||Background of John's Gospel
More so than with the synoptic gospel writers, scholars have widely divergent perspectives on the dating, authorship and tradition of John the disciple of Jesus.
Gospel Dating: Johns account of the life of Jesus is generally (though not universally) recognized as the last of the canonical gospels to be written. Yet paradoxically, one of the earliest known manuscript fragments attributable to any New Testament book comes from John the Bodmer Papyrus II (Johannine Codex P66) dated to about 125 AD.
The late 2nd century apologist Irenaeus makes clear that John was penned after Matthew, Mark and Luke. He writes: "Lastly John, the disciple of the Lord, who had leant back on His breast, once more set forth the gospel, while residing at Ephesus in Asia."
A composition date of 80-90 AD is often suggested by scholars of the last two centuries. In part, this is due to accounts of hostile relations between Jesus and Jewish leaders, including expulsion from synagogues an event coinciding with the growing rift between adherents to a nascent Christianity and Jewish society near the end of the first century.
This view also appears to be supported by the late second century theologian, Clement of Alexandria. Clement writes that: "Last of all, aware that the physical facts had been recorded in the gospels, encouraged by his pupils and irresistibly moved by the Spirit, John wrote a spiritual gospel."
Some (typically evangelical) scholars have suggested an earlier date, perhaps as early as the 50s and certainly no later than 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed. An argument for this position is the statement in that there "is" (rather than "was") a Sheep Gate suggests a time before 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed.
Authorship: The traditional view is that John, the "disciple whom Jesus loved," authored this gospel. However, the author is never explicitly identified by name in the text.
Early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 140-203) and Tertullian (c. 150-222) attest to John as the author. Few of the extant early Church writers suggest authorship of this gospel by anyone else with the exception of some who suggest John was written by the Jewish-Gnostic heretic Cerinthus.
The Tradition of John: This apostle was the brother of James the apostle and son of Zebedee. The case has been made that John may have been a first cousin of Jesus. The apostle John also has been widely though not universally considered as the author of the book of Revelation. However, while authorship is directly attributed right from the start of Revelation to "his servant John," there has long been scholarly and theological confusion as to who this John really was. In the third century, Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria stated the conundrum thusly: "That the writer (of Revelation) was John he himself states, and we must believe him. But which John?"
Fourth century historian Eusebius writes that, as early as the second century, Papias identified the confusion as resulting from two Johns who had been buried in Ephesus the apostle and John the Elder (or presbyter). The author of II and III John, in fact, refers to himself as "the elder." Papias also wrote that both the apostle John and the Presbyter John were considered as those that "teach the truth."
Johns gospel is all about God becoming human. But John goes further. In the form of Jesus, God becomes eminently approachable, even intimate. This sense of intimacy represents a breakthrough both from the God of the Jewish scriptures and the God of the other gospel writers.
The very first words uttered by Jesus in Johns gospel come shortly after his baptism. Two disciples of John the Baptist turn to follow Jesus, who turns and directly asks: "What are you looking for?" The two disciples ask where Jesus is staying. Jesus replies simply: "Come and see." The author of Johns gospel goes on to state that: "They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day."
Several Johannine themes indicated by this initial encounter recur throughout this gospel:
- Jesus is very direct in his questions and comments. His answers require direct involvement of the hearer.
- Jesus wastes no time to interact with those around him. Unlike the dismissive Jesus whom the synoptic writer Mark describes, Johns Jesus is always trying to build up the capabilities and insights of those around him. For example, when Andrew introduces his brother Simon to Jesus, the master greets this newcomer warmly: "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated as Peter or rock).
- Johns Jesus is ready to offer opinions about other people. The day after Andrew brings Peter, Philip introduces Jesus to Nathanael. The first question posed by Nathanael to his friend is steeped in skepticism: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Later, when Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards him, Jesus comments: "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit." The sense of recognition is mutual, with Nathanael observing on this first encounter, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
We could tell of other up front and personal encounters. Examples include Jesus manufacture of wine on behalf of his mother, interaction with a Jewish leader named Nicodemus who is encouraged to be "born again," and dialogue with a Samaritan woman over "living water." And so it goes.
