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The Gospel of John

Hi! Welcome to our commentary on the Gospel of John by Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons) London) DD. You can access the first chapter of the commentary below but first you should read what follows.

The question is often asked, ‘Who wrote the Fourth Gospel and why is it so different from the others?’ And we will now consider this question.

We will take the second part of the question first. Why is this Gospel so different from the others? There are a number of reasons for this.

However, a reading of the Gospel makes very clear that it has to be placed squarely in the setting which is revealed by the other Gospels. Whilst John does not make specific use of these Gospels his account refers briefly, and often indirectly, to matters which only make sense against the background of the other Gospels. The Galilean ministry is a case in point. While John is concerned with Jesus' activity in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, he says sufficient to show that he was aware of an extensive Galilean ministry, even though he virtually ignores it except when it suits his purpose. For as he stresses at the end much was deliberately omitted by him.

The fact therefore is that the author gives us a whole new perspective on Jesus precisely because he deals with arguments with Jewish leaders and teachers which are barely dealt with in the Synoptics, although having said that they are clearly implied in some of Jesus teaching there. This suggests that he was of a type who took great interest in such teaching, in contrast with those who remembered 'sermons' and ‘parables’ but did not enter fully into the intricacies of disputations. Indeed the Gospel gives us very much the impression of someone who had taken note of the twists and turns of the arguments. As in fact Jesus must certainly have had arguments with these parties at various times, and especially during Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem, it is clear that John is filling us in with material that the other Gospel writers for one reason or another neglected because it did not suit their purpose. For that information must have been known to eyewitnesses. And no eyewitness was closer than John. Indeed it is John who really gives us the explanation of the hatred of the Jewish leadership for Jesus.

He obviously had a great interest in Jerusalem and in Jesus’ attitude to the Temple and its authorities, which ties in with the fact that he was almost certainly related to the Jewish hierarchy in some way (18.15). This helps to explain his interest in this aspect of the life of Jesus. And the whole Gospel bears the stamp of his personality in the type of incident he brings to mind and the detailed conversations he remembers.

Furthermore the Gospel is full of incidental things which confirm that he was an eyewitness to the events that took place. He remembers almost incidentally the time at which events took place, the places at which they occurred, and significant details relating to the events which demonstrate his vivid memory of them. He also portrays himself as 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' who 'sat' (lay on a kind of mattress) next to Jesus at the last supper (21.20). And so important were his words seen to be that early church leaders wrote a superscription to confirm his authority (21.24).

Furthermore his position at the last supper at Jesus’ right hand points conclusively to one of the inner band of disciples and it is John with whom the early church always associated it. There is nothing in the Gospel to repudiate this idea, and the fact that John is, seemingly deliberately, not mentioned in the Gospel, and that John the Baptiser is simply called John would seem very strong support for seeing him as the author. Indeed the studied failure to mention John anywhere in the Gospel would be very strange, either for a disciple of John, or for someone who used the general tradition. The only person one can think of who would do such a thing is the Apostle John himself.

Hunter, whom we may see as representative of the contrary view, lists three reasons why, in his opinion, and in the opinion of those who agree with him, John could not have written the Gospel.

He argues that:

None of these arguments, however, really stands up to examination. Firstly we should note that we have no real grounds for thinking that the writer did directly use Mark and Luke. All we can really conclude is that he reveals a similar general background and a knowledge of the material that lies behind them. He certainly nowhere cites them. So there is no definite connection with one particular Gospel. We might indeed argue that if he wrote late the more remarkable fact is that he does not make use of them directly. They were accepted by the early church as authoritative from the earliest days, and he would therefore have had every reason to use them either directly or indirectly. Directly copying other people’s materials was not frowned on then as it is now. This might be seen as pointing to an early date for John’s Gospel.

Secondly, the parables were mainly used with the sympathetic 'common folk', whilst in John the discourses are to and with the intelligentsia. Jesus’ arguments with the Judaisers in John are typically Rabbinic. John chose to ignore the sermons to the crowds, although he knew very well that they were preached. In any case, the Gospel of John does have parabolic material, of a kind well suited to the intelligentsia, and even to the common people (John 10) as C H Dodd among others has pointed out.

And thirdly, the phrase 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' should surely be looked on as reflecting humble wonder at the amazing fact that this was so, a treasured reality by someone greatly moved by the fact, rather than as a claim to some special status. From this point of view there is no difficulty in the title. For the fact is that someone did coin the title, and it thus has difficulties whoever we suggest as the author if we take it in any other way. Who else would have dared to suggest it of one in contrast with the other Apostles had it been intended to indicate status? It could rather only be a personal, awed reminiscence and awareness of a wonderful reality. An awed humility is thus the best way of interpreting it. And there is no reason why John should not have been so humbly awed. We need waste no time on the suggestion that it represented a figure who was a figment of his imagination.

Howard further claims that the lack of mention of special events when John was present e.g. the transfiguration and the garden of Gethsemane, count against his authorship, but that is to make assumptions which are not fully valid, for who can say what someone would include when they are writing with a specific purpose in mind? Indeed it would appear that the writer deliberately ignores such events (Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, actions and covenant making at the Last Supper) and rather emphasises the spiritual aspect of them in Jesus’ life and teaching, something which he may not have thought best conveyed by outlining such events. For while he certainly ignored the establishing of the taking of the bread and wine at the Last Supper as memorials of Jesus’ death, he nevertheless does bring out its significance in John 6, and while he ignores the revealing of Jesus’ glory at the Transfiguration, he does speak of the revelation of Jesus’ glory in 1.14-18, bringing out the significance of the Transfiguration. And while he ignores Jesus’ baptism he does bring out the meaning oi baptism in John 3.1-15. We may indeed well ask, could someone else who wrote about Jesus and the disciples have so assiduously specifically ignored John, and so specifically excluded such important and well known events? But that someone did is apparent from the fact that we have the Gospel. Why is it less likely with John than any other?

In favour of the suggestion that John wrote the Gospel we have:

Certainly the writer is a Jew who knows intimately the details of the Jewish religion, is familiar with Palestine (including Samaria) and gives the impression of being an eyewitness. The fact that he is an eyewitness comes out again and again in incidental references.

We know that John’s family owned its own fishing business, and had hired servants, and that his mother sought high places for him and his brother, expecting Jesus to listen, which would tie in with his being from an important family. There is therefore no reason why he should not be connected in some way to the Jewish hierarchy, possibly through intermarriage (see John 18.15), and therefore have been interested in events relating to them. It can well be argued that it was this connection that meant that he would remember events which took place in Jerusalem at a time when the other disciples were too awed to be taking so much notice of the events.

There would thus appear to be sound reasons for positively accepting the claims of the early church that the Gospel was authored by John the Apostle. Any other suggestion can be seen as merely a chimera in the minds of scholars.

For commentary on the first chapter of the Gospel go to John chapter 1.

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