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The Historicity of John’s Gospel.

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Writing on this subject a person begins to feel like the author of John’s Gospel when he wrote, ‘there are many other things which Jesus taught the which if every one was written the world itself could not contain the books which would be written’ (something very relevant to a discussion about what Jesus really did teach). But my point here is that the same can be seen as applying to discussions about John’s Gospel. It is a vast subject about which vast amounts have been written. Thus it is not easy to deal with the matter satisfactorily in a small article, and it is certainly not possible to succintly answer all the criticisms (even stating them would be a monumental task). It is, however, necessary to make some kind of attempt simply in order to assist the reader to think about some of the questions involved. There is no claim, however, to be fully comprehensive. The aim is rather to face the reader with certain of the facts so that he can think out his own position for himself. But what is necessary is to recognise that many of the statements of the more extreme scholars are pure surmise based on their own philosophical positions without any real evidence to support them. They are speculating and are in fact doing with John’s Gospel what they claim the author did with Christian truth.

What we would certainly argue is that there can really be no doubt, if words mean anything, that the author of John’s Gospel intended what he wrote to be seen as factual, and equally intended those who read it (or heard it read) to respond on that basis, for he says, ‘These (signs) are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in His name’ (20.31). Now as what are called ‘signs’ in the Gospel include the miracles (2.11; 4.54), and are intended to convince, he can only have intended to indicate that they actually happened. This then gives the implication that the remainder of the Gospel is to be seen in the same way. And yet in spite of this, none of the three other Gospels have been attacked about their historical accuracy in quite the same way as John’s has. And this is mainly because, at least to some extent, they appear to corroberate each other. Overall the same picture of Jesus Christ arises from each. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, at first sight gives the impression of presenting a totally different Jesus, that is, until we consider it more deeply.

Thus there are those who try to suggest that what is in the Gospel of John is not really fact, but is the invention of the author with a view to aligning us with his own view about Jesus, or with a view to solving problems faced by the early church by putting words in the mouth of Jesus. In consequence the first question that we have to ask is, did the writer expect us to accept the historicity of what he wrote? In doing so we should bear one thing in mind, the writer certainly lays a great stress on what is historical fact in that he presents us in great detail with the trials of Jesus and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and claims that he is dealing with ‘the Word made flesh’. What a strange thing to say if he is simply going to fabricate how the Word made flesh behaved, and how He taught. In his mind here is to argue against those who did not firmly place Jesus Christ in history. What kind of mentality would he have if he countered myth with myth, and then claimed that his position was based on the Word becoming flesh? And indeed this is in line with what the New Testament emphasises, that Christianity is rooted in history, not because they thought that it was a good idea, but because God Himself had determined that it would be so. That was why the New Testament continually points to history as the basis on which people should believe, (as John himself did when he emphasised that ‘the Word became flesh’). Indeed the purpose of the New Testament was precisely to root what they believed in historical events. Their aim was to relate their faith to historical events which had occurred and with which they were preoccupied. If the author of John was not doing this he was going contrary to the attitude of his contemporaries in the orthodox early church.

Did The Author Of John’s Gospel Expect Us To Accept The Historicity Of What He Wrote?

The answer to this question must surely be a resounding ‘yes’. At the commencement of his account he stresses that he is speaking about ‘the Word made flesh’, and then at the end of chapters 1-20 he writes, ‘Many other signs Jesus did in the presence of His disciples which are not recorded here, but these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in His Name.’ (20.30-31). And this is backed up by the fact that later, in 21.24, his colleagues wrote, ‘this is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things, and we know that his witness is true’. It is difficult to avoid the suggestion that what they all wanted was for us to recognise that what he had written was factual.

