It’s no secret that I am a fanboy of the Gospel of John. John is an enigma, a contradiction that shouldn’t make sense but does. On one level, John is tangible and simple. A reader, untrained and unfamiliar with the Scriptures, can read John and find him understandable and profound. On another level, John is a tease and a riddler. He slides you subtle clues that easily go unnoticed but – when they are – drive you mad as you search for John’s meaning. The Gospel of John is a love affair; you know her but never understand her. And this love affair carries over into his epistles and apocalyptos. The Gospel of John has continued to prove scholars wrong in regards to its composition, meaning, and date of origin1.
In composition and structure, the Gospel of John stands alone among the Gospels. It is both simple and deeply complex; extremely Jewish and Greek. John will repeat monosyllabic words such as life, love, truth, love, glory, peace, and grace – words we all are familiar with but would never claim to fully understand. On that level, John seems approachable, albeit abstract. This is one reason, just a couple of decades ago, most scholars believed John to be mostly Hellenistic. John seems to dabble in ideals common to Greek philosophers. Yet, as scholarship continued to grow in their understanding, John both heavily alluded to and built upon Old Testament concepts and narratives as well as rabbinic traditions. The gray between Jew and Gentile John dances upon in full color.
What Sets John’s Gospel Apart
There are a plethora of other peculiarities that make John distinct, but one that must be covered before we dive into the Gospel is what John does not record. This is the main reason that the first three other gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are lumped into their own category away, called the Synoptics Gospels2. One key event that John seems to have left out is the Mount of Transfiguration. In the first three gospels, this event (aside from the passion narrative) is the central event both structurally and significantly – a blog post for later. While John does not specifically record the Transfiguration, he seems to have been integrated into his introduction. In his prologue, John states, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son” (John 1:14). The topic of glory will then be threaded through the rest of John’s gospel and it would seem that the entirety of his gospel could be contrived as an attempt to explain what the Transfiguration meant. But more on this later as we work through John.
Some other elements we find in the synoptics that are missing in John include parables – there are none of Jesus’ simple stories used to illustrate a deeper lesson. The many exorcisms in the other gospels are also absent. Demons are absent in the sense that they (actual demons) do not show up at all but are only mentioned in discussions. There is no ascension of Christ after the resurrection, no birth narrative, no genealogies, no reference to the “Son of Man,” and no temptation of Jesus.
John will make up for what he excludes by what he includes that the Synoptics never mention. Nicodemus will only in appear in the Gospel of John. All but one of the miracles in John (two if you include the resurrection) fail to make an appearance in the other gospels. The High Priestly prayer and much of the upper room discourse are entirely unique to John. Most of the conversations that John builds his Gospel around are completely absent in the other gospels. John and his audience were familiar with the other gospels since he references some common stories in the other gospels. John is intentionally supplementing the Synoptics’ with his gospel.
One of John’s unique features is that of “witness.” John will use this word a total of 47 times through out his gospel. John will explicitly state that his gospel was written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The verb πιστεύω (pisteuo, Greek word for to have faith) will appear 98 times – over half of the instances to be found in the New Testament. It only appears 11 times in Mathews, 14 times in Mark, and 9 times in Luke. It’s important to emphasize John’s use of this verb (pisteuo) and not the noun (pistis). For John, “belief” is not intellectual activity or an object to possess but rather a tangible action to chose.
John’s christology should also be mentioned. Christology is the study of the nature of Jesus. and primarily deals with Jesus’ divinity, His relation with the Father, and His humanity. Some scholars have argued that John has a low christology (meaning he saw Jesus more as a man) while others state that John has the highest of christologies (meaning that he saw Jesus as God). The latter build their case on John’s repetitive depiction of Jesus as being subordinate to the Father (for example, “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing”). The former build their case on John’s claims and titles concerning Jesus (for example, “The word was God” and “before Abraham was I am”). John was, of course, concerned with Christology but not in the way that western theologians are today. In fact, in many ways John was more concerned with showing Jesus’ full divinity and full humanity but through the lens of the Jew and the Greek. John’s writing was not attempting to answer the questions of scholars 2000 years later but rather to convince the audiences of his day. If we can read John’s gospel as a first century Jew and Greek, we will discover that he has the highest of christologies, as well as the highest appreciation of Jesus’ humanity.
Context and Construction of The Gospel of John
Before I get any further, an introduction in to the context and general make up of John is needed.
First, it is generally accepted that John the Apostle wrote this gospel, but there is some debate. The author of this gospel is never named. The best clue the gospel gives us is the use of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” later in the book (John 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21: 20). The gospel also uses the “we” in contradictory ways. In the prologue, the “we” states that author was an eye-witness (John 1:14) while near the end of the book the “we” seems to state that the author is recording someone else’s words (John 21:). Of course – as whenever there is the smallest room for argument – scholars have argued who the true author is. However, the earliest of church traditions connected the authorship with John almost as early as any other biblical book. There has never been any other viable author offered as an alternative. Furthermore, the composition and themes in the gospel are so incredibly similar to the epistles of John that John as the author of this gospel is obvious. But…there is room for discussion.
