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Brown on the Community of the Beloved Disciple


I hope to share some reflective thoughts About Raymond E. Brown’s bookThe Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testaments Times.

Raymond E. Brown was perhaps the greatest Johannine scholar of the twenty-first century. In this book, Brown endeavored not only to reconstruct the history of Johannine community in the first century but also, by implication, attempted to give us an account on the formation of the Christian faith. He approached the matter predominantly from the perspectives of the Gospel of John and the Johannine Epistles. I suggest that both the Gospels of John and Epistles of John, and Luke-Acts (perhaps Paul?) are necessary to reconstruct the origins of Christianity. So these documents are invaluable tools to help us discover how everything had started. At any rate, this notion is a matter of considerable discussion among New Testament scholars, so let’s go back to Brown.

As I mentioned above, Brown’s basic purpose in this volume is to find out how the Johannine community had emerged throughout its history. He did through a successful investigation of both the Gospel of John and Epistles of John. By the way, the hypothesis Brown employed in this work is questionable by many reputable Johannine scholars, but he has strong arguments.

INTRODUCTION: Problem and Method in Discerning Johannine Ecclesiology

The introduction deposits Brown’s plan for the book. He hopes to study the history of the Johannine community by treading primarily the Gospel of John, then, John’s Epistles on various different levels. By taking this approach, Brown assures us that both the story of Jesus and the Johannine community could be accessed and reconstructed. Brown’s method here is parallel to that of Bultmann’s and Wellhausen’s; the latter contended that chiefly the four Gospels inform us about the Sitz im Leben of the church in which they were written, and only in secondary about the life of Jesus which prima facie they depict . By applying this principle, Brown approaches the matter by employing various reading levels and adopting four different phases:

1.Phase One, “the pre-Gospel era, involved the origins of the community, and its relation to mid-first century Judaism.” The composition of the fourth Gospel occurred prior to the expulsion of Johannine Christians from the synagogues (John 9:22; 16:2). The basis of this incident related to what “they were claiming about Jesus” (22).

1.Phase Two, “involved the life-situation of the Johannine community at the time the Gospel was written.” Brown maintains the traditional date for the writing of John, A.D. 90. However, he accentuates that the main writing of John took place during that year, not the final product. Another difficulty in the Gospel is the continuous presence and echo of (the) “Jews” (“Ioudaioi”). Brown also believes within the Johannine community there existed the insistence on a high Christology, “made all the more intense by the hard struggles with the ‘Jews.’”

2.Phase Three, involved “the life-situation in the now-divided Johannine communities at the time the Epistles were written” (A.D. 100?). Brown appeals to 1 John 2:19 to describe the trajic division occurred between the Gospel and the Epistles, which he explains in this term, “ … the struggle is between two groups of Johannine disciples who are interpreting the Gospel in opposite ways, in matter of christology, ethics, and pneumatology. The fears and pessimism of the author of the Epistles suggest that the secessionsts are having the greater numerical success ( I John 4:5), and the author is trying to bolster his adherents against further inroads of false teachers (2:27; II John 10-11). The author feels that it is “the last hour” ( 23; I John 2:18).” That was the BIG DEAL according to Brown!

3.Phase Four, “saw the dissolution of the two Johannine groups after the Epistles were written. The great departure happened between the secessionists and the conservation side of the Johannine community. So they disfellowshipped among themselves, and were no longer in community. According to Brown, it was the secessionists’ initiation to divide because of their misuse of the Fourth Gospel. As a result, there arose publicly various sects or groups in the second century inclining toward, Docetism, Gnosticism, Cerinthianism, and Monanism.

PHASE ONE: Before the Gospel –Johannine Community Origins

Brown’s argument is basic but profound. He contends that in the early period of the life of the church consisted of Jews whose belief could be labeled as both “low Christology” and “higher Christology.” By “low Christology,” “involves the application to Jesus of titles derived from OT or intertestamental expectations (e.g., Messiah, prophet, servant, lord, Son of God)—titles that do not in themselves imply divinity, whereas, “high Christology,” “involves an appreciation of Jesus that moves him into the sphere of divinity, as expressed, for instance, in a more exalted use of Lord and Son of God, as well as the designation “God.” In other words, some Jews highly regarded Jesus as divine, while others rejected his divine nature.

Brown sees both continuity and discontinuity of this notion transmitted in other Jewish churches associated with the apostles.

