Have You Heard of the “Aporias” in the Gospel of John?

The second edition of Gary Burge’s book, Interpreting the Gospel of John, is out and I’m enjoying it immensely. Since I did not read the first edition this is a new book for me. This is an important work and if you’re planning of doing a study of the Gospel of John you need to have this book.  I’m currently reading the chapter on “How the Fourth Gospel Was Built.” Granted most of what I’m reading is not new to me but I love the format and clarity that is so characteristic of Burge’s style. I’m convinced that most of us read the Scriptures far too quickly which causes us to miss an awful lot. In this chapter Burge introduces us to the “literary seams” in the Fourth Gospel. What is a literary seam? “In these instances the chronological, topical, or dramatic flow of the narrative appears disjointed. These “difficulties” have come to have a technical term known as “aporias” (from the Greek aporia “a difficult passing”). I suspect that many of you, like me, have read passed many of these aporias without even noticing any “difficulty.” Burge lists thirteen but I’ll only give you a couple of examples.

In John 14:30 Jesus says “I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming.” Then (in 14:31) he says, “Come now, let us leave.” Let’s pick up Burge at this point: “The striking thing is that Jesus does have much to say—eighty-six verses—before the coming of Judas. Should 14:31 be followed by 18:1? If read in this sequence, the narrative flows with surprising ease.” (65)

Consider chapters 5 and 6. “Jesus moves abruptly from Samaria to Galilee to Jerusalem, back to Galilee again, and back once more to Jerusalem, without transitions. In chapter 5 Jesus is engaged in a debate in Jerusalem. Now look at 6:1: ‘After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.’ It is like reading a letter from a friend who has just described a vacation in Scotland salmon fishing. Then, you turn the page, the letter says, ‘After after this, we crossed to the other side of Chicago.’ Surely, you think, something was left out.” (64)

Let’s look at one more. In John 16:5 Jesus says, “but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ What’s the difficulty? Burge explains, “On the contrary, Peter asked that very question in 13:36, and Thomas echoed it in 14:5. This has inspired a host of rearrangement theories that try to place 16:5 before 13:36.” (65-66)

Scholars have wrestled with these difficulties for years. Burge notes a few. “Current explanations are that the author never finished the Gospel (W.F. Howard; Walter Grundmann), that the author produced two editions that have been artificially joined (Pierson Parker), that John made later insertions and spoiled the original text, or that John wrote with disjointed stories (Rudolph Schnackenburg, Ernst Käsemann). William Wrede thought that John was a confused simpleton. Eduard Meyer suggested that he was clumsy. Walter Bauer thought that John simply could not write. This at least is more charitable than Ernest Renan, who in 1867 attributed the aporias to John’s increasing senility!” (67)

Whatever the answer is Burge can help the reader of the Fourth Gospel to navigate through these difficulties and so much more. (Remember, this is only one chapter.) The first step is just simply observing that they are there. A hurried reading through the Gospel will miss far too much. The next time you want to study the Gospel of John pick up a copy of Burge and let him help you through the book. You won’t be disappointed.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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