Often called ‘the fourth gospel’ to mark its distinction from the three synoptics. The gospel is certainly a narrative about Jesus and in this resembles the others and is quite different from the epistles in the NT. The gospel of John in its first chapter describes Jesus’ encounter with John (the Baptist); then disciples are called; there is a public teaching ministry of Jesus and opposition to it; after a triumphal entry into Jerusalem (12: 12–19), Jesus and the Twelve gather in the upper room; there follow the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection appearances of Jesus—as in the synoptics. But the differences between John and the synoptics are substantial: whereas Matthew and Luke have their infancy narratives recording Jesus’ birth, John makes a great Christological affirmation at the outset; that the Word became flesh (1: 14). Next, the miracles recorded in John are never of exorcisms, or the healing of lepers, as in Mark (1: 21–8, 40–44), and John calls those miracles he records, seven in all, such as the changing of water into wine at Cana, ‘signs’. But whereas in the synoptics the miracles are indications of the coming of the kingdom of God (e.g. Luke 11: 20), in John the Kingdom is not at all central in Jesus’ teaching (it occurs only in 2: 3–5) and the ‘signs’ are to validate Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. The eschatology of the synoptics is replaced by the present reality of ‘eternal life’, available to believers (e.g. 5: 24; 10: 28) who are here and now confronted with the judgment of Jesus, which is not postponed until some ‘day of the Lord’ in the indefinite future. The scene of Jesus’ teaching, usually in Galilee in the synoptics, takes place in John in the capital and revolves round the celebration there of the Jewish feasts on the themes of ‘light’, ‘life’, and ‘glory’. Both the synoptiics and John record Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem at the feast of Passover at the end of his life but they disagree about the precise date. They also disagree about the date of the Cleansing of the Temple which John (2: 13–22) places early in the ministry, the synoptics at the end (Mark 11: 15–18). When John records the Lord’s teaching, it lacks the epigrams and the parables of the synoptics and instead consists of long discourses, often in the form of a controversy with the Jews and sometimes in the form of allegories (e.g. that of the Good Shepherd; 10: 11–18); its function is to expound the nature of Jesus’ own person rather than, as often in the synoptics, to give ethical teaching for the disciples. There is no account in John of the Transfiguration.
Because of the great differences between the synoptics and John, it has sometimes been said that, whereas they give us history, he gives us theology. (Clement of Alexandria towards the end of the 2nd cent. CE remarked that after the first three gospels had been written John composed a ‘spiritual gospel’); but this exaggerates the differences, for each of the synoptists is giving his theological interpretation of the history, and John’s theology is certainly rooted in history: it is claimed that there are thirteen accurate pieces of topographical information in John, and that this is evidence of his reliability about facts (e.g. the pool of Siloam, 9: 7), especially in the Passion narrative.
The evangelist states his aim in writing (20: 31). He hopes his readers will be confirmed in their faith that Jesus, the Messiah, is the Word of God incarnate. He is not relating ‘bare facts’ but offers an interpretation. He can assume that his readers know the synoptic narratives. His work was to pull together the isolated fragments of the synoptics into a coherent system, which proved enormously influential. Without the fourth gospel it is difficult to see how the Church’s thinking about Jesus could have maintained its belief in his distinctiveness. John supplied the necessary basis for later Christology, which is essentially the revelation of God’s glory in Jesus: on the cross he is exalted (8: 28; 14: 13); he reigns triumphantly (as portrayed both in stone and paint by artists, as in a 5th cent. ivory panel in the British Museum). Crucifixion is not an embarrassment to be accounted for on the basis of the OT (as in Mark 14: 49; or Acts 3: 18), but in it ‘all is fulfilled’. Although some scholars have been attracted to the view that John was influenced by Gnosticism, seeing Jesus as a divine being from heaven striding across the earth to save the elect, this ignores the gospel’s emphasis on the humanity of Jesus (4: 6), which is very different from Gnosticism. Against the renascent Judaism of Jamnia, the gospel insists that Christians are not ditheists (5: 18–19) but that Jesus is a perfect revelation of God (3: 16). This made for difficult relations with the synagogue, reflected in the tentative approach of Nicodemus (3: 2). ‘The Father who sent me’ (21 times) represents Jesus’ relationship in terms of the Shaliah, an ambassador with plenipotentiary authority.
Authorship and date of the gospel of John
From about 170 CE, that is, after Irenaeus, it came to be generally accepted that the fourth gospel was written by John the Apostle; before that date there is some uncertainty, for there is a confusion about whether a certain John who lived in Ephesus was the apostle (as Irenaeus thought) or ‘the elder’ who wrote the epistles of John. There is, however, good evidence that the gospel was circulating in the Christian world well before the time of Irenaeus. A papyrus fragment of John 18, dated about 140 CE, now at Manchester in the Rylands Library, is the oldest MS of the NT in existence: it was written in Egypt and discovered during excavations in the Fayum. Allowing time for the book to travel in the ancient world, the gospel must have been written by 120 CE. It was published by C. H. Roberts of Oxford in 1935. Another papyrus MS of the gospel, now in Geneva, is almost complete, and has been dated by several experts as about 150 CE; but so early a date is not widely accepted. A reasonable date for the gospel’s composition would be 95 CE either in Ephesus or in Gaulinitis, part of the former kingdom of Herod Agrippa II, a largely Jewish area where Greek was spoken.
That John the Apostle was the author is still held by a few scholars but rejected by the majority. The former emphasize the gospel’s familiarity with the geography of southern Palestine, with Jewish rites and ideas, and the similarity of thought and language, e.g. about ‘truth’ and ‘faith’, with certain of the Dead Sea scrolls from Qumran. The ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ would seem to claim authorship (21: 20, 24)—at least of that chapter (sometimes regarded as an appendix to the preceding twenty chapters)—and this disciple, who was at the Last Supper, and at the foot of the cross, and at the tomb on Easter Day, could be John. It has also been held that the ‘beloved disciple’ was Lazarus, on the basis of John 11: 5. It probably has to be said in the end that the identity of the author is simply unknown. The difficulty about accepting the view that John the Apostle wrote it is that it clearly comes from the last years of the 1st cent., when the conflict between Church and Synagogue was fierce (cf. John 9: 22; 12: 42). The style, language, structure, and theology are not such as would come from John the Apostle. They are not the reminiscences of a very old man of what he himself saw and heard, but a piece of creative theological interpretation by the evangelist at the end of a process of tradition. The name of the apostle John became attached to the gospel in order to give it the necessary authority, possibly because John was, in fact, the originator half a century before of the traditions which eventually took shape in the fourth gospel. And in this case the claim in 21: 24 is, in an indirect way, true; the Beloved Disciple is both John and the evangelist, or in other words, the message of the Beloved Disciple (2: 20) is being given to the community, who are already familiar with the synoptics, as the readers also are, and can therefore identify him with John the apostle.