Volume 23 - Issue 2
A Historical View of John’s Gospelby David Wenham
By kind permission of the author, we extract, with minor editorial changes, Chapter 4 of David Wenham’s booklet. John’s Gospel: Good News for Today (Leicester: RTSF, 1997). After a short introductory chapter setting out the purpose of the booklet, two chapters deal respectively with what John has to say and why John is so different, the latter dealing with the question of theology and history. A final chapter is titled ‘Using John’s Gospel today’.
The view that John has been highly creative and indeed historically inventive in his Gospel, though widely held, is not definitely correct. There is no question that, at first sight, John seems to be giving us a picture of Jesus the man who worked in Galilee and Jerusalem, not to be telling us about his own later convictions concerning Jesus. Of course, this may be a naive reading of his Gospel, but the question is whether the evidence usually claimed as proving something different does so.
Doubts about Jamnia and evidence that John’s theology is much earlier than late first century
The first thing to say is that the evidence which some scholars see as showing John to come from a late first-century situation, after church and synagogue have split, does not clearly prove anything of the sort.
Scholars have suggested that John’s negative portrayal of ‘the Jews’ and the references to them excluding Christians from the synagogue reflects the situation after the so-called Council of Jamnia. But it is very doubtful if the Council did have the significance that scholars have attributed to it. We are not sure what actually happened, and not at all sure that it marked a decisive split between church and synagogue. In the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on the Council the author Jack Lewis comments that the hypothesis should ‘be relegated to the limbo of unestablished hypotheses. It should not be allowed to be considered a consensus established by mere repetition of assertion.’1
It is interesting that in one of the earliest writings of the NT, 1 Thessalonians, Paul can speak of ‘the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out’ (2:14–16). There Paul is referring to ‘the Jews’ driving Christians out, right back in the 40s ad. So John’s portrayal of the Jews in his Gospel is not necessarily post-Jamnia, not necessarily even post-the time of Jesus; after all, relations between Jesus and the Jewish authorities were not entirely cordial—they had him crucified.
The Johannine thunderbolt in ‘Q’
As for the emphases that supposedly reflect John’s post-Jamnia situation, all of them can be shown to go back much earlier in Christian history. One of the most interesting pieces of evidence is Matthew 11:25–27/Luke 10:21–22, where Jesus prays: ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes. Yes, Father, because such was your good pleasure. All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.’ These words of Jesus, being common to Matthew and Luke, are widely recognized by scholars as going back to early tradition (indeed to the ‘Q’ source, postulated by many scholars, and datable back to around ad 50). What is extraordinary about them is how Johannine they are: the language of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, the idea of ‘knowing’ the Father and the Son and the idea of revelation to Jesus’ followers and not to others are all things that we have seen to be very important in John. So here are these ‘Johannine’ distinctives being attributed to Jesus decades before Jamnia. Admittedly the synoptics do not have a lot of such Johannine sayings (though there are other slightly less striking ones2); however, the one saying on its own shows that John’s distinctives do not come out of John’s distinctive theological imagination at the end of the first century.
Some evidence from Paul
That point is reinforced when we look at some of Paul’s writings. In 1 Corinthians 1–4 Paul speaks about Christians as people who have received divine revelation, and some scholars think that he knows the ‘Q’ tradition of Matthew 11:25–27. More significantly, Philippians 2:5–11 is a famous passage where Paul speaks of Jesus having emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, going to the cross, and then being highly exalted. We do not have John’s ‘descending/ascending’ language here, but we have something very like it. Paul sees Jesus as pre-existent; and his ‘super-exalt’ word is related to the Greek word used in John, when he speaks of Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. Many scholars have claimed that Philippians 2:5–11 is a hymn that existed before Paul wrote Philippians and which he took over in his letter; in which case we find that ‘Johannine’ Christology was anticipated not just by Paul, but possibly even earlier in the hymns of the early church. People have also seen Colossians 1:15–20 as an early hymn, and it is even more ‘Johannine’: its description of the pre-existent Jesus as the one through whom God created the world is strikingly similar to the prologue of John’s Gospel.3
It turns out that the ‘Johannine’ theological emphases are not so distinctive, and that they seem to have featured in the very earliest traditions of the Christian church.4
Loving one another
The same is true of his ethical teaching about love. John suggests that the command ‘love one another as I have loved you’ was something particularly important for Jesus: it was his ‘new commandment’ (13:34; 15:12). At first sight this looks quite different from the Synoptics, where we find a broader emphasis on loving one’s neighbour and even one’s enemy. The suspicion is that John has narrowed the focus because of his church context. However, a closer look shows not only that this Johannine emphasis has a parallel in the Synoptics (e.g. in Mk. 9:33–50 and 10:41–45, with its important stress on service within the Christian fellowship), but also that it is a strong emphasis in Paul’s letters, for example in 1 Thessalonians 4:9, ‘You are all taught of God to love one another’ (also Rom. 12:10). Once again a feature of John that could point to a post-Jamnia setting is found to be part of the teaching of the Church from a very early date. In Paul we find a dual emphasis on loving fellow-Christians and loving others as well (Gal. 6:10; 1 Thes. 5:15); in John it must be admitted that there is more explicit emphasis on the first, but he too can speak of Jesus’ mission in terms of God loving the world and of Christians being called to share in that mission (3:16; 20:21).
