The Priority of John by John A T Robinson (SCM Press, 1985, £19.50).
THIS IS John Robinson's last book, intended for his Bampton Lectures, written — as he mentions almost casually when he was dying of cancer, and edited by his pupil Dr Coakley.
Dr Robinson was a force to be reckoned with in the English theological scene for decades, whether in his short period as Bishop of Woolwich, when he shocked the world with his Honest to God and But that I can't Believe, or as Dean of Trinity, Cambridge, the author of serious and scholarly New Testament studies.
He could be relied on to upset current unexamined fashions: in his Redating the Gospels he argues for a completely new chronology of the New Testament, including a much earlier date for the gospels than other scholars accept; if he does not succeed in establishing his own theory, he does at least show how weak are the grounds for the accepted orthodoxies.
Most recently he sprang to TV prominence by being the first establishment scholar to claim that the evidence for the Shroud of Turin was now so strong that the burden of proof lies with those who deny its authenticity.
Now he argues that John is a primary source. His is not necessarily the first gospel to be written, but there is no reason to presume that he is dependent on the synoptic gospels, or that he knew them or intended to supplement them.
The first step is to discount the evidence that John was written late; here Dr Robinson repeats much of the argument of his earlier book and stresses the danger of slipping from development to dating and from Christology to chronology (p 91): because a theology is fuller it is not necessarily later.
Three chapters on "The Story" follow, divided into beginning, middle and end. Dr Robinson argues convincingly. that Johannine chronology of the ministry makes far more sense than the synoptic sketch, and that John includes a mass of careful dating.
The ministery is divided into three periods by two crucial turning-points, the first being at the temptations in the desert, when Jesus changes from a baptist-style ministry to being a charismatic liberator, the second at the multiplication of loaves when he realises the danger of the messianic title.
Finally there are two extended chapters on the teaching and person of Jesus. On the former Dr Robinson argues that the synoptics' cinema technique is no less artificial than John's dramatic build-up: "it is hardly to be supposed that Jesus went around peppering his auditors with pellets of disconnected apophthegms" (p 304), and the longer Johannine speeches may well reflect the conversations he must have had.
On the latter he combats the notion of a personal preexistence of the Word: it became hypostatic at the incarnation (p 380), a doctrine which safeguards the incarnation, but leaves the Trinity in disarray.
There are plenty of pithy and provoking judgements in this fine memorial to an honest and devoted scholar.
Henry Wansbrough OSB edited the New Jerusalem Bible.