Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.23

James F. McGrath, John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 111.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001.  Pp. xii, 269.  ISBN 0-521-80348-9.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Jennifer Wright Knust, College of the Holy Cross (
Word count: 2250 words

In John's Apologetic Christology, James McGrath builds on the work of scholars who have argued that the Gospel of John was written in a context of conflict between the Jewish Christians who produced this Gospel and their parent community, "the Jews." This theory, first developed several decades ago, has become so widely accepted that McGrath scarcely needs to defend it.1 Indeed, there is much to support such a reconstruction of the Gospel's social setting. First, there is the confusing use of the term "the Jews" (Ἰουδαῖοι) throughout the Gospel. The author of John tells us that Jesus, his followers, and those who sympathize with them are "afraid of the Jews," yet Jesus, his followers, and his sympathizers are clearly "Jewish" (John 7:13; 9:22; 19:38; 20:19). Second, there is the outright hostility of the author toward these "Jews." The Jews who do not accept Jesus are said to be condemned already (John 3:18-19), to be "of the world" not "of heaven" (John 3:25-36), to have misunderstood Moses (John 5:39-47), and to be children of the devil instead of Abraham (John 8:44). Third, there is the fact that the author himself seems to be "Jewish": he displays a familiarity with Jewish Holy Days and practices (John 2:6; 13; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55; 19:40, 42) and even goes so far as to state that "salvation comes from the Jews" (4:22). Various attempts to explain this curious combination of anti-Jewish Judaism have been proposed, but by far the most pervasive has been the view that the leaders of the synagogues in the author's immediate context were persecuting the followers of Jesus. As one recent scholar summarized it, the Fourth Gospel "arose out of the persecution of a group of Jewish-born Christians by the local synagogue authorities," and the author "responded to this persecution in part by viciously demonizing those authorities, whom he simply calls 'the Jews.'"2 McGrath agrees, though he places less emphasis on the "demonizing" of the Jewish authorities, preferring instead to discuss Johannine christology. According to McGrath, the "Jews," meaning "the local Jews who were challenging the Johannine Christian Jews," directly criticized various claims about Jesus, and the author responded defensively with an "apologetic" christology capable of answering their critique.

McGrath's contribution to the study of the Gospel lies in his application of Berger and Luckmann's theory of legitimation.3 Berger and Luckmann's model, as interpreted by McGrath, suggests that a conflict over ideas provokes a need for legitimation, and the process of legitimation leads those ideas to be worked out in greater detail. Applying this insight to John, McGrath concludes that the christological claims of the Gospel of John were not new. Rather, they represent a re-working of previous ideas about the status of Jesus, newly formulated to respond to the challenge put forward by their parent community. McGrath's discussion of the use of the name "I am" (ἐγὼ εἰμί) for Jesus offers a good example of this line of argument. He notes that the application of the divine name to Jesus can be found already in Paul's letter to the Philippians. There, Jesus is said to be "exalted" and to have received "the name which is above every name" (Philippians 2:9). This "name," of course, must be the name of God which, in the Septuagint, is "I am" (ἐγὼ εἰμί) or "I am the one who exists" (ἐγὼ εἰμι ὦν).4 Thus, when the Gospel of John applies the label "I am" to Jesus, the author is simply reasserting something that Christians from at least the time of Paul had claimed -- Jesus may legitimately be called by the divine name. In contrast to Paul, however, the author of John does so defensively and, in the process, alters the manner in which the name was applied. In Philippians, Jesus bears the divine name after his crucifixion and resurrection. In the Gospel of John, Jesus claims the divine name for himself during his own lifetime.5