Now I think it will be apparent from this to all sensible people that the writer did expect his readers to accept that the signs were real signs which had actually happened. For if he had simply invented the signs in order to make people believe, planting them in a Gospel in which he had made every endeavour to make what he described appear factual, there would not only be no real solid grounds on which they could base their belief (something the early church emphasised as we shall see), but he would be guilty of lying and trying to give them a false impression. It would have made him a charlatan and a rogue. He would have been guilty of trying to get them to believe on the basis of lies, for he certainly goes out of his way to convince them that the signs happened in the way that he described. Now some politicians might behave like this, and some scholars while in their studies might weave such ideas in their minds as they allow their imaginations to run riot and their morality to be held in abeyance (something usually put right when they leave their studies), but we do not expect it of decent, honest people when they are claiming to be writing about the truth, especially not when their writings are continually emphasising ‘truth’. For the writer was not giving the impression that he was visualising ideas and then producing a theological edifice on them, or presenting as facts things which really did not happen but came by inspiration in order to induce faith, he was actually calling on the facts to be the basis of their faith, and trying to give every impression that they were ‘the truth’. (That this is a fair assessment comes out in that all agree that if he did not actually present factual history, he certainly went out of his way to make it look as though he had. He was trying to give the impression of verisimilitude).

Nor is it reasonable to say, ‘but everyone in those days saw it as reasonable to present imaginative ideas as facts in order to induce faith’. But if we mean by that that they considered it reasonable to seek to convince people by presenting what they had imagined in their own minds as being factual, that is simply not true. Dreamers may have done something like that with ideas, but if they were honest it was not by falsely building up a picture of being factual, and setting their ideas in what appeared to be a factual environment. Of course there are always those who would do such things, but they are not looked on as good examples of morality, rather the opposite. So whilst it is true that some may have done it, they would not have been able to justify it morally. Nor would they have had an impact on the morality of the world which compared with that of John’s Gospel. The truth is that the Gospel does not just present a picture, it goes out of its way to make that picture seem factual and credible, and it does it while putting forward a high standard of morality, and teaching the necessity of living in the light so that evil might be put away.

Furthermore reputable ancient historians did not see it as reasonable to invent history. They went out of their way to assert how careful they were being in presenting the truth (just as both Luke and John do). What they presented may not always, of course, have actually been the full truth, for their sources were limited, and when it comes to history what is the full truth? (The facts are wide open to interpretation). But what they did try to convince us of was that they had made every effort to present and interpret true facts, and that even when they put words in men’s mouths they strove to do it honestly. Any failure to present the truth did not lie in lack of endeavour. It resulted from the fact that their sources or interpretations were either inaccurate, or lacking altogether. But what they did want us to see was that they had made an honest endeavour to convey the true facts. Thus for the writer of John’s Gospel to have invented ‘signs’ in order to induce faith, and to have put them in a context which suggested that they were facts, would have been seen as totally disreputable by ancient historians.

And that indeed was how all the New Testament writers saw it. They wanted us to recognise that we could rely on what they wrote because it was based on fact, and evidenced by eyewitnesses. As the writer says in 2 Peter 1.16, ‘we have not followed cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty’. They wanted us to know that what they presented was in accordance with the facts as they knew them as eyewitnesses, and was not just some religious ‘revelation’ which was not based in reality.

Luke also makes clear that that is what he is endeavouring to do. He says, ‘inasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, delivered them to us’ (Luke 1.1-2), and then goes on to stress that that was what he himself was seeking to do, and that he was doing so as accurately as he possibly could. In other words, like 2 Peter, he wants us to know that he speaks on the evidence of eyewitnesses, and has made every endeavour to be accurate and to discover the truth. Compare again how in John 19.35 the writer can say, ‘and he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true, and he knows that he says true so that you also may believe’. And they are talking about facts which he has presented and of which he is a witness. Thus he is not to be seen as just presenting a case based on ‘prophetic inspiration’. He is to be seen as emphasising that his case is based on true facts. Consider similarly 21.14, ‘this is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things, and we know that his witness was true’. The subscribers to the Gospel were clearly making every effort to underline that what was written was both witnessed by an eyewitness, and was true to the facts.

Indeed it was precisely because they knew that people would simply not accept what might appear to be extravagant ideas that the Apostles ensured that they continued to have twelve good eyewitnesses to the facts concerning the resurrection and the life of Jesus. By appointing Matthias as an Apostle because he was one who had been with them from the beginning (Acts 1.21-22), and had seen and heard what they had seen and heard, they were seeking to guarantee that they maintained a twelvefold witness to what had actually happened. . See also Acts 2.32; 3.15; 4.13, 20; 10.39-41 which indicate how important they saw eyewitness to be. In the same way in 1 John the writer emphasises that he is describing ‘what we have heard and seen and beheld and our hands have touched’ (1 John 1.1-2). Again the emphasis is on what has actually happened and has been witnessed. Paul demonstrates the same attitude when he presents to the Corinthians the evidence for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.1-8. He did not expect them to ‘accept it by faith’. He wanted them to believe the eyewitnesses. Thus all stress that they are dealing with facts.