One particularly interesting text in this connection is Galatians 6:2, where Paul tells the Galatians to ‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’. Scholars have puzzled over why Paul speaks of the ‘law’ of Christ in a letter where he mainly stresses freedom from the law. But one real possibility is that Paul knows the tradition of Jesus’ new commandment which we find in John—bearing ‘one another’s’ burdens is after all much the same as loving ‘one another’. Scholars have not often seen this possible connection, probably because they assume distinctive ‘Johannine’ traditions of Jesus to be late and not historical; but we have seen a significant amount of evidence that shows that John’s distinctives go back early into Christian history.
It is entirely possible that Paul knew what we call ‘Johannine’ traditions of Jesus in the 50s and 60s ad—not just the new command, but perhaps also, as we saw, Jesus’ teaching about ‘knowing the Father and the Son’ (as reflected in Mt. 11:27). Did he also know some of the teaching about the Holy Spirit that we find in John? Certainly both Paul in 1 Corinthians and Jesus in John’s Gospel emphasize divine revelation to Christians and the work of the Holy Spirit: it is entirely possible that Paul learned his emphasis on the Spirit, as other theological emphases, from the teaching of Jesus (directly or indirectly).5 It is possible that Paul’s distinctive teaching about being ‘in Christ’ derived from Jesus’ sayings about the vine and the branches, as found in John 15: both John and Paul speak of the mutual indwelling of Christ and the believer. We could go on.
Even if some of the ideas we have discussed are speculative, what is not debatable is that many of the distinctive features of John’s Gospel that are often seen to be peculiar to him and that are regarded as evidence of his advanced theological thinking are actually anticipated in some of the earliest parts of the NT. There is even some evidence that such ‘Johannine’ teaching was regarded as coming from Jesus himself, long before John is thought to have compiled his Gospel. We are thus moving towards the opinion that John’s distinctive emphases are not to be explained in terms of his theological inventiveness, but in terms of his particular selection of early stories and sayings of Jesus. (We will come back to the question of why he has selected what he has later.)
Evidence of John having historical traditions
This view is reinforced by evidence which suggests that John did have good historical traditions at his disposal which are not found in the Synoptic Gospels. This has been argued most powerfully in recent years by John Robinson, who was no theological conservative, but who still championed the view that John’s Gospel has a very good claim to be taken as historical.6 The evidence includes:
(1) Names and places that are archaeologically or historically confirmed. For example, there is the story found in John 5 (but not in the Synoptics) of the lame man healed at the pool of Bethesda. John describes the pool as having ‘five porticoes’. Today this pool is a tourist site in Jerusalem, having been excavated in the 1930s. The archaeologists found that it was (a) a pool associated with a healing shrine, which makes good sense of John’s reference to people waiting by the pool for the waters to be moved, so that they could be healed; (b) that it had a larger and smaller basin, which makes good sense of the five porticoes, if there was a portico round the sides of the whole pool complex and one between the two basins. There is also a probable reference to the double pool in the Dead Sea Scrolls. If John is writing a theological meditation on Jesus, he is doing so with the aid of accurate topographical information about Jerusalem.7
(2) More broadly, there are all sorts of things in the Gospel that are historically plausible, given what we know of first-century Palestine. Thus John’s comment in John 6:15 on the crowd wanting to make Jesus king after the feeding of the 5,000 makes historical sense in the political context of occupied Palestine. John’s description in 11:48 of the Jewish authorities being alarmed that Jesus’ popularity might lead to a Roman intervention against the country is entirely plausible.8
Then there is John’s description of Jesus and his disciples going up regularly to the different feasts in Jerusalem. Some of his description of Jesus at the feasts fits in with what we know of the temple rituals: thus John has Jesus offering people ‘living water’ at the feast of tabernacles in chapter 7, which may be significant in view of the fact that the festival involved a daily water-pouring ceremony (probably connected to Zc. 14:18): a procession would go down to the pool of Siloam below the temple, fill a golden jar with water, and then return to the altar in the temple, where the water was poured out at the side of the altar. Even if that particular suggestion is speculative, the Johannine picture of Jesus going up to various feasts in Jerusalem is one that arguably makes better historical sense than the Synoptic picture, where Jesus is only described as making the one visit to the holy city at the end of his ministry.
