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Introducing the Gospel of John

Check out the movie The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John.

The Traditional Understanding of John

At select points in the narrative of John’s Gospel, a mysterious figure appears and is identified as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23-25; 18:15-16; 19:26-27; 20:1-10). In the epilogue of the Gospel, this figure seems to be credited as the author of the Gospel  (21:24). Traditionally, this figure has been identified with John, the son of Zebedee, though modern scholars have proposed a variety of identifications for this anonymous disciple.

“Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1)

“But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel. This is the account of Clement [of Alexandria].” (cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.7)

“The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write], he said, ‘Fast with me from today to three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us tell it to one another.’ In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, that John should write down all things in his own name while all of them should review it…What marvel is it then, if John so consistently mentions these particular points also in his Epistles, saying about himself, ‘What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and our hands have handled, these things we have written to you? For in this way he professes [himself] to be not only an eye-witness and hearer, but also a writer of all the marvelous deeds of the Lord, in their order. (The Muratorian Canon)

Similarities of John with the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)

  •  The basic outline from the baptizing ministry of John to Jesus’ Passion in Jerusalem. This can be compared to some other Gospels that focus on Jesus’ revelatory discourses to the exclusion of any narrative of his life, death, and resurrection.
  • There are some striking parallel events. These include the fact that Jesus stages a scene in the temple (Mark 11:15-19; John 2:13-16), miraculously walks on water and multiplies food (Mark 6:30-56; John 6:1-24), is anointed by a woman (Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8; cf. Luke 7:36-50), has a triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-11; John 12:12-19), and so on. The parallels increase in the Passion story (e.g. Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denials, the trial before Pilate, the crucifixion, the empty tomb).
  • There is a saying known as the Johannine thunderbolt (“no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”) that sounds like John but is found in Matthew 11:25-27 and Luke 10:21-22 (Q?)
  • John supplements the Synoptic Gospels at points. Jesus laments that Jerusalem has not accepted his message (Matthew 23:37/Luke 13:34), but only John has Jesus make multiple trips to Jerusalem to attend the Feasts.  Jesus is accused of threatening to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days (Mark 14:58; 15:34), but only John has Jesus make such a claim (John 2:19). John 4:1-2 plausibly explains that the Jesus movement continued the baptizing ministry of John.

 Differences of John from the Synoptic Gospels

  • John has some significant omissions (birth or childhood stories, baptism of Jesus, temptation by Satan, exorcisms, appointment of the apostles, kingdom parables, Sermon on the Mount or Plains, transfiguration, symbolism about the bread and wine at the last supper, or post-Easter ascension).
  • John includes several events not paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels (e.g. turning water into wine, the visit with the Samaritan woman, the extended Christological discourses, the resurrection of Lazarus, or the washing of the disciples’ feet)
  • John’s chronology goes beyond a single year, mentioning at least three Passovers and other festivals. Other incidents are relocated to a different part of the narrative, such as the scene in the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (cf. John 2:13-24) or his death on the Day of Preparation when the Passover Lambs were sacrificed (19:14).
  • John has extended discourses in which Jesus describes his relationship as the Son to the Father or articulates his own identity through a series of metaphorical “I AM” statements (the water of life, the bread of life, the light, the good shepherd, the gate, the vine). Indeed, John’s grammar and style often appear closer to 1 John than to the Synoptic Gospels.
  • While Mark focuses on the kingdom that will arrive in the imminent future, John largely shifts the focus to the presence of salvation and prefers the terminology of “eternal life” (see 5:26-29 for present and future eschatology).
  • There is a more explicit, higher Christology. This includes a prologue that opens by identifying Jesus as the Logos (Word) who was with God and was God and through whom the world was made (1:1-3). John closes with Thomas addressing the risen Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (20:28). Jesus also uses the divine name for himself (“before Abraham was I am” in 8:58; cf. Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:19; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12) and his opponents want to stone him for claiming equality with God (John 5:17-18). John’s language is so exalted that some readers of the Gospel may have begun to deny Jesus’  incarnation or full humanity (cf. 1 John 4:2-3; 2 John 1:7).
  • John is more dualistic in its antagonistic relationship with the kosmos (world) and contrasting symbolism of light versus darkness. Although John is explicit on the Jewish origins of the Jesus movement (John 4:22), John often generally refers to “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) rather than specifically named parties (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians) as opposing the author and warns that the price of following Jesus could be expulsion from the synagogue (9:22; 16:2).

Why does John Stand Out?

  • Purpose statement (20:30-31): “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. John. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
  • Some scholars believe John is indebted to some distinct memories of the “beloved disciple” and focuses on Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem instead of Galilee, while others judge the “beloved disciple” to be a literary creation.
  • Some scholars see a “two-level drama” happening in John’s Gospel where the author mixes what happened during Jesus’ ministry with the experiences of the author’s own community in conflict with their local synagogue for their stance on Jesus’ divinity (cf. J. Louis Martyn, Raymond Brown). This reconstruction has been criticized by others (Richard Bauckham, Edward W. Klink, Jonathan Bernier).
  • Scholars debate whether John was independent of the Synoptics, drawing on a different stream of oral tradition, or directly depends on one or more of the Synoptics. The opinion of the ancient church tended to be that John wrote to supplement the other three Gospels and Clement acknowledges that John provides a more mystical, spiritual account.
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