This determination to get at the true facts was also typical of the discerning in the early church as we know from the words of Papias when he said, ‘For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came (note that the Apostles are called ‘elders’), I asked minutely after their sayings, --what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the elder John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.’ In other words he makes clear that wanted to get as near to eyewitnesses as he could.

But Do The Records Themselves Give The Appearance Of Being Factual?

The next question that we must ask ourselves is, do the records themselves give the appearance of being factual? That they do is brought out by the fact that when someone argues that the accounts are factual on the basis of something contained in the Gospel the argument is immediately put forward by others who do not accept them as factual, that such things have been put into the narrative in order to give the impression of their being factual. But if this is so the writer cannot escape from the implication of duplicity. If in fact he knew that what he was writing about was not factual, but tried to give the impression that it was, he was a deceiver and a liar following in the footsteps of the father of lies, a charge he has sought to bring against his opponents while stressing that he is telling the truth (8.44-45). For he was not simply a novelist telling a good story, he was on his own admission writing the account in order to convince people of something, namely that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. To make it appear factual when it was not would have been to perpetrate falsehood of the worst kind, and this from someone who argues for truth against those who are putting forward lies.

But someone may ask, ‘In what way does the Gospel present itself as factual?’ It does in fact do so in a number of ways.

  • Firstly it presents topographical features which puts it firmly into the context of the land of Palestine. In some cases it is by naming place-names, often obscure ones, and even identifying them in terms of other names, and in others it is simply as a result of the account using topographical features which those who know Palestine recognise (e.g. in the account of the woman of Samaria). But there can be no question that such features are brought out, and that it is either unconsciously done because the writer is simply writing what he knew to be true, and describing what he witnessed, or because it has been very cleverly introduced in order to seek to convince others that the account is true, even though it is not. Examples of such features include:

    1). The environment in which John the Baptist conducted his ministry (now illuminated further by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls).
    2). The environment of the story of the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, which is unquestionably true to the topography of that particular part of what was once Samaria.
    3). The reference to Bethany beyond the Jordan (1.28), a place which was forgotten by the time of Origen, which is distinguished from Bethany near Jerusalem (11.18). (The location of the latter is given as 15 stadia away).
    4). The reference to Aenon near Salim (3.23), an obscure place which is not mentioned anywhere else, which suggests the direct knowledge of the writer.
    5) The revealing of a knowledge of Jerusalem and its surrounding. Thus he describes the pool at Bethesda (5.2), and refers to the pool of Siloam (9.7) and the Wadi Kidron (18.1), placing the latter correctly. He demonstrates a knowledge of the Pavement (Gabbatha) outside Pilate’s palace with its raised judgement-seat (19.13), now confirmed archaeologically. He knows correctly, and refers to the fact, that the Temple had at that stage taken 46 years in building (2.20), and he refers to the Treasury (8.20) and to Solomon's Portico (10.22). And this all done naturally without emphasising any of them.

  • Secondly it does it by presenting itself as taking place within a strictly Jewish environment. Thus the narrative shows a knowledge of genuine Jewish Messianic expectations (1.21; 4.25; 6.14 ff.: 7.40 ff.; 12:34 ff.), is aware of the Jewish attitude towards women, and the importance to them of religious schools (7.15), and of their contempt of the Gentiles (7.35) and of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans (4.9). He also reveals familiarity with Jewish observances and customs, such as the ceremonial pollution of entering a Gentile court (18.28), a knowledge of the ceremonial at the Feast of Tabernacles which is demonstrated by reference to "living water" and the "light of the world" (7.38; 8.12), and an awareness that the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles was seen as the "great day" (7.37). He is also aware of both marriage and burial customs (2.1-10; 11.17-44). All these are incorporated, either naturally because they were part of a genuine record of true facts, or because they were a clever means of pretending something that was not true, that what was written genuinely took place in Palestine.
  • It presents itself as factual by including references to time and quantity. Thus there are references to time in 1.29, 35, 39, 40, 43; 2.1; 4.6, 40, 43, 52; 11.6, 17, 39; 13.30; 19.14. There are also references to the number of disciples of John the Baptist who were pointed to Jesus (1.35), the number of waterpots at the marriage at Cana (2.6), the number of loaves and fishes (6.9), of soldiers (19.23) and of fish caught in a net (21.11) and there are also references to distance in 6.19 and to size in 21.8. Once more we must see them as either naturally arising because they were true, or as put into the narrative in order to give a false impression of truthfulness by a man who is constantly emphasising truth.

