Johannine Writings

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The Johannine Gospel

The Gospels were not literal accounts of the ministry of Jesus. While John drew on an authentic tradition of Jesus' words and deeds, various influences had modified that tradition in the six or seven decades separating Jesus from the evangelist. Then, even after the evangelist had shaped the tradition into a written composition (perhaps in several editions), the work was redacted further (probably at a time when the evangelist was dead). Until recent times, much scholarly attention has been paid to the traditions that may have formed the Gospel of John, and attempts have been made to isolate the stages of redaction that produced the Gospel as we now have it. These concerns are still present in Johannine scholarship (Painter, Schnelle, Labahn), but more attention is currently dedicated to the narrative power of the final narrative (Culpepper, Stibbe, Moloney).

It is not universally accepted that the first "Johannine Writing" to appear was the Gospel of John, but that is the majority position, and it is adopted for this article. Today few scholars would identify either the source of the Johannine tradition or the evangelist as the apostle, John the Son of Zebedee. They pay greater attention to the failure of John to use the term "apostle" (in the technical sense), to the constant stress on "disciple, " to the rivalry between the Johannine "disciple whom Jesus loved" and Peter (who in other NT works appears as the most famous of the Twelve apostles), and to the lack of anything approaching apostolic authority in the community situation envisaged in the Johannine epistles. All these factors make better sense if the Johannine community could not trace its origins to one of the Twelvea lack that led Johannine theology to exalt love by Jesus rather than apostolic commissioning as the most essential factor. The disciple whom Jesus loved may best be seen as an unknown companion of Jesus during the ministry, perhaps insignificant when compared with the first-ranked members of the Twelve, but a figure whose subsequent history and role in the origins of the Johannine community gave him a major symbolic significance for this group. The majority of scholars has come to distinguish him from the evangelist, a second-generation Christian who may have been his disciple. Whoever he may have been, a historical figure who knew Jesus of Nazareth, and who became the founding figure and storyteller of a later Christian community, is a major source for the so-called Johannine writings.

Johannine community history. Differences in theology and tone that separate John from the Synoptics are often explained through the peculiar history of the Johannine community. With variations, that history as proposed by a number of scholars (J. L. Martyn, R. E. Brown, G. Richterwith variations) may be synopsized thus. The forebears were Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and the royal Son of God, a Christology similar to that found in the Synoptic Gospels. Presumably a disciple, later known as the one whom Jesus loved, would have been among this group. We may find traces of them in John 1 in which the first disciples are Galileans who use traditional titles for Jesus. The advent of other believers of less traditional backgrounds changed the Johannine orientation. Part of this advent may be exemplified in Jn 4:3942 in which a large number of Samaritans accept Jesussomething unheard of in the other Gospels.

This second strain presumably brought a different set of Israelite concepts through which they interpreted Jesus. For instance, while in the Synoptics Jesus is presented as a wisdom teacher using parables and only occasionally associated with divine Wisdom (Mt 11:19; Lk 11:49), in John there is little by way of parables and Jesus is consistently described in language echoing the OT portrait of personified divine Wisdom: a figure with God at the creation, coming into the world to give life and knowledge, dwelling among people, seeking them out and inviting them to eat. While in Matthew and Luke, Jesus is insistently shown to be descended from David, for John a Moses imagery is far more important. David became king by divine appointment and thereafter was treated by God as His representative and son; Moses spoke to God on the mountain and was shown by Him the divine plan to be revealed to the people when he came down. The Johannine Jesus is a Son who came down from God and who does and says only what He had seen and heard when He was with God (Jn 5:19; 8:38). The similarity to Moses is obvious; yet Moses had first to ascend to God's presence, while the Johannine Son of Man was already with God and had only to descend (3:13). Thus the Johannine Jesus combines aspects of divine Wisdom with the Moses imagery. The Samaritans would be a possible source for part of this imagery since they rejected Davidic claims and based their theology on Mosaic revelation. But the Johannine contact with the original traditions concerning Jesus always remains an important influence. The Johannine Son of Man may have to descend, but he also must be lifted up on a cross (3:14; 8:28; 12:3234). It is interesting that in Jn 8:48 the christological claims of Jesus are rejected by "the Jews" with the charge that He is a Samaritan.

