Interpreting Biblical Texts Series - The Gospel and Letters of John

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In this volume, R. Alan Culpepper considers both the Gospel and the Letters of John.

The book begins with a close look at the relationship between John and the Synoptics and a summary of John's distinctive thought and language. The second chapter addresses the fascinating issues regarding the origins of the Gospel and the letters: authorship, sources, and composition. The history of the Johannine community is reviewed in chapter three. Chapter four interprets the plot of the Gospel and prepares the student to read John as literature by providing a brief orientation to narrative criticism.

The fifth chapter turns to more traditional concerns: John as theology. This chapter provides a digest of the Christology, theology, and eschatology of John. The sixth through the eighth chapters, the heart of the book, guide the student through a reading of the Gospel. The ninth chapter serves as an introduction to the Letters, noting especially their relationship to the Gospel. Each letter is treated in turn. The final chapter examines the challenges and potential of the Johannine literature as documents of faith.

"In previous writings Alan Culpepper has shown himself to be one of the best Johannine scholars of our time. He not only conveniently draws together his research but also shows himself to be an excellent teacher." --Raymond E. Brown

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780687008513
  • Publisher: Abingdon Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/1998
  • Series: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 823,763
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

R. Alan Culpepper is Dean of the McAfee School of theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, Georgia.
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The Gospel and Letters of John

By R. Alan Culpepper

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1998 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-00851-3


Introduction to the Johannine Literature

The Johannine literature is distinctive in several respects. John is the only Gospel in the New Testament that has letters related to it. The relationship is much closer than the Gospel of Luke and the Letters of Paul, or the Gospel of Mark and the Letters of Peter.

John differs from the other three canonical Gospels so dramatically that they are called Synoptic Gospels ("seeing alike"), whereas John is unique. John has its own language and idiom, its own chronology of the ministry of Jesus, its own view of Jesus' identity and works, and its own theology.

John is arguably the most influential book of the New Testament. It alone depicts Jesus as the Word (Greek, Logos), a fact which has made John the seedbed for much of the church's theology. One has only to think of the doctrine of the Trinity to see the importance of John for Christian thought. The relationship of Jesus to God as Son to Father breaks through only occasionally in the Synoptics, but it emerges full-blown in the Fourth Gospel. The double nature of Jesus as human and divine also confronts us more dramatically in John than elsewhere, and John has more to say about the Holy Spirit than any other writing in the New Testament.

The engaging factor is that John is at once the simplest of the Gospels and the most difficult. It is the Gospel most frequently translated into other languages and the Gospel written in the easiest Greek. But it can also be difficult to understand. The Gospel always calls us to walk further with it and ponder it longer. In this respect, it is both a home and a horizon, a place of security and a place of challenge. (Because of this, you might wish to preface your study of John and your reading of this book by turning first to chapter 10 to gain an overview of some of the ethical, theological, and historical challenges these writings pose to communities of faith today.) I hope that you will find the study of this Gospel so engaging that it will never let you go. If this happens, you will gain a lifelong source of intellectual and spiritual stimulation that will never let you stop probing its mysteries.


Is John best understood as history, theology, or literature? John is a narrative that presents Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who lived at a particular time in history. As a historical narrative it raises problems of the relation of history to faith, God to humanity, and time to the eternal. How could a writer convey the significance of the advent of the eternal Son of God in human history? Neither an unvarnished historical account nor a theological treatise would be adequate. The event was both history and revelation, so the events and content of that revelation interpret one another, and this in a narrative context.

As we wrestle to understand John and discern the extent to which it is history, we will learn that the evangelist is writing for a particular believing community facing a specific set of historical conditions. So, revelation both emerges out of history and is interpreted back into history. From your study I hope that you will also see ways in which the revelation imparted in the life of Jesus and interpreted for the Johannine community can reach into our own historical circumstances.

John as Literature

Suppose that you wanted to write a story about a divine being who had come to earth in human form—perhaps a script for a television series. What form might the story take? What plot lines would be open to you? There are two basic options that grow out of the premise of the story. The first would be, How does anyone know that this human figure is a divine being if he looks, talks, and acts like a human being? How does his identity become known? That is the plot of the Gospel of Mark. According to Mark, no one knew at first who Jesus was, and even those closest to him only discover who he really is at or after his death and resurrection. The voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism is addressed to him alone. We readers know that Jesus is God's Son, but no one around Jesus knows until his death, and it is his death and resurrection, not his power or teachings, that make his identity known.

In John, by contrast, Jesus tells everyone who he is. From the very first chapter both he and others use the church's lofty titles to describe his identity. There is no question about how people discover who Jesus is—he tells them, and tells them repeatedly. Now the question becomes, How do people respond to his claim to be the Son of God? Why do some believe him and others do not? What different responses can we see in the Gospel, and what are the different levels or stages of faith?

While the Gospel tells the story of Jesus, it also draws us as readers into it and seeks to move us along the continuum of responses to a higher level of response to Jesus as the Revealer.

