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The Gospel of John

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In 1933 F. C. Grant sought to detail the issues connected with the development of Gospel writing. In that study he considered the probable motives behind the emergence of the Gospels.20 Building upon Grant’s concern, it seems to me that a number of motives can be suggested for the writing of the Gospels. Before launching into a discussion of these motives, however, it is well to be reminded that John’s Gospel, like Luke’s (cf. 1:1–4), does contain a stated purpose for its writing at John 20:30–31:

Many other signs, indeed, Jesus did in the presence of his disciples which have not been recorded [or written down] in this book; yet these have been recorded in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that [in the genuine process of] believing you might have life in [the power, of, or by virtue of] his name! (author translation)

When this verse is set in the context of the entire Gospel, it becomes a magnificent door through which the studied reader can gain access to the motives behind the writing of this document, which Clement of Alexandria well designated as the “Spiritual Gospel.”21

In accordance with this purpose statement it becomes immediately clear that the Gospel is not intended as a mere academic exercise but that the reader is expected to provide an appropriate response. That response is pointedly spelled out in 20:31, where genuine life is identified for the reader as the goal of human existence. The attaining of that goal, moreover, is proclaimed to be achieved through the process of believing in the reality and nature of who Jesus is, both as the long-anticipated Messiah (Christ) and as the actual human embodiment of the Godhead on earth. It is another way of expressing the twofold nature of Jesus which Paul formulated in a more complex manner at Rom 1:3–4. But as will become evident in the Gospel, believing is not mere intellectual assent but involves committing oneself to this Jesus.

The general purpose of this Gospel thus has both a missionary or evangelistic side and also an instructional side (both will be discussed further). The very nature of its recording is for the purpose of communicating a message. But it is not a message of some visionary experience of a seer who has been encapsulated in a spiritual trance and who seeks to enlighten readers as the result of such a mystical encounter. Instead, the evangelist clearly defines the Gospel as a written record that relates directly to miraculous signs Jesus performed in the actual presence of his disciples. These disciples had come to understand that the name of Jesus, like that of God, is a symbol of the presence of life-giving power for humanity.

The purpose statement also indicates that not everything that happened while Jesus was on earth has been recorded in this Gospel. Clearly much more was known, as John 21:25 indicates, and thus the reader should not be troubled if only a small part of John overlaps with the Synoptic Gospels. What has been included is a determined selection, written with a stated purpose in mind. It probably is best, therefore, not to refer to the Gospel of John as a “Life of Jesus” but rather as a “Testimony about Jesus” that is aimed at providing the reader with insight into the strategic offer of eternal life in Jesus. With this perspective in mind, further analysis of the motives behind the writing of the Gospel can be conducted.

(1) Orality and the Missionary Motive

As the early Christians moved their focus of mission outside the context of the land of Israel with the proclamation of the gospel, some authoritative written exemplars of Jesus’ life and work clearly became a necessary tool. While the early missionaries employed epistolary writing as a means for communicating with converts, particularly in matters of church practices and ethical perspectives, the early Christians tended to focus on oral presentation concerning the life and work of Jesus, the Christ.22 These matters were related to the desire that testimonies should be given orally since message and messenger were clearly interrelated.23 Rather than writing about Jesus in the initial stages of the church’s mission, it was regarded as more authoritative to bear witness orally like the perspective in the more recent hymn that implores: “Tell me the stories of Jesus!” As long as there were living witnesses or immediate successors of these witnesses who could perform this task, the living testimonies were undoubtedly considered preferable to written words.

Moreover, oral testimony was preferred to written statements because not everyone could read. In this respect it is important to remember that after the Jerusalem Council reached its decision that the Gentiles would be accepted into the Christian community without the need for observing Jewish particularistic rules, the Council not only gave its decision in writing to the missionaries but also sent Judas and Silas to bear witness orally (apangellein) to their decision (Acts 15:27). Likewise, the reading of Scripture among the early Christians was not generally a silent experience for one personally, and certainly silent reading was not used in community events. Scripture was most likely read orally after the manner of the Jewish practice.24 Thus one should best translate the benediction in Rev 1:3 for contemporary readers as, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear” (italics added).

With the passing of time and the deaths of the near witnesses, however, the need for authoritative, written statements about the life and work of Jesus became not merely a helpful tool but also a necessity in order to preserve the reliable tradition. Accordingly, the concluding words of the Fourth Gospel give witness to the passing of an era when the community’s firsthand, reliable witness (cf. John 19:35; 21:24) was either dead or near death (21:23).

