John 1 and 19

Posted: March 4, 2012 in New Testament
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INTRODUCTION

Within the Christian tradition, the Gospel of John holds a very special place.  Many of the central affirmations about Jesus are found within this great text (i.e. John 3:16 and John 14:6).  The fourth Gospel’s power comes from its central affirmation: Jesus is God made flesh.  The Gospel records the progress of understanding and faith for those who come into contact with Jesus.   Light has come into the world and darkness has not understood it.  This sustains an overall continuity in the work, as well as, progresses the narrative about the nature and character of Jesus the Christ.  For this reason, this Gospel has been a transformational text for both young and mature Christians alike.  As one theologian noted, “It is shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough for an elephant to drown in” (New Testament History a Narrative Account). 

With this thought in mind we will turn to two foundational texts within John’s narrative.  Chapters 1 and 19, in many ways, serve as bookends for this text.  John 1 sets the theological agenda for the overall corpus and provides the hermeneutical keys by which to understand the whole.  Chapter 19, in juxtaposition, offers a profound scene of confrontation between light and darkness where Jesus sits as sovereign Judge over Creation.  Yet, despite the seemingly hopeless situation in which Jesus finds himself: “The light shines into the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it” (NRSV John 1:5).

LITERARY CONTEXT                                                                

Structure

There is a specific outcome that the author of the fourth Gospel desires for his audience.  John writes, “But these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).  John desires more than just recounting a history of Jesus’ life.  The very questions that Jesus’ inquirers ask reflect the questions of this fledgling community to which John writes.  What better way to answer their questions than through the words and actions of Jesus?  Although this Gospel should not be discounted as being historically accurate, we must also take into account that this document’s purpose is theological.

The author of John claims to be relaying an “eyewitness account” of Jesus’ ministry years (John 1:14b; 21:24).  While John does want to give account of Jesus’ ministry, he also gives a commentary on the meaning of the events.  Consistently throughout the narratives, the people that encounter Jesus are confused by him.  They are constantly asking him questions and even the disciples are often baffled by Jesus.  John’s Gospel gives a running commentary that helps explain to the reader the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions.  The underlying question that John is trying to answer for his audience: “Who is Jesus?”

Whereas parables, proverbs, and brief sayings of Jesus abound in the Synoptic Gospels, they are nearly absent from the Gospel of John.  In John we find long discourses on a given topic on the lips of Jesus.  The occasion for these discourses varies… Regardless of the occasion, the discourses are theological reflections or commentary on what had transpired.  John has so skillfully blended the original event with the discourse that it is often difficult to know where one ends and the other begins.  Given John’s theological objective, it should come as no surprise that the content of the discourses is Christological.  They present a theological reflection on the significance of the person of Jesus as the Son of God (Varughese 157).

There are several well known examples of this in action.  The most familiar is found in John 3.  Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, comes to Jesus at night to dialogue with him.  During the discussion, Jesus tells Nicodemus that people must be born again if they are to see the kingdom of God (3:3).  Nicodemus is astounded by this announcement and questions how this is possible.  Jesus then launches into an explanation concerning this teaching.  John 3:16-21 is one of the most well-known and important of these discourses for the Christian community.  Again, the possible question of this young community of believers is found on the lips of this Jewish religious leader.  Thus, the characters in the story place the audience in the shoes of those that encountered Jesus during his ministry.

There are several elements that help dictate the plot of the Gospel.  The prologue, quest stories, signs, monologues and dialogues, geography, festivals, and the powerful and the marginalized are various ways that Carter categorizes the Gospel’s various elements.  Carter also divides John’s Gospel into three sections.  The first section (1-4:54) serves as the introduction to Jesus as the revelation of God to the world.  The second section (5-17:26) records both the positive and negative reactions to Jesus’ life and ministry.  The final section (18-21) concludes with the “necessary and/ or usual” consequences derived from the preceding events in the narrative (Carter 21-42).

The key to the narrative flow of John’s Gospel is found within the opening chapter.  The telos of two kingdoms clash with the arrival of the Christ.  God’s kingdom and the world’s kingdom have become entangled in a wrestling match that divides people’s allegiance.  The light and life of God’s reign are rejected by the dark, destructive “world.”  This conflict pulses and intensifies throughout the Gospel.  The world rejects Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom by betraying and crucifying him.  However, there are some that become sheep of the Shepherd because they truly “see” and believe that Jesus is God’s Son.

The prologue initially clues us into the unavoidable calamity.  We quickly see potential trouble in chapter 1 with the Pharisees questioning John the Baptist.  Already we are made aware that light and darkness are at odds and suspicious of one another.  John witnesses to the light, but the Pharisees are not on board with John.  We can be assured that the Pharisees will not stop being contentious throughout the remainder of the story.

Jesus’ “I am” declarations also provide a narrative flow that plays into this cosmic clash of kingdoms.  Spaced throughout the narrative, these statements grab our attention and remind us of Jesus’ true nature.  He is the messiah.  More than that, he is God.  These “I am” statements cause controversy, to say the least.  People are shocked or amazed that someone would claim such a thing.  People are naturally divided along lines of belief or indignation.  Jesus’ person and character do not leave anyone riding the fence, but everyone must respond (either positively or negatively).  Thus, again, “good and evil” and “light and dark” separate from each other like water and oil.

This clash is most evidenced by Jesus’ interactions with the Jewish religious and political leaders.  Although Jesus’ signs of power and authority should convince his audience that he is the Messiah, many are quick to move against him because of his blatant (in their minds) disregard for the Law.  Festivals, Sabbath, and the Law become points of contention because they have become so blind that they can only see Jesus’ signs as demonic.  Yet, the Gentiles are often the ones that are receptive of Jesus’ signs.  They believe Jesus because of these signs.  Light dawns and they are able to receive Jesus’ teachings in faith.

