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John—The Evangelist for All Seasons
Since the late second century, John’s Gospel has been symbolized by the eagle, presumably because its theological thought soars so very high. It has also been known as the “spiritual” Gospel. That description carries a variety of meanings. John’s Gospel presents Jesus in his person and teaching as the revealer and the revelation of God, and so as the foundation of every sound Christian spirituality. Throughout its story of Jesus, this Gospel challenges readers to be on the side of the “spirit” as opposed to that of the “flesh.” And it speaks to a community of believers (the church) who are animated and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Unlike the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in the current lectionary of Scripture texts for Sundays there is no separate year dedicated primarily to John’s Gospel. Instead, selections from John’s Gospel appear most prominently in the seasons of Lent and Easter in all the lectionary cycles, both on Sundays and weekdays. Passages from John are also included in the Christmas season and in Ordinary Time. The idea seems to be that John can and does provide spiritual depth to the most important moments in the liturgical unfolding of Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection.
In the New Testament we meet St. John (who traditionally is identified as John the son of Zebedee) primarily through the Gospel that bears his name. This is probably not the same person who wrote the book of Revelation (also named John) or the three letters in John’s name (known as “the Elder”), though there are links between all these writings. Even with John’s Gospel we are more likely dealing with a complex tradition, school, or circle that developed over many years than with a single author working entirely on his own. And so the focus of this book is not the biography of John the son of Zebedee (which is not possible anyway). Rather, it is primarily concerned with the distinctive portrait of Jesus that emerges from the late first-century composition that we know today as the “Gospel according to John.” In this way we today can best meet the elusive figure we call St. John.
After a brief introduction to the Evangelist and his Gospel, there follows six chapters of narrative analysis of the entire Gospel. These chapters focus on the Gospel’s key words and images, characters, plot, literary forms, indications of time and place, and theological message. Next there is a chapter on the historical setting of the Gospel and, in particular, the problem posed by its negative portrayal of the Jews. Then there are two chapters about John’s Gospel in church life, one that illustrates the place of this Gospel in the seasons of the church’s lectionary, and another that makes correlations between John’s Gospel and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Questions for reflection and discussion are provided at the end of each chapter. This book can be used easily by Bible study groups as well as by individual readers.
I have drawn on material in an earlier work entitled John’s Thought and Theology: An Introduction (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1990). Michael Glazier himself has been a source of great encouragement and friendship to me, and in writing this work I have often thought of him with deep affection. I dedicate this book to him with thanks.
Part One Meeting St. John
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
—John 1:14, 16–18
The Evangelist and His Gospel
John’s Gospel is different from the others. The Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—provide a “common viewpoint” (synopsis) about Jesus. But apart from the account of Jesus’ suffering, death, and Resurrection, almost everything in John’s Gospel is absent from the Synoptic Gospels, and vice versa. According to John, much of Jesus’ public ministry takes place in Jerusalem and Judea rather than in Galilee. In this Gospel, Jesus’ public career spans three Passover celebrations (see 2:13; 6:4; 11:55) and thus three years, instead of one year. John presents a different cast of characters, including Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, Lazarus, Philip, the beloved disciple, and Thomas. The focus of Jesus’ preaching is the revelation of his heavenly Father and his own identity as the definitive revealer of God, while the kingdom of God which is so prominent in the Synoptic Gospels, is in the background. John’s Jesus gives long speeches instead of the short units (parables, controversies, proverbs, and so forth) found in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus (rather than the Jewish Law) is the definitive expression of God’s will for his people. And Jesus’ status as the preexistent Son of God, as “I am” and as divine (1:1; 20:28), goes beyond what is said about him in the other Gospels.
Behind John’s Gospel The person named John, who is the subject of this book, is the one we meet through what we call John’s Gospel. In the Christian tradition this figure has been identified as John the son of Zebedee, a fisherman who was among the first disciples called by Jesus. He appears in all the lists of apostles, and in Mark 3:17 John and his brother James are called “Sons of Thunder.” At several points in the Gospels he appears in the inner circle of Jesus’ followers, alongside his brother James and Peter, and at some very important events such as Jesus’ transfiguration and his prayer in Gethsemane. Paul places John among the “pillar apostles” at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9) after Jesus’ Resurrection.
