Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin

Chapter 11
Jesus in the Gospel of John

[p.252]The Christian conception of Jesus as a divine Savior-Messiah is drawn to a considerable extent from the Fourth Gospel, the most theologically oriented of the Gospels. The Gospel of John both exhibits and expresses the profound resurrection faith which has informed and sustained the Christian church to the present time. Indeed, the entire Gospel is a meditation and discourse on the meaning of Jesus as the Christ, the author of salvation. It proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, that he possesses in perfection all powers and virtues, the light, the truth, and the life. This conception, which was to become a moving force in historical Christianity, is presaged in the prologue of the Gospel and in the proclamations of John the Baptist.

The Logos

The book opens with the dramatic declaration of the Logos, the Word, the pre-existent Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:1-3). This somewhat enigmatic but arresting and powerful statement has had a determining impact on the development of Christian theology to the present time.

The concept of the Logos was well established in philosophic and religious thought in the Hellenistic world long before the Fourth Gospel was written. From as early as the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, the Logos idea has been employed in Greek thought to refer to the principle of Reason inherent in the universe. In both Plato and Aristotle and in the popular forms of [p.253]Stoicism, the Logos was the active governing force of the world, including that spark of divinity which dwelt in each person’s soul and gave to each the faculty of reason. In his treatment of Greek philosophical terms, F. E. Peters has analyzed the use of the term “Logos” as “speech, account, reason, definition, rational faculty [and] proportion.”1

Philo Judaeus, the foremost Jewish philosopher of antiquity and a contemporary of Jesus who attempted an accommodation of Platonic-Stoic philosophy to the Mosaic religious tradition of the Word of God, adapted the Logos to his Jewish thought. In Philo the Logos is the spiritual agency of the deity, the self-revelation, creative energy, and Divine Reason that is the elder Son of God. For Philo the Logos is not identical to the One God but is the instrument of creation. In John, in principle not unlike its application in Philo, the Logos idea is applied to Jesus as the Christ but with important modifications: the pre-existent Logos became flesh in the person of Jesus; he is the expression of God’s life and energy in the world. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4f).

The terminology employed in the Logos christology of the Fourth Gospel, such terms as “life,” “light,” and “darkness,” is an evidence of the prominent element of Gnosticism that prevailed in the religious culture from which the Johannine doctrines issued. The Logos idea was common in Gnosticism, a semi-mythological cosmology and metaphysics with Persian, Greek, Syrian, Jewish, and Christian ingredients, which by the close of the first century was a major influence in religion throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. It is now quite generally accepted by New Testament scholars that both Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel were importantly influenced by Gnosticism.2

[p.254]That the Johannine Logos was related to the Greek philosophical Logos was widely accepted among early Christian apologists, some of whom were of the opinion that their Logos doctrine was evidence that some Greek thinkers were Christians even before the ministry of Christ.3 Whether Philo was a direct influence on John in his use of the Logos concept has been a matter of considerable debate. In point of time, John could have had access to some of Philo’s writings, but there is no convincing evidence of this. Perhaps the most impressive similarity between John and Philo is the idea that the Logos was a mediator between man and God, obviously a concept basic to Christian doctrine.

However, that John’s Logos is primarily of Greek origin has been seriously challenged by some scholars who have found its provenance in the Hebraic tradition of the Wisdom literature, where “Wisdom” is sometimes an intermediary between man and God, or in the Memra of the Aramaic Targums where Memra or the Word of God performs divine creative functions.

John uses the term “Logos” only in the prologue and not in the main body of his text. Although the prologue hymn is in some respects foreign to other elements of the Fourth Gospel, it effectively serves the evangelist’s purpose: to proclaim Jesus as the preexistent creator and divine redeemer whose glory is made manifest in the world.4

The Spirit

[p.255]But it is the coming of the Spirit rather than the Logos concept which is the central and controlling theme of the Gospel of John. Clement of Alexandria, commenting on the Gospels in the late second century, wrote that John, “perceiving that what had reference to the body in the gospel of our Saviour, was sufficiently detailed, and being encouraged by his familiar friends, and urged by the spirit, he wrote a spiritual gospel.”5

The Spirit, which descended upon Jesus at baptism, “remained on him” (Jn 1:32). throughout his ministry. By virtue of the Spirit, Jesus was God’s revelation, the Messiah, the light and life of the world. The miracles that are unique to John’s Gospel—changing water into wine, healing the blind man in Siloam, and raising Lazarus from the dead—are regarded by the author as signs exhibiting the special virtue and power of the Spirit in Jesus and identifying him as the Son of God. According to John, the same Spirit which abode with Jesus, which Jesus gave to his disciples, and which was finally extended to all believers at his death and resurrection, is the source of the Christian’s life, of his power in the world and for salvation. “‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (Jn 20:21f).

