John is the only Gospel that does not have a year of its own; selections are heard in all three years, but especially in Year B. Mark is the shortest of the four, leaving more Sundays to be filled out. As Mark is now thought to be the first written, John is the last, and is a result of a long reflection on the events of Christ’s life and his teaching. There is evidence in the work suggesting it has been edited over a period of time, perhaps more than once. The characteristic style of the Gospel is found throughout and some speak of a ‘Johannine school’ or community sharing the ideas of the first writer. (The three Letters of John in the New Testament are in a different style, but have a similar vocabulary with the Gospel.)
Nicholas King comments: ‘As soon as you open John’s Gospel you are aware that you are breathing a different air from that which you encountered in Matthew, Mark and Luke…. My sense of it is that it is a journey into the mystery of who Jesus is, inviting us ever deeper, as the story unfolds.’ John repays careful study and prayerful reflection. ‘The reader will do well to remember that this is a very rich Gospel, whose meaning emerges slowly, over a lifetime of reading.’ Since we have short selections from the Gospel, I would urge you to find some time, maybe as part of Lent, to spend with this writer.
It is the one of the four that best shows Jesus as the Son of God existing from eternity – this is stressed in the opening words. Jesus shows a majesty in this Gospel with less emphasis on his humanity – in contrast with Mark who does not hesitate to show human limitations of Jesus during his ministry. The author always has the resurrected Christ in mind, and projects this back into the life of Jesus.
There is no clear agreement among scholars as to who ‘John’ was and where the Gospel was written. The early Church writers thought he was John the son of Zebedee, but there are reasons this seems unlikely. As it happens, that John is never named in the Gospel, although ‘sons of Zebedee’ are mentioned in the last chapter, which looks like an addition. A ‘John the Elder’ was also known in the early Church but we know little about him either.
One aspect of the Gospel is that it includes the reflections of the Evangelist, but since the Greek manuscripts do not have punctuation marks, it is sometimes a guess when the words of Jesus blend into that of the author. It is written with a limited vocabulary but in very good Greek. Certain words/ideas have prominence, such as light and darkness, life/eternal life. John speaks much of ‘Signs’ – and sees the miracles of Jesus as having significance for telling who he is. Jesus saying ‘I am’ is an expression rare in the other Gospels, but often appears in John, sometimes symbolically, (I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Bread of Life) but also as an absolute: ‘Before Abraham came to exist, I AM’. This picks the meaning of God’s special name in the Old Testament – ‘I am who I am’.
John makes much use of irony, often something will be said which is shown to have a deeper meaning. Misunderstanding is used frequently as a way of opening out Jesus’ teaching. In dialogues, the person will take the ‘ordinary’ meaning of a word (as Nicodemus on ‘being reborn’) and Jesus will then draw out the deeper meaning (as not from the mother’s womb but ‘born from above’).
Characters are well drawn, and John excels in dramatic scenes. Many of these are long, which makes them harder to use in a liturgical setting. Characters may have both a historic identity as well carry symbolic meanings. One of these is ‘the Mother of Jesus’ – who is never given the name Mary, but appears in two sections related to the ‘hour’ of Jesus’ glory. One character has caused much puzzlement: ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. Various identities have been suggested, the earliest being John son of Zebedee, and more recent suggestions include a woman, Mary Magdalene. The ‘Beloved Disciple’ is the one who has the clearest vision about Jesus in the Gospel, and this shows the possiblity he/she represents the ‘ideal disciple’ and could be entirely symbolic. This disciple helps the reader penetrate more deeply into the meaning of Jesus’ identity and ministry.
Women have important roles in John, in addition to his Mother and Mary Magdalene, there is the unnamed Samaritan woman who carries on a theological discourse with Jesus at Jacob’s well (Chapter 4) and the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha also being led in dialogue to understand Jesus’ power (Chapter 11).
In John, Jesus speaks often in long ‘discourses’ explaining aspects of his life and the meaning of it. (The Bread of Life in Chapter 6 is one example.) There are two chapters at the Last Supper which give what might be called Jesus’ ‘last will and testament’. Because of the length and the complexity of these discourses, like the dramatic scenes they do not fit easily into the usual space of the liturgical gospels. An exception is the Passion and last days of Jesus life. John’s account is given ‘pride of place’ on Good Friday, and his resurrection stories feature in the readings of Easter time.
One problem in John is the use of the term ‘the Jews’ for Jesus’ opponents, where the other three gospels have the historical accuracy of ‘scribes, Pharisees and high priest.’ John treating ‘the Jews’ as separate from Jesus and his disciples has come into the gospel from the later time when the Christians had separated from the synagogue and when there was opposition felt on both sides. Of course Jesus and his disciples were ethnically Jews as much as the temple authorities. Biblical scholars emphasise that John’s term does not justify any prejudice against the Jews of our time – something all the more important at the present with so much violence in many places against people of differing religions.
Because of the complexity of John, commentaries can be very helpful, but the longer ones require some dedicated study. I will be using especially in my notes, what has been called the ‘gold standard’ commentary, two volumes of Raymond E. Brown. Recently I found Written That You May Believe by Sandra M. Schneiders, with whom I had the privilege of studying when I did my MA in the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. This book has the added advantage of giving a good introduction to feminist biblical insights. There are a variety of other commentaries of differing lengths. For a simple guide to John, I would recommend The New Testament Freshly Translated by Nicholas King, quoted above. He gives short but useful notes to each section.
The great focus in John is on the union that disciples have with Jesus, and as well, the Father and the Spirit. This is much clearer in this Gospel than in the other three. It appears in various ways, from the opening of ‘dwelt among us’ and especially in the ‘last discourse’ which John sets the night before Jesus’ death. This has made it an important message for all Christians and one to read on our own in all the liturgical Years – A, B and C. May you find it rewarding!
Joan Griffith, 2015