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The Gospel of John
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The Gospel of John

by Jerome H. Neyrey

This 2007 commentary differs from most others in that it does not attempt to repeat all the critical materials which can be found in the larger, major series. Rather it brings to the interpretation of John, materials more literary and rhetorical in nature. It presents full paragraphs on passages, key terms and major motifs. One might say that the 'big picture' is


This 2007 commentary differs from most others in that it does not attempt to repeat all the critical materials which can be found in the larger, major series. Rather it brings to the interpretation of John, materials more literary and rhetorical in nature. It presents full paragraphs on passages, key terms and major motifs. One might say that the 'big picture' is more important here than exacting detail. Readers will be invited into the gospel by noting its typical literary patterns (chiasms, topic statements and development, patterns of double-meaning words), rhetorical commonplaces and discourse (e.g., 'the 'noble' shepherd'; forensic trials: accusations, defense, verdict and sentence). In particular this commentary brings readers into the cultural world of the gospel by presenting materials such as honor and shame, challenge and riposte, gossip, secrecy, and sectarian character of the group. This is a very accessible reading of John.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'One particularly gratifying feature of this commentary is its ability to offer good connections with many decades of established and respected Johannine scholarship, while at the same time making effective recourse to disciplines that have been increasingly brought to bear within biblical studies over more recent years.' Journal for the Study of the New Testament

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Cambridge University Press
Publication date:
New Cambridge Bible Commentary Series
Edition description:
New Edition
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5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.83(d)

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The Gospel of John
Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-82801-7 - The Gospel of John - by Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J.

I. Introduction

Like Goldilocks’s three bears, introductions to the Fourth Gospel come in different sizes: small, medium,1 and large.2 Typically, they contain standard areas of investigation, such as: author, place of composition, and date; relationship of the Fourth Gospel to the synoptic Gospels; background, whether Israelite and/or Greco-Roman; sociological character of the readers of the Gospel (e.g., a sect in tension with the synagogue); unity of the document; and theories of its development over time and its changing perspectives. Many introductions, moreover, regularly give attention to theology by attending to special vocabulary (light, see, know), distinctive themes (“sacraments” and eschatology), topics (revelation, signs/miracles, knowledge), and Christology (“prophet,” “king,” “Messiah,” “I AM,” and “Son of Man”). The commentaries cited in the notes provide an excellent discussion of these topics, and readers are urged to consult them. But here I present a different kind of introduction, one more suited to the specific perspective of this commentary and the series in which it is published. The New Cambridge Bible Commentary series brings to readers a “socio-rhetorical” perspective for interpreting biblical documents,3 drawing especially on literary/rhetorical and cultural perspectives. Therefore the topics discussed in this introduction are commensurate with the perspective of this commentary and the series to which it belongs: the social location of the author (what he knows); rhetoric, literary patterns, and language; Johannine characters in cultural perspective; and social-scientific models needed to interpret this ancient document.


Current scholarship distinguishes between a “writer” of this Gospel and an “author.”4 A writer may only take dictation, whereas the author imagines the project, organizes the materials, and establishes the editorial point of view. Despite the best labors of Johannine scholarship, we are still uncertain who the author is or where and when the document was written and revised. Nevertheless, we can learn much about the author by asking a new question: What does he know?5

Geography. The author knows about Judea6 (Bethany, Jerusalem), Samaria (Sychar, Jacob’s well, and the custom that Israelites and Samaritans “do not share things in common,” 4:9), and Galilee (Bethsaida, Cana, Capernaum, Nazareth, Sea of Galilee/Sea of Tiberias). He is even aware of the negative cachet of Nazareth and Galilee (1:46; 7:31, 41–43). Within Jerusalem, he tells us of two pools, Bethzatha (5:1) and Siloam (9:7), the residence of the high priest Annas (18:13–18), and Pilate’s praetorium (18:28). He knows much about the geography of Jerusalem’s temple: He can identify the “treasury” (8:20), the “portico of Solomon” (10:23), and the place where the incident in 2:13–16 was described. In many of these things, he displays a unique and sharper knowledge than the authors of the synoptic Gospels (see 2:20).

Temple Feasts and Sabbath. Whereas the synoptic Gospels know of only one Passover in the career of Jesus, this author knows of three, two celebrated in Jerusalem and one in Galilee. He knows a range of pilgrimage feasts that span the year and the ritual objects characteristic of them: Passover and its specially treated lamb (2:13; 6:4; 12:1; 19:36); Booths (7:1–8:58) and its petitions for sunlight and rains; Dedication (10:22); and an unnamed festival (5:1). He knows of a conflict between “this mountain” in Samaria and its rival in Jerusalem as the legitimate place of worship. Finally, he treats Sabbath observance differently from the other Gospels, for he argues that just as God works on the Sabbath, so does he (5:16–17), and that if Moses’ authorization to circumcise on the Sabbath does not break the Law, then surely an act that made a man’s body whole does not break it (7:22–23).

