Posted by: Ken Brown | September 9, 2009

An Introduction to the Gospel of John

I gave my introductory talk this morning. It seemed to go well, though I did not wrap it up it very effectively (I should have just read the conclusion I’d written, which would have been much better. Note to self: never end a lecture with “so, um… yeah”), but they didn’t seem to mind and asked good questions at the end (especially about the timing of Jesus’ crucifixion relative to the Synoptics). I was pleased at how comfortable they were with the idea that the Gospel may have had a history of composition (yes, I did bring that in), and that it is more interested in the meaning of Jesus’ life and death than in strict “history.”

After the break, I’ll include the full text of my (rather extensive) handout. As you can see, I couldn’t resist the temptation to focus on the Temple Festivals, but I think they appreciated hearing something more original than just who, what, when, where:

An Introduction to the Gospel of John

John 21:25 suggests that the whole world might not be big enough to contain all the books that could be written about Jesus, so it is fitting that more has been written on John’s Gospel than perhaps any other book of the Bible. Saint John Chrysostom once said that if people could truly receive and retain all that John says, they could not remain mere mortals. Clearly we will only be able to scratch the surface this morning. My goal is not to answer every “introductory” question but simply to give a sense of context and highlight a few aspects of the text that you might otherwise overlook but that give it deeper meaning.

Location – Ephesus?: According to the early church, John was written in Ephesus, and Revelation (which is closely connected with John, even if it was not written by the same person) supports a connection with that general part of the world (ancient Asia Minor; modern day Turkey). The fact that various Hebrew or Aramaic terms and Jewish customs are explained in the text (e.g 1:38, 41; 2:6; 4:9; 18:28) is consistent with such a location, and suggests that at least part of the Gospel’s intended audience were Gentiles. These and other considerations also suggest that John reached the form we know sometime near the end of the First Century, well after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. We do not know the exact date, but it could not have been written later than the early Second Century, as the earliest New Testament manuscript we have is a fragment of John known as P52, found in Egypt, which dates to the first half of second century.

Judean Connection: But it is curious that other aspects of John seem to assume a strong familiarity with the traditions and institutions of Judaism, especially the Jewish scriptures, the Jerusalem Temple, and various festivals like Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles and Hanukkah (cf. 5:1, 9; 6:4; 7:1, 10; 10:22). As we will see, John alludes to the rituals and expectations of these institutions in various ways that would only have been understood by those well versed in Jewish tradition, particularly those who had actually worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple before its destruction. John also contains a fair bit of geographical and cultural knowledge that indicate first-hand familiarity with the land of Israel, including Samaria.

Authorship: This is just one of the reasons that most scholars now deny that John was written all at once by a single person. Like the other three Canonical Gospels, the Fourth Gospel itself does not clearly identify its author, but it does identify at least one of its sources: “the beloved disciple” (see esp. 21:24). His witness is claimed in support of several key events, including the Last Supper, Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection (cf. 13:23; 18:35-36 “the other disciple”; 19:26-27, 35; 20:1-10; 21:7). Most in the early church thought the beloved disciple was the apostle John Zebedee, and this is still accepted by some scholars, though 21:2 would seem to make this difficult. Some think “the beloved disciple” is not a single person at all, but simply a way of speaking of the ideal Christian witness to Jesus, but we cannot be sure. Whether written by “the beloved disciple” or not, whoever wrote it does not appear to have done so all at once, but continued to adapt it to new situations faced by the Christian community in which he wrote.

Ongoing Reflection: John is clearly concerned with the reliability of its testimony about Jesus, but alongside that is an equally important insistence that the meaning of Jesus’ life can only be properly understood in hindsight. The Fourth Gospel frequently claims that Jesus’ original hearers misunderstood him, and even his own disciples “did not understand these things when they first happened” (12:16; cf. 16:17; 20:9). John admits that a true understanding of who Jesus is and what he has done was not obvious at first, but only became apparent in light of the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Gospel as we have it appears to be the product of long reflection in light of the Christian community’s continued experience. The picture John paints is of the Spirit working not only in a single moment of inspiration, but in and through the whole life of the community, helping them to remember, understand, believe and bear witness to Jesus (cf. 7:39; 14:16-27; 16:5-16).

