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The Writings of John
A Survey of his Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse
By C. Marvin Pate
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 C. Marvin Pate
All rights reserved.
Introduction to the Gospel of John
After reading this chapter, you should be able to:
Evaluate the evidence regarding the authorship of the fourth gospel.
Explain the concept of the "Johannine school."
Discuss the possible backgrounds of the thought world of the fourth gospel.
Discuss the eschatology of John.
Describe the relationship between John, the epistles of John, and Revelation.
Explain the genre of gospel.
Delineate the twofold historical setting of the gospel of John.
Point out the similarities between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the fourth gospel.
Assess the Greek manuscript evidence for the gospel of John.
Compare/contrast John with the Synoptic Gospels.
I first studied the gospel of John seriously as a Bible college student in the fall semester of 1971. It was then that I was introduced to the distinctives of the fourth gospel. It is simple but profound in thought. Regarding this, Augustine supposedly said of John's gospel, "John's gospel is deep enough for an elephant to swim and shallow enough for a child not to drown."
John's language is dualistic (light versus darkness, above versus below, believers versus unbelievers, etc.). The fourth gospel records seven sign miracles and seven "I am" statements.
It contains discourses rather than parables. Following a majestic prologue (John 1:1 – 18), the fourth gospel delineates certain stages of belief one proceeds through to achieve discipleship. Its polemical usage of the title "the Jews" is famous, and it is filled with realized eschatology (see below). These are but some of John's unique features.
Yet John, like Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is obviously a gospel, a presentation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it has been beloved by both believers and heretics (see my later discussion of second-century Gnosticism's affinity with the fourth gospel). From the end of the second century AD on, there was no doubt in the church's mind that John belonged to the New Testament canon. It was, as Clement of Alexandria labeled it, a "spiritual gospel,"1 one to be mined for its depth of meaning. Even today new believers are encouraged to first read the gospel of John, so beautiful and edifying is its message. Indeed, John 20:31 supports such advice: "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."
Scholars, too, since Origen's third-century AD commentary on John, have been preoccupied with interpreting the fourth gospel. It is likely that it claims the attention of more scholars at the present time than any other book of the Bible. For example, from 1920 to 1965 alone, over three thousand academic works were written on the gospel of John,2 and interest in it has not waned since then. Obviously, therefore, in an introductory work like this one, we can only scratch the surface of the meaning of the fourth gospel.
But wrestle with the meaning of John we will! After touching upon the key issues surrounding the fourth gospel, we will then move our way through the book chapter by chapter. So fasten your seat belt and hold on to your hat as we enter the wonderful world of the gospel of John.
We proceed now to discuss the following introductory issues associated with the fourth gospel: its authorship, its canonicity, the conceptual background of John, its historical setting, John as gospel, its structure, the Greek manuscript evidence for John, John and the Synoptic Gospels, and the theology of the fourth gospel.
I. THE AUTHORSHIP OF THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
Up until modern times, the traditional view of the authorship of the fourth gospel has been that John, "the beloved disciple," wrote said book. I now summarize the evidence for that perspective, after which I consider alternative views of the authorship of the fourth gospel.
A. The Traditional View
The traditional view appeals to both internal evidence and external evidence in support of its claim that the apostle John wrote the fourth gospel. The former has to do with the contents of John, while the latter deals with the testimony of the church fathers.
1. Internal Evidence
B. F. Westcott's classic commentary on John presents the internal evidence regarding the authorship of the fourth gospel in narrowing concentric circles, leading to the conclusion that the apostle John authored the fourth gospel. I now summarize this line of thinking.
1. The author of John was a Jew. Thus he, like most Jews, awaited the Messiah promised in the Old Testament (John 1:21; 4:25; 6:14 – 15; 7:40 – 42; 12:34; et al.). He quotes the Old Testament (6:45; 13:18; 19:37). The author knows about Jewish traditions (2:6; 5:1; 10:22).
2. The author of John has a knowledge of Palestine (John 1:44; 2:1; 4:46; 5:2; 9:7; 10:22; 11:1; et al.).
3. The author presents himself as an eyewitness of the events he recorded (John 1:29, 35, 43; 2:6; 4:40, 43; 5:5; 12:1, 6, 12; 19:35; et al.).
4. The author was an apostle. He was "the Beloved Disciple" (cf. John 21:20, 24) who leaned on Jesus' breast at the Passover supper (cf. 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7). The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) restrict the attendants at the Last Supper to the twelve apostles. Moreover, the author knows the disciples' thoughts (2:11, 17, 22; 4:27; 6:19, 60; 12:16; 13:22, 28; 21:12) and Jesus' private feelings (6:6, 61, 64; 13:1, 3, 11; 18:4; 19:28).
