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The Gospel of John

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).
  • “John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep in Ephesus.” (Polycrates, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.24.2-3)
  • “…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, 9-16).
  • “Nevertheless, of all the disciples of the Lord, only Matthew and John have left us written memorials, and they, tradition says, were led to write only under the pressure of necessity… John accordingly, in his Gospel, records the deeds of Christ which were performed before the Baptist was cast into prison, but the other three evangelists mention the events which happened after that time.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.24.5, 12)

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 some of the pros and cons over 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 may be the anonymous disciple with Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, in John 1:35-42. Yet the Johannine scene where Jesus recruits two disciples from the movement of John the Baptizer 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 follower from Jerusalem may 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 Gospel of John never mentions this trio as an inner circle among the disciples.
  • Unlike the Twleve who fled, the beloved disciple is loyal to the point where he stands at the foot of the cross (19:25-27, 35).
  • 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 also imply that he had a residence in or near Jerusalem.
  • If the “other disciple” in John 18:15-16 is the beloved disciple, he may have been a prominent person with connections 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.”

 Date

  • The Rylands Library Papyrus 52 is a fragment of a few verses from John 18:31-33, 37-38 and commonly dated in the first half of the 2nd century.
  • Early Patristic references or allusions to the Gospel of John or the First Epistle of John (e.g. Papias of Hierapolis, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyna, Justin Martyr).
  • 1 John may be an orthodox commentary on the Gospel, opposing secessionists who denied the incarnation or at least saving significance of the life and death of Jesus “in the flesh” (4:2-3; 5:6-8; 2 John 7).
  • There is debate about whether John’s Gospel exhibits literary dependence on one or more of the Synoptic Gospels.
  • There is debate about the other oral or written sources that were utilized in John’s Gospel (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 took for the high Christology in John’s Gospel to have developed (1:1-3; 5:17-18; 8:58; 20:28).
  • There is debate about whether the 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 included the epilogue in chapter 21 which contained traditions about the deaths of Peter (by crucifixion?) and the beloved disciple (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 early reception of 1 John by Papias of Hierapolis and Polycarp of Smyrna and the major impact that John’s Gospel had in Asia Minor (e.g. the Quartodeciman controversy), the affinities with the book of Revelation (e.g. Christological titles such as Word 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
    • 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.” This was available in the present through trusting that Jesus was sent by God, but there would be a future judgment and resurrection (e.g. 5:25-29; 6:39-58).

Case Study: 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 that lays down his life for the sheep (10:11)
  • the Resurrection and the Life (11:25)
  • the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6)
  • the Vine that supports the branches (15:1).

 

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