In any case, several relevant facts are clear. Among the four Gospels, only John describes an Incarnation in which a figure who had been with God comes into the world and becomes flesh. The Johannine Jesus can speak of a life He had with the Father before the world began (17:5). Using the divine "I am" (8:58), He states that He is one with the heavenly Father (10:30) and in Him God is intimately present and visible (10:38, 14:910). None of this appears in the other Gospels. Correspondingly, John describes extreme Jewish hostility toward Jesus on the basis of this exalted Christology because Jesus makes Himself equal to God (5:28; 10:33). Mention is made of synagogue trials and expulsions (9:22, 34; 12:42; 16:2), an understandable procedure if the Jewish authorities thought that the disciples of Jesus had departed from the cardinal principle of Israel: "The Lord our God is One" (Dt 6:4). Undergoing such trials plausibly explains why much of John is cast in the legal language of confession, testimony, and witness (e.g., 1:1920; 5:30ff.), and why debates over the meaning of Scripture are technical (6:3133; 10:3436). Inevitably such a history would have made the expelled Johannine Christians more emphatic about their Christology of a divine Word become flesh, and so they would have had contempt for other believers in Jesus who were unwilling to go so far (6:6066; 8:31ff.; 12:4243).

Attention must also be given to the world in which the Gospel was written. The Gospel of John is not a gnostic document, but it most likely finally appeared in Asia Minor (the traditional location of Ephesus remains the best contender), where a number of religious influences were present. The mixture of the decaying traditional Greek religions, largely taken over and added to by Roman religious strains, and the influence of religions coming from the East produced a unique religious atmosphere. These were the major elements in the eventual development of Gnosticism, a form of religion also strongly influenced by early Christianity. There are many elements in the Gospel of John that deliberately address this new world. Johannine Christianity had its origins within Judaism, but the Gospel of John also makes much of "knowledge" (17:3), revelation (1:18), ascent and descent (3:13; 6:62), and certain expressions appear that were important in later Gnosticism (for example, τα ιδια and 'ο λογος). Perhaps the greatest sign of genius in the composition of the Gospel of John is its loyalty to the Christian tradition, but its telling the story of Jesus in a new way that it might be better understood in a new world.

Literary skill of the evangelist. As the point just made indicates, the tone and emphases given to the Jesus tradition in John have been shaped by the community's life, but the effectiveness of the Gospel in communicating the resultant Christology stems from the techniques of the narrative. Those techniques have been studied from the vantage point of modern literary criticism (e.g., Culpepper; Stibbe, Moloney), and we are now much more conscious of the extraordinary blending of message and vehicle in John. If there were synagogue trials that forced the Johannine Christians to decide for or against Jesus and thus to be judged, the Gospel itself is meant to make the reader decide about Jesus. The dramatic technique of having Jesus confront the dramatis personae of the Gospel face to face, one to one, inevitably involves the reader in a confrontation.

The Christology of a stranger who has come from above into an alien world is conveyed by having Jesus misunderstood by the Gospel characters who try to evaluate Him in the categories familiar to their own lives. An important narrative strategy of the author is found in the Prologue (1:118). Only the reader has access to this exalted presentation of who Jesus is (the pre-existent Logos, the unique revelation of God, the bringer of life to those who accept him in faith, the fulfillment of God's gifts, made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ). Having read this first page, the readers can understand Jesus better than the characters in the story, who have not read the Prologue, and are thus often found "misunderstanding" the words of Jesus (for example, 2:1920; 3:35; 4:1315; 5:1718; 6:3234). The readers have no such option. Enticed into participation in the drama by outguessing the Gospel characters, the reader may find that they may also misunderstand Jesus. This leads them to be challenged by Him as the evangelist intends (20:31). The solemn conclusion to the Gospel makes it clear that the evangelist does not write the story for the sake of the story, but to lead his readers into deeper faith. The exalted and quasi-poetic language of Jesus' self-revelation is entirely fitting for a figure from above who speaks of another world and is very similar in tone to the OT speeches of divine Wisdom and strikes a chord with the newer religions, emerging at the turn of the first Christian century. The characterizations found in John (Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the Blind Man, Pilate) are increasingly seen as reflecting the evangelist's intention of personifying an array of attitudes that will speak to the readers' life situation.

Traditional Johannine questions, such as sources, history of religion background to the Gospel, and stages of redactional activity, continue to be pursued. Sources have been delineated (R. Fortna, W. Nicol; Langbrandter, Labahn), but the issue is somewhat relativized if the sources came from the same community tradition ultimately reflected in the Gospel. The thesis of John's dependence on the Synoptics has been strongly revived (F. Neirynck, M. E. Boismard; U. Schnelle, M. Lang), but has not won the day.

