The official record of the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus Christ is preserved in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While each is written by a different author, to a different audience, for a different purpose, the first three are linked together as the Synoptic Gospels because of their similarities in content, vocabulary, and arrangement. The fourth, however, stands on its own as a unique witness.
Authorship of the Fourth Gospel has historically been attributed to John the apostle, although the writer does not explicitly identify himself in the text. The evidence confirms that the author was a Palestinian Jew, exhibiting detailed knowledge of local topography (cf. 1:44; 2:1; 9:7; 4:5-6, 21; 11:18; 18:1). He reflects personal acquaintance with conservative Judaism and Jewish tradition (e.g. 1:19-28; 4:9, 20). He was accustomed to thinking in Aramaic, as Aramaic terms are frequently used and then explained (cf. 1:42; 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; 20:16). Old Testament quotations are closer in form to the Hebrew than to the Greek (cf. 12:40; 13:18; 19:37).
He was an eyewitness (1:14; 19:35; cf. 2:6; 4:6; 12:3, 5; chaps. 18–19) and one of the twelve apostles. He is self-described as “the disciple” (21:24) and “the beloved disciple” (13:23; 18:15-16; 19:26-27; 20:2-9),1 near Jesus at the last supper where only the twelve were present (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17; Luke 22:14). The author is not to be identified as any of the apostles mentioned by name in the Fourth Gospel, and neither John nor his brother James is named. James dies fairly early in the history of the church (Acts 12:2), whereas our author lived long enough to add weight to the rumor that he would not die (John 21:23).
The “beloved disciple” is regularly in the company of Simon Peter, and elsewhere in the New Testament this is the apostle John (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; Acts 3:1–4:23; 8:15–25; Gal. 2:9). The most obvious candidate for authorship of the Fourth Gospel is John the son of Zebedee, further confirmed by the consistent testimony of the early church.2
Date of writing
John’s Gospel was probably written near the close of the first century, sometime between 80-95.3 According to ancient testimony, the apostle John lived into the reign of Trajan (who reigned 98-117) and was the last of the New Testament writers to compose a Gospel.4 The fact that no mention is made of the temple’s destruction would argue against a date shortly after 70 but could be explained by a date considerably later, especially if written for a non-Jewish audience far away from Palestine. John makes no mention of the Sadducees, who dwindled to the point of insignificance after 70. The John Rylands Fragment (P52), containing a portion of John 18, dates around 125, which gives plenty of time for the document to have been copied and circulated as far as Egypt, where the fragment was discovered.
Audience and Destination
The Gospel seems to have been written with a Gentile audience in mind, since Jewish conventions are explained apparently for the benefit of those who were unfamiliar with them (e.g. 19:31). Certain feasts are particularly identified as Jewish: “the Passover of the Jews” (2:13; 6:4; 11:55); “the Tabernacles, the feast of the Jews” (7:2). Jewish customs are noted and clarified: purification (2:6; cf. 11:55), ethnic exclusivism (4:9), and the Sabbath (19:31). Aramaic words are both transliterated and translated into Greek: Kēphas (1:42), Bēthzatha (5:2), Silōam (9:7), Gabbatha (19:13), Golgotha (19:17), and rabbouni (20:16). Palestinian geographical features are carefully described: “Bethany … across the Jordan” (1:28), “Cana of Galilee” (2:1, 11; 4:46; 21:2), “Aenon near Salem” (3:23), “Bethany near Jerusalem” (11:18), and “Bethsaida of Galilee” (12:21). Further, the Sea of Galilee is identified as “the Sea of Tiberias” (6:1; 21:1), the name used in the latter part of the first century and employed in Greco-Roman texts.
Early tradition places the origin and destination of the Gospel in Asia Minor, particularly Ephesus.5 The writing was reportedly at the request of area congregations, as a summary of John’s teaching about the life of Jesus, to meet a need that was affecting the church near the close of the first century.