5. The author was the apostle John. The author was one of the inner circle of the disciples: Peter, James, and John (the latter two being the sons of Zebedee [John 13:23, 24; 20:2 – 10; 21:2, 7, 20]). Because James had long since been martyred before the writing of the fourth gospel (Acts 12:1 – 5) and Peter appears as a different person from the Beloved Disciple therein (John 21:7), only John is left to be the author.
Since Westcott's arguments, only the first two points have been confirmed. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the uncanny similarity of thought between the fourth gospel and their writings, confirming that the author was a Palestinian Jew. Not even the fact that John was written in Koine Greek detracts from its Jewish background, for more and more scholars recognize that, at the very least, Galilean Jews spoke Greek. But the other three of Westcott's points are hotly contested, as we will see later.
2. External Evidence
External evidence from the time of the church fathers reflects an early belief that the apostle John wrote the fourth gospel. Irenaeus (AD 120 – 202) wrote, "Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia" (Against Heresies 3.1.1.). As for the reliability of Irenaeus, Eusebius says his authority was Polycarp (AD 70 – 155/60), who had personally heard the apostles (Eccl. Hist. 4.14).
Theophilus of Antioch (AD 115 – 88), Clement of Alexandria (AD 190), Origen (c. AD 220), Hippolytus (AD 225), Tertullian (c. AD 200), and the Muratorian Fragment (AD 170) agree in attributing the fourth gospel to John, the son of Zebedee.
One possible exception to the testimony of the church fathers is Papias's statement (early second century AD) recorded by Eusebius (early fourth century AD), referring to two Johns:
And if anyone chanced to come who had actually been a follower of the elders, I would enquire as to the discourses of the elders, what Andrew or what Peter said, or what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples; and things which Aristion and John the elder, disciples of the Lord, say.
Eusebius then comments:
Here it is worth noting that twice in his enumeration he mentions the name of John: the former of these Johns he puts in the same list with Peter and James and Matthew and the other Apostles, clearly indicating the evangelist; but the latter he places with the others, in a separate clause, outside the number of the Apostles, placing Aristion before him; and he clearly calls him "elder." (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.45)
Some have inferred from this comment that it was the second John, a disciple of John the son of Zebedee, who wrote the fourth gospel. But this interpretation is refuted by four considerations. First, for Papias, "apostle" and "elder" are the same — one of the twelve disciples. Second, Papias therefore refers to John the elder with reference to one of the apostles (cf. 1 Peter 5:1, where Peter the apostle designates himself as an elder). Third, it is likely that the distinction Papias is making in his two lists is not between apostles and elders of the next generation but between first-generation witnesses who have died (Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, Matthew) and first-generation witnesses who were still alive (Aristion and John). In other words, the same John is mentioned twice — the first time because he is grouped with the apostles and the second time because he alone of the apostles is alive. Fourth, D. A. Carson observes of Eusebius: "In any case, Eusebius had his own agenda. He so disliked the apocalyptic language of Revelation that he was only too glad to find it possible to assign its authorship to a John other than the Apostle, and he seizes on 'John the elder' as he has retrieved him from Papias."
All of this to say that the tradition of the early church fathers is consistent: John the apostle, the Beloved Disciple, wrote the fourth gospel.
B. Nontraditional Views of the Authorship of the Fourth Gospel
For about a century now, scholars have decried the preceding traditional view, arguing instead that John the apostle did not write the gospel attributed to him. This approach divides into two categories: John was written by an individual other than the apostle or the fourth gospel was written by a group.
1. An Individual Other Than John the Apostle
Non-Johannine theories of authorship of the fourth gospel center on one of three individuals: John the Elder, Lazarus, or an ideal figure. The first of these was suggested by Eusebius's interpretation of Papias's aforementioned statement. But I already registered my disagreement with that argument.
Another individual thought to be the author of the fourth gospel is Lazarus, whom Jesus loved (John 11:3). Yet the Synoptics, and presumably John, record only the twelve apostles as attending the Last Supper. So how could Lazarus lean on Jesus' breast as the Beloved Disciple did (13:23)? And why is Lazarus mentioned by name in John 11 and 12 and then referred to as the anonymous "Beloved Disciple" later? Contrast this to the apostle John who is nowhere mentioned in the fourth gospel (but at least twenty times in the Synoptics). It looks very much as if John wanted to keep his name anonymous as the author of his gospel. Such anonymity also detracts from any criticism that, in calling himself the "Beloved Disciple," John is being boastful. Therefore Lazarus does not seem to be the author of our gospel.
