The fourth Gospel stands apart. It looks at the life and ministry of Christ but with a structure and style very different from the other Gospels, one that complements and does not contradict the others.
Because of its uniqueness, its historical accuracy has been questioned. This raises the question of authorship and the purpose for writing.
External evidence Tradition states that it was written by the last surviving apostle, John, in his latter years at Ephesus. The earliest evidence of its existence is found in Eusebius. He quotes Papias referring to John the Apostle and John the Elder. Eusebius assumes there were two men named John in Ephesus at the same time. There were certainly two tombs there, which may have influenced him. However, he probably misunderstood. Papias simply meant John was the last of the Twelve and by then an old man. In 1 and 2 John he calls himself the elder. Eusebius’s distinctions between apostles and elders did not exist in Papias’s day. Eusebius also did not believe John wrote Revelation. There is no reason to think the fourth Gospel was written by an unknown elder. All the early church fathers from Irenaeus on back up the tradition that John son of Zebedee wrote it. Irenaeus knew Polycarp, a contemporary of Papias, who knew John. The tradition is long established. Even C H Dodd, who rejected John’s authorship, was unaware of any good external evidence for his view.
Internal evidence The content supports this view. The writer is Jewish, probably used to thinking in Aramaic and using Greek as a second language. Aramaic words appear and are translated and explained. The style is typically Hebrew in structure. The writer understood and quotes from the Old Testament and is familiar with Jewish customs and festivals. References to festivals help give a chronological framework. For instance, Passover - 2:23, 6:4, (5:1?), 13:1. He refers to Jewish expectations of Messiah and was acquainted with small details of Jewish custom (Chapters 2, 3, 11). He had been resident in Palestine and describes the geography well. He implies that he was an eye-witness of many events. See 1:14, 19:35.
The final internal clue comes from his self-references - The disciple whom Jesus loved (13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7,20), the other disciple (18:15-16, 20:2, 21:2) and the disciple about whom a rumour spread that he would not die (21:20-25). Only one close associate of the Lord fits the bill. The absence of the name ‘John the son of Zebedee’ confirms it.
The style and vocabulary is similar to John’s letters. We also have the distinctive emphasis on love found in the letters also in the Gospel.
John’s name is mentioned 35 times in the New Testament, twice as often as those of the other Gospel writers combined. He was obviously a significant person. Son of Zebedee and Salome, he was the apostle James’s brother. His father must have been a successful Galilee fisherman. We know he employed servants in the business as well as his sons. Salome was probably sister to Jesus’s mother Mary. John 19:25 says Mary’s sister was among the group of women at the cross. By comparing lists in the other Gospels it seems likely that Mary and Salome were sisters. So John was Jesus’s cousin. If so, significantly, John makes nothing of it. John tells us in the Gospel that he was a disciple of the Baptist, who pointed out Christ as the Lamb of God. He followed the Lord as he first set out preaching in Galilee, and was chosen one of the Twelve. He belonged to the inner circle with Peter and James. These three went alone with the Lord at times. It is thought by many that John was the disciple who followed the Lord, after his arrest, into the High Priest’s house and that he was known to the High Priest’s family. He witnessed the crucifixion and went to see the empty tomb. He was commissioned, with the others as an Apostle and became one of the pillars of the church. Tradition says he became an elder in Ephesus and was exiled to the Aegean island of Patmos by Domitian, where he received the Revelation. Tradition also says that he was permitted to return to Ephesus by Nerva, in AD 96 and remained there until his death sometime between 98 and 117. We have referred to a characteristic note in his writing that have led him to be called the Apostle of Love.
An attractive legend says that in old age, too frail to walk he was carried to the meeting place in Ephesus. All he could say in his extreme weakness was Little children, love one another. At one time he was given the name Son of Thunder along with his brother, for wanting to call down fire from heaven. He was a man who had been transformed by God’s grace.
