The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton


1. Who is John?

John 19:35 and 21:24 remind us that the disciple Jesus loved, the beloved disciple, is closely identified with the author of the gospel. This disciple is probably John, brother of James, and son of Zebedee. But is the disciple John actually the author? The evidence is not entirely satisfactory. The author was a Jew, with some familiarity with Palestinian geography and with the Jewish festivals. There are a number of touches that look as if they might have come from an eyewitness. But there are also inaccuracies of detail and description, and it is therefore better to conclude that though some eyewitness material lies behind this gospel (perhaps from John himself), the final writing and compilation were done by one who was not a participant in the events described.

Irenaeus, at the end of the second century, speaks of the disciple John as living to an old age in Ephesus and writing the gospel. But other early sources speak of another John, known as the elder, who lived at Ephesus, and suggest that he was the author. And so the evidence is inconclusive. The gospel may have been written by a disciple of the disciple John; it may have been written by the other John the elder, who was perhaps some kind of follower of the disciple John; or it may have been written by an unknown teacher of Ephesus who himself felt that he possessed a strong apostolic authority.

Scholars disagree about the relation of the author of the gospel to the author of the epistles of John, and about the relation of both to the author of the Book of Revelation. Almost certainly, Revelation is by a later hand. The Gospel according to John and the epistles are very close in style and content, and if both are not by the same author, they are both from the same general tradition of "Johannine" thought. John the elder, mentioned above, is often identified as the author of the epistles, even when he is not credited with the gospel.

Ephesus is the best guess for the location of the book, though Antioch and Alexandria have both been suggested. It can be dated between A.D. 85 and 140. We shall call the author John here, since "the author of the fourth gospel" is a cumbersome label. His anonymity is in many ways a virtue, and may be partly intentional. His purpose is not to bear witness to himself, but to something God has done. He is a great artist and a great theologian, and this is all that we actually need to know about him.

2. Did these events really happen?

In John the unity of historical fact and interpretation is so inextricable that it is quite impossible to draw any sort of line between them. We probably should insist that John does not invent incidents or sayings of Jesus for the purposes of free speculation, but it ought also to be said that the concrete history of Jesus has been studied, meditated upon, and interpreted by him. Even the earlier gospel writers like Mark live in a kind of tension between what Jesus was in the days of his flesh and what he was for the church. John's basic standpoint is a little different: "What Jesus is to the faith of the true Christian believer, He was in the flesh," as Hoskyns puts it.(Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd.. 1940). p. 35. The final meaning of what he said and did may not rest on the surface of his actual history. But the meaning is there, none the less, and must be brought to the fore. John's purpose is to interpret the real meaning of Jesus' history, the meaning of the Gospel tradition as it came to him. He handles that tradition freely, but he insists that his interpretation is not imposed on the events but discovered there.

Thus the apparently simple question, Did these things really happen, is not so simple when we understand the rich meaning for the word "happen" that John insists we adopt. When we have seen that he does not invent incidents, that his main concern is with the concrete historical material about Jesus, we can pretty confidently answer "yes" to the question, keeping in mind the impossibility of separating what we call history and interpretation. The late William Temple has written to this issue in words that probably many commentators would accept:

Each conversation or discourse contained in the Gospel actually took place. But it is so reported as to convey, not only the sounds uttered or the meaning then apprehended, but the meaning which, always there, has been disclosed by lifelong meditation. (Readings in St. John's Gospel (London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1945), p. xviii.)

3. What is the difference between John's gospel and the synoptics?

There are considerable differences between John's gospel and the synoptics. In many ways it seems to be in a different world; and the distinctions come immediately to our attention. The ministry, in Mark, lasts just a little longer than a year; in John, three Passovers are mentioned. Mark describes the last supper as a Passover meal; John interprets the death of Christ as occurring the day before Passover, at the time the lambs were being killed in preparation for the feast. The short, pregnant words of teaching are missing in John. The miracles of the synoptics are often presented as human acts of compassion, done in response to faith, and to be concealed from the authorities. In John, fewer miracles are dealt with, and their episodic character is gone. Instead they are woven into the author's whole structure. They are pointers to Christ; they are signs or Opportunities for faith, not results of faith.

Perhaps the most important difference between John and the other gospels lies in the way we experience the tension between the present and the future. This temporal tension points to what is technically called eschatology. Literally, eschatology is the Christian doctrine of the "last things," the final judgment, second coming, and general resurrection. In Mark, these things were still in the future; in John they are partly yet to come, partly already taking place. In Mark, the tension is between Jesus as he was for the disciples and Jesus as remembered and worshiped by the church. In John the tension between present and future is located in the very historical life of Jesus himself. ". . . the hour is coming, and now is" (4:23, 5:25) is not a contradiction, but a real insight into the mood of the gospel.

What John has done is to ignore the cruder forms of picture-thinking about the future that we found in the synoptics: the true eschatological event is the glorification of Christ in the resurrection. And for him this future event is beginning to happen now. No longer, for example, does the phrase "Son of man" have the ambiguous meaning that it has in Mark. In John it means this concrete man of flesh and blood -- this man, Jesus, who is also Son of God. The primitive eschatology, then, is still present: the present time of the church is a time both of faith and hope, present enjoyment and future expectation, but in John the details are much simpler, and the uneasiness and tension are if anything more acute. Eternal life is present now (5:24); judgment is happening now (10:26-28); even though the disciples in John's gospel have trouble understanding Jesus (as they did in Mark), at the very beginning of the gospel Jesus is described by John the Baptist as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29).

