The Gospel According to John - Introduction
The prologue of the Fourth Gospel ( 1.1–18 ), long recognized as the introduction to the Gospel's main emphases, acknowledges Jesus not only as a human being, but as a social being as well when it proclaims, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” ( 1.14 ). Any understanding of the Fourth Gospel should take this pronouncement as a major point of entry. Although it employs a mystical tone to convey the unique relationship to God and grandeur of the person of Jesus, the Fourth Gospel treats with equal gravity the human nature of Jesus as it critiques the social relations and structures of the world that Jesus confronts. Thus even as it presents Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, the Fourth Gospel is also the story of Jesus fully embedded in the history and culture of his people. Indeed, a careful reading reveals its focus to be the activities of Jesus in a first‐century Jewish context with the individual and collective responses to him.
In telling the story of Jesus the author uses a number of symbols drawn from common experience and the Jewish scriptures—bread, water, light, life, word, shepherd, door, way—to illuminate the significance of Jesus. After the prologue ( 1.1–1.18 ), the Gospel presents the public ministry of Jesus as both the object of faith ( 1.19–4.54 ) and the object of persecution and unbelief (chs 5–12 ), depicts his ministry to disciples in the upper room (chs 13–17 ), narrates his death and resurrection (chs 18–20 ), and concludes with an epilogue (ch 21 ). The following division is suggested by the Gospel itself: the prologue ( 1.1–18 ); the book of Jesus’ signs that he is the revelation of the Father ( 1.19–12.50 ); the book of Jesus’ glory as it is revealed to those who accept him through his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension ( 13.1–20.31 ); the epilogue, which contains additional accounts of Jesus’ post‐resurrection appearances and comments on the future of Peter and the Beloved Disciple ( 21.1–25 ).
The concerns of John are engendering faith in the person of Jesus ( 20.30–31 ) and discrediting the Temple‐centered, hereditary religious authorities who present an obstacle to the acceptance of Jesus ( 1.14; 9.22–23 ). The Gospel calls for faith in Jesus by presenting him as the incarnate Word ( 1.1 ), the only begotten Son ( 3.16,18 ), the messiah ( 1.41 ), the Holy One of God ( 6.69 ), and the King of Israel (1.49 ). It shows a Jesus in control in his life as well as in his death ( 18.12; 19.30 ), neither surprised nor defeated by actions against him. It demonstrates that faith in Jesus is equivalent to faith in God by having him use as a self‐description the Greek phrase “ego eimi” (“I am”) without a predicate, which is reminiscent of God's self‐reference in Ex 3.14; Isa 41.4; 43.10; 46.4 . In addition, in many instances the use of “ego eimi” with a predicate contrasts Jesus with the religious authorities or portrays him as replacing some aspect of first‐century Jewish religious practice. The Gospel discredits the religious authorities, whom it calls “the Jews,” by portraying them as mercenary and uncaring shepherds ( 10.12–13 ), as condescending to the people ( 7.15,49; 9.34 ), as being more concerned with worldly honor than divine favor ( 12.43 ), and as maliciously plotting to kill Jesus ( 11.53 ). Further, it presents him as embodying elements of the created world, such as light ( 1.4–5,8–9; 8.12 ) and life itself ( 11.25 ). This replacement or embodying motif is employed in instances such as the depiction of Jesus as replacing the Temple ( 2.13–22 ) and the Passover ( 6.4,22–51 ), and serves to strengthen the Gospel's emphasis on Jesus as the human embodiment of God.
Although its scathing portrayal of “the Jews” has opened it to charges of anti‐Semitism, a careful reading of the Gospel reveals “the Jews” to be a class designation, not a religious or ethnic grouping; rather than denoting adherents to Judaism in general, the term primarily refers to the hereditary Temple religious authorities. The Gospel further acknowledges their influential status by including among “the Jews” those who have accepted the worldview and class interests of the hereditary religious authorities as their own. This larger group includes the Pharisees ( 1.19,24 ) and even the “crowd” of laypersons whose worth the religious authorities dismissed ( 7.49; cf. 6.22,41 ). Thus the rejection and persecution of Jesus by “the Jews” is shown to be not only the result of his words and deeds, but a result of the fact that his healings, pronouncements, and person lack the pedigree and imprimatur of the governing religious elite ( 7.15,48–49; cf. 9.34 ).
Several factors in the Fourth Gospel's details in the story of Jesus suggest that it incorporates earlier traditions. Current scholarly consensus dates the final editing of the Gospel about 90 CE. However, the bitter and combative tone with which the Gospel discredits “the Jews” and its angry demonizing of them, as in 8.44 , for instance, indicates opposition from a dominant group with the power to determine who is to be accepted in the Jewish community by condemning and expelling from Judaism those who challenge the dominant group's authority ( 9.22; 12.42 ). Yet the powerful Temple hierarchy, in effect, ceased to exist in 70 CE with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Moreover, the portrayal of Jesus as replacing the Temple may suggest that the Temple still stands as the center of Jewish life ( 5.2 ), even as it repeats longstanding critiques of the Temple that prophesy its destruction ( 2.19; 4.21 ). In addition, recent archaeological finds indicate that the Fourth Gospel contains accurate details about the Jerusalem Temple and its environs prior to 70 CE (e.g., 9.7; 10.22–23; 19.13 ). Although the theological complexity and high christology, especially in chs 14–17 , could indicate a longer period of theological gestation and symbolic development (and this is the view of most scholars), similarly developed views are found in such early New Testament writings as Paul's letter to the Romans. Together these factors suggest a possible alternate date for the earliest version of the Gospel material before 70 CE. Once the Temple and its hierarchy were no longer in existence, this polemic was transferred to local opponents of John's Christian community. The opponents are equated with “the Jews,” that is, the Temple authorities. Similarly, “the world” ( 16.1–4 ), which initially signified the domination of the priestly hierarchy as well, also came to refer to the opponents of the Johannine community. Although some scholars deny any dependence of the Fourth Gospel upon the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), most hold that its writer was at least aware of them.
Who wrote this Gospel? Tradition says it was the apostle John. Scholarly opinion has long held that it was composed by a disciple of John who recorded his preaching. The epilogue speaks of an anonymous, loyal Jerusalem disciple of Jesus, called “the disciple whom Jesus loved” ( 20.2; see 13.23; 19.26; 21.7,20 ), as the source of this unique understanding of Jesus.