(3) That leads us on to say that things recorded in John help make sense of things in the Synoptics. Thus John’s description of Jesus making a number of visits to Jerusalem helps make sense of the Synoptic story of Jesus sending his disciples to find a particular donkey in a particular place, and then to follow a particular man to his upper room (Mk. 11:2; 14:13). John’s reference to the political fervour of the crowd after the feeding of the 5,000 helps explain why Jesus in the Synoptics sends the disciples away across the lake, leaving him behind to deal with the over-excited crowd (Mk. 6:45).
(4) There are also things in John that are historically plausible, because of their potentially embarrassing nature to the early Christians. Thus the failure of the Synoptics to mention the crowd’s attempt to make Jesus king may well have been because of their anxiety lest people should see Jesus and his movement as revolutionary trouble-makers (e.g. Acts 24:5).
Perhaps as interesting as any evidence is John 3:22–4:2, where various of the points we have been making come together. In this passage Jesus is portrayed as baptizing in Judea, alongside John the Baptist, as it appears, and before John’s arrest. There is no hint of this baptizing ministry of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels: they merely describe Jesus as being baptized by John, and then starting to minister in Galilee after John’s arrest. The passage in John looks strongly like independent information that John had about Jesus, and historically very plausible information:
(1) It contains snippets of topographical information: thus John speaks of the Baptist baptizing ‘in Aenon, near Salim, because there was much water’.
(2) John’s story of Jesus baptizing alongside the Baptist seems unlikely to have been invented by the evangelist, since it makes Jesus appear a little bit like John, even perhaps a disciple of John. It is quite clear that the writer of John’s Gospel wanted to avoid any such impression, since he goes out of his way to have the Baptist affirming Jesus’ superiority; but the way he does so lends weight to the suggestion that the early church had some bother with followers of John the Baptist who claimed that he, the baptizer who came first, was greater than Jesus, the baptized who came second; the Christians therefore insisted on the superiority of Jesus.9 The reason that the Synoptics do not describe Jesus’ ministering in Judea with John and like John may have been precisely because it was a potentially embarrassing period of Jesus’ ministry to them. For the same reason John is unlikely to have invented it.
(3) In any case, the Johannine narrative makes good sense in the Synoptic context: it fills in a gap in the Synoptic record—between Jesus’ baptism in Judea and the start of his ministry in Galilee—and it also helps explain the otherwise unexplained fact that in the Synoptics Christian baptism appears to start after Easter at the risen Christ’s command (for no very obvious reason); John’s account suggests that the Church’s baptizing was not something new for them, but the continuation of something that Jesus himself had started in his ministry.
Even things that at first sight seem contradictory between John and the Synoptics turn out in some cases to be complementary. Thus in the Synoptics the disciples apparently do not confess Jesus as the Messiah until the middle of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus asks them what their opinion of him is and Peter says: ‘You are the Messiah’. In John’s Gospel, on the other hand, people like Andrew and Nathanael are talking about Jesus as the Messiah and king of Israel from the very first chapter onwards. At first sight this looks like an obvious case of John having written without regard for the historical sequence of events: he wants to get the truth of Jesus clearly proclaimed in his first chapter. However, although that might be the explanation, the question has to be asked: is it in fact historically plausible to view Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, as it is described in the Synoptics, as the first recognition by Jesus’ disciples of his messiahship? Had the idea not dawned before then?10 This seems most unlikely historically, and it is much more likely that from a very early stage people followed Jesus hoping that he might be the one they were looking for. That is what John suggests. If anything, we might argue that the Synoptic account seems more theologically stylized in this respect and in having only one journey to Jerusalem. However, there is no need to choose between them: it is entirely possible that Caesarea Philippi was a reaffirmation of faith from Peter, in face of much doubt and controversy, not the first breakthrough into an appreciation of Jesus’ messiahship. John has Peter make precisely such a reaffirmation in 6:69.11
The reasonable conclusion on the basis of such evidence is that John’s Gospel is a historically well-informed account of Jesus’ ministry, John having had good sources of information other than (or in addition to) the Synoptics.
The disciple whom Jesus loved
The Gospel itself makes precisely that claim, since it claims to be written by an eyewitness, or at least to be based on eyewitness testimony. This is probably implied in 1:14, where the author says: ‘We have seen his glory’, but it is unambiguous in 19:35, where he says in connection with the death of Jesus: ‘he who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true and he knows that he tells the truth …’. The same sort of claim is found in 21:24, where there is reference to the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, of whom it is said: ‘this is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and we know that his witness is true’. It is clear that the writer of these verses is interested in eyewitness truth, not just in theological truth. More than that, it is clear that the claim is being made that the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, one of Jesus’ immediate followers, is in some sense the author of the Gospel.
The ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ is referred to in several texts towards the end of the Gospel (13:23; 19:26; 21:7; 21:20), and may also be referred to without being named in 1:35–39; 18:15; 19:35; 20:2–10. Scholars have argued to and fro about the identity of this beloved disciple, with candidates for the post including John the son of Zebedee (the traditional identification), Lazarus whom Jesus raised (because of 11:3), John Mark (Acts 13:5), or an otherwise unknown disciple called John. Some scholars have argued that he is not an actual historical individual, but is an ‘ideal’ figure—a model disciple (who, for example, is with Jesus at the cross); this is thought, among other things, to explain why he is called ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, which otherwise sounds a rather odd description to give to one of Jesus’ followers.