John has no bits and pieces; nothing can easily be removed without distortion. It is stylistically a whole because it is theologically all of a piece. John is bound by a unifying purpose; he is doing one particular thing.

4. what was the purpose of John's gospel?

The reader should have in mind, as an aid to understanding the background of John's gospel, three important contemporary religious movements: Synagogue Judaism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Gnosticism.

a. Synagogue Judaism

In the synoptics, Jesus is shown in controversy with scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Here, the blanket term "the Jews" is used. For thirty or forty years after Jesus' death, Christians continued to worship in the synagogue. Gradually they became less and less welcome, and had to seek out some private residence for their meetings. The controversies in John portray the arguments between the Christians and the Jews toward the end of the first century. Here the issues are Jesus' divinity and divine Sonship, his messiahship, his origin -- human and divine. In the synoptics, the controversies were largely over what he said and taught concerning the law.

b. Hellenistic Judaism

In spite of the criticism of the Jewish tradition in this gospel, it remains essentially a Jewish book in flavor and background. But Judaism, well before the time of Jesus, had moved into the GraecoRoman world, and had adopted some of the Greek (Hellenistic) categories and manners of thought. So John, a Jewish Christian, Will be found in his gospel expounding the meaning of Jesus Christ partly in the language of this mixture of Jewish and Greek thought. Direct Greek influence on the gospel has probably been overstressed in the past; the basic influence of the Old Testament has recently and rightly been stressed. But the thought-forms out of which the author moves, and to which he speaks, may be described as those of this Hellenistic-Jewish amalgam.

c. Gnosticism

"Gnosticism" is a loose and inaccurate word used to describe a heterogeneous mixture of religious beliefs that begins to come into the Graeco-Roman world about the same time as Christianity appears. Its origins are obscure, but it is in part derived from Babylon, Egypt, and Persia, and it includes magic, astrology, and speculation. Now gnosticism is a religion which takes the need for salvation seriously, and it presented a real problem to Christians, for much of its teaching seemed to parallel the Christian. Gnosticism is dualistic; that is, it distinguishes a spiritual world above from the lower and unreal world of matter and body. Man has a fragment of the divine life in him, but he is imprisoned in the evil world of matter, and redemption is a movement away from the body and this world, away from the fear and determinism that bind him. The epistle to the Colossians, Revelation, and I John, all bear signs of dealing with this position. Whatever external marks of similarity John may have with gnosticism, he attacks the basic gnostic position with great force: namely, that Jesus Christ could not be a true and complete man; that the Son of God could not have suffered and died. To say that the word became flesh (1 :14), to insist on Jesus' thirst and weariness, and the reality of his death (20:27), is to argue directly against the basic gnostic idea of the unreality of this world. The emphasis in this gospel on the flesh of Jesus is partly determined by John's conscious repudiation of gnostic interpretations of Christianity.

So much for the background. Just what is the intention of John in writing his gospel? What was his purpose or theme? Many of the traditional answers fail to satisfy. if we say that this is only a mystical or spiritual meditation on the meaning of Jesus, we come up against the insistence on the very unspiritual idea of the flesh of Jesus. If we say that this is the work of an eyewitness, rearranging the historic events of Jesus' life in a new way, we come up against the idea that the flesh by itself means nothing. Call it Greek, the Hebraic character strikes us; call it a mixture of interpretation and history, and it is impossible to draw the line of distinction. (See Hoskyns. op. Cit., p. 129 f.) The gospel does not seem to come to rest in any known category. It eludes us.

Perhaps we are better off if we say that John's main purpose is to witness Or point to the true meaning of Jesus Christ (20:31), both to confirm the faith of the believer, and to commend it to the outsider. The primitive Christian tradition, enshrined in the synoptic gospels, speaks about Jesus proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom. For John, Jesus is the Gospel. The truth that lies concealed like a secret in Mark, is now openly stated. In Jesus, the holy God has come into the life of sinful man, into the flesh and sin of history itself. Man cannot know God, John says again and again (1:18, 3:13, 5:37), but Jesus Christ has made him known.

To John, the primitive tradition of the synoptics was too fragmentary and piecemeal. Men could wander in it and pick and choose. This tradition needed to be reshaped and presented in its decisive clarity. The key to John's achievement is the tension between ". . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (6:53) and "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail" (6:63). The basic meaning of the primitive faith is Jesus Christ in his concrete historical life and death. But unless we see that the Spirit (God) is acting in this flesh, we shall miss the central clue. John simply points to this man of flesh, and invites us to respond to him.

Our task here will be simply to see what it is that John stresses. We shall spend little time trying to unravel the complicated question of history and interpretation, Is this Jesus or the early church speaking? Even if we could disentangle eyewitness account from interpretative addition, it would tell us little. The author's purpose, upon which he invites us to concentrate, is to declare that Jesus Christ actually was, from the beginning. what the church discovered him to be.