Despite a number of similarities between John and the other Gospels, John omits several things that are characteristic of the others6 and records a great deal of material not found in them.7 John recounts much more of Jesus’ ministry in Judea than in Galilee, whereas the focus of the other Gospels is the opposite. There is more of Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit than in any other Gospel. The teaching in John tends to expound abstract themes like phōs (‘light’ 23x), zōē (‘life’ 36x), agapē/agapaō (‘love’ 34x), and alētheia (‘truth’ 25x). John presents large amounts of discourse material and records seven statements of Christ in which the emphatic egō eimi (“I am”) expression is employed (6:35; 8:12; 10:9, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:5). The designation “son of man” is less prolific in John than in the Synoptics, while “Son of God” appears more often. In John’s Gospel Jesus is explicitly identified as “God” (1:1-3; 5:18; 10:33; 20:28; cf. 8:58).
Purpose and Structure
John clearly states his objective in 20:30-31 as follows: “Indeed therefore Jesus also did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this document, but these have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name.” The Gospel is arranged to achieve this goal.
The prologue (1:1-18) provides an introduction to the Gospel, identifying Jesus as the preexistent, embodied Logos (Word) of God who reveals the heavenly Father to mankind. Next is an overview of the Lord’s public ministry (1:19–11:45), focusing on just seven of his miracles (2:1-11; 4:43-54; 5:1-9; 6:1-5, 16-25; 9:1-41; 11:1-44) and calling them sēmeiōn (“signs”). This so-called “book of signs” emphasizes that which points to and authenticates the Lord’s identity and role. The story then moves toward Christ’s glorification through his death and resurrection (11:46–20:31), and the section ends with a statement of the Gospel’s purpose. Finally, the epilogue (21:1-25) concludes the writing by recounting another post-resurrection appearance of Jesus and the recommissioning of his disciples.
Every testimony is to be confirmed by two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15; 2 Cor. 13:1). While Matthew, Mark, and Luke offer sufficient evidence, John serves as a fourth witness, providing an even sturdier foundation upon which to build our faith.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise indicated, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
2 The earliest extant reference to John’s authorship is that of Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 115-202), whose testimony is based on the corroboration of Polycarp, a contemporary of the apostle John (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 4.14.3-8; 5.20.5-6; 20.4-8). Other testimonies include the Muratorian Canon (ca. 170), Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 181), Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170-235), Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254), and Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 263-339).
3 Some scholars (e.g. J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the NT 254-311) propose an earlier (pre-70) date, and their strongest argument rests on the statement in John 5:2, “now there is (estin = present tense) in Jerusalem at the sheep gate a pool … Bethesda.” The most natural inference is that the area John is describing is still standing at the time of writing, thus prior to the destruction of the city in 70. However, in response one might argue that (a) at the time of writing the ruins of Bethesda were still visible or had been rebuilt; (b) John is naturally speaking of the place as he remembers it; or (c) John is using a historic present, as in 10:8 and 19:40.
4 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 2.22.5; 3.1.1; 3.3.4; Clement of Alexandria (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14.7); Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.24.7; Jerome, De vir. ill. 9. John's death is marked at the year 98 by Jerome.
5 Clement of Alexandria (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.14), the Muratorian Fragment, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue, Jerome (Comm. Matt. Prol.), Epiphanius (Haer. 41.12), Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3:1.2), and Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.1.1; 3.24).
6 These include narrative parables, the baptism of Jesus, the transfiguration, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the “kingdom of God” theme, and many of Jesus’ sayings. John may have been familiar with the other Gospels and chose to augment their accounts rather than reproduce them.
7 Unique to John are the prologue (1:1-18), Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus (chap. 3) and the Samaritan woman (chap. 4), the adulteress narrative (chap. 8), the raising of Lazarus (chap. 11), the washing of the disciples’ feet (chap. 13), several post-resurrection episodes (chaps. 20-21); discourses about eternal life (chap. 3), living water (chap. 4), manna from heaven (chap. 6), the good shepherd (chap. 10), the resurrection and the life (chap. 11), the farewell discourse (chaps. 14-17); the “I am” declarations (6:35, 41; 8:58; etc.).
*Prepared for the 2016 Spanish-English Workshop at North Jackson Church of Christ in Jackson, TN.
Related Posts: John the Apostle, Authorship of NT Gospels, John's Audience, Introducing the Johannine Epistles
Related articles: Richard Mansel's Understanding the Gospel of John
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Image credit: https://tabernaclefortoday.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/main.jpg