However, it is difficult to discern the precise role of John the son of Zebedee in the composition of the Gospel that bears his name. Did he actually write this Gospel as it now stands? Or did he make available his reminiscences of Jesus? Was he something like the patron saint of the distinctive faith community that came to be identified with him and his teachings about Jesus—what scholars now refer to as the Johannine community? Was he the founder of the Johannine school or circle? Unfortunately we can’t answer these questions with certainty. Perhaps the most important point of all is that those who produced this Gospel traced their tradition back to the circle of Jesus’ first followers, which included John the son of Zebedee.
At several points John’s Gospel appeals to the testimony of someone who was close to the earthly Jesus and is called “the one whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7). There are also references to “another disciple” (18:15) and “the other disciple” (20:2, who is further identified as “the one whom Jesus loved”). The reference to “the two disciples” in 1:37 suggests that this person may once have been a follower of John the Baptist. Whether any or all of these figures is John the son of Zebedee is not clear, though it is certainly tempting to view them as one and the same character.
On some historical matters where John’s Gospel differs from the other Gospels, John is often correct and so conveys solid historical tradition. For example, it is more likely that Jesus’ public ministry lasted for three years rather than one year. Jesus probably did visit Jerusalem more than once. And Jesus may well have been crucified before the Passover festival began, rather than on the first day of the official Passover celebration. Also, many of the geographical references throughout John’s Gospel are accurate and suggest some firsthand acquaintance with these places in the Holy Land. There is much sound historical information in this Gospel.
Nevertheless, John’s Gospel cannot be taken simply as the eyewitness report of John the son of Zebedee or the beloved disciple. It is better understood as the product of the long reflection on Jesus that was carried on in a distinctively Johannine community for over fifty years and that reached its final form around ad 85 or 90, perhaps at Ephesus. John the son of Zebedee or the one known as the beloved disciple may have been the founder of this school or community in Palestine, which was made up largely of Jewish Christians.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in ad 70, all Jews (including Christian Jews) had to redefine their Judaism. In this crisis of identity, the exalted claims made by the Johannine Christians about Jesus led to a strained relationship with other Jews and even expulsion from their synagogues. In the late first century, the Gospel in the form much as we have it today took shape. But it represents the literary and theological activity of the Johannine school over many years. It provides both a statement of that community’s beliefs about Jesus and a defense against the criticisms made by outsiders. Further developments in the life of the Johannine community can be glimpsed with the help of the Johannine epistles (1, 2, and 3 John).
And so Johannine Christianity began as a movement within Judaism and faced its most severe crisis when its adherents were being expelled from Jewish synagogues in the late first century (see 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). How Jesus fulfilled the Jewish Scriptures is a major concern throughout the Gospel. From chapter 5 on, John’s Gospel traces Jesus’ activities by reference to major feasts on the Jewish calendar. There is no doubt that Jesus and his first followers were Jews. The Gospel is written in a Semitic style of Greek. As the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls has shown, its vocabulary and style are not at all foreign to Palestine in the first century. The Johannine Christians probably viewed themselves as practicing a more perfect form of Judaism than their ancestors and rivals did. Non-Jewish observers would have seen the Johannine Christians as a movement within Judaism.
Given the long and complex development of John’s Gospel, it is possible and necessary to read it at several different levels. It presents itself first and foremost as the story of Jesus’ public ministry and death in the early first century (ad 27–30). But it also uses the stories about Jesus to cast light on the crises faced by the Johannine community in its later history, especially as it separated from the synagogue. These stories were expanded and adapted over the years to provide advice for new situations, just as they have been used in church life throughout the centuries.
As the Dead Sea scrolls and other ancient Jewish texts have shown, many Jews in the first century, while acknowledging the supreme authority of God, divided all present reality into two powers and two camps. The children of light do the deeds of light under the leadership of the Angel of Light. The children of darkness do the deeds of darkness under the leadership of the Prince of Darkness. In the end, at the divine “visitation,” the children of light will be vindicated and rewarded, while the children of darkness will be condemned and punished. This Jewish form of dualism found its way into earliest Christianity and received one of its strongest expressions in John’s Gospel. There are no shades of gray in dualistic thinking. It is at the root of the many negative comments about “the world” and about “the Jews” in John’s Gospel.