    It presents itself as factual by giving details which reinforce the impression of historicity. Thus we learn that the boy at the feeding of the five thousand carried barley loaves (6.9), that when Mary poured out the oil on Jesus, the house was filled with the fragrance (12.3), that the branches waved at Jesus’ triumphant entry were of palm (12.13), that Roman soldiers also came with the officers of the priests to arrest Jesus (18.3), that Jesus robe was seamless (19.23), that the headcloth in which He was buried was wrapped and lying in a place by itself (20.7) and that Peter was grieved because the Lord said to him a third time, "Do you love me?" (21.17). Does this really smack of a writer simply trying to deceive people?

  • The writer also continually strives to give an impression of factuality by representing the illumination of the disciples, and their activity, or their inadequacy, as they strive to deal with problems that Jesus faces them with. Consider for example 2.11, 17, 22; 4.27, 33; 6.7-10, 19-20, 60 ff.; 12.16; 13.22, 28; 21.12. Thus he shows up the Apostles who would in fact be held in reverence by his readers. And why? So that he can make the situations sound genuine. He seemingly cares for nobody, and expects his readers simply to accept what he says, even though it is not backed up by tradition. As genuine parts of a factual narrative these comments fit in beautifully, but as invention in order to try to convince us that fictional narratives were actually factual they would be dishonesty of the grossest kind. Nor is it sufficient to say that the writer was trying to make his narrative life-like, for this was not a novel, it was a writing that claimed to be underlining the truth about Jesus.
  • Finally, and obviously, it presents itself as factual by placing words on the lips of Jesus. No one can deny that the aim is to give the impression that what we have in the Gospel is genuinely what Jesus actually said. But if it is not what He actually said then such an action is totally dishonest. It is a misrepresentation of the truth. The way some get round this is by arguing that the words came from the lips of prophets (including possibly the writer himself) so that they could claim that they actually were the words of Jesus. Now it is doubtful if anyone in the early church would have seen it like this (it is an invention of scholars). But we should also note that these prophets, if they ever existed, were clearly remarkable people. For they produced words which were of such beauty and power that they outmatched anything that Jesus ever taught and changed the course of history, they impressed centuries of Christians of the matchlessness of Jesus’ teaching, and they had a depth of understanding which shaped the world after their day, and yet they lived and died in obscurity, totally forgotten and unrecognised leaving no other trace of their existence. For if one thing is certain above all others it is that the teaching that we find in all the Gospels demands a unique and outstanding figure who towers above the conceptions of this world. And that figure was Jesus.

    And there is another problem that that argument has to face. For it overlooks the fact that the teaching in John’s Gospel is not quite unique. It is reproducing ideas which are found in the other Gospels, for in Matthew 11.25-27; Luke 10.21-22 we discover similar ideas in the self-revelation of Jesus. Are we really to believe that Jesus only spoke such ideas once, that the disciples who heard Him and remembered them never asked Him for a fuller explanation of the words, and that Jesus never bothered to illuminate them further concerning them? Or are we to see those sublime words too as the inventions of lesser men, who were able to introduce them as words of Jesus without anyone who knew the truth denying that Jesus said them, or without anyone wanting to examine them further? Such sublime thoughts do not come from lesser men, and their presence in the Gospels makes quite clear that such ideas were known and being circulated in the tradition of the early church. And this problem is further compounded when we recognise that the supposedly Johannine idea of ‘the Father’ and ‘the Son’ is repeated quite clearly in Matthew 24.36; Mark 13.32, verses which are unlikely to have been invented by the early church, for they imply a lack of knowledge on the part of Jesus that no one would ever have dared to invent.

    The truth is both that the teaching presented to us as that of Jesus has its own remarkable uniqueness, and bears the stamp of genius, and that no one can really doubt that to put such words on the lips of Jesus in a specific environment in the way that it is done in the Gospel has, if they were not truly His words (or accurately giving the sense of His words), no justification whatsoever, except to someone with a twisted mind. It would be seen as pure deceit, even in terms of those days. It would be what 2 Peter calls ‘a cunningly devised fable’ of the type wholly disapproved of by the early church.

