The Gospel of John
By the Trajectory arguments, John in its canonical form is the last of the Four Gospels. It presents a highly abstracted Jesus, who is assimilated to the cosmic principle Logos, and also a theologically consistent Jesus, who continually preaches his virtual identity with God. A corollary of this proposition is that salvation is only through Jesus, in effect excluding those Alpha Christians who still believed in a Jewish-style repentance and forgiveness, in which the individual is dealing direct with God, and not going through Jesus as an intermediary. John shows a close knowledge of Jerusalem, but as Bacon has shown, it is a tourist knowledge of late 1c Jerusalem, such as might have been acquired by any pious person visiting what then remained of sacred sites. The John narrative, except that it describes repeated visits of Jesus to Jerusalem, is not notably Jerusalemite. It stands outside Judaism, and is often in opposition to Jews. That Jesus was himself a Jew does not come through strongly in John, where Jesus is more like a being from another planet.
This position was likely to create animosity among the Jewish community, among whose synagogues many Christian coverts were still worshipping. It is not impossible (see Birkat ha-Minim in the list of Topics, below) that this was one of the claims which provoked a hostile response from the Jewish leadership.
Among those most commonly pointed out (in such places as the beginning of von Wahlde Earliest), and requiring to be somehow accounted for, are:
- Jn 5, whose whole content is the healing of the man by the Pool of Bethzatha in Jerusalem (plus a long self-explanatory discourse by Jesus), interrupts the narrative sequence of Jn 4 and 6, both of which are set in Galilee. The miracle itself seems to be a remake of the "take up your pallet and walk" of Mk 2:2-12 (Gk krabbatos "pallet" is common to both). The usual solution is to place it after Jn 6, but this will not quite work; Jn 5 and Jn 7 record accounts of a visit to Jerusalem, but neither account has room in it for the other. In addition, Jn 6:2b appears to refer to the Jn 5 healing miracle. Jn 5 might be excised altogether, except that Jn 7:25 ("Is not this the man whom they seek to kill?") seems to refer back to 5:18 ("And this was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him"). 5:18 is the earliest place in John, and the only one earlier than 7:25, where an intent to kill Jesus is mentioned (the anticipatory 2:17 and 12:16 do not count, since these are omens whose meaning the disciples realized only after Jesus' death, and will not explain the crowd's knowledge in 7:25). So if Jn 5 is regarded as an interpolation, at least 7:25 must be associated with it. In any case, something is wrong with the sequence of this material, and we must assume more than one stage in the formation of John.
- Jn 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 refer to Christians being "put out" of Jewish synagogues. This is probably a response to the Birkat ha-Minim, inserted into the daily synagogue prayers in c85 by Samuel the Less at the instance of Rabbi Gamaliel II. It effectively requires Christians to denounce Jesus, which some were unwilling to do. The result was that these persons necessarily left the synagogue, where they had been safe from the Roman requirement to worship the Emperor (Judaism was recognized as a religion by Rome, and Jews were accordingly exempt from that otherwise universal requirement), and exposed them to denunciation by their neighbors, trial before a magistrate, and (unless they renounced Jesus after all) to the automatic death penalty. (See Pliny's letter to Trajan, and Trajan's reply, for a later appearance of this phenomenon in Bithynia/Pontus, plus mention of earlier instances going back to approximately the year 90). All three references to synagogue expulsion in John can be excised without damage to the surrounding text, and they may have been interpolated by way of update. If so, the interpolations are later, and their present context is earlier, than c90. Again we must assume more than one stage in the formation of John, one of which is before, and the other after, c90.
- Jn 14:31 ends the Passover Meal with an intention to depart ("Rise, let us go hence"). But Jn 15 and 16 continue with further discourse of Jesus, and Jn 17 appends a long prayer of Jesus, the so-called High Priestly Prayer (17:1, "When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to Heaven, and said, Father, the hour has come, glorify the Son that the Son may glorify thee"). It is not until 18:1 ("When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples across the Kidron valley") that the proper sequel to 14:31 occurs. The entirety of Jn 15-17 must thus be a later insertion (or perhaps two, depending on the distinctiveness of Jn 17), and we must once more posit more than one stage in the formation of John..
- Jn 21 was evidently appended to the formally satisfactory ending of the Gospel at 20:31 ("but these [sayings] are written, that you may believe that Jesus in the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name"). It contradicts the Jerusalem resurrection of Christ (Jn 20:1-29) by depicting a much earlier tradition (foretold in Mk 14:28 and 16:7, but missing in our present Mark), in which the disciples' first knowledge that Jesus' death was not final came about by seeing a vision of him in Galilee. That vision, probably making some use of an early version of the Gospel of Peter, is retold in Jn 21, not without internal contradictions (Jesus is already cooking fish onshore, but asks that the disciples bring him some fish from their catch, a catch which probably owes something to the miraculous catch in Lk 5:4-9). Jn 21 features the Beloved Disciple, but in a different relation to Peter than the rest of John. And so once more we are required to recognize more than one stage in the formation of John.
An individual commentator may be forgiven for not excogitating a complete reconstruction of John (as did Bacon, Bultmann, and more recently Fortna and von Wahlde), but in the light of the above, no conscientious reader or expositor of John should proceed as though John were an integral composition, whose message may be obtained by summing up its parts. John is not integral, and its message in one stage may well differ from its message at another stage. To correct the shortcomings or indiscretions of earlier material is precisely the standard reason why later material is added to any authority document, from the Gospel of Mark to the Constitution of the United States, inclusive.
