John in the Dock: Law, Lawyers, and Evidence in the Gospel of John

Tuesday, 01 Jan 2019

It has almost assumed the status of “a truth beyond reasonable doubt” in Christendom that the Gospel of John is the most theological of all the Gospels.1 What is not argued, however, is that the Gospel of John is also the most apologetical of all the Gospels. It is literally stuffed from stem to stern, from beginning to end,2 with the defense of the Christian faith, from miracles to prophecies, to miracles that fulfill prophecy. John grounds all of his major theological pronouncements in his Gospel on the legally sufficient facticity of Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah, God in the flesh, and that in believing those claims one “might have life in his name” (John 20:31).

So often, this Gospel is approached and read as a purely “devotional” book—that is, as the most emotive of all the Gospels, presumably based in part on the fact that John the apostle was the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 19:26–27). Apologetics, on the other hand, is so often seen as centered solely on the intellect, and therefore it basically drools over the cerebral (enter the long history in Christian theology of distrust of the fallen head over the cuddly heart); and so John, it is argued, clearly cuts a different path that goes to higher spiritual matters within the domain solely of the pristine heart.

In fact, however, John’s Gospel sets forth the case most clearly of all the Gospels for why Christianity is a “faith founded on fact”3 and evidence. Contrary to an impression one might get that the devotional value of John pushes the reader “inward,” John’s Gospel thrusts one “outward” into the world, epistemologically equipped to forcefully present to the unbeliever the “many infallible proofs” (Acts1:3) that God “was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

In short, John the apostle and evangelist “demonstrates clearly that the Johannine apologetic methodology is that of evidentialism” and the presentation of legally sufficient proofs to establish Christ’s claims to be God in the flesh who has come to seek and to save that which was lost.4

Defending the John of John

Before seeing how John provides evidence at every turn to ground trust in Christ’s theological promises to forgive sin and to save, a brief defense of the John of John is in order because it continues to be maintained that the apostle John, of course, did not write the Gospel of John.

We begin with a fundamental principle of liberal biblical criticism: If a book of the Bible says it was written by someone, and/or consistent church history up to the Enlightenment5 unalterably says it was written by that person, well then you can be utterly certain that person did not write the book attributed to them. Theological liberals even rev the engine up more with John and argue that by virtue of this being the latest of the Gospels it is obvious that, regardless of whether John is the author, the bigger problem is that you are surely not getting an accurate historical description of what actually took place. Instead, John (or rather the author of the Gospel falsely attributed to the apostle John) is larding a theological interpretation on the life of Christ based on late and inaccurate information. So, if you really want to know something about the life of Christ, you need to go to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Of course, those books have their own impenetrable textual problems, we are told, but at least they are less inaccurate than John, which is the product of editing and redaction.6

So John (or, more accurately, whoever wrote John) is factually inaccurate and layers a late and dubious theological interpretation into his moldy half-baked memory of the facts that at best results in maybe learning something about what the early church (by way of an editor enamored with fake news) thought about Jesus, but it is a far cry from what the true story probably is if we could only get behind the actual “sources” underlying the text.

Added to this boatload of legally inadmissible hearsay and rank speculation is the perspective of the most influential liberal New Testament critic of the twentieth century, Rudolph Bultmann. Bultmann claimed that the Gospel of John was not written until the middle of the second century or about one hundred years after the death of Christ. In addition, and if that was not bad enough, John was heavily influenced by Gnosticism, which was a kind of potpourri of classical Greek philosophy and mystical elements of Judaism. What can be said in response?

First, as any trial lawyer trained in the rules of evidence knows, even if the Gospel of John comes later in the New Testament writing cycle, it does not necessarily mean it is inaccurate, especially if it is written (as it repeatedly claims) by someone with direct and immediate (non-hearsay) contact with the events the writing describes. Lateness does not mean inaccuracy!

But even the “lateness” argument is utterly indefensible as the Gospel of John is not “late” as argued by Bultmann. As liberal biblical critic John A. T. Robinson noted, John may even predate the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 (Robinson dated all the Gospels before AD 70 and, in fact, dated John as the earliest of the Gospels.)7 The greatest American archeologist of the past century, William F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University, also argued forcefully for the dating of all of the Gospels before the fall of the temple in AD 70.8

Second, unfortunately for the late daters like Bultmann, we have a fragment of the Gospel of John found in Egypt and dated to the beginning of the second century, and thus it is the earliest fragment of a New Testament book ever found.9 Bultmann could never adequately explain this awkward discovery.