Despite the ingenious arguments of scholars, the traditional identification remains easily the most plausible. There is a whole range of arguments for this: first, the earliest evidence that we have is that the Gospel was written by the apostle and son of Zebedee. It comes from the second-century bishop of Lyons in France, Irenaeus, who commented: ‘Finally John, the disciple of the Lord, who had also lain on his breast, himself published the gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus’; Irenaeus is said by the historian Eusebius to have got this information from Polycarp of Smyrna, who was actually acquainted with the apostles (Ecclesiastical History 5, 8, 4). The tradition thus appears to go right back. And it does not appear to have been seriously questioned, except by a few groups who did not like some of the teaching in the Gospel.
Second, if John the apostle is the disciple whom Jesus loved, this helps to explain why John and his brother James are not otherwise named in the Gospel, except for one reference in 21:2 to ‘the sons of Zebedee’. The absence of John in the narrative is otherwise very strange, since he, with his brother and with Peter, are members of the privileged ‘inner circle’ of three disciples of Jesus in the Synoptics: they witness momentous events like the transfiguration and the sufferings of Jesus in Gethsemane. John appears, to judge from the book of Acts and also from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, to have continued to be one of the most prominent leaders in the earliest Christian church—one of the pillars (Gal. 2:9). Given this importance of John in the Synoptics and the earliest church, it is very odd indeed if the fourth Gospel fails to mention him at all: we might almost suspect a vendetta! If, however, he is the beloved disciple, then he is mentioned, albeit with a reticence that makes sense if he is the author.
Third, and following on from the previous point, the beloved disciple is mentioned in association with Peter: thus 13:23 and especially in chapters 20 and 21. In these last chapters scholars have detected a sense of some friendly rivalry between Peter and the beloved (or other) disciple, as the two of them run to the tomb and then as Jesus discusses their respective deaths. No-one known to us among Jesus’ disciples fits the role of ‘rival’ to Peter so obviously as John the apostle, and it makes good sense to suppose that the Gospel comes to us from church circles where John was a specially honoured figure. There may be a grain of truth in the view that the disciple whom Jesus loved is an ‘ideal’ figure, in the sense that his disciples saw him as exemplary in various respects; but he was an entirely real person to them, not a literary construct. As for the expression ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, this may have been an expression used by John’s followers to describe the position that he had in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. Not that it would necessarily have been immodest for John himself to have paid tribute to his experience of Jesus by describing himself as the recipient of Jesus’ love.
There is, I suggest, a very strong case for thinking that the Gospel claims to derive from John son of Zebedee, apostle of Jesus. Some scholars may find it difficult to accept the claim, but some of their difficulties are not really very difficult: we have seen that the old scholarly view that John is highly Hellenistic rather than Palestinian is straightforwardly mistaken (not that John son of Zebedee will have been isolated from the Greek world of thought, especially if he was in Ephesus when he wrote his Gospel, as tradition has it). [An earlier portion of Dr Wenham’s booklet establishes this point—Ed.] As for the opinion that John the fisherman could not have written as sophisticated a document as John’s Gospel, that is questionable in every respect: in the first place, the style of John’s Gospel is not particularly sophisticated Greek; in the second place, it is a curious prejudice that says that ancient fishermen (from families wealthy enough to own fishing boats and have servants, Mk. 1:20) will necessarily have been uneducated; in the third place, it underestimates how much Jesus’ disciples would have learned from Jesus himself and from their own reflections as they later taught about him.
As for the view that John’s theology and Christology represent a late stage in the evolution of early Christian doctrine, we have seen that in fact John’s ideas are attested in early strands of the NT. In any case it is unwise to suppose that doctrine does or did evolve in a neat way from less developed to more developed thinking. Paul after all is our earliest NT writer, but his theology is usually seen as more developed and sophisticated than that of most of the rest of the NT.12
If John’s Gospel derives from John, even if it was written up by his followers,13 then its importance historically cannot be overestimated.
The question of differences once again
But, although the case for the apostolic origin and historical value of John’s Gospel is much, much stronger than is often supposed, the differences between it and the Synoptics still remain, and still need explanation. Not that the differences are as massive as is sometimes thought: we have noted all sorts of points of continuity, with something like Matthew 11:25–27 being such a strikingly Johannine passage in the Synoptic heartlands. But what are we to make of the real differences that there are? A starting-point is to say that different witnesses to the same event do typically pick on very different things to describe and highlight; so for John to tell us different stories of Jesus from the Synoptics is not in itself surprising. The Synoptics are usually thought to be interdependent in some ways (with Mark being seen as a source of Matthew and Luke). It could be that, whereas they are interdependent, John is independent of them, going his own way and choosing his own stories. On the other hand, it is possible that John did know the Synoptics and that he quite deliberately chose different events and stories so as not to duplicate the Synoptics too much: he wanted to supplement them.
