The Gospel According To John
John’s Gospel is radically different from the three others; to such an extent indeed that Father Roguet in his book Initiation to the Gospel (Initiation à l’Evangile), having commented on the other three, immediately evokes a startling image for the fourth. He calls it, the different world’. It is indeed a unique book; different in the arrangement and choice of subject, description and speech; different in its style, geography, chronology; there are even differences in theological outlook (O. Culmann). Jesus’s words are therefore differently recorded by John from the other evangelists: Father Roguet notes on this that whereas the synoptics record Jesus’s words in a style that is “striking, much nearer to the oral style”, in John all is meditation; to such an extent indeed that “one sometimes wonders if Jesus is still speaking or whether His ideas have not imperceptibly been extended by the Evangelist’s own thoughts”.
Who was the author? This is a highly debated question and extremely varying opinions have been expressed on this subject.
A. Tricot and Father Roguet belong to a camp that does not have the slightest misgivings: John’s Gospel is the work of an eyewitness, its author is John, son of Zebedee and brother of James. Many details are known about this apostle and are set out in works for mass publication. Popular iconography puts him near Jesus, as in the Last Supper prior to the Passion. Who could imagine that John’s Gospel was not the work of John the Apostle whose figure is so familiar?
The fact that the fourth Gospel was written so late is not a serious argument against this opinion. The definitive version was probably written around the end of the First century A.D. To situate the time it was written at sixty years after Jesus would be in keeping with an apostle who was very young at the time of Jesus and who lived to be almost a hundred.
Father Kannengiesser, in his study on the Resurrection, arrives at the conclusion that none of the New Testament authors, save Paul, can claim to have been eyewitnesses to Jesus’s Resurrection. John nevertheless related the appearance to a number of the assembled apostles, of which he was probably a member, in the absence of Thomas (20,19-24), then eight days later to the full group of apostles (20,25-29).
O. Culmann in his work The New Testament does not subscribe to this view.
The Ecumenical Translation of the Bible states that the majority of critics do not accept the hypothesis that the Gospel was written by John, although this possibility cannot be entirely ruled out. Everything points however towards the fact that the text we know today had several authors: “It is probable that the Gospel as it stands today was put into circulation by the author’s disciples who added chapter 21 and very likely several annotations (i.e. 4,2 and perhaps 4,1; 4,44; 7,37b; 11,2; 19,35). With regard to the story of the adulterous woman (7,53-8,11), everyone agrees that it is a fragment of unknown origin inserted later (but nevertheless belonging to canonic Scripture)”. Passage 19,35 appears as a ‘signature’ of an ‘eyewitness’ (O. Culmann), the only explicit signature in the whole of John’s Gospel; but commentators believe that it was probably added later.
O. Culmann thinks that latter additions are obvious in this Gospel; such as chapter 21 which is probably the work of a “disciple who may well have made slight alterations to the main body of the Gospel”.
It is not necessary to mention all the hypotheses suggested by experts in exegesis. The remarks recorded here made by the most eminent Christian writers on the questions of the authorship of the fourth Gospel are sufficient to show the extent of the confusion reigning on the subject of its authorship.
The historical value of John’s stories has been contested to a great extent. The discrepancy between them and the other three Gospels is quite blatant. O. Culman offers an explanation for this; he sees in John a different theological point of view from the other evangelists. This aim “directs the choice of stories from the Logia recorded, as well as the way in which they are reproduced . . . Thus the author often prolongs the lines and makes the historical Jesus say what the Holy Spirit Itself revealed to Him”. This, for the exegete in question, is the reason for the discrepancies.
It is of course quite conceivable that John, who was writing after the other evangelists, should have chosen certain stories suitable for illustrating his own theories. One should not be surprised by the fact that certain descriptions contained in the other Gospels are missing in John. The Ecumenical Translation picks out a certain number of such instances (page 282). Certain gaps hardly seem credible however, like the fact that the Institution of the Eucharist is not described. It is unthinkable that an episode so basic to Christianity, one indeed that was to be the mainstay of its liturgy, i.e. the mass, should not be mentioned by John, the most pre-eminently meditative evangelist. The fact is, he limits himself, in the narrative of the supper prior to the Passion, to simply describing the washing of the disciples’ feet, the prediction of Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial.
In contrast to this, there are stories which are unique to John and not present in the other three. The Ecumenical Translation mentions these (page 283). Here again, one could infer that the three authors did not see the importance in these episodes that John saw in them. It is difficult however not to be taken aback when one finds in John a description of the appearance of Jesus raised from the dead to his disciples beside the Sea of Tiberias (John 21,1-14). The description is nothing less than the reproduction (with numerous added details) of the miracle catch of fish which Luke (5,1-11) presents as an episode that occurred during Jesus’s life. In his description Luke alludes to the presence of the Apostle John who, as tradition has it, was the evangelist, Since this description in John’s Gospel forms part of chapter 21, agreed to be a later addition, one can easily imagine that the reference to John’s name in Luke could have led to its artificial inclusion in the fourth Gospel. The necessity of transforming a description from Jesus’s life to a posthumous description in no way prevented the evangelical text from being manipulated.
Another important point on which John’s Gospel differs from the other three is in the duration of Jesus’s mission. Mark, Matthew and Luke place it over a period of one year. John spreads it over two years. O. Culmann notes this fact. On this subject the Ecumenical Translation expresses the following.
“The synoptics describe a long period in Galilee followed by a march that was more or less prolonged towards Judea, and finally a brief stay in Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, describes frequent journeys from one area to another and mentions a long stay in Judea, especially in Jerusalem (1,19-51; 2,13-3,36; 5,1-47; 14,20-31). He mentions several Passover celebrations (2,13; 5,1; 6,4; 11,55) and thus suggests a ministry that lasted more than two years”.
By Dr. Maurice Bucaille
This article is borrowed from The Bible, The Qur’an and Science