Gospel of John
The Gospel of John is the fourth of the canonical gospels.[Notes 1] The work is anonymous, although it identifies an unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” as the source of its traditions. It is closely related in style and content to the three Johannine epistles, and most scholars treat the four books, along with the Book of Revelation, as a single corpus of Johannine literature, albeit not from the same author.
The discourses contained in this gospel seem to be concerned with issues of the church–synagogue debate at the time of composition. It is notable that in John, the community appears to define itself primarily in contrast to Judaism, rather than as part of a wider Christian community.[Notes 2] Though Christianity started as a movement within Judaism, it gradually separated from Judaism because of mutual opposition between the two religions.
Composition and setting
The Gospel of John, the three Johannine epistles, and the Book of Revelation, exhibit marked similarities, although more so between the gospel and the epistles (especially the gospel and 1 John) than between those and Revelation. Most scholars therefore treat the five as a single corpus of Johannine literature, albeit not from the same author.
The consensus of modern scholars is that the Gospel of John was written in the genre of Greco-Roman biography. John contains many characteristics of those writings belonging to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, a) internally; including establishing the origins and ancestry of the author (John 1:1), a focus on the main subject’s great words and deeds, a focus on the death of the subject and the subsequent consequences, b) externally; promotion of a particular hero (where non-biographical writings focus on the events surrounding the characters rather than the character himself), the domination of the use of verbs by the subject (in John, 55% of verbs are taken up by Jesus’ deeds), the prominence of the final portion of the subject’s life (one third of John’s Gospel is taken up by the last week of Jesus’ life, comparable to 26% of Tacitus’s Agricola and 37% of Xenophon’s Agesilaus), the reference to the main subject in the beginning of the text, etc.
The gospel of John went through two to three stages, or “editions”, before reaching its current form around AD 90–110. It speaks of an unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” as the source of its traditions, but does not say specifically that he is its author. Christian tradition identified this disciple as the apostle John, but for a variety of reasons the majority of scholars have abandoned this view or hold it only tenuously.[Notes 3]
The scholarly consensus in the second half of the 20th century was that John was independent of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but this agreement broke down in the last decade of the century and there are now many who believe that John did know some version of Mark and possibly Luke, as he shares with them some items of vocabulary and clusters of incidents arranged in the same order. Key terms from the synoptics, however, are absent or nearly so, implying that if the author did know those gospels he felt free to write independently.
Many incidents in John, such as the wedding in Cana and the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, are not paralleled in the synoptics, and most scholars believe he drew these from an independent source called the “signs gospel”, and the speeches of Jesus from a second “discourse” source. Most scholars agree that the prologue to John employs an early hymn.
The gospel makes extensive use of the Jewish scriptures. John quotes from them directly, references important figures from them, and uses narratives from them as the basis for several of the discourses. But the author was also familiar with non-Jewish sources: the Logos of the prologue (the Word that is with God from the beginning of creation) derives from both the Jewish concept of Lady Wisdom and from the Greek philosophers, while John 6 alludes not only to the exodus but also to Greco-Roman mystery cults, while John 4 alludes to Samaritan messianic beliefs.
Structure and content
The majority of scholars see four sections in this gospel: a prologue (1:1–18); an account of the ministry, often called the “Book of Signs” (1:19–12:50); the account of Jesus’ final night with his disciples and the passion and resurrection, sometimes called the “book of glory” (13:1–20:31); and an epilogue which did not form part of the original text (Chapter 21).
- The prologue informs readers of the true identity of Jesus: he is the Word of God through whom the world was created and who took on human form. John 1:10–12 outlines the story to follow: Jesus came to the Jews and the Jews rejected him, but “to all who received him (the circle of Christian believers), who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
- Jesus is baptised, calls his disciples, and begins his earthly ministry. He travels from place to place informing his hearers about God the Father, offering eternal life to all who will believe, and performing miracles which are signs of the authenticity of his teachings. This creates tensions with the religious authorities (manifested as early as 5:17–18), who decide that he must be eliminated.
- Jesus prepares the disciples for their coming lives without his physical presence, and prays for them and for himself. The scene is thus prepared for the narrative of his passion, death and resurrection. The section ends with a conclusion on the purpose of the gospel: “that [the reader] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
- Chapter 21 tells of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to his disciples in Galilee, the miraculous catch of fish, the prophecy of the crucifixion of Peter, the restoration of Peter, and the fate of the Beloved Disciple.