However, it is not satisfactory simply to explain that John ‘happened’ to include different stories in his Gospel, nor to suggest that he just chose his material because it did not overlap too much with the Synoptics. There is something much more systematic and deliberate going on.
What is going on is made clear in John 20:31, where, as we saw, John very deliberately explains his agenda: namely that he is writing to clarify the question of Jesus’ identity. Whereas the Synoptics give a general picture of Jesus, John homes in on the question of who Jesus is, doing everything he can to show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, in whom is life. John selects and presents his material, including the sayings of Jesus, in order to make that point: chapter after chapter is saying essentially the same thing.
His reason for such a sharply focused picture could be that he believed that earlier accounts (including perhaps the Synoptics) were insufficiently clear on the matter. But almost certainly the driving force for his writing in this way was the situation that he faced. He was in a situation where there was controversy about the person of Jesus, and he wanted to sort people out. Whom did he have in mind?
Jews from the synagogue
One of the grains of truth in the Jamnia hypothesis is probably that John had Jews in mind, among others, when he wrote. The Christian Church, having arisen out of Judaism, was in conflict with the Jewish synagogue throughout much of the first century: the Christians claimed to be the true successors of Israel, and the Church seemed to the synagogue to be poaching its members. The tension is understandable, and John was very likely writing in that sort of context—vigorously asserting Jesus’ messiahship, which the Jews equally forcefully denied.
Followers of John the Baptist
But John’s focus on Jesus’ identity was not simply in response to the synagogue. It seems likely that he was also responding to followers of John the Baptist, who were claiming that John was greater than Jesus. This is suggested by the way the author of the Gospel goes out of his way to have John the Baptist testify to Jesus’ greatness when people ask him. Thus in 3:30, when people ask him about the competition that Jesus seems to represent, the Baptist says: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’. The most striking verse in this connection is 1:20, where John has been asked who he is, and ‘he confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ” ’. Notable here are the terms of John’s denial—he denies that he (rather than Jesus, we infer) is the Christ—and also the way the denial is underlined and emphasized by the evangelist. In today’s computer-speak we would say that the evangelist underlines the denial of John and puts it into bold type—thus ‘he confessed, he did not deny, he confessed’. The reason he writes in these terms is very probably because people were claiming that John the baptizer was greater than Jesus the baptized. They were arguing that John had the greater claim to being the Messiah: they recalled that Jesus worked alongside John baptizing in Judea, and maintained that he was John’s disciple. We suggested earlier that the synoptists may have been sufficiently embarrassed by this period in Jesus’ ministry simply to jump over it; but John is bolder, recording the parallel ministry, in the process making it very clear that Jesus was recognized by John as the far greater one.
To some modern Christian readers it may come as a surprise that there were any followers of John the Baptist who failed to see Jesus as the Messiah, perhaps because we have failed to recognize how considerable a figure John was in his own right; but we know that there were people who preferred John to Jesus in the third century ad, and it is probable that these people had their predecessors in the NT period itself. It is in the face of such ‘Baptist’ teaching that the writer of John’s Gospel affirms so strongly Jesus’ greatness and superiority. Jesus, not John, is the way, the truth, etc.
Ex-members of John’s church: the evidence of 1 John
But there is still more evidence of controversy over the identity of Jesus which John was probably addressing, this time within the Christian Church itself. This evidence is to be found in the first letter of John. Scholars are not 100 per cent persuaded that the letters were written by the same person as the Gospel, but the style of the letters and the Gospel is very similar, and they must at least have come from the same sort of context and circle. What is interesting about the first letter of John is that it shows that within John’s church there had been a serious split, focusing on the question of Jesus’ identity. Thus 2:18 speaks of ‘antichrists’ who ‘went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us, but they went out …’. What distinguished these ‘antichrists’ from John and his church? The very expression ‘antichrist’ is a clue, and the issue is clarified in 4:1–3: ‘Many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.’ The divisive issue was Christology. It is not possible to be sure exactly what ‘the antichrists’ were saying,14 but somehow they were putting Jesus down, claiming prophetic inspiration by the Spirit for their views.