Although the Fourth Gospel gives no direct account of the actual event, the baptism of Jesus is crucial for the Gospel’s doctrine of the Spirit. Why Jesus was led to seek baptism from John is a matter of conjecture, but in the synoptic accounts both clearly were committed to the same religious principles and proclaimed the same message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2, 4:17). Whether Jesus and John had been in any way associated before Jesus came for baptism is not known, despite the annunciation story in Luke that their mothers were related. The baptism accounts in the four Gospels do not suggest prior acquaintance. All references to their contacts or communications indicate mutual respect and esteem and reflect the gospel authors’ conceptions of [p.256]their religious roles and messages, but there is no suggestion of close affiliation between them or even of full mutual understanding. Indeed, according to the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist twice denied knowing Jesus, “I myself did not know him” (Jn 1:31, 33). Moreover, there are some indications of a continuing rivalry among their disciples.

Although they were concerned that John was performing baptisms even though he had no official status in the religious establishment, those sent from the Pharisees to challenge and question him apparently did not seriously condemn him. “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ … They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you did not know …'” (Jn 1:19-21, 25). Here, it would seem, John the evangelist is denying what Matthew, Mark, and Luke had affirmed earlier, namely, that the Baptist was “Elijah who is to come.”6 These denials indicate that such claims for the Baptist had been made and were known to the church in John the evangelist’s day.7

Later on, according to the Gospel of John, a discussion arose between the disciples of John the Baptist and “a Jew” over purification, and, referring to Jesus, the Baptist’s disciples spoke to John about the matter, “Rabbi, he … to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him” (Jn 3:22-26). But in the evangelist’s interpretation, the Baptist was not disturbed by this ap-[p.257]parent threat to his own status. This is what the Baptist’s followers should have expected, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him” (Jn 3:28). Thus in the Fourth Gospel John the Baptist stands to Jesus as a friend to the bridegroom: John’s fame must decline; Jesus, because he is divine, “must increase.” Jesus has the Spirit in full measure; he speaks of heavenly things: “He who comes from above is above all” (Jn 3:30f).

The Baptist’s denial that he was Elijah raises another question: if in the evangelist’s view the Baptist was not Elijah, who then does the evangelist cast in that role and who is “the prophet” referring to? The Fourth Gospel seems to imply that Jesus is that person; in him is combined the power and status of Elijah and of the prophet spoken about in Deuteronomy 18:18—”a prophet like you,” meaning one like Moses.8

Spirit is the symbol by which the evangelist identifies the two personages—Elijah and Jesus.9 Here, as in many ancient religions, Spirit provides the bridge between heaven and earth; it is the vehicle by means of which earthlings have access to the heavens. The Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism and Jesus thereby became the bridge between heaven and earth. His work, like that of Elijah, was a manifestation of great power. For John the Spirit, which is Christ, is light and truth as opposed to darkness and ignorance; it is warmth and life as opposed to cold and death; the Spirit is the Word, the Christ, the Son of God.

There has been a persistent question about the role of John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel and the meaning of John’s baptism, the baptism of water. Some scholars have argued that the baptism is to be understood primarily as a sign of the Baptist’s recognition of Jesus’s true identity and supreme status and that the [p.258]evangelist did not attach further meaning to the rite. It was important to the early Christians, of course, to establish an acceptable concept of the relationship between Jesus and the Baptist, but a far more important meaning of the baptism was no doubt intended by the evangelist. For him the baptism was the occasion for Jesus to receive the Spirit.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (Jn 1:29-34)

The Gospels attribute divinity to Jesus in several ways. In Matthew and Luke the accounts of his supernatural birth confirm his divine nature, but according to Mark, as interpreted by some scholars, Jesus is adopted as God’s son at his baptism: “Thou art my beloved Son” (Mk 1:11). In the Fourth Gospel Jesus’s unique nature is accounted for by the coming of the Spirit at his baptism. This event is the ground of the Johannine incarnation Christology. In the descent of the Spirit, which “remained on him” (Jn 1:32), Jesus becomes the Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world.10 Thus in the Fourth Gospel, the supremacy of Jesus and of Jesus’s baptism of the Spirit is clearly asserted. In this Gospel, baptism of water is insufficient. Baptism of the Spirit which comes from above and “is above all” (Jn 3:31) supersedes the way of the Baptist.

The Miracles and Signs

[p.259]Miracle stories appear in all four canonical Gospels. The purpose of these accounts of the miracles is not simply to picture Jesus as a wonderworker who has compassion for the sick and afflicted, but also to provide evidence of his power and authority. In the Synoptics the miracles mark the promise of the coming kingdom. Miracles have a special meaning in John’s interpretation of Jesus. They are signs of his divine nature and of the meaning of his message, signs of his glory, of the actual presence of the power of God. The first twelve chapters of John are sometimes referred to as the Book of Signs, an account of miracles which signify Jesus as the revelation of God.

According to John, Jesus’s ministry began with a miracle. In the synoptic accounts, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus said to the brothers Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew fishing in the Sea of Galilee, “Follow me.” And he “called” the brothers James and John the sons of Zebedee, also fishermen, and “immediately they left their boat and their father, and followed him” (Mt 4:18-22; Mk 1:16-20). But in John Jesus appears as a powerful charismatic personality who miraculously draws persons to him. Here Jesus did not “call” the disciples; they came to him without invitation as if they had discerned that he was the master whom they should follow, and Jesus’s knowledge of them is cited by the evangelist as an evidence of his divinity. He knew them before they came to him (Jn 1:47-50). Significantly these first disciples came from among the followers of John the Baptist—Andrew and an unnamed disciple.11 Andrew found his brother Simon Peter and broke the exciting news, “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:41). The following day Jesus went to Galilee where Philip and Nathanael joined his band. Nathanael recognized him as the Son of God, the King of Israel (Jn 1:49).