The structure is highly schematic: there are seven “signs” culminating in the raising of Lazarus (foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus), and seven “I am” sayings and discourses, culminating in Thomas’s proclamation of the risen Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (the same title, dominus et deus, claimed by the Emperor Domitian, an indication of the date of composition).
John’s “high Christology” depicts Jesus as divine, preexistent, and identified with the one God, talking openly about his divine role and echoing Yahweh’s “I Am that I Am” with seven “I Am” declarations of his own.[Notes 4]
In the prologue, John identifies Jesus as the Logos (Word). In Ancient Greek philosophy, the term logos meant the principle of cosmic reason. In this sense, it was similar to the Hebrew concept of Wisdom, God’s companion and intimate helper in creation. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo merged these two themes when he described the Logos as God’s creator of and mediator with the material world. The evangelist adapted Philo’s description of the Logos, applying it to Jesus, the incarnation of the Logos.
The portrayal of Jesus’ death in John is unique among the four Gospels. It does not appear to rely on the kinds of atonement theology indicative of vicarious sacrifice (cf. Mk 10:45, Rom 3:25) but rather presents the death of Jesus as his glorification and return to the Father. Likewise, the three “passion predictions” of the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 8:31, 9:31, 10:33–34 and pars.) are replaced instead in John with three instances of Jesus explaining how he will be exalted or “lifted up”(Jn 3:14, 8:28, 12:32). The verb for “lifted up” reflects the double entendre at work in John’s theology of the cross, for Jesus is both physically elevated from the earth at the crucifixion but also, at the same time, exalted and glorified.
Among the most controversial areas of interpretation of John is its sacramental theology. Scholars’ views have fallen along a wide spectrum ranging from anti-sacramental and non-sacramental, to sacramental, to ultra-sacramental and hyper-sacramental. Scholars disagree both on whether and how frequently John refers to the sacraments at all, and on the degree of importance he places upon them. Individual scholars’ answers to one of these questions do not always correspond to their answer to the other.
Frequency of allusion
According to Rudolf Bultmann, there are three sacramental allusions: one to baptism (3:5), one to the Eucharist (6:51–58), and one to both (19:34). He believed these passages to be later interpolations, though most scholars now reject this assessment. Some scholars on the weaker-sacramental side of the spectrum deny that there are any sacramental allusions in these passages or in the gospel as a whole, while others see sacramental symbolism applied to other subjects in these and other passages. Oscar Cullmann and Bruce Vawter, a Protestant and a Catholic respectively, and both on the stronger-sacramental end of the spectrum, have found sacramental allusions in most chapters. Cullmann found references to baptism and the Eucharist throughout the gospel, and Vawter found additional references to matrimony in 2:1–11, anointing of the sickin 12:1–11, and penance in 20:22–23. Towards the center of the spectrum, Raymond Brown is more cautious than Cullmann and Vawter but more lenient than Bultmann and his school, identifying several passages as containing sacramental allusions and rating them according to his assessment of their degree of certainty.
Importance to the evangelist
Most scholars on the stronger-sacramental end of the spectrum assess the sacraments as being of great importance to the evangelist. However, some scholars who find fewer sacramental references, such as Udo Schnelle, view the references that they find as highly important as well. Schnelle in particular views John’s sacramentalism as a counter to Docetist anti-sacramentalism. On the other hand, though he agrees that there are anti-Docetic passages, James Dunn views the absence of a Eucharistic institution narrative as evidence for an anti-sacramentalism in John, meant to warn against a conception of eternal life as dependent on physical ritual.
In comparison to the synoptic gospels, the Fourth Gospel is markedly individualistic, in the sense that it places emphasis more on the individual’s relation to Jesus than on the corporate nature of the Church. This is largely accomplished through the consistently singular grammatical structure of various aphoristic sayings of Jesus throughout the gospel.[Notes 5] According to Richard Bauckham, emphasis on believers coming into a new group upon their conversion is conspicuously absent from John. There is also a theme of “personal coinherence”, that is, the intimate personal relationship between the believer and Jesus in which the believer “abides” in Jesus and Jesus in the believer.[Notes 6] According to C. F. D. Moule, the individualistic tendencies of the Fourth Gospel could potentially give rise to a realized eschatology achieved on the level of the individual believer; this realized eschatology is not, however, to replace “orthodox”, futurist eschatological expectations, but is to be “only [their] correlative.” Some have argued that the Beloved Disciple is meant to be all followers of Jesus, inviting all into such a personal relationship with Christ. Beyond this, the emphasis on the individual’s relationship with Jesus in the Gospel has suggested its usefulness for contemplation on the life of Christ.