(2) Apologetics and Deviant Writings

The emergence of documents with strange fairy-tale-like stories about Jesus and skewed theological ideas in works such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and indeed the Gospel of Truth (which in fact is not a gospel in the sense of Gospel genre but more of a theological treatise) bear witness to the necessity in the church for authoritative Gospels to combat the growth of deviant views and fanciful legends concerning Jesus.25 To peruse these noncanonical documents and reflect on the stories about Jesus preserved in them and other early documents gives the reader the immediate sense of the genuine reserve and feeling of authenticity that is present in the canonical presentations concerning Jesus.26

Some recent scholars are bent on setting the Gospel of Thomas alongside the four canonical Gospels,27 even though its dating cannot be established, and it hardly is to be equated with the “Q” of Synoptic studies.28 Such a use of sources like Thomas in fact is an indication of why works like the Gospel of John needed to be written to preserve the integrity of the early church’s message and why the early Christians wrestled with the establishment of the New Testament canon.

Other scholars like R. Bultmann are convinced that the New Testament and works like the Gospel of John are filled with mythological formulations such as the legend of the empty tomb. Yet one has the uneasy feeling that Bultmann has attempted not merely to demythologize the New Testament stories but also to remytholigize those stories of Jesus in terms of a mid-twentieth century perspective. But such an approach is based on a rationalistic formulation of facticity wherein reduplicable sense perception acceptable to his era of scientific research is made the standard for what should be judged to be authentic.29 The pseudosophistication of a mind-set that categorizes ancient thinkers as incapable of distinguishing truth from error because of some general way of thinking is from my point of view really questionable!

Moreover, the general tendency to lump all ancient works including the New Testament writings into a common pot of “creative story writing” in order to substantiate some mythological theory fails to recognize the commitment to truth and authenticity on the part of the canonical writers (cf. e.g., Luke 1:1–4). There is no question that the world has time and again been duped by religious quacks who have sought self-gain, power, and prestige among their misled devotees.30 It is, of course, imperative always to examine the motives not only of the original purveyors of ideas but also of their successors. Yet to assume that the New Testament writers such as John were misguided, easy believers in fantasy flies in the face of the disciples’ own sceptics, such as Thomas (John 20:25), who demanded proof before committing themselves to the resurrection of Jesus and the early Christian kerygma.

(3) The Need for an Instructional Source

As indicated earlier, communication of the Gospel was generally and primarily oral in nature following the pattern of oral tradition among the rabbis. The oral traditions of the rabbis became set, and after the so-called council meetings of Jamnia in the late first century there developed a tendency toward written codification of legal opinions to ensure consistency within Judaism. The result was the writing of the Mishna. In a similar fashion Luke indicated that his intention was to set in writing the matters that had been “delivered” to him (note the use of paredosan in Luke 1:2, which is the familiar Greek term for the handing down of tradition). The concept of tradition is strongly linked with the idea of instruction.

In this respect it is intriguing indeed to speculate on the role of John Mark when he traveled with Barnabas and Paul. Acts 13:5 indicates that Mark was designated as their hypēretēs, which can easily be translated as “assistant.” Although some scholars debate whether the term derives from the idea of under-rower, it is most unlikely that it comes from a nautical setting and instead refers to someone who has the duty to deal with the directions of a superior.31 Could Mark and later Silas have functioned as those who in addition to helping generally would have provided instructional assistance to new believers? We may never know for certain, but the notion is tempting.32

The thesis of J. A. T. Robinson is that the Gospel of John was not addressed to the Gentile, Greek-speaking world but to the Jewish, Greek-speaking diaspora. Furthermore, Robinson’s theory that the Gospel is an instructive critique of Judaism from within rather than a condemnation from without is very intriguing.33 For instance, such a matter as Jesus’ statement to the Samaritan woman, wherein he distinguishes the Samaritans as “you” and aligns himself with the Jews as “we” in John 4:22, certainly is worth pondering.

