The earliest evidence for the existence of the Fourth
Gospel or, at any rate, of the distinctive ideas of its author, is provided
in the letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch about 115.
The Gnostic teacher Basilides used the gospel, early in the second century at Alexandria, and from the same period comes a tiny papyrus fragment containing several verses of John 18.
Orthodox teachers like Justin made use of the gospel at Rome, and wall paintings in the Roman catacombs (c.175) portray Johannine themes.
The earliest "commentaries" on John, which we know, come from Ptolemaeus and Heracleon, disciples of the Christian Gnostic Valentinus; both of them ascribed the book to John, the disciple of Jesus.
In the late second century a few orthodox writers, reacting against Montanist
use of John, denied that he had written the book.
But most Christians agreed with Theophilus that it was written by an inspired author and with Irenaeus that this author was John, author of the book of Revelation and teacher of Polycarp of Smyrna.
The fact that in Polycarp's extant letter or letters there is only one possible allusion to the gospel does not prove that he did not know the book.
It is a question, however, whether or not the same author wrote the gospel and the Apocalypse.
Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (c. 250), argued that considerations of vocabulary, style and thought prove that there were two authors.
After the end of the second century, however, no Christian author doubted
that an apostle wrote the gospel;
only in modern times has the question been raised again, chiefly because of the differences between John and the synoptic gospels either individually or as a group.
We shall consider these differences as we examine Johannine vocabulary, style and thought.
The Gospel of John contains 15,240 words, only 1,011 of them different.
Of these, 112 do not occur in any other New Testament book.
In proportion to its size, the gospel employs the smallest vocabulary in the New Testament;
even the book of Revelation reflects a higher proportion of vocabulary to total number of words (9.3 per cent against 6.5 per cent).
Words bearing upon the meaning of Jesus' revelation are especially characteristic of the gospel's vocabulary.
There are 120 references to God as "Father" (only sixty-four in all three Synoptics),
only three of them qualified by adjectives ("living", 6.57; "holy", 17.11; "righteous", 17.25).
The Father is often identified as "he who sent me" (twenty-six times).
John usually speaks of "Jesus", but the terms "Son" (nineteen times), "Son of Man" (thirteen times), and "Son of God" (seven times) also occur.
The most common way of indicating the significance of Jesus, however, is in the use of the nominative personal pronoun "I" (120 times).
The most important use of "I" occurs in the expression "I am" with a predicate noun.
"I am the bread of life" (6:35, 41, 48, 51)
"I am the light of the world" (8:12)
"I am the door of the sheep" (10:7, 9)
"I am the good shepherd" (10:11, 14)
"I am the resurrection and life" (11:25)
"I am the way, truth, and life" (14:6)
"I am the true vine" (15:1, 5)
There are also significant verbs of revealing used with "I",
for example "I know" (141 times),
"I bear witness" (thirty-three times),
"I speak" (thirty times),
"I glorify" (twenty-one times),
and "I make manifest" (nine times).
The response of the believer is indicated especially by "I believe" (100 times) and "I behold" (twenty-three times).
The nature of Jesus' revelation is intimated by "truth" (true, truly, a
total of fifty-five times),
by "life" in a special sense (thirty-six times),
Revelation and response are combined in "love" (noun and verbs, fifty-seven times),
and the response of "abiding" or "remaining" is found forty times.
The spiritual environment of the Incarnation is reflected in the word "world"
often co-ordinated with "the Jews" (sixty-eight times).
John mentions a Jewish feast seventeen times, and speaks of "your law" three times.
There are also favourite words, which point towards John's conception of
"not yet" ("oupo", eight times in a "theological" sense), two words for "now" (about thirty times: "arti" and "nun" ).
He also employs several words for dealing with spiritual origins:
"whence" ("pothen", thirteen times) and "whither" ("pou", about twelve times),
"from above" (five times) and "from below" (once);
similarly, he contrasts heaven with earth.
For the sake of comparison with the Synoptics, it may be added that the following words never occur in John, though fairly common in the other gospels:
To these should be added words, which, though common in the synoptics, are very infrequent in John:
Whatever the historical situations of John and the synoptics may be, they
are rather different from each other.
Perhaps one might say that the synoptic gospels are more concerned with social and historical matters, while John is concerned with theology.
