- Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century: The Search for the Wider Context of the Johannine Literature and Why It Matters by Urban von Wahlde
This study is based on the results of von Wahlde’s three-volume commentary on the Gospel and Letters of John (2010). By using a methodology of redaction criticism, von Wahlde concludes that the Gospel of John is a complex composition consisting of at least three layers. The first edition is characterised by little theological reflection, a low Christology, a realised eschatology and the preference for the lexeme σημεῖον for miracle. The second edition is characterised by a rich theology, a high Christology, a realised eschatology and the preference for the lexeme ἔργον for miracle. The third edition must have originated after the First Letter of John. It is characterised by a rich theology, an even higher Christology (assuming a pre-existent Jesus), an apocalyptic [End Page 211] worldview and the conceptualisation of Jesus’ ministry as an ἐντολή. The third edition accordingly constitutes a reaction against a one-sided theology that assumes that after believers receive the Spirit they no longer sin and that considers the Spirit’s guidance as more important than the historical words of Jesus. Von Wahlde emphasises that John’s Gospel is the only book in the NT to display more than one worldview. For the benefit of the reader von Wahlde has summarised the most relevant conclusions of his commentary in a prequel.
On this foundation the author looks at five different (Judaeo-Christian) backgrounds to come to grips with the Gospel of John: Gnosticism, Docetism, Canonical Judaism, Apocalyptic Judaism and Hellenistic Judaism. Methodologically this is undertaken soundly in that every background is defined carefully first.
Von Wahlde denies that Gnostic and Docetic backgrounds played a significant role in the Gospel’s formation. Proposals for a Docetic background by Ernst Käsemann and an anti-Docetic background by Udo Schnelle are rejected as a misrepresentation of the evidence (in the case of Käsemann) and a failure to look at the evidence holistically (in the case of Schnelle). Von Wahlde’s methodology of looking at Gnosticism fails to incorporate recent scholarly reconstructions by Christoph Markschies, Antti Marjanen and David Brakke, relying instead on the works of Kurt Rudolph and Hans Jonas.2 Scholars like Markschies start their reconstructions based on Michael Williams’ thought.3 Von Wahlde acknowledges the deconstructions of the meaning of the term Gnosticism by Michael Williams and Karen King,4 but fails to see the implications of their ideas. This has not hampered von Wahlde in coming to the most reasonable conclusion regarding a Gnostic background for the Gospel.
A category like Canonical Judaism is not without problems. Von Wahlde often has to emphasise that he excludes the thought of Daniel and [End Page 212] certain ideas from Ezekiel as these belong to the separate category of Apocalyptic Judaism. This shows that the categories overlap and should be re-examined. Von Wahlde appears to project his conception of canon anachronistically onto people of the first century. The two categories above address the two different worldviews one finds in the Gospel of John: realised eschatology versus apocalypticism. Von Wahlde argues that realised eschatology was the result of Canonical Judaism’s assumption that the eschatological promise of the Spirit would bring perfect knowledge of God. After this outpouring the relation between God and his people would be perfect. This promise is absolute and cannot be undone. This is a profound thought, but is clothed in problematic language.
Von Wahlde then goes on to show the importance of Jewish Apocalypticism for understanding the Gospel of John. As already mentioned, von Wahlde suggests that the third editor of John’s Gospel is responsible for the Gospel’s apocalyptic tendency. The worldview found in John corresponds closely to that of some of the sectarian documents from Qumran and the Testaments of the Twelve...