In the following video, New Testament scholar Craig Evans agrees with Bart Ehrman that Jesus never made the "I am" statements recorded in John. Anyone who thinks this "literary device" stuff is no big deal needs to realize that, if one goes where Evans is going, that no longer passes the laugh test.
Evans gives no argument. He makes a bizarre analogy between John's gospel and the personification of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs. But of course he isn't a myther, so Jesus did exist and did say things, right? So that's obviously a really poor analogy, and it's not clear precisely what Evans thinks it does for his argument. Using the term "genre" doesn't help, since obviously John is not writing an allegorical personification of a characteristic like wisdom. This is a lazy use of the concept of "genre." He then explicitly says that these were "he is" confessions of "the Johannine community" rather than statements made by Jesus.
Evans has to admit the awkwardness of all the historical facts confirmed in John (!) but apparently doesn't let this stop him from having an agreement-fest with skeptical scholar Ehrman (who goes for the jugular, unsurprisingly) that Jesus never made the "I am" statements. Watch here. It's short.
Apologist Jonathan McLatchie shared this video in a public forum on Facebook with the comment that the field of New Testament studies needs to be reformed.
In the ensuing thread, Mike Licona, still regarded by many as in some measure a conservative biblical scholar, came in and apparently defended Evans's comments throwing all of the "I am" statements under the bus. He is, to my mind, fairly explicit, though not quite as explicit as Evans.
1. Although the message is the same, the way Jesus "sounds" in John is very different than the way He "sounds" in the Synoptics.
2. The way Jesus "sounds" in John's Gospel sounds very much like how John "sounds" in 1 John. That is, the grammar, vocabulary, and overall style of writing in both are strikingly similar.
Number 2 could be because John adjusted his style to be similar to his Master after spending much time with him. This would be similar to how some married couples adapt their laughs and expressions to one another over time. The other option and the one believed by most scholars is that John paraphrased Jesus using his own style. The reason scholars go with this latter view is because Jesus "sounds" so differently in John than in the Synoptics.
By no means does this mean John is historically unreliable. It means that John is often communicating Jesus' teachings in a manner closer to a modern paraphrase than a literal translation. Stated differently, John will often recast Jesus saying something explicitly the Synoptics have Him saying implicitly. For example, one does not observe Jesus making his "I am" statements in the Synoptics that are so prominent in John, such as "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). That's a pretty clear claim to deity. Mark presents Jesus as deity through His deeds and even some of the things He says about Himself. But nothing is nearly as overt as we find in John. Granted, the Synoptics do not preserve everything Jesus said. However, if Jesus is cryptic in public even pertaining to His claim to be Messiah as He is in Mark--hence the "Messianic Secret," we would not expect for Jesus to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting. Those are just some of the reasons why scholars see John adapting Jesus' teachings. Jesus' precise words (ipsissima verba) may not be preserved in John but His voice (ipsissima vox) certainly is. (emphasis added)
To be blunt, the talk of paraphrase here merely fogs the issue. Evans is not saying that the "I am" sayings in John are paraphrases in any normal sense of that term of explicit claims to deity that Jesus actually made, and if Jesus did not publicly and explicitly claim to be God as he does in John, then calling what we find in John a "paraphrase" is merely creating confusion. That isn't a paraphrase. That's making stuff up. And if that's how the phrase "ipsissima vox" is going to be used, then it is just another phrase for "making stuff up," not a mere reference to what ordinary people call "paraphrasing." Licona is expressly arguing that Jesus would not and hence did not publicly, clearly, and overtly claim to be God in the real world. But in John he does do so. No use of the term "paraphrase" nor the phrase "ipsissima vox" (which I believe Evans originated) can get around this.