The miracle of changing the water to wine at the Cana wedding feast is given only in the Fourth Gospel. “This, the first of his signs,” says John, “Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (Jn 2:11.) In John’s [p.260]Gospel then, Jesus’s first public act was to give a sign, the miracle of the wine, which introduces the higher quality of life which Jesus brings into the world. In John’s view, Jesus’s spiritual nature transcends the temporal order, and changing the water into wine, a foreshadowing of the coming of the Spirit, represents the power of the Spirit to transform life. As water is transformed miraculously into “good wine” (Jn 2:10), so through the power of the Spirit, ordinary life may be transformed into a higher spiritual quality.12

In three important episodes, John contrasts Jesus’s emphasis upon the spiritual dimension of religion with what he regarded as the temporal, external concerns of “the Jews”: the confrontation on the occasion of the cleansing of the Temple (Jn 2:13-15), the interview with Nicodemus the Pharisee (Jn 3:1-21), and the discourse to the Samaritan women on the spiritual meaning of water (Jn 4:5-30).

Statements in the Gospel of John about Jesus’s visits to Jerusalem at Passover are the basis of estimates that Jesus’s ministry was at least three years in length. In the Synoptics the recorded events occupy approximately one year. Other differences in chronology exist between the synoptic and the Johannine Gospels. Moreover, in the Synoptics Jesus’s ministry takes place primarily in Galilee, but in John he makes several visits to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. This focus upon Jesus in Jerusalem and upon the Jews and Judaism in Judea rather than upon Galilee suggests to some scholars that the format of the Fourth Gospel may have been motivated by the Christian opposition to the Jews which was strong after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Apparently the majority of Christians were not active in the revolt against Rome and thereafter wanted to separate themselves from the defeated Jews in the eyes of the Romans.

In John, the “cleansing” of the Temple occurred during Jesus’s visit to Jerusalem soon after his baptism, whereas in the Synoptics it took place just prior to his arrest and crucifixion. When his [p.261]action in the Temple was challenged by those who said, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” But, misunderstanding Jesus’s meaning, his audience replied in literal terms, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple.” According to John, Jesus “spoke of the temple of his body” (Jn 2:18-21). For John, the more significant meanings, that Jesus is the temple which will be raised up and that the sign of his authority as Messiah is his resurrection, are summarized later in Jesus’s debate with the Pharisees: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he” (Jn 8:28).

Nicodemus is described by John as a Pharisee and “a ruler of the Jews.” Perhaps John meant that Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the supreme tribunal of the Jewish nation. In any event, Nicodemus, a man apparently of high rank, came to see Jesus at night. “Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus answered, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:1-3). But, according to John, Nicodemus’s understanding of Jesus, like that of the others, was limited and inadequate, for he perceived only the temporal, physical meaning of Jesus’s pronouncement and missed its symbolic, spiritual meaning. “How can a man be born when he is old?” (Jn 3:4) he asked.

According to John, from the very outset of his ministry in Jerusalem, Jesus made no compromise with current popular Jewish notions about the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus, who for John represents all official Judaism, was bound up with the temporal concerns of his people. He was presumably an authority on rites and rules for salvation, but his thinking was limited to the physical dimension of this world. In the discourses in John, Jesus moves from the mundane and the physical toward higher spiritual levels of meaning. Being born of the Spirit is the crucial element of his discourse with Nicodemus. Here appears John’s often quoted peroration that so eloquently summarizes the traditional Christology, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, [p.262]that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16f).

At a later time in Jerusalem when the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest Jesus, they returned without having made the arrest, apparently because they were deeply impressed by Jesus’s sayings and suspected that he was a prophet or the Christ. Nicodemus was among those present at the time of the officers’ report, and he spoke briefly in Jesus’s defense. The reply of the Pharisees to Nicodemus indicates the official Judean prejudice against Galileans, especially any Galilean claiming the status of a prophet: “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee” (Jn 7:52).

Living Water and the Bread of Life

Returning to Galilee, Jesus passed through the district of Samaria. In his day the Jews were quite commonly contemptuous of Samaria and Samaritans, and in traveling between Judea and Galilee, they usually avoided Samaria by taking the longer route through Perea, east of the Jordan. The origin of the Jewish hostility towards Samaritans is lost to history, but that hostility was centuries old by the time of Jesus. It is commonly held that because the Samaritans were descended in part from foreign settlers and because their religion was a modified version of the Judean religion, they were generally regarded as heretical by the people of Judea and their descendants, the Jews.13

Jesus’s meeting with the woman of Samaria and his later reception by the Samaritans was, in the Gospel of John, a providential surprise.