The style of many of the interchanges in John certainly reminds the reader of synagogue instructional debates among the rabbis or teachers of the law. In this respect one should recall in the debate over the bread of life (which occurs with the feeding of the multitude and the walking on the sea) that as the interchange nears the conclusion, all of a sudden the statement is made that the discussion has taken place as Jesus taught “in the synagogue in Capernaum” (John 6:59). Although the form of the discussion certainly reflects a synagogue style of teaching and argument, the story itself had hardly suggested up to that point that the setting had changed from outdoor to indoor.

Indeed, when one reflects on the Gospel as a whole, one has the feeling that while the purpose statement is clearly linked to a missionary focus, the form of most of the pericopes in the Gospel are styled according to a teaching format, whether it is the obvious instructional chapters in the Farewell Cycle, the discussions in the Cana Cycle, or the arguments in the Festival Cycle. Because of its format, this Gospel is an ideal resource for teaching; namely, there is a repeated interweaving of story or illustrative word pictures (such as shepherd, vine, and raised serpent in the wilderness) with related theological reflections or analyses. It is in fact an ideal textbook for Christian instruction!

(4) Providing Followers with a Sense of Time and Purpose

If there is one thing the reader of this Gospel soon senses, it is that the Jesus of the Johannine Gospel is not directed by self-serving goals, relationship pressures, or fear of hostility. As early as 2:4, the reader is introduced to the focus of Jesus’ life as being upon his “hour” (cf. 12:23; 17:1–2). Moreover, he is presented as a person whose very reason for being is the fulfillment of his mission to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). Furthermore, he is pictured as having an absolute commitment to act as a faithful agent and do the will of the one who sent him (5:30).

In focusing on Jesus in this way, the evangelist provides the reader with a divinely directed perspective on the significance of time and purpose for authentic living. Although Jesus is portrayed in this Gospel as the matchless Son who has total intimacy with God (1:1–3, 18), John employs the portrait of Jesus to provide a model for Christian discipleship.

The authentic follower of Jesus is to recognize that time is in the hand of God (14:1–3; 16:24; 21:22–23; cf. also 5:25–29; 6:39–40) and that pain or suffering is an inherent aspect of faithful discipleship (e.g., 16:2, 20; 17:14; 21:18–19). Furthermore, Jesus’ self-sacrifice serves as an indelible pattern for his faithful followers (e.g., 12:23–26; 15:18–20).

Accordingly, the Gospel must not merely be read as a story about Jesus. It is also a challenge to copy the pattern of Jesus in the manner that Paul challenged his readers to copy both Christ and himself (cf. Phil 2:5–7; 3:17). Imitation involved not merely following a person’s words but copying a person’s life, and it was a crucial key in the ancient world to delivering an authentic message.34 The Gospel thus opens immediately after the strategic announcement of Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” with the thematic notation that the disciples “followed Jesus.” The Greek word akoluthein in 1:37–38, 40, 43 is the verb used for becoming a disciple or “follower” of Jesus. There are, of course, some whose following was very preliminary (cf. 6:2), but in John Jesus indicated that true followers would not “walk in darkness” (8:12), would know the voice of the Shepherd, and would not be led astray (10:4–5, 27). But Jesus’ followers are warned by the picture of the presumptive Peter that “following” involves more than words of intention (13:36–38); it demands the commitment of life, and it promises the ultimate reward of being with Jesus (12:26; 17:24).

In conclusion, approaching the Fourth Gospel with a sense of these motives for writing the document should prepare the reader to peer more deeply into the Johannine message and to understand a little better why this book is one of the foundational documents of Christian theology and life.



20 F. Grant, The Growth of the Gospels (New York: Abingdon, 1933), 45–52.

21 For other comments see G. Borchert, “The Fourth Gospel and Its Theological Impact,” RevExp 78 (1981): at 249–50.

22 The Scandinavian school of H. Riesenfeld and B. Gerhardsson has made a significant contribution to scholarship by reminding the academic world of the importance of memorization among the rabbis and the contribution oral tradition made in the development of our Gospels. See Riesenfeld’s important essay in The Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 1–29, and Gerhardsson’s treatise Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1961). See also Gerhardsson’s follow-up works, Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1964), and The Origins of the Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979). For a helpful summary see P. Davids, “The Gospels and Jewish Traditions: Twenty Years after Gerhardsson,” in Gospel Perspectives, ed. R. France and D. Wenham (Sheffield: JSOT, 1980), 1.75–99.