It is easy to see how John could be responding to such ideas in his Gospel: he devotes his energy to explaining the story of Jesus in christological terms. He emphasizes Jesus’ divinity more than his humanity, because others were putting Jesus down. He affirms that Jesus, and no-one else, is the source of eternal life.15
There is an interesting parallel in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where Paul deals with a philosophy that was infiltrating the church and that was ‘not according to Christ’ (2:8–12). Again people were somehow putting Christ down, perhaps exalting other spiritual powers. Paul’s response in Colossians is to emphasize the supremacy of Christ, as the image of God, the first-born of creation and the one in whom the fullness of deity dwelt (Col. 1:15–20); we are reminded of John 1. Paul emphasizes Christ’s sufficiency as the way to life and salvation (e.g. 3:3), reminding us again of John. Paul speaks of the cross as a victory over spiritual powers (2:15), again rather like John with his distinctive view of the cross as glorification and victory. In face of christological heresy (in the Ephesus area) Paul writes his letter with a particular focus; in face of christological heresy (in the same area, according to early tradition!) John writes a Gospel with a similar focus.
John’s ‘realized eschatology’ may also make sense in this context. John emphasizes that life is in Christ now, not because he has gone cold on future eschatology, but because he wants to affirm the sufficiency of Jesus in face of all competing claims. Similarly, Paul in Colossians 3:3 can speak of the Colossians having died with Christ and of Christ ‘who is your life’.
To judge from 1 John the ‘antichrists’ referred to there claimed to have the anointing of the Spirit (e.g.4:1–3), and so one of the questions that the author of the letter has to address is how to distinguish the Holy Spirit from false spirits. He reminds his readers of what they have been taught from the beginning (1:1ff.). It may be no accident that John’s Gospel too has a lot of discussion of the Spirit teaching the disciples, and that the Gospel makes crystal clear the intimate connection of the Spirit with Jesus. Does John want to counter people who are claiming the Spirit, but putting Jesus down?
1 John may help us in other ways, throwing light, for example, on the Gospel’s emphasis on ‘loving one another’ as a mark of true discipleship. If John’s church had recently been split, or was facing imminent division, then John might very well have wanted to major very loudly on Jesus’ call to love one another. Christians loving or not loving one another was the burning issue, rather than, for example, loving one’s enemy. ‘Abiding’ or ‘remaining’ in the vine was very important indeed in that context: it was more immediately pressing even than the missionary challenge, though that is not forgotten in John.
If the first letter of John helps clarify the context of the Gospel and hence its distinctiveness, it may also confirm that the writer of the Gospel is being deliberately selective in how he writes, rather than giving us the whole story. We have seen how the gospel has more emphasis on the cross as victory than on atonement (though that is not by any means absent); 1 John interestingly does contain traditional atonement language such as we associate with Paul—speaking of Christ’s blood as cleansing us from all sin (1:7) and of Jesus as the ‘propitiation for our sins’ (2:2). We have seen too how the Gospel is fairly muted in what it has to say about the second coming; the first letter, however, speaks of the antichrists who have come as evidence that it is ‘the last hour’ (2:18). This is very Synoptic-sounding and Pauline-sounding language. The occurrence of such phrases in the letter has led some scholars to doubt whether it is written by the same author as the Gospel; but at the very least they show that these Synoptic/Pauline emphases were alive and well in Johannine circles. More than that, they probably confirm what we have suspected—namely that the Gospel’s theology is not as ‘eccentric’ as some scholars suppose. It is just that the evangelist has focused, almost ruthlessly, on his task in hand in the Gospel; he has not tried to give us a rounded picture of Jesus or his message.
John’s literary contribution
All that we have said so far should not be taken to suggest that John’s Gospel is a word-for-word literally historical account of Jesus. It seems likely that John may often be putting the story of Jesus into his own words, and/or into words that will make good sense to his readers. This is suggested by the distinctive style and vocabulary of Jesus’ teaching in John when this is compared with the Synoptics, and also by the similarity of the style and vocabulary when Jesus speaks in John and where John is writing editorially. It has often been observed how in a passage like John 3 it is not at all clear where Jesus’ words end and John’s comments begin: some modern versions put the quotation marks at the end of verse 15 to mark the end of Jesus’ words and others take it that the whole passage up to verse 22 should be seen as words of Jesus.
Further evidence pointing in this direction may be John’s preference for ‘eternal life’ rather than ‘kingdom of God’. John, like Paul, finds kingdom language to be rather inaccessible to his Greek-speaking readers, and perhaps also a potential embarrassment, since ‘kingdom’ could be understood politically. ‘Eternal life’ is more intelligible and conveys better John’s conviction that Jesus’ ‘kingdom is not of this world’ (18:36). In the case of ‘eternal life’ John has not substituted his own phrase for Jesus’ actual words, since Jesus spoke of ‘eternal life’ according to the Synoptics. What he may have done in this case is to substitute one phrase of Jesus for another, for the reasons we have suggested.
This still means that John does not always give us the actual words (ipsissima verba) of Jesus. But to an extent that is true of all the Gospel writers. Apart from anything else, it is likely that Jesus spoke mostly in Aramaic; what we have then in the Gospels is a translation. But it is possible to go further than this: it is well known that translations (e.g. of the Bible) can be of different sorts: some are very literal, others are much freer in the actual wording, but may convey the original sense better. The Gospels arguably translate literally sometimes and much more paraphrastically at other times: John is perhaps more often in the free translation rather than the literal translation camp.