The Samaritan woman said to him [Jesus], “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have [p.263]asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” … Jesus said to her, “… whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” (Jn 4:9-15)

In the Gospel of John, water conveys a spiritual-symbolic as well as a temporal-literal meaning. In this account of the woman’s inability to comprehend Jesus’s intention, to think beyond the immediate and physical, the author dramatically forces the reader to recognize a higher spiritual meaning. It is clear that John means that Jesus is the source of the spiritual water. All who drink the Spirit which he possesses will have eternal life. The “hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23). But in spite of this pronouncement, the woman, who apparently represents for John those who fail to recognize the true nature of Jesus, continues to misunderstand his meaning and fails to discern his true character. She declares, “I know that Messiah is coming … he will show us all things.” At this point Jesus brings the episode to its climax, “I who speak to you am he” (Jn 4:25f).

Contrasting in his discourses the symbolic-spiritual nature of true religion with the literal-temporal dimension of institutional religion, Jesus brought into focus the eternal nature of life in the Spirit. Indeed in John’s Gospel, Jesus is God’s Spirit which is eternal—unrestricted by time or place or form. Both Samaritans and Jews were in error in their religion, for “neither on this mountain [Mt. Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father” (Jn 4:21).

For John the evangelist, Jesus is the living water and the bread of life. Jesus as the life-giving bread is the subject of John 6, which is apparently based on the Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the five thousand (Mk 6:32-44; Mt 14:13-21; Lk 9:10-17). This is the only miracle recorded by all four gospels. John’s account proceeds first on the temporal level, [p.264]where the circumstances lead up to a miracle of providing fish and bread for a large crowd assembled on “the other side of the Sea of Galilee” (Jn 6:1). When the people saw this miracle, they declared Jesus to be the prophet who was to come and were about to take him by force to declare him king, but he escaped and went into the mountain.

When evening came, the disciples crossed the sea to Capernaum, and as a dangerous storm arose, Jesus came to them walking on the sea and they reached land immediately. The crowd soon found Jesus and his disciples on the other side of the sea. Perceiving that their persistent effort to find him was for the miracle of food and not for the sign which was the true meaning of the miracle, Jesus said to them, “You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (Jn 6:26). This was the occasion for the moving discourse on the bread of life. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life.” Here the emphasis in John shifts from the physical to the symbolic-spiritual meaning of bread. “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (Jn 6:27, 32). “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” For the evangelist, Jesus is “the bread which came down from heaven,” and “He who believes has eternal life” (Jn 6:35, 41, 47). Here as elsewhere it is obvious that the primary concern of the Fourth Gospel was not to provide an account of the events in Jesus’s life but rather to provide a foundation in his teachings for the theology of the church of John’s time.

The Adulterous Woman

Most scholars agree that the story of the adulterous woman does not belong to the original Gospel of John. Verses 7:53-8:11 are not found in the oldest manuscripts, and in manuscripts of later date they appear either after John 7:36, at the end of the Gospel, or after Luke 21:38. However, this story is consistent with others which express Jesus’s attitude toward sinners and is not an arbitrary addition by the later church. The story also asso-[p.265]ciates judgment with the symbol of light, of seeing and belief—major themes in John’s Gospel. This point is made explicit in 9:39: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” In the story of the adulterous woman, scribes and Pharisees assume the role of judges, but they are blind in their unbelief; they judge only after the flesh. In contrast, Jesus’s judgment illuminates the mercy of God.

According to John, Jesus had gone to the Mount of Olives, presumably to spend the night. The next morning he came to the Temple and taught the people. The scribes and Pharisees brought before him a woman who had been taken in adultery, saying,

“Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (Jn 8:4-7)

In John’s account, those bringing the woman before Jesus were not seeking advice or judgment but rather were trying to ensnare him in a practical dilemma. According to the old law, both the man and the woman caught in adultery were to be stoned. If Jesus had explicitly upheld the old Mosaic Law, they might have charged him with opposition to the Roman law. If he had said that she should not die, he could have been accused of ignoring the Mosaic Law. Jesus carefully avoided the entrapment. He wrote on the ground. Although what he wrote can only be conjectured, according to a few early manuscripts, he wrote the sins of each of the accusers. When he arose the woman’s accusers had all departed. Addressing her, he said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? … Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again” (Jn 8:10f).

“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have [p.266]the light of life'” (Jn 8:12). Except perhaps for the words “life” and “truth,” there is no more expressive word in John’s vocabulary than the word “light.” These three words, “life,” “truth,” and “light” are the great signatures of his Gospel.


More than any other book of the New Testament, the Fourth Gospel exhibits the impact of Gnosticism on the foundations of Christian doctrine. John was clearly influenced by the gnostic religious ideas and attitudes that were widely diffused throughout the Graeco-Roman world of his time. Nowhere is this influence more evident than in the passages describing Jesus in terms of “life” and “light” (Jn 8:12) and in the extreme Johannine invectives against the Jews, where Jesus’s opponents or enemies are called the offspring of the devil (Jn 8:44). But notwithstanding gnostic influence, with Hellenistic ideas impacting on John’s theology, the Fourth Gospel is today recognized as having a strong Jewish base. Its author was no doubt a hellenized Jewish Christian.