Needless to say, Licona's arguments here are extremely weak. There is a large difference between claiming to be God and encouraging the crowds in messianic expectations. Jesus never at any time hesitated to offend the religious leaders of his day and even in the synoptics seems to have gone out of his way to do so. As for Jesus "sounding different" in the synoptics, there is that awkward bit of John that escaped and got into Matthew somehow, Matthew 11:25-27. Moreover, real people do talk in different styles at different times, and John seems to have had a memory for long, connected discourse. Mostly this is assertion disguised as argument for a very strong claim--that Jesus did not overtly and explicitly claim identity with the Father as he is portrayed as doing in John. What argument there is is the typical weak sauce of New Testament literary criticism.
Every time I think that some new shift from Dr. Licona can't surprise me, he surprises me. I was surprised when he hypothesized that the whole Doubting Thomas episode might be made up, but I thought he'd be more uncomfortable about publicly endorsing Evans's comments throwing the "I am" statements under the bus. Evidently not.
Again, this post and hence the comments are set to public, which is why I can read them even while on Facebook hiatus. I am not publicizing anything that has not been said in public, but I am "boosting" it. Saddened as I am by what Dr. Licona is apparently endorsing, I'm afraid that I think this is a crucial enough matter that it needs to be known. Jesus' claims to deity are, to put it mildly, important, and so people should know when scholars think he didn't make them. I pray that the Lord will use any such publicizing and/or criticisms that come as a result to motivate Dr. Licona to reconsider. Needless to say, I urge that such criticisms and corrections always be made in a spirit of Christian love and with the best good in mind of Dr. Licona as well as of the Christian community as a whole, including his followers.
Update: Dr. Licona has responded in "grieved" fashion to my critique in this post, adding an entirely ex post facto caveat to his original comment, a change which in any event does not render his comments unobjectionable or unimportant. And certainly does not make me a misrepresenter of what he said. I will quote his response, leaving out only an unnecessary name of a participant on Facebook and, at the end, some irrelevant ad hominem patronization directed towards me.
I'm grieved to see Lydia once again stretching my words to say more than I did. I try to nuance my words carefully, especially in view of some like Lydia who look for things to criticize. But sometimes I'm not as careful as I should be and assume (wrongly) that others will grant some leeway in communications and be charitable.
So, I'll try to be a little clearer here. I agree with all Johannine scholars that Johannine adaptation is present in his Gospel. However, scholars differ on the degree of adaptation that is present. I wouldn't go as far as Craig A. Evans for whom I have the highest regard. To be honest, I do not know how much John adapted certain traditions. But some is obviously present to anyone who spends a significant amount of time studying the Gospels. Are the "'I am' without predicate" statements in John part of his adapting things Jesus implicitly said and presenting them in a manner in which Jesus says them explicitly? In other words, are we reading the ipsissima vox (his voice) of Jesus here rather than the ipsissima verba (his very words). I don't know. In my single reply to [another commenter], I provided reasons why many, perhaps even a majority of Johannine scholars say they are Johannine adaptations. I have argued elsewhere that historical data strongly suggests Jesus believed He was deity. So, if Jesus made implicit claims to deity and John recasts those claims in a manner that has Jesus making them in an explicit sense, then that's what John did and we need to be comfortable with that. Otherwise, we take issue with the way God gave us the Gospels.Licona gave not the slightest hint in his original comment that he was representing the views of other scholars and not his own view. He made the comment in his own person. Indeed, even had he added the phrase "in the view of the majority of scholars," the comment as a whole still would have implied an endorsement of that argument, given all his wording that followed. But he did not even bother adding any such mildly distancing (though not very distancing) phrase. Here is the lead-in to the original comment, as originally given:
Keener has said that "all" Johannine scholars acknowledge Johannine adaptation of the Jesus tradition. To see this in action, I recommend that you read through the Synoptic Gospels several times in Greek. Then read John's Gospel and 1 John several times in Greek. (One can also observe this in English but it is far clearer and even more striking in Greek.) You will observe a few items relevant to this discussion:
1. Although the message is the same, the way Jesus "sounds" in John is very different than the way He "sounds" in the Synoptics.
