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John, The Gospel According to

The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    John, The Gospel According to

    Structure and Content.

    The story of Jesus in John's gospel is presented as a drama, consisting of a prologue, two main acts, and an epilogue. By considering the gospel in this light, its distinctive character may be understood and its teaching illuminated.

    The prologue (chap. 1 as a whole) introduces the main theological themes developed in the body of the gospel, such as “life,” “light,” and “glory.” It also includes the leading characters who are to be involved in the main action. John the Baptist is there, and so are the disciples who will form the nucleus of the early Christian community: Andrew and Peter, *Philip and Nathanael. But the stage is dominated by the central character of Jesus himself, whose identity begins already to be disclosed, for in this single chapter he is described as Word, Son, Christ (Messiah), Son of God, King of Israel, and Son of man. The climax of the prologue is reached in 1.51 (“you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man”). Jesus, as the incarnate and exalted Son of man and Son of God, joins earth and heaven decisively together and makes it possible, even in this world, for every believer to share the life of eternity.

    Act I (chaps. 2–12) describes the revelation of the Word of God to the world. For those with eyes to see, Jesus during his ministry reveals through his words and actions the glory of God the Father. To demonstrate this truth, John makes his own selection from the miracles, or “signs,” that Jesus performed and narrates six of them dramatically. To these six signs are attached explanatory discourses, all of which deal with the leading theme of “life” through Christ, and several memorable “I am” sayings, which act as a text for each sermon. These may be set out as shown in the table later in this article.

    Act 2 of John's drama (chaps. 13–20) deals with the glorification of God's Word for the world. At its heart is the story of the passion and resurrection of Jesus, prepared for by the farewell address to the disciples (John 14–17), a discourse that deals with the life of the believer.

    The drama ends with an epilogue, chap. 21, which may have been written later but is now firmly related to the body of the gospel. This final section narrates the seventh sign, the catch of 153 fish, and the recalling of Peter. Together these incidents point to the unlimited scope of the Christian good news, an idea retained throughout John's gospel, and provide an agenda for the church of the future. The mission of the disciples to the world can now begin on the basis of the revelation and glorification of the messianic Word of God.

    Throughout his dramatic portrayal of the ministry, death, and exaltation of Jesus, John is anxious that readers should “see” the identity of the central character as Christ and Son of God (20.29–31) and “hear” his words. Verbs of seeing and hearing are important in John and are close in meaning to the activity of believing. As in a courtroom, witnesses are called throughout the drama to bear testimony to the life‐giving Christ; and the sources of this evidence are divine (the Father, 5.37; the Spirit, 15.26; the scriptures, 5.39) as well as human (John the Baptist, 1.29–36; the Samaritan woman, 4.29, 39–42; the blind man, 39.35–38; Martha, 11.27; and, supremely, Thomas, 20.28).

    1. Changing water into wine (2) new life (3) the true vine (15.1)
    2. Healing the official's son (4) water of life (4) the way, the truth and the life (14.6)
    3. Making the sick man well (5) Son, life‐giver (5) the door of the sheep (10.7)
    4. Feeding the five thousand (6) bread and Spirit of life(6–7) the bread of life (6.35)
    5. Restoring the blind man's sight (9) light of life (8) the light of the world (8.12)
    6. Raising Lazarus from the dead (11) shepherd, life‐giver (10) the resurrection and the life (11.25)

    John thus moves beyond the witness of the other gospel writers in exploring the nature of Jesus in relation to God and humanity, and the grounds for Christian belief and for the spiritual life that is its consequence. Jesus, in John's portrait, is both one with the Father (10.30) and one with his church on earth (16.28).


    Since roughly the middle of the twentieth century support has been growing for the view that the basic tradition underlying John's gospel may be historically more reliable than previously acknowledged. After the rise of biblical criticism in the middle of the nineteenth century, scholarly opinion tended to regard this gospel as a theological rewriting of the others. The author knew Mark, Matthew, and Luke, it was thought, but went his own way when he wished to interpret their meaning. But that conclusion and the assumption that John knew and used the other Gospels in their finished form have now been seriously questioned. It is now thought possible that John drew more or less independently on common Christian sources about the life and teaching of Jesus.

    This view may be supported in three ways. First, a straight literary comparison among the four Gospels reveals that, when material in John also appears in the other Gospels (such as the feeding of the five thousand [John 6; Mark 6 par.] and the anointing at Bethany [John 12; Mark 14] par.), John preserves interesting points of circumstantial detail that appear to be historical rather than theological. Second, the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls has shown that before the common era a literary setting existed in which Jewish and Greek religious ideas were combined in a manner that was once thought to be unique to John and of a late, second century CE, date. The scrolls now make it clear that John may well have derived from Qumran itself his language of “truth,” “knowledge,” “wisdom,” and “faith,” as well as his theological conviction that life is a struggle between truth and perversity, the sons of light and the sons of darkness, good and evil, in which God will ultimately prevail. Third, archaeological discoveries in and around Jerusalem have indicated that, when John uses place‐names hitherto unknown (such as Bethesda [John 5.2] and Gabbatha [19.13]), he was not being inventive but referring to sites now identifiable. In this case the stories associated with such sites need not be theological creations either and may well rest on an underlying historical tradition.