Geographical locations throughout the text serve a function for the prologue’s assertion.  The text alternates between Jerusalem and Galilee or other outlying areas.  In other words, it shifts between Jesus’ encounters with the Jews and the Gentiles.  Most often, the Jews act negatively toward Jesus.  Jesus is often found escaping crowds or stealthily attending religious holidays.  In juxtaposition, the Gentiles are the ones that typically accept the revelation of Jesus as Messiah.  Those that cannot see are made to see and those that can “see” become increasingly blind.  Light and darkness again are prevalent themes underlying the narratives, even if it is not explicit.

Geography also serves as a transition between stories.  The change in location aids us in changing scenes in our minds, cluing us in to a shift in action.  Furthermore, location informs us about Jesus’ audience.  Thus, we might say that pericopes are divided by Jesus’ audience (i.e., Jew, Gentile, Samaritan).  Again, the location is a platform for Jesus’ teaching.  Each of these locations hints at the Messiah’s purpose in fulfilling God’s mission.

The Jewish festivals and holy days are also important markers within the Gospel.  These special days are usually noted at the beginning of a new discourse or event.  They not only set the atmosphere for the pericope, but they tune us into a new course of thought or action.  They serve as an interruption of time, helping us to shift to a different topic or event.  They can even supply hermeneutical clues for understanding Jesus’ words and actions.  Plus, they provide, quite often, the point of conflict between Jesus and the Jews.

Even Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples communicates that this clash between light and darkness will not end.  In fact, if the world hates Jesus it will also hate his disciples.  Thus, the preaching and teaching concerning Jesus as Messiah will cause division within people.  They will continue to be conflicted concerning who Jesus really is.  For some, belief will lead to life and for others unbelief will culminate in destruction.    Nobody will be found riding the fence.

Even the final “sign”, the resurrection, does not serve to unite people in belief.  Rather, it leaves them divided.  The disciples are bolstered in their faith while the ruling Jews and Romans seek to cover it up and deny the resurrection.  The image of light is brought up when Jesus is seen shining in radiance by the women at the tomb.  The resurrected Jesus shines like the transfigured Jesus.  Yet, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, people are still able to deny it.

Dialogue between Jesus and his opponents or followers saturates the text.  Although there are signs and events that are recorded within John’s Gospel, they mainly serve as a means to teach those observing Jesus’ ministry.  The signs point beyond themselves to reveal Jesus’ true identity.  Signs, along with the discourse, provide the primary vehicles for belief.

The sections containing discourses and signs alternate between each other.  The marked sections are easily distinguishable and have led scholars to posit different theories about why this might be.  Bultmann thought that there was a signs source that was apparent in the Gospel (Witherington 9).  Others have also believed there to be a “Passion” source implemented in John (9).  This might provide some explanation for certain aporias or anachronisms.

C. H. Dodd, along with other writes, is content to divide the Gospel into two main sections: viewing chapter 1 as introductory, he describes chaps. 2-12 as the Book of Signs and chaps. 13-20 as the Book of the Passion.  R. E. Brown follows suit, preferring to use the nomenclature ‘Book of Signs’ and Book of Glory’.  This division is helpful, since it calls attention to the importance of the ‘signs’ in the ministry of Jesus, with which most of the discourses are linked, as also to the extended treatment of the passion of Jesus, viewed as his glorification.  Nevertheless, it is necessary to bear in mind that in the passage that describes the purpose of the book, 20:30-31, the whole work is viewed as a book of signs (Beasley-Murray xc).

The Gospel’s genre has received close scrutiny.  There are a number of theories concerning “how” this text should be read.  Some of these theories range from theodicy, ancient biography, Wisdom literature, and Gospel, among others.  Among Christians this text is popularly referred to as a “Gospel.”  There is a sense in which the “good news” about Jesus is the underlying agenda.  However, this term is not designated in its literature as it is in other Gospels (i.e. Mark 1:1).  Although “Gospel” may be an appropriate designation, it may not be the only fitting genre.

One possibility put forth is the gospel as a theodicy.  This is an interesting possibility given that John’s Gospel primarily seems to be about God’s revelation through the Logos.  However, Carter quickly rejects this notion primarily because theodicy is a theme, not a genre.  This is most aptly demonstrated by the variety of genres in which theodicy is found (i.e., Genesis versus Proverbs).

Secondly, theodicy usually has to do with God’s justice.  A situation arises in which God’s justice is questioned and God shows up to defend divine justice.  Carter makes a case that this is difficult to believe when the Gospel consistently shows God sending His Son to the world to save it.  However, this hardly settles the matter.  If darkness and the power of this world are understood to rule, then it “could be” that theodicy is a “theme” which can be explored with some consistency.  But, theodicy is not a sufficient genre.

A written work may actually be a composite of several genres simultaneously.  For instance, Carter shows a connection between apocalyptic literature and John’s Gospel.  Understanding the historical circumstances surrounding the early Church might give us sufficient reason to view this literature as apocalyptic.

Apocalypse is a revelation, an unveiling of something.  Jesus is the revelation of God’s creational plan and mission.  Beyond being merely the revelation, Jesus is the fulfillment of that revelation.  As with apocalyptic literature, there is a reversal in power that is happening and is being explained through the narrative and discourses.  This seems to fit well with the intended purpose of John’s Gospel.

Ben Witherington suggests that the literary genre of the fourth gospel is “ancient biography.”  John’s Gospel possesses elements typical to ancient biographies: prologue; focus on an individual; chronological, geographical, and topical categories; records of deeds and words; medium-sized length (short enough to fit on one scroll); and intended to produce awe and reverence for the subject (3).

Witherington also suggests that John is written like a drama.  This is demonstrated through the implementation of several elements:

A hymn of homage… use of irony… use of two levels of discourse… stress on the stupendousness of Jesus’ miracles and other actions… playing up of dualisms… use of the crescendo effect… the almost self-contained nature of certain scenes… use of rhetoric for persuasion… no more than three figures speak in one scene… emphasis on surprising revelations (5).

