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The Gospel of John

Updated on December 20, 2009

The Gospel of John, long credited rightly or wrongly to "the disciple whom Jesus loved", is for many the "well-loved Gospel", but scholars reverently discuss it also as part of "the Johannine problem". There are valid reasons for this debate. First, there is the striking dissimilarity between John's Gospel and the Synoptics. (See synoptic gospels.) These latter are more historical, though actually their history is always at the service of their faith, while John's Gospel, though it has seven sections staunchly historical, features conversations (almost in the genre of the Socratic dialogues) and profound meditations. The Synoptics proceed in the Markan chronology and make Galilee the main locale, while John implies that Judaea is the central setting of the ministry of Jesus.

A second item in the problem concerns the last chapter. Even the general reader can see that the Gospel ends in a final great chord with chapter 20: "These are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name". That declaration sets forth the purpose of the book. Then follows a chapter which tells that Jesus appeared as Resurrection Lord to five disciples and a mysterious "two others", that (by supernatural perception?) he guided them to a miraculous catch of fishes, and that he commissioned Peter to "feed my sheep". Then follows a passage which may hint the early martyrdom of John (21:23) and an enigmatic note: "This is the disciple which testifieth of these things . . . and we know that his testimony is true". The last chapter evidently came from the group here named "we". The passage 19:35 is similarly enigmatic and seems to have been inserted into the description of Calvary. These "we" redactors are indeed hard to identify. They do not name the main author. Did they know? They apparently believed him to be John the Apostle.


With these facts before us, what of the authorship of the main Gospel? Many studies have deemed it a reflection of intimate friendship between John and his Lord, but there is no guarantee. In their support is the testimony of the added chapter, the testimony of certain church fathers, and the fact that the historical sections of the Gospel have verisimilitude both as to history and geography. But there are counter arguments: (1) If John died an early martyred death, he could hardly have written a work which has many marks of later meditation on the meaning of Christ. (2) The theology of John, perhaps especially in its Christology, seems to imply a later development in Christian thought.

We cannot at present answer the question. Perhaps John the Apostle has left his mark on the historical sections and may have given early form to other portions; present scholarship seems to have swung back to this possibility. But it is probably fair to say that for the substance of the book most scholars posit a later date and another hand.

Influences in the Gospel

What main influences have shaped or colored the Gospel? The Christian faith could not penetrate the Graeco-Roman world without the strength of its Judaistic heritage or without some imprint from the new cultural environment.

Greek influence has long been assumed, not without evidence: the first verses, for an instance, are obviously in the manner of a Stoic poem on the Logos. But the Dead Sea Scrolls (see scrolls, dead sea) have given pause to any overemphasis on Greek fashioning. The title "Logos" does not recur later, and even that poem appears on scrutiny to provide mainly a setting for the distinctively Christian items (1:14, 17, 18). Indeed Logos, as the Word of God, may have had in the author's mind the coloration rather of the Old Testament "Word of God". There are marks of the debate of the church with Gnosticism, but the Greek cast of the Gospel is not pronounced. The scrolls show that such terms as "light" and "darkness" which formerly were attributed to Greek thought must now be given an eschatological cast: as index of Hebraic apocalyptic belief in the final warfare at Armageddon between the children of light and the children of darkness.

As for the influence of the mystery religions, that also perhaps should now be minimized rather than stressed. These faiths seem to have had as main tenets or ritual an initiation including lustrations, a sacramental meal, a drama of epiphany, and a pledge of immortality. The reader of the Gospel can readily find passages which, in language at least, would provide a bridge between Christian faith and the mysteries faith. But they are a bridge, not a surrender of any distinctively Christian doctrine.

The Old Testament influence is dominant beyond doubt. Salvation is of God, not by esoteric ritual or by man's "reason". The background of events is one of Jewish festivals and customs. There is constant appeal to Old Testament Scripture. The titles given to Jesus are instinct with Hebraic history, and metaphors such as that of the Vine or Shepherd are precisely those most dear to the Hebrew mind.

As for Essene influence, the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that the Gospel may have a background closer to that of the Essenes than to that of the Greek world.