John as History

John is paradoxically both the most and the least historical of the four Gospels. Good arguments can be raised in favor of the accuracy of John's geographical references, its chronology of the ministry and death of Jesus, the nature of the debates or trials that led to Jesus' execution, and the relationship of Jesus to John the Baptist—to take only a few illustrative points. On the other hand, the style of Jesus' speech in John is thoroughly Johannine, resembling more nearly the way the author of the Johannine Epistles writes than the style and idiom of Jesus' teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. In John, Jesus usually speaks in long discourses rather than in the short sayings and parables characteristic of the Synoptics. In addition, Jesus speaks more explicitly of his identity and messianic role in John than in the Synoptics; this suggests that John reflects later Christian response to Jesus more explicitly while the Synoptics preserve the actual sayings of Jesus more accurately. Even where the Synoptics may be more accurate historically, however, John perceptively highlights elements of truth about Jesus.

John as Theology

The Gospel and Letters of John were written in the midst of fierce theological debate. One's place within the community was defined by one's confession of Jesus as the Messiah. At first, believing Jews distinguished themselves from others in the synagogue by their confession that Jesus was the Messiah. Then, when the community of believers separated from the synagogue, their confession defined them over against the pagan, Greco-Roman world. When divisions developed within the community over the incarnation of Jesus and the meaning of his death, the elder who wrote the Johannine Epistles defined the community over against those who had gone out from it (1 John 2:19) by articulating once again the community's confession of Jesus Christ who has "come in the flesh" (1 John 4:2).

Whereas Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus, and Matthew and Luke with the birth of Jesus, John begins at "the beginning," before the creation. The first words of the Gospel tie the story of Jesus to the larger story of the God of Israel. The life of Jesus is interpreted in light of the Jewish Wisdom tradition. Originally wisdom was merely the knowledge or lore that enabled one to be a successful farmer, sailor, craftsman, or merchant. Kings had a particular wisdom: "By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just" (Prov 8:15). Solomon in particular was noted for his wisdom. Israel's sages linked wisdom with the worship of God: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov 1:7). Gradually, wisdom was personified, wisdom was related to the commandments revealed at Mt. Sinai, and wisdom was understood to be God's agent in the creation. The preexistent Wisdom, the divine Logos that was the agent of creation, John asserts, came in human form in the person of Jesus. The Logos came as the unique Son to reveal God as his Father, so that those who believed in him could know the only true God (John 1:18; 17:3).

As the Logos incarnate, Jesus exercises creative power over the natural elements. He is able to change water to wine, feed a multitude on five barley loaves, give sight to a man born blind, and raise the dead. He also knows what is in the hearts of others, and his nourishment comes from doing the will of the Father. Like a son working at his father's side, he does only what the Father gives him to do. He and the Father are one. Therefore, he has no need to ask the Father for anything (see Jesus' prayer at the raising of Lazarus in John 11), and the Johannine Jesus would never pray "not what I want, but what you want" (Mark 14:36). Even when he goes to his death, he knows who will betray him, and no one takes his life from him, but he lays down his life, and he has the power to take it up again (John 10:18). It is small wonder, then, that Ernst Käsemann said that the Johannine Jesus appears as "the God who walks on the face of the earth." Nevertheless, this revealer sent from above is at the same time thoroughly human. He gets tired traveling; he weeps at the death of a friend; and he thirsts as he dies. The central focus of the Gospel of John is clearly on the figure of Jesus, and it leads the reader into a profound exploration of who Jesus was and the significance of his life.

Jesus is set in the context of the history of Israel and the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout the Gospel there are allusions to scripture, titles drawn from the scriptures, and scenes that confirm that Jesus is the fulfillment of the great festivals of the Jews. The Gospel also uses symbols of universal appeal—light and darkness, bread and water—to interpret Jesus. Yet, there is no account of the Lord's Supper in John. Some interpreters have therefore contended that John is antisacramental while others find in it a highly developed view of the sacraments. Similarly, the Gospel's attention is so focused on the fulfillment of Israel's hopes in the coming of Jesus that it says little about a "second coming" or resurrection and judgment in the future. Nevertheless, both present and future fulfillment are present side by side in the Gospel. In an endlessly fascinating way, therefore, the Gospel of John poses challenges to its readers, who never doubt that this Gospel is the work of an early Christian theologian and writer without peer.


John's uniqueness is clearly evident when it is compared with the Synoptic Gospels. A skewed picture emerges, however, unless one considers both the similarities and the differences among the Gospels. We will first survey the similarities and differences between the two and then review briefly the shifts in scholarly opinion regarding the relationship between John and the Synoptics.

