The Gospel According to John
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
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The fourth canonical Gospel in the nt. It is traditionally ascribed to John, the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve and the brother of James. Yet Zebedee’s sons are mentioned only in 21:2 and then not by name. Although the Beloved Disciple, who figures prominently in the latter part of the narrative, is traditionally identified as John, that equation is not made in the Gospel. For reasons that will be given below, most modern scholars do not think that the Gospel is apostolic in origin.
OUTLINE OF CONTENTS
The Gospel According to John
I. Introduction (1:1-51)
II. Jesus’ manifestation of God’s glory before the world (2:1-12:50)
III. Jesus’ manifestation of God’s glory to his disciples (13:1-20:31)
IV. Appendis: Jesus’ appearance by Sea of Galilee to Peter and others (21:1-25)
The Distinctiveness of the Fourth Gospel: In the Gospel of John, Jesus delivers no Sermon on the Mount (or Plain). He tells no parables, heals no lepers, does not instruct his disciples to pray the Lord’s Prayer, and does not institute the Lord’s Supper on the night of his betrayal and arrest. In short, the kinds of moral teaching and religious instruction associated with the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels are almost completely absent from John, as are his typically brief and epigrammatic sayings (e.g., Mark 2:27; 12:17).
Jesus delivers discourses and carries on debates with his opponents in the Fourth Gospel up to the point (chap. 12) at which he withdraws from the world to be with his disciples, whom he commands to love one another (13:34). These discourses and debates do not, however, concern the interpretation of the Law and related practical moral issues, as in the Synoptics; rather, they dwell upon the claim to messiahship and divine sonship that Jesus makes for himself. The prologue’s (1:1-18) description of him as the ‘Word’ (Gk. logos) sent from God is borne out in his appearance and discourses. His opponents are often categorized simply as ‘the Jews,’ even though the Gospel presents Jesus himself as a Jew, a native of Nazareth (1:45-46; 4:22; 18:33-35). The distinction between Jesus and his disciples, on the one hand, and the Jews, on the other, is altogether characteristic of the Gospel of John but not of the other Gospels, where Jesus appears as a figure within Judaism. (The other authors and their communities are, of course, also convinced that Jesus is not only Christ but Son of God.) This difference may afford some indication of the reasons for the distinctiveness of the Fourth Gospel: it arises out of a sharp conflict between Jews who accept the messiahship of Jesus and those who do not.
Jesus performs healing and other miracles in the Fourth Gospel, as in the Synoptics, but John has accounts of different episodes. Yet, like the others, John recounts how Jesus fed a multitude, apparently miraculously, and soon thereafter was seen walking on the water by his disciples, who were in a boat on the lake. Typically, John portrays Jesus performing a healing, then debating with Jews (or Pharisees) about its significance (cf. chaps. 5 and 9). In this Gospel, the miracles are ‘signs’ signifying who Jesus is and they are intended to evoke faith on the part of those who witness them, beginning with the disciples (2:11). Yet one can see signs and, even without rejecting them, fail to attain adequate faith (2:23-25). Nevertheless, Jesus’ miracles, like his message, are in John’s Gospel fundamentally testimonies to who he is (see 20:30-31). They are not acts of mercy or signs of the Kingdom of God, as in the Synoptics, but serve to convey John’s message about Jesus Christ (i.e., Christology).
Although John’s narrative of the events leading from Jesus’ arrest to his death and burial is remarkably similar to the Synoptics’, the role and demeanor of Jesus are again distinctive. Jesus seems above, or aloof from, the maelstrom of events. He is not silent before the Roman procurator Pilate, however, but virtually turns the tables on him. In the Johannine trial scene, Pilate shuttles back and forth between Jesus and the accusing Jews, seeming to wish to release Jesus but not having the fortitude to do so. When Jesus goes to his execution, it is as if by his own initiative. In death, he shows no pain or emotion (cf. Mark 14:33-39) but says, ‘It is finished,’ as if he remained in control of events until the very end (19:30). And that is precisely the picture this Gospel encourages its readers to form.
The rather different and contrasting portrayal of Jesus, his message, and his ministry in the Fourth Gospel raises questions about the causes or conditions that produced the Gospel, as well as its historical validity. The latter question is perhaps less complex, although both are difficult enough.
In an earlier, uncritical era, John was used to supplement the Synoptics, as though each were a straightforward historical account. But this is true of none of them. They are all ‘gospels.’ The gospel is an almost uniquely Christian literary genre, albeit with affinities with late Hellenistic (i.e., 100 b.c. to a.d. 100) biography as well as ot narratives. The Gospels undeniably intend to report historical events, but in the overall framework or context of a distinctly Christian theological interpretation. Because the Synoptics do not generally present Jesus as proclaiming himself, i.e., presenting christological doctrine, and because the issues they portray him dealing with are largely indigenous to early first-century Palestinian Judaism, historians have rightly preferred their renditions of Jesus’ teaching particularly, but also his healing activity and his death. Yet in all probability John contains some valid historical data peculiar to itself (e.g., the dating of Jesus’ execution on the afternoon before the beginning of Passover rather than during the feast), as well as authentic sayings of Jesus. Whether John knew the synoptic Gospels is a debated question. Obviously, he did not feel constrained to agree with them or conform to them.
