jewishness of the gospel could be denied for so long in favour of a Hellenistic viewpoint seems to me particularly surprising.
- Problems have arisen in this field because we can be so eager to define a believing or unbelieving community. This to me does not reflect the nature of the church. A church community will be a stratified community: some established disciples, some recent believers, some seeking earnestly and some 'hangers-on' and counterfeit followers. You see this tendency in preaching: a passage has one message for believers and one message to unbelievers. Or a passage has no meaning to a person, unless they are born again. How can such a view be reconciled with Jesus' teaching in, for example, the Parable of the Talents (oops, strayed onto the synoptics).
- Where I got to on John's purpose was: in part, complementing the synoptic material; written to a Jewish audience of believers and their wider communities to strengthen faith, explain the Messiah as Jesus and to provide a rationale for the opposition arising from the synagogues; explain the transition from Old to New Covenant.
So, for us, the Fourth Gospel is a work concerned with salvation-history - with the roots of the church - and considering its purpose sheds light on the nature of faith and the covenant community of God in the church. Such emphases are so important against the post-modern backdrop of Platonic dualism and post-enlightenment individualism. Hmmm. Nice.