Jörg Frey on the Historicizing Approach to Johannine Interpretation

Looking into the future, this week’s post comes from my übernächsten translation project, namely Jörg Frey‘s book Die Herrlichkeit des Gekreuzigten: Studien zu den Johanneischen Schriften I / The Glory of the Crucified One: Studies on the Johannine Writings I. For all my posts on this book see here.

Today’s key quotation continues my series of posts on Frey’s introductory chapter “Ways and Perspectives of the Interpretation of the Gospel of John. Reflections on the Way to a Commentary”. More specifically,  it comes from section 1: Five Classic Model of Interpretation, which provides an analysis of The Theological Approach (1.1.), The Historicizing Approach (1.2), The zeitgeschichtlicher approach (1.3), The literarkritische and Redaction-critical Approach (1.4), and the literaturwissenschaftliche or Narratological Approach (1.5). [Still need to think about the translation of some of these terms]

As usual I will begin with the English translation so that the (selective) grammatical commentary directly follows the German text.

I. Translation

The Glory of the Crucified One (wmc): A second approach stands in a complementary relation to the first. It has largely disappeared from the scholarly discussion in the German-language sphere but it still occurs in ‘naive’ readings and it finds defenders time and again in conservative-evangelical circles, above all in North America. It is the historicizing exposition, which in the episodes reported in John and also from the Johannine speeches wants to see, almost without exception, information about the time and history of Jesus and thus reads the Johannine work solely with reference to the time and history of Jesus. … A thoroughgoing reading of the Johannine text in the horizon of the time and history of Jesus strikes upon insurmountable limits, and it appears that with some – not all – evangelical commentators deference to the public interested in the historicity of the biblical texts, to sponsors or the statements of faith of a specific teaching institution impairs too much the view of the freedom of the Johannine manner of presentation and thus a reflection on its problems that is appropriate to the subject matter and honest. One must, however, hold fast to the particula veri of the historicizing interpretation: According to its own claim, the Gospel of John is not a timeless and placeless ‘mythological’ presentation, but rather the narrated witness of the history of Jesus of Nazareth that is concrete and anchored in space and time – irrespective of the clear traces of post Easter and addressee-oriented shaping.

Die Herrlichkeit des Gekreuzigten (pp. 8 … 12): Ein zweiter Ansatz steht dem ersten komplementär gegenüber. Er ist aus dem wissenschaftlichen Gespräch im deutschsprachigen Raum weithin verschwunden, begegnet aber nach wie vor in ‘naiven’ Lektüren und findet in konservativ-evangelikalen Kreisen, vor allem in Nordamerika immer wieder Verteidiger. Er ist die historisierende Auslegung, die in den bei Johannes berichteten Begebenheiten und auch aus den johanneischen Reden Jesu fast durchweg Informationen über die Zeit und Geschichte Jesu sehen will und somit das johanneische Werk allein mit Blick auf die Zeit und Geschichte Jesu liest. … Eine konsequente Lektüre des johanneischen Textes im Horizont der Zeit und Geschichte Jesu stößt an unüberwindliche Grenzen, und es scheint, daß bei manchen – nicht allen – evangelikalen Kommentatoren die Rücksichtnahme auf das an der Historizität der biblischen Texte interessierte Publikum, auf Sponsoren oder die Glaubenssätze einer spezifischen Lehrinstitution den Blick auf die Freiheit der johanneischen Darstellungsweise und damit eine sachgemäße und aufrichtige Reflexion ihrer Probleme allzusehr beeinträchtigen. Festzuhalten ist freilich die particula veri der historisierenden Auslegung: Das Johannesevangelium ist nach eigenem Anspruch keine zeit- und ortlose ‘mythologische’ Darstellung, sondern das erzählte Zeugnis der konkreten, in Raum und Zeit verankerten Geschichte Jesu von Nazareth – ungeachtet der deutlichen Spuren nachösterlicher und adressatenbezogener Ausgestaltung.

Select grammatical analysis: (2) although it is weaker, I often use “still” for nach wie vor. In order to identify the object of findet one needs to look ahead to Verteidiger, which is at the very end of the sentence. (3) For historisieren I often use “historize” rather than “historicize” since the latter is a somewhat loaded word, but it seems like “historicize” might be preferable here, with the meaning of “treat or represent as historical”. I considered using “events” to translate Begebenheiten, but went with “episodes” in order to distinguish this term from Ereignisse. I translated fast durchweg as “almost without exception”, but “almost always” might be just as good or better.  (4) I am not sure if “deference” is the best translation of Rücksichtnahme…auf or if “consideration of/for” or another alternative would be better. sachgemäß is difficult: appropriate would be preferable with a view to readability in the target language, but it seems to me that something important is lost with this translation, so I adopted “appropriate to the subject matter”. “honest” seemed to capture the force of aufrichtig here, i.e., instead of alternatives such as “sincere”, “genuine”, or “upright”.  For beeinträchtigen I debated between impairs, negatively impacts, and compromises – I’m not sure why it is plural, unless die Rücksichtnahme is plural; even if it is plural, I think the singluar translation is correct in English.  I am unsure whether the force of Reflexion ihrer Probleme is “reflection on its problems” or “reflection of its problems”, but I think the former is correct. (5) It seemed appropriate to translate sondern as “but rather” here. I am not sure if “addressee-oriented” is an adequate translation for addressatenbezogener, but it was the best I could come up with,

Substantial analysis: As with my last post in this series, I am basically on the same page as Frey in his assessment of the historicizing approach. Specifically, with Frey I would like to affirm both that the Gospel of John is concerned with the concrete history of Jesus in space and time and that (to a greater degree than the Synoptics) this Gospel reflects post-Easter shaping and the life setting of the author and the author’s community at many points. I am, however, less comfortable with Frey’s attribution of some evangelical scholars’ advocacy of the historicizing approach to deference to institutions, sponsors, or statements of faith, even with his important qualification some – not all. It is not that I doubt that this plays a role in at least some cases, but simply that I think there is more to be gained by assuming/presuming the best of the vast majority of (conservative) evangelical scholars. In particular, while I assume that the diverse contexts and atmospheres in which scholars work shape our perspectives to a great extent and recognize that this sometimes makes scholars of various persuasions toe various lines, I also assume that evangelical scholars who hold to a more maximalist assessment of the extent to which John’s narrative can be situated in the life of Jesus do so because they remain convinced of the viability of this reading rather than that their view is (primarily or exclusively) determined by deference to others, just as I hope that evangelical scholars will give me the benefit of the doubt and assume that I have come to a different judgment in this matter because my sustained engagement with the texts and critical issues has led me to believe that this is the best explanation and not simply because I am am eager to be accepted by others who teach in a public institution like I do, etc. In short, I am hesitant to frame my difference of viewpoint in this matter to a difference in the extent to which I am “honest” or the extent to which I am “toeing a given line”, but I am in agreement with Frey’s assessment that strong forms of the historicizing approach face insurmountable limits and with his conviction that this approach does not do justice to the freedom of the Johannine manner of presentation. In other words, I am critical of this approach because I think it  ultimately fails to “Let John be John” (James Dunn).

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! Unfortunately, I have found it increasingly difficult to write a new post each Monday, but I hope to be able to write at least two or three Monday blog posts each month. We’ll see. Best, Wayne.