April 6, 2014

Chronology in the Fourth Gospel

As Narrative isn't quite History, so narrative Sequence is not the same as Chronology. Thus, scholars misapprehend greatly in their perennial refrain that John's "chronology" differs from that of the synoptics. (*See notes at bottom for two caveats which are well known but still misrepresented as indicators of "John's Chronology".)

More precisely, what they usually mean is that the fourth Gospel differs dramatically in narrative content, and as such it obviously differs also in narrative sequence. However, it's another question entirely to ask what the fourth Gospel might have to say for itself about the actual chronology of Jesus' life (in the period it treats). At that point, we need a method for getting from narrative to history. We do not merely transfer narrative literature directly into chronological history. Narrative is literature but chronology is history, and while most history is literature, there are few scholars today who would dare speak as if literature was tantamount to history.

So then, the "chronology" of the fourth Gospel is not merely its content as per narrative sequence, but rather something we must construct from the text (like we do with all meaning) by investigating chronological elements embedded within narrative content. To this end, the primary question is not "How does the writer script his detailed emplotment?" but rather "How does the writer demonstrate his awareness of TIME and its relationship to both plot and characters?" This is not to say that there may be subtle flashbacks necessarily hiding at points within John's narrative that would then require a re-sequencing of so-called "chronology" (this has been suggested before, but this is not my personal view) - although it may be worth remembering this for caution's sake. The actual point is that "John's chronology" should only refer to whatever the fourth gospel has to say about chronology, properly speaking. We understand that narrative sequence is selective emplotment that relates aspects of a story and the storyteller's design, in the literary sense, and we should also understand that chronology has never been recognized as a literary term, but a term that refers to the actual past, whether represented by memory or by narrative or by scholarly reconstruction based on critical analysis of things such as texts.

Just as a theologian does not present John's theology merely by repeating key phrases which she judges to be of theological value, and a historian does not present John's history merely by repeating verbatim whichever stories she judges to have historical value, so can we not present John's chronology merely by repeating the sequence of episodes being portrayed in John's narrative. The proper theologian makes note of relevant content and constructs a theory to summarize or explain "John's theology", and the careful historian takes note of places where John's narrative may or may not clearly reflect real world situations in detail. Likewise, to speak of John's chronology, one must examine the narrative for declarations that reflect TIME as a significant aspect of the narration. By this, I do not mean necessarily the same thing as "a sense of narrative time", an invaluable tool for the purposes of narrative criticism but not designed for extracting historical content from the form of a narrative. What I mean is that we must read the narrative as a narrative and yet search for indications of reference to historical chronology.

To illustrate, here are some references from the first seven chapters of John, with my commentary and a tentative working set of classifications or labels for different types of references the Gospel writer employs. The English text below (for ease of reference) is from Young's Literal translation, which I chose both because its what I had on hand and because I like to be different. Someday I'll learn how to use that fancy software I bought years ago.



6There came a man—having been sent from God—whose name is John,

Reference point. We begin our story at the point when, readers remember, John the baptizer made his big splash (no pun intended).

John doth testify concerning him, and hath cried, saying, ‘This was he of whom I said, He who after me is coming, hath come before me, for he was before me;’

Clarification. Embedded Dialogue. Jesus got big *after* John got big. This is the central chronological reference point for this story, as a narrative set within known past events.

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent out of Jerusalem priests and Levites, that they might question him,

Reference point. Readers recognize that John is active and not yet imprisoned.

These things came to pass in Bethabara, beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Reference point. IFF readers knew at what phase of JtB's public ministry he operated from there.

After me doth come a man, who hath come before me, because he was before me:

Repetition. Again, Jesus' public profile rises only *after* John became big.

because of this I came with the water baptizing.

Progression. JtB speaking of himself in past tense. He's been at it a while.

On the morrow, again, John was standing

Daily Counter. Micro-chronology self-contained within the narrative, distinguished by such a preface.

On the morrow, he willed to go forth to Galilee, and he findeth Philip… from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter; 45Philip findeth Nathanael…

Daily Counter. Micro-chronology self-contained within the narrative, distinguished by such a preface.

And the third day a marriage happened in Cana of Galilee

Daily Counter. Micro-chronology self-contained within the narrative, distinguished by such a preface.

This beginning of the signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee

Clarification. IFF readers knew of Jesus' ministry as something which began only once JtB was arrested, this comment recognizes that reader knowledge and thereby marks this event as a small scale exception.