The fourth Gospel is not a disinterested recapitulation of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Rather, there is an intentional purpose for which this material is purposefully molded.

The wisdom tradition also significantly shaped John’s Gospel.  Six things are listed as evidence for this connection: “the Logos hymn; the V-shaped plot of the Gospel; the ‘I am’ sayings and discourses; the conception and character of the signs; the use of Father language and teacher-learner language; in various aspects of Christology, soteriology, and pneumatology this Gospel reflects a notable similarity to late wisdom material” (Witherington 26).  The evidence of John’s Gospel points favorably toward reading the Gospel in light of the sapiential tradition.  The prologue alone establishes the key hermeneutic for understanding the Gospel, which is rooted in the Logos hymn.  Jesus as the Wisdom of God in Creation is even now being used by God to create eternal life for those that “believe.”   The personification of wisdom in creation is familiar in the Jewish context (Prov. 3:19-20).  Thus, the audience is enjoined to “fear the Lord” and listen to the wisdom or Logos of God.

The Synoptic Problem 

The Gospel of John stands in marked contrast to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke are often referred to as the Synoptic Gospels due to employing a large portion of overlapping materials describing Jesus’ life and ministry.  The Gospel of John, however, is quite different in its telling of Jesus’ story.  Although John’s Gospel does have some shared stories with the other Gospels, it also contains many that are quite distinctive and unique.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke are notable in their dependence upon a common source.  Most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke relied heavily upon Mark, which they profess to have been written first.  This naturally brings up the question of John’s dependence upon the other Gospels.

Although John is likely familiar with these sources, his Gospel does not seem to be dependent upon them for information.  The chronology of Jesus’ life and ministry conflicts with the Synoptic Gospels.  John emphasizes certain events that are not mentioned in the other Gospels (i.e., John 3:1-26; 20:24-29).  Vice versa, many stories recorded in the Synoptic Gospels are not even mentioned within John’s Gospel.

Pecularities of John include: a Jesus conscious of having preexisted with God before he came into the world… a public ministry largely set in Jerusalem rather than in Galilee; the significant absence of the kingdom of God motif… long discourses and dialogues rather than parables; no diabolic possessions; a very restricted number of miracles (seven?), including some that are unique… According to statistics supplied by B. de Solages in a French study (1979) there are parallels to Mark in 15.5 percent of John’s passion narrative; the parallels to Mark in the Matthean and Lucan passion narratives would be four times higher (Brown 365).

That is not to say that there are not similarities as well, but that John is largely independent of these other sources.  John 1:14b has been suggested to indicate an eyewitness account from someone that was with Jesus: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  Although there is still debate on whether it was actually an eyewitness account, there is a distinct possibility that John’s Gospel grew out of tradition from such an eyewitness account that was preserved and redacted by the community of faith.

In further comparison with the Synoptic Gospels, a natural historical point for beginning the story of Jesus’ life and ministry would be either with his birth or the beginning of his ministry, as per Luke and Matthew’s Gospel.  However, the Gospel of John roots the narrative about Jesus in the creation of the world.  The Gospel of John opens: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning” (NIV).  Jesus is identified as the Word of God that was present at the very foundation of creation.  Moreover, Jesus is not only proceeding from God, John identifies him as God.  Thus, in the very opening of this book there is a theological claim at stake.

John will use the rest of his book to illuminate how Jesus was both fully God and fully human.  So, from the very outset we have an agenda that is governing this account of Jesus’ life and ministry.  This in no way denigrates the historical veracity of the stories.  Rather, it suggests that the stories are collected and employed in order to advance John’s particular focus.  If this were to be a full historical account of Jesus’ life, we would expect there to be information about Jesus’ childhood and other such information concerning his thirty-three years of life.

However, John chooses only to focus on Jesus’ last three years of life that culminate in his crucifixion and resurrection.  In fact, even in these events from the last three years, John seems to have selected only a minority of those available to him (John 21:25).  A complete history of Jesus is not John’s main concern.

It is quite possible that John was knowledgeable about the other Gospels.  According to most popular dates of the Synoptics, they would have been written several decades before the Gospel of John.  For this reason, it is quite possible that the other Gospels were referenced in some fashion while the fourth Gospel was being shaped into its final canonical form.  After all, there are a few shared stories that are remarkably similar, not only in narrative flow, in language.  However, it is difficult to ascertain how significant of a role the Synoptics played in the formulation of John’s Gospel.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Authorship

Concerning John’s Gospel, Beasley Murray states, “We cannot be sure where it is written, or when.  We are uncertain of its antecedents, its sources, and its relationships.  This includes its relations with the synoptic Gospels and with the religious movements of its day” (xxxii).  The Gospel of John is a very difficult text to place historically.  We do not know who penned this text or even who were the recipients of this Gospel.  At best, we can merely postulate.  However, we can look for textual and extra-biblical clues that offer hints about that history.

Like the other Gospels, the Gospel of John is an anonymous writing.  Tradition named the disciple John as the author of the fourth Gospel.  “It became associated with the apostle John from the time of Irenaeus in the late second century.  The question of authorship of the fourth Gospel is intertwined with the identity of the beloved disciple, who appears in the second half of the Gospel as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’” (Varughese 154).

As to the identity of the “Beloved Disciple” the best solution that is offered is conjecture.  Several names have been offered as possibilities (i.e., Mary, Lazarus, and John).  But, despite the various theories that have been suggested, none of them can be settled upon with exact certainty.  Even Witherington’s gesture at saying that the author is a Judean disciple named John is a guess at best.  This may simply reflect the early Church’s desire to establish this Gospel’s apostolic authority in response to proto-Gnostic and Gnostic use of this Gospel (O’Day 498).