Gnosticism was a strange compound of oriental, Hellenistic, and probably Jewish mythology, theology, and cosmology that well into the third century, in various and subtle ways, entered into the religious thought and affected the religious and moral behavior of Christianity as well as pagan religion, the mystery cults, and to a lesser degree Judaism. The early Christian theologians of Alexandria, Clement and Origen, embraced gnostic elements in their theology, and under the influence especially of Marcion in the second century the infant church was seriously threatened by the spread of the gnostic heresy. The chief enemies of Gnosticism in the church of the second and third centuries were the theologians Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian. Much of the current knowledge of early Gnosticism is known from their arguments against it. The so-called Nag Hammadi codices, a collection of gnostic religious texts translated from Greek to Coptic and dating from not later than the fourth century, were discovered in the Nile Valley in 1945 and added greatly to the knowledge of [p.267]Gnosticism.14 The originals of some elements of the Nag Hammadi codices may date from as early as the first century. These texts have revealed far more diversity in early Christianity than historians had ordinarily supposed existed.

Gnosticism is a religion of salvation—salvation as release and escape from the evil, material world through the possession of revealed esoteric gnosis or knowledge.15 Sometimes this escape involved ascetic discipline, usually the mediation of a savior, but always the instrumentality of saving knowledge revealed from on high. Gnosticism was grounded in a Persian-type cosmic and moral dualism of spirit and matter, light and darkness, truth and lies, good and evil. The true Gnostic carried on an incessant war against the material world, a world which was evil by nature, the product of an evil creator. In its extreme form Christian Gnosticism attacked the Hebraic biblical religious tradition, declaring that the God of Genesis was the evil creator of the material world. The true Gnostics were the candidates for salvation, the spiritual beings or “pneumatics” who belonged to the Good God—that ultimate being whose realm is spirit and light, who is above all mundane reality. The children of Satan, the evil God, were the “hylics,” material beings, ignorant of the true gnosis and destined for darkness and damnation. That the author of the Fourth Gospel was under gnostic influence is entirely evident.16 But Gnosticism was burdened by a fantastic and complicated mythology, and [p.268]the author’s commitment to the historical Hebraic biblical tradition and to the basic principles of Judaism from which Christianity arose was strong enough to prevent his being fully dominated by gnostic myth and doctrine. Nevertheless, even such a thing as the intense polemic of Jesus against the unbelieving Jews that appears in John is in itself evidence of gnostic impact upon that Gospel.

Hostility toward the Jews

The opposite of the pneumatic assurance of salvation is the unbelief and perversity of “the Jews” who walk in darkness. Here John paralleled Mark’s theme that Jesus’s disciples, even those most intimate, including Peter, sometimes failed “to see,” to discern Jesus’s true identity and role. Matthew is inclined to play down this flaw of the disciples and transfer it to the Pharisees. In the Gospel of John it is “the Jews” who are lost in total and willful disbelief. John refers to the Jews in general more often than to the Sadducees or Pharisees.

This hostility toward Jews, which is far more evident in the Fourth Gospel than in the Synoptics, reaches its peak in Chapter 8. “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (Jn 8:23). However, as Jesus continued to describe himself as sent by “the Father,” some Jews did believe and he promised them discipleship, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31f). “Knowing the truth” here is knowing the truth about Jesus—his divine nature and role. The freedom that comes from knowing the truth is freedom from unbelief and ignorance, freedom to experience the light of belief and eternal life. Then, Jesus continued, “I speak of what I have seen with my Father” (Jn 8:38). Other Jews present at that time, still thinking on the temporal, materialistic level, answered Jesus, “Abraham is our father.” At this point the issue came to a dramatic climax in Jesus’s bitterest denunciation: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (Jn 8:39, 44). According to the evangelist, the devil is the source of Jewish unbelief. He is a murderer and liar, and the reason the Jews do not hear the word of God is that they “are not of God” but rather of their father, the devil, and are [p.269]totally incapable of belief. This extreme polemic followed the format of typical gnostic belief that distinguished the saved “pneumatics,” the spiritual beings, from the condemned “hylics,” the physical beings.

The bitter denunciation of the disbelievers is followed by the episode of the man blind from birth in which Jesus declares himself to be the “light of the world.” Jesus’s disciples asked about the man’s condition, whether it was because of his sin or his parents’ that he was born blind. Jesus answered neither, but rather that God’s works might be manifest. Then Jesus declared, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5). He gave the blind man his sight and the Jews, true to their condition of disbelief, saw in the event only a violation of the sabbath. After further interrogation of the man who had received his sight and of his parents, the antagonists of Jesus declared that the man was “born in utter sin,” and they cast him out (Jn 9:28, 34).