And the passover of the Jews was.. and Jesus went up to Jerusalem

Season/Festival. As the first such indicator, this is merely an reference to the present episode's particular occasion. In conjunction with later references, however, it will come to mean more. See below…

The Jews, therefore, said, ‘Forty and six years was this sanctuary building

Number of years. Situates the beginning of our story in time, but only depending on reader knowledge about the historical past. Not at all helpful in understanding the internal chronology of narrated events relative to one another. For its own sake, without detailed knowledge, this statement may as well say, "King Herod's heyday was several decades ago." For most of John's original readers, that may have been its mot likely effect, perhaps even its intended effect. The number 46 is precise enough that detailed knowledge could place this in some precise year, but also large enough that an average person could easily place it as being well after Herod, easily after Archelaus, and not yet in the days of Agrippa.

After these things came Jesus and his disciples to the land of Judea, and there he did tarry with them, and was baptizing; 23and John was also baptizing in Aenon, nigh to Salem… for John was not yet cast into the prison

Reference point. John's imprisonment was remembered as a major historical development, the time periods before and after which stand in reader memory as distinct epochs. The narrative is thus careful to note which period these events fall into. ALSO, Clarification. IFF readers knew of Jesus' ministry as having begun in Galilee, this comment recognizes that reader knowledge and marks this (as above) as an exception.

When therefore the Lord knew that the Pharisees heard that Jesus more disciples doth make and baptize than John, 2(though indeed Jesus himself was not baptizing, but his disciples,) 3he left Judea and went away again to Galilee.

Oblique reference. Jesus going into Galilee suggests, especially on the heels of the above clarifications, that our story is about to enter the expected phase of that early period in Jesus' public campaign. ALSO, oblique reference. IFF the reader knew (or remembered from earlier Gospels) that "going into Galilee" is a sign JtB has just been arrested. At any rate, Jesus' response to this development (whatever it signifies) marks this episode as a point after which Jesus will have to be careful about being in Judea.

Note 1
At this point, it's worth revisiting the perrenial mistatement, "J's chr is diff from the S's." and the frequently cited observation that this is most obviously demonstrated in that Jesus goes back and forth into Judea, which differs from the synoptics. Even if narrative sequence were the same as "chronology", this early portion of John's narrative perfectly aligns with Mark 1:9,14, which puts Jesus coming "from Nazareth in Galilee" and then returning "into Galilee". Therefore, technically, Mark does in fact show Jesus going "back and forth" into Judea, albeit for a total of two times altogether. Therefore, the Gospel of John is not differently ordered. It merely includes a few side trips which Mark, Mt & Lk do not share. But the critical point to note here is not whether these side trips belong in any harmonized timeline (or not). Rather, what is noteworthy here is that these are not chronological discrepancies. They are additional episodes. The travel involved does not make them problematic for temporal comparison. The synoptics consistently show Jesus travelling frequently, if not constantly.

And it was behoving him to go through Samaria.

Geographical contingency. The position of Samaria requires that actions described in 4:4 can only have happened after the episode which ended at 4:3. Although - depending on one's interpretation of the aorist verbs in 4:3 - it *could* possibly be that 4:4 is *technically* a flashback.

it is yet four months, and the harvest cometh

Seasonal reference. Depending on whether Jesus means the fall or spring harvest, this may be intended to tell us that Jesus lingered in Judea for a few months after Passover, or for many months.

And after the two days he went forth thence, and went away to Galilee, 44for Jesus himself testified that a prophet in his own country shall not have honour; 45when then, he came to Galilee, the Galileans received him, having seen all things that he did in Jerusalem in the feast—for they also went to the feast. 46Jesus came, therefore, again to Cana of Galilee, where he made the water wine

Daily counter. ALSO, reference point. The purpose of the daily counter here may be merely to indicate that the historical reference of 4:3 (going into Galilee) is substantially the same event as what is being referred to in this passage. It is less likely the writer wants us to know how long the samaria layover lasted and more likely he wants to maintain continuity of reference with the significant point of time he's been building towards - that Jesus came at a certain point into Galilee as a public figure, on the heels of John's arrest. The "two days" signifies that this arrival is the same arrival referred to in 4:3. Finally, the reference to Cana confirms again that the wedding episode did indeed belong to an earlier time period *before* Jesus' premier in Galilee as a public figure.

54this again a second sign did Jesus, having come out of Judea to Galilee.

Clarification. Again, emphasizing a distinction between what was perceived (and remembered) as the beginning of Jesus' public phase, and what was actually going on in the early stages of Jesus' recruiting activity, prior to John's arrest. Whereas the synoptics narrated the official launch, so to speak, John is at pains to illustrate the "soft launch" of Jesus' ministry. This "second sign" would have been the first one of the remembered beginning.


After these things there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem

Episodic contingency. Not the first usage, but "after these things" bears closer scrutiny, I suspect.

