Reviews

“The Community of the Beloved Disciple” by Raymond Brown — A Book Review

Based on the assumption that a “Johannine community” existed as a Christian group distinct from the churches mentioned in Luke-Acts and Paul, Raymond Brown attempts to reconstruct this community by determining the life-situation of the original audience of the Fourth Gospel and John’s Letters. He stresses passages that are significantly different from the Synoptics, indicating theological interest for the Johannine community.

Brown’s reconstruction of the Johannine community life is developed in four phases. The first phase is during the pre-Gospel era (mid 50s to late 80s), exploring the origins of the community and its relationship with Judaism. Phase Two explores the life-situation of the Johannine community at the time of Fourth Gospel’s writing (ca. A.D. 90). Phase Three focuses on the schism within the community during the time of the writing of John’s Letters (ca. A.D. 100). Lastly, the fourth phase concentrates on the dissolution of the divided Johannine groups after the writing of John’s epistles. According to Brown, the adherents of the writer of 1 John gradually merged to “the church catholic.”

Brown, Raymond E.. The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times. New York: Paulist Press, 1979. 204 pp.

Synopsis

In Phase One, Brown portrays the Johannine community as being expelled from the synagogues (9:22; 16:2) amidst the Jewish-Christian conflict, which was based on their claims about Jesus. Brown reads the Gospel of John as an autobiography of the Johannine community’s history (p. 26). This community began among the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. These Jews were the initial followers of John the Baptist and led by the Beloved Disciple. Brown insists that the community led by the Beloved Disciple is distinct from the churches associated with the Twelve, the “apostolic churches,” based on the “one-upmanship” of the Beloved Disciple and Simon Peter in the Fourth Gospel (pp. 31-32). Peter is portrayed as the one who misunderstands the footwashing (13:8-10) and later denies Jesus (18:16-27); the Beloved Disciple, on the other hand, outruns Peter to the tomb (20:4), is called the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 20:2; 21:7, 20), and recognizes Jesus from afar (21:7). Converted Samaritans also joined the Johannine community. This is based on the conversion of Samaritans in John 4 as distinct from the Samaritan conversion in Luke-Acts, which did not take place until Acts 8. The Johannine community was put out of the synagogue (10:33; 8:58-59; 19:7) because of their “high christology,” as they believed that Jesus was actually preexistent and divine (1:1; 20:28).

Phase Two depicts the life situation of the Johannine community during the time of the Fourth Gospel’s writing. At this time, the community experienced persecution and struggled to relate with other Christian groups (16:2–3). In addition to the Johannine community, Brown lists six other groups in the Gospel of John: three are non-believers, and three claim to be believers. The first group is the world, referring to non-believing Gentiles who rejected the light and are the sons of darkness (9:39; 12:31; 12:35-36). Second, the Jews are those who expelled the Johannine community from the synagogues. Third are the followers of John the Baptist who did not follow Jesus. This is based on the so-called negative statements about John the Baptist found in the Fourth Gospel: the Baptizer is not the light (1:8-9); does not antedate Jesus (1:15, 30); is not the bridegroom (3:29); must decrease while Jesus must increase (3:30); and never worked miracles (10:41) (p. 69). Brown argues that

“if once more we read the Gospel partly as an autobiography of the Johannine community, we are led to suspect that Johannine Christians had to deal with such disciples and that the negations are meant as an apologetic against them” (p. 69).

Fourth, the Crypto-Christians were those attracted to Jesus, but feared being expelled from the synagogue (12:42-43). Fifth, the Jewish Christians with inadequate faith are those who publicly believed but lacked real faith (6:66). Lastly, the Christians of Apostolic churches are represented by the Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of Peter and other members of the Twelve. Brown argues that Peter and the Twelve do not represent all Christians based on (1) the contrast between Peter and the Beloved Disciple and (2) the absence of the word “apostle” in the Fourth Gospel. For Brown, the prayer for unity in John 17 is about the unifying of the Apostolic churches with the Johannine community into one sheepfold (p. 83).

By Phase Three, the Johannine community has been divided during the time of the writing of the Johannine Letters (ca. A.D. 100). Brown posits that the writer of the Epistles is distinct from the writer of John’s Gospel, but both belong to a Johannine school of writers. In Brown’s reconstruction, the two groups had varying understandings of John’s Gospel. He states that

“both parties knew the proclamation of Christianity available to us through the Fourth Gospel, but they interpret it differently” (p. 106).

The schism between these two groups is the context of the secession in 1 John 2:19. According to Brown, the Johannine disciples were divided on their interpretation of christology, ethics, eschatology, and pneumatology (1 John 4:5; 2:27; 2 John 10–11) based on the emphases in John’s Letters.

Lastly, Phase Four focuses on the dissolution of the divided Johannine groups after the writing of John’s epistles. According to Brown, the adherents of the writer of 1 John gradually merged to “the church catholic.” The Apostolic church embraced the high christology of the Johannine community, while the Johannine community received the Apostolic church’s teaching structure. Brown notes that after the Epistles, there is no further trace of a separate Johannine community (p. 145). The secessionists, the opponents of the writer of 1 John, merged with the Gnostics. This explains the familiarity of the gnostic writings with the Fourth Gospel. For example, the oldest commentary on John’s Gospel is the gnostic Heracleon (AD 160-180). But the Apostolic Church affirmed both John’s Gospel and his Epistles and combatted against gnostic interpreters, as illustrated by Irenaeus.