Setting aside the overwhelming vote of confidence from the early church fathers for Johannine authorship, we will look at the internal evidence for clues.  The fourth Gospel is written in simple Greek.  “The author’s vocabulary and general style are Semitic… The OT is frequently quoted, and the necessity of prophetic fulfillment is emphasized” (Tenney 6).  Furthermore, the author’s intimate knowledge of the geography of Palestine suggests that this was a “Palestinian Jew, not a member of the Diaspora” (6).  Furthermore, the recalling of small details about stories may indicate that these narratives were from an actual eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus.

However, not everyone is convinced this is the case.  Noted New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg, explains:

Modern scholars often reject Johannine authorship for several other reasons however.  For example, they claim that: (1) the Judean focus of the Gospel is inappropriate for someone of Galilean origin, especially given this author’s apparent connection with the high priest (John 18:15-16); (2) a ‘Son of Thunder’ would have been too volatile to pen this calm treatise; (3) John was illiterate; (4) a Jew would not have used the phrase ‘the Jews’ so critically; and (5) the apostle could not have called himself ‘beloved’ (171).

Blomberg goes on to answer each of these opposing views in turn.  First, the author’s focus on Judea may be due to “historical and theological reason.”  It is possible that the author was present on these journeys into Judea.  Secondly, a nickname does not indicate a personality trait that cannot change.  In my estimation, the second objection lacks a trust in the transforming work of God.  Third, the assumption that John was illiterate is due to a misunderstanding of Acts.  The disciples were not necessarily illiterate, they were simply not trained as rabbis.  They possibly had some education and were familiar with the Scripture.  Next, Matthew’s Gospel also employs a negative use of the term “the Jews” (Matthew’s Gospel is considered to be written by a Jew).  Thus, this argument hardly holds water.  Finally, “This witness never calls himself the only disciple Jesus loved or the one he loved most, and his refusal to mention his name could even be seen as a mark of humility” (171).

Given the evidence that points to a Palestinian Jew who was very likely a witness to Jesus, it is only natural to think authorship belongs to one of Jesus’ disciples.  “’Disciple’ for John does not necessarily mean one of the Twelve… But it is more natural to think of one of Christ’s inner circle, probably from the group of three that the Synoptics described as his closest followers – Peter, James, and John” (170).  Peter is named throughout the Gospel in third person.  James, the brother of John, “was martyred too early to be this Gospel’s author” (170).

The apostle John is never mentioned by name, which is particularly odd given his status as one of Jesus’ closest followers in the other Gospels.  “Unless John the apostle were known to be the author of this document, surely this omission of any further clarification as to which ‘John’ was in view would be surprising.  All this adds up to strong circumstantial evidence for equating the beloved disciple with the apostle John” (170).

However, this sentiment is not shared by everyone.  Sandra Schneiders, reading the Gospel with a feminist framework, makes a strong argument for female authorship.  One of her arguments is based upon the identity of the Beloved Disciple.  For instance, when Jesus hangs on the cross and gives his mother another “son”, Schneiders argues that no males are around and that “son” is merely a figure of speech.  Overall, we cannot fully know who the author is, but Schneiders proposal makes for some very interesting material to consider.

Although there may be a singular person’s witness and memory undergirding the text, there is little doubt that others were likely involved in the construction of this text.  O’Day writes:

John 21:24 is especially important in this regard, ‘This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.’  The author of the Gospel thus claims eyewitness authority for the accounts in the Gospel, but points to another, the beloved disciple, as the source of that witness.  The beloved disciple, therefore, is not the author of the Gospel, but is presented as the authorizing voice of the traditions that are recounted in the Gospel (500).

There seem to be unwarranted interruptions that happen throughout the text that do not make total sense if there is only one author.  For instance, when Jesus tells his disciples they are leaving and he then continues to teach for another two chapters.  Issues with time and place are minor indiscretions, but they suggest that there has at least been some redactional work within the text.

Witherington asserts that the “Fourth Evangelist” likely acted as a redactor of the Johannine material.  Taking the eyewitness account (oral and/or written?), the Fourth Evangelist helped to compile and arrange the texts from various sources.  The aporias are like fingerprints that suggest at least one person, or a community, were involved in arranging the materials.

Raymond E. Brown proposes an option that has gained some support in recent scholarship.  This view espouses that “John was a Gospel not unlike the others, undergoing three stages of development even as they did” (363).  Brown describes these three stages:

At its beginning there were memories of what Jesus did and said, but not the same memories preserved in the Synoptics (specifically in Mark); perhaps the difference stemmed from the fact that unlike the pre-Synoptic tradition, John’s memories were not of standardized apostolic origin… (2) Then these memories were influenced by the life-experience of the Johannine community that preserved them and of the Johannine preachers who expounded them. (3) Finally an evangelist, who plausibly was one of the preachers with his own dramatic and creative abilities, shaped the tradition from the second stage into a written Gospel.  Both the Synoptics and John, then, would constitute independent witnesses to Jesus, witnesses in which early tradition has been preserved and also undergone theological reflection as the message about Jesus was adapted to ongoing generations of believers (363-364).

“The final form is the culmination of a process of growth of Scripture that began with the primal event that shaped the community of faith and that has continued through the process of forming and reforming the tradition on the part of faithful respondents to new situations confronting that community” (Achtemeier 119).  We see this process very clearly demonstrated in the Gospel of John.  It is formed, developed, and received by the community that has reflected on the life and ministry of Jesus for several decades after his death and resurrection.  John is a book, though not unconcerned about history, constructed to address the new situations and needs facing the community of faith at that time.

Setting and Audience

            The intended audience of the Gospel and the setting in which it was develop is never mentioned in the text.  We must again look at the textual clues for help identifying the makeup of the Johannine community and its context.

The audience is typically depicted a primarily Gentile audience.  Witherington lists several reasons for this conjecture:

The audience of the Gospel is surely not in Palestine… the evangelist does not think they know the geography or locations in the Holy Land… the repeated reference to the name Sea of Tiberias… surely presupposes an audience, that … will know the Roman designations, not the Jewish ones (33).