Specialists in Aramaic have often argued that John's gospel was translated from that language.
As criteria of proof they have used
Their use of these criteria was undercut in 1931 by E. C. Colwell (The
Greek of the Fourth Gospel),
who showed that the passages were not very obscure and that the Greek was characteristic of the Koine.
Furthermore, different Aramaists retranslate differently.
John may have written in Aramaic; but the case has not been proved.
John is fond of varying his Greek words where he intends to convey the same
For example, three different words are used for "go away" in John 16:5-10,
two for "love" in 21:15-17 (cf. 14:21 and 16:27), and three for "grieve" in 16:20-2.
Two different words for "ear" are used in John 18:10 and 26, two for "keep" in 17:12.
Lists of "Johannine synonyms" can easily be constructed.
Similarly, when the Johannine Christ says, "As I told you before,"
comparison of what he has previously said with what he says now will reveal that the two sayings are almost never verbally identical.
This feature shows John's fondness for variation.
At the same time, John likes to use a single expression with various meanings;
sometimes he seems to be indicating that there is not only an obvious or "surface" meaning
but also a deeper significance.
This characteristic of his writing occurs not only in the discourses with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman and in relation to the Feeding of the Five Thousand, but also in conversations with the disciples.
John is suggesting that the meaning of Jesus was not exhausted by the interpretations of his person and message which were given by his contemporaries, just as the Darkness did not "grasp" the Light (1:5).
Much of the teaching of Jesus was ambiguous.
When he spoke of the temple he really referred to his body (2:19-21).
He said that a man must be born "again" ("from above") of water and the Spirit (3:3-5);
and the word "neuma" means both "spirit" and "wind" (3:8).
To be "lifted up" (3:14) means both to be exalted (8:28; 12:32-4) and to be crucified (18:32).
"Water" means one thing to the Samaritan woman, another to Jesus (4:7-11).
He alone understands the deeper meaning of "going away" (7:35; 8:21; 13:33-6),
of being blind and then seeing (9:39-41),
of the sleep of death (11:4, 11-15),
and of resurrection (11:23-6).
And in this gospel even the high priest delivers an ambiguous prediction (11:50-2; cf. 18:14) and Pilate involuntarily testifies to the significance of Jesus (19:5, 14-15).
Sometimes, on the other hand, John seems to indicate different shades of
meaning by the use of different, though related words.
He seems to hint that the verb "hypagein" does not mean simply "to go" but is especially concerned with Christ's going to the Father (7:35; 8:21; 13:33, 36).
Similarly the ordinary words "erchesthai", "to come", and "poreuesthai", "to go", are used chiefly of coming from and going to heaven, while the compound verbs meaning "to come from" and "to go to" are more frequently related to movement in the world.
Special meanings seem to be reserved for "anabainein", "to go up" (to Jerusalem, to the temple, to festivals, to heaven), for "katabainein", "to go down" (to Capernaum for a healing, from heaven), and for "metabainein", "to cross" (from death to life, from the world to the Father; once to Judaea).
These words are important because so much of John's thought is related to "up" and "down", "above" and "below", "heaven" and "the world".
The true disciples know where Jesus came from and where he goes;
they are "born from above" and will ascend after him.
It is not certain how far John's use of words is systematic, although Origen
may have been right in believing that John regarded Judaea, Jerusalem, the
temple and festivals as symbols of heaven, Galilee and Capernaum as symbols
of the world.
If he regarded them as symbols, he did not mean that they were "merely" symbols.
If they were symbols, they were, so to speak, incarnate symbols.
If we consider the purpose or purposes of the evangelist in so far as we
can infer them from his book itself, we clearly find that he writes in order
to inspire and to confirm faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, so
that readers may have true life "in his name" on the ground of this faith
What he writes consists of 'signs', which Jesus performed in his disciples' presence, and he has made a selection from the many signs of Jesus because he believes that the ones recorded are essential.
They include the transformation of water into wine (2:11)
and the healing of a royal officer's son (4:54) both at Cana in Galilee;
but there are many others, which during Jesus' ministry did not inevitably result in faith (12:37).
