Introduction to John

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Introduction to John

I. Ministry of Jesus: Witness of John

In our introduction and survey of each of the four Gospels, individually; we come finally to the 4th Gospel, the Gospel of John. The PowerPoint slide that reduplicates a chart from the textbook, attempts to summarize in one diagram a fairly comprehensive collection of proposals about the composition of the 4th Gospel. From the earliest days, this document has been attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, one of the main three of the twelve disciples who were privy to various events with Jesus, of which the other disciples were not. Church tradition has also associated this person with the ‘beloved disciple’, and that expression appears five times throughout the 4th Gospel. In some sense, perhaps, this John was the man who was closest as one would rank friendships to our Lord during his earthly life. Thus our chart begins with the eyewitness experience of John to Jesus’ ministry, but must then be supplemented by the decades of preaching about Jesus, what may be called the common proclamation of the Gospel that would have chosen specific elements from Jesus’ life in commonly agreed upon fashion, style and wording.

II. Apostlic Reflection

As far Johannan source criticism, it was Rudoff Bokman who made famous the proposal of three separate distinctive sources on which the 4th Gospel drew. A source that came with a promise of seven miracles, however, in John’s Gospel they are never called miracles but only signs, a discourse source accounting for seven corresponding discourses in the first half of the Gospel and perhaps more in the second half. There is also a passion source possibly equivalent to Mark’s passion source, accounting for the one place in John’s Gospel where there is more overlap in choice of topics with the synoptics and particularly with Mark’s version of the passion. The chart puts questions marks by all these proposals, other than the sign source; not because all other parts of this chart are beyond question, but because these are the areas that have never garnered anything like consensus in Johannan scholarship.

The signed source, particularly through two significant books by Robert Forkner, long time professor at Vassar College in New York, did gain a fair consensus of scholarly support in the 1970’s and 1980’s. But in the last couple of decades, the thematic and stylistic unifying features of John’s Gospel have been focused on more than the literary scene sutured and stylistic differences signs narrative. So many today would question whether we have enough evidence to constantly support a signed source. Nevertheless, even as critical a group as the Jesus Seminar, of the 1990s, did not argue for but actually presupposed that the evidence for a signed source behind John was substantial enough that they simply could build on that supposition. They also date such a source document to no later than the AD 60s, somewhat thirty years after the life of Christ. However, the majority of scholars across most of the theological disciples, with an important minority, do argue for a pre 70s date. The majority goes even further and supports a date in the 80s or more like the 90s of the first century. So then we can continue with our diagram and the need to include further apostolic reflection and homiletical elaboration in John’s community, in among those churches. Particularly, if church tradition is correct, in and around Ephesus that came mostly under his purview.

III. First draft of the Fourth Gospel

The next box in our chart refers to the first draft of the fourth Gospel. The bulk of John seems in its content to adequately reflect what external evidence we have in writings from the first century and beyond, which suggest that Gnosticism or developing or incipient Gnosticism, however spotty; its appearance earlier in the decade was becoming a more consistent force to reckon with, including in and around Ephesus. A specific teacher, Surephis, who by Arenas’ testimony refers to, as a kind of Gnostic, teaches that Jesus only seems to be human; a false teacher that troubled and infiltrated the churches of Asia Minor. But we read also from texts like Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 being part of John’s very letter to the church at Ephesus in the Book of Revelation experienced such extreme Jewish hostility and persecution from local synagogues that they were referred to as synagogues of Satan. We shouldn’t be surprised that when a large portion of John’s Gospel affirms the deity of Jesus but goes on to stress likewise his humanity. And also portrays the growing conflict almost with the intensity one finds in the Gospel of Matthew, but focusing more on Jesus lengthy replies to the hostilities from Jewish leaders and other Jews who reject Jesus.

