By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The fourth and last of the gospels which begin the New Testament, the Gospel of John is also the most unusual of the four. Whilst the other three gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain many overlapping details (and are known collectively, on account of these similarities, as the ‘synoptic gospels’), John’s account of Jesus’ life and divinity is couched in very different terms.
Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, mainstream theological consensus held that – unlike the three synoptic gospels – the author of John’s gospel was in fact one of Jesus’ apostles, the ‘beloved disciple’. Let’s take a closer look at the Gospel of John.
Gospel of John: summary
The Gospel of John begins with the famous statement ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ We have discussed this quotation, which is often summarised as the Incarnation of the Word, in more detail in a separate post.
John (as we will refer to the author of the gospel – although see below for more information on the authorship question) devotes considerable time to establishing John the Baptist’s status as a forerunner to Jesus. John the Baptist disavows any claim to messianism, instead encouraging others to follow Jesus, who is the Messiah who was foretold.
Early on in John’s account of Jesus’ life, we have a description of his first miracle or ‘sign’ (as John refers to them): the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana (2:1-12). This miracle is only found in John, and not in any of the synoptic gospels.
We then have several episodes – the cleansing of the Temple (when Jesus drove the moneylenders from it), the visit of Nicodemus, Jesus with John the Baptist, and Jesus and the Samaritans – before we come to the second sign, which sees Jesus healing a nobleman’s son. The third sign or miracle is the healing which takes place at the Pool of Bethzatha.
The fourth sign is the feeding of the five thousand, and the fifth is Jesus walking on water. We then have the Feast of Tabernacles (chapters 7 and 8), and the sixth sign (Jesus restoring a blind man’s sight). The Feast of Dedication (10:22-42) follows.
One of the most famous signs, the raising of Lazarus, is the seventh and final ‘sign’ or miracle. This is a notable moment in John’s account of Jesus’ life, because the other three gospels do not mention the raising of Lazarus at all. (This episode in John’s gospel is also the occasion for the shortest verse in the whole of the bible: the two-word statement ‘Jesus wept’, found at 11:35.)
The remainder of the Gospel of John focuses on the last few days of Jesus’ life: the Crucifixion and the Resurrection follow in chapters 13-20.
Gospel of John: analysis
The Gospel of John stands apart from the other three gospels, which are usually grouped together as the ‘synoptic gospels’, because they share many details in common.
John’s gospel is different from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in several key aspects. Whereas the synoptic gospels seek to depict Jesus as a fairly realistic preacher figure (miracles notwithstanding), the Jesus we encounter in John’s gospel might be more accurately described as a more deliberately constructed character through which the author advances a particular theological worldview.
Indeed, as Isaac Asimov noted in his erudite Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament, it might be more productive to regard the Gospel of John as akin to Plato’s dialogues involving Socrates, whereby the central figure (Jesus in John’s gospel, Socrates in Plato’s work) engages other people in intellectual arguments in order to put forward a particular viewpoint.
This is both understandable in light of John’s supposed identity, and, at the same time, rather surprising. It is understandable because the Gospel of John is believed to have been written some time after the synoptic gospels, perhaps around the year AD 100.
So whilst the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are thought to have been composed at a time when Christianity was still more narrowly focused on the Jewish world, John’s gospel was composed when Christianity had already spread into the gentile world, among non-Jewish followers. Indeed, it was clear by around AD 100 that the future of Christianity lay not principally among the Jewish populations of the Middle East, but among non-Jewish peoples.
This means that the author of the Gospel of John is not addressing a readership unfamiliar with Christianity, but entering into a discussion that was already decades old. And a common belief among biblical scholars is that the author of this fourth gospel is trying to settle a number of controversial points surrounding the life and teachings of Jesus.
At the same time, it is also somewhat surprising that the author of this gospel should depict Jesus in the way he does. For it was once maintained that the John to whom this gospel is attributed was John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James, who is mentioned as being among Jesus’ apostles.
If this is indeed true, then the Gospel of John was actually written by someone who was an eyewitness to many of Jesus’ miracles and teachings in Jerusalem, in the days (indeed, years) leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection.
Although this idea is rejected by many modern biblical scholars, it is not quite so incredible a proposition as it may first sound. If the apostle mentioned as being among Jesus’ followers – indeed, the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’, as John 13:23 has it – was around twenty years old at the time of the Crucifixion in AD 33, then he could still have been alive, albeit an old man, in AD 100, when the gospel is believed to have been written.
This is certainly borne out by contemporary accounts, which describe John as undertaking missionary work in Ephesus and, during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), going into exile on the island of Patmos. He is then thought to have returned to Ephesus and died during the reign of Trajan (AD 98-117). So he could well have lived to the ripe old age of ninety, or thereabouts, and written (or dictated) his account of Jesus’ life and teachings in his old age.
Nevertheless, the mainstream view is that the Gospel of John was probably not written by an eyewitness to Jesus’ own life and works. As the Dictionary of the Bible notes, there are too many ‘discrepancies’ with the synoptic gospels. At the same time, however, it cannot be denied that there are many local details – such as the description of the Feast of Tabernacles and the ceremonial pollution described in John 18:28 – which point to an author who had first-hand familiarity with the customs and practices of Jewish people at the time of Christ.
Nor can we reconcile these various contradictions in the gospel by confidently claiming that it was a composite work, written by several hands. As the Dictionary of the Bible observes, it is ‘uniform’ in style, thought, and vocabulary throughout. It is one of the many aspects of John’s gospel which make it so puzzling and so fascinating. Of course, we probably never will be able to resolve these various questions and issues satisfactorily.
But perhaps the oddest aspects of the Gospel of John are not the details the author mentions but the details he omits. He makes no reference to Jesus’ miraculous birth. There is no mention of the Last Supper and therefore of the significance of the bread and wine which form the basis of the Eucharist.
There is no cry of despair from Jesus while being crucified; instead he simply announces the completion of his duty (19:30). And at no point does John mention any of the parables which were, the synoptic gospels suggest, an integral part of Jesus’ teaching.
This last omission makes more sense if we view John’s gospel as written later than the other three. The most widespread explanation for this shift away from ‘parables’ and towards the question-and-answer argumentation we find Jesus engaging with in the Gospel of John (such as in the famous bible verse, John 3:16) is that ‘John’ was writing for a gentile audience, rather than the more narrowly Jewish readership the earlier gospels were principally aimed at.
Although Luke was also writing for a non-Jewish audience, Matthew and Mark were clearly addressing Jewish people in their gospels. Indeed, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ famous enjoinder to his disciples not to cast their ‘pearls before swine’ seems to be a command to his Jewish audience not to attempt to convert gentiles to the new faith.
And in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus repeatedly demonstrates his supernatural powers while also repeatedly playing down his role as Messiah: not something he can be described as doing in John’s gospel, where his divinity is continually asserted, both by himself and by others. Indeed, in Mark’s account, Jesus confides to the disciples that they are privy to the truth, but that the full truth is not to be revealed to everyone else.
But in chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, Jesus shocks his disciples by engaging a Samaritan woman in conversation, and making it clear to her – and to his non-Jewish audience – that he has come to save all people, not just Jews. The fact that John includes this detail in his gospel is further indication that the author of the gospel is showing the universality of Christianity for all men, not just for Jewish people.