Concerning the influence of other New Testament books, there is much current debate, the results of which are hard to assess. Dr. Burnett H. Streeter has argued strongly the Markan influence but may not have completely proved his case; there may be more echoes of Luke. Pauline and Johannine thought have much in common, as for instance in the doctrine of the pre-exist-ence of Jesus and the disciples' life "in Christ". But the Johannine doctrine of the Parousia is plainly at sharp odds with Pauline thought. It is now believed that John in this doctrine is not in sequence and correction of Paul, but is another branch from one tree of doctrine. Perhaps we may say that there is a link between John on the one hand and Synoptic thought on the other, but the weight and strength of the link cannot yet be determined.


The book's doctrine of God is Trinitarian even though it does not use the formula as in the last paragraph of Matthew's Gospel. John might have rejoiced in the later explication of this doctrine as the validation in God of both the individual and social being of man. God is Father and Creator, Light and Love, yet stands above this mortal scene in mystery: "No man hath seen God at any time" (1:18). Jesus is the incarnation of God and thus speaks with ultimate authority; yet he genuinely shares our nature (against Gnosticism) and glorifies it. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and is given to men as Paraclete (the Greek word means "One who serves mankind as witness and sponsor"), as Comforter (strengthening friend) and as Interpreter ("He shall teach you all things . . . whatsoever I have said unto you". 14:26). The Greek persona from which our "God in Three Persons" is derived meant the mask used by the one actor in a Greek drama. It has a deeper meaning in John but should not be equated with our modern psychological term, for John's Gospel is also Hebraic in its insistence that God is one God.

As to John's doctrine of human nature and destiny, God is "above" and man is "below", but the threatening dualism is canceled because God has made common cause with men through His Incarnation in Jesus. Thus there is no despair regarding the human order or the cosmos; it is God's creation, and God can therefore be revealed in history. He has built the bridge, and men can cross the bridge by "believing" and thus "have life" (20:31).

The doctrine of "last things" is here sharply different from Pauline and apocalyptic teaching. Many 1st century Christians hoped for the imminent second coming of Jesus in the flesh, and the Epistles are exercised with the question of his failure to return. According to Johannine doctrine, Christ has already returned in the Holy Spirit. In the flesh Jesus could come only to those near him in physical presence; in the Spirit He comes to all men as inward Guest and Life. So 16:7 "Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you". Space forbids discussion of an implicit doctrine of the church and the sacraments. Suffice it to say of the latter that there is no magical stress as in the mysteries: the teaching is more akin to the Hermetic writings and concerns the indwelling word. But space restriction should not outlaw emphasis on the doctrine about Christ himself. Throughout He is portrayed as the regnant Son of God. Thus neither the humility nor the compassion of Jesus here finds stress: his signs are wrought as manifestation of his glory, and the crowd is not astonished by them; why should they be when the glory is plain to see from his first appearing? Thus even the foot-washing scene is for the benefit of the disciples, as revelation of God. John the Baptist recognized the glory on first seeing Jesus. There is no account of the baptism, or of the temptation, or of the suffering in Gethsemane, or of Simon carrying the Cross; and Calvary itself is not in any sense defeat, for it was planned in God's foreknowledge, and Christ was aware of the plan in His sovereign control: He had power to lay down life and to take it in the Resurrection. The Synoptics stress the weakness of Jesus even though they are sure that thus he shared our nature for our redemption; but for John no weakness showed, and mention of ridicule or affront done to Jesus is omitted because Jesus was always Lord of His event. The very expression "lifted up", which John uses to describe the Crucifixion, has a double meaning: it also indicates exaltation. Calvary was but the first stage of the ascension of Jesus to eternal majesty.

Date, Locale, and Unity

The date of this Gospel cannot yet be determined. The fact that Johannine language appears rather strikingly in the Dead Sea Scrolls may argue a much earlier date than that posited by scholars of the last generation. But the Gospel may be composite. The passage 3:11 seems to be an interpolation by redactors. Chapter 5 has the appearance of a Tudaean incident thrust into a Galilean account. John 12:42 resumes the teaching of Jesus just after we have been told that he had finished teaching. In chapter 14, after "Arise, let us go hence", the conversation is promptly renewed in the subsequent chapter. So striking are these dislocations that some scholars have assumed even that the original papyri are in wrong order through faulty shuffling. Not many authorities accept the theory, but the proposal that there were several sources wins wider assent. Was there an original historical source corresponding to that behind the Markan record? Or an "I am" source, a Gnostic writing which John turned to Christian purpose?