In John’s Gospel, the chief opponents of Jesus and his followers are identified as “the Jews.” They generally appear in a negative way—as Jesus’ opponents in debate, as his persecutors, and as the ones who convince Pontius Pilate to have Jesus executed. Because Jesus and John and other early Christians were Jews, these hostile “Jews” do not represent all of Israel; they are a group within Israel.
There seems to be an equation or identification between the opponents of Jesus in the early first century and the opponents of the Johannine community in the late first century. The so-called anti-Jewish elements reflect the situation in which Johannine Christians were being excluded from the synagogues and were engaged in a struggle against “the Jews” who dominated those synagogues and were contesting the Christian claim to be the people of God. For a fuller treatment of these matters, see Chapter 8.
Literary Features John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ public ministry: how he gathered disciples, performed “signs” (miracles), taught about God and himself, instructed his disciples on how to carry on the movement he began, was arrested and executed, and appeared to his disciples as alive again. Although this Gospel may not conform to modern definitions of biography, it does measure up to the more flexible standards of ancient biography in which the person’s moral significance as an example (good or bad) was central. However, its claim that Jesus as the Son of God was the definitive revealer of God surpassed what other ancient authors wrote about their heroes.
It has become customary to divide John’s Gospel into two large parts: the Book of Signs (chapters 1—12), and the Book of Glory (chapters 13—20 ). After chapter 1 (which introduces us to who Jesus is), this Gospel in chapters 2—12 traces Jesus’ public activities in Galilee and Judea over a three-year period during which Jesus performs miracles (“signs”) and gives long discourses about his heavenly Father and his role in revealing him. Next in chapters 13—17, at his Last Supper, Jesus bids his closest followers farewell, and instructs them on how to continue the movement that he has begun. The passion narrative in chapters 18—20 constitutes the “hour” of Jesus in which his apparent defeat issuing in his arrest, suffering, and death is transformed into a triumph through his Resurrection, exaltation, and return to his heavenly Father. Chapter 21, which may be a later addition to the Gospel, provides another Resurrection appearance and ties up some loose ends about the fates of Peter and the beloved disciple.
John’s story of Jesus is highly dramatic. His portrait of Jesus makes his hero into an attractive figure, especially when he is played against his disciples and his opponents. The Gospel as a whole has a certain tragic movement as Jesus approaches his death. The individual episodes mix story, dialogue, and teaching to achieve literary variety. Jesus always expresses himself in an elevated way as befits God’s Son. He enters into debates and conflicts with “the Jews.” Their misunderstandings (and those of his own disciples) allow him to explain and clarify who he is and how he relates to God as his heavenly Father. At the end of each episode, Jesus emerges as both wise and noble.
In the service of his dramatic program, the Evangelist uses various literary devices:
misunderstanding: someone misses Jesus’ point, and he has to explain further double meaning: play on words that can mean two things; for example, “again” and “from above” in 3:3–10
irony: the reader grasps the deeper meaning that eludes the speaker; see 11:50
chiastic or concentric structures: parallel ideas or terms pivoting around a central notion symbolic language: Jesus as the “Lamb of God”
inclusion: beginning and ending in the same way, as in 1:1 and 20:28 where Jesus is called “God”
Despite the literary skill evident in John’s Gospel, there are some peculiar features and apparent inconsistencies. At the end of chapter 5, Jesus is in Jerusalem, but at the beginning of chapter 6, he seems to be in Galilee. After hiding from the crowds in 12:36, Jesus speaks in public again in 12:44. At the end of chapter 14, he commands the disciples, “Rise, let us be on our way” but stays around for three more chapters until 18:1. Much of the content in 13:31—14:31 is repeated in 16:4–33. The Gospel seems to end at 20:30–31, only to start up again in chapter 21 and reach a second conclusion in 21:25.
One way to account for the occasional literary unevenness in this Gospel is to assume that the Evangelist and/or the community behind him incorporated various oral or written sources into the narrative. The prologue seems to contain fragments of an early Christian hymn. The seven major “signs” or miracle stories (2:1–12; 4:46–54; 5:1–9; 6:1–15; 6:16–21; 9:1–7; 11:1–44) may have been taken from an earlier collection. The long speeches, especially the farewell discourses in chapters 13—17, probably were in circulation before the final composition of the Gospel. The passion narrative, though similar at some points to those in the other Gospels, appears to have originated as an independent story, at least in part. The idea that these traditional sources were developed in the Johannine school helps explain some of the awkwardness that remains in the text of John’s Gospel.