McGrath understands the legitimation offered by the author of the Gospel of John to be both traditionally "Christian," in that similar christological ideas can be found in earlier Christian works, and traditionally "Jewish," in that the christological ideas presented do not necessarily diverge from other examples of first-century Jewish theology. Here McGrath departs from scholars who understand the conflict between "the Jews" and the Johannine Christians to be rooted in a perceived violation of monotheism.6 By claiming that Jesus was God, did the Johannine Christians come dangerously close to producing two gods, instead of one? McGrath would argue that they did not. The Gospel of John never portrays Jesus as identical to God. Rather, John's Jesus is depicted as God's legitimate (and only) agent. According to an ancient understanding of the duties and responsibilities of an agent, Jesus could claim to bear God's name since he was entrusted with the duty of acting on God's behalf. The issue between the author and "the Jews," therefore, was not monotheism but whether "the one to whom [the Christians] attributed various divine prerogatives and honours was God's appointed agent, or a rebel against God who sought to put himself in God's place."7 The author of John utilized familiar Jewish arguments about Moses, Abraham, Torah, divine Wisdom, and the Logos to argue that Jesus was God's agent, not God himself.

For the most part, John's Apologetic Christology proceeds exegetically. After the introductory section, each chapter deals with a particular episode from the gospel. Part Two consists of several chapters that explore the relationship of Jesus and God. In this section McGrath demonstrates that the Gospel presents Jesus as God's legitimate agent rather than as God per se. Part Three considers Johannine christology as a response to debates with the synagogue about Moses. In these chapters, McGrath argues that the author built upon Jewish ideas about Moses, Wisdom, the Son of Man, and heavenly ascent in such a way that Jesus was consistently shown to be superior to the divine functionaries that came before, especially Moses. According to McGrath, the author of John employed Jewish arguments about the divine-human agency to make his own claims and did not depart either from Judaism or from earlier Christian ideas. Part Four serves as the conclusion to the book. This section begins with a survey of other conflicts that may have influenced Johannine christology -- controversies with the followers of John the Baptist, for example, or over the idea that the Messiah could be crucified -- and then recaps the major conclusions of the earlier exegetical chapters. The book ends with suggestions for further study, including a note about how contemporary Christians might best engage their sacred texts today.

McGrath has written a dense but readable book that succinctly surveys recent Johannine scholarship while offering some helpful clarifications. The careful connections he draws between John and earlier Christian claims about the status of Jesus serves as a corrective to those who might suggest that the elevated christology of John was entirely unique or new. McGrath does not go so far as to suggest literary dependence between the Gospel of John and other, earlier Christian writings -- the author did not need to be familiar with Paul's writings or with the Synoptic Gospels to share ideas with them. Rather, McGrath demonstrates that the christological ideas in John are in continuity with what came before. The combination of christological motifs was innovative but the motifs themselves were not. McGrath also provides further evidence for those who want to defend a "Jewish" background for the Gospel without resorting to a theory of "Gentile" or "Hellenistic" influence. Connecting John to both first-century Judaism and to earlier versions of Christianity, McGrath presents Johannine christology as traditional rather than innovative, normative rather than "heretical," both in terms of first-century Judaism and earliest Christianity. The conflict with the synagogue provided the impetus for the peculiar combination of christological claims made in John but did not lead to the invention of new ideas about Jesus. Rather, the christology presented in John pre-dated the Gospel and did not, in fact, violate "normative" Judaism, as Judaism was understood in the first-century. According to McGrath, it was only as Judaism became increasingly unfriendly toward Christian Judaism that it became necessary to "legitimate," in a sociological sense, earlier beliefs about Jesus, a task which the author of John took quite seriously.