Similarities Between John and the Synoptics

For all their differences, the common ground between John and the Synoptics should not be overlooked. All interpreters, from the second century onward, have agreed that both John and the Synoptics are Gospels. That may seem to be an incredibly banal statement, but it is not insignificant—especially since the Gospel genre seems not to have any clear precedent or prototype. Both John and the Synoptics are written accounts of the ministry and teaching of Jesus from his baptism through his death and resurrection. The various canonical Gospels all combine accounts of Jesus' works and his words; all assess the significance of John the Baptist; all feature Jesus' relationship to his disciples and the religious authorities; and all contain accounts of the feeding of the multitude in Galilee, Jesus' demonstration in the Temple, the entry into Jerusalem, Jesus' last meal with his disciples, and the events leading up to his death on the cross and the discovery of the empty tomb. With such extensive similarities, one might wonder why the differences between John and the synoptics could be judged to be significant. Moreover, if all four are Gospels and there were no Gospels before these, then one can easily argue that if Mark was the first written Gospel, John as well as Matthew and Luke must have known Mark in order to be able to write a narrative so similar in form.

Differences Between John and the Synoptics

Although the similarities between John and the Synoptics must be accounted for in any interpretation of the origin of John or the Gospel genre, the differences between them are equally significant. Here we will treat the differences under five rubrics: journeys, chronology, signs, teachings, and Christology.


One of the more apparent differences among the Gospels is their account of Jesus' journeys. Only Matthew and Luke contain accounts of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, and only Matthew records the holy family's flight to Egypt. According to the Synoptics, after Jesus was baptized he was tempted in the wilderness for forty days and then spent the duration of his ministry in Galilee, around the Sea of Galilee, with only an occasional excursion to the north or into the area of Caesarea Philippi. At the end of his ministry, he made one trip to Jerusalem, entering the city only the week before his death. Matthew and Mark then allude to or record resurrection appearances in Galilee while Luke records only appearances in and around Jerusalem.

According to John, however, Jesus moved back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee repeatedly. John contains no account of temptations in the wilderness. In John 1, Jesus is with John at the Jordan and then goes to Galilee. After the wedding at Cana, Jesus returns to Jerusalem, "cleanses" the temple, and talks with Nicodemus before withdrawing to the Judean countryside (3:22). In chapter 4, Jesus journeys through Samaria on his way back to Galilee. In John 5, Jesus is again in Jerusalem, and in John 6 in Galilee. From John 7 on, Jesus is in Jerusalem and Judea or across the Jordan. He does not return to Galilee until the post-resurrection appearance in John 21.

This survey reveals that whereas in the synoptics all of Jesus' ministry up to the last week of his life occurs in or around Galilee, the only events of a Galilean ministry that are recorded in John are the wedding at Cana (2:1-11), the healing of the nobleman's son (4:46-54), and the feeding of the multitude and crossing of the sea in John 6. Whereas the synoptics feature Jesus' ministry in Galilee, John focuses almost entirely on his work in Jerusalem.

In the synoptics Jesus makes only one trip Jerusalem, but in John he makes three trips, going up (one always "went up") to Jerusalem for the major festivals (Passover, 2:13; an unnamed festival, 5:1; and Tabernacles, 7:10). Correspondingly, Jesus returns from Jerusalem to Galilee in chapter 4 (going by way of Samaria) and at the beginning of John 6. After withdrawing from Jerusalem across the Jordan (10:40), Jesus returned to raise Lazarus and then withdrew once more (11:54) before returning for the Passover (12:1). The Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, therefore, are important both structurally and thematically in John.


John also differs from the Synoptics at significant points regarding the chronology of Jesus' ministry. On the basis of Matthew and Luke, the birth of Jesus is usually placed about 6 B.C., before the death of Herod the Great. John says nothing about the time of Jesus' birth, but it does provide references that help us calculate the time of his ministry. The references to the building of the Temple in John 2:20 can be correlated with Josephus's history to yield a date of A.D. 26 or 27 for John's account of the baptism and the cleansing of the Temple (20/19 B.C.—the beginning of work on the Temple according to Josephus—plus the 46 years from John 2:20 yields A.D. 26/27). The synoptics say nothing about the duration of Jesus' ministry. The events in their accounts could fit into as little as one year. According to John, however, Jesus' ministry spanned three Passovers (John 2, 6, and 12ff.). The traditional view of a three-year ministry, therefore, depends entirely on John's chronology.

John and the Synoptics also differ in regard to the date of Jesus' crucifixion. All four Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on Friday, buried before the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown, and that the tomb was discovered empty on Sunday morning. All four accounts also agree that these events took place at the time of the Passover celebration. The point of difference concerns whether the last supper coincided with the Passover meal (as in the synoptics) or whether Jesus' death coincided with the slaughter of the Passover lambs (as in John).

The Passover meal was eaten on the evening which began Nisan 15. Like our celebration of Christmas, however, that day could fall on any day of the week. According to the Synoptics Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples (Mark 14:12, 16-17) and then died the next day (on Passover!). In contrast, according to John the Jews had not yet eaten the Passover meal when they brought Jesus before Pilate, and they refused to enter the Praetorium so that they might not be defiled and unable to eat the Passover meal that evening (John 18:28). Jesus died later that morning, on the day of preparation for the Passover (19:14, 31), at the time specified for the slaughter of the Passover lambs (compare also Exodus 12:1-8; John 1:29, 36).


Excerpted from The Gospel and Letters of John by R. Alan Culpepper. Copyright © 1998 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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