Not to mention, there are often explanatory notes that help the audience understand the significance of Jewish life and culture that might otherwise need no explanation if it is a Jewish audience.

Despite the primary target audience being Gentile, there are still things within the text that suggest there may have been Jews or “synagogue adherents” that also would have read this text.  For instance, Jesus is shown to be the fulfillment of scripture and there is an emphasis on being kicked out of the synagogues.  If there was an entirely Gentile audience, discussions surrounding the synagogue would likely be a mute point.  As such, there seems that there may be a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles, although perhaps a larger Gentile representation in Johannine community.

For many of the reasons listed above, scholars do not believe that the audience would have been from the Palestine area.  Witherington suggests that the location is most likely Ephesus.  He lists three reasons for his conclusion:

First, there is the evidence that the Revelation was addressed to Christians in the western part of Asia, including Ephesus, and the author of the document was surely influenced by Johannine thought and forms of expression; (2) there is considerable testimony to the Beloved Disciple’s being in Ephesus in Asia until the end of his life, in Irenaus, Eusebius, and elsewhere; (3) the ethos of the Fourth Gospel suggests a place that is predominantly Gentile in character, but which nonetheless has a strong Jewish presence.  No locale as well suits the internal hints of the Gospel as Ephesus (29).

However, basing John’s location on this evidence is shaky.  It is difficult to say how Revelation is connected to John’s Gospel.  And, it may not be clearly evident which John the early Christian fathers are referencing.  And, just because Revelation may have been influenced by Johannine thought does not entail that it must be the same city of origin.

Although Ephesus has traditionally been the popular suggestion for the Gospel’s origin, there have also been other suggestions that have gained some followers.  Syria, Antioch, Alexandria, and Palestine have each had proponents.  Some have even gone so far as to suggest that it was developed in several locales before its final form was solidified (Beasley-Murray lxxix-lxxxi).  Either way, we must ultimately acknowledge our limited ability to ascertain the location of the Gospel’s construction.              

Dating

            As with authorship and setting, a date is never explicitly mentioned.  Rather, an approximation of the date is offered based on textual clues and outside sources that use John’s text.  The typical date for the fourth Gospel is usually between 80 and 110 C. E., although it has been dated as late as 170 C. E. by some scholars (Beasley-Murray lxxv).  On the other hand, some scholars have dated the fourth Gospel sometime before 70 C. E., although this has been difficult for many to accept (lxxvi).

A date before the fall of the second Temple (70 C. E.), some scholars contend, makes the sense of the text’s concerns.  Beasley-Murray notes several reasons for this assumption:

The conviction as to the independence of the Fourth Gospel of the other three; certain primitive traits in the portrayal of Jesus… emphasis on the role of Jesus as the prophet like Moses; the presentation of the message of Jesus as a genuine extension of Judaism, reflecting the Christian faith as still contained within Judaism; allusions to the temple and other buildings in Jerusalem as still standing… along with absence of any hint that Jerusalem and its Temple have been destroyed… the marked influence of the Qumran group, which ceased to exist by A. D. 70; the reflection of concerns of the church during the period A. D. 40-70 rather than a 70-100 date (e.g., the polemic against John the Baptist, presupposing a continuing strength of his movement at the time of writing; the commitment of mission to Israel, reflecting continuing relations between Temple and Church); the inexplicable gap between the primitive traditions behind the Fourth Gospel and their publication if the Gospel was written at the end of the first century (lxxvi).

Despite these very strong arguments, they can be explained in the context following 70 C. E. as they can before the fall of Jerusalem.  For instance, the destruction of the Temple would have left many Jews wondering about God’s presence.  John 1 addresses the locus of God’s presence by placing it in the person of Jesus who “tabernacles” among us (tabernacle was the predecessor to the Temple).  Thus, connections with the Church and the Temple could be a concern either before or after 70 C. E.  Also, the contention between Jews and Christians is evident shortly after the resurrection, as well as, after the “Benediction Against Heretics (Birkath ha-Minim), a benediction introduced into the synagogue liturgy sometime after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and probably between 85 and 95 CE” (O’Day 504).

Also, the Christian message did not try to separate from Judaism but rather saw itself as carrying on the faithful tradition.  The pressure to separate came from other sects of Judaism.  As such, the concern to show itself faithful to its Jewish roots would have been present both before and after the destruction of the Temple.  In fact, as Christians today, we still seek to show the continuity between the old covenant and the new covenant.  And, finally, just because the author of John was not extremely dependent upon the Synoptics does not necessarily correlate to an early date.  Rather, it may be that there are other traditions and stories that are drawn upon more consistently for the author’s intended purpose.  Those traditions may have roots originating before the fall of the Temple, but over the long process of redaction came to have elements of both the pre- and post-Temple periods.

As has been noted, dating based upon the circumstantial evidence is difficult at best because the surrounding cultural factors are similar before and after 70 CE.  And, although there are some differences between post- and pre- second Temple fall, scholars have found a myriad of ways to interpret the data in support of either theory.  As such, it may be a more natural fit to understand that there are elements the resonate with both periods because the core of the Gospel message comes from the “eyewitness” account but does not become a fully formed text until after 70 C. E., after which other strands of tradition are woven into it.

THEOLOGICAL CONTEXT

The beginning of John’s gospel gives us the hermeneutical key to understanding who Jesus is and what he has come to do.  Immediately, we are made aware of Jesus’ relationship with God:

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.  In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.  The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:1-5).