Not that translation is always the best model to explain what is going on: the modern newspaper reporter who reports on a famous person’s speech may sometimes quote the actual words of the speaker (in translation if necessary), but will often summarize or paraphrase what was said in ways that will make sense to the intended reader. Such is inevitably the case in the Gospels: the writers offer us extracts and summaries, putting things into their own words and making clear the meaning of what was said. Once again, it may be that John is more the interpreter and less the exact chronicler than the Synoptics, even if it is only a matter of degree. To say that is not an oblique way of admitting that John is not historical after all; not at all. It is a matter of considering how John writes history, not a matter of questioning whether John writes history.
But let us be more specific: did Jesus say ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me’? The answer on the view we have been describing would be: yes, he did, but not necessarily in those exact words (and in any case not in Greek!). Of course, he could have said those exact words; he could have said all the great ‘I am’ sayings exactly as they are recorded in John (only in Aramaic). But it may be that the quotation marks which modern editors have inserted into the text are misleading, and that it is John who has formulated the wording as we have it.
But John is not just drawing on his own theological convictions when he says that Jesus said ‘I am the way …’, etc. The Synoptics, including Mark, suggest that Jesus did say ‘I am’ on significant occasions, and perhaps with significant meaning: thus, when Jesus walks on the water and says ‘I am’ to the terrified disciples, it may just mean ‘It’s me’, but it may be that Mark saw a deeper meaning in the words (Mk. 6:50), The same may be true when Jesus says ‘I am’ at his trial in response to questions about his identity (14:62).16 The Synoptics also suggest that Jesus spoke of the ‘way’ or the ‘path’ leading to ‘life’, referring to his own teaching and to discipleship (Mt. 7:14). It does not require a million-mile jump to get from such Synoptic texts to John’s ‘I am’ sayings.
The same sort of thing may be said about others of Jesus’ ‘I am’ sayings. We do not find Jesus speaking of himself as the good shepherd in the Synoptics, but in his famous parable he does compare his own ministry to that of a deeply caring shepherd who cares for the one sheep that was lost (Lk. 15:3–7). Jesus does not say ‘I am the door’, but he does speak of the narrow gate/door that leads to life (Mt. 7:13; Lk. 13:24). He does not say ‘I am the bread of life’, but he does take bread and break it, and say ‘This is my body’. He does not say ‘I am the true vine’, but he does speak of vines and vineyards and compare ‘the fruit of the vine’ to his own blood.
On the basis of this evidence the conclusion could be that the Synoptics and John are so close that there is no reason to deny that Jesus said exactly what John says he said. But the conclusion could also be that John has paraphrased Jesus’ words in order to make their meaning crystal clear, not least in the light of all the controversy that he was writing to combat: he wanted to bring out the christological significance of what Jesus had said about the narrow way, because he wanted to refute those who were putting Jesus down.17
1 Anchor Bible III (1992), pp. 634–7.
2 Mt. 13:11/Lk. 8:10 (cf. Mk. 4:11) has the idea of divine ‘mysteries’ being made known to the disciples and not to others. All three Synoptics include the parable of the vineyard tenants, where the vineyard owner ‘sends’ his ‘son’: we are reminded of John’s emphasis on Jesus as the beloved Son who is sent by the Father (Mk. 12:1–12 and parallels). The synoptic accounts of the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus are also strikingly Johannine: thus Jesus is (a) ‘the Son’ in both baptism and transfiguration narratives, (b) in a special relationship of love with the Father in both, (c) the recipient of the Spirit in a special way in the baptism story, (d) one who reflects the glory of God in the transfiguration story. Whatever else may be said, this observation makes it clear that these Johannine emphases were important in early, well-attested synoptic traditions. (The importance of such themes at an early date may be confirmed by Paul’s evidence in a passage like 2 Cor. 3 and 4, where he speaks of the glory of Christ who is the image of God, and of the glory of God in the face of Christ, 4:4, 6.)
3 People have questioned whether Colossians was actually written by Paul himself. I think it was. But the point about ‘Johannine’ ideas being anticipated in Paul remains in any case, for example in a verse like 1 Cor. 8:6, which speaks of ‘one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things are and through whom we live’, or 2 Cor. 4:4, where Paul speaks of Christ as the ‘image of God’.
4 Other Johannine-sounding texts in Paul include Gal. 4:4, ‘God sent his Son …’, and Rom. 1:3, 4, where again Jesus is ‘his Son’. In both cases scholars have speculated that Paul may be echoing credal material that antedates the letters concerned. If they are right, this just reinforces the impression that Johannine Christology is not a late evolution in Christian thinking, but something that goes right back in the history of the Christian Church.
5 Even if he didn’t, his evidence makes it quite clear that the Johannine emphasis on the Spirit would be at home in a context quite different from the Jamnian context. On Paul’s extensive knowledge and use of the stories and sayings of Jesus, see my Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).