The picture which John sets forth is thus different from that found in the synoptic gospels, where Jesus denies that any sign will be given to his generation (Mark 8:12) - at any rate, none except "the sign of Jonah" (Matt. 12:39-40; 16:8; Luke 11:29-30).
According to Paul (I Cor.1.22), "signs" are sought for by Jews, not by Christians.
According to John, even the high priests and the Pharisees recognize that Jesus performed signs (11:47).
(Sometimes a deeper meaning for "sign" is indicated, as in John 6:26.).
The evangelist is concerned with pointing out that John the Baptist "did
no sign" (10:41).
Here we encounter one of his most important interests.
The Baptist was not the Light but a witness to the Light (1:7).
He was not the Christ (1:20; 3:28);
he was not the returning Elijah (1:21;
contrast Matt.11:14), nor yet "the prophet" foretold by Moses (1:21), for this prophet is Jesus (6:14; 7:40).
John pointed towards Jesus as really prior to himself (1:15, 27, 30);
he recognized him as the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), and he said that as Jesus increased so he himself must diminish (3:30).
At least two of his disciples, including Andrew, became disciples of Jesus (1:35-40).
Now in Acts 19:1-8 we find evidence for the existence of "Johannine" Christians, and in the Clementine Recognitions (fourth century) we read of disciples of the Baptist who regarded him as the Christ.
This outside evidence, scanty though it is, confirms our impression that the evangelist is dealing with the real problem presented by those who revered the Baptist more highly than Jesus.
This feature of his gospel suggests that it was written at a relatively early date.
The Clementine Recognitions are, of course, late;
but at many points they make use of early Jewish-Christian traditions, usually heterodox in character.
John is also concerned with the temple and its ritual.
The synoptists place the cleansing of the temple just before the passion narrative;
John makes it early and insists that the true temple is the body of Jesus (2:13-22).
True worship is "in spirit and truth", not limited to Jerusalem or Samaria (4:20-4).
The festivals at Jerusalem are described as "of the Jews" (5:1; 7:2; 11:55);
similarly the law (as law) is assigned to them.
Indeed, while in the synoptics Jesus eats the paschal meal with his disciples, in John 18:28 it is made plain that the time for the meal came after his arrest and crucifixion.
In some respects John's attitude resembles that of the Dead Sea covenanters.
His freedom from the law is balanced by insistence that "the scripture cannot be broken" (10:35) and the treatment of the Mosaic writings as really written about Jesus (5:46).
Among the most important features of John's thought is his view of Jesus
as the incarnate Word of God (1:14), one with the Father (10:30); he who
has seen Jesus has seen the Father (14:9).
He is the Revealer-Redeemer who comes down from the heavenly Father and returns to him.
Along with this Concentration upon the person and work of Christ goes a revaluation of eschatology.
Emphasis is placed not so much on the return of Christ and the last judgement as on the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit and on judgement already begun in present life.
In regard to Christology and eschatology the point of view of John is somewhat different from that of the synoptic evangelists.
We have already referred to many differences between John and the synoptic
The most important of them is probably that of the order in which events are related, especially events located in or near Jerusalem.
According to the synoptics, the public ministry of Jesus consisted of journeys about Galilee and one journey to Jerusalem;
according to John, he frequently visited the city.
According to the synoptics, he cleansed the temple shortly before being crucified;
according to John, he did so early in his ministry.
The possibilities, historically speaking, are these:
If we may assume that the details of the "triumphal entry" are significant,
and that they point towards the Feast of Tabernacles, we may conclude that
both John and the synoptic evangelists have transferred an event which originally
occurred at Tabernacles to the Feast of Passover - or, more probably, that
their predecessors did so.
Alternatively, we may assume that the actual feast was not remembered and that those who transmitted the traditional accounts felt free to place the event where they pleased.
There are also many details in which John agrees with the synoptic gospels,
and we might suppose that such parallels would clearly indicate John's relative
earliness or lateness.
Such is not the case.
All the evidence is ambiguous, and three possibilities remain open.
There are no reliable grounds for making a decision.
If we pass back to historical considerations it can be argued that the synoptic
gospels fairly reliably reflect the Galilean-Judaean background of Jesus'
ministry as well as the exorcisms, parables and message of the kingdom with
which he was concerned;
all these features are minimized in John.
