Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel

Tradition and Narration

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Jörg Frey
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , November
     257 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jörg Frey’s Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel: Tradition and Narration is a revision of a series of lectures delivered by Frey at Yale Divinity School in 2018.  That fact alone is remarkable, given that the usual timespan between lectures delivered and lectures published is more than a few months.  Yet lecture to publication in this case took place within a year’s time.  This speaks of both the perceived usefulness of these lectures for a wider audience than attended the lectures live, and the haste of the publisher to bring them to the public.  Readers will be grateful for that haste.

Additionally, readers are given an introduction to the volume which serves in fact as an analysis of the work of J. Louis Martyn on the twin questions of history and theology, and theology and history.  This introduction is critical to the volume as it sets the stage and lays the groundwork for the lectures which follow. 

The first lecture/chapter is titled “Christology as Theology: The Johannine Approach as a Challenge Then and Now” (13-58).  Heavily annotated (many of the pages are consumed with more footnotes than text), Frey here begins by discussing the central question of Christian theology: Jesus as God.  This leads inexorably into more detailed questions about the challenges to any view of Jesus as divine and John’s Christological musings.  This then leads Frey to examine, brilliantly, the divine authority of Jesus as portrayed in the Lazarus incident, the Discourses, and the Passion story.  Frey concludes this lecture with a description of John’s theological aim and the challenge that theological aim poses for contemporary theology.

The second lecture/chapter turns our attention to one of the long-lived issues in New Testament research: the quest for the Historical Jesus.  It is titled ‘The Quest for the Jesus of History: Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel’ (59-142).   Can John’s Gospel play a part in this quest?  Many if not most historical critical scholars would offer a resounding no to that question.  Here Frey is more nuanced in his answer and is authentically at his best: meticulous, measured, magnificent.  In exquisite detail Frey tracks the historical-ness—the historicity of John’s material.  This is the longest essay and the most detailed of the three.

The third and final lecture is “The Spiritual Gospel: Reworking the Jesus Story for Deeper Theological Knowledge” (143-204).  Frey describes this as the “spiritual Gospel” in the opening segment of this essay and he connects this claim to John’s use of terms like “paraclete” and the high visibility of the Spirit in the Fourth Gospel.  Frey goes on to opine that for the author of this Gospel it is actually the Spirit who is the author of the memory of Jesus.  And that this same Spirit then goes on to teach the Johannine communities about Jesus, and the true meaning of the Scriptures.  This same Spirit also makes Jesus present to that same community.  And what does the Spirit teach?  That Jesus, the King of Truth, was enthroned at his crucifixion.  This same Spirit goes on to transform the Johannine community, and the story of Jesus.

The volume closes with concluding pages (205-211) wherein Frey offers readers a summary of the whole and its rationale.  Readers may wish to begin with the conclusion as it serves as a fine roadmap to the whole.  A bibliography is also included and, finally, there is also an index of ancient sources.

This volume is highly commendable, especially the second, longest, and most technical lecture.  Those interested in the quest for the “Historical Jesus” will find it invaluably insightful and tremendously helpful.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jim West is Professor of Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.

Date of Review: 
September 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jörg Frey is Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Zurich.


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