The Johannine Epistles

It is likely, but not certain, that the three Epistles were by one author. Most scholars would distinguish him from the evangelist. One might plausibly posit a Johannine school of writers consisting of the evangelist, the epistolary "presbyter, " and the final redactor of the Gospelall distinct from but perhaps disciples of the disciple whom Jesus loved. That sequence may also reflect the dating of the composition: the main edition of the Gospel in the 90s, the Epistles c. 100, and the redaction of the Gospel shortly afterward. None of this is certain, as we do not have the scientifically controllable data to come to firm final conclusions.

While 23 John fit the letter format perfectly, 1 John has no aspect of that format and is not an epistle or letter. Serving as a treatise on the interpretation of Johannine thought as found in the Gospel, 1 John is best understood if both the author (with his adherents) and those whom he attacks as secessionists (1 Jn 2:19) considered John as their sole authoritative Gospel (hē angelia of 1:5 and 3:11?). The complete absence in 1 John of references to the Jews and the synagogue suggests that that phase of Johannine life is long past, but now the high Christology that caused the struggle with the Jews has become a source of conflict within the community. One group, attacked by the writer, seems to have put little emphasis on the human career of Jesus, on how He "walked, " and on His death. For them it was enough that the Word entered the world: this was the divine salvific intervention. Correspondingly, they would have attributed little salvific importance to what the disciples of Jesus did in their lives once they had received God's light and life by faith.

Since the Gospel was written in struggle with the Jews, there is a danger that the elements in the Gospel that highlight Jesus' humanity might drop from view. He speaks as a divine figure who knows all things (Jn 2:25; 6:6) and apparently He does not need to petition God for assistance in His actions (11:4142; 12:2728). In the Gospel, life and light are offered by Jesus during the ministry (and thus before His death on the cross) to those who believe in Him (4:10; 5:40; 6:47) ; the only sin stressed is the failure to believe (9:41). Thus it is not inconceivable that the secessionists could have read John in this light to support their theology. Insistently, in order to correct them the author of 1 John has to argue from what was at the "beginning" (1 Jn 1:1; 2:7, 13, 24; 3:11), apparently a period of the Jesus tradition antedating the Gospel and (in the epistolary author's view) presupposed by the evangelist. For that reason, 1 Jn 1:14 comments on the Prologue of John but puts stress on witnesses who could constitute a chain of contact with the earthly Jesusa chain in which the writers of the Johannine school would undoubtedly be prominentas a guide to the importance of Jesus in the flesh. Throughout, 1 John stresses the importance of how Jesus walked, his salvific death, and the ethical behavior of the believer in view of further divine judgmentthemes close the Synoptic theology and a confirmation of the insight advocated above that Johannine beginnings were not unlike the origins of the Synoptic tradition.

In struggling with the secessionists, the epistolary author never seems to have apostolic authority or the authority against error ascribed to the presbyter bishops emerging in the churches described in Acts and the Pauline Pastorals. The supreme authority is the anointing (presumably by the Spirit; 1 Jn 2:27) which would guide the believer. Since the secessionists could also appeal to the Spirit for their teaching (and the author could respond only that their Spirit was the spirit of deceit; 4:16), apparently the secession was successful and spread widely (prompting the fear expressed in 2 Jn). A possible interpretation of 3 John is that in one Johannine community Diotrephes decided on the necessity of supreme local pastoral authority in order to fight the secession, much to the distress of the epistolary author, who regarded such assumption of primacy as a violation of Johannine tradition. His may have been a rear guard resistance, however, for the redactor of the Gospel (21:1517) recognizes human pastoral authority over the sheep.

If there are strains in the Johannine Epistles that would heighten similarity between the Johannine Christians and other churches attested in the NT, the secessionists may have been a bridge in the other direction to the Gnostics, who were the first to comment on the Gospel and almost made it their own work in the 2d century. Indeed, the issue of the relation of John to Gnosticism needs elaboration in this direction. As has already been mentioned in the above discussion of the development of the Gospel, John is not a gnostic work but that, having its roots in Jewish Wisdom speculation, it had outlooks that Gnostics could find harmonious. Such compatibility seems to have made John suspect in more traditional 2d century Christian circles (whence a relative silence about the Gospel), until Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, used 1 John to show how John could be read in an orthodox manner. The ultimate contribution of 1 John may have been to save John for the larger Church.