23 See the earlier discussion under the title “The Term ‘Gospel.’”

24 NT expressions such as “You have heard … but I say [tell]” repeated in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g., Matt 5:21–22, 27–28, 33–34) reflect the oral nature of Jewish oral synagogue reading and dialogue expressed in the Heb. shema‘tem ma shenne’emar, which involved both hearing and understanding. Cf. D. Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London: Athlone Press/ University of London, 1956), 55–62. Other expressions pointing back to this oral phenomenon are “He who has ears to hear” (e.g., Matt 11:15; 13:9; Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8; 14:35; cf. the similar expression Rev 2:7, 11, 17, etc.), “the word of God, which you heard” (1 Thess 2:13), “Blessed is the one who reads … and blessed are those who hear” (Rev 1:3). The official views of rabbinic tradition were encompassed within that primary body of material designated as the “Oral” Torah later codified in the Mishna. Cf. E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.–A.D. 135), rev. and ed. G. Vermes et al. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1973), 69–70. The OT concept of “giving ear” (e.g., Exod 15:26; Deut 1:45; Neh 9:30; Isa 1:10; 51:4; Jer 13:15) is one way of calling for obedience to God and God’s law. This idea is undoubtedly in the background of oral communication from God and the later development of oral tradition.

25 For examples of the Gnostic “Gospels,” see The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. J. M. Robinson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977). Also see my discussion here under “Gnosticism.”

26 See E. Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, ed. W. Schneemelcher, trans. R. Wilson, vol. 1., “Gospels and Related Writings” (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963).

27 See, e.g., the works of J. D. Crossan, The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), 9, 45, 81–84, 146, 158, and 167. See also his Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), and The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), for his methodology, xxxi–xxxiii, and for citations from Gos. Thom., 504. For a discussion of the relation of the Gos. Thom. to Luke see J. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke (Garden City: Doubleday, 1981), 1.85–87.

28 The Gospel of Thomas has frequently been compared to the “Sayings Source,” which has been posited by scholars along with an early form of Mark as being the root sources for the writing of Matthew and Luke. Although a number of critiques are leveled at the “Q” source theory today (see n. 10), some form of such a source, oral or written, provides a starting point for understanding the interrelationship of the Synoptic Gospels (cf. B. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins [London: Macmillan, 1924]). The theory of a written “Sayings Source” known as Q, for the German Quelle, posits a written source that may have been in a form something like the Gospel of Thomas, but it was hardly parallel in content. The content of Thomas is definitely Gnostic and is akin to later Valentinianism. For a discussion of the Gospel of Thomas see B. Gärtner, The Theology of the Gospel of Thomas, trans. E. Sharpe (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960). For a discussion of the Gnostic threat see G. Borchert, “Insights into the Gnostic Threat to Christianity as Gained through the Gospel of Philip,” in New Testament Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. R. Longenecker and M. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 79–93.

29 See Bultmann’s famous essay “New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth, ed. H. Bartsch, trans. R. Fuller (London: SPCK, 1957), 1–44, esp. pp. 9–16.

30 The world has repeatedly experienced messianic-like figures such as Jim Jones and his tragic followers and David Koresh and the Waco tragedy. In that vein one can number Sun Myung Moon, the Unification Church founder, Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder, who sought to rewrite the New Testament by the addition of his “revelations,” and Mohammed and his dreams and visions, which stimulated the fierce wars in the Middle East. Revisions of perspective often take place among the successors of these founders. Even in Christianity not all followers of Jesus adopt the perspective of Jesus.

31 See the discussion of K. Rengstorf, “ὑπηρέτης…” TDNT, 8.530–44, and my discussion of the term in John 7, nn. 148, 149.

32 Rengstorf’s argument related to Mark carrying around a copy of the Gospel is irrelevant to an oral culture. Cf. ibid., 541.

33 J. A. T. Robinson, “The Destination and Purpose of St. John’s Gospel,” in Twelve New Testament Studies (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1962), 107–25, reprinted from NTS 6 (1960): 117–31. Cf. also his analysis of the cleansing of the temple in “‘His Witness Is True’: A Test of the Johannine Claim,” in Twelve More New Testament Studies (London: SCM, 1984), 114–18.

34 For a detailed discussion of imitation see W. Michaelis, “μιμέομαι …” TDNT 4.659–74, as well as the study of my former student M. Hopper, “The Pauline Concept of Imitation” (Ph.D. diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1983).

[1]Borchert, G. L. (2001, c1996). Vol. 25A: John 1-11 (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (30). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

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