Aposynagogos and the Historical Jesus in John: Rethinking the Historicity of the Johannine Expulsion
Fear of expulsion from the synagogue (aposynagōgos) creates part of the tension throughout the Fourth Gospel. On three occasions John refers to the Jewish threat to expel those who “confess Jesus to be Christ” (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). Many Johannine scholars follow J. Louis Martyn and interpret these passages in light of the threat of expulsion that faced the Johannine community. Martyn argues that the threat of expulsion reflects the Birkat ha-Minim, a Jewish benediction that calls for the “Nazarenes [possibly, the Christians] and the Minim [heretics]” to be destroyed (History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003]). The confession would have excluded from the synagogue service Christians, who would not have cursed themselves. Martyn concludes that the Johannine expulsions are anachronistic and that the author of the Fourth Gospel read this expulsion back into Jesus’s life. Recently, more moderate scholars have argued that the expulsions are authentic, but they follow Martyn by arguing that the author narrates the expulsion in an attempt to relate to Jewish Christians facing the Birkat ha-Minim. Bernier challenges Martyn’s use of the Birkat ha-Minim on historical and philosophical grounds.
Bernier addresses two historical problems with Martyn’s position. First, a late first-century date for the Birkat ha-Minim, which coincides with the authorship of John’s Gospel, is less tenable than a later second-century date. Second, the Birkat ha-Minim only suggests an expulsion, without specifying that “Nazarenes” refers to Christians. There is no explicit expulsion. On the other hand, the Johannine description of the synagogue expulsion remains possible. Jewish/Christian debates had heated to the point that one group attempted to subvert or silence the other. Luke describes a similar tension during the early part of the Christian movement. Jewish authorities regularly sought to silence Peter and the other Christian teachers (Acts 4:17–18; 5:28). Before the Damascus road experience, Paul arrested Jewish believers on the authority of the high priest (9:1–2; 22:4–5; 26:10).
Philosophically, Bernier questions the foundation upon which Martyn’s reading rests. The roots of Martyn’s argument go back to the Bultmannian idea that the Gospels reflect a post-Easter Christology read back into the life of Christ. The basis of expulsion is confessing Jesus as Messiah. Bernier notes that following Bultmann, Martyn supposes “that all messianic discourses within John’s Gospel are in fact Johannine Christology retrojected anachronistically on to the life of Jesus” (p. 93). This theological break from history implies “that the historical Jesus had little if any influence upon Johannine Christology” (p. 86). Bernier correctly argues that rather than narrativizing their Christology, the authors of the Gospels rested their Christology on historical events. He concludes: “John felt himself contained by the actual events of Jesus’ life as well as the things that Jesus said. This did not mean that he was not a creative theologian, however. Quite the opposite, for Jesus’ sayings and the events of his life spurred John on to creativity. Memories of Jesus were not obstacles to, but rather preconditions for, John’s theology” (p. 125).
Bernier’s critique of a two-level, allegorical approach to the Gospel is on point. The author may have narrated these synagogue expulsions in order to make a connection with the current audience. But if he did, it is now lost, and it adds nothing to John’s narrative. This two-level reading ignores the Christological statement that the Gospel makes to focus on the historical context of the community. Unfortunately, Bernier pulls a punch when it comes to whether or not Jesus claimed to be Messiah. Bernier follows Nils Dahl here—that Jesus was crucified as the Messiah even though he never made the claim. For Bernier, the Jewish authorities presented expulsion as a reality for those who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah; it does not mean that Jesus himself made the claim. Bernier may prefer a more cautious conclusion, but based on his work, one can say more. If the Jewish authorities expelled members of the synagogue based on how they identified Jesus, this would have put pressure on Jesus to define his role. It is reasonable to conclude that so many were convinced of Jesus’s messiahship because Jesus himself impressed it upon them. Regardless, Bernier’s work is a part of a growing swell of research that appreciates the historical contribution that the Gospel of John might offer.
About the Contributors
Benjamin I. Simpson
Dr. Simpson joined the faculty in 2006 as the registrar. In 2011, he moved to Houston to work with the Houston campus. In 2016, he and his family moved to Washington DC where he continues helping external students complete their degrees while positively influencing their ministries. His research interests include Jesus, the Gospels, and hermeneutics. He is married to Amber and they have two children: Madison and Eli.