Analysis

Raymond E. Brown’s The Community of the Beloved Disciple has been considered by many as insightful, placing Brown as an expert in the Bible. No doubt, Brown has examined the text deeply and has made helpful observations that may not stand out in casual reading. For example, Brown has skillfully located some indications in the text that clue the readers into the group that the writer of 1 John is combatting against. Another attribute worth mentioning is Brown’s competent use of first century sources for external evidence, including documents in the second century and the writings of the church fathers. Brown has indeed demonstrated scholarly rigor in his historical investigation of the life-situation behind the Johannine writings. In doing so, however, Brown might have been reading the text so closely that he became oblivious to its plain meaning.

Brown assumes that since the Fourth Gospel is characteristically different from the Synoptics (and Paul), it must have a unique theology for a distinct group of people. This assumption is the lens through which he reads the Gospel of John (the evidence), resulting in a highly speculative reconstruction. In fact, Brown admits in the preface that he may have gotten a lot of things wrong, and he would be satisfied with 60% accuracy (p. 7). Several times, Brown uses the formula, “if we read John as an autobiography of the Johannine community,” as an introduction to some of his conclusions (c.f., pp. 26, 69). His reconstruction, then, is based on an unproven hermeneutic, namely reading the Gospel of John as an autobiography of a certain community. Two major assumptions have already undermined Brown’s entire reconstruction: (1) the existence of a community distinct from the churches in Luke-Acts and (2) a hermeneutic based on an unproven theory that a distinct Christian community exists. Raymond Brown’s entire reconstruction can be dismissed based on these faulty assumptions mentioned above. Yet for the sake of argument, if Brown’s assumptions were legitimate (they’re not), the reconstruction still contains several problems due to a misrepresentation of the evidence. Several examples follow.

One, Brown argues that the Johannine community was more accepting of Gentiles and Samaritans, but the Apostolic church was slow in receiving them. This argument is based on the observation that the Gospel of John never mentions the Jew-Gentile conflict (p. 55) that is found in Acts and Paul’s writings. Not only is the entire argument based on silence, but it also fails to consider that the writing of Luke-Acts and Paul were all prior to the writing of John’s Gospel. Meaning, the resolution of the Jew-Gentile conflict in the early church had already taken place prior to the writing of John’s Gospel. Not finding Jew-Gentile conflict in John’s Gospel is not surprising. Furthermore, it may be that Jew-Gentile conflict was never part of the evangelist’s agenda for writing. Do writers mention all relevant topics of their time in a single document?

Two, it is interesting to note how Brown reversed his position regarding the authorship of John’s Gospel between writing his commentary and this work. He previously claimed that the Beloved Disciple was John the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve, based on a combination of external and internal evidence. He corrects himself, saying that external and internal evidence should not be harmonized, because it has not “held up well in modern scholarship” (pp. 33-34). For Brown’s reconstruction to work, the Beloved Disciple (BD) must not be one of the Twelve, because the BD led a distinct community that was distinct from the churches founded by the Twelve beginning at Pentecost. It seems that Brown takes the convenient position that supports his reconstruction, despite it being contradictory to external and internal evidence that he himself previously attested.

Three, it is mindboggling how Brown concludes that the so-called Johannine community was against the followers of John the Baptist based on how the Fourth Gospel portrays John the Baptist. Brown claims that John the Baptist is portrayed negatively because John the Baptist must decrease, and Jesus must increase (p. 69). This statement by John the Baptist is actually commendable as a model of humility to be followed by all men. John the Baptist might not be the light, but he is the one officially designated to bear witness of the light (1:8). This is not a negative view of John the Baptist, but a positive one. It seems that Brown only sees certain parts of the evidence that fit his agenda, instead of seeing the evidence as a whole.

More could be said, but here is the last observation. Perhaps Brown’s strongest argument for the existence of a Johannine community that is distinct from the Christian churches led by the apostles is the Fourth Gospel’s contrast between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. For Brown, the Beloved Disciple is the hero of the community, while Peter represents the Apostolic churches. Brown sees the Beloved Disciple as the disciple par excellence, while Peter keeps messing up. Peter denies Jesus (18:17, 25), but the Beloved Disciple stands at the foot of the cross (19:26-27). The Beloved Disciple outruns Peter to the tomb (20:8-10) and recognizes Jesus when Peter does not (21:7). Once again, Brown views the evidence so closely that he is blinded to the rest of the data, resulting in a serious misreading of the text. Using the same data, the observations about Peter and the Beloved Disciple can be viewed differently. The Beloved Disciple may outrun Peter, but Peter was the more eager to go inside (20:8-10). The Beloved Disciple may have recognized Jesus first, but Peter was the one who jumped in the water and swam to get to him (21:7). Peter may have denied Jesus, but it was Peter whom Jesus sought out and gave the command to feed Jesus’ sheep (21:15-17).

Evaluation

Raymond Brown’s The Community of the Beloved Disciple is considered a standard academic work in Johannine scholarship. The level of scholarly rigor is appreciated, particularly Brown’s attention to details and application of primary sources into the biblical text. The conclusions may have been valid if only the assumptions were solid, but research on the life-situation of the Johannine community is pointless if such community does not truly exist. Disagreement with Brown’s conclusions was not solely based on the reviewer’s presupposition of inerrancy and unity of the New Testament. The analysis above reveals holes in Brown’s arguments based from a purely historical standpoint. By and large, The Community of the Beloved Disciple provides small benefit for the reader’s understanding of the Fourth Gospel; however, it may prove a valuable source for those interested in a scholarly history of Johannine research.

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