Theological Significance Toward the end of John’s Gospel, the Evangelist states his reason for writing his story of Jesus: “that you may come to believe [or, may continue to believe] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). There is some ambiguity in the form of the verb “believe” that leaves unclear whether this Gospel was intended to attract those who did not yet believe in Jesus or to deepen the faith of those who already believed. In either case, the consequence of believing in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God is the beginning of eternal life.
The basic theological message of John’s Gospel is simple and straightforward: Jesus the Son of God reveals the Father. The center of this Gospel is the person and mission of Jesus. He is “the man from heaven” sent by his heavenly Father. His death is not a defeat; rather it is the “hour” of Jesus’ glory in which he begins his return to the Father. The Johannine Jesus invites his followers to share in his relationship with his Father—a relationship that is characterized by knowledge, love, unity, and mission. In Jesus’ physical absence, the Spirit will animate and guide the community of Jesus’ followers until “the last day.”
John’s Gospel is provocative. Everything in this Gospel challenges the reader to come to a decision about Jesus. What do you think of him? Are you on his side or not? What are you going to do about it? Often by what it does not say, John’s Gospel raises other questions about important aspects of Christian life and theology. Since it says little or nothing about the meal at the Last Supper, what was the attitude of the Johannine community about the Eucharist? What kinds of church structures and offices did it have? Since so much emphasis is placed on eternal life as having already begun in the decision for and about Jesus, what are we to expect on the last day?
The Johannine presentation of Jesus, especially as it is expressed in the prologue (1:1–18), has provided terminology and ideas for the greatest Christian theologians throughout the centuries. The doctrinal influence of John’s Gospel is especially apparent during the period in which the early church councils made definitions about the person of Jesus largely on the basis of John’s Gospel. The declarations that Jesus is divine and thus on a level with the Father and the Holy Spirit were based on texts such as John 1:1 (“the Word was God”) and 20:28 (“my Lord and my God”). That Jesus had both a human and a divine nature was rooted in 1:14 (“the Word became flesh”). The preexistence of Jesus is implied in 1:1–2 (“In the beginning was the Word”).
The language and ideas in John’s Gospel have been (and still are) understood by people of many different cultures and at many different times. There is much in this Gospel that would have appealed to various currents within ancient Judaism: wisdom, apocalyptic, sectarian movements, and so on. Both Jews and non-Jews influenced by Greek culture would also have found much to fascinate them. The first commentator on John’s Gospel was a Gnostic named Heracleon in the mid-second century. Other Gnostics made use of John’s Gospel in their struggles with orthodox Christians. Christians in many lands today (such as India and China) find in John’s Gospel their entry point into the Scriptures.
However, John’s Gospel can be a dangerous text. Despite its beauty and nobility, it can be misused. Some groups have used its dualism as an excuse to separate themselves from others and to deny any validity to other religious approaches. Anti–Semites have exploited its negative comments about “the Jews” and applied them to the Jewish people in general and throughout history, including present times. Modern gnostics (the “new age” movement, for example) claim John for themselves when in fact the Johannine community opposed such thinking by insisting that Jesus the Word became a person in space and time (see 1:14). And some theologians have used the Gospel’s high spirituality and abstract ideas without attending to it as a whole and reading it in its historical context.
We can avoid these dangers, or at least lessen them, by reading John’s Gospel as part of the church’s canon (authoritative collection) of Scripture. John is not the only Gospel and not the only approach to Jesus in the New Testament. It must be placed alongside the other Gospels and the other books of the Bible. The present text as a whole is the authorized version of John’s Gospel. We cannot pick and choose among its sayings to bolster only peculiar positions in theology and practice.
For Reflection and Discussion What do you hope to gain from your study, reflection, and meditation concerning John’s Gospel? Why did you choose to study this particular gospel?
The Gospel of John “uses the stories about Jesus to cast light on the crises faced by the [faith] community in its later history, especially as it separated from the synagogue” (pp. 6–8). When you consider this aspect of the Gospel, how might that change the way you read it?
Does the idea of a Johannine community or school behind this Gospel make sense to you? Why, or why not? How does your own situation and community influence how you understand your faith?