Origins of the Gospel of John

The differences between John and the Synoptics provide an opportunity for scholars to study the formation of a gospel from a different angle. John may have used other Gospels, or purposefully ignored them. Often complicated scenarios are created in order to describe multiple versions of the Gospel of John. Raymond Brown suggested a plausible multiple edition theory to explain how John’s gospel developed over a period of time. In most “multiple editions” theories there was a single base document which underwent several revisions, possibly at the hand of the original author, over a number of years.

John EditionsBrown’s first stage was the actual public ministry of Jesus and his disciples. After the resurrection, the twelve apostles publicly preached the resurrection of Jesus. The synoptic gospels reflect this apostolic preaching. The tradition that Mark preserve the preaching of Peter may indicate that the outline and content of the book as the content to of the apostolic “trust.” Matthew and Luke make use of Mark, and possible Q (or Matthew has the Q material, either way, Matthew and Luke reflect the Galilean disciples of Jesus).

According to Brown, John reflects the preaching and teaching of the disciples of Jesus in and around Jerusalem. This accounts for the different sorts of information that was remembered and passed along, for differences in tone and language, for the emphasis on Jerusalem and the Jewish festivals, and possible (so says Brown), the Light / Dark theme that is parallel to what we read in the Qumran materials.

It is possible that the Johannine Community included Samaritans, based on John 4 and 8:48 (Jesus is accused of being a Samaritan.)  Jews and Samaritans sharing fellowship in a single religious community would have been scandalous, especially in pre-70 Judea. Brown suggests that Jews that accepted Jesus as the Messiah convinced in synagogues.

But relationships between these Jews and Samaritans would have been tense. Discussion of Jesus as Messiah generated a number of “homilies” preserving Jesus’ teaching as attempts to convince Jews he was the Messiah. It is possible that some time before A. D. 70 these Jewish Christians were expelled from the synagogue, ostracized and persecuted (as implied in John 1:11, 10:28-29; 15:18, 16:2 and the “not of this world” theme in 15:18, 16:3, 16:33).

The Gospel of John therefore could be aimed at Jewish Christians that are still in the synagogue (“crypto-Christians” in Brown) who are not fully “Christian” in the opinion of the author. They need to come out and be separate from the Synagogue. A second aim would therefore be to continue to try and convince Jews and Jesus was the Messiah.

Brown’s work is well-respected and is always discussed in recent study of the Gospel of John, but it does not appear this scenario has convinced everyone, as Paul Rainbow comments in his recent introduction to Johannine Theology, scholars “amass tomes trying to squeeze theories from the almost dearth of information that we have about unknown authors and redactors” (53).

Nevertheless, there is something to Brown’s contention that the Gospel of John is a kind of reflection of the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity in the last third of the first century. This accounts for the Jewishness of John’s Gospel while also reflecting a fairly well-developed Christology. If this Gospel is some kind of a Jewish-Christian missionary tract, how would our reading of John change?

Are there specific elements in John that are more “Jewish” than often assumed?

6 thoughts on “Origins of the Gospel of John

  1. “Nevertheless, there is something to Brown’s contention that the Gospel of John is a kind of reflection of the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity in the last third of the first century. This accounts for the Jewishness of John’s Gospel while also reflecting a fairly well-developed Christology.”

    Yes, at least this much seems clear. The 66-70 war and its massive upheaval changed many things. I repeat this often because most Christians get little info on this and how critical the events and their results were on the formation of the NT and of Christian faith. One effect was indeed an acceleration of clear separation between Judaism and budding Christianity.

    Prior to the war it had been mainly Paul who seemed to present “supersessionist” theology (Christianity superseding Judaism). Yes, the Gospels/Acts reads it (and sometimes inserts it) back into the pre-war period in Jerusalem. But a close reading of Acts, esp. as compared with Paul, on the other hand shows pretty definitely that Jesus-following in the city and vicinity was accepted as a valid Jewish sect and that the disciples followed Jewish law and custom. (Implying, among other things, that they were not preaching Jesus as God incarnate, not seeing the Temple as irrelevant since Jesus’ death and resurrection.) But that entire scenario changed after the war and Pauline theology and style fast became predominant. Via this, we see many overlaps in Pauline and Johannine theology… and, of course, some in the earlier Gospels as well.

  2. The book of john talks a lot about Jews. The book even uses the term “The Jews” 71 times throughout the book. This seems to be sort of a negative since John is not including himself in this title. The book also includes talk of the Jewish holidays (more than any of the synoptic gospels). The book has a lot more history. I think talking all this into consideration it shouldn’t change our views of the book. The book shows the gospel and shows Jesus as the son of God and nothing should change that view.

  3. I think the most significant element in John that points to a Jewish theme is the presence of so many more references to “feasts” (17 times throughout the book), and the two unique feasts of: Tabernacles at 7:2 and Dedication at 10:22. It does also seem fairly obvious that John’s gospel is intended to really emphasize the authority and “messiahship” of Jesus, simply when one reads the first chapter of the book. Therefore it seems that John is attempting, as you pointed out, to further emphasize who Jesus was. This would make a lot of sense if the intended audience, and writers themselves, are Jewish believers. It is simply a matter of trying to convince those who needed the most convincing, and therefore John had to emphasize different parts of Jesus’ ministry and his identity in order to convince those who were having a hard time accepting a messiah who was not what they expected.

  4. While it would certainly be unfair to the redactors of the Synoptic Gospels to deny the unique theological ‘flavor’ of each book, John’s theology – indeed, Christology – seems much more developed. While this could be due in some part to the lateness of John’s writing in comparison to the other Gospels, it does seem that John was very interested in presenting Jesus as the Christ, not only in the typical first-century Jewish way but in fact to be the very Son of God; the Word made flesh.

    To me, it makes quite a bit of sense that John’s Gospel would be a sort of Judeo-Christian tract. It presents a narrative of Christ’s ministry without getting caught up in details which could have been unnecessary sticking points for those considering his message. John leaves out the standard origins account and goes all the way back to the very beginning, so that from the start his reader is very aware of who this Jesus is being made out to be. There can be no question in reading John’s Gospel that Jesus was certainly claiming, not only to be the long-awaited Messiah, but to be a different sort of Messiah than anyone had anticipated, in that He was fully divine. John’s Gospel uses words like “Messiah,” “Christ,” and other related titles more times in total than any of the other Gospel writers do, which seems to give support to the idea that he was very concerned with his audience understanding the gravity of who this Jesus was and what His role was for not only the Nation of Israel, but for the whole world.

    John does not leave us wondering what his purpose was in writing. We can debate the exact audience for whom he wrote, but his intent is quite clear. He desired that his reader would “believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him. . . have life by the power of his name.”

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