The when and where of the Gospel of John is also a matter of debate. However, it is (generally) agreed that John’s gospel was written much later than the other three (60-90 AD) and intended for the area of Anatolia, aka Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). This was the home of the great city of Ephesus, where Paul had planted a strong church and where John may have written his gospel3. Church tradition states that after Paul died around 67 AD John became the pastor to the churches in this area. This area was a conglomeration of cultures. Several major trading routes from the east (including the Silk Road and Spice Route from China) converged and then diverged along the coast line of modern day Turkey. West of shore, there were pockets of Jews and Gauls. Closer to the coast the world of Rome, Greece, Jew, Asia, Egyptian, Gauls, and many other cultures blended together. No matter the cultures that mixed, however, they were still supremely under Rome’s politics, soaked in Greek philosophy, and functioned through the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods and mythologies.
This area John wrote to and the later dating of John’s gospel explains why so much of the Gospel of John is so distinct from the other synoptic gospels. It seems that John, as he continued his apostleship, recalled more of Jesus’ deeds and discussions that had direct implications for the Asia Minor area. The earlier gospels were written either to Jews and through the eyes of the Jews. John seems to have his 3D glasses on (one lens Jewish and one lens Greco-Roman) when he wrote his gospel in order to address the diverse population of the area. And it is for this reason that the writings of John may have been so influential. We know that John’s collection of works quickly became popular and formative for the early church. An enormous amount of manuscripts have been discovered of John and containing references to John has convinced scholars of this fact4.
As we move through John, we will notice a surfeit of themes. As mentioned before, John will directly address Jews and Greeks in the same breath; he will say one thing that directly addresses both groups. From a macro perspective, here are some common areas John will be leaning on.
From the Greek Perspective:
The Greeks are known for the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Greeks prided themselves on their intellectual prowess. One of the common characteristics of Greek philosophy was that of dualism, that existence is comprised of two realms: the physical facade and the distant real. Think of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where the physical world is a fake and corrupt version of an ethereal reality. This, at the time of the New Testament, had led to the formation of two primary interpretations: the Epicureans and the Stoics (Acts 17:18). By the second century, Gnosticism (a hodge-podge mutt of greek dualism and Jewish mysticism) would attempt to hijack the Gospel narrative as a way of propagating its beliefs.
For us, we have Hollywood, YouTube, books, celebrity gossip, social media, and news media that unite us in a common narrative. When a movie comes out, we will ask our friends (or they will ask us) if they have seen it yet. For the Greeks and Romans, the epics of their gods and heroes was the common story of their culture. It dictated their plays (our movies) and their writings (our books). The gods were leveraged for the support of political leaders. It was the gods that explained unexplainable events. It was the gods that united the society. Pockets of society (families, cities, industry unions, etc) would have “their” god while still recognizing and honoring the others. John will subvert many of the common gods through his gospel.
A common narrative in Greek mythology is that of the demigod: a half god/half human being that is attempting to achieve full godhood through accomplishing great feats (think of Hercules). John will hijack this narrative plot when he describes a fully god and fully human working for His Father and being glorified by His Father.
From the Jewish Perspective:
From the very first verse of the Gospel of John, John will lean heavily on the imagery of Creation in Genesis 1-2 to explain what Jesus was doing (“In the beginning…” John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1). John will allude to it through the rest of his gospel and land hard on Creation language at the end.
- Old Testament Festivals and Allusions
John will utilize the Jewish Festivals, especially Passover, the tell the story and actions of Jesus. John will attempt to show that Jesus is the Jewish festivals. Unlike there other gospels where Jesus is only recorded as going to Passover once, John will have Jesus attending Passover 3 times. Furthermore, John will make allusion after allusion to different Old Testament characters in order to retell the Israel story through the person of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t “complete” Israel’s story but is its incarnation and continuation.
One last note: through Church history, John has been misused to support antisemitism. I unequivocally believe John is not antisemitic but rather pro-Jewish. Unfortunately, due in part to his intended audience, John generalizes the differing sects of Jewish people just as “the Jews.” John was a Jew. Jesus was a Jew. Even if John “blamed” “the Jews” for their killing of Jesus, it is obvious that John is not anti-jewish. John firmly believed in Israel’s calling to be a kingdom of priests in the world.
As we start to journey through John’s gospel, we will find that John was a musician, beautifully blending elements from a diverse orchestra of genres, material, and views that shouldn’t belong together. John borrowed from both the pagan Greeks and the devout Jews. He challenged gods and Caesar, upset philosopher and rabbi, and will rattle our own assumptions. All the while, John was attempting to build bridges between divided peoples to form one loving community who would walk freely in the light of their Creator.
This marks the first entry of a series through the Gospel of John. There will one post a week, except on weeks where I am traveling or on vacation. This is a series I have long wanted to do in order for me to flesh out much of my own studies, ideas, and fascinations with this gospel. While I tend to be long-winded, I know there will be some insights that I either leave out, forget, or am unaware of. So feel free to comment below each post or email me. I am excited to see how deep this rabbit hole will go.
1 For decades, scholars assumed John’s gospel to be Hellenistic in nature. But after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and further study of John’s Old Testament allusions, scholars have realized that John is a brilliant hybrid of both. Similarly, due to John’s unique and even strange nature in relation to the rest of Scripture, historians assumed that this gospel must have developed decades after the death of John through a Johannine community. However, as more early papyrus and manuscript evidence are discovered, the date of the gospel’s original composition put it well within John’s lifetime.