Third, in the case of John, we have what lawyers refer to as extraordinary extrinsic evidence for its Johannine authorship. The lines of this extrinsic evidence come from two students of John—Polycarp of Smyrna and Papias of Hierapolis. Each states explicitly that John, strangely enough, wrote the Gospel of John. The comments of Polycarp on this subject come to us through the writings of Irenaeus in the second century, while the statements of Papias generally come via Eusebius of Caesarea of the fourth century. Irenaeus puts it this way:

So Matthew published a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and founding the church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him [Paul]. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, the one who leaned back on the Lord’s breast, himself published a Gospel while he resided in Ephesus.10

How solid is this evidence? Substantial in all respects. Eusebius is one of the most reliable of all early church historians (he recorded the festivities at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325), while the general trustworthiness of Irenaeus puts him on a plane with Eusebius.11 Both Polycarp and Papias sat directly under the teaching of John. In almost any other case, this line of extrinsic evidence (largely unheard of in classical scholarship as to any other work of antiquity) would stamp QED over the issue.

How, then, do the critics continue to maintain that John is not the author of this Gospel? Answer: They contend that Papias especially refers to John as “the elder John” and not as “the apostle John.” So the writer of the Gospel is a later “elder John” quite separate and apart from the John who personally witnessed the crucifixion and therefore this Gospel is hearsay and not primary source evidence.

Is this a compelling argument? Answer: No! It is clear from the passages cited in both Papias and Polycarp that they are referring to a John who was an eyewitness to the events and the one who had direct contact with Jesus. Papias goes further and even mentions that the John he refers to was in the same writer’s club with Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Finally, we can’t resist pointing out the Epistles of 2 and 3 John (both are conceded to have been written by the apostle John) have John referring to himself as “the elder.”12 Having been the youngest of the apostles when Christ was alive,13 and having lived to an old age in Ephesus and in exile on Patmos, it is unsurprising that he would refer to himself as the “elder John.”14

Why in the world are liberal biblical critics so intent on having their two Johns? The answer is because they must have the material coming late and from someone who is not an eyewitness so that their Procrustean Presupposition is vindicated that the Gospels are not presenting a historical account by an eyewitness, but are compilations of variant sources by a redactor that reflect dueling theologies floating around in the early church. The evidence, however, is overwhelmingly contrary to this speculative hypothesis.

Now that we have authorship established, what do we find is the content of the Gospel of John? Is John presenting merely devotional material that assists one in achieving one’s “utmost for his highest,” or is John actively contending for the faith once delivered within the public square?

The Strange Case of Disappearing Miracles and Prophecy

Miracles have been the mainstay of Christian apologetics from the beginning of Christian history and indeed from the earliest pages of the Bible itself. This is not surprising, considering Jesus’ own words that “one sign” would be given to his generation to verify his claims, which was the “sign of the prophet Jonah”—that is, Jesus’ resurrection after three days in the tomb (Matt. 12:39–40). Paul makes it plain that if the resurrection did not occur, then we Christians are above all to be pitied because we deceive ourselves and others about eternity (1 Cor. 15:14–15) and have perpetrated the greatest fraud in history. The patristic apologists (Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius) all argued from the historicity of our Lord’s miracles to the verifiability of his claims and the critical need to accept those claims based on the facticity of the verifiable “signs.”

Indeed, every major apologist from the early church fathers until the mid-eighteenth century similarly argued by means of miracle and prophecy, regardless of their particular philosophical or theological bent. That list included Augustine the Neo-Platonist, Thomas Aquinas the Aristotelian, Hugo Grotius the Dutch Arminian, Blaise Pascal the Catholic Jansenist, and Joseph Butler the high church Anglican.15 Though miracle and prophecy were the two most common tools in the apologetical kit through early Christian history, this has not been the case since the rise of modern rationalism in the so-called Age of the Enlightenment and the broadside on miracles launched by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume.