That was the lead-in. No mention of this as merely a neutral representation of what other scholars think. Now he wishes to backtrack and say, instead, that he is agnostic about whether Jesus made the "I am" statements. This is hardly much better. The headline now would be "Leading Apologist Completely Unsure About Whether Jesus said 'I am'" rather than "Leading Apologist Thinks Jesus Never Said 'I Am.'"
This is, pace Licona, still a very low view of John's accuracy, even after the backtrack. And if John made up the "I am" statements, the doubts of his accuracy are cast far wider than even those statements. As far as what we have to "be comfortable with," foot-stomping and saying, "We have to be comfortable with that" is pointless. It does not take the place of a good argument for what God, and John, actually did. What it comes to is, "If God gave us factually crappy gospels, we have to live with that, and I'm going to deem anybody impious who is bothered by the possibility." This is faux piety. God didn't have to send Jesus to die at all. He didn't have to give us such good records of Jesus' life. But he seems to have done so. Let's not pretend that it's no big deal if we are left with only a poor and unreliable record in John of what Jesus taught about one of the most important truths in the world--that Jesus is God. It is a big deal. Merely saying that if these records are poor, we have to "be comfortable with that," is ridiculous. Actually, we don't have to be comfortable. We should mourn if that's the situation, not "be comfortable." Fortunately, there are not good arguments for Licona's agnosticism about Jesus' explicit claims to deity. So please, stop patronizingly telling us what we need to be comfortable about.
Update 2: Since I realize that a lot of people are going to read this post who haven't been reading either of my blogs before, since this post has gotten more publicity, I want to take this opportunity to point out that I've been carefully and in detail writing in response to Dr. Licona's ideas for over a year and a half now. Some of these are quite lengthy posts. They all involve argumentation and ideas, not personalities. I'd like to make people aware of this body of work so that they can read it for themselves. This news concerning the I Am statements came up in the midst of an on-going project that I have concerning Licona's work. It is not precisely a side show but certainly was an unexpected sudden illustration of the reasons for the concerns I have always voiced about the "literary devices" work. My arguments against that work have already to some degree been laid out but also are in the process of being laid out further. I am planning posts on quite a few of Licona's Roman examples in the book followed by posts on his gospel examples. I have previously written about some of the same gospel examples he uses, based upon his long, on-line lectures.
Here are my old posts on Licona's work, written last year:
A Gospel Fictionalization Theory is No Help to the Gospel
More on Licona, Genre, and Reliability
An announcement of the previous post at this blog containing some more content
Straining to Find a Genre
New Post on "Genre" in the Gospels
Here is the beginning of my new series:
New Testament Interpretation in the Real World
Hoaxer or Historical Witness: The Johannine Dilemma
Flowchart: On Alleged Literary Devices
For those who haven't followed my work before, below is a brief bio. I would just note that, if anything, my professional work in probability theory is more recent and prominent than my doctorate in English, and it is relevant to the evaluation of arguments. Though of course a degree in literature may well be relevant where (poor and highly speculative) literary criticism appears to be the order of the day in a field like biblical studies. I can be reached with direct correspondence at lydiamcgrew [at] gmail [dot] com.
Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher who specializes in classical and formal epistemology, probability theory, and philosophy of religion. She is the co-author (with Timothy McGrew) of Internalism and Epistemology: The Architecture of Reason (Routledge, 2007) and of the article on the argument from miracles in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009). She received her PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 1995. Since then she has published extensively in analytic philosophy, specializing in probability theory and epistemology. Her articles have appeared in such journals as Erkenntnis, Theoria, Acta Analytica, Philosophia Christi, and Philosophical Studies, and she is the author of the entry on historical inquiry and theism in The Routledge Companion to Theism (2012). She home schools, and in her spare time, she blogs about apologetics, Christianity, culture, and politics. She lives in southwest Michigan with her husband and children. She is the author most recently of Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (2017).