Though I certainly appreciated much of McGrath's book, I do have two main concerns. McGrath assumes, as do many other scholars in the field, that the conflict with the synagogue was initiated by "the Jews" and not by the Johannine Christians. It is easy to draw this conclusion from the Gospel as written since "the Jews" are consistently blamed for provoking Jesus and his followers. These "Jews" prevent sympathetic but fearful fellow Jews from honoring Jesus. For example, the parents of a blind man are depicted as refusing to identify their son's healer, Jesus, "because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue" (John 9:22). In another episode, the author tells us that some who believed Jesus "did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue" (John 12:42). Finally, in a dramatic warning about the future persecution to come, John's Jesus states, "They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God" (John 16:2). These and other examples present the Jews, not Jesus or his followers, as initiating the conflict. Jesus condemns "the Jews," but only after they condemn him. Still, can such a representation of "the Jews" be taken at face value? Must we, as readers, inevitably conclude that "the Jews" started the fight? As Ringe has recently noted, what the Johannine Christians have interpreted as expulsion, rejection, and persecution may have been described quite differently by their parent community. Indeed, evidence for anti-Christian hostility on the part of Jews comes from the Gospel and is not directly supported by any first- or second-century non-Christian text.8 Thus, while it is possible that non-Christian Jews persecuted Christian Jews, the evidence for such persecution is decidedly one-sided. It is perhaps unwise to ground a historical reconstruction on the angry polemic of the author of John, especially when we have no external evidence available that could reveal the attitudes or actions of the opposing group.9 The Gospel of John presents Jesus as responding to the menacing criticism of "the Jews," but we cannot then conclude that actual Jews during the time the Gospel was written engaged in such behavior. All we can conclude with any certainty is that the author of John chose to present "the Jews" as hostile to his cause. His decision to do so, as many have noted, has been devastating for Jewish-Christian relations ever since.10

My second concern involves the application of Berger and Luckmann's theory of legitimation to the christology of John. The theory is applied primarily to buttress McGrath's contention that the christological claims of the author were in place prior to the composition of the Gospel. The story McGrath tells, with the help of Berger and Luckmann, may be summarized in three stages: (1) the Johannine Christian Jews participated in the same social world as other first-century Jews and both groups accepted one another; (2) gradually, the Johannine Jews and the Jews of the synagogue recognized that they had developed two, conflicting worldviews; (3) the Jews of the synagogue and the Johannine Jews, now in direct conflict, sought to legitimate their own worldviews and, in the process, developed their ideologies and doctrines more fully. Christology can then be mapped sociologically and chronologically according to these three stages. First, Christian claims about Jesus, including those found in such works as the writings of Paul and the Gospel of Mark, co-existed alongside other diverse Jewish perspectives. At some point in the latter first-century, these claims were called into question by non-Christian Jews. In response, the Johannine Jews developed a more fully articulated, "high" christology to meet the challenges put forward by their parent community. One wonders if Berger and Luckmann's theory was necessary for such a historical reconstruction and, indeed, discussion of Berger and Luckmann virtually disappears after the introductory section. Still, by bringing up Berger and Luckmann, McGrath has waded into some treacherous theoretical waters. Sociologists themselves have lodged various complaints against Berger's approach, noting that it consists of overly broad postulates that cannot be empirically verified. As such, Berger and Luckmann offered a sociological orientation, not a model.11 Moreover, sociological discussion of "legitimation" has moved beyond Berger and Luckmann's earlier insights to include such topics as legitimation and the maintenance of the state, legitimation and social stratification, and the interplay of religious and political legitimating strategies.12 McGrath's primary interest is the Gospel of John, not sociological theory, but once the theory has been raised, the reader expects a wider evaluation of Berger and Luckmann's contribution, not only to New Testament studies but to sociology in general.13

Despite these reservations, I would recommend John's Apologetic Christology, especially to advanced students of the New Testament in need of a book that could provide an orientation to the study of John. McGrath writes from a Christian perspective for a primarily Christian audience.14 Still, his contribution extends beyond a Christian framework to include a helpful discussion of first-century Jewish monotheism and a useful reappraisal of the development of christology.