6 It may be added that John’s strong statement about the ‘word becoming flesh’ in 1:14 suggests that he had a major theological interest in Jesus as a real historical figure. Robinson’s major work is The Priority of John(London: SCM, 1985). Robinson summarizes his thesis thus: ‘I shall be contending that there is no either—or between recognizing John as the omega of the NT witness, the end-term, or an end-term, of its theological reflection, and also as its alpha, standing as close as any to the source from which it sprang. His theology does not, I believe, take us further from the history but leads us more deeply into it’ (p. 33).
7 There are other topographical details which suggest good information, like the reference to Jacob’s well in Sychar in 4:5.
8 Not only is this historically plausible, but the idea of the high priest speaking prophetically about the value of Jesus’ death is very Jewish.
9 See further below.
10 According to Luke, people had talked about John the Baptist as possibly the Messiah (3:15).
11 People often contrast the way Jesus seems to be secretive about his messiahship and identity in the Synoptics, especially in Mark, with the openness of John. There is a difference of emphasis, but John is quite clear that there was a secretive side to Jesus and his teaching (e.g. 7:10; 16:25, 29), and in 10:24 he is urged to come out in the open about his messiahship.
12 It has been argued that John son of Zebedee could hardly have failed to mention events that he was involved in, like the transfiguration; but it is equally unlikely, perhaps even more so, that anyone else would have omitted that very ‘Johannine’ story of Jesus. The question as to why the author of the Gospel, whether John son of Zebedee or not, omitted the stories of both Jesus’ baptism and his transfiguration cannot be answered with any certainty. The one thing that may confidently be said is that he is extremely unlikely to have been ignorant of them: indeed he demonstrates his knowledge of the baptism tradition in 1:32–34 and probably alludes to the transfiguration in 1:14. Beyond that it is only possible to make speculative suggestions: thus (1) he may quite deliberately have chosen not to retell well-known traditions: (with some exceptions like the feeding of the 5000, which leads into his unique bread of life discourse). Or (2) he may have felt that the grand themes of Jesus’ glory and sonship were better explained to his readers through the signs and narrative he has presented in his Gospel than through the well-known baptism and transfiguration stories. Not that he or his readers are likely to have had twentieth-century hang-ups about things like heavenly voices (any more than about demonic exorcisms which he also fails to mention). However, it is conceivable that stories such as the baptism were being used in ways that John was unhappy about. For example, the baptism story may have been used to show the superiority of John the Baptist to Jesus (and/or the equality of Jesus with other baptized people); so John chose to refer to it indirectly through the testimony of the Baptist in a way that made clear Jesus’ superiority. It is also conceivable that John (like Paul in his letters to the Corinthians and Mark in his Gospel) was aware of Christians who made a lot of Jesus as a divine figure, whose glory was revealed in signs and wonders (including the transfiguration), but who had little place in their theology for the ignominious cross (cf. 1 Jn. 5:6). John portrays the cross as the moment of supreme glorification (as well also as the decisive exorcism of Satan).
13 Scholars have proposed that the Gospel went through multiple editings by different people, and have spoken of the Gospel emanating from a Johannine ‘school’ that perhaps had the apostle as its founder. I find most of such theories over-speculative and largely unnecessary, though I do not at all rule out that the Gospel may have been written down (or up!) by someone other than the apostle, as could be inferred from 21:24.
14 Just conceivably they could have been preferring John the Baptist to Jesus, or separating ‘the heavenly Christ’ from the human Jesus, or seeing Jesus as just the prototype of a Spirit-endowed Christian. See note 12 above.
15 This suggestion works best if John’s Gospel is thought to have been written at about the same time as the epistle, or at least after the split described in 1 Jn. had taken place. Many good scholars argue, however, that the Gospel preceded the epistle. It is argued, among other things, that the epistle addresses the ‘docetic’ tendencies of people who were denying the fleshly reality of Jesus: the Gospel, however, does not seem to be especially worried by such ‘docetism’ and might indeed be seen as fuel for that view rather than as a response to it, therefore as preceding, not following, the epistle. Three brief things may be said to this point: (1) it is not certain that 1 Jn. is addressing a simple case of people denying the fleshly reality of Jesus; they may have been putting Jesus down in other ways; (2) the Gospel does contain things that scholars have identified as anti-docetic, not least 1:14; (3) even if 1 Jn. was written a significant number of years after the Gospel, it may well be that the divisions described in the epistle were beginning to surface much earlier.
16 Matthew and Luke have ‘You say that I am’ at this point (Mt. 26:64; Lk. 22:70; cf. 21:8). We know that John was familiar with the ‘I am’ of the walking on the water story from his 6:20.
17 What I have said leaves plenty of questions unanswered, including in my own mind! But the case for seeing John as firmly anchored in the history of Jesus seems to me a good one.