The Differences Between John And The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

But someone may then ask, if this be so, how are we to explain the differences between what we find in the Synoptics and what we find in John’s Gospel? For there can be no doubt that in many ways John’s Gospel is strikingly different from the other three. However, once we begin to look at the situation analytically that should not surprise us. For it is soon apparent that John has carefully selected the material that he uses about the life of Jesus, and that he, presumably deliberately, deals with Jesus in a totally different environment to that found in the other Gospels. He is aware of what is being taught in the general tradition of the church (although we have no grounds for saying that he had perused the other Gospels in any detail), and desires to pass on information that he has which is not a part of that tradition, information which illuminates the particular message that he wants to give.

He is very selective in his material (he has a particular aim in mind). And this selectivity results in him presenting the ministry of Jesus which took place away from Galilee and its surrounds, as it was conducted in places where men thought very differently. Not for John the hills of Galilee and the crowds of common people, and the sermons on the hilltops or the plain. Not for John the multi-national environment of Galilee, where exciting ideas were being spread abroad, unorthodoxy abounded, and even the local Rabbis were slightly unorthodox. The other Gospels dealt almost entirely with such a situation. But it is not so with John. Nor does he deal in the main with Jesus’ teaching to His inner group of disciples. Rather John concentrates his attention on Jerusalem and Judea, and on individual conversations with ‘outsiders’, and on controversies with the Judean Rabbis and Pharisees, who had their own particular way of arguing. We would therefore expect that His approach would be very different, for every good evangelist presents his material in such a way as to appeal to the people to whom he is speaking. The truth is that the Scribes and Pharisees at least would have felt at home with Jesus’ method of presentation in John’s Gospel, even if they did not agree with his position and His conclusions. Furthermore the people in Jerusalem and Judea as a whole were very different in the way they thought from the people of Galilee. Indeed the two groups ‘despised’ each other. And it is fair to say that we would expect Jesus’ words to reflect that difference.

And to this we can add the fact that what we have of Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel is probably a translation from the Aramaic. In this regard we should recognise that translation from one language to another is never exact. No two languages are the same. So translation always requires a level of interpretation. And that is why we would expect the translation of Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel to some extent to reflect the author’s style, as it would be he who would have chosen the terminology in Greek. And we would expect his abbreviation of what Jesus taught to reflect his mature thought, as he selected what suited his case, even while he took care to ensure that he presented what Jesus actually did say. In view of this it should not then be surprising that we can trace a little of the writer’s style on the lips of Jesus. But that is very different from suggesting that what Jesus is purported to have said was not spoken by Jesus at all. Indeed what He says is so sublime that it is difficult to see who else could have been responsible for it.

Nor must we overlook the fact that in John’s Gospel his account of the Galilean ministry is extremely limited, indeed surprisingly so (if we work on the basis that the writer was writing a full history of Jesus, which of course he was not). It is composed of three incidents only, those found in 2.1-12; 4.43-54 and 6.1-7.1. The first incident in 2.1-12 occurs in a period prior to the time when the other Gospels commence their descriptions of the ministry of Jesus (they, presumably deliberately, avoided the period when Jesus was working alongside John the Baptist), the second incident in 4.43-54 (the high official’s son) is in fact very similar in nature to an incident in the other Gospels (the centurion’s servant), and the third in 6.1-7.1 is based on the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water which appears in all the Gospels. Thus the picture drawn by the author concerning Jesus’ Galilean ministry is, while limited, fully in line with the Synoptics. And in no case does the author of John’s Gospel give us any information about what Jesus taught in detail to the crowds in Galilee. We have nothing which can be compared with His Galilean ministry as described for example in Matthew 5-7. For the only example of His teaching in Galilee is in what follows the feeding of the five thousand in John’s Gospel, which has in mind a special situation where a crowd who have got themselves over-excited and are seeking a ‘sign’, needing to be calmed down, with Jesus trying to turn them away from seeking signs so as to concentrate on what He had come to do. It is not simply an average situation. And that is then followed by words spoken specifically to the Judaisers, which are very much based on Old Testament ideas of ‘eating flesh’ and ‘drinking blood’ as indicating the putting of someone to death. The writer no doubt included this incident at least partly because it reinforced his emphasis on Jesus’ teaching concerning eternal life, in line with 1.4. The large masses of teaching in the other Gospels, on the other hand, are precisely what He taught to the crowds of common people in Galilee. They lapped up the parables, they were excitedly waiting for ‘the Kingly Rule of God’, and they wanted plain, popular fare. And that is what He gave them, with an impact that was powerful.. (Consider also in this regard how similar the teaching of John the Baptist in the Synoptics is to that of Jesus in the similar situation).