Creation is the background and stage by which the audience must interpret Jesus’ significance.  He is pictured as divine wisdom by which creation is made and ordered.  As the Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos, speaking a word that orders the waters of chaos, so too is Jesus spoken in the world as One who brings Creation back under the ordering reign of God.  However, not all of Creation is receptive to this Word.  Darkness is still in existence, but has not and will not overcome the Light of the world.
The God-created, ordering powers and principalities of this world have become subverted from their original intentions: giving life and blessing life.  In Genesis 1, God empowers Creation to govern over Creation (i.e., sun and moon over day and night, humans over all of creation).  This governance, however, is not about ownership but primarily about stewardship of God’s good Creation.  However, with the fall of humanity and their rebellion against God, Creation collapses and the chaos that God had order through the powers is unleashed.
Jesus comes as the One who empowers Creation to once again respond to its Creator.  However, “the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10b).  Due to this fact, Jesus comes as One who is able to fully reveal the Father.  However, despite this revelation through Jesus, many are still held captive by the powers of the world.  Not everyone responds positively to Jesus’ message.  In fact, from the very beginning of the Gospel we see the immediate potential for conflict between the religious rulers (Jews) and Jesus.  This will ultimately culminate in Jesus’ trial and execution by the Jews.

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).  The characters that seem to understand Jesus the most are, ironically, those considered outsiders by Jewish society: crippled, blind, lepers, Samaritans, and Gentiles.  God’s presence is made available to the world (John 3:16).

It is for the reason of revealing God’s glory that Jesus becomes flesh and “tabernacles” among us (John 1:14).  Recalling the days of the wilderness wanderings of Israel, John’s Gospel calls to mind God’s presence dwelling in the midst of God’s people.  It is in the person of Jesus that the presence of the deity now fully dwells and walks among God’s people.
The glory of God is revealed through Jesus to “his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11).  This glory revealed in Jesus surpasses that of the glory revealed through Moses.  Moses’ veiled face kept the Israelites from seeing God’s glory fade upon his person.  In juxtaposition, Jesus’ glory does not fade because he is more than a vessel for the divine.  Rather, Jesus is the imago Dei in whom the fullness of God dwells.  Out of that fullness, Jesus offers grace and truth that goes beyond the law received through Moses in making known the Father’s heart (1:17-18).

‘In the beginning…’ Consciously molding itself in dialogue with the opening words of the Hebrew scriptures, the prologue starts in verse 1 with an ancient belief that becomes sparkling new for the Johannine community and its successors.  The synoptic gospels settle for calling the reader back in time to specific persons at their start: the prophets (Mark), Abraham (Matthew), or Adam (Luke).  John, though, returns the audience to the timeless moment, before Israel, before the patriarchs, before humanity.  ‘In the beginning’ is a cosmic opening putting John’s text at once within and beyond the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures.  It challenges readers to consider primal origin, sources of power and creativity, one’s relationship with what is (Wes Howard-Brook 52).

There are several elements within the text of John’s Gospel that provide the impetus for an encounter with the divine.  These various elements culminate in a larger picture of who Jesus truly is.  Jesus provides signs that are then further interpreted through discourses to facilitate and expand our understanding of Jesus.  These are the forums in which we encounter Jesus and continuously lead to his conflict with the Jews.  Another fundamental element to understanding Jesus’ character is the seven “I am” sayings throughout the gospel text.  These do not merely hint at Jesus’ identity, but clearly underline the truth about that identity.   

What does the Fourth Evangelist wish to suggest by Jesus’ use of the expression ego eimi, which is translated “I am”?  In Deutero-Isaiah Yahweh is called “I am” several times.  The prophet introduced this expression as the name of Yahweh to affirm that Yahweh was the eternally existent one.  Deutero-Isaiah was the first prophet who unhesitatingly proclaimed that Yahweh was the God of the universe and nullified all other gods (T. C. Smith 165).

Thus, Jesus identifies himself as one who was pre-existent.  He “names” himself not merely as revealer but as God, Yahweh.  This designation shows Jesus as before Moses, Abraham, and the Jewish tradition.  As such, he is both greater than the things, as well as, the One to whom they all point.  To place any of these things over and above Jesus is to commit idolatry.  It is to mistake something in the created order for God.

Jesus’ character throughout the Gospel of John is static.  The prologue immediately alerts us to who Jesus truly is.  As such, there is no unfolding revelation, but merely signs and discourses that confirm what was affirmed in the very beginning of John.  Jesus is the character through which everything must be understood.  Furthermore, Jesus as Light of the world gives us a measurement by which to judge the actions and reactions of the other characters within the narrative.  Thus, Jesus’ character is not what is being developed.  Rather, the development of the plot revolves around the development of the other characters’ acceptance or rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, Son of God.

Jews, disciples, women, and other minor characters also play important roles that are developed throughout the narrative by their acceptance or rejection of Jesus as Messiah.  Thus, we focus on them as clues to what it means to be faithful or faithless, seeing or blind, and hearing or deaf.

Creation is a common thread that is weaved throughout these elements.  The redemption of God’s creation is in the forefront of this literature.  Thus, the tension between light and darkness communicates the ways in which Creation does or does not cooperate and embody God’s life-giving purposes found in the original Creation.  Thus, Jesus comes to re-create, to give new birth to those who would believe.  However, the “darkness” does not have fellowship with the light and tries to extinguish its very existence.  Despite this, as in the Creation, the “Word” spoken into the darkness will overcome the darkness.
The language of Jesus becoming flesh (“tabernacling”) among us paints a strong mental image in several ways.  First, the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus is construed in creation language.  The tabernacle is built in six days and employs separation akin to that of Genesis 1.  The tabernacle is a microcosm for the new creation.

Secondly, the tabernacle is a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Abraham is promised that his seed will be a blessing to all of the nations.  When Israel is called out of Egypt, God tells them that they will be a “royal priesthood and a holy nation.”  In other words, they would represent and re-present God back into the world.  They would be a sign of God’s redemptive work.

Finally, the tabernacle was the locus of God’s presence in the community.  It was the tangible space where God and the people could meet.  Moses was the mediator of this relationship.  The glory of God could visibly be seen on Moses’ face for a time after these encounters with the divine.  Ultimately, the tabernacle gives way to the Temple as the center of God’s presence in the community.  Thus, in many ways, the Temple could be seen as representing what the tabernacle had represented for the Israelites under Moses’ leadership.