The Johannine Revelation

Only Revelation names its author as "John" (Rv 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). Paradoxically, this document, which should also be dated about the same time as the other Johannine writings (toward the end of the 1st century), is universally regarded as not belonging to the same "school" that produced the Gospel and the Epistles of John. The fierce traditional end-time eschatology of the Revelation (Rv 1722) cannot be related to the important realized eschatology of the Gospel (e.g., Jn 3:1621; 5:2425; 6:50, 58), even though an end-time eschatology is also found in the Gospel (e.g., 5:2829; 6:40, 54). Similarly, the Christology of Revelation, especially its understanding of the crucifixion as the slain and vindicated Lamb (Rv 5:614), is very different from the Johannine understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus as a "lifting up/exaltation" (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:3233). The Johannine use of "the Lamb of God" (Jn 1:29, 36) cannot support the weight of an argument associating the two writings. The glory of God and the means by which the Son of God will be glorified are crucial to the Gospel, yet absent from Revelation, which has a quite different understanding of the vindication of the crucified Jesus. From the time of Irenaeus, the association of the Gospel, and subsequently the Epistles, with John the Son of Zebedee, led Christian tradition to associate the only book signed by an author named "John" with the Gospel and the Epistles. While often regarded as part of "the Johannine writings, " the Revelation and the other Johannine writings have little in common.

See Also: john, epistles of st.; john, gospel according to st.; revelation, book of.

Bibliography: m. É. boismard and a. lamouille, Synopse des quatre Evangiles. III: l'Évangile de Jean (Paris 1977). r. e. brown, The Gospel According to John, 2 v. (Garden City 1966, 1970) ; The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York 1979). o. cullman, The Johannine Circle (Philadelphia, Pa. 1976). r. a. culpepper, The Johannine School (Missoula, Mont. 1975) ; Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia, Pa. 1983). m. de jonge, Jesus: Stranger from Heaven and Son of God (Missoula, Mont.1977). r. fortna, The Gospel of Signs (Cambridge 1970) ; The Fourth Gospel and its Predecessor: From Narrative Source to Present Gospel (Edinburgh 1989). e. haenchen, John, 2 v., Hermeneia (Philadelphia, Pa. 1984). e. kÄsemann, The Testament of Jesus According to John 17 (Philadelphia, Pa. 1968). r. kysar, The Fourth Evangelist and His Gospel (Minneapolis, Minn. 1975) ; "The Fourth Gospel. A Report on Recent Research, " Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 25/3 (1985) 23892480. b. lindars, The Gospel of John (London 1972). m. w. g. stibbe, John (Sheffield 1993). f. j. moloney, The Gospel of John (Collegeville, Minn. 1998). j. l. martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (rev. ed. Nashville, Tenn. 1979) ; The Gospel of John in Christian History (New York 1978). w. meeks, The Prophet-King (Leiden 1967). u. schnelle, Antidocetic Christology in the Gospel of John: An Investigation of the Place of the Fourth Gospel in the Johannine School (Minneapolis 1992). w. langbrandtner, Weltferner Gott oder Gott der Liebe. Der Ketzerstreit in der johanneischen Kirche. Eine exegetisch-religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung mit Berücksichtigung der koptisch-gnostischen Texte aus Nag-Hammadi (Bern 1977). f. neirynck, Jean et les Synoptiques (Louvain 1979). m. lang, Johannes und die Synoptiker. Eine redaktionsgeschichtliche Analyse von Joh 1820 vor dem markinischen und lukanischen Hintergrund (Göttingen 1999). w. nicol, The Semeia in the Fourth Gospel (Leiden 1972). m. labahn, Jesus als Lebenspender. Unsertsuchungen zu einer Geschichte der johanneischen Tradition anhand ihrer Wundergeschichten (Berlin 1999). j. painter, The Quest for the Messiah. The History, Literature and Theology of the Johannine Community (2d ed. Edinburgh 1993) g. richter, Studien zum Johannesevangelium (Regensburg 1977). r. schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, 3 v. (New York 1968, 1980, 1982). d. m. smith, Johannine Christianity: Essays on Its Setting, Sources, and Theology (Columbia, S.C. 1984). John Among the Gospels. The Relationship in Twentieth-Century Research (Minneapolis, Minn. 1992). Epistles. Commentaries by r. e. brown (Garden City 1982) ; r. bultmann (Philadelphia 1973) ; j. l. houlden (New York 1973) ; i. h. marshall (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1978) ; s. s. smalley (Waco, Tx. 1984) ; r. schnackenburg (New York 1992) ; d. rensberger (Nashville, Tenn.1997).

[r. e. brown/

f. j. moloney]