Hume postulated (without any support, we might add) that there was uniform experience against the miraculous. However, Hume could only know that was the case if all reports about miracles were false. Yet, he could only know all reports about them were false if he assumed there was uniform experience against them. In fact, as C. S. Lewis and others have noted, Hume argued in a perfectly circular fashion.16 Hume’s fallacious argument allowed eighteenth-century rationalistic man—enamored as he already was with “natural laws” that supposedly totally and neatly explained all the physical operations of the universe—to sit back in his easy chair and never have to break a sweat to investigate the factual case for miracles in general and avoiding any contact with the evidence for the resurrection (that is, the eyewitness accounts, details of the testimony as to the resurrection, the historical, legal, and medical evidence for the death of Jesus and his appearance three days later, and so on).

What is the attitude of contemporary evangelical apologetics today toward miracles in the Bible? The importance of miracles is not denied; rather, it is more relegated to Off Broadway in favor of other approaches, with the real intellectual effort being amassed today for cosmic and largely deductive arguments for the general existence of God (or a “Designer”) that at best might move one to theism.17 We also see the efforts of the “classical school of apologetics,” which does marshal evidence for the resurrection after establishing God’s general existence through the traditional proofs and detailed arguments from design.18

Indeed, arguments from prophecy are even rarer, since they conjure up vestiges of those dubious Hal Lindsey-infused “Prophecy Conferences” that equate the antichrist with the European Union or the Democratic Party. Charismatic prophecies (centering on the exercise of the one and only spiritual gift of speaking in tongues) and futuristic prophecies (predicting the weekend of the Lord’s return) have essentially exhausted the street credibility of those presenting the biblical case for historically fulfilled prophecies. For example, few indeed are those familiar with the power of the argument for historically fulfilled prophecy based on the Product Rule19 found in statistics, or the compelling and comprehensive historical proofs from prophecy brilliantly argued by Barton Payne in his definitive magnum opus on the topic.20

John the Lawyer among the Theologians

In the Gospel of John, evidentially compelling miracles occur one after the other at the front end of the Gospel to such an extent that if John was trying to argue that faith always comes without needing any evidence, one wonders why he so meticulously records Jesus bothering to do any miracles in the first place. The proof for the miraculous is powerful support that evidence is generally the grounding for saving faith in almost every case in the Gospel of John. Contrary to so much of modern Christianity, there is no higher spiritual status for those who can believe with no evidence.

Miracle and Prophecy in the Dock in John

The miracle accounts in John establish beyond a reasonable doubt that John takes empirical evidence with the greatest of seriousness. John comes out of the chute at the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry with the sommelier’s dream miracle of turning water into a premier cru wine (John 2). Just so there is no question as to why this was being done, John provides the theological interpretation based on the empirical facts: this was done that Jesus might manifest his glory, so that the disciples would believe in him (John 2:11). John’s point is plain: It was not enough that Jesus was in fact God in the flesh and that his mere presence alone should be enough to convince; the fact of the “veiling of his deity” in the incarnation made it necessary that he prove his deity.

Immediately after Cana in chapter 2, we have Jesus exercising a smackdown of the money changers in the temple (John 2:12–25). John steps in here by saying this fulfilled the prophecy that “zeal for Thy house will consume me” (Ps. 69:9). Taking this fulfilled prophecy as proven fact flows naturally from the clear first miracle at Cana just reported in the same chapter.

We cannot resist noting that the biblical critics actually argue that John is in error with his timing of the cleansing of the temple—John has it at the front end of Jesus’ ministry while the Synoptic Gospels appear to place it at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Contradiction, it is argued!21 We only note that harmonization of each account is readily arrived at if one presumes Jesus could easily have cleansed the temple at the beginning and at the end of his ministry.22

Again, and immediately after John notes the miracle and fulfilled prophecy, the Gospel writer connects miracle and prophecy when Jesus predicts his own miraculous resurrection. Here you get a proverbial “twofer” that John repeats at several points in his Gospel. The facticity of the resurrection was so compelling to the disciples that John says it was the foundation for them believing the Scripture and the words which Jesus had spoken.23 Factually verifiable miracles are essential to a factually verifiable Scripture. Nicodemus, a trial lawyer practicing before the Sanhedrin bench, even privately confessed that nobody could do the miracles Jesus was doing unless God be with him (John 3:2).

