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5. JN.’S PURPOSE NOT MERELY TO SUPPLEMENT AND CORRECT.
But let us see rather more exactly how in detail people think of the author as carrying out his purpose of supplementing and correcting the Synoptics. Here special importance may be attached to his statement that some time after Jesus’ public appearance John the Baptist was still baptizing and that Jesus was doing so too, and to the addition, “for John was not yet imprisoned” (iii. 22-24). In the Synoptics (Mk. i. 14), Jesus does not come forward publicly until after the imprisonment of the Baptist. Consequently the remark in Jn. which contradicts this might easily be due in this instance to his purpose of making a correction. If this were so, Jn. is aware, as the Synoptics are not, that Jesus started a public mission while the Baptist was still at work. And here we should have the explanation of the fact that he adds so much which these omit: all this really happened before the arrest of the Baptist, with which in the Synoptics the story of Jesus work begins.
All? Strictly speaking, as a matter of fact, everything that Jn. reports; for he never mentions a point at which the Baptist was imprisoned. But this view of the matter would be quite impossible; for in the expression “not yet taken” Jn. betrays the fact that he knew very well of the arrest of the Baptist, and thinks of it as happening during the public ministry of Jesus. But when? Before v. 35 (“he was the lamp”) and certainly before the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus’ walking on the sea (Jn. vi. 1-21), of which the Synoptics do not speak until long after the imprisonment of the Baptist—unless we were to adopt the quite untenable assumption (see p. 48) that Jn. in these two stories is thinking of two events quite different from those the Synoptics have in mind. But we find afterwards in Jn. (chap. vii.-xi.) Jesus appearing in Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles, the cure of the man born blind, Jesus appearing at the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple, and the raising of Lazarus—all things about which the Synoptics say nothing, and which, nevertheless, are so extremely important, that their silence about them is quite inexplicable. In all these cases it does not help us at all to be told that Jn. merely wished to supply facts as to what happened before the imprisonment of the Baptist.
At the best, therefore, the assumption could be used for the events which Jn. narrates in chapters ii.-v. But before we adopt it, we shall do well once more to examine closely the passage on which it is based. “Jesus baptized,” we are told in Jn. iii. 22 (26; iv. 1). And in iv. 2 we read “and yet Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples.” What would a writer, who was anxious to report nothing false, have done when he noticed afterwards that this had happened? We may be sure that he would afterwards have deleted the error in the earlier passage, instead of allowing it to stand and appending the confession that he had made a mistake. Here we can see the peculiar character of the Fourth Evangelist. He is not an author who is anxious to report nothing false; where it suits his purpose, he reports it.
And here in fact it suits his purpose very well. It is only the statement, that Jesus baptized, and did so while John was still at work, that enables him to represent the interesting situation in which the number of the followers of the Baptist is becoming smaller and smaller, and that of the followers of Jesus growing larger and larger. And this is one of Jn.’s chief aims. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (iii. 30): with these words the Baptist himself is made to write the legend to this little picture, which is really sketched very gracefully. In order to do so, the author adds a touch which, in reality, as he himself knows, does not at all harmonise with the truth.
Only one? Of course the picture includes that other feature we have mentioned; John the Baptist is still at large. Must we see in this a correct addition, a correction made by an eye-witness when the same “eye-witness” in another verse not far off has told us with equal precision something which on his own admission is not true? Must we base upon this our idea of the purpose of correction which he followed throughout his book? A different idea of his purpose has resulted, with an incomparably greater amount of probability, from this very example; he wishes to be not a reporter who is to be taken at his word, but a painter; a painter of vivid scenes designed to make clear and impressive a higher truth—in the present instance the truth that John was only the forerunner of Jesus, and had to take an entirely subordinate place, in fact does so of his own free will. And if we now ask again, how long the Evangelist imagines the Baptist to be still at large while Jesus is at work, the only answer can be: merely for this particular scene, and not for those that follow. Once his retirement before Jesus has been described, the Baptist is so unimportant to Jn. that he does not think his arrest worth reporting. Indeed, even in the case of preceding events (the marriage at Cana, the expulsion of the dealers from the fore-court of the Temple, the conversation with Nicodemus), he seems to have hardly thought that they occurred while the Baptist was still at large.
But the theory that Jn. wishes to supplement the Synoptics by giving the earliest events in the public life of Jesus is overthrown by what we are told as regards the discourses of Jesus, when it is presupposed that these also served the purpose of supplementing the Synoptics. If Jesus be supposed to have spoken in both ways—as he is represented as doing in the Synoptics and as Jn. makes him do—it cannot be imagined that the style met with in Jn. was the earlier. We are told on the contrary that Jn. preserves the manner of speech in which Jesus addressed his disciples in his last days, after he had finished his ministry amongst the people, which latter is reflected in his discourses in the Synoptics. This statement might seem worth considering if the discourses of Jesus preserved to us in Jn. were solely farewell ad dresses to his disciples during his last days, like those in chapters xiii.-xvii. But, as a matter of fact, Jn. represents Jesus as speaking from the very beginning in the same style as in these farewell discourses. To sum up, in the events which he describes, Jn. is supposed to take us back to the earliest days, and in the discourses which Jesus delivered at these, the earliest events in his public career, this same author Jn. is supposed to preserve the tone in which Jesus spoke during the last weeks of his life. Both assumptions are necessary if we are to insist that Jn. wishes to supplement and correct the Synoptics. And yet one of the two assumptions annuls the other.
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