Scripture and Midrashic Interpretation. The author compares Jesus with two of Israel’s great patriarchs (“greater than our father Jacob...greater than Abraham”), drawing not only on the Scriptures but also midrashic interpretations of them. As regards the Scriptures, he claims that Moses will change his traditional role of advocate to that of prosecutor of Israel (5:45), and he claims that Isaiah explains why so many did not become Jesus’ followers (12:38–40). The author’s knowledge of and use of the midrashic interpretations about psalms and patriarchs suggest that he has a school education, such as was found in the bet ha-midrash.7 For example, it has been argued that John 6 is an elaborate midrash on Passover and manna.8 A text, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (6:31), is cited and developed word by word, denying the text to Israel and claiming it for Jesus and his group. In the story of Abraham, the author distinguishes those who descend from Ishmael (the slave and illegitimate son, who did not remain in the house) from those descended from Isaac (the freeborn son and legitimate heir, who remains in the paternal house, 8:33–44), a school interpretation similar to that in Galatians 4:21–30. He utilizes the midrash that Cain is the firstborn of Satan and ancestor of the audience. They are all liars and murderers from the beginning (8:44).9 And he knows the traditional midrash about Psalm 82:6 apropos of the charge that Jesus is equal to God.10

Literary Acumen. As far as his rhetorical skills are concerned, the author can write prologues (1:1–18; 13:1–3) and conclusions (12:1–50). From rhetorical handbooks, he knows the Greco-Roman principle of uniqueness11 used for amplifying praise (“no one has ever but...,” “he is the unique son...,” “he is the first and only one to do... ”); honor ascribed by comparison (Jesus vs. Moses, 1:17); and the use of questions as weapons. He is familiar with certain literary forms found both in Israelite and Greco-Roman literature: the miracle (5:2–9; 9:1–9; 11:1–44) and the farewell address (14:1–17:26). Most interestingly, the author interprets Jesus’ death according to the commonplace of a “noble death,” celebrated in Greek funeral oratory (10:11–18), and he employs most of the elements of the encomium taught in the second level of Hellenistic education: origins (place and parents), nurture and training, virtues, and death and posthumous honors.

Israelite and Greco-Roman Theology.12 The author has a solid grasp of Israelite God-talk. He utilizes the midrashic tradition that God has two basic powers (creative and eschatological), both of which he bestows on Jesus. The author interprets the name Jesus manifests, “I AM,” in two senses (8:24, 28; 8:58). First, “I AM” is the name of the appearing deity of the Scriptures, but since no one has ever seen God (1:18), those receiving appearances must have seen the person who properly bears the divine name, “I AM.” Second, in several places, “I AM” is juxtaposed with mortals who came into being and pass out of it (8:56–58). Thus the author appreciates the Hellenistic topos that a true deity is eternal in the past and imperishable in the future.13 Whereas Jesus himself repeats the key element of Israel’s theology, namely monotheism (17:3), the crowds abandon God who is King for King Caesar (19:15).

Political Scene. Although the author knows the form of Judean and Roman trials, he especially appreciates the judge’s examination of the accused in his portrayal of two such scrutinies of Jesus by Pilate (18:33–38; 19:8–11). Not only does he know that judges should judge justly and not according to appearances (7:24; 8:15) but also that according to the law, a person accused has a right to speak before the court (7:51). Of all the evangelists, the author most appreciates patron–client relationships. He knows that Pilate is Caesar’s “friend” (that is, his client), and he records Jesus making his disciple-servants his “friends” (15:13–15).

Traditions in John and the Synoptics. Although modern scholarship has been unable to prove Johannine dependency on any one of the synoptics, most admit that the author frequently draws on traditions shared with those Gospels.14 Although this is not an exhaustive list, the author of the Fourth Gospel knows: (1) John the Baptizer witnessing to Jesus; (2) healings (cure of the paralytic and the blind man; raising of the dead); (3) the multiplication of loaves and the walking on the water; (4) the entrance into Jerusalem; (5) anointing of Jesus’ feet at a banquet; (6) the challenge to the Temple; (7) the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus; (8) the burial and the empty tomb; and (9) resurrection appearances.15 However one evaluates dependence or independence, the author knows a great deal about the Jesus tradition.