On the other hand, in John we find a thought-world, which in some respects resembles that of the Essenes of Qumran (see Chapter XVIII).
It can be claimed, then, that the differences are due not to a "development" from original, Jewish ideas to something else but to the reflection of two (or more) different kinds of Judaism.
The fact that John speaks in a hostile way about "the Jews", while the synoptic evangelists pay more attention to smaller groups and to individuals, does not prove that he is not Jewish.
The Qumran sectarians similarly criticized the "orthodox".
Moreover, criticism of "the Jews" is not necessarily even late.
It is found in I Thessalonians 2:15 and in early sermons in Acts (2:23, 3:15, etc.).
On specific literary and historical grounds, then, it cannot be proved that John is either earlier or later than the synoptic gospels.
The only grounds on which this point can definitely be "proved" lie in
a general theory of the development of early Christian thought, and the Gospel
itself provides the chief support of this theory.
Since the argument is circular we shall do well to neglect it.
Especially in the twentieth century, scholars have pointed to difficulties in the Gospel of John which suggest that
It need hardly be said that such theories are not altogether new.
Origen was well aware of some of the difficulties, and he used them to support his claim that the evangelist was concerned with spiritual truths rather than with historical events.
The modern goal, however, is usually to give a literary-historical explanation of the phenomena.
(1) Rudolf Bultmann quite tellingly provides proof that the Gospel is not
[Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (ed. 3, 1959), III, 840-1.]
points are granted - and it is difficult to deny their force - we must
admit that the Gospel has been disarranged.
The only question that remains is concerned with the extent of the disarrangement.
(2) The question of the activity of an editor is more difficult to decide.
What criteria are to be employed?
Siegfried Mendner has listed four:
[Zeitschrift f? die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 47 (1956), 108.]
Not all of these criteria possess equal force.
The original author may have had difficulties,
may sometimes have failed to write poetically,
and may not have known or been concerned with historical events.
As we have already suggested, we do not know whether or not he employed the synoptic traditions or gospels.
Bultmann differentiates late glosses from the work of the editor.
He finds that their being omitted in some manuscripts or versions often indicates the presence of glosses.
These glosses include John 7:53-8:11 (omitted by all ancient witnesses),
5:4 (omitted by most early manuscripts),
and the following phrases omitted by some witnesses:
"when the Lord gave thanks" (6:23)
"except the feet" (13:10)
"many things" (14:30)
"because I go to the Father." (16:16)
In addition, Bultmann treats as glosses the following expressions that break the continuity of thought or produce confusion in a sentence:
"the sheep and the oxen" (2:15)
"the Lord knew that" (4:1)
"you have no dipper and the well is deep" (too obvious) (4:11)
"following, who also reclined at the supper on his bosom and said,
'Lord, who is it who betrays you?' " (21:20)
After these glosses have been removed, we have the gospel in the shape in
which it left the hand of an ecclesiastical editor, late in the first century
or early in the second.
From this form of the work, then, we must go on to remove items that were added in order to make the gospel conform to late first-century sacramental views or synoptic eschatology or history.
The editor had the double purpose of making the work harmonize with church life and with the Church's gospels.
Noticing the most obvious additions he has made provides proof of the existence
of this editor first of all.
The Gospel clearly comes to an end in 20:30-1;
we must therefore assume that chapter 21 is an addition.
Furthermore, the poetic style of the prologue is interrupted by prosaic verses that refer to John the Baptist (1:6-8, 15; cf. 1:30).
Therefore we can go on to discover other additions that break the formal continuity of the book or produce contradictions.
"Synoptic" sayings 1:22-5, 32; 7:20-1; 11:2; perhaps 13:16, 20;
also "John had not yet been imprisoned" (3:24, attempt to correlate with the synoptics)
Contradiction 4:2 "And yet John himself did not baptize, but his disciples did" (contradicts 3:22)
"Mechanical" fulfillment 18:9 "In order that the word . . . might be fulfilled"; also 18:32.
The editor was not concerned with synoptic tradition alone.
He was anxious to relate the gospel to the sacramental teaching of the Church and to its eschatology.
Therefore he added 6:51b-58 in order to correlate the bread of life with the Eucharist,
and 19:34b-35 to show that both baptism and Eucharist were established by the death of Jesus.