What is interesting is that in the two cases where Jesus does speak to individual outsiders in the Synoptics, He does so in terms of ‘eternal life’ just as He does in John’s Gospel (Matthew 19.16 and parallels; Luke 10.15). That was their interest. And it was the interest of the individuals in John’s Gospel. Indeed the writer in John’s Gospel makes clear both in his prologue and in his final statement that his main concern is that his readers should know about eternal life (1.4, 13; 20.31). But we should note that to Nicodemus in John 3 He does also speak of ‘the Kingly Rule of God’, and equates it with Nicodemus receiving the life of the Spirit. We can compare how in connection with the rich young ruler Jesus speaks of both eternal life (Mark 10.17, 30) and the Kingly Rule of God (Mark 10.23, 24, 25), and also there equates the two (compare Mark 10.17 with 10.23). So the apparent ‘differences’ between John and the other Gospels are not so great after all. Indeed the very opposite proves to be the case. Where the material is parallel it presents the same truths.

Nor must we overlook the fact that John’s Gospel is concentrating on what happened during the great feasts, and that Jesus’ words are often tailored to that fact. At those times people’s minds were fixed on religious matters, and any approach to them would bear that in mind. They were in a thinking mood. People speak and think very differently when in such an atmosphere. And this is reflected in the teaching that Jesus gave, and in the questions and counter-questions that went to and fro, as will be evident in the commentary. The atmosphere when they were in Galilee, as portrayed in the other Gospels, was totally different, and the approach had therefore to be made in a different way. Parables were particularly suited to the more open atmosphere in Galilee, and to the kind of people He was speaking to, although He certainly did also use them in Jerusalem as well. But even then it was under different circumstances to those found in John (although the Gospel undoubtedly contains a good deal of parabolic material). They are found when He was taking the initiative.

The Selectivity Of All The Gospels. The only apparent reason for this situation was that those who were the sources of the Synoptics either did not understand the controversies that had been going on, or had not been present when they took place, or a mixture of both. They would also have in mind the difficulty that their readers might have in grappling with such concepts. But that they did not wholly escape from them comes out in that they did contain material which pointed towards the same ideas that we find in John. For as we have seen they do contain verses which indicate something of the self-revelation of Jesus, and they do make clear that Jesus was the Son of God. Furthermore like John’s Gospel they concentrate on the last days of Jesus, and see in the cross and resurrection the solution to man’s quest for salvation, whilst putting hopes for the future in terms of the Holy Spirit. But it required someone like the author of John’s Gospel to be able to remember and present the theological controversies with the ‘Judaisers’, the deeply religious Jews who were mainly opposed to Jesus.

Is The Theology Of John Too Advanced For It To Have Been Spoken By Jesus?

The question has only to be asked for it to be apparent how ridiculous it is. To misquote someone else, ‘if Jesus was truly the Son of God then clearly no one would have better understood the mystery of His person than He Himself, and if He was not the Son of God it really does not matter who said what.’ It is quite extraordinary the way in which people can argue about what He could have known and taught, and can yet still see Him as truly God. So in our view as believers in the full deity of Jesus Christ it is a non-question. We consider it, however, in order to bring out how unreasonable the suggestion is.