Language and Style: The style and language of even Jesus’ speech in the Fourth Gospel are in many respects closer to the three Letters of John than to the other Gospels. Not surprisingly, tradition has held and many scholars have agreed that all are the work of the same author.
Although the book of Revelation is in language and style quite different from the Gospel of John, the two nevertheless have certain features in common. In both, Jesus is described as the ‘Word’ and ‘Lamb (of God),’ and in both heavy emphasis is laid on witnessing to Jesus and the gospel. Strikingly, in Revelation, the crucified and risen Jesus delivers the initial revelation (Rev. 1-3), and his words are not unlike those of the Johannine Jesus (cf. Rev. 3:20). Several seemingly diverse factors may also be pertinent here: the author of Revelation is a prophet (1:3), through whom words of the living Jesus are conveyed; 1 John 4:1-6 apparently deals with Spirit-inspired prophets; and in the farewell discourses of the Gospel of John (chaps. 14-16), Jesus promises the disciples that he will send them the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who will somehow mediate his further teaching to them. Quite possibly, the activity of Spirit-inspiration among Christians who produced such books as the Gospel of John, as well as the other Johannine writings, is related to the distinctiveness of the Johannine style and particularly to the unique framing and content of the discourses of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. However that may be, the very distinctiveness of the Johannine emphases, language, and store of concepts suggests that the circumstances and influences that helped produce the Gospel of John were distinctively different from those affecting the Synoptics. Influences: The concept of the ‘word,’ prominent in Greek philosophy since Heraclitus and important to the Stoic philosophers, dominates the prologue of John’s Gospel. Interpreters once took this as a clue to the Greek character and origin of John. Analogies to this hellenization (i.e., adaptation to Greek ways of thinking) of the Christian gospel were seen in the work of the Alexandrian Jew Philo and the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, and such affinities are real. But soon after World War II, they were overshadowed by the Qumran Scrolls. Of Jewish origin and discovered in Palestine near the Dead Sea, they share significant theological vocabulary and dualistic thought patterns (e.g., light/darkness, truth/lie) with the Fourth Gospel. Earlier suggestions of a profoundly Jewish substratum of the Gospel seemed to be confirmed.
In the meantime, a number of scholars came to believe that John was influenced by, or written to refute, an earlier form of the so-called Gnostic heresy that flourished during the second century and threatened for a while to become the dominant form of Christianity. Gnosticism tended to equate Creation with the Fall, to regard the material world as evil, and to see in Jesus the emissary from an alien God who had descended into this world to save his kindred spirits, the elect. Some elements of this view, especially its Christology and concept of salvation seemed to find an echo in the Fourth Gospel. On the other hand, the Gospel’s assertion that all things were made through Christ (1:3), its positive use of the ot, and 1 John’s denunciation of those who deny the fleshliness (i.e., humanity) of Jesus (4:2-3) could be construed as directly opposed to Gnosticism. Significantly, however, the earliest known commentary on the Fourth Gospel was written by a mid-second-century Gnostic named Heracleon. Perhaps because it was used by Gnostic Christians who came to be regarded as heretics, and also because it was so obviously different from the Synoptics, John was looked upon with suspicion by some orthodox churchmen. When, in the last quarter of the second century, Bishop Irenaeus argued for the necessity of four Gospels, he may have been defending the authority of the Gospel of John in particular.
Authorship and Date: As we push back into the middle and first half of the second century, there is some evidence that John was known among orthodox churchmen (Ignatius, Justin Martyr), but no connection is made either with John the son of Zebedee or with Ephesus in Asia Minor, the traditional place of origin. Statements that the Gospel of John was written by the son of Zebedee in Ephesus appear at about the time when the four-Gospel canon was emerging in the general usage of the church, that is, the end of the second century. It was said that John was a ‘spiritual’ Gospel, written after the other Gospels and with knowledge of them (Clement of Alexandria, at the end of the second century). The implication that John was the last of the four canonical Gospels was thus willingly accepted. Therefore, the widely held critical opinion that John could not have been composed much before the end of the first century has ancient roots. Such a date accommodates the distinct possibility that the manifest hostility between Jesus and his disciples and the authorities, called Jews, is a reflection of a conflict, which began within the synagogue (cf. John 9:22; 12:42), between those Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those (the precursors of rabbinic Judaism) who did not. The latter, after the Jewish-Roman war (a.d. 66-70), oversaw the retrenchment of Judaism associated with the town of Jamnia.
Authorship of the Fourth Gospel and the identity of the Beloved Disciple
There is a broad range of scholarly conclusions on who actually was the source for or author of the Fourth Gospel and/or the Beloved Disciple. Was it John son of Zebedee, or John Mark, or John the Elder, or Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Bethany? Rather than any one of them being the author, was one of them the source for the accounts and theological perspective described in the Fourth Gospel. To explore this issue, browse:
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer