Gospel of John: the Spiritual Gospel and How it Portrays Jesus

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John in an Armenian Gospel Manuscript

The Gospel of John — the so-called "spiritual gospel" which presents Jesus as the "Stranger from Heaven" — stands apart from the other three and is teh favorite gospel of many people. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Not only is the fourth Gospel the most poetic and ‘spiritual’ of Gospels, it’s also the most theologically weighty. It’s in John that Christians find the evidence for many of the dogmatic claims that form the bedrock of Christian belief. And it’s John that supplies the pithy quotes about faith, eternal life, and love that you find on coffee mugs and laminated bookmarks. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, March 8, 2020]

Marilyn Mellowes told PBS: “"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and through him were all things made." These words of the opening prologue of the fourth gospel provide a clue to the nature of this work: it stands apart from the three synoptic gospels. It has often been called the "spiritual gospel" because of the way that it portrays Jesus. Tradition has credited John, the son of Zebedee and an apostle of Jesus, with the authorship of the fourth gospel. Most scholars dispute this notion; some speculate that the work was actually produced by a group of early Christians somewhat isolated from other early Christian communities. Tradition also places its composition in or near Ephesus, although lower Syria or Lebanon are more likely locations. The most likely time for the completion of this gospel is between 90 and 110 CE.” [Source: Marilyn Mellowes, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

According to PBS: “John's gospel is different from the other three in the New Testament. That fact has been recognized since the early church itself. Already by the year 200, John's gospel was called the spiritual gospel precisely because it told the story of Jesus in symbolic ways that differ sharply at times from the other three. For example, Jesus dies on a different day in John's gospel than in Matthew, Mark and Luke.... Whereas in the three synoptic gospels Jesus actually eats a passover meal before he dies, in John's gospel he doesn't. The last supper is actually eaten before the beginning of passover. So that the sequence of events leading up to the actual crucifixion are very different for John's gospel. And one has to look at it in say, why is the story so different? How do we account for these differences in terms of the way the story-telling developed? And the answer becomes fairly clear when we realize that Jesus has had the last supper a day before so that he's hanging on the cross during the day of preparation before the beginning of Passover. [Source: Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Websites and Resources: Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org

P52 from John: the Oldest New Testament Fragment

P52 — a fragment of the Gospel of John (a.k.a. John Rylands P457) — is the oldest known manuscript fragment of the New Testament. Written in Greek on a 3.5- inch- long and 2.5-inch wide piece of papyrus, it consists of seven lines on each side written between A.D. 125 and –150. P52 was discovered in Egypt in 1920 by Bernard P. Grenfell and is currently located in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. [Source: kchanson.com]



Translation: Therefore Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." The Judeans said to him, "It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death." This was to fulfill the word which Jesus had spoken to show by what death he would die. Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, "Are you the king of the Judeans?" [Source: translation by K. C. Hanson]


Translation: Therefore Pilate said to him, "Then you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into society: to witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice." Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went out to the Judeans again, and he told them, "I find no crime in him." [Source: translation by K. C. Hanson]

Gospel of John: the Spiritual Gospel

Jesus appears to Mary by Rembrandt, John 20:14

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “So here's the scene in John's gospel: on the day leading up to Passover, and Passover will commence at 6 o'clock with the evening meal, on the day leading up to that Passover meal is the day when all the lambs are slaughtered and everyone goes to the temple to get their lamb for the passover meal. In Jerusalem this would have meant thousands of lambs being slaughtered all at one time. And in John's gospel that's the day on which Jesus is crucified. So that quite literally the dramatic scene in John's gospel has Jesus hanging on the cross while the lambs are being slaughtered for passover. John's gospel is forcing us, dramatically at least, through the storytelling mode, to think of Jesus as a passover lamb. Jesus doesn't eat a passover meal, Jesus is the passover meal, at least within the Christian mind in the way that John tells the story. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Now this theme of the Lamb of God, the Passover symbolism, actually is shot through the entirety of John's gospel. From the very first scene of John's gospel when Jesus enters the story for the first time, he does so by coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. And when Jesus enters, John sees him coming and looks and says, "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." So the whole story is now bracketed by this one motif, the Lamb of God. And of course that's the kind of symbolism that would eventually become one of the most profound and dominant in all of Christian theological tradition. Later on we will find just that one image a lamb showing up in all kinds of Christian art from the catacombs to the great mosaics at Ravenna because in just that small little capsule form we have a whole theological tradition wrapped up. It's a theological statement about the significance of the death of Jesus.