Still others regard the Beloved Disciple as an ideal figure; that is, the church's testimony to Christ. But, as Donald Guthrie ably responds, this view renders the Beloved Disciple as unhistorical, which undermines the very claim of the fourth gospel to be an eyewitness account of the life and times of Jesus. In light of the above considerations, therefore, we are led to the conclusion that John the apostle was the Beloved Disciple, the author of the fourth gospel. This, however, does not solve the whole problem; hence the next point.
2. Group Authorship
Many interpreters today, however, argue that a group of authors, or a school of writers, produced the Johannine literature: the gospel of John, the epistles of John, and Revelation.
R. Alan Culpepper examined ancient literary schools approximately contemporaneous with the New Testament and identified nine characteristics that they and the Johannine corpus share:
(1) The school gathers around a founding figure; (2) the founder is a teacher and exemplar of wisdom or goodness; (3) members of the school are disciples (pupils) of the teacher and loyal to his teaching; (4) teaching and learning are the focal activities of the school; (5) common means commemorate the role of the founder; (6) there is an emphasis on philia [friendship] and koinonia [fellowship]; (7) rules define the life of members; (8) the school is distanced from wider society; (9) institutional structures (routinization) provide a basis for the perpetuation of the school.
These characteristics are thought to be applicable to the apostle John and his followers. As one of the twelve apostles, John was an eyewitness of the historical Jesus who passed on his knowledge of him ( Jesus) (numbers 1 – 2 above). John had pupils, too — the editor of John (chap. 21), Gaius (3 John 1, 4), Demetrius (3 John 12), and undoubtedly unnamed protégés. These, then, formed the nucleus of the Johannine school (numbers 3 – 4 above). We may gather that John continued to celebrate the memory of Jesus with his devotees through the observance of meals (cf. John 13 with John 21). Indeed, the very word "fellowship" (koinonia) in 1 John 1:3 (twice), 6, 7 may well imply the celebration of meals together by the Johannine community in the name of Christ (numbers 5 and 6 above) patterned perhaps after the Last Supper (John 13 – 17). It is clear that the Johannine community maintained theological parameters of belief and behavior (number 7 above); hence John's opposition to the "Jews" in his gospel and later his consternation at the secessionists' exit from his churches (1, 2, and 3 John focus on these disgruntled members of John's churches who departed from that apostle's teaching that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human). In a later section, I will discuss the sociology, or the social dynamics, of the Johannine community, suggesting that it was sectarian in nature (number 8 above). That the Johannine school was perpetuated is clear from the editing that went on after John's death; thus John 21 (see number 9 above).
The possibility that there was a Johannine school is all the more plausible since there were other known literary schools roughly at the time of John. In the Greek world, there were the schools of the Pythagoreans and the Stoics. In the Jewish world, there were the schools of the Essenes, Philo, and Rabbi Hillel. In the Chris tian era, the Antiochene and Alexandrian schools prevailed in the fourth century AD. Within the New Testament itself, there may have been a school of Matthew and a school of Paul.
In subscribing to the theory that there was a Johannine school, one caveat, however, should be issued: the central role of John the apostle must not be downplayed in the overall literary process, as indeed the Johannine school proponents tend to do.
Yet I see no reason why John could not be the author of all three writings associated with his name — the gospel, the epistles, and Revelation (I will discuss the authorship of the epistles and Revelation separately). So, even if he did use colleagues and followers in the writing process, they wrote under his authority, or at least with his blessing. And no doubt this process continued after his death, as was the case with John 21.
"Canon" literally means "rule or measure." It is used by theologians figuratively with reference to the books included in the Bible; thus, for a book to be admitted into the "canon" was to confirm its divinely inspired contents.
Virtually no one in the second-century church doubted that the gospel of John was sacred Scripture. In fact, it was revered by orthodox and heretic alike. Regarding the latter, Gnostics (from Gk., gnosis, "knowledge"; see my later discussion under the conceptual background of John) appealed to the fourth gospel's emphasis on "knowledge" and "revelation" from God in support of their own theological system.
Actually, the earliest known commentary on the gospel of John was by the Gnostic Heracleon, a student of Valentinus (AD 180), one of the leaders of the Gnostic movement. If John's gospel took a little longer in the second century to be accepted as canonical compared to the Synoptic Gospels, it was because of this Gnostic attraction to the work. Irenaeus of Lyons, however, masterfully used the fourth gospel itself to dispel any notion that that gospel was tainted by Gnostic thought.
On the side of orthodoxy, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and later Origen all bore witness to the canonical status of John. Indeed, by AD 180 Tatian had composed his Diatessaron (Greek for "through four"), the first harmony of the four Gospels. And he used John's gospel as a chronological framework for the other three gospels. Clement of Alexandria (AD 180s) well summarized the church's view of John's gospel at that time: "Last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel" (in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14.7).
Excerpted from The Writings of John by C. Marvin Pate. Copyright © 2011 C. Marvin Pate. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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