Reading for polemic–the anatomy of a questionable hermeneutic
The celebrated work of J. Louis Martyn and Raymond E. Brown helped to popularize the theory that the Fourth Gospel contains a “two-level drama.” This two-level drama, they argue, reflects the Johannine community’s internal conflict (with some form of incipient gnosticism?) and external conflict (with the synagogue); it is specifically played out in John’s “polemic” against hoi Ioudaioi. Regardless of what one thinks about the conclusions set forth by these two scholars, it is hard to ignore the Fourth Gospel’s overall treatment of “the Jews.” (The views of Marytn and Brown certainly have differences but the above thesis is an area of general agreement between the two.) A recongition of these good assumptions about John’s Sitz im Leben morphed into a full-blown trend in gospels research in the decades that followed their work.
In the late 1970s Theodore Weeden introduced students of the NT to “the heresy that necessitated the second gospel.” According to his reading of Mark, the author had a serious theological axe to grind against the historical disciples who held to a flawed and incorrect theios aner (divine man) christology. Thus, for Weeden, the Gospel of Mark contains an “anti-disciple” polemic that the Markan Jesus continually corrects. This hypothesis led to a whole series of attempts to explain the so-called “corrective christology” of Mark’s Gospel. (It is important to note that Weeden has few followers today, though his view did make a splash when it was introduced.)
Moving forward, it has become commonplace for some Johannine scholars to speak of John’s “anti-baptist” polemic (see 1:6-8; 19-27; 3:30 for the texts that are typically offered to validate this claim). We could go on and on discussing those who have argued that the Fourth Gospel is consciously anti-Petrine (Eric Titus, Graydon Snyder, Arthur Maynard, Arthur Droge), or anti-Thomasine (Gregory Riley, April DeConick, Elaine Pagels, Steven Johnson). There has even been a recent attempt to elucidate the “anti-Pauline” polemic of Matthew’s Gospel (David C. Sim). A growing segment of NT scholars seems convinced that the NT narratives have as much (if not more) to say to competing communities as to the communities for whom they were written. I will not bury my head in the sand and insist that there are no such polemics in the NT, but they are not as common or as pervasive as the advocates of these positions would have us believe.
I have a number of theories about what makes this approach to the NT narratives so attractive to certain scholars, but those theories are not the focus of the present post (though I will likely return to them later). Here I want to focus on what’s missing from a hermeneutic that views the gospels as documents driven by polemics but possessing very little didactic or devotional value for the community that stood before it. The work of Sandra Schneiders has been foundational for me in developing a hermeneutic that takes into account the worlds behind, in, and in front of the text for our pursuit of the historical, the literary, and the theological. When we ask only one set of questions (and many scholars do) we fail to consider important information. I have said it before and it bears repeating, we must do a better job of answering literary questions, which will, in turn, help us to reframe many historical-critical questions. From a literary perspective, many of these “polemics” will simply disappear under scrutiny.