1.   Influential versions of this theory include: Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Anchor Bible 29; New York: Doubleday, 1966), esp. vol 1, lxx-lxxv; Wayne Meeks, "The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism," Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972): 44-72; and especially J. L. Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 2nd rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979).
2.   David Rensberger, "Anti-Judaism and the Gospel of John," in Anti-Judaism and the Gospels, ed. William R. Farmer (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 130.
3.   Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Doubleday, 1966), discussed by McGrath, 34-43.
4.   See Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 51:12 (LXX).
5.   The controversy with "the Jews" described in John 8 and the arrest of Jesus as described in John 18 offer particularly striking examples. In the first, Jesus offers the following retort to "the Jews" with whom he is arguing: "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am." In this way, he asserts his pre-existence while applying the divine name to himself. In the second, soldiers sent to arrest Jesus state that they are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, to which Jesus replies "I am." Following the first "I am," the soldiers step back and fall to the ground, presumably in response to the mention of the divine name.
6.   See especially Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977).
7.   McGrath, 114.
8.   Sharon H. Ringe, Wisdom's Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 22-3. See also Adele Reinhartz, "The Johannine Community and Its Jewish Neighbors: A Reappraisal," in "What is John?", vol. 2: Literary and Social Readings of the Fourth Gospel (Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 7; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 111-38. McGrath himself argues that the rabbinic condemnation of those who believe in "two powers in heaven" should not be extrapolated into a first-century context. His discussion of the evidence for a conflict with "the Jews" cites the Gospel exclusively.
9.   The proposal that the birkath ha-minim ("benediction against the heretics") was directed at Christians in particular has been overturned. See Stephen T. Katz, "Issues in the Separation of Judaism and Christianity after 70 C.E.: A Reconsideration," Journal of Biblical Literature 103(1984):48-53, 63-76. Katz concludes, "there was no official anti-Christian policy at Yavneh or elsewhere before the Bar Kochba revolt and no total separation between Jews and Christians before (if immediately after?) the Bar Kochba revolt," 76.
10.   See Robert Kysar, "Anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John," in Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity: Issues of Polemic and Faith, ed. C.A. Evans and D.A. Hagner (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 113-27; Rensberger and Mark Goodwin, "Response to David Rensberger," in Anti-Judaism and the Gospels, ed. William R. Farmer (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999), 158-71.
11.   See the helpful discussion of Peter Berger's work in Robert Wuthnow, James Davidson Hunter, Albert Bergesen, and Edith Kurzweil, Cultural Analysis (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 21-76.
12.   Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1975); L. Richard Della Fave, "The Meek Shall Not Inherit the Earth: Self-Evaluation and the Legitimacy of Stratification," American Sociological Review 45.6 (1980): 955-71; David Beetham The Legitimation of Power(London: MacMillan, 1991). See the review of relevant literature in Dwight B. Billings and Shaunna L. Scott, "Religion and Political Legitimation," Annual Review of Sociology 20 (1994): 173-202.
13.   Perhaps by including Berger and Luckmann, McGrath is engaging in a legitimating strategy of his own since, in a world where science is assumed to be the most reliable form of analysis, the application of a sociological theory to his exegesis may make his argument more compelling, at least in some sectors.
14.   His interest in contemporary Christian theology is articulated most clearly in the conclusion. There he argues that "we" ought to make "the Christian tradition we have inherited ... meaningful and relevant to our own setting and issues." The purpose of the Gospel is then related to the task of contemporary Christians: "[I]f John had not adapted the traditions he inherited in the way that he did, Christianity would very possibly have found itself reabsorbed into Judaism, unable to defend the legitimacy of its beliefs and thus finding that the plausibility structure of its worldview had dropped out from under it. We thus have the ironic situation that, in order to preserve the original gospel message, one may be required to alter it, that in order to remain faithful to Jesus, one may have to say something other than what Jesus himself said" (McGrath 234-5; emphasis in the original). In other words, the author of John took on the important task of legitimating Christian claims about Jesus, thereby avoiding an unfortunate defeat of the Christian message and an inevitable return to pre-Christian Judaism. McGrath's own sympathies clearly lie with the author of John and not with "the Jews."

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