IV. Death of John?

The reason we don’t immediately move to the final form of John’s Gospel responding to these twin and somewhat contrasting emphasis, is the puzzling nature of end of John. If one turns to the end of Book of John, the final two verses, 21:24-25, read most naturally as a kind of imprimatur or a good housekeeping seal of approval on the document, itself. Verses 24 and 25 reads, ‘this is the disciple who testifies to these things and wrote them down; we know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well, every one of them I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.’ Some conservative authors have tried with some degree of plausibility to suggest that there are ways that both of these verses can be seen as imitating from John, the same author as the rest of the book. But, the most natural way they read, is that someone in a position of knowledge and authority is stressing that the disciple just described a rumor that spread falsely, that he would not die until Christ’s return, is one and the same as the writer of the narrative that precedes these final two verses. And another group of people are in a position to say they know that his testimony to the life of Jesus and its significance is true. But because of statements are ultimately written or dictated by individuals and not communities, the person who is actually responsible for penning this imprimatur or dictating it in the first person singular adds the closing comment about there being other things that could have been included, that individual supposes that even the whole world could not contain the necessary books.

What would lead to such imprimatur or the need for it and why does the immediate preceding idea which begins in John 21:15 appear as the final item in this Gospel? The entire passage contrasts Peter with the disciple whom Jesus loved, has, in fact, happened several times in chapter 20 and 21. It contrasts specifically Jesus’ prediction of an ominous fate awaiting Peter with apparently a different fate for the Beloved Disciple, one that is not spelled out in detail but in which a false rumor circulating even up to the time of the publication of this Gospel, alleged that Jesus had said that John would remain alive until Christ’s return. The qualification in verse 22 is that Jesus nearly said, ‘what is that to you if, I want him to remain alive?’ leaving open the option but not predicting it with any certainty. If indeed, John had recently died, if he had died without his Gospel being formally published and read aloud to the church in Ephesus or to the churches and then copied so that individual congregations, there and in adjacent territories, could have access to it. Then one could understand why such a conclusion was felt to be necessary, first to correct the false rumor that could have created a crisis of confidence in the teachings of Jesus, falsely represented among those who did not realize that it was an inaccurate rumor, and second to bring closure to the Gospel, if the Beloved Discipline had not quite finished it. Many have viewed the entire chapter of John 21 as precisely such an epilogue. John 20 ends with the purpose statement that brings the Gospel from a literary point of view to a very nice close, making the addition of chapter 21 unexpected, abrupt and seemingly something of an afterthought. And yet the same contrast between Peter and the Beloved Disciple runs through John 20, particularly the opening part and there are further references to the Beloved Disciple scattered throughout the book in the 3rd person singular. It’s certainly not an impossible way for an individual to write about himself, particularly in the ancient Mediterranean world, but again, not the most common or natural way to write.

V. Final redaction of Gospel in John's community

At the very beginning of the book, the prologue, comprising the first eighteen verses, is separate enough from the rest of the document, yet, it introduces enough of the main themes, actually, all of the main themes and a number of subordinate themes of the Gospel. One wonders that it was written toward the end of the project, precisely to introduce those items that had emerged as central themes in the course of the composition of the Gospel. Thus, it is, at least possible, perhaps even probable to imagine a stage of final redaction of the Gospel within John’s community that accounted for the stylistic unity of the entire Gospel, including prologues and epilogues which accounted for the third person references to John, scattered throughout the Gospel that accounted for the language of the disciple: ‘Jesus implicitly most loved’. A bit of an odd way for a person to refer to himself, at least for trying to reflect the Christian value of humidity in the contents of the beginning and end, and yet allowed for the majority of the writing 1:19 through the end of chapter 19 or 20 or 21 or even 23 to come from John, the Beloved Disciple, himself. And for whatever written source material he may have relied on.

VI. An Outline of John

We now turn to the slide that completes our series of line graphs outlining the structure of John’s Gospel. From one point of view, John reminds us of Matthew and Luke with its extended introduction, now the most detailed set of accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Although the introduction is not as in Matthew and Luke showing Jesus’ infancy, but reveals more of his preexistence as the divine Son of God from eternity past. The main body of John’s Gospel is more reminiscent in structure to that of Mark, in that it falls into two main halves with a pivot moving from his power ministry on the road to the Cross. Though, from chapters 12 to 19, it focuses solely on the last week of his earthly life. As in Mark there are miracles demonstrating that power in the first half of the book but more like Matthew with extended discourses, which in some cases seems to be thematically parallel to one of the signs, yet, in other cases, less closely related.