Concerning John the Baptist

According to Brown, when the Gospel of John was written the Johannine community engaged in a furious contention with followers of John the Baptist claiming his Messianic status by rejecting Jesus. To fix the problem, Brown notes that the Fourth Gospel presents JBap’s role in 1:20 “I am not the Messiah”; and in 3:28: “I am not the Messiah but am sent before him.”

On the Role of the Beloved Disciple

The Beloved Disciple is a mysterious historical figure appearing only in the Gospel of John and was the hero of the Johannine community. At his death, he was idealized by the people of the community. The Fourth Gospel clearly identifies him as “the Disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23-26; 19:25-27; 20:2-10). Nonetheless, Brown agrees that the Beloved Disciple was an “outsider to the group of best-known disciples” (34).

PHASE TWO: When the Gospel Was Written- Johannine Relations to Others

Brown describes the presence of various groups of in the Gospel. The world, the Jews, and the adherents of John the Baptist are categorized as “non-believers detectable in the Gospel.” The latter were individuals who made no pretense of believing in Jesus. The Crypto-Christians (Christian Jews within the Synagogues, the Jewish Christian Churches of inadequate faith, and the Christians of apostolic churches are rightly known as “Christians detectable in the Gospel.” These individuals expressed explicit faith in Jesus.

PHASE THREE: When the Epistles Were Written—Johannine Internal Struggles

Brown argues the Second and Third Letters of John were written by the same man, whose name was (or calls himself) “the presbyter.” The evidence is that relatively the same doctrinal and moral issues are discussed in I and in II John and that “both II and III John are concerned with the acceptance of traveling teachers interlocks the Epistles and makes it likely that all three have come from the same phase of Johannine history.”

Eventually Brown would discuss what he termed “The Intra-Johannine Schism.” By referring to the secessionists, the group that deviated from the true Johannine Gospel, Brown insists that the secessionists who subscribed to the docetic theology, the denial the reality of Jesus’ humanity, were not the main opponents as traditionally conceived. “The adversaries were not detectably outsiders to the Johannine community but the offspring of Johannine thought itself, justifying their positions by the Johannine Gospel and its implications,” Brown argues (107). Various areas of theology were subject to dispute in the Johannine community, chiefly the main points of conflict were Christology, ethics, eschatology, and pneumatology. From an ethical point of view, it is important to note that the secessionists claimed, 1) intimacy with God and sinlessness, 2) that they gave no salfvific importance to ethical behavior, 3) that they were accused for not loving the brethren.

PHASE FOUR: After the Epistles –Johannine Dissolution

The “last hour” in the Johannine Epistles is a reference to the split between the conservative side in the Johannine community and the secessionists. As I previously noted above, the secessionists were no longer in communion with the more conservative side of the Johannine community. Brown remarks “the adherents of the author of I John in the early second century seem to have gradually merged with what Ignatius of Antioch calls “ the church catholic,” as exhibited by the growing acceptance of the Johannine Christology of the preexistence of the Word” (24).

Let’s recast Brown main points:

Phase one is the Pre-Gospel era, which represents the origins of the Johannine community. It is also noteworthy during this period the Johannine community maintained a close relationship to mid-first century Judaism. In Phase two, Brown dealt with the life-situation of the Johannine community during the writing period of the Fourth Gospel. During this epoch, Jews who professed Jesus as Messiah-God were expelled from Jewish ssynagogues. In Phase three, we see a great division occured in the Johannine community among those who espoused various ideas about Jesus. Finally, the great dissolution occured in Phase four.

I close this post with the following question on the historical reliability of John and would let Brown answer it:

Is John historically reliable?

Here’s how Raymond Brown answered my question:

“There is a subtle mélange of history and theology in John. The Fourth Gospel is clearly less historical and more theological than the Synoptics in attributing all this Christology to the first few days of Jesus’ ministry; yet the Fourth Gospel may be more factual historically in describing the first followers of Jesus as former disciples of JBap and in having them called in the Jordan valley rather than at the Lake of Galilee” (26).

2 Comments»

  Brian wrote @

It all sounds interesting until one Reads Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple…

Here Bauckham pretty much shuts down the discussion of any notions of a Johannine community.

  Celucien L. Joseph wrote @

Brown’s theory of a Johannine community would not survive in today’s New Testament scholarship. So thanks be to Richard Bauckham and others who give us an alternative.


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