    We have already noted that John's gospel is a literary unit, which may be analyzed in terms of its dramatic structure. But, despite the unity of the gospel as we now have it, there are some features that suggest it was composed in edited stages.

    For example, there are differences of style and language in various parts of the gospel, especially chaps. 1 and 21. Second, some of the discourses contain material that seems to be largely repeated (as in 6.35–50 and 50–58; chaps. 14 and 16). Third, there are notorious breaks in sequence at a number of points in the gospel. Thus the first two signs performed by Jesus are numbered “first” and “second” (2.11; 4.54), yet in 2.23 we hear of other signs that he did, and the sequence is thus unaccountably interrupted. The geographical locations, also, do not appear to be consistently exact. So in 3.22 we read that Jesus went into Judea, whereas according to 2.23 he was already there; and in 6.1 it is implied that Jesus is in Galilee, although at the end of chap. 5 he is in Jerusalem. Similarly, there is a clear break between the setting of chaps. 20 (Jerusalem) and 21 (Galilee/Tiberias). Furthermore, the continuation of the farewell discourse in John 15–16 (17) is awkward after the command of Jesus at 14.31 (“Rise, let us be on our way”).

    It is possible to account for some but not all of these variations, repetitions, and breaks in continuity; the problem is thus to explain their presence in what now appears to be a carefully constructed literary whole. Some scholars have suggested that there is no problem, inasmuch as the author himself chose to write in this way. Others believe that displacements in John's material have occurred at the manuscript stage, for example, that chaps. 5 and 6 became reversed, resulting in the odd geographical sequence in John 4–7.

    None of the proposed restorations, however, takes the problem seriously or resolves it adequately. A third (and more plausible) explanation suggests that behind the composition of the gospel lie a number of different sources, recording the signs, the teaching, and the passion of Jesus, that have been combined and edited at various stages in the writing of this document, until its final publication as a unified work. What follows is a suggested description of those stages.

    First, John the apostle, who was traditionally identified as the “beloved disciple,” transmitted orally to his followers an account of the deeds (especially the miracles, or “signs”) and sayings of Jesus and of his death and resurrection. As we have already seen, these reminiscences preserved historical information about the ministry of Jesus in both Judea and Galilee.

    Second, the beloved disciple and his circle of followers moved to Ephesus (a city associated, by strong tradition, with John), where the nucleus of the Johannine church was established. While there, John's disciples committed to writing the traditions preserved in their community for the purposes of worship and instruction. In this first draft of the final gospel what may now be recognized as distinctively Johannine thought emerged, as the ideas handed on by the apostle were dramatically treated and theologically developed by the fourth evangelist and his colleagues.

    Third, after the death of John his church at Ephesus published a final edited version of the gospel. This included a summary introduction (1.1–18), based on a community hymn and now tied securely to the remainder of the chapter, some editing of the discourses, possibly the addition of the prayer of consecration in chap. 17, and an epilogue (chap. 21). The whole gospel thus assembled then carried an authenticating postscript (21.24–25).

    If some such process were involved in the making of John's gospel, it explains many of the features in its composition already discussed. Thus, it accounts for the likelihood that more than one author was responsible for the writing of the gospel, at more than one stage; and also for the fact that at first the Fourth Gospel was not ascribed to John the son of Zebedee. If the witness of the beloved disciple lies behind this gospel (as the text suggests; see 19.35; 21.24) but others from his community actually wrote it, the work may be regarded as apostolic in character, even though it did not in the end come (as some would argue) from the hand of John the apostle himself.


    We have seen that there is good reason to regard the sources that were used in the final composition of John's gospel as early and historically reliable. But even if the Johannine tradition may be dated to the early first century CE, this still leaves open the question of the date of the gospel's publication in its final form.

    An upper limit may set at 150 CE or a little earlier. Two manuscripts, written on papyrus and discovered in Egypt, are relevant to dating the gospel. One, known as the Rylands Papyrus, contains a few verses of John 18 and may be dated to 135–150 CE. A second papyrus (Egerton 2) includes part of an unknown gospel that probably used John as well as Mark, Matthew, and Luke; this manuscript dates from ca. 150 CE. The existence of these witnesses suggests that John's gospel must have been written at the very latest by the beginning of the second century CE, and probably earlier.

    There are no other conclusive external grounds for an earlier date and no firm evidence that any writers before ca. 150 CE knew the gospel. We must therefore look to the contents of the gospel itself to see whether they can help us—although, here again, it is difficult to establish definite conclusions.

    One important clue is provided by the reference in 9.22 and 16.2 (cf. 12.42) to the possibility of Jews who confessed Christ being “put out of the synagogue.” This may be an allusion to the Test Benediction that was introduced by Rabbi Gamaliel II (ca. 85–90 CE) as a means of excluding Nazarenes and other “heretics” from Jewish worship. If so, a date in this period (ca. 85 CE) may be assigned to the gospel. Such a date is also suggested by the fact that John's theology presumably took some time to develop. It is deeper and more sophisticated than that of the other evangelists, whose texts probably emerged earlier than 85 CE.