Possibly drawing on Mark’s observation at the time of the feeding of the five thousand that the people “were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34), if indeed he was acquainted with Mark’s Gospel, John developed his own conception of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Again, it is not John’s primary purpose to simply describe important events in Jesus’s ministry but rather to read meaning into his teachings and actions for the benefit of the church at least two generations after Jesus, when the Fourth Gospel was written, probably not earlier than 90 CE. Here the evangelist addressed the ongoing problem of Jewish-Christian relations that arose in the difficult period of reconstruction following the disastrous Jewish-Roman war. Gamaliel’s reference in Acts 5:33-37 to what were probably two earlier abortive messianic movements, led by Theudas and Judas the Galilean, may refer to events which were alluded to in John’s report of Jesus: “all who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (Jn 10:8f).

Jesus as shepherd is not like the hired man who tends the flock until he sees the wolf coming, who cares nothing for the [p.270]sheep and abandons them to the wolves in order to find safety for himself. Jesus cares; he is the good shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). Also, Jesus has other sheep, which will heed his voice. These are to be brought together “so there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16). The other sheep were presumably the Gentiles.

The Raising of Lazarus

The raising of Lazarus, which is recorded only in the Gospel of John, is one of the major miracles toward which the image of Jesus as shepherd points. It is the miracle or sign which clearly establishes Jesus’s uniqueness as the Son of God and the last and final sign leading up to his death on the cross. In the synoptic Gospels, the cleansing of the Temple was the crucial offense which fueled the final opposition leading to the arrest and execution of Jesus. But in the Gospel of John the raising of Lazarus was that decisive event.

The home of Lazarus was Bethany, a short distance east of Jerusalem. According to John’s account, Lazarus died before Jesus arrived. His sisters, Mary and Martha, had asked Jesus to come, saying: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (Jn 11:3), but Jesus delayed going to Bethany. John 11:4 explains why Jesus waited two days after Lazarus died: “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”

Arriving in Bethany, Jesus and his disciples found that Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. Many were there to comfort the sisters in the loss of their brother. Upon hearing that Jesus was entering the village, Martha went to meet him and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” But Martha, missing Jesus’s meaning, replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” This was the occasion for Jesus’s dramatic proclamation, which has been a source of comfort and hope to Christians throughout the centuries: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn 11:21-26).

[p.271]Clearly, the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead appears in John to exhibit in a most dramatic way Jesus’ power as the Son of God. Jesus has power over life and death, he is the giver of life. “When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept” (Jn 11:33-35). Then Jesus prayed to the Father, “‘that they may believe that thou didst send me’ … [then] he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ [and] The dead man came out” (Jn 11:42-44).

Until the raising of Lazarus, according to John, the opposition in Jerusalem had come chiefly from the Pharisees. But from this time on, the chief priests, who were usually antagonistic to the Pharisees, joined hands with the Pharisees and through their combined influence in the Sanhedrin, they successfully opposed Jesus. They considered the public displays of enthusiastic support for Jesus, such as resulted from the miracle at Bethany, to be a serious danger to the Jewish people both politically and religiously. They no doubt believed that Jesus might be perceived by the Romans as a threat to law and order, a threat that could bring the wrath of Rome upon the Jewish nation and the destruction of their most holy place. Caiaphas, the high priest, addressing the council (Sanhedrin) as it debated the course to follow in view of this threat, made the historic judgment that “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” According to John, Caiaphas “did not say this of his own accord” but being high priest “he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (Jn 11:50-52). Caiaphas had uttered an oracle which neither he nor his fellow Jews could decipher correctly but which could have full meaning only for the Christian believers. Clearly in John’s view the oracle of Caiaphas predicted the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ who is the good shepherd, the Door, the Gate to life. “So from that day on” wrote John, “they took counsel how to put him [Jesus] to [p.272]death.” Therefore, John continued, he “no longer went about openly among the Jews” (Jn 11:53f).

The Arrest and Trial

In its main outlines John’s account of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus is consonant with the Synoptics, but there are several important differences. Although there is no concrete evidence that John borrowed from the Synoptics, he may have had access to Mark and/or Luke or at least to a source that they held in common.17 The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is described in all three of the Synoptics, but in John the crowds greeted him as the one who raised Lazarus. There is a “last supper” prior to the Passover, but no eucharistic ceremony of the bread and wine. Instead Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. In John there is no mention of prayer in Gethsemane, but he is arrested in the garden and arraigned before two high priests, not the Sanhedrin, before the trial by Pilate. There is no encounter with Herod Antipas. The “beloved disciple” is mentioned without name as one who was present at the “last supper,” at the cross, and with Peter at the empty tomb. In John, responsibility for the crucifixion is placed squarely on “the Jews,” since Pilate, who examined and questioned him, found him innocent. Nevertheless, Pilate had Jesus scourged. Pilate would have released Jesus but for the insistence of the chief priests and the clamor of the crowd that he be executed because “he has made himself the Son of God” (Jn 19:7).18

In John, the last days in Jerusalem were occasions for extensive discourses by Jesus to his disciples and others on the meaning of his life and death and on the promise of salvation to those who believe and accept him. Jesus admonishes his listeners to follow him and promises that “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32). The gnostic elements in these [p.273]discourses are especially prominent—the references to “him who sent me,” the judgment against “this world” and the “ruler of the world,” the devil, and the identification of Jesus as the “light” that has come into the world (Jn 12:31, 44, 46). Even the washing of the feet enacted a sermon symbolizing Jesus’s relation to his disciples and their proper relation to one another.