Or a "signs" source likewise used with profound insight? We do not know. There is a prevailing unity of style. If the book has drawn on several sources, its historical nucleus and perhaps more may have been of early date, perhaps as early as Mark, about 70 a.d. But dogmatism as to date is still forbidden, especially as the theology of the Gospel seems to imply long study and development within the history of the early church.

The locale is likewise hidden. All we can confidently say is that the imprint of Essene dualism is deeper than we formerly supposed, and that important sources of the Gospel may now have to be assigned to Judaea. As for the place of final writing, we do not know. The Ephesus neighborhood? It could be. Alexandria? It could be, though there is in John little of the elaborate allegorizing favored in Alexandria by Philo. Jerusalem? It could be, especially for the earlier forms of the Gospel, though perhaps not likely for the final form.

Abiding Worth

Never were words so aptly chosen and so rightly used: the "again" in "except a man be born again" means equally "from above" (3:3). Never was skillful repetition more surely an opening into truth: "All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (1:3). Never were contrasts of positive and negative set in such telling light and shade: "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved" (3:17). But the book grants far deeper blessings. It defended the young church against an apocalypticism which presumed to know and fix God's calendar, and so tempted the faithful to forget God's strong Presence; and from a Gnosticism which reckoned the flesh a burden and a darkness, and which thus opened the door either to morbidity or to license. "The Word became flesh and tented among us", said John, borrowing a metaphor from his own Israel: the Ark of the Covenant redeeming the huddled tents of the wanderers, in promise of the pledged land. So in all the years of man's pilgrimage the assurance is given of the Spirit's power and grace: "I will not leave you comfortless" (14:18). That Christ has been tried in all things like us is necessary truth, but not less do we need confidence in a risen, exalted, and regnant Lord. This Gospel's mighty faith, wrought from the very life of the church in a tumultuous time, is a covert from the storm and the shadow of a great rock. That we cannot be sure of authorship and date and locale is no intolerable burden; we have the Gospel and that can lighten all burdens; for, to use its own main terms, it is life and light, truth and wine and shepherding.


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    • Timothy Donnelly profile image

      Timothy Donnelly 

      8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Where would you place, in terms of regard, the testimony of one who is not a scholar? You have written a very interesting Hub looking at The Gospel According to St. John. Thank you for that. I will say to you that this Gospel can be confusing. This is because of the different ways John describes the nature of Jesus, for example in John 1: 1 “IN the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This implies (and I use this term implies because it is difficult to understand) that a physical doctrine, or physical book is actually God. This verse is quoted by so many people that it is tiring to me; because of its lack of plainness and simplicity. John later clearly and plainly describes the nature of Jesus in the same chapter (and others of this book) as something that is not confusing, is quite believable, and in my opinion is a description that He has already partially bestowed upon us - not to be changed, but only enhanced by Him, as His Sovereign prerogative. Of course I speak of my TESTIMONY of the Godhead. All this about God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost being ONE is quite SIMPLY one in purpose, one in commitment, and one in Gospel (Word). It should really not be a mystery. One Divine Entity WITNESSES for the other(s) throughout the Bible. The understanding of Heavenly Father’s MODEL of Creation and its Familial nature should not ever be anything BUT transparent and evident to us all. With a Divine Witness (the Holy Ghost), this understanding is something that jumps plainly into realization and should never be withheld or distorted. When God the Father wants us to be His loving (and as a consequence of that love - obedient) CHILDREN, set to inherit His Kingdom (which is infinite, therefore God loses nothing - again since we become ONE with Him - in purpose and in nature). Now I have stuck my neck out. I do not this to glorify myself, but to witness and praise Him that sent me His Witness, in the form of physical Word, AND as the corroborating Witness of Truth in the form of a Still Small Voice which lovingly speaks to my unholy spirit - but only when the most High God wants Him to. Thank you for your indulgence. Be not afraid that I of less than scholarly rank can do anything but offer my humble senses.


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