John the Baptist
John’s account of the Baptist is different from that of the synoptic gospels. In this gospel, John is not called “the Baptist.” The Baptist’s ministry overlaps with that of Jesus; his baptism of Jesus is not explicitly mentioned, but his witness to Jesus is unambiguous. The evangelist almost certainly knew the story of John’s baptism of Jesus and he makes a vital theological use of it. He subordinates the Baptist to Jesus, perhaps in response to members of the Baptist’s sect who regarded the Jesus movement as an offshoot of their movement.
In John’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples go to Judea early in Jesus’ ministry before John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed by Herod. He leads a ministry of baptism larger than John’s own. The Jesus Seminarrated this account as black, containing no historically accurate information. According to the biblical historians at the Jesus Seminar, John likely had a larger presence in the public mind than Jesus.
In the first half of the 20th century, many scholars, primarily including Rudolph Bultmann, have forcefully argued that the Gospel of John has elements in common with Gnosticism. Christian Gnosticism did not fully develop until the mid-2nd century, and so 2nd-century Proto-Orthodox Christians concentrated much effort in examining and refuting it. To say John’s gospel contained elements of Gnosticism is to assume that Gnosticism had developed to a level that required the author to respond to it. Bultmann, for example, argued that the opening theme of the Gospel of John, the pre-existing Logos, along with John’s duality of light versus darkness in his Gospel were originally Gnostic themes that John adopted. Other scholars, e.g. Raymond E. Brown have argued that the pre-existing Logos theme arises from the more ancient Jewish writings in the eighth chapter of the Book of Proverbs, and was fully developed as a theme in Hellenistic Judaism by Philo Judaeus. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran verified the Jewish nature of these concepts. April DeConick has suggested reading John 8:56 in support of a Gnostic theology, however recent scholarship has cast doubt on her reading.
Gnostics read John but interpreted it differently from the way non-Gnostics did. Gnosticism taught that salvation came from gnosis, secret knowledge, and Gnostics did not see Jesus as a savior but a revealer of knowledge. Barnabas Lindars asserts that the gospel teaches that salvation can only be achieved through revealed wisdom, specifically belief in (literally belief into) Jesus.
Raymond Brown contends that “The Johannine picture of a savior who came from an alien world above, who said that neither he nor those who accepted him were of this world, and who promised to return to take them to a heavenly dwelling could be fitted into the gnostic world picture (even if God’s love for the world in 3:16 could not).” It has been suggested that similarities between John’s gospel and Gnosticism may spring from common roots in Jewish Apocalyptic literature.
Comparison with other writings
The Gospel of John is significantly different from the synoptic gospels, with major variations in material, theological emphasis, chronology, and literary style. There are also some discrepancies between John and the Synoptics, some amounting to contradictions. The gospel forms the core of an emerging canon of Johannine works, the Johannine corpus, consisting of the gospel, the three Johannine letters, and the Apocalypse, all coming from the same theological background and opposed to the “Petrine corpus.”
John lacks scenes from the Synoptics such as Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the Twelve, exorcisms, parables, the Transfiguration, and the Last Supper. Conversely, it includes scenes not found in the Synoptics, including Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana, the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and multiple visits to Jerusalem.
In the fourth gospel, Jesus’ mother Mary, while frequently mentioned, is never identified by name. John does assert that Jesus was known as the “son of Joseph” in 6:42. For John, Jesus’ town of origin is irrelevant, for he comes from beyond this world, from God the Father.
While John makes no direct mention of Jesus’ baptism, he does quote John the Baptist’s description of the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove, as happens at Jesus’ baptism in the Synoptics. Major synoptic speeches of Jesus are absent, including the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse, and the exorcisms of demons are never mentioned as in the Synoptics. John never lists all of the Twelve Disciplesand names at least one disciple, Nathanael, whose name is not found in the Synoptics. Thomas is given a personality beyond a mere name, described as “Doubting Thomas”.