After Judas left the supper to perpetrate the betrayal, there is in John one of the longest discourses in the New Testament, the eloquent sermon on Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, which uses various symbols to reiterate the promise of salvation. “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:1f). Also the promise that “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (Jn 14:3). To the request of Philip that he show them the Father, Jesus replied, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.… I am in the Father and the Father in me” (Jn 14:9f). And the promise that the Father will send another Counselor, the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father. Certainly much of the substance of the Christian religion, including Christological doctrine, is set forth in this sermon, which closed with a prayer, acknowledging that the hour had come, that his mission to bring eternal life was completed, and pleading that his disciples and all who believed in him would be kept from “the evil one” (Jn 17:15) and sanctified in the truth.

In the garden across the Kidron, Judas came with soldiers and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees and arrested Jesus. In John Peter resisted and was told to put up his sword, and in John Peter also denied Christ three times as in the Synoptics. After questioning by Annas and Caiaphas about his disciples and teachings, Jesus was arraigned before Pilate in the Praetorium.19

John’s account of the trial before Pilate is if anything even more emphatic in placing the responsibility for the crucifixion on the Jewish leaders, for he lays greater stress on the presumed [p.274]efforts of Pilate to set Jesus free than do the Synoptics. Pilate’s question of Jesus, “What is truth?” was in response to Jesus’s statement, “Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37f), a clear expression of a gnostic claim that those who belong to the supreme God are marked for salvation. Such a concept was no doubt confusing to the Roman Procurator, as was Jesus’s statement “My kingship is not of this world” (Jn 18:36).

The Crucifixion

John’s account of the crucifixion often parallels that of Mark.20 But in John’s Gospel Jesus carried his cross to Golgotha, and Mary the mother of Jesus, her sister, and “the disciple whom he loved” were present at the cross. Jesus consigned his mother’s care to the disciple and, after receiving the hyssop of vinegar, he said, “It is finished,” and died with apparent calm. In both Mark and John there was the title King of the Jews required by Pilate, and the division of Jesus’s clothes by the soldiers. But unlike the Synoptic accounts, in John there was no darkness, no earthquake, and no crying aloud to God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” The account of the soldier piercing Jesus’s side, which flowed with blood and water, appears only in John. The author may have included it, as some historians have speculated, to emphasize the fact that Jesus had a human body of flesh and blood and that in accordance with the will of God, he truly suffered and died, a fact which early Christian docetists denied in their adoption of gnostic ideas with respect to the redeemer. It was this strong emphasis on the humanness as well as divineness of Jesus that radically distinguished the author of the Fourth Gospel from typical Christian gnostics. The real death of Jesus was important for John’s theology, for the death of Jesus meant life for humankind. This concern of the author confirms the statement of the Prologue that the Word became flesh. The question of the humanity as well as divinity of [p.275]Jesus was already a major controversy when the Gospel was written and was to become the center of great contention in the early church, separating the docetists and Gnostics from the central body of Christians, who held that Jesus was at the same time both human and divine. This position became a central doctrine of the church, and those who opposed it were declared heretical.

The Resurrection Appearances

The Johannine account of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, now the risen Christ, has much in common with the synoptists’ but apparently is also based on an independent tradition. John stresses the fact of a bodily resurrection, that the real body of Jesus was laid in the tomb and rose. The physicality of the resurrection is attested by the empty tomb which Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved entered, the showing of the wounds to Thomas, the doubter, and the eating of the fish with the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee after the miraculous catch of fish. But notwithstanding this identification of the resurrected being with the human Jesus, the Gospel dramatically sets forth the spiritual nature of the risen Christ, who warns Mary when she recognizes him at the tomb, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father …” (Jn 20:17), and the apparent capacity of Jesus to enter the closed room in his meetings with the disciples (Jn 20:26).21

Clearly a dominant theme of John, expressed in the account of Thomas’s doubting, is that faith is of greater power and worth than actually seeing; “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). And it is evident that although the Gospel emphasizes the pastoral leadership of Peter, who three times assured Jesus of his love, the disciple “whom Jesus loved” is intended to receive special attention from the reader. He raced with Peter to the empty tomb, was the second person to enter the tomb, and recognized Jesus on the shore of Tiberias (Jn 21:7). The final chapter intimates that this disciple might not die until the return of Jesus (Jn 21:20-23).

[p.276]In the opinion of some scholars, the epilogue or final chapter of John (chapter 21) was not an integral part of the original redaction of the Fourth Gospel,22 which instead ended with the impressive final statement of chapter 20:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

In support of this, it is sometimes argued that the disciples would not have returned to their trade as fishermen, as described in chapter 21, after being commissioned by Jesus to go into the world, with the message of salvation and having received the Holy Spirit. “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit …'” (Jn 20:21f).


[p.252]1. F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms (New York, 1967).

2. See Helmut Koester, History and Literature of Early Christianity, vol. 2 (Berlin and New York, 1982), for a treatment of Gnosticism involving the Prologue passion hymn and other Christian writings. See Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, trans. by R. M. Wilson (San Francisco, 1983), 305ff, for a treatment of Gnosticism in the “Johannine” writings and in early Christian thought.