Jesus’ has replaced the Temple as the place of God’s presence in the world.  Jesus becomes flesh and dwells (“tabernacles”) among us notifying us that God’s presence is dwelling fully within this One.  And, as a result, Jesus fulfills the covenant with Abraham, initiates God’s new creation, and mediates God’s glory in the world more fully than Moses was capable.  Jesus is able to do this, not because he is yet another priest or prophet but because he is YHWH!

The problem is not simply the inception of a new locus for God’s presence in the world.  Rather, it is that the previous venues of God’s revelation had been absolutized as the sources of God’s presence and power in the world.  The Jewish leaders did not allow room for God’s revelation, which threatened their grip on power.  Jesus stands as an outright challenge to the authority of these institutions that pose as representations of God.  The presence of God has broken out of the box that institutional religion created in an attempt to make God safe and controllable.

Along with that, Jesus is the Father’s agent in the world.  An agent for someone had the full authority of the sender.  The eldest son or only son would typically fulfill this role.  To treat the agent poorly or well was to treat the sender poorly or well.  Likewise, the agent could not do anything that the sender had not empowered him to do.  The agent did what the sender had instructed.  Mark’s Gospel also has a story about such an agent that depicts Jesus as the Father’s agent.  The moral of the story is understood to mean that rejecting Jesus is rejecting the One who sent him.

Jesus’ agency is demonstrated by his encounters with the “Jews.”  These encounters are framed as a trial that builds and escalates until it culminates in the trial by Caiaphas and Pilate.  The “turning point” of this Gospel involves Jesus healing an invalid on the Sabbath.  Any violation of the Sabbath required Law-abiding Jews to hold the offender(s) accountable to the Law, usually beginning with an initial trial to find out if the person was truly violating the Law.  If there was a violation, the faithful Jews were required to enact the justice required by the Law.  Thus, Jesus breaking the Sabbath initiates the beginning of the trial that continually builds as the “eyewitness” accounts pile up in opposition to Jesus.

However, the trial is not merely in one direction.  In other words, Jesus is not the only one on trial.  Perhaps, in reality, Jesus is not on trial at all.  For instance, Pilate cannot find any fault with Jesus.  And, in fact, up to this point Jesus has refuted each attempt by the Jewish leaders to trap him.  It seems that it is actually the “darkness” that is on trial.  In addition, judgment has already been pronounced for the “prince of this world stands condemned” (John 16:11).

As with Chapter 1, John 19 reflects the pre-eminence of Christ.  Jesus is shown to be in control throughout the Gospels.  Jesus exercises power over demons, the weather, his time to be arrested, and even power over death!  The trial scene that began with early conflict with the Pharisees will now culminate in the trial before Pilate.  Yet, again, Jesus will be seen to be in control and in power, despite what circumstances might appear to be.

Lesslie Newbigin notes four elements that make the Passion narrative different in John than in the Synoptics.  In order to better understand John 19, it is helpful to be aware of two of those distinctions:

Throughout the events described Jesus is portrayed not as the passive victim but as the majestic and sovereign initiator and master of all that takes place.  It is made clear that in the judgment passed on Jesus it is the judges who are being judged… The great emphasis on John’s account is placed upon the confrontation with the power of Rome… The ultimate adversary of Jesus is ‘the ruler of this world,’ and therefore in the final conflict Jewish religion plays only an ancillary role.  Jesus does not die by stoning on a charge of blasphemy but by crucifixion on the charge the he claimed kingship (238).

Thus, as mentioned, the glory of Jesus is on prominent display through a demonstration of his power and sovereignty over the events.

The beginning of chapter 19 records Jesus leading his disciples out to a garden in the Kidron valley.  The Synoptics record the disciples fleeing when the soldiers arrive.  John’s Gospel, however, reveals Jesus acting as a shepherd and sending his sheep away while going out to meet the “wolf.”  “Judas had gone out into the darkness (13:30).  Now he returns with the agents of the power of darkness, who must carry lanterns because they belong to the world of darkness” (239).  The good Shepherd willing lays down his life for his sheep.

Jesus is first taken before Annas, the high priest, where allegations against Jesus are drawn up.  It is an important scene because it describes the inability of the Jewish leaders to actually carry out any sentence against Jesus.  Jesus actually invokes the Law against his accusers.  So, the leaders take Jesus to Pilate so that they might get him to kill Jesus for them.

Jesus is brought before Pilate and Pilate begins to question him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  This is, again, an accusatory question trying to sift through the details to find out if Jesus is a threat to Roman power.  Pilate only wants to find out the danger about Jesus’ kingship but does not care about the true nature of that kingship.  Jesus explains the nature of his kingdom, which does not look like Roman rule.  Jesus has come to testify to the Truth.  Pilate scornfully dismisses the notion of such a thing.  Yet, we know that before Pilate stands the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Pilate goes back out to the Jews and says that he finds no fault with Jesus.  Pilate tries to circumvent the problem by saying they can release a prisoner, Jesus or Barabbas.  The Jews call for the release of Barabbas.  Pilate still does not want to kill Jesus, so he has him beat.  During this time, Jesus is mocked, given purple robes that reflect royalty, and coronated with a crown of thorns.  Jesus is the true King.

When brought before the crowd again, the Jews cry for Jesus to be crucified.  Pilate becomes worried that an outbreak of violence might happen.  This would put him in a bad situation with the Emperor.  He again returns to question Jesus.  The question of authority arises between them.  Pilate says that he has the power to free Jesus or have him killed, why will Jesus not cooperate with him?  However, Jesus denies Pilate’s authority.  Newbigin states, “Pilate’s authority is not his own.  It has been given to him, and therefore he is responsible to the one who gave it.  The guilt rests upon those – the religious leaders – who are using the authority of the state to condemn the innocent” (250).  Pilate, despite efforts to free Jesus, becomes a tool of darkness in trying to squelch Light out of this world.