Turning the line graph outline into more of a prose outline, leads to something along the lines of the following PowerPoint slides. A prologue introduces Jesus, called the ‘Word’, who was with God but who was also made flesh. Then in the fashion of an extended legal brief or Old Testament prophetic law suite, the body of the Gospel brings all manner of testimony and witness to the truth about Jesus. Beginning as in the introductory fashion, with the testimony of John the Baptist, where he is only called John which makes sense if and perhaps only if it was recognized that most, if not all of the Gospel came from the Apostle by the same name. So that when he refers to someone else named John in the third person, it is always John the Baptist. The early followers of Jesus, likewise, give a cluster of exalted titles in honor of Jesus in their opening encounters with him in a way that differs dramatically from the synoptics. Then as we turn to the testimony of the signs and discourses, formally beginning in chapter 2:1, we can see in the next slide the seven signs and seven discourses, and see how in some cases there are clear thematic parallels. The miracle of water turning into wine and then the discourse about being born of water and the spirit; fleshly birth being inadequate but spiritual birth, a transformation from old to new being necessary. We can see similarities between the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus preaching about himself as the metaphorical bread of life. We see similarities between Jesus and the metaphorical light of the world and the literal light for the man born blind. But in other cases the parallelism seems less close and therefore, perhaps not intended.

As we move to the testimony of the events leading up the Christ’s death and resurrection, as with Mark, we have less topical yet more chronological grouping of ideas. And then we have that chapter in its entirety which has been seen as an epilogue (John 21). Or we can divide it into segments more closely tied into the overall plot of the Gospel because of Peter’s three fold denials earlier on. After this, his three fold reinstatements and then the lineation to the epilogue to the closing two verses, seemingly from a different hand, as already discussed.

VII. John and the Synoptics

Turning from comments that reinforce and explain material we’ve either discussed or presented in chart form in our textbook. We now move to a supplementary portion of this lecture on John by focusing on significant developments in recent years of scholarship since the first addition of Jesus and the Gospels, particularly in light of the recent book edited by Richard Bockum to which he also contributed a very significant chapter, entitled, ‘John, for Readers of Mark’. The title of the book is, ‘The Gospel for All Christians.’ Historically, in a pre-critical period, the dominant period of church history until the last hundred years or so and even well into the 19th century, the major understanding of the literary relationship between John and the synoptics shows that John was not only the last and fourth to be written, but he knew the contents of the first three Gospels. He had probably seen them in manuscript form and hence was literarily dependent on them, choosing to follow them for a minority of passages that he included but not following them in words by any means slavishly. But choosing to be primarily supplementary in the nature of the majority of what he included in his text, seeing no need to repeat what already was clearly taught in one or more of the synoptics, but recognizing so many other things that could be highlighted about Jesus which needed highlighted in a distinctive context of his writing at the end of the first century to the Christian communities in and around Ephesus.

In the early 20th century, a very significant little book by the English scholar, Gardner Smith, proposed that it was precisely the opposite phenomena, that is was John’s literary independence which accounted for why he was so different from the synoptics. If one takes a synoptic that includes all four Gospels and goes passage by passage, examining a minority of passages. John does parallel one or more of the synoptics. Unlike the parallel passages of the three synoptics themselves, it is rare to ever find more than three to five words sequentially that are exactly, verbally parallel between John and whichever synoptic Gospel is closest to him in form. These are often minor words connecting phrases or transitions that different writers could easily have set upon independently. What Bockum in his article and to a lesser degree, other contributors to his book, stresses as the combination of a number of recent studies beginning to move in this mediated direction; while there may not be the textual evidence internal to the Gospel of John to suggest a careful use of and repetition to a large number of words from the Synoptics.

There is every reason to believe that by the late 1st century, John or anyone else to whom one might want to attribute the writing of this Gospel would have known from the common kerygma as well as from whatever additional and distinctive elaboration the Gospel message had received in his community. Such a person would have known extensively of the contours of Jesus’ life whether from oral tradition and preaching or those who had read or seen the synoptic Gospels or both. And therefore, even if John was not formally literally dependent on the contents on one or more of the synoptics; he almost certainly knew in broad stokes a lot of the information contained in those Gospels, and he could presuppose that many of his Christian readers for the very same reasons would have known many of those stories and particularly the core of the kerygma as reflected in the Gospel of Mark. This seems to be a very plausible hypothesis to build on in early 21st century.

