The assumption for a long time was that the first three Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- are factual accounts of the life of Jesus; while the Fourth Gospel -- John -- is less concerned with the earthly life but more concerned with reflecting on the career of Jesus. As early as the third century, John was called "the spiritual Gospel."
The assumption is no longer valid. Every one of the Gospels is written from a theological perspective. The materials presented in all four are arranged thematically -- not just chronologically.
Their arrangement is to delineate the points of view of the various authors. Prophecy was dear to Matthew. He saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the messianic promises of God in the Old Testament. Mark was an activist and a conscientious Jew. To him Jesus was the busy Servant of God, working in behalf of God's chosen people, the Jews, doing everything he could to save them from their sins. Luke was a missionary, and his mission as the companion to Paul was to the Gentiles. To him, Jesus was the universal person, the one who brought the grace and favor of God to the whole of humanity.
John's perspective is different still. He was a mystic, or, at least, the mystical elements in his nature were more pronounced than in the nature of the other three evangelists. He saw Jesus, not so much as he appeared to be from the outward aspects of his ministry, as he did from the basic purpose that ministry was designed to achieve. All four writers, to be sure, deduced their theological concepts from the activity and teaching of Jesus. Even though the other three found room within history to display their meaning, John saw the work of Jesus as so comprehensive and stupendous that his mission defied the bounds of history and was commensurate with eternity itself. John saw Jesus, not as the agent of God, but as God himself. For him the Redeemer and Creator are one and the same. So he wrote a Gospel that portrays Jesus as the incarnate God.
All the evangelists report facts, and the facts in John's Gospel are just as reliable as those in Matthew's, Mark's, and Luke's. John was no more a novelist than any of the rest. There is no fiction whatever in the four Gospels. What they relate actually took place. Jesus did what they say he did!
Though the Gospels are not novels, they are not biographies either. None, not even Mark, sets out to write a full account of the life of Jesus. These authors were evangelists. They used their materials selectively in order to convince their readers that salvation comes through Jesus Christ and through him alone. They describe exactly what took place, but their purpose in describing what took place is to show their readers why these incidents took place and their crucial relevance for them. John is very explicit in giving the reason he wrote his Gospel: " that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (20:31).
Do not assume, therefore, that John was a theologian, while the other three evangelists were historians without any theological predilections at all. They were all theologians who based their theology on the life and teachings of Jesus. But John was a more profound and more discerning theologian than the other three. He employed thought patterns in vogue in the secular philosophies of his day in order to elucidate his concepts of Jesus. Therefore, antiquity ascribed to him and him alone the title, "the Theologian." Antiquity did not confer this title even on Paul, who shared with John the task of forming Christian theology. "Theologian," as it refers to the author of the Fourth Gospel, is both a title and an endearing nickname. Its purpose is to concede to him first place among all the theologians of Christendom. His Christology has never been matched, much less excelled.
Who was this remarkable man, and when and where did he live'? There are two ways of answering these questions. One is to seek clues within the Gospel itself. The other is to look for external evidence -- that is, the testimony of contemporaries or near contemporaries familiar with the book and presumably with the circumstances of its origin. Recent scholarship has centered almost entirely on the first, focusing its attention on the Gospel, its style, ideas, and social milieu. Research, of course, has been familiar with external evidence but has largely discounted it by calling it inconsistent with the contents of the Gospel itself. For example, it has contended that the ideas expressed in John are too late in time for it to have been written in the first or early second century and so could not have been composed by an apostle or contemporary of Jesus. It is more Hellenistic than Judaistic. It appears to belong to the culture of the Roman Empire rather than to the traditions of a conquered province along the Jordan River, hovering between Egypt and Mesopotamia. But, due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we know that the same ideas were in circulation in Jesus' time and right at home in the land where he and his disciples lived. The geographical information in John is more extensive and more accurate than that of any of the other Gospels. There are more personal references in it than elsewhere.
Note that nothing whatever in the Gospel precludes its having been written by a Jew and a contemporary of Jesus. Also there is much to indicate that the author knew his hero personally and must have been with him for much that he did. The reader may reasonably assume, therefore, that the traditional outside evidence as to authorship and plan of composition is reliable and true.
lrenaeus, who wrote around A.D. 180, ascribes the authorship of the Fourth Gospel to the Apostle John. He also affirms that he studied under Polycarp, who, in turn, studied under John. Likewise, Ephesus is designated as the abode of John, who was its bishop, and as the city where he wrote his Gospel. Eusebius, the first historian of Christianity after Luke (who wrote the Acts of the Apostles), states that after the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had been written, the Apostle John read them and attested to their truth. He said, however, they lacked an account of what Christ did in his early ministry prior to the arrest of John the Baptist. According to Eusebius, John wrote his Gospel to compensate for this deficiency. If that be the case, John must have been written in Ephesus either during the last decade of the first century or the first decade of the second century. The Gospel, then, is the account of an eyewitness, a person privy to the thoughts and feelings of Jesus, and one of his dearest friends. He could join the other disciples, as they could join him, in saying, "That which was from the beginning... which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life" (I John 1:1) is the burden of our testimony and the contents of this Gospel.
Questions For Reflection And Study:
1. Does it bother you that all four Gospels report different events in different ways'?
2. Which of the four Gospel portraits of Jesus -- the fulfillment of prophecy (Matthew); the active servant (Mark); God's message to all people, including the gentiles (Luke); or the incarnate God (John) is most meaningful for you personally?