   What, then, is the social location of the author? Because of all of the things he knows and composes, he would seem to have been educated at least to the second level of education in antiquity, the period during which students learned to compose according to certain genres. And because education was status-specific,16 this argues that the author was not an illiterate peasant (Acts 4:13). Yet he gives little evidence of an elite formal training such as Luke and Paul had. He is likely the client or retainer of someone with resources sufficient to provide for the writing of such a document. Although his Greek may lack sophistication, the knowledge and craft of the author suggest a person of considerable education and social standing.


Scholarship on the dramatis personae of the Fourth Gospel has been both intense and productive. Readers have always sensed that its characters are symbolic in some sense, but Raymond Collins17 shaped the discussion by considering them as “representative figures”: They represent in a homiletic context traits either praiseworthy or blameworthy within the Johannine group. Alan Culpepper advanced this: “The characters represent a continuum of response to Jesus....The characters are, therefore, particular sorts of choosers.”18 His continuum contains these responses: (1) rejection and tepid acceptance of Jesus; (2) scrutiny of reactions to Jesus’ signs and wonders, noting that some people argue that God must be the source of these, whereas others see merely the eating of a surfeit of bread; (3) receptivity to Jesus’ words, which distinguishes insiders or outsiders; (4) misunderstandings that end either in enlightenment of insiders or proof that the interlocutors simply lack the ability to learn; (5) select disciples, who might receive unique information, demonstration of Jesus’ greatest gift (the raising of Lazarus), or simply be known as “beloved” disciples; and (6) defection (6:66) and treason, indicating hate, not love, of Jesus.19

   Craig Koester added to this discussion insights about how characters were drawn in ancient speeches and drama.20 He notes that although ancient characters were individuals (Nicodemus is not the Samaritan woman), they nevertheless manifest representative, formal ways of speaking and acting. Moreover, Koester cites Aristotle on “character”: “Character is that which reveals choice, shows what sort of thing a man chooses or avoids...so those speeches convey no character in which there is nothing whatever which the speaker chooses or avoids” (Poet. 6.24). Finally, he notes how characters provide positive and negative examples in the pursuit of a suitable manner of life. These studies have shaped the way readers of the Fourth Gospel interpret its dramatis personae. It is now accepted wisdom to examine the Johannine characters as representative of some trait important to the group or along some continuum of response to Jesus or according to the choices made concerning Jesus.

   We gain, moreover, considerable benefit from the use of social-science studies of types of personalities, which radically contrasts modern individualists with ancient group-oriented persons.21 Persons in ancient bioi, history, and encomia were praised according to fixed conventional canons, which are ideal places to discover the culturally accepted criteria of status and honor. An author would ask: Where was he born? Who were his parents and ancestors? Who were his teachers? What was his trade? What was his name? To what group did he belong? A noble and honorable person is born in a noble place (Tarsus, Acts 21:39; Jerusalem, Ps 87:5–6). Conversely, nothing noble can come from Nazareth (1:46), nor anyone important from Galilee (7:41–43, 52). People tended to be known in terms of their fathers (e.g., Simon, son of Jonah; James and John, sons of Zebedee).22 They are presumed to be “chips off the old block” (John 8:38–44), for better or worse. Males are known by their trade (fishermen, carpenters, tax collectors) or role (high priests, priests, scribes, procurator, and Caesar). Except for Nicodemus (3:1), we do not know the names of any other Pharisees or scribes because to know their affiliation or group is to know all about them. Note, for example, what the Pharisees say to the man born blind: “You are his disciples. We are the disciples of Moses” (9:28). Thus, people are known in terms of the teacher23 they profess to follow.24 Persons, moreover, were always embedded in someone else; wives in husbands, children in parents, and the like. Plutarch provides an excellent example of this, which minimizes individualism in favor of embeddedness:

The nurse rules the infant, the teacher the boy, the gymnasiarch the youth, his admirer the young man who, when he comes of age, is ruled by law and his commanding general. No one is his own master, no one is unrestricted. (Dialogue on Love 754D).

   John presents Jesus as a group-oriented person. He is and remains totally embedded in his heavenly Father, even resting on his heart (1:18). He speaks and does all, but only what his Father instructs him: His Father gives him his own powers (5:19–28), reveals only to him unique words and mysteries, and guides and directs his career from his descent from heaven to his “lifting up” and his “glorification” by God. Jesus, faithful and loyal to the one who sent him, never acts on his own. He is, moreover, God’s broker; he is the one who is “sent” – that is, agent and intermediary.25 It should be part of our reading of this gospel to note the group-oriented characteristics of friend and foe. Disciples, for example, hear Jesus’ voice (10:3–5), accept his teachings (12:23–26), are instructed in his secrets (15:15), and imitate his behavior (13:12–17).