An interesting phenomena that emerges, both to support this hypothesis as well as to pay more attention to, perhaps, more than we do in light of the hypothesis, involve some of those very overlaps between John and information found in the synoptics. And these overlaps can occur in two distinct ways. Leon Morris in an early book at the end of the 1960s, referred to it as interlocking between John and the synoptics. John may, on the one hand, betray knowledge of the synoptic tradition in seemingly casual or offhanded references that are too brief to attribute to a writer introducing information for the first time to his audiences. Or put another way, if this is all that John knew of his audience, it’s surprising that he leaves so much unexplained. Yet when we turn to the synoptics, we discover much more detailed information that is presupposed, makes John’s brief passing references far more intelligible. Of many examples that could be cited, in Morris and now more recently in Bockum. First, in John 3:24, we read what many modern translations actually put into parentheses because it interrupts the narrative of John baptizes at Enon near Salem. We read in verse 24, parentheses, this was before John was put into prison, close parentheses and then the narrative resumes. For someone who did not know that the career of John the Baptist ended with imprisonment and execution. A new bit of information would cry out for expansion and explanation, but nowhere else in John’s Gospel is a word spoken about this. One has to turn to the three synoptics and Mark in particular has, by far, the fullest account of John’s imprisonment and beheading.

In John 11:2, introducing the story of the death of Lazarus which will culminate in his resurrection, like Jesus. We read how Lazarus was sick; he was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. And again, it is potentially punctuated with parentheses. This Mary was the sister of Lazarus who lay sick; she was the same woman who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. The narrative resumes, so that the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’ It’s understandable that John would want to distinguish this Mary from others because there was Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary, the mother of another apostle, but by referring to this Mary as the one who poured perfume on the Lord. He is referring to an event, the first time readers of his Gospel had not yet read about. They will not hear this event narrated until chapter 12. But if they know of Mark passion narrative, they will have heard of this, Mary’s anointing. And indeed, it’s interesting that in Mark 14:9, Jesus declares after defending Mary’s behavior, ‘truly, I tell you where ever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done, will also be told in memory of her.’ If taken even partially literally, it means that the story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus formed part of the common kerygma.

Thirdly, we may consider the example in John 18:24-28. Here, we read in the context of John’s passion narrative that Annas, the father-in-law of the reigning high priest Caiaphas, sent Jesus bound to Caiaphas, the high priest. Then John turns to second part of the story of Peter’s denial of Christ. After which, in verse 28, we read, ‘then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor,’ who we quickly learn is Pilate and its trial that took place before Pilate is narrated in some detail. But what happened with Jesus before Caiaphas? What about the lengthy trial there as well, which is narrated in detail in all three synoptic Gospels? Unless John is presupposing knowledge of that trial; his reference to the framing event seems inexplicable. The interlocking can, however, go in the opposite direction. John can clarify puzzling statements in the synoptics. Here, statements that perhaps were not at all puzzling for Matthew, Mark or Luke’s original audiences, but could have been thirty some years later for a quite different audience in western Asian Minor. But unless these details were known to John’s audiences, there would not be any need for clarifying them. For example, Mark 14:49, Matthew 23:37 and other texts refer to events that seem to presuppose that Jesus had been to Jerusalem as part of his adult public ministry more than once.

In Mark 14:49, we read, ‘every day I was you, teaching in the Temple Courts and you did not arrest me.’ That sounds like a reference to more than one possibly two days earlier in Passion Week when he was described as teaching in the Temple Courts. Or again, in Matthew, chapter 23:37 when he declares, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who killed the prophets and stoned those sent to you. So often, I have long to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.’ He says he has appealed to the people of Jerusalem. But, once one has read the Gospel of John, such references become more intelligible. For John, alone, describes a three year chronology or even perhaps a bit more, in which John first begin in Jerusalem at festival time including the Passover for, at least, three Passovers and a series of other named and un-named festivals in-between. Or again, consider Mark 14:58-59 which refers to the garbled testimony at Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas where people alleged that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days; a claim that he didn’t make in Mark’s Gospel or in the synoptics. It’s true that he did predict the coming destruction of the Temple, but not according to any definable timetable. In John 2:19, however, at what appears to be the beginning of Jesus’ career, he makes the statement in the Temple, ‘destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.’ A statement that is misunderstood by the crowds to refer to the physical Temple; a statement which John’s narrator says, ‘even the disciples did not understand until after the resurrection,’ when they realized that he was metaphorically talking about the temple of his body. Such a statement, two to three years earlier, made in Jerusalem, not clearly understood even at that time, could far more readily have been garbled and passed on and remembered in a faulty fashion and thrown out as garbled and false testimony at the trial before Caiaphas.