“The symbolism of John's gospel while it is probably the most evocative of any in the New Testament, is also provocative. The language of John's gospel is intentionally antagonistic at times toward Jewish tradition and toward Jewish sensitivities. The idea of the Passover of course is very Jewish but John tends to turn some of those ideas in a much sharper way against Jewish tradition. At one point in John 6 Jesus says, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you will have no life in you." But the idea of drinking blood is absolutely abhorrent to Jewish dietary regulations. So the very language and the symbolism that is so rich within John's gospel also has a decidedly political tone to it in terms of the evolving relationship between Jews and Christians. John's gospel is witness to a Christianity that's moving farther and father away from Jewish tradition. And in fact it's seeing Jewish tradition often as actually hostile to the Christian movement.

Gospel of John Stands Apart

Jesus and Nicodemus

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “The Gospel of John, of course, stands apart from the other three gospels. For one reason, simply because Matthew and Luke use common sources. They both use the gospel of Mark. They both use the so-called synoptic sayings gospel, and therefore great similarities are evident, particularly the outline of the ministry of Jesus. Now the Gospel of John has some relationships to the sources used by the other gospels.... The passion narrative in John is essentially the same as the passion narrative in Mark, Matthew, Luke and in the Gospel of Peter. The other thing that is common with the other gospels is a chain of miracle stories.... [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“What makes the Gospel of John different is another element. And that's the element of Jesus' discourses and dialogues with the disciples. Now what are those? They are not comparable to collections of sayings of Jesus that we have, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount. They're very different, because the collections of sayings strings those sayings together with almost never a question of the disciples interfering. It's just a collection. Now what we have in the speeches and dialogues of Jesus in the Gospel of John is not a collection of traditional materials, but is ultimately a reflection on traditional materials. That is, the Gospel of John constructs the speeches of Jesus in an effort to interpret traditional sayings of Jesus.

“I'll give you a very obvious example, the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus and recognizes he is a great teacher, he's come from God, and Jesus now tells him something that is, in fact, the quotation of a traditional baptismal saying. "Unless you're reborn, you will not enter the Kingdom of God." This saying is found in other contexts; a second century apologist, Justin Martyr, quotes the same saying in his report of the Christian baptismal liturgy.... Now John takes that saying as the basis of the development of dialogue. He changes the saying somewhat, so that Nicodemus understands the rebirth not to be a rebirth by the spirit from above, but physical rebirth, and therefore says, "How can anybody who has gotten old now go back to his mother's womb and be reborn?" And this gives the occasion now for the explanation of what this saying of Jesus means. And that explanation fills the whole rest of the chapter....

“Essentially all the major speeches of John are developed out of traditional sayings materials. And what is interesting here is that some of these sayings have parallels in the sayings we find in the synoptic gospels. But some of the sayings also have parallels which we now find in the Gospel of Thomas. So John draws on a different set of traditional sayings of Jesus than do the first three gospels of the New Testament.

Gnostic view of Jesus and wisdom

Jesus in John

Marilyn Mellowes wrote: “If Matthew's Jesus resembles Moses and Luke's Jesus resembles a Greek philosopher or a semi-divine hero, John's Jesus resembles the Jewish ideal of heavenly Wisdom. Some Jewish works written several hundred years before John's gospel portrayed Wisdom as God's heavenly consort. This Wisdom, pictured as a beautiful woman, lived with God and participated in creation. Another part of the myth regarding her was that she descended to earth to impart divine knowledge to human beings. But she was rejected and so returned to God. [Source: Marilyn Mellowes, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Another interesting feature of John's gospel is that Jesus speaks in long monologues, rather than pithy statements or parables. He openly proclaims his divinity and insists that the only way to the Father is through him. Motifs of light and darkness are woven throughout the gospel: these are not simply literary motifs, but devices that give clues about the community for which John was written.