Jesus is identified with the Word (“Logos”), and the Word is identified with theos (“god” in Greek); no such identification is made in the Synoptics. In Mark, Jesus urges his disciples to keep his divinity secret, but in John he is very open in discussing it, even referring to himself as “I AM”, the title God gives himself in Exodus at his self-revelation to Moses. In the Synoptics, the chief theme is the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven (the latter specifically in Matthew), while John’s theme is Jesus as the source of eternal life and the Kingdom is only mentioned twice. In contrast to the synoptic expectation of the Kingdom (using the term parousia, meaning “coming”), John presents a more individualistic, realized eschatology.[Notes 7]
In the Synoptics, the ministry of Jesus takes a single year, but in John it takes three, as evidenced by references to three Passovers. Events are not all in the same order: the date of the crucifixion is different, as is the time of Jesus’ anointing in Bethany and the cleansing of the temple occurs in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than near its end.
In the Synoptics, quotations from Jesus are usually in the form of short, pithy sayings; in John, longer quotations are often given. The vocabulary is also different, and filled with theological import: in John, Jesus does not work “miracles” (Greek: δῠνάμεις, romanized: dynámeis, sing. δύνᾰμῐς, dýnamis), but “signs” (Greek: σημεῖᾰ, romanized: sēmeia, sing. σημεῖον, sēmeion) which unveil his divine identity. Most scholars consider John not to contain any parables. Rather it contains metaphorical stories or allegories, such as those of the Good Shepherd and of the True Vine, in which each individual element corresponds to a specific person, group, or thing. Other scholars consider stories like the childbearing woman (16:21) or the dying grain (12:24) to be parables.[Notes 8]
According to the Synoptics, the arrest of Jesus was a reaction to the cleansing of the temple, while according to John it was triggered by the raising of Lazarus. The Pharisees, portrayed as more uniformly legalistic and opposed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels, are instead portrayed as sharply divided; they debate frequently in John’s accounts. Some, such as Nicodemus, even go so far as to be at least partially sympathetic to Jesus. This is believed to be a more accurate historical depiction of the Pharisees, who made debate one of the tenets of their system of belief.
The teachings of Jesus found in the synoptic gospels are very different from those recorded in John, and since the 19th century scholars have almost unanimously accepted that these Johannine discourses are less likely than the synoptic parables to be historical, and were likely written for theological purposes. By the same token, scholars usually agree that John is not entirely without historical value: certain sayings in John are as old or older than their synoptic counterparts, his representation of the topography around Jerusalem is often superior to that of the synoptics, his testimony that Jesus was executed before, rather than on, Passover, might well be more accurate, and his presentation of Jesus in the garden and the prior meeting held by the Jewish authorities are possibly more historically plausible than their synoptic parallels.
Parts of the gospel have been set to music. One such setting is Steve Warner’s power anthem “Come and See”, written for the 20th anniversary of the Alliance for Catholic Education and including lyrical fragments taken from the Book of Signs. Additionally, some composers have made settings of the Passion as portrayed in the gospel, most notably the one composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, although some verses are borrowed from Matthew.
- Also called the Gospel of John, the Fourth Gospel, or simply John.
- Chilton & Neusner 2006, p. 5: “by their own word what they (the writers of the New Testament) set forth in the New Testament must qualify as a Judaism. … [T]o distinguish between the religious world of the New Testament and an alien Judaism denies the authors of the New Testament books their most fiercely held claim and renders incomprehensible much of what they said.”
- For the circumstances which led to the formation of the tradition, and the reasons why the majority of modern scholars reject it, see Lindars, Edwards & Court 2000, pp. 41–42
- “I am the bread of life”[6:35]
- “I am the light of the world”[8:12]
- “I am the gate for the sheep”[10:7]
- “I am the good shepherd”[10:11]
- “I am the resurrection and the life”[11:25]
- “I am the way and the truth and the life”[14:6]
- “I am the true vine”[15:1]
- Bauckham (2015) contrasts John’s consistent use of the third person singular (“The one who …”; “If anyone …”; “Everyone who …”; “Whoever …”; “No one …”) with the alternative third person plural constructions he could have used instead (“Those who …”; “”All those who …”; etc.). He also notes that the sole exception occurs in the prologue, serving a narrative purpose, whereas the later aphorisms serve a “paraenetic function”.
- See John 6:56, 10:14–15, 10:38, and 14:10, 17, 20, and 23.