Date and place of writing
When we attempt to fix a date for composition, we find a diversity of views among liberal scholars. Some date it as early as AD 40, others as late as 140-170, too late to have been John’s work. Conservative writers consider that it was written after the Synoptics sometime between 85 and 95 from Ephesus. A fragment of papyrus manuscript in the John Rylands Library at Manchester, known as the Rylands Fragment, or P52 contains about five verses of the Gospel. It has been dated around AD 125-135. This shows that the Gospel was probably in circulation before the 2nd Century began. 1Purpose It was probably written because the church had by that time reached a certain maturity, and needed further teaching on the nature of faith in Christ. It seems to have been written for Gentiles. John states the purpose of his writing toward the end, in 20:30. He wrote to convince his readers of Christ’s deity and humanity. We can see from his letters that he was living in a time when the incarnation was under attack, possibly from early forms of Gnosticism. He shows that the Lord was not just an appearance of deity, like an Old Testament theophany. These were appearances for a brief time not incarnations for a lifetime. Gnostics were happy to view Christ as a manifestation of God only but such an appearance cannot make true atonement for sins. John seeks to show The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us having first established what he means by The Word - the eternal God, one who was with God and was God (an obvious Trinitarian reference) - one who possessed the divine nature, yet was face to face with God - the same, yet distinct. John’s second purpose came from his desire for this knowledge of the truth to lead to faith and eternal life, believing, you might have life through his name. The book is theological, defending what theologians now call the hypostatic union - two natures, human and divine, in one person. It is also evangelistic - an invitation to faith in Christ. 1Distinctive features The most selective Gospel, over 90% is not parallelled elsewhere. If our dating is accurate and John was last to write, then he would probably have had access to the other Gospels. It is surprising that he makes so little use of their material and has so much that is unique. His purpose was not to write a comprehensive and exhaustive biography but to present the Lord in his incarnate deity in order to bring about faith. He selected materials suitable to that end. He leaves out all the parables but relates more direct discourses. Many sermons and discourses are found only in John. There are 27 interviews or conversations between the Lord and others, most exclusive to John. Without John we would not have the lengthy and significant teaching from the Upper Room or details of the prayer in Gethsemane. John does not record the sermon in Matthew 24-25 and the other Synoptics. It may be that this is because he wrote after AD 70.
The sections of teaching from the Lord deal more with who he is than with ethical direction and instruction. There is a greater emphasis on personal conversations and relationships between the Lord and individuals rather than on portraying him with the crowds. It is a very much more theological Gospel, dealing with Christ’s Person and faith’s nature.
Key words: signs, believe, life. Signs is used to refer to miracles. The use of sign indicates something about their purpose. John says the Lord did many other things that he did not record. He chose just eight sign-miracles to demonstrate his point, six of them unique to John. Interestingly, there are no accounts of demons being cast out. The first seven miracles were performed during his ministry before the crucifixion, the last in the period after the resurrection before the ascension. Around these sign-miracles John builds a literary framework of sermons, conversations and comments. In some cases the miracle recorded gives the background to the sermon that follows, as with the feeding of the 5000, which leads to the discourse on the Bread of Life. In other cases the sermon was illustrated by the miracle, as when the Lord speaks of being the Light of the World as he gives sight to the blind man. The word believe is used 98 times, usually translated believe, though sometimes commit or trust. It means more than just intellectual assent. It stands for the trust of the entire person to the Lord. The verb’s tense in many places where it is used implies continuous belief, involving progress, and therefore has reference to the whole of the Christian life, not just the initial entering into commitment and faith. John defines belief as receiving Christ. The third key word life implies all that the believer receives from the Lord, the highest and greatest experience we can know. The Lord said in his prayer (17:3) This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. In John’s terminology, life is not just the source of our existence on earth or an inner animal force but the nature we have, an interaction with our Maker.
Of all the Evangelists, John places greatest emphasis on Christ’s deity, mainly from the Lord’s own assertions about himself. Debating with the Jews he says before Abraham was, I am (8:58). They take up stones to kill him because they clearly understand him to be asserting eternal deity. Jesus is using the name God revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush. He amplifies its meaning with the famous seven I am sayings.
He made other statements in which he claimed to be God. I and my Father are One (10:30), He that has seen me has seen the Father (14:9). Clearly no sane and honest man, especially a Jew, would make such statements if they were not true.
When we try to outline the Gospel it is clear that the book has a prologue (1:1-14/18) and an epilogue (21:1-25). What lies between falls neatly into two parts, public and private ministry. These have sometimes been designated ‘The Book of Signs’ and the ‘Book of Glory’ or ‘The Passion’. Others reject this approach. One scholar argues that 10:22-29 is the structural summit and everything is grouped around that. Others propose more elaborate schemes. There is a general agreement that the book is highly unified and tightly structured. The difficulty is what to make of that fact. For example, there is an inclusio referring to Cana in 2:1 and 4:54 but it is unlikely that there is anything theologically significant about Cana itself.
This article first appeared in Grace Magazine