And the first thing to note is that from the beginning the basic ideas of John’s Gospel were held by the early church. They are contained in Paul’s greeting when he speaks to the Thessalonians of ‘God the Father and the LORD Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 1.1). Spoken in parallel with the Father as theos the title kurios (LORD - the name of YHWH in the Old Testament) is itself a designation of deity, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 8.5-6, and even more in Philippians 2.9-11. Furthermore the idea of Jesus as LORD continues throughout the letter, and it is difficult in some cases to doubt that Paul sees it as an indication of full deity (e.g. 4.15, 16; 5.9, 23, 28). And in this regard we should note that Jesus is described as ‘both LORD and Christ’ immediately after Pentecost (Acts 2.36). Consider also Paul’s words, ‘in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form’ in Colossians 2.9. It is true, of course, that these verses can be argued about theologically, but then so can the verses in John’s Gospel

2 Peter too can speak of Jesus as ‘our God and Saviour’ (1.1, compare verse 11 where God is replaced by LORD), whilst the Synoptic Gospels parallel John’s ideas as we have seen in Matthew 11.25-27; Luke 10.21-22. Matthew also cites the ‘trinitarian’ formula in Matthew 28.19. It is questionable whether what we find in John’s Gospel is in advance of these statements. What it does do is open our eyes to Jesus’ self-revelation. But if it was self-revelation then we must accept it as containing words of Jesus, in which case to speak of it as ‘advanced theology’ is ridiculous. It is in fact in our view very unlikely that any later Christians could have invented and spoken the truths we find in John’s Gospel with such aplomb. They would surely have been guilty of either naivete or over-exaggeration, and would easily have been exposed. For the claims of Jesus in John’s Gospel are not only profound, but are spoken in such a way as to reveal that they are spoken by a unique personality whose views are an expression of genius. There is nothing from history that compares with them. They contain within them ‘the ring of truth’.

Other Problems Often Brought Up.

It is often asked why it is that in John’s Gospel we have no reference to the casting out of evil spirits, whilst in the other Gospels such references abound. But whilst it is certainly interesting that in Galilee there was a clear problem with spirit possession, it is not at all obvious why there should have been the same in Judea. It may simply indicate that the religious attitude and atmosphere of Judea was such that it kept the people there from indulging in the occult in the same way as the people did in Galilee and the surrounding areas among the Gentiles. The Judeans may well not have dallied with evil spirits to the same extent. We have no grounds for thinking otherwise. Thus we would not expect the same problem with demon possession. What may, however, be seen as significant is that in all four Gospels Jesus is accused of being demon possessed (Matthew 12.24 and parallels; John 8.48; 10.19).

It is often stated that one difference between the Synoptics and John’s Gospel is the length of Jesus’ ministry. In the Synoptics, it is said, His ministry was swift and short whilst in John it spreads over three years and more with a good number of visits to Jerusalem. This, however, is to overlook the fact that Luke, for example, gives us a clear indication that Jesus did visit Jerusalem and its environs a number of times. In 10.38 he has Jesus at the house of Martha and Mary within a stone’s throw of Jerusalem (following a parable dealing with a journey between Jerusalem and Jericho). In 13.34 he again has Jesus in the environs of Jerusalem when He weeps over Jerusalem and gives the impression of having preached there on a number of occasions (‘how often would I have gathered you --’). Then later on we have a description of the final days in Jerusalem. Thus there are in Luke at least three clear indications of visits to Jerusalem. It is just that Luke does not specifically draw attention to Jesus’ whereabouts at the time. The incidental nature of the references makes us recognise that to the Synoptics where Jesus was at various times was not seen as too important, and the fact of them confirms that Jesus visited Jerusalem a number of times.

As we have seen it is important to recognise that much of what is said by Jesus in John’s Gospel is said in the rarified atmosphere of Jerusalem, and spoken to theologians or men with a particular religious bent, who loved to indulge in religious argument. That was why they lived in Jerusalem. Thus we would not expect to discover that the way in which He spoke with them would tally with the way in which He spoke in Galilee to the common people. The Judaisers had a stylised way of thinking, while the Galileans were more flexible, so in both cases Jesus spoke in accordance with the thought forms of the people He was addressing. It would thus have been most unlikely that He addressed them in the same way. Indeed when thinking of parables it is questionable how many of the arguments of Jesus in John’s Gospel would lend themselves to parabolic presentation, (even though traces of it can be found in passages such as 8.34-36, demonstrating that it was always there in the background ready to come out. It also comes out in chapter 10). For Jesus was not simply a country preacher. He could hold His own against the Rabbis, and even confound them, and He was a man of great erudition and learning, even if He was partly ‘self-taught’. Even, however, with this change in method of approach the controversies are often the same, for the problem that kept coming up about the observance of the Sabbath day stands out in all four Gospels (Mark 2.24; 3.2; and parallels; John 5.16; 9.16).