3. Philo Judaeus lived from about 25 BCE to about 45 CE. The Essential Philo, ed. by Nahum N. Glatzer (New York, 1971), is an excellent selection of Philo’s work. See also Erwin R. Goodenough, An Introduction to Philo Judaeus (Oxford, 1962), and Samuel Sandmel, Philo of Alexandria, an Introduction (New York and Oxford, 1979). H. A. Wolfson’s Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, 2 vols., 1947, is the major scholarly study of Philo’s philosophy. See also his The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA, 1956), for an analysis of the impact of Philo on Christian thought, including the theology of the Fourth Gospel. The extent, if any, of the influence of Philo on the New Testament cannot be clearly determined, but he greatly influenced the early development of Christian theology, especially through the Alexandrian theologians Clement and Origen.

4. E. F. Scott and B. W. Bacon hold that John’s christology rested philosophically upon the Logos concept found in the Prologue. See B. W. Bacon, The Gospel of the Hellenists (New York, 1933), for an expression of this view. See Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, trans. by G. R. Beasley-Murray, R. W. N. Hoare, and J. K. Riches (Philadelphia, 1971), 13-83, for an extended analysis of the Logos concept of the Prologue. See also C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John, 2nd ed. (London, 1978), 149-70.

5. Quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. by S. E. Parker, Bk. 6, Chap. 14.

6. On this matter, see Mt 11:11-14, 17:10-13; Mk 9:12f; cf. Luke in Acts 13:24f.

7. It has been suggested that Luke’s Gospel contains hints of the Baptist’s messianic status. A portion of Luke’s infancy narrative, for example, is thought by some scholars to have been borrowed from earlier Baptist literature proclaiming John as the Messiah (Lk 1:5-24, 57-80). Luke suggests the probability of such a claim in yet another passage, “As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all” (Lk 3:15f).

8. Dt 18:18-22. Also see Acts 3:22, 7:37f.

9. In the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, Elijah is referred to as a prophet of fire who performed many miracles. Three times he called down fire, and he “raised a corpse from death … by the word of the Most High.” Elijah was “taken up by a whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with horses of fire.” He is to come, “at the appointed time … to calm the wrath of God … [and] to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob” (48:3-10).

10. John does not seem to question the natural birth of Jesus or the fact that he was born in Nazareth; “‘We have found him … Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him [Philip], ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'” (Jn 1:45f). See Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming (New York, 1986), 192-205, for an interesting simplified treatment of the growth of christology from the early Jewish Christian concept of the Son of Man at the Parousia to the later gentile Christian doctrine of the pre-existent Christ.

11. There may have been some competition between Jesus and John, and rivalry among their disciples may have continued for some time.

12. Some Christian theologians have applied the symbolism represented in this miracle directly to the relationship of Judaism to Christianity. Through the Spirit, which is Christ, Judaism is to be transformed and superseded by the religion of Christ. Such an interpretation is a reading of later Christian theology back into the primary sources, a not uncommon practice.

13. The Samaritans are sometimes regarded as the earliest of the Jewish sects. Their temple at Mt. Gerizim was regarded by the Jews as heretical. The Samaritans of Jesus’s time apparently accepted as scripture only the Pentateuch.

14. See The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James M. Robinson (New York, 1977), Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York, 1981), and Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, trans. by R. M. Wilson (San Francisco, 1983), 34-52.

15. For scholarly discussions of Gnosticism, see especially Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston, 1963), and Rudolph, Gnosis. For a discussion of Gnosticism in early Christian thought, see also Robert M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, rev. ed. (New York, 1966).

16. The gnostic element in the Fourth Gospel is fully analyzed in Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. by Kendrick Grobel (New York, 1955), Vol. II, Part III, and C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, 1953), passim. Bultmann comments that “If the author’s background was Judaism, as rather frequently occurring rabbinical turns of speech perhaps prove, it was, at any rate, not out of an orthodox but out of a gnosticizing Judaism that he came.… he lives within the sphere of Gnostic-dualistic thinking” (13f). Dodd regards Gnosticism as a major element in the background and substance of the Fourth Gospel but is less inclined than Bultmann to treat the author as a “near-Christian gnostic.”

17. On the background and possible origins of John’s information, see Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John, trans. by G. R. Beasley-Murray et al. (Philadelphia, 1971), and C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (London, 1978).

18. For comparisons and contrasts among the several Gospels in their treatment of the trial and crucifixion, see Joseph B. Tyson, The New Testament and Early Christianity (New York and London, 1984), 258-70.

19. Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas, had been deposed as high priest by the Roman authorities in 15 CE.

20. Some scholars, for example C. K. Barrett, have held that John’s version of the crucifixion is based on Mark. Others, for example C. H. Dodd, arguing especially on the ground of language differences, have insisted that it is an independent account.

21. The Synoptics do not place Mary at the tomb. For an analysis of the possible meanings of the resurrection appearances, see Barrett, John, 560-88.

22. See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (New York, 1970), 1077-82.