Pilate comes out to pronounce his decision.  “He will give judgment.  Or will he?  Who is the judge?  The Greek can be rendered ‘He brought Jesus out and set him on the judgment seat.’  Perhaps John intends the ambiguity, for – as we shall see – the whole scene makes clear that the true judgment is given by him who is the truth and by none other” (251).

The words of John 1 echo in this passage and become powerfully evident in the following chapters that detail Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  Light has come into the world and darkness has not overcome it!  Jesus is the One who is truly reigning over Creation and even now subduing the chaos and bringing order to the world once again so that God’s life and light may “dwell among us.”

Hermeneutics

            The world is full of darkness.  Such darkness is documented throughout the annals of history: world wars, genocide, slavery, and vast inequality for the working class.  It is continuously attested to by the media.  Newspapers, magazines, blogs, and news channels feed on the sensational and dreadful events of humanity.  We have even been the victim of darkness’s cruel dealings.  Divorce, abuse, lying, stealing, and neglect are merely a handful of the situations we find ourselves enduring.  It seems that life is full of darkness bent on destruction.

Because darkness is such a prevalent part of life, we seek to deal with it in whatever way promises relief.  The American context is rampant with an “escapist” mindset.  Rarely do we care to face our own darkness or the darkness that confronts us in the world.  Instead, we search for any method, any sedative, any hope offered as a means of circumventing the problem.

We find comfort in food, shopping, and hobbies.  Refuge is sought after through imaginary worlds we discover in books, online, movies, and gaming.  We sedate ourselves with alcohol, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, and sex.  These can all serve as a means of temporary escape.  But, ultimately, we find that they offer no lasting hope.  They fail to provide an enduring sense of peace in the midst of calamity and chaos.

In the midst of such a hunger for release from the pain and misery of this life, it is little wonder that we flock to those who offer something different.  Thus, strong leaders, such as Caesar, gain overwhelming popularity.  The Hitlers of the world sway the population through the promise of a different world.  The various politicians can proclaim “change” is the hope for the future.  Yet, we find ourselves perplexed that the situation really has not changed.  The world still looks much the same: full of darkness.  It seems that everything… everything is utterly hopeless!  And, we find ourselves asking the very question Pilate poses to Jesus: “Truth!?  What is Truth?”

John 1:5 reads, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomeit.”  Jesus is the Light of the world and in that Light there is life!  Though darkness seemed to reign and chaos exercised dominion over Creation, Jesus is the Word by which Creation came to be and by which chaos was ordered.  We are shown that Jesus is the pre-existent One that holds all power and dominion, over which even darkness cannot overcome!

Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.”  He identifies himself as One who is God (“ego eimi”).  He is the wisdom of God through which everything was created.  He was with God in the very beginning and is God!  Now, that Word has become flesh and “tabernacled” with us.  He is the locus of God’s presence in the world.  And, as such, Jesus is shown subduing chaos, bringing light to the blind, and life to those who are dead!

Yet, the hope that Jesus offers is much different than the “quick fixes” that the world, that the darkness offers.  Jesus is not a cure-all pill which will provide “health and wealth” for his followers.  Jesus is not a magic potion or genie at our command.  Curiously, Jesus does not promise the tangible benefits of life, health, prosperity, or fortune.  Instead, Jesus offers his followers a life of hardship, persecution, and dying.  Jesus tells his disciples that they should be aware that they will be hated just like he is hated.  The Light has come into the world, but the world does not know him!

As such, followers of Jesus should not be alarmed that life remains difficult.  Disciples should not be surprised that they receive difficulties, trials, and tribulations.  It should rather be expected and anticipated.  Darkness does not relinquish its foothold willingly and is bent on diminishing and destroying whatever light there may be.

In fact, Jesus himself encounters such resistance from the darkness.  He is arrested, beaten, and put on trial.  Jesus is questioned by Pilate and yet Pilate cannot find any fault with him.  Finally, Pilate apparently sits down in the place of judgment to offer Jesus up to the Jews for crucifixion.  Yet, when it seems that darkness has triumphed, the Light of the world is truly the one sitting in the seat of judgment, pronouncing God’s sentence upon death and darkness.  The “prince of this world now stands condemned” (John 16:11).

Jesus is the one really in control the whole time.  God’s purposes have not been superseded or thwarted.  Where death, chaos, and destruction have reigned, God’s Kingdom has even now erupted.  Judgment upon the darkness has begun and is even now complete.  Jesus pronounces his judgment upon darkness, stating, “It is finished.”

To those who believe, Jesus provides hope that reaches far beyond the squalid attempts that the world offers.  He offers life, true life!  He offers relationship with the One who redeems the brokenness of this world.  Jesus, as Creator and Lord of Life, re-creates and gives life where only death and destruction seem like possibilities!  Yes, there will be no shortage of difficulties, but our hope lies in a God that is able to overcome the darkness.

The Gospel of John offers us this hope: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:11-13).

 

Works Cited

Achtemeier, Paul J. Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture.

Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

Beasley-Murray, George R. Word Biblical Commentary: John. Milton Keynes: Word Books, 1991.

Blomberg, Craig L. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997.

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Carter, Warren. John Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist.. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006. Print.

Howard-Brook, Wes. Becoming children of God: John’s Gospel and radical discipleship. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf And Stock, 1994. Print.

Malina, Bruce J, and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-science commentary on the Gospel of John Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh.. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998. Print.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans; 1982. Print.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie. Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Revised and Expanded ed. New York: Crossroad, 2003. Print.

Smith, T. C.. Jesus in the Gospel of John. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959. Print.

Varughese, Alex, and Roger Hahn. Discovering the New Testament: Community and Faith.

Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2005.

Witherington, Ben. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995. Print.

 

 

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