History and Theology: What is clear is that John on the whole is more interested in the theological implications of Jesus’ life and death than mere historical details like chronological sequence (cf. 20:30-31). The clearest example of this is the Temple Incident (2:13-22). While the other three Gospels all say that Jesus cleared the Temple just before his death, John places the incident at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, possibly two or more years earlier. Some have claimed that Jesus actually cleared the Temple twice, but the simpler explanation is that John is not trying to give us a strict timeline of Jesus’ life and death but to tell us what they meant. By placing the Temple Incident at the beginning he effectively sets the whole of Jesus’ life in the shadow of his death and resurrection, which John pictures as the Temple’s destruction and restoration (cf. 2:19-22). It was only in the light of the resurrection that the meaning of Jesus’ actions (in the Temple incident and elsewhere) could be properly understood, and that post-resurrection perspective allows John to tell the story in ways that would not have been possible in a neutral “historical” account. That is not to say that John is uninterested in history, the numerous references to witnesses suggest that he is, but for John history is always history interpreted, history in light of the cross, the resurrection and the ongoing work of the Spirit in the community of faith.

The Temple Festivals: This retrospective aspect to the Gospel can be seen especially in its presentation of Jesus’ relation to Judaism. John may be the most Jewish of all the Gospels, and the vast majority of its story is set during various Jewish feasts, often in the Temple itself (cf. 18:20). In fact, 18:15-16 claims that “the other disciple” (the beloved disciple?) “was known to the high priest” and some in the early church thought John was a priest himself. Whether that is true or not, the Gospel shows an intimate familiarity with the Temple and its practices. This extends from mundane details like the fact that Solomon’s Porch offered shelter from the wind in winter (cf. 10:22-23), to the details of the rituals performed at the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. 7:37-39; 8:12; 9:7, discussed below). Chapters 5 to 10 are all set at Jewish festivals: Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles and Dedication (Hanukkah), and in each case John draws on the traditions of those festivals to highlight Jesus’ identity and unique relation to God. Yet the connections he makes are rarely explicit and are easily missed by those unfamiliar with those Jewish traditions.

Sabbath: For instance, when Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ accusation that he is “breaking the Sabbath,” by claiming “my Father is still working and I also am working” (5:16-18), John clearly knows but does not tell us that Jesus is here appealing to a very traditional understanding of the Sabbath. Various Jewish texts from the period agree that God must continue to work on the Sabbath as God alone can give life and judge the dead. As the Rabbis later put it: since people continue to be born and die even on the Sabbath (!), God must work even then. Jesus does not deny this traditional Sabbath theology; he accepts it and uses it to claim that, as God’s son, he too has the authority to give life and judge, even on the Sabbath (5:19-30). John nowhere tells us about the Jewish background to Jesus’ words here; he simply assumes that his readers will recognize it for themselves, which implies that the Sabbath and its theology were important to at least some of Gospel’s earliest audience.

Tabernacles: Something very similar is true of chapters 7-9, which are set at “the feast of the Jews—Tabernacles” (7:2), especially on “the last and greatest day of the feast” (7:37). Here Jesus offers “streams of living water” (7:37-38) and claims to be “the light of the world” (8:12). Once again John seems to assume that its readers will know how these claim reflect the rituals and expectations of the feast of Tabernacles, as it does not tell us explicitly. Throughout the feast, great candelabra lit the city from the Temple, a symbol of God’s own true light, and every morning–but especially on the last day of the feast–priests would carry water from the Pool of Siloam and pour it on the altar.

Both these aspects of the feast symbolized and anticipated God’s final return to Israel, when the prophets expected God to become king over all nations and give the gifts of water and light from his Temple (cf. Ezekiel 47, Zechariah 14, the latter of which is set at Tabernacles, and Psalm 118, which was sung during the water-pouring ceremony). Thus, when Jesus claims to offer water and light he isn’t just being poetic, he is claiming to embody the final return of the God of Israel, as anticipated by this very feast. His subsequent healing of a man born blind (giving light) with water taken from the Pool of Siloam itself (cf. 9:7, 11) graphically illustrates Jesus’ unique connection to the God of the Temple, especially when the man goes on to witness to and worship Jesus (9:24-38).

Passover: The most prominent Jewish feast in John, of course, is Passover. There are three Passovers in this Gospel (2:13-25; 6:1-71; 11:55-19:37), and Jesus draws on many aspects of its history and symbolism, from its connections with Temple restoration (2:13-22), to its Exodus associations with the crossing of the sea, the manna, and the grumbling of the Israelites (6:16-71). But the most important connections are between Jesus and the Passover lamb (cf. 1:29, 36; 19:28-37). Like the Passover Lamb, Jesus’ death gives life (6:53-59), and provides freedom from slavery (8:31-36).

John is so keen to make this point that it actually presents a very different chronology of Jesus’ last days than the other Gospels, placing the Last Supper the night before Passover begins rather than on the first night of the feast. This means that in John, Jesus’ crucifixion occurs at the very moment when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple (cf. 18:28; 19:14, 31). He describes Jesus’ death using imagery drawn directly from the Passover Lamb itself, including the use of Hyssop, the pouring out of the blood and the commandment not to break the bones (19:28-37). As with the previous feasts, however, John apparently expects its readers to be sufficiently familiar with Jewish tradition to recognize these allusions themselves, as it never stops to explain them.