Johns Jesus is constantly in motion moving from complex, at times bizarre spiritual concepts to personal, even intimate, interactions and then back again. The Jesus of Johns gospel rarely speaks in the third person voice, but rather in the first person ("I am") and the second person ("You..."). Unlike the synoptics who portray Jesus as uncomfortable with any disclosure of a possible divine role, in John Jesus special link to the divine is openly acknowledged by many if not most of those with whom he comes in contact.
We fast forward now to another event found uniquely in Johns gospel the death and resurrection of Lazarus. As with the other accounts noted, Jesus interaction with Lazarus and his sisters can be described as intensely intimate. This one vignette conveys:
- The readily apparent and oft repeated affection between Jesus and the entire family of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.
- The way in which this affection moved Jesus literally to tears as "Jesus wept."
- The deliberate decision of Jesus to delay his arrival due to an ulterior motive to demonstrate the healing power of the divine, the victory of life over death.
- The intimacy of the connection between Jesus and the Father to whom he prayed apparently a model for the relationship between Jesus and his earthly flock.
Johns focus on divinity personalized also is evident by contrasting events found in the fourth gospel with similar events also reported by the synoptics. Consider the divergent accounts offered of the interactions with the disciples around the time of the last supper.
Only Johns gospel speaks of the "love" Jesus has for his disciples on their last evening together. Only John then records Jesus getting up from the table, taking off his outer robe, tying a towel around himself, pouring water into a basin, washing the feet of his disciples, then drying them with the towel.
The uniquely intimate nature of the exchange in Johns account is apparent from what follows. Note: phrases in italics are exclusively recorded by John.
The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples -- the one whom Jesus loved -- was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So, while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish. So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Jesus said to him, Do quickly what you are going to do. No one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, Buy what we need for the festival; or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
Intimate details of two remarkably different scenes are offered only by Johns version of the last supper. First is the snapshot of the disciple "whom Jesus loved" reclining next to Jesus. To ask a question, Peter must do so through this other disciple.
Second is the personal connection of a very different, more painful sort. Jesus dips the bread, gives it to Judas, then advises: "Do quickly what you are going to do." This is an exchange shared by Jesus and Judas directly; the other disciples are left to second guess what is taking place.
No Hell: Of the four gospels, John is unique in that there are virtually no references to any of the Hebrew or Greek terms for Hell. Johns Jesus speaks plainly about issues of judgement and condemnation, but not once of a physical place identified by other gospel writers as hell.
However, Johns Jesus is forthright about the condemnation that awaits unbelievers. In speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus explains that "...those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God."
And Johns Jesus uses the parable of the vine to indicate that believers who do not bear fruit is as a vine branch cut off from the vine, collected and cast into the fire. So with this gospel writer we have an anomaly condemnation yes, hell no.
Acceptance of John: John was accepted in some quarters but not necessarily in others. The gospel was suspect at times because of its appeal to Gnostics. A secondary cause for concern was the presumed late dating of this gospel. However, it met the canonical criteria of widespread use and the tradition of an apostolic author.
John in Summary
This is a peculiar gospel. Johns Jesus gets up close and personal. With an intimacy that can be wonderful, awesome, mysterious, transcendent, painful. Almost like touching God.
Johns Jesus is divinity personalized, the Jewish Messiah, the word, the eternal "I am." This is no social revolutionary, but a man who reaches out to interact on a personal level with both woman and men.
This is a god-man who offers a carrot and carries a stick. The carrot is the promise of eternal life; the stick becomes the threat of condemnation, though apparently not necessarily to an eternal hell.
In positioning Jesus as the "way, the truth and the life," God the Father takes a more distant, hands-off role. The Father still is in charge, but leaves the messy details of interacting with humanity on a day-to-day basis with the Son.
Johns Jesus does not engage in denial or obfuscation of his messianic role. He speaks openly and directly both as the "I am" and "Son of God".
No wonder that some readers often scholars have so much difficulty dealing with or simply reject this peculiar gospel. Others particularly those of an evangelistic or charismatic bent embrace this Jesus as one who is and is in all, one with God and man.
This excerpt is adapted from the "The Heresy of John: Personal Divinity," further detailed in the approximately 360 page book 12 Heresies of Christianity.
Please click here for more information on the 12 Heresies of Christianity.