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “Jesus in the Gospel of John is difficult to reconstruct as an historical person, because his character in the gospel is in full voice giving very developed theological soliloquies about himself. It's not the sort of thing that if you try to put in a social context would appeal to a large number of followers. Because it's so much Christian proclamation and Christian imagery, and it's very developed. It's a very developed Christology. Jesus must have had some kind of popular following or else he wouldn't have ended up killed by Rome. If the historical Jesus was saying the sorts of things that John's Jesus said, he probably would have been fairly safe. It would have been very difficult for early first century Jews to have tracked what that Jesus was saying. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston Universitym Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Themes in John

Professor Allen D. Callahan told PBS: “Each of the gospel writers has certain concerns that he must address, certain questions that he must answer, and certain crises that he must negotiate. [In] the fourth gospel, the gospel according to John, Jesus' relation to Jerusalem and the Jerusalem authorities is more of a concern. There are more people in the dramatis personae of John's gospel who hailed from Judea. We encounter some figures there that we don't encounter anywhere else in gospel traditions. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea. These are Jerusalemite non-priestly elites. One of the things that this suggests is that the sources of the fourth gospel are closer to this social stratum of people and their concerns. Not so, for Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Galilean traditions are the signal traditions there, and so Jesus' activity in the Galilee and among people in Northern Judea have pride of place. W “When we look at the concerns of these differences, the concerns that are suggested or reflected in these differences, one of the ways of explaining [these] differences, is seeing that they're coming from different points and different strata of Palestinian society. [Source: Allen D. Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Marilyn Mellowes wrote: “The central theme of this work is ascent/descent. Jesus is presented as one who travels freely between the dual realms of heaven and earth. As Wayne Meeks has written, he is "the Stranger from Heaven." He — and he alone — knows the Father; belief in him is the only way to reach the Father, the only way to salvation. The believers of John's community can see into this spiritual and redeeming cosmos; their opponents cannot.

Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt

“The opponents of Jesus are "the Jews", who cannot or will not recognize who he is. The author of John deliberately creates a story that may be interpreted on two levels. That is, the story that John tells of Jesus' encounter with the Jews consciously parallels the tensions between John's community and its contemporary Jewish opponents. His community is being expelled from the synagogues, because they believe in Jesus as the Messiah; the Jews in John's gospel simply cannot grasp his true identity. They constantly ask "Where are you from?" and "Where are you going?" Jesus responds by saying where he is going they cannot go; they think that he intends to travel abroad. "Does he intend to go to the Diaspora among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?" In this gospel, the Jews cannot know because they are from the darkness; Jesus and his followers are from the light: "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this cosmos, I am not of this cosmos." (8:23)

“These themes of light and dark, knowing and unknowing, converge in the crucifixion of Jesus. John makes a deliberate pun on the Greek word "to be crucified", which also means "to be lifted up." As in the other gospels, the end is not the end. John describes the scene of the empty tomb and Jesus' appearance among the disciples. Thomas still doubts that the figure before him is really Jesus. Jesus instructs him to feel the wound at his side, whereupon Thomas is convinced. Jesus, in a telling reference to those who accept him, says: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

“Just as Jesus addresses his disciples, the author of John addresses his community. And he offers them reassurance: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name." (JN 20:30-31). “As Paula Fredriksen has written, "They could thus see themselves as they saw their Savior: alone in the darkness, yet the light of the world."