Jesus and “the Jews”: In all of this, Jesus is presented as the one who fulfills the hopes and symbolism of these Jewish traditions, not as one who replaces one religion with another. The problem is that this very Jewish Gospel is also the Gospel with the most extreme condemnations of “the Jews,” who are repeatedly claimed to misunderstand and reject Jesus. Jesus is himself “a Jew” (4:9), as were his disciples, yet “the Jews” are often identified as an antagonistic group in contrast to him and his disciples. This opposition is strongest in John 8, which immediately follows Jesus’ claims to fulfill the water and light of Tabernacles with a lengthy dialogue that accuses “the Jews” of seeking to kill him like “your father the Devil” (8:42-47). “The Jews” instead claim to be children of Abraham but when Jesus claims “before Abraham was born, I am” (8:58; clearly echoing the divine name), “the Jews” take up stones to kill him (8:59).

This harsh rhetoric is difficult for us to understand, and has unfortunately been used to justify all manner of horrific crimes against the Jews, right up to the Holocaust, but here the background that we have been sketching offers important context. The fact that John repeatedly insists that Jesus fulfills the feasts of the Jews helps explain the insistence on using the generic term “the Jews” to describe Jesus’ opponents. The point is not that all Jews rejected and sought to kill Jesus, but to urge those Jews who did reject him (not only in Jesus’ own time, but also later) to realize that their own traditions are fulfilled in him. Thus the harshest rhetoric appears precisely when “his own” (cf. 1:11) do not receive him, in the Temple itself.

Here also it is helpful to remember that John’s Gospel reflects not only what happened in Jesus’ own lifetime but also what happened in the Christian community after his death. John 9:22 and 16:2 both anticipate a time after Jesus’ resurrection when followers of Jesus would be “put out of the synagogue” (a situation that many scholars date to the end of the first century). On the one hand, the fact that this is clearly viewed as a tragedy indicates how closely the Christian community behind John continued to cherish its Jewish heritage, but on the other hand their feeling of being forcibly cut off from that heritage may explain the sharp edge to some of John’s comments about “the Jews.”

John’s accusations are not to be taken as a blanket condemnation of the Jews as a people, but reflect the heightened emotions of close ties recently broken. As John Ashton puts it, one must “recognize in these hot-tempered exchanges the type of family row in which the participants face one another across the room of a house that all have shared and all call home.” In short, even at its most apparently anti-Jewish John is speaking from within Judaism, and the better we can situate this Gospel in the context of the Jewish scriptures, traditions and institutions, the better we will understand its picture of Jesus as the incarnation of the one God of Israel, returning to his own people and Temple, bringing light and life.

Select Bibliography

John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel. Oxford University Press, 1993 [I just noticed there is a new edition,  2009].
Raymond Brown and Francis Moloney, An Introduction to the Gospel of John. Doubleday, 2003.
Mary Coloe, God Dwells with Us: Temple Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel. Liturgical Press, 2001.
Craig Keener, The Gospel of John. 2 Volumes. Hendrickson, 2003.
Craig Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel. Fortress, 2003.



  1. You wrote: “In fact, 18:15-16 claims that “the other disciple” (the beloved disciple?) “was known to the high priest” and some in the early church thought John was a priest himself. Whether that is true or not…” and since you seem inclined to question the notions that have been passed around about this unnamed disciple you may want to check out a free eBook at that compares what the Bible says about John with what it says about the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved”. Using the legal evidence method to weigh the facts recorded in the plain text of scripture, this study proves beyond a reasonable doubt that whoever this unnamed disciple was he could not be John because that idea forces the Bible to contradict itself (which the truth cannot do).

    The truth is that there is not a single verse that would justify teaching the John idea and that is why hearsay from non-Bible sources has to be used to sell this idea. To see this all one has to do is simply read the fourth gospel from beginning to end with an eye toward this question, “Who would I conclude the author was based on just the facts stated in this author’s own gospel?” Those who do so can never come to the conclusion that this “other disciple” was John because none of the evidence in this author’s gospel points toward John. But, by comparing the facts in this author’s gospel to what the rest of scripture tells us about John can prove that this unnamed author was most certainly not John.

    One can pick and choose their favorite non-Bible source to cite as a reason why they believe the idea that the unnamed “other disciple whom Jesus loved” was John since there plenty to choose from on this issue as the foregoing post demonstrates. What one cannot do however is cite a single verse that would justify teaching that this person was John, the brother of James, son of Zebedee — not those who originated this unbiblical teaching and not those who parrot their error to this day.

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