    Various motives have been suggested for the composition of John's gospel. For example, it has been argued that John's intention was to supplement or interpret the other gospels, to restate the Christian good news in Greek terms, to issue a polemical attack on the sect of John the Baptist, to adjust the sacramental teaching prevalent in the early church, to correct understanding about the return of Jesus, and to counter gnostically inclined theology.

    John himself gives us (20.30–31) a reason for writing his gospel. He wants his readers to see and to hear who Jesus is: that he is the Christ and the Son of God. But this does not give us a complete picture. Who were these readers? It is unlikely that they were Jews, since by 85 CE the mission to Israel was over. It is possible that John was addressing Jewish Christians in the Dispersion, torn between loyalty to Judaism and their new‐found faith in Jesus and increasingly pressurized by the recently introduced Test Benediction (see above). This would account for the stress in this gospel on the fulfillment of Judaism. But, once again, such an interpretation of John does not take full account of his message about Jesus; nor does it relate the Fourth Gospel directly to a living church situation, in line with current thinking about John.

    Let us suppose that John was addressing the needs of his own community and see whether this will provide a reason for the dramatically shaped version of the Jesus story that he preserves in his gospel. It could be that this community of Christians, gathered initially around the beloved disciple, included believers from different backgrounds, both Jewish and gentile. Some held a balanced view of Jesus: that he was both one with God and fully human. But some from a Jewish background, who still felt a loyalty to their heritage, regarded Jesus as human rather than divine. This would have been all the more likely if, after 70 CE, they were under pressure from their compatriots in the Dispersion and were tempted to return to Judaism by denying the messiahship of Jesus, as “the Jews” do throughout this gospel. On the other hand, those in the circle from a Greek background, including possibly some Hellenistic Jewish Christians, could have thought of Jesus as divine rather than human. This would be understandable if the “divine man” tradition of their original religious environment exercised influence on the Johannine church.

    These two groups, it may be presumed, had begun to perceive the real identity of Jesus, but neither had seen that his nature, both human and divine, made it possible for him to be the savior of the world. Friction may have resulted; in this case John's emphasis on mutual love (15.12) and unity within the church (17.11, 21–23) would have been entirely in place.

    We can find this story anticipated in the book of Revelation and concluded in the Johannine letters. Evidently the appeal of the fourth evangelist did little to ease the tensions that had beset his community. But his balanced estimate of the person of Jesus was exactly suited to the needs of his own adherents, and it has provided Christians ever since with important guidelines for assessing and maintaining a crucial part of their faith.


    John's theology is a theology of life. He bears testimony not only to Jesus, but also to the possibility of life through him (1.4). The repeated symbol of light makes the same point. The life that he mediates to every believer, on the basis of his revelation to the world and his glorification for the world, is the divine life that ultimately belongs to the Father himself (5.26).

    Moreover, John's gospel speaks of life through Jesus in all its fullness. The seven signs make clear that Jesus is concerned about the physical dimension of human existence as well as its spiritual possibilities. And since the Word became flesh (1.14), as the signs again illustrate, all matter (not only water, bread, and wine) can point to and convey the abundant life of the life‐giver (10.10). Such is John's particular “sacramentalism.”

    This eternal life is available to the faithful now. John's theology of salvation includes a future tense; so, for example, Jesus promises his disciples that he will eventually “come again” for them (14.3). But his emphasis is on the blessings of eternity that can be shared by the Christian in the present, when the judgment as well as the life of God are disclosed (3.16–18).

    This understanding of salvation is determined by John's concept of sin. For writers of the other Gospels sin is essentially personal and communal wrongdoing: it is disobedience to God's law. Its consequence, as throughout the Hebrew Bible, is a breakdown of the covenant between creator and creature. Such a covenant relationship can only be restored by the sacrifice on the cross, echoed in the subsequent self‐offering of obedience in the lives of the disciples (Mark 10.45; Matthew 7.21; Luke 9.23).

    For the fourth evangelist sin is not, as in the other Gospels and in Paul, primarily ethical. It stems from a cosmic state of alienation from God, from a spiritual blindness, or darkness, or deadness (John 3.19; 12.35). This situation can be remedied only by restored sight (9.39) and a conscious return to the light through identification with, and incorporation into, the life of the Son who unites the dimensions of heaven and earth (12.46; 15.4). So in John's gospel the passion and crucifixion of Jesus are not seen as a sacrificial explanation for the forgiveness of sin but as glorification: the exultant transformation scene in a spiritual drama of revelation. In Johannine terminology, references to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (1.29, 36; see Rev. 13.8) are correspondingly cosmic in character. In John's view, the cross is a timeless manifestation, mediated through a historical event: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12.32).

    Those who are thus “drawn” to the glorified Christ are indwelt by the Spirit–Paraclete (14.16–17) and receive new life from the vine; and this not only sustains believers individually but also unites them with every other “branch” in the Christian community (15.1–5). At this point, ethical sinfulness can be eradicated by effecting the “new commandment” of love (13.34–35). The time of eternal life in Christ has yet to come; but through him, and decisively, it has arrived already.

    Stephen S. Smalley

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