Jesus’s Community in John

Professor Allen D. Callahan told PBS: “Jesus emerges differently in these portraits. Clearly those who identify more strongly with Northern Palestinian traditions and concerns and identify with problems that are characteristic of Galilee... are going to depict a Jesus who has more to say about those things. Now, let's say such people who hail from Northern Palestine, have, in so many words, written off the priestly establishment in Jerusalem. They have no "in" with those people. They're alienated from them. They're not going to be concerned with what went on in various strata [of] Judean society, how certain Judean people responded to Jesus, how certain people responded to the Jesus movement. However, in John's gospel, there's some indication that among Jerusalemite elites there was [a] split. There are some non-priestly elite types who sympathize with Jesus.... The priestly establishment, as a whole, are clearly the bad guys. John is very clear about this. But this distinction between the priestly and the non-priestly elites is very interesting. It's a distinction which John is very careful to make, that the synoptic tradition, as a whole, is not very careful to make. That this decision to condemn Jesus and the machinations that were involved to send Jesus to the cross are blamed on a particular sub-set of Jewish leadership. John shows us exactly who's responsible, within the Jerusalemite ruling elite, for Jesus' execution....

John and Marcion of Sinope, the leader of on offbeat Christoian sect

“Well, I think the distinction that I just described rightly complicates that generalization because it's a dangerous one. Historically, it's proven to be very dangerous. It's not just a misconstrual of the evidence that we have. It's a very tendentious misconstrual.... John's drama is at pains to show that a certain subset of Israelite leadership railroaded Jesus. That's very important for him. Perhaps, as we move farther away from Judea, that picture, or at least the crispness of that picture, is compromised by other concerns. And so I would characterize the synoptic tradition, as perhaps a move away from the center of events, in terms of the juridicial machinations that resulted in Jesus' execution. And that focus is then compromised by other concerns that are mediated through the reporting of Galilean traditions.

“Well this certainly isn't as clear before the war. I see the Jesus movement as yet another option within what we identify as Judaism, that complex of people and institutions and traditions of ancient Israel. So Jesus is a new option at the end of the first century. It's not clear before the war that it's mutually exclusive [from other options]. There are still some kind of conversations going on with other parts of Judaism and those conversations are apparently substantive, even though they're not altogether unproblematic....

Jesus’s Enemies in John

Marilyn Mellowes wrote: John’s community “was a community under stress. The gospel itself suggests that its members were in conflict with the followers of John the Baptist and were undergoing a painful separation from Judaism. The group itself was probably undergoing desertion and internal conflict. [Source: Marilyn Mellowes, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Jesus is depicted as having enemies in all the gospels. In John, again, the Pharisees come in for their typical negative role. The chief priests, and the high priests move against Jesus and engineer the ambush in Gesthemane. But there's no trial before the Sanhedrin in John. There's no face-off between the chief priest and Jesus in John the way there is very dramatically in Mark, where there are not one, but two full meetings of the entire priestly court, the night after this incredibly long day of Passover. So, Jesus' enemies are really provided to give a kind of dimension to the plot. But the story of John's Jesus is really the story of this divine figure who comes from above and appears to the world below. And then, as he's hanging on the cross, in a scene that's curiously leeched of pathos and anguish, he says, "It is finished." And that's where the gospel's complete.

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “As any parent of a two year old knows, the first two words a child masters when forming its own identity [are], "Mine" and "No". And I think if we look at the Gospel of John, what we see is a kind of very architectural hostility, shaped inside the story of Jesus. Because this community is developing its own identity vis a vis the synagogue across the street. I mean, in one sense, if we remove the Gospel of John from the Christian canon, if we didn't have it right next to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and instead, if we put the gospel of John next to the Dead Sea Scroll library, we'd see the sorts of issues that Jews fight about forever. You know, this guy's the Prince of Darkness... this one isn't any good, this is the only right way to do it...this is the sort of dynamic that we get, shaping the way John presents Jesus' life in that particular gospel. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston Universitym Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Who Actually Wrote the Gospel of John

When it comes to who wrote the Gospel of John, Christian tradition attributes it to an apostle, known in the text as the disciple “whom Jesus loved” and identified by early church writers as the disciple John. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: It is this beloved disciple who keeps watch with Mary the mother of Jesus at the cross. As Jesus draws close to death, he sees his already-grieving mother and devoted follower standing together and says “woman, here is your son” and, to the disciple, “here is your mother.” It’s a scene of great compassion in which Jesus encourages his mother and dearest friend to take solace in their relationship with one another. The supposed closeness of Jesus and the beloved disciple has meant that the beloved disciple (AKA John) is a central figure in Christian art. In Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” for example, it is the beloved disciple who sits beside Jesus. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, March 8, 2020]

The Gospel presents itself as the work of an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ ministry and death. It doesn’t say it was written by John but instead states that it is the work of a “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who “testifies” to what he has seen (1:14; 19:35; 21:24). Eyewitness testimony here is an important point in the Gospel. It is because the one who wrote the Gospel had seen these things happen and written them down that “we know that his testimony is true” (21:24).