Consider the questions that could have easily come up for gentile leaders in Ephesus in Mark 15:1-3 or the oral tradition of passing the same information along. Although the Sanhedrin came to the conclusion that Jesus was guilty of a capital offense, but instead of acting on their own legislation and stoning him to death according to Old Testament law, they passed him along to the Roman prefect, Pontus Pilate. Why? John 18:31 gives us the answer, under Rome, the right to capital punishment had been taken away from the Jews. Subsequent stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 doesn’t disprove this claim for it reads much more like something that may have begun as quasi-legal proceedings but quickly deteriorated into a mob action. Finally, we have the account in Mark 1:16-20 in parallel of the first cycle of the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee. How was it that they, seemingly supernaturally, put down their nets and dropped everything and began a multiyear period of following Jesus in an itinerant ministry? Without, in the least, wanting to suggest that Jesus’ personal charisma could not have caused such a response. From a historical point of view, John’s information in 1:35-42 makes it a much more natural scenario as several of these same first disciples of Jesus are introduced as originally having learned about the man from Nazareth while they were followers of John the Baptist. So that we should understand Mark 1:16-20 in the life of the larger harmony of the life of Christ as a more formal call after these disciples had had some prolonged exposure to Jesus earlier on in Judea, perhaps in Samaria and had already formed opinions of him.

VIII. Contemporary Application of the Gospels

We now end this lecture by looking back over what we have discussed, both in the book and in our supplementary lectures, and reflect on some contemporary applications within each of the four Gospels. If indeed it does make a difference which Gospel one chooses to preach or teach on, based on the distinctive needs of one’s audience. If indeed it was God’s intention that we read and learn from the Gospels in the form he inspired them and move immediately to an attempt to harmonize them and create one giant narrative out of the four. If there are indeed distinct theological emphasis that shines through each of the Gospels, both as a whole and often within individual parallel kerygapi, then any Christian ministry that utilizes a passage from one of the Gospels, should never do so without some reflection as to how that passage may reflect one or more larger dominant and distinctive themes of that particular evangelist. We scarcely have time in this rapid fire course to do this for all but a handful of the actual texts in the Gospels. We will be moving in our next lecture to the largest segment of the textbook and overview of the life of Christ, itself. But we have included in the textbook, short sections at the end of each main segment of the life of Christ on theology where we attempt in brief compass some text reflection.

And in this last PowerPoint slide of this lecture, we reflect simply on some very large contemporary trends, particular in the western world, but by no means limited to that, given popular western culture increasing throughout the entire world. And we reflect on those trends in light of dominant and major themes associated with each of the four Gospels. It is in Mark above all, that Jesus is portrayed as the suffering servant and also focused on discipleship that highlights the failures of the disciplines and yet presupposes God ability to forgive and their ability to repent and grow and still go on to do great things for God’s Kingdom. Then, surly in light of the anemic theologies of suffering, often commented on by psychologists and counselors in Christian circles in the western world, the Gospel of Mark and particularly its second half should play a large role in helping Christians nurture the expectations that as Paul would sum it up in one sentence in 2nd Timothy 3:12, ‘those who want to live Godly lives in Christ, will experience persecution.’ This can be covert, diabolical attacks or harassment from other humans, but it can also take the form of certain consequences in a fallen world, more generally, with illness and injury and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. If Matthew was most popular in the early centuries of the Christian church for it ethical teachings, then Matthew should be a major and recurring text to which we return, again and again, in light of our desperately unethical world and at times its unethical church. The Sermon on the Mount has certainly not become irrelevant. Luke with it unique emphasis on rich and poor and the need for the rich to be compassionate to the poor and the need for those in position of power to be concerned for the powerless in light of the socioeconomic disparities that are ever growing in our world of those people who have and those who don’t have, Luke should play a dominate role instructing Christians on every aspect of stewardship. And then finally, in light of today’s ever growing pluralism and relativism, the high and unique and absolute claims of Jesus and about Jesus in the fourth Gospel need frequent focus, though, never at the expense of his humanity. Ancient Gnosticism proliferates even as ancient skepticism does.