(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Gospel of John, or the fourth Gospel, is narrower than the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in the compass of its themes, yet perhaps it penetrates more directly and deeply into the mystery of the person of God’s Son. The Gospel is the last, the most artistic from a literary point of view, the most reflective, and the most explicitly theological of the canonical accounts of Jesus. Written late in the first century c.e. at a time when Jewish Christians were no longer welcome in synagogues and when Gentile Christians formed a minority in Greco-Roman society, its purpose was to lay out sufficient evidence pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the one sent by God to reinforce the faith of believers and to commend Jesus to the rest of the world.

To say that the Gospel of John is anonymous is technically true, for the author alludes to himself merely as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and does not supply his name. The unanimous and uncontested consensus of the church fathers, including the scribes who appended titles to the Gospel records from about the year 125 c.e. and the numerous bishops and elders of Asia Minor (now Turkey) in the second century who claimed to have known the author face to face during his period of residence at Ephesus after he fled Palestine during the Jewish/Roman war that ended in 70 c.e., is that the beloved disciple was John, the son of Zebedee, a member of the twelve who were closest to Jesus. With this identification, the internal facts are congruent, though the case is not conclusive enough to forestall critics who are inclined to propose alternatives, and indeed the latter hold sway in the field of scholarship.

The general structure of the Gospel is straightforward. A prologue (1:1-18) states the thesis that God’s eternal Word became flesh and lived among us and was rejected by many but was received by some, who recognized him as God’s supreme self-expression. Roughly the first half of the Gospel has Jesus revealing himself by sign and discourse to an ever more disbelieving and hostile world (1:19, chapter 12). Then he focuses on the small circle of those who have indeed believed in him, to commission them to carry on in his footsteps after his imminent departure (chapters 13-17). There follows an account of Jesus’ passion, death, and burial (chapters 18-19) and of several of his appearances to his disciples in his state of resurrection (chapters 20-21).

Already in the opening paragraph, the living Word is the creative source of life and light for the human race. These two key concepts unify the miracles of Jesus that the author has selected to signify Jesus’ divine power to vivify and illumine those who believe in him: turning water into wine, healing a royal official’s son of a fatal illness, healing an invalid by the pool of Bethzatha, multiplying bread and fish to feed a crowd of five thousand, walking on the sea, opening the eyes of a man born blind, and the crowning sign, the resuscitation of his friend Lazarus...

(The entire section is 1261 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Ashton, John. Understanding the Fourth Gospel. Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1991. An insightful and learned assessment of the main problems in the history of critical scholarship on the Gospel of John.

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the Gospel of John. Edited by Francis J. Moloney. Anchor Bible Reference Library series. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Acquaints the reader with the current state of research on critical issues behind the Gospel of John.

Köstenberger, Andreas. John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004. A traditional commentary on the text of the Gospel of John, interacting with the most important former commentaries.

Smith, D. Moody. The Theology of the Gospel of John. New Testament Theology series. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Organizes and summarizes the main ideas presented in the Gospel of John.