Jesus’ office as prophet is again quickly made clear with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) where his omniscience is plain: he knew the full scope of this woman’s Hollywoodesque serial romantic life (John 4:39). As a result of her testimony, many of the Samaritans in her village came to believe. They believed Jesus had the “living water” to give, because he had demonstrated power to tell the woman at the well “all things” that she had done and he was obviously a prophet. Similarly, many believed Jesus’ word when he healed the son of a royal official in Capernaum (John 4:46–54).

Resurrecting the Resurrection in John

As do all the Gospels, the focus in John is the Passion Week that the prophecies foretold and to which all the miracles pointed. The laser-like culmination is on the crucifixion and resurrection as the center of all of history.

In the resurrection, you get no vague Fatima-like vision of a pale, translucent Jesus dressed in the living room curtains and whose visage could also be conjured from a well-fried tortilla. Instead, you get John Updike’s “valved heart” and “rekindled amino acids”24 that confidently instruct Thomas to “put your hand here and be not unbelieving but believe.”25

The evidence is not just legally compelling (as a slew of trial lawyers have attested26), but it also directly involves prominent lawyers of that day in the middle of the facts. Thus a justice of the Jerusalem Supreme Court (the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea27) asked Pilate, at some personal risk, for permission to embalm the body and to use his own tomb for its burial (not exactly anticipating a resurrection). There at Joseph’s side at Calvary taking the body down is none other than the adept Sanhedrin trial lawyer and law professor (“Teacher of all of Israel”) Nicodemus of chapter 3 fame and infamy. Together, you can’t assemble more legal power and credibility for the witness stand. If there was any question that the disciples had gone to the wrong tomb on Easter morning, surely a justice of the Jerusalem Supreme Court, whose own personal tomb was given to Jesus Christ, would not have remained silent but would have produced the GPS coordinates to his tomb, if not personally produced the heavily embalmed body28 to shut down such pernicious speculation.

Undeterred, critics have beaten a path to the conclusion that John’s recounting of the Passion Week is shot through with holes, among them being the following four key and fatal flaws.

1) The trial of Jesus is not consistent with Roman or Jewish procedural or substantive law.

Rather, the trial is a late construct that gets the criminal procedure of the day wrong.29 For example, the Roman governor would never have referred Jesus back to the Jewish high priest, would never have tried Jesus at night, and would never have listened to the crowd and released Barabbas instead. However, two books put to rest both arguments.

As to the issue of John’s correct understanding of Roman criminal procedure and substantive law, A. N. Sherwin-White’s Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament30 finds just the opposite to actually be the case. The entire New Testament (including John) shows extraordinary care to get the details of Roman trial procedure correct down to the last detail.

As importantly, a professor of law in France published a definitive work on The Trial of Jesus,31 which concludes that all of the jurisprudential material in the Gospels is utterly solid. Professor Jean Imbert cites two other first- and second-century provincial Roman governors who did precisely the same thing as Pilate did.

2) As for Pilate, there is no extrabiblical reference to him anywhere outside of the New Testament. Besides, he was only a procurator or financial administrator and thus not capable of handing down, let alone executing, a capital sentence.

A common objection for centuries to the historicity of John and the other Gospels was the mention of Pilate, for which there was never any extrabiblical reference. Evidence that the New Testament makes up characters to fit a narrative, no doubt? And the prejudiced and probably senile church fathers then go on to compound the error by slipping in Pilate to the ecumenical creeds. What an embarrassment!

In support of the fact that it is always wiser to suspend the judgment that the Scriptures are ever in error or even inaccurate in anything they describe: in 1961, archaeologists in Jerusalem unearthed the now-called “Pilate Inscription” (housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem), which connects Pilate with the official office of “Prefect of Judea.”32

3) The date of the crucifixion is different in the Synoptic Gospels as opposed to the date recorded in John. This is another example of clear error in what the writer (actually Mr. Redactor) wrote.

For centuries, biblical critics have guffawed that the date of the crucifixion is different in the Synoptics than what is presented in John. Then, French Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Jaubert confirmed the existence of two calendars operating in first-century Palestine (the sun-based Jubilee calendar of Qumran and the lunar-based Roman calendar), which reconciled this alleged contradiction and precisely harmonized the two dates used that had puzzled even orthodox scholars for a millennia.33

4) The post-resurrection events in the four Gospels are hopelessly contradictory and cannot
be harmonized.