- Realized eschatology is a Christian eschatological theory popularized by C. H. Dodd (1884–1973). It holds that the eschatological passages in the New Testament do not refer to future events, but instead to the ministry of Jesus and his lasting legacy. In other words, it holds that Christian eschatological expectations have already been realized or fulfilled.
- See Zimmermann 2015, pp. 333–60.
- Burkett 2002, p. 215.
- Burkett 2002, p. 214.
- Harris 2006, p. 479.
- Lindars 1990, p. 53.
- Lindars 1990, p. 59.
- Van der Watt 2008, p. 1.
- Kysar 2007, p. 183.
- Burridge, Richard. What are the Gospels? Cambridge University Press, 2004, 213–233.
- Kostenberger, Andreas “The Genre of the Fourth Gospel and Greco-Roman Literary Conventions,” in Porter, Stanley E., and Andrew W. Pitts, eds. Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament. Vol. 1. Brill, 2012, 445–463, esp. 449.
- Edwards 2015, p. ix.
- Lincoln 2005, p. 18.
- Lindars, Edwards & Court 2000, p. 41.
- Lincoln 2005, pp. 29–30.
- Fredriksen 2008, p. unpaginated.
- Reinhartz 2011, p. 168.
- Perkins 1993, p. 109.
- Reinhartz 2011, p. 171. See also: Jonathan Bourgel, ” John 4:4–42: Defining A Modus Vivendi Between Jews And The Samaritans”, Journal of Theological Studies 69 (2018), pp. 39–65 (https://www.academia.edu/37029909/Bourgel_-_JTS_-_John_4_4-42_The_terms_of_a_modus_vivendi_between_Jews_and_the_Samaritans)..
- Moloney 1998, p. 23.
- Bauckham 2007, p. 271.
- Aune 2003, p. 245.
- Aune 2003, p. 246.
- Van der Watt 2008, p. 10.
- Kruse 2004, p. 17.
- Edwards 2015, p. 171.
- Witherington 2004, p. 83.
- Hurtado 2005, p. 51.
- Harris 2006, pp. 302–10.
- Robert Kysar, “John: The Maverick Gospel” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 1976, pp. 49–54
- Bauckham 2015.
- Moule 1962, p. 172.
- Moule 1962, p. 174.
- Shea, SJ, Henry J. (Summer 2017). “The Beloved Disciple and the Spiritual Exercises”. Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits. 49 (2).
- Cross & Livingstone 2005.
- Barrett 1978, p. 16.
- Harris 2006.
- Funk & Jesus Seminar 1998, pp. 365–440.
- Funk & Jesus Seminar 1998, p. 268.
- Olson 1999, p. 36.
- Kysar 2005, pp. 88ff.
- Brown 1997.
- Charlesworth, James H. “The Historical Jesus in the Fourth Gospel: A Paradigm Shift?.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 8.1 (2010): 42
- DeConick, April D. “Who is Hiding in the Gospel of John? Reconceptualizing Johannine Theology and the Roots of Gnosticism.” in Histories of the Hidden God: Concealment and Revelation in Western Gnostic, Esoteric, and Mystical Traditions. (2013) 13–29.
- Llewelyn, Stephen Robert, Alexandra Robinson, and Blake Edward Wassell. “Does John 8:44 Imply That the Devil Has a Father?: Contesting the Pro-Gnostic Reading.” Novum Testamentum 60.1 (2018): 14–23.
- Most 2005, pp. 121ff.
- Skarsaune 2008, pp. 247ff.
- Lindars 1990, p. 62.
- John 17:14
- John 14:2–3
- Brown 1997, p. 375.
- Kovacs 1995.
- Burge 2014, pp. 236–37.
- Funk, Hoover & Jesus Seminar 1993, pp. 1–30.
- Williamson 2004, p. 265.
- Michaels 1971, p. 733.
- Fredriksen 2008.
- Pagels 2003.
- Thompson 2006, p. 184.
- Walvoord, John F. (1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books. p. 313.
- Ehrman 2005.
- Carson, D. A. (1991). The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans Publishing Co. p. 117.
- Moule 1962, pp. 172–74.
- Sander 2015.
- Ladd & Hagner 1993, p. 56.
- Barry 1911.
- Neusner 2003, p. 8.
- Sanders 1995, pp. 57, 70–71.
- Theissen & Merz 1998, pp. 36–37.
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