In addition, he inserted the words "water and" in a reference to birth from the Spirit (3:5);
the parallel in John 3.3 speaks of birth "from above".
Water is irrelevant.
As for eschatology, the true Johannine view involves present realization alone.
"The hour comes and now is" (4:23; 5:25).
"I am the resurrection and the life;
he who believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die"
(11:25 -6; cf. also 3:18-19; 9:39).
The editor is responsible for additions that speak of resurrection and judgement
as future (5:28-9)
or of a future gift by the Son of Man (6:27),
or refer to "the last day" (6:39, 40, 44, 54; 12:48).
His view is the Jewish eschatological view expressed by Martha in John 11:24 ("I know that he will rise in the resurrection at the last day") and corrected by Jesus.
The points about sacramental teaching and eschatology obviously depend upon
a prior assumption that in the evangelist's thought water had nothing to
do with birth from above and the bread of life was not related to the Eucharist;
similarly his eschatology must have been either futurist or realized.
The question, then, must be raised whether or not the evangelist's mind worked as clearly and sharply as does that of a modern literary critic.
When Bultmann deletes "water and" largely on the ground that other critics of the liberal school have done so, his argument is not very convincing.
It should be said, however, that the attempt to disprove Bultmann's claims
by pointing to the unity of John's grammar, syntax and vocabulary is not
An editor who believed that it was important to revise John's work would surely have had some acquaintance with his mode of expression. Moreover, the essence of style, whether ancient or modern, is a certain variety along with some measure of uniformity.
No author uses nothing but formulas.
But this variety in thought and word leads us to suspect not only the argument
based on Johannine unity but also the argument for the existence of the editor.
It remains quite possible that the mysterious editor was also the author of the gospel, although he probably did not leave his work in precisely the form in which we have it.
To an editor or to editors we should hesitate to ascribe much more than John 21:24-5, the last verses of the book:
"This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things;
and we know that his testimony is true.
And there are also many other things that Jesus did;
if all of them should be written,
I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that might be written."
It is fairly clear that the opening verses of the Gospel are somewhat different
in atmosphere from the rest of the book.
This fact has been taken to show that the author was revising an earlier hymn or poem to the creative Word of God, but such an inference is not necessary.
He may well have composed the prologue specifically for use in the gospel.
In addition, critics have argued that he made use of a book of "signs"
or significant miracles, and that he reinterpreted the contents of this book
for his own purposes.
To the "sign book" Bultmann and others have added special sources consisting of sayings that originally came not from Jesus but from some Gnostic group, perhaps disciples of John the Baptist.
The difficulty with this source analysis lies in the fact that, as Charles
Goodwin has pointed out, when John uses a source we can check on - the Old
Testament - he does so very allusively.
If we did not possess the Old Testament verses to which he alludes we could not reconstruct them.
Therefore we cannot reconstruct his other sources, whatever they may have been.
["How did John treat his Sources?" - Journal of Biblical literature, 73 (1954), 61-75.]
Indeed, unless we have the benefit of a genetic theory of the development
of Christian thought, we might even suppose that in his gospel he combined
memories of what he had seen and heard with interpretations based on these
Presumably revelation or encounter in general, involves response,
and in the absence of photography and tape-recording
John was likely to write down what Jesus meant to him rather than to paste together sources that he did not quite understand.
We are left, then, with some very general conclusions, which do not greatly
assist us in dealing with the gospel.
It was written, probably in Greek and not much later than 70, perhaps in Asia Minor.
It presents a portrait of Jesus different from the general synoptic picture.
According to a tradition certainly in existence by the middle of the second century,
its author was John, the disciple of Jesus - perhaps the son of Zebedee.
The difficulty with identifying this John with the author of Revelation is that there are conspicuous differences in vocabulary, style and theological ideas.
Perhaps there has been some confusion between the two; perhaps both came from the same area and belonged to the same "school";
but any definite conclusion runs into difficulties.
Was the author a disciple of Jesus'
If the synoptics are taken as the norm for the life of Jesus -
and the traditions in them seem to underlie later New Testament books as John's do not -
we may wonder how a disciple could have written as John does.
But it is worth observing that the "beloved disciple" often identified as John comes on the scene only in or near Jerusalem in this book.
