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?

Gospel of John – Multiple Edition Theory

Is it possible John wrote his gospel and then revised it many years later?

In most multiple edition theories there was a single base document which underwent several revisions, possibly at the hand of the original author, over a number of years.  Analogies for this sort of work abound in modern scholarly writing where an author revisits his book 20 or 30 years later and revises the book to reflect additional learning or thinking, possibly to bring it up to date.  Brown himself is an example of this as he was in the process of revising his commentary on John after 30 years when he died.

Like multiple-source theories, these sorts of theories can become rather complex. W. Wilkins, for example, saw four stages for the gospel of John.  First, a Book of Signs, 4 in Galilee and 3 in Jerusalem.  Seven Discourses were later added to the signs and then another  writer added 3 Passover stories (2:13-22, 6:51-58, 12:1-7).  A final redactor added chapter 21, completing the book as we have it today. While this accounts for the whole Gospel of John, it is nearly impossible to know if any of these revisions of the book actually happened – there is no documentary evidence for this sort of a theory. Urban C. Von Wahlde has an even more complex explanation of the various voices in the Gospel of John in his three-volume commentary on the Gospel and letters of John (Eerdmans, 2010).

Raymond BrownRaymond Brown suggested a more plausible multiple edition theory. The natural 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 difference sin 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 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.

There were debates within the synagogues which generated a number of “homilies” preserving Jesus’ teaching that were attempts to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.  It is possible that some time before 70 these Christians were expelled from the synagogue, ostracized and persecuted. (See 1:11, 10:28-29; 15:18, 16:2 and the“not of this world” theme in 15:18, 16:3, 16:33). 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 goal of the Gospel would therefore be to convince Jews and Jesus was the Messiah. This fits well with the purpose of the Gospel as stated in John 20:30-31:

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

If Brown is on the right track, then it is possible to read John as a reflection of the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity in the mid-90’s A.D. This theory accounts for the Jewishness of John’s Gospel while also reflecting a fairly well-developed Christology.

Jewish Christianity (Revisited)

I have just finished teaching through the non-Pauline letters in the New Testament and enjoyed the class immensely.  Our school breaks upper division Bible classes into 8 sections, four for the Hebrew Bible and four for the New Testament .  Since this was the only section I have never taught before, I learned as much as my students did this year.  Christian Theology is almost synonymous with Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is sometimes shocking to find variations on that view in this Jewish literature.

I began back in January with Raymond Brown’s article on Jewish Christianity.  He identified at least four sub-groups of early Christianity, to which I have added two more categories which are “sub-Christian.”

  • The Ebionites, who remained within Judaism yet accepted Jesus as Messiah.  This group is sub-Christian, in my view.
  • Jewish Christians who practiced full observance of the Mosaic Law (the “Judaizers”)
  • Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision for Gentile converts, but did require them to keep some of the purity laws  (James and Peter).
  • Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision or purity laws for Gentile converts, nor did it insist that Jewish Christians abandon the Law (Paul).
  • Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision or purity laws for Gentile converts, but also saw not significance for the Jewish Temple (maybe Stephen and the Hellenists)
  • The Nicolatians, who rejected the Law so thoroughly that they “sinned so grace might abound.” This group is also sub-Christian in my view.

For the most part the non-Pauline letters fall into the third category listed above (certainly James and 1 Peter), although Hebrews could fit comfortably in the fifth category because of the clear influence of Hellenistic philosophy (neo-Platonism,etc).  The Epistles of John, Jude, and 2 Peter are harder to categorize within this rubric, but at least we can say Jude and First  John represent Jewish Christianity. Second and Third John are too small to deal with separately.

I think there is a value in reading through these books and bracketing out (if possible) both Pauline Theology and modern systematic theology, especially post-Reformation view s on the church and soteriology.  What I find in these letters are several “other” attempts to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus which attempt to remain true to the author’s Jewish roots.  James, for example, hardly departs at all from the Law, Hebrews (on the other extreme) allegorizes much of the ceremonial law.  This implies two things.  First, the earliest form of Christianity was not unified, monolithic, or even consistent.  Several voices sought to apply the events of Jesus’ death in slightly different ways.  Second, the Christian church is rooted in Judaism.  While I am not in favor of practicing a form of Christian Judaism, it must be recognized that Judaism and Christianity are not easily separated in the first 40 years of Church History.