John is notable as the one Gospel which has been acknowledged by several critical scholars as being stratified; the exiguous last chapter (Jn 21, where Peter is introduced as the leader of the party who first behold the risen Christ in Galilee, and is given special authority for the care of the future church; compare Mt 16:18) is perhaps, among many, the most obvious example of later material. Jn 21 has obvious affinities with the Gospel of Peter, which in its present fragmentary form unfortunately ends at just the point of maximum interest for comparison with John. (Is it a coincidence that Mark is lost just at the point of maximum interest for the Appearance stories in all the later Gospels?).
It is beyond our purpose to comment in detail on the various stratifications of John, but here are some summary descriptions:
- Bacon (The Gospel of the Hellenists, posthumous 1933)
- Bultmann (The Gospel of John, 1966 tr 1971)
- Fortna (The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessor, 1988)
- Von Wahlde (The Earliest Version of John's Gospel, 1989)
It is notable that the usual number of strata which have been posited for John is three, the conclusion to which the above suggestions would also lead. The only remaining question is one of detail: What is contained in those three strata? And to what date are they to be assigned? It seems to us that answers so far given to these questions are still open to improvement.
The Gamma aspect of John is manifest, as is also its opposition to certain ideas now usually considered Gnostic. The exact place, or places, of John in the evidently rich spectrum of late 1c ideas about Jesus is still to be determined. One largely unexplored aspect is the degree of overlap or conflict with the Mandaean texts, which agree with John in employing a central Light motif. The larger narrative role of John the Baptist (along with his reduced theological role, in obedience to the John the Baptist Trajectory) is of great interest in this connection.
The earliest papyrus fragment of any NT text is a bit of John preserved in the Egyptian papyrus P52 (above, with lines from Jn 18:31-33 on the front and from 18:37-38 on the back; this is part of the Trial of Jesus before Pilate, and so is probably a codex page and not a separate amulet). P52 has been dated on paleographic grounds to sometime in the first half of the 2nd century. It demonstrates early Egyptian interest in John, but does not help us with the question of date. More than one scholar puts John in the early or middle 90s, and our researches so far support that opinion (though placing at least one of the strata in the 80's). Claims that John is at least in part older than any other Gospel have been made for the last hundred years. Most of them founder on the Trajectory arguments, by which John is the latest in the sequence of Gospels. The narrative and doctrinal consistency of John has been taken as a sign of genuineness and thus of early date, but it may be observed that the later Gospels continually attempt to smooth and rationalize Mark's narrative and to update his theology, so smoothness itself is not evidence, and the perceived smoothness of John is somewhat compromised by what seem to be signs of addition and perhaps also rearrangement in the text. At least in its final form, John must postdate Luke, on which it extensively relies, and some of whose innovations are the basis for further transformation in John. John also knows Mark, but the influence of Matthew, though it exists, is of very small extent. This may reflect a geographical or doctrinal positioning, with a strong sequence Mk > Lk > Jn, and a very weak secondary awareness of Mt in Jn.
Locale. There are arguments for Syria, but the usual suggestion is Ephesus, where there are several Johns to pick from as the author of the text, not excluding John of Patmos. This needs to be evaluated against the claims of Ephesus as a Johannine center, and the supposed Jerusalem affiliations of the Mandaeans before their departure for Parthia. The "Beloved Disciple" is in effect a coy claim of John to stem from an original eyewitness (the claim of Luke, via the Acts "we" passages, to have accompanied Paul is equally coy). The idea that John Zebedee survived the Herod Agrippa persecution of c44 is contradicted by a rival Syrian tradition, explored by Bacon, that both Zebedees died early. As usual with ancient authority texts, authorship is a question best left until last, and sometimes never. It will be better taken up when we have some idea about the number of authors of John, and their doctrinal agendas.
Agenda Considerations. The stronger role of Peter as the acknowledged shepherd of the Christian sheep in Jn 21 (compared to his reduced role in the rest of John) has been noted in the literature. This is a revaluation. Its purpose may have been to move in a more orthodox direction, in which Peter has that function, and so qualify for inclusion in the canon of approved texts which was already beginning to be formed at the end of the 1st century. If so, then Jn 21 is probably later than the passages responding to the Birkat ha-Minim, which in turn are probably later than the material into which they are inserted, and we arrive without great effort of ratiocination at a minimum of three, not two, layers in the formation of John.
For the Johannine Epistles, at least the first of which seems to be closely related to the Gospel, see those pages:
- 1 John
- 2 John
- 3 John.
The association with Revelation is now regarded as weak and inconsequential; see that page. The appearance, and indeed the comeuppance, of Thomas in Jn 20 (the original ending of the text) is curious. It seems that Thomas in that passage insists on the corporeality of the risen Christ, and is indulged, but is rebuked by the Johannine Jesus (it would be better to have believed without actually seeing). It remains to be seen how this Johannine Thomas (to some extent, a disapproved figure) relates to the Thomas of the Gospel of Thomas, or the quite separate Acts of Thomas.
The following are topics which frequently arise in discussions of John, and are best treated individually:
- Andrew in John
- The Beloved Disciple
- Peter in John
- Thomas in John
- Jesus in John
- Luke and John
- Gamma Elements
- The Theology (or Theologies) of John
25 Nov 2011 / Contact The Project / Exit to Alpha Page