Perhaps his "historical" memories were concerned chiefly with what took place at the end of Jesus' ministry;
and in any event it is obvious that he regards remembering as related to the creative work of the Spirit (2:22; 12:16; 14:26).
Again, if he is somehow related to the Dead Sea community and its fate after the monastery was destroyed in 68, some of his special emphases can be explained in relation to the audience that he hoped to win for Jesus.
We conclude that the author was probably not the son of Zebedee but a Jerusalem
disciple of Jesus who wrote his gospel around the time of the Roman-Jewish
war of 66-70 (probably not long after it) in order to present faith in Christ
to bewildered and distressed Jewish sectarians.
These sectarians lived either in Palestine itself or in the Dispersion.
|The testimony of John the Baptist||(1.19-51)|
|I.||The Revelation of the Glory before the World||(2-12)|
|A.||The Encounter with the Revealer||(2.23-4.22)|
|1.||Jesus and the teachers of Israel||(2.23-3.21; 3.31-6; 3.22-30)|
|2.||Jesus in Samaria 8(4.1-42)|
|B.||The Revelation as Judgement|
|1.||Healing of the royal officer's son||(4.43-54.)|
|2.||The Bread of Life||(6.1-59)|
|3.||TheJudge||(5.1-47; 7.15-24; 8.13-20)|
|C.||The Revealer in Conflict with the World|
|1.||The hiddenness and contingency of revelation||(7.1-14; 7.25-9; 8.48-50; 8.54-5; 7.30; 7.37-44; 7.31-6; 7.45-52)|
|2.||A fragment||(8.41-7; 8.51-3; 8.56-9)|
|3.||The Light of the World||(9.1-41; 8.12; 12.44-50; 8.21-9; 12.34-6; 10.19-21)|
|4.||The Good Shepherd||(10.22-6; 10.11-13; 10.1-10;10.14-18; 10.27-30)|
|D.||The Revealer's Secret Victory over the World||(10.40-12.43)|
|1.||The decree of death||(10.40-2; 11.1-54)|
|2.||The way of the cross||(11.55-12.33; 8.30-40; 6.60-71)|
|II.||The Revelation of the Glory before the Community||(13-20)|
|A.||The departure of the Revealer||(13.1-17.26)|
|1.||The Last Supper||(13.1-30)|
|2.||The Farewell Prayer||(13.1; 17.1-26)|
|3.||Farewell discourses and sayings||(13.31-16.33)|
|a.||Departure and empowering||(13.31-5; 15.1-17)|
|b.||The community in the world||(15.18-16.11)|
|c .||The future of believers as eschatological situation||(16.12-33)|
|d.||Communion with Son and Father||(13.36-14.31)|
|B.||Passion Narrative and Easter||(18.1-20.29)|
|C.||Conclusion of the Gospel||(20.30-1)|
|The Logos||1.1-5, 9-12, 14, 16|
|Flesh and Spirit||3.6, 8, 11-13, 18, 20-1, 32-6|
|The Water of Life||7.37-8; 4.13-14|
|The Bread of Life||6.27, 35, 48, 47, 44-5, 37|
|Father, Son, and Eternal Life||5.17, 19-21, 24-5; 11.25|
|The Glory||5.31-2, 39-44; 7.16-18; 8.14, 16, 19; 7.7, 28-9; 8.50, 54-5; 7.33-4; 8.43, 42, 44, 47,45,46,51|
|The Light of the World||8.12; 12.44-5; 9.39; 12.47-50; 8.23, 28-9; 9.5,4; 11.9-10; 12.35-6|
|The Shepherd-Door||10.11-12, 1,4,8, 10, 14-15, 27-30, 9|
|The Coming of the Hour||12.27-8, 23, 31-2|
|Freedom through Truth||8.31-2, 34-5, 38|
|The Revelation of Glory||17.1, 4-6, 9-17; 13.31-2|
|The Vine and the Branches||15.1-2, 4-6, 9-10, 16|
|Departure of the Revealer/Arrival of the Paraclete||15.18-20, 22, 24, 26; 16.8, 12-14, 16, 20, 22-4, 28; 14.1-7, 9, 14, 16-19, 26-7 (18.37?)|