Novelist and essayist Dorothy Sayers, no mean literary critic herself, put it nicely when talking about this subject:

[One] is often surprised to find how many apparent contradictions turn out not to be contradictory at all, but merely supplementary. Take, for example, the various accounts of the Resurrection appearances at the Sepulchre. The divergences appear very great on first sight. . . . But the fact remains that all of them, without exception, can be made to fall into place in a single orderly and coherent narrative without the smallest contradiction or difficulty and without any suppression, invention or manipulation beyond a trifling effort to imagine the natural behavior of a bunch of startled people running about in the dawn-light between Jerusalem and the Garden.34

One recent harmonization, done by a trial lawyer, goes like this: Mary Magdalene and Mary go to the tomb from Bethany via John’s house, picking up Salome from there (Matt. 28:1–15); Mary Magdalene rushes from the tomb to tell Peter and John (John 20:1–2); Joanna and Susanna arrive at the tomb, and the women go into the tomb (Matt. 28:5–7; Mark 16:5–7; Luke 24:3–8); the women tell the disciples and no one else (Matt. 28:8; Mark 16:8; Luke 24:9–11); Peter and John run to the tomb and return home (John 20; Luke 24:12); Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb again (John 20:10–18); Mary, wife of Clopas, and Salome set off to Bethany to tell the brethren and meet Jesus (Matt. 28:8–10); Clopas and another disciple go to Emmaus and later return and tell the others (Mark 16:11–12; Luke 24:13–35); Jesus appears to the disciples (Luke 24:36–43; John 20:19–23); Jesus appears again to the disciples, including Thomas this time (John 20:24–29); the Twelve return to Galilee and meet Jesus again there (John 21); and Jesus appears to James and finally appears one last time before the ascension (Mark 16:15–20).35

Prophesy Pile-on: Game over by Invocation of the Mercy Rule

Not to be overtaken by miracles, a prophecy pile-on occurs during the Passion Week events as recorded by John. We first note that “statistically, the prophetic element involves 180 of the book’s 866 verses,” with no less than forty-five separate fulfilled predictions.36 The following are only some of those prophecies specifically fulfilled in the death of Christ (without enumerating the countless prophecies fulfilled as to his birth, his life, or his deity):

He would be crucified. (John 3:14; 19:18; see Ps. 22:16)

He would be betrayed by a friend. (John 13:18; see Ps. 41:9)

No bone would be broken. (John 19:33–37; see Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12; and Ps. 34:20)

His side would be pierced. (John 19:33–37; see Zech. 12:10)

The soldiers would cast lots for his garments. (John 19:23–24; see Ps. 22:18–19)

He would die with evildoers. (John 19:18; see Isa. 53:12)

He would be buried in a rich man’s tomb. (John 19:38–42; see Isa. 53:9)

He was an innocent victim who would die in place of his people. (John 18:14; see Isa. 53:4–9)

 

Getting to the Flesh and Blood of the Matter: That Pesky Detail of the Missing Body

We live our daily lives based on probabilities and on the testimony and trustworthiness of others much more than we might think. Other than Oral Roberts, few living have seen the Risen Lord of Glory. Then you have John the apostle and evangelist and Thomas the Doubter, who had tactile contact with Jesus and firsthand witnessed the “many infallible proofs.” John saw with his own eyes, and his own hands handled the Word of Life, who declared that he was “the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26).

For penitent sinners who have staked their eternity on the facticity of those words, including the legion of trial lawyers who have carefully investigated the admissible evidence for the resurrection found in John’s Gospel, the only defensible answer is Thomas’s legally admissible, non-hearsay confession pronounced after personally handling that evidence: “My Lord and my God.”

 

Craig Parton is a trial lawyer and partner with the oldest law firm in the western United States, where he serves as chair of the litigation department. He is also the United States director of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France (www.apologeticsacademy.eu). He is the author of three books, including The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer among the Theologians and Religion on Trial: Cross Examining Religious Truth Claims. He has also published numerous articles in legal, theological, and cultural journals and has contributed articles to numerous published volumes.

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