Formal use of the social-science concepts of role and status is extremely helpful in assessing the dramatis personae of the Fourth Gospel. Because the Johannine group is a social organization, we need to know who plays what role and who enjoys what status.26 “Status” differs from “role” in that status is “a recognized position that a person occupies within society...[which] determines where he or she fits in relationship to everyone else.”27 “Status” suggests verticality, a ranking of people according to some criteria of worth or excellence. “Role” has to do with behavior and is “the socially recognized position of a person which entails rights and duties.”28 Put simply, status defines who one is socially – male or female, slave or free, Judean or Gentile – whereas role defines what one is expected to do socially on the basis of status. Whereas one has status, one plays a role.

   Roles in the Fourth Gospel are easier to identify than status. We learn of family members, those of Jesus and then of other characters.29 Jesus’ family consists of Joseph, his father (6:42); God, his Father; his mother (2:1–12; 19:26–27); his aunt (19:25); and his brothers (7:3–5). Apart from Jesus’ blood relatives, other brothers and sisters appear: Andrew and Peter (1:40); Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (11:1); and the sons of Zebedee (21:2). All persons in familial roles have rights and duties, and their roles last as long as the relationship endures. Furthermore, the various roles of Jesus are either acknowledged or denied, such as “prophet” (6:14; 7:52; 9:17), “king” (6:15; 12:13; 18:33–37), “Messiah” (1:41; 4:25–26; 7:31, 41–42), and “teacher” (1:38; 3:2; 20:16). Similarly, we know of other roles: that of a Judean leader (3:2), high priests (11:49–51; 18:13–26), a “royal official” (4:46), a Roman procurator (chs. 18–19), and Caesar, who is owed the loyalty of his “friend” Pilate (19:12). Moreover, we know that some people play the role of ill persons: a man crippled for thirty-eight years (5:5), a man born blind (9:1), and a dying/dead man (11:1–42). Finally, members of the Jesus group are sometimes ascribed a role, such as “the ones sent”; that is, people with duties either to acclaim Jesus or to purify in his name (17:17; 20:21). Finally, Jesus will designate one person the chief shepherd of the group (21:15–19). It is hotly contested whether the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene have formal roles.

   But “status” seems to be more important in this Gospel than roles because a character can enjoy very high status without playing a role. In the gender-divided world of antiquity, status begins with knowledge that a person is either male or female.30 Furthermore, gender, such as female, is never an abstraction because “Every woman is a sister, daughter, wife, mother or aunt, and it is the role and relationship that usually determines how she will be perceived and treated.”31 The same can be said of males, who are brothers, sons, husbands, uncles, and so on. Oddly, gender does not immediately suggest status in the Fourth Gospel, for on occasion males do female tasks (e.g., Jesus giving water to the Samaritan woman, 4:10, 15) and females do male tasks (e.g., Mary roaming about seeking to find and carry away a corpse, 20:13, 15). But the critical issue for assessing the status of the characters in John lies in discerning the criteria whereby status is awarded or denied. Although readers can only discover these criteria by working their way through the entire gospel narrative, we anticipate the discussion of this in the commentary on John 20 by listing six criteria for high status in the Johannine group: (1) physical closeness to Jesus (anointing his feet, reclining on his breast, clasping his feet, touching his hand and side); (2) bold public acknowledgment of Jesus; (3) reception of revelations, secrets, and special knowledge; (4) imitation of Jesus (grain of wheat; greater love...than to lay down one’s life); (5) enjoying the label “beloved,” and (6) being called by name.32 The six criteria for high status uniquely apply only to distinctive Johannine characters (Lazarus, Martha, Mary, the man born blind, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalene). It would appear that although they enjoy very high status, they do not have formal roles. In contrast, traditional figures, such as Andrew and Peter and the sons of Zebedee, part of “the Twelve,” have much lower status, even though they appear to be the only people with ascribed roles.33


Bultmann quipped that in the Fourth Gospel Jesus reveals34 that he is the Revealer, but not much else. This “information control” emerges as a central phenomenon in John and provides significant clues to the social dynamics of the community for which it was written. Writing on secrecy, Stanton K. Tefft notes that all peoples engage in some form of secrecy or information control,35 a point also made by Kees Bolle: “Not only is there no religion without secrecy, but there is no human existence without it.”36 “Information control” is the label for the process whereby secrets, information, and revelations are shared with some but not with others. “Information control,” moreover, not only describes Jesus’ activity but clues the audience in to distinguishing insiders from outsiders in terms of “who knows what and when.”