In addition to the fourth Gospel, Christian tradition maintains that John also wrote three “Johannine” letters (1, 2, and 3 John), which are also a part of the New Testament and are evidence of John’s leadership among early followers of Jesus. Like the Gospel of John these letters are anonymous: the author of 1 John claims to be an eyewitness who “testifies” to what he has “seen and heard” (1:2–3). The author of 2 and 3 John identifies himself only as “the elder” (2 Jn 1:1; 3 Jn 1:1), but also suggests that he was a witness to the Jesus story.

Since the 1960s many scholars have argued that ‘John’ (it might have been a different disciple because the text doesn’t give a name) founded his own community and wrote the Gospel. Academics, who have recognized that the Johannine letters are thematically similar but stylistically distinct from the Gospel, don’t think that they were written by the author of the fourth Gospel but that they were nevertheless the product of the same “Johannine Community.” The picture painted here is one in which a community of followers of Jesus, led and founded by someone who knew Jesus personally, produced all of these texts. There are numerous academic books and articles out there that try to chart the history of this community, its literary output, its social structure, location, and origins.

Reading the New Testament closely reveals that Mendez has some textual support for his argument. The famous scene at the cross, when the disciple whom Jesus loved stands with Mary and the women (19:25-27) never appears in any of the other gospels. In Mark and Luke, only women keep vigil at the cross. And while in John the disciple runs on ahead to Jesus’ tomb, in Luke Peter goes there alone. Mendez calls this the “Forrest Gump effect”: this character has been inserted into the narrative events in order to give them a first-person eyewitness flavor.

The fact that this character is so idealized — he always does the right thing, behaves appropriately and serves almost as a model for the audience — gives him a very artificial feel. In the Gospel of Mark, by contrast, the disciples have an almost pathological ability to disappoint their leader. Jesus’ favorites — Peter, James, and John — habitually say the wrong thing, fall asleep when they are supposed to be awake and, in the case of Peter, even deny knowing him.

Is Gospel of John a Forgery

Research published in March 2020 claimed that the Gospel of John is an ancient forgery. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: In a provocative and well-argued article published in the Journal for the Study of the New Testamen, Hugo Mendez, an assistant professor of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, argues that the so-called “Johannine community” never existed and that the Johannine literature are forgeries that claim to be written by a disciple even though they were not. Mendez told The Daily Beast, “I find it telling that we’ve never found a trace of anything like a ‘Johannine Christianity’ — no mentions in other ancient writings and no archeological traces. I think there’s a reason for that; I think the community never existed.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, March 8, 2020]

Instead, Mendez told me, “the Gospel of John, and the letters of 1 2, and 3 John are a chain of ancient literary forgeries.” Forgeries like this were, as Bart Ehrman showed in his Forgery and Counterforgery, very common among early Christians. Two second-century early Christian texts — the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Peter — claim to have been written by disciples of Jesus but were actually written by others.

In his article Mendez argues that the author of the Gospel of John used the same strategy in order to endow his work with greater credibility. The “beloved disciple” and “elder” referred to in the Johannine corpus are what he calls “literary masks.” There’s no point trying to reconstruct a community of followers around them “because they never existed.”

The article is sure to elicit some disagreement, but it also has supporters who welcome the introduction of new perspectives to the study of John and appreciate the way in which he dismantles the idea of a “Johannine community.”Harold Attridge, the Sterling professor of Divinity at Yale Divinity School told The Daily Beast, “Mendez has offered a vigorous challenge to the scholarly impulse to infer social realities from the texts of the Gospel and Epistles of John. His work will no doubt provoke a useful debate about the methods of analyzing early Christian social realities and literary practices.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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