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Introducing the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John

Authorship: Internal Evidence

The passages on the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 1:35-40 [?], 13:23-25; 18:15-16 [?], 19:25-27, 19:35 [?], 20:2-10, 21:1-7, 20-24). The most popular suggestions for the beloved disciple are the Apostle John, the Elder John, Lazarus, John Mark, an anonymous Judaean disciple, or a literary fiction (the most extensive list is in James Charlesworth’s The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John?). Here are the Pros and Cons of identifying the beloved disciple as the Apostle John:

  • John is never named in the Fourth Gospel, but none of the scenes that feature him in the Synoptic Gospels occur in the Fourth Gospel (see Mark 1:19-20, 29-32; 5:37-42; 9:2-10; 10:35-40; 13:3; 14:33-34). The one exception is the parallel between John 21:1-14 and Luke 5:1-11.
  • John could be the anonymous disciple who was called alongside Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, in John 1:35-42. However, the scene in John where Jesus recruits two of his followers from the movement of John the Baptizer completely differs from the calling of the two sets of brothers (Peter and Andrew, James and John) from their fishing occupations in Mark 1:16-20.
  • The Twelve were at the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels, but the Fourth Gospel never restricts this event to the Twelve who are rarely mentioned in the text (cf. John 6:67, 70; 20:24) and a local Judaean follower could have hosted the meal.
  • In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is especially close to three disciples (Peter, James, John) and James is executed by Herod Agrippa I around 40 CE. John is also paired with Peter in the book of Acts. But the fourth Gospel never mentions this trio as an inner circle of disciples.
  • The beloved disciple almost exclusively shows up in Jerusalem with the exception of John 21:7, 20-24 (and possibly 1:35-40) and John 19:25-27 may imply that he had a residence in or near the environs of Jerusalem.
  • If the “other disciple” in John 18:15-16 is the beloved disciple, he seems to have been a prominent individual closely connected to the high priest.
  • The beloved disciple has to be among the group of seven disciples in John 21:2, but it may be more likely that the beloved disciple is among the two anonymous disciples than the named “sons of Zebedee.”

 Authorship: External Evidence

  • “But I will not hesitate to supplement at any time for you too the interpretations with whatever I learned thoroughly and remembered thoroughly from the presbyters [or “elders”], since I am confident in the truth on their account. For unlike many I was not delighted with those who say many things but with those who teach the truth, or with those who remember not the commandments of others but those given by the Lord to the faith and derived from truth itself. But whenever someone who had followed the presbyters came along, I would carefully ask about the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or what Peter had said or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the disciples of the Lord, and which Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord say too. For I did not assume that whatever comes from books is as helpful to me as what comes from a living and lasting voice.” (Papias, in Ecclesiastical History 3.39.3-4).
  • “Then John, the disciple of the Lord and also the one who leaned against his chest, also pub­lished the gospel when re­siding in Ephesus of Asia” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1).
  • “…but John, last, aware that the physical facts were disclosed in the gospels, urged by friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel” (Clement of Alexandria, in 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” (Muratorian Canon, Lines 9-16).

Date

  • The Rylands Library Papyrus 52 is a fragment of a few verses from John 18:31-33, 37-38 and is commonly dated in the first half of the second century.
  • Early Patristic references or allusions to the Gospel of John or 1 John (e.g. Papias of Hierapolis, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyna, Justin Martyr).
  • The Johannine epistles may be an orthodox commentary on the Gospel, especially against schismatic secessionists who denied the incarnation or at least saving significance of Jesus “in the flesh.”
  • There is debate about whether the Gospel of John exhibits literary dependence on one or more of the Synoptic Gospels. There is also debate about what sources were utilized by the Gospel of John (e.g. a hymn to the Logos or “Word,” a signs source, a discourse source, a passion narrative).
  • There is debate about how long it would have taken for the evangelist to develop the high Christology in the Fourth Gospel (1:1-3; 5:17-18; 8:58; 20:28).
  • There is debate about whether the generalized polemic against hoi Ioudaioi (“the Jews” or “the Judaeans”), along with the references to the expulsions of Jesus’s followers from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:2), reflects a contemporary schism between the Johannine community with their local synagogue. Older scholarship correlated this with the alleged formulation of a liturgical malediction against “heretics” at the council of Yavneh in the late first century called the birkat ha-minim (cf. B. Berakhot 28b-29a).
  • There is debate about how many editorial revisions went into the composition of John’s Gospel. The final form of the book with the epilogue in chapter 21 was clearly written after Peter died as a martyr (by crucifixion?) and probably after the beloved disciple died (cf. John 21:20-25).

Provenance

  • Ephesus: supported by the external church tradition about Saint John in Ephesus (cf. Irenaeus, Polycrates, the Acts of John), the positive reception of Johannine literature in Asia Minor (cf. Papias, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Polycrates), the affinities with the book of Revelation (e.g. Christological titles such as Word of God or Lamb), and the cultural milieu where Jews, Christians, and other socio-religious formations interacted.
  • Alexandria: supported by the manuscript evidence from Egypt, the positive reception of John’s Gospel among proto-Orthodox and Valentinian Christians in Alexandria, the affinities with the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (e.g. the Logos), and the interest in a spiritualizing or allegorizing hermeneutic.
  • Syria: supported by the affinities with the Syriac Odes of Solomon and with Ignatius of Antioch (e.g. high Christology, opposition to “Docetism”). The close proximity to Palestine may also explain John’s accurate topographical and cultural knowledge of the region.

Key Themes

  • High Christology:
    • Jesus is the pre-existent “Word” (logos) who was both God and was God, who created all things, and who became incarnate in the flesh (sarx) (1:1-18)
    • The “I Am” speeches: the Bread of Life (6:35, 48); the Light of the World (8:12; 9:15); the “I Am” (8:58; cf. Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10); the Door of the Gate (10:7); the Good Shepherd (10:11); the Resurrection and the Life (11:25); the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6); the Vine (15:1).
    • Balancing the theme of Jesus’s oneness with the Father (5:17-18; 10:27-28; 17:11, 21-23) with the theme of his subordination (14:28)
    • There was a schism in the first epistle of John over whether Jesus had come in the flesh (1 John 2:22-23; 4:1-3; 2 John 1:7).
  • There is a sharp dualism between light and darkness, between the followers of Jesus who have been called out of the “world” (kosmos) and the world that is hostile towards them. Although Jesus and his disciples were Jewish (cf. John 4:9, 22), the Gospel represents hoi Ioudaioi (“the Jews”, “the Jewish leaders”, “the Judeans”) of persecuting the followers of Jesus to the point that they were “expelled” (aposynagōgos) from the synagogues (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2).
  • The fellowship of believers is to be completely united and “one,” just as Jesus was one with the Father, and are to follow the great commandment to love one another as Jesus had loved them (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23).
  • Jesus’ death is represented as his exaltation or the “lifting up” of the Son of Man (John 3:14-15; 8:28; 12:32).
  • The preferred expression is “eternal life” rather than “kingdom of God” and this was available in the present through trusting that Jesus was sent by God, though there would be a future judgment and resurrection (e.g. 5:25-29; 6:39-58).

 

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