A similar difference between the Synoptics and John is apparent in the descriptions of John the Baptist. But this difference is more apparent than real. For the writer in John’s Gospel specifically tells us that his whole emphasis is on John’s witness to Jesus, whereas the Synoptics are out to give a more rounded picture of John’s whole ministry, mainly prior to the appearance of Jesus. All, however, are agreed that John was the preparer of the way for Jesus, (in the same way as the Qumranists saw themselves as the ‘preparer of the way’), and that He was the fulfilment of the expectations of the prophets in that He would drench men with the Holy Spirit. Once the differences of presentation are borne in mind the idea of a clash between the presentations disappears. In Matthew and Luke we have John the Baptist’s teaching to the crowds. In John’s Gospel we have what he said to theologians or to his disciples, but limited by the writer to what was necessary to bear witness to Jesus.

Finally we should note that the author of John’s Gospel is often said to be anti-Jewish, because he constantly speaks of ‘the Jews’ (or ‘the Judaisers’) as being antagonistic towards Jesus. But to say this is clearly an overstatement. For how could someone who was anti-Jewish have been so familiar with the Jewish environment, have shown Jesus as a Jew who had a message for Jews, and have stated that ‘salvation is of the Jews’? The truth in fact lies in recognising that when he spoke of ‘the Jews’, he was not speaking of the whole Jewish nation, many of whom had later responded to Christ and had become Christian Jews, and of others who bore no ill-will against Jesus, but of those in that nation whose religious inclination had mainly set them at loggerheads with Jesus. And even then his use of the term varies. Always, however, the idea appears to be of a certain kind of religious Jew, of whom some did respond to Jesus, but who mainly were His opponents. What it does not indicate is that the author was in general ‘anti-Semitic’. Indeed what anti-Semitic could have written ‘salvation is of the Jews’ (4.22)?

We must not overlook the fact in this regard that Jesus was very popular with many Jews, looking at the nation as a whole. On the other hand the hardening of certain types of Jew against Christianity certainly began very early on. For Paul was constantly harassed by such. Note how in Thessalonians in around 40 AD he can speak of, ‘the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out' (1 Thessalonians 2.14-16). He was, of course, speaking of a minority of Jews, but the hatred of certain types of Jew comes out further in the martyrdoms of both James the Apostle (which ‘pleased the Jews’ - Acts 12.3) and James the brother of our Lord, although many Jews disapproved of what was done to the latter. Thus the references of the Gospel to ‘the Jews’ as hostile to Jesus could have been seen as true right from the beginning, something very much underlined by His crucifixion. There is no way in which the antagonism simply occurred at a later point in history (such as at the now recognised as fictitious Council of Jamnia). It was there from the beginning.


One interesting factor that we must take into account in a study of John’s Gospel is that the author never favours the Septuagint (which might be seen as the standard Greek Old Testament used by the early church) as against other sources. Indeed his use of the Scriptures is quite illuminating, for never once does he cite the Septuagint where it disagrees with other witnesses. His quotations, for example, in 10.34 (compare Psalm 82.6); in 12.38 (compare Isaiah 53.1); in 15.24 (compare Psalm 34.19; in 19.24 (compare Psalm 22.18); all suggest a knowledge of Hebrew.

In some cases his quotations agree with both the Hebrew and the Septuagint. Consider 6.45 (compare Isaiah 54.13); 13.18 (compare Psalm 41.9); and 19.37 (compare Zechariah 12.10). In 2.17 (compare Psalm 69.9) he agrees with the Hebrew against the Septuagint. In 12.14-15 (compare Zechariah 9.9) and in 12.40 (compare Isaiah 6.10) he agrees with neither the Hebrew nor the Septuagint, even though they both agree with each other. In 19.36 (compare Exodus 12.46; Numbers 9.12) he agrees with neither the Hebrew nor the Greek in cases where they disagree with each other. In 1.23 (compare Isaiah 40.3) and 6.31 (compare Psalm 78.24; Exodus 16.4, 15) he gives a free paraphrase. In 7.38 there is no strict parallel Scripture.

This is quite understandable in a Jew who knows both Hebrew and Greek, but does not favour a solely Hellenistic background for the author.

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