Note 2
The fact that John uses it sometimes and not others may suggest that he only takes care to chronologize specific episodes as being "after" all the preceding episodes, or perhaps merely "after" the immediately preceding episode. In either case, it also bears asking whether this implies that episodes NOT beginning with this phrase are perhaps NOT representing chronological events by their narrative sequence, or perhaps merely that the writer is not willing to certify them precisely as such. Again, these questions require further scrutiny. I do not currently have a guess as to what pattern they might or might not reveal. What this does do is illustrate that narrative sequence of a story is not always meant to align with the chronological sequence of past events, and should not be taken as such. My best guess on "after these things" is that the placement of this phrase resembles a Geometry diagram, where sometimes the lines appear to be perpendicular but we cannot necessarily tell, and at other times we have evidence to declare that two lines are indeed perpendicular, and we certify them as such by adding a small square in the vertex. In other words, I'm leaning towards "the writer is not willing to certify them precisely", but in that case we might pay special heed to his caution by respecting the possibility of alternatives...

and it was a sabbath on that day, 10the Jews then said to him that hath been healed, ‘It is a Sabbath

Occasional reference. This is not a reference to any passing of time, or any related time, subsequent or prior. Rather, this is merely an indicator of the different social context that was situational on any sabbath occasion.

After these things Jesus went away beyond the sea of Galilee (of Tiberias), 2and there was following him a great multitude, because they were seeing his signs that he was doing on the ailing; 3and Jesus went up to the mount, and he was there sitting with his disciples, 4and the passover was nigh, the feast of the Jews.

Episodic contingency. Again, "after these things". ALSO, Seasonal/Festival. It has been one or more years since the previous Passover occasion. That makes this a new category, Seasonal Contingency. In combination with the episodic contingency (stock phrase, "after these things"), the writer tacitly purports that this Passover is distinctly other than and also after the one previously discussed. ALSO, occasional reference. The social context of Passover happens to condition some aspects of the forthcoming episode.

they were going over the sea to Capernaum, and darkness had already come

Daily Counter. The fall of night indicates continuity with the immediately prior events, by indicating they belong to the same continuing period of wakefulness, or "day".

And Jesus was walking after these things in Galilee, for he did not wish to walk in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him, 2and the feast of the Jews was nigh—that of tabernacles

Episodic contingency. Again, "after these things". ALSO, Developmental Contingency. Judean Jews seeking to kill Jesus is an indication of escalation since 4:1-4. ALSO, Seasonal/festival. The tabernacles puts this a few months after Passover (but how to presume whether in the same year? Only by the episodic contingency.)

And it being now the middle of the feast, Jesus went up to the temple, and he was teaching,

Daily Counter. Again, less important as micro count of particular days, more importantly a marker that this episode belongs nearly in time with the immediately prior episode.

Note 3
Note: At this point, two of John's narrative trends may be juxtaposed to enhance our perception of the Gospel's overall sense for "chronology". First, the festival references assure us that significant time has passed, at least a year, possibly two or more. Second, the daily markers and stock phrase "after these things" have been relatively frequent. Put together, we must conclude the amount of narrated activity is obviously not enough to fill up the amount of time being covered. (Cf.21:25) This, again, provides reason to question the narrative sequence AS chronology. Since the episodes are obviously not intended to be chronologically SEAMLESS, we cannot guarantee that each mini-episode (by which I mean either pericopes or even portions of various pericopes) was intended to duplicate chronological sequence precisely according to narrative sequence. What we MUST therefore look for, to suss out the Gospel's "chronology" as it were, is specific indicators of historical reference, association of epochs or markable occasions, and various types of purported contingency.

That's enough for a start, to illustrate what I'm suggesting. I hope this rough analysis of John's first seven chapters demonstrates my initial point in this post rather conclusively, that we should not characterize the "chronology" of the fourth Gospel as being like or unlike the "chronology" of another Gospel, if what we are thinking of is primarily or largely NOT chronology, but rather the narrative content and sequence of those Gospels.

There is much more to be done. Hopefully much of it by more highly trained smarter folks. Either way, watch this space for developments.

Anon, then...

*As promised, here are the two caveats to my initial point at the top. Although these cannot justifiably characterize "the chronology" of an entire literary biography, there are two particular instances in John's narrative that do indeed proffer a distinctly chronological element that directly contradicts their apparent counterparts in the synoptic materials. The first instance is that John seems to disagree with the Synoptics about whether Jesus was crucified before or after the first night of the Passover feast. The second instance is that John puts 'the temple incident' at a Passover distinctly two or more years prior to the Passover at which Mark & Matthew & Luke narrate what many believe is the very same incident, although a minority believe the writers may simply be aware of different but similar incidents.

Whether these discrepancies may be explained is not necessarily a "chronological" matter, but as long as they remain contradictions they are indeed chronological differences. However, for reasons given above, these two instances alone do not in themselves justify the perennial statement that "John's chronology differs from that of the synoptics."

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