The Revealer. God remains “unknown” by all except Jesus, for “no one has ever seen God” (1:18; 5:37; 6:46). Jesus speaks the words of God, even if many do not grasp their meaning (3:34). Some who receive Jesus’ revelation then disclose it to others (1:35–50). Nevertheless, at all levels, we observe a process of selected disclosure.

Selective Disclosure. Given the strategy of information control and concealment, a careful reader will ask who in the narrative knows what and when? The answer to these questions provides data for ranking and classifying insiders. In Samaria, the Samaritan woman is progressively told secrets by Jesus. She begins the story as a character to whom Jesus said, “If only you knew...who it is who said to you ‘Give me to drink,’ you would have asked him... ” (4:10). Entrusted with more secrets, she asks Jesus to “Give me this water” (4:15). Later she receives remarkable information (4:20–24), even a revelation of Jesus as the Messiah (4:26). The man born blind is gradually enlightened, from merely knowing Jesus’ name, to acclaiming him a prophet, and then arguing that he must enjoy God’s favor (9:30–33). Jesus himself catechizes the man to believe in the “Son of man” (9:35–38). Martha receives special information from Jesus, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25), which prompts her to acknowledge Jesus as “Messiah, the Son of God.” At the last meal, Jesus reveals the identity of his betrayer, but only to the Beloved Disciple (13:23–26). After that meal, select disciples enjoy Jesus’ private disclosure of secrets during the Farewell Address: the meaning of the footwashing (13:12–17); information about where he is going (14:1–7); identification of his replacement, who will disclose still more controlled information (14:26); prophecies of future hard times (15:18–19; 16:1–4, 31–33); explanation of some of his statements that seem ambiguous (16:16–22); and a time when “figures,” or information control, will no longer be used (16:25–30). The disclosure of secrets continues after Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene receives both a Christophany at the empty tomb and a revelation of a remarkable secret that she is commanded to disclose to Jesus’ “brethren”: “Go to my brethren and say to them,‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ ” (20:17). Finally, Peter is given special information about the death he would die in order to glorify God (21:18–19). Information, then, is selectively disclosed, but only to certain persons.

Asides and Footnotes. The author selectively discloses to his audience information not even known to the narrative characters. Besides the translation of certain Semitic terms into Greek (1:38, 41, 42; 4:25; 5:2; 9:7; 19:13, 17; 20:16), we are given “footnotes” and “asides.”37 As M. C. Tenny has shown (see n.37), some of these inform the reader of times and places (6:4; 7:2; 9:14; 10:22–23; 11:17), customs (4:9; 19:40), recollections of the disciples (2:22; 12:16), explanations of actions or situations (2:9; 4:2; 7:5, 39; 11:51; 12:6; 19:36–37; 21:19), identification of persons (6:71; 7:50; 11:2; 18:10, 14, 40; 19:38–39), and indications of what Jesus knows (2:24–25; 6:6; 13:1, 3). The narrator, moreover, gives special information about himself to this select audience (1:14b; 19:35; 21:24–25), and on one occasion he corrects a popular rumor (21:22–23). Thus secrets are shared, but only with special people. Information is always controlled.

Jesus Knows All Secrets. Even if people try to keep their thoughts secret, Jesus can read hearts, pierce ambiguity and deception, and know all secrets. There is no information that Jesus does not know. Early in the narrative, we are told that he did not trust himself with people: “Because he knew all people...he himself knew what was in man” (2:24–25). The author demonstrates repeatedly that Jesus knows the secret thoughts and motivations of those with whom he speaks:

5:42“I know that you do not have the love of God in you.”
6:26“You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
6:64“Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe.”
8:19“You know neither me nor my Father.”
8:37“My words find no place in you.”
8:43–7“Why do you not understand? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil.”

By reading their hearts, Jesus knows who are insiders or outsiders, and who believe or who feign interest in him. No one can keep secrets from him.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Jerome H. Neyrey, S. J. is currently Professor at the University of Notre Dame. He has served on six editorial boards, and has been elected to various offices in the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature, once being honored as president of the New England region. Among his most recent books are Paul. In Other Words. A Cultural Reading of His Letters, 1990; 2 Peter, Jude in the Anchor Bible Commentary series (1993); Portraits of Paul. An Archeology of Ancient Personality, 1996 (with Bruce Malina), Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, 1998, and Render to God. New Testament Understandings of the Divine, 2004. He has published over 60 articles in scholarly journals, dictionaries, encyclopedias and festschriften.

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