Modern Interpretation of John
Though sharing the basic outline of Jesus’ ministry, as well as some sayings and incidents, John places Jesus’ ministry mostly in Judea, not in Galilee; and omits several important episodes of Jesus’ life, such as His birth, baptism, transfiguration, exorcism of demons, and agony in Gethsemane. The Last Supper and the prophetic discourse are also missing. Another difference is the portrayal of Jesus Himself. Important emphases in John, such as Jesus’ full divinity and pre‑existence, are virtually absent from the Synoptics.
The Johannine Jesus does not use narrative parables—not even the word "parable" itself—or short sayings., but preferably long and thoughtful discourses. He is also constantly using words that are scarcely used in the other Gospels (e.g., love, to love, truth, true, to know, to work, world, to abide, to judge, to send, to witness) and prefers speaking of Himself metaphorically as the bread of heaven, the true vine, the good shepherd, the door, and the light of the world.
Most significant, however, are the miracles of Jesus, which in John seem to be more extraordinary than those reported by the other evangelists. New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann is correct when he says of the Fourth Gospel: “Judged by the modern concept of reality, our Gospel is more fantastic than any other writing of the New Testament.”1
In 1776, however, J. J. Griesbach broke off from such an approach, contending that all four Gospels cannot be treated together. In his synopsis of the Gospels, he ignored the Gospel of John almost completely and simply placed together the parallel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke for the purpose of comparison.
The separation of John’s Gospel from the others was not in itself hermeneutically wrong, but once separated, its differences and peculiarities came to the fore at a time when the Enlightenment was starting to impact biblical interpretation. For one thing, newer and more critical approaches to the Bible were felt necessary, particularly in relation to the use and handling of historical evidence, which were entirely distorted, to say the least, especially because of the old theory of verbal inspiration and inerrancy of every part of Scripture. For another thing, biblical interpretation was made hostage of a radical rationalism, that is, the rejection of any form of supernaturalism and the consequent abandonment of the very notion of inspiration itself, so that ultimately the Bible became nothing more than an ancient document to be studied as any other ancient document.
If the Fourth Gospel was not history (biography) or an account historically reliable, what was it then? It did not take long for alternative theories to appear. In 1835, D. F. Strauss introduced the term myth to describe the content of John; other terms that were used in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th include idea, philosophy, allegory, and theology.
Whatever the term, the idea was the same: The Gospel of John was not the personal testimony of an eyewitness, the best loved of Jesus’ disciples, and its account should not be taken historically. The modern mind could no longer accept at the mere historical level what was felt to be nothing else but the expression of a religious idea in concrete form by an ancient writer.
The notion that John’s Gospel was not history but was written to convey a theological idea found a creative expression in F. C. Baur, in the mid‑19th century. For Baur, John was not an apostolic document, but a post‑Pauline Christian reflection whose purpose was to promote the concept of a unified (Catholic) church. As such, it could not have been written before the second half of the second century, and, of course, was not historically reliable. “The Johannine Gospel,” he said, “from beginning to end . . . has no concern for a purely historical account, but for the presentation of an idea which has run its ideal course in the march of events of the Gospel story.”3
Although Baur’s positions were too artificial and exegetically indefensible, his influence on subsequent Johannine scholarship was remarkable. The so‑called Tübingen School, of which he was the leading figure, dominated the scene for an entire generation. At the turn of the 20th century, only a few conservative interpreters still held the traditional view that this Gospel was the testimony of John the son of Zebedee.
It is true that not all of Bultmann’s ideas gained universal acceptance, even among more radical Johannine scholarship. It is also true that, despite all the challenges, several conservative scholars continued to maintain a more traditional view of John’s authorship and date. But in the first half of the 20th century, there was widespread consensus on at least three points: (1) The fourth evangelist was not a direct eyewitness and therefore had to depend on sources; (2) his background was not Jewish; and (3) his Gospel was actually not about the historical Jesus but about the Christ of faith, that is, it is a theological expression of the church’s faith late in the second century and read back into the life of Jesus.
But then things began to change, and archaeology played an important role in this change.
Archaeology and John’s Gospel
Despite its size, the significance of this papyrus for the interpretation of John cannot be overemphasized: It is a material evidence that this Gospel was circulating in Egypt already at the beginning of the second century and, as such, it contradicts those theories according to which John was not written until the second half of the second century. This shows, among other things, the inadequacy of Baur’s description of earliest Christianity. In fact, not only John but all New Testament documents are now generally assigned to the first century. It is not altogether impossible, thus, that the Fourth Gospel was authored by an eyewitness to Jesus. In any case, it would not be necessarily removed from the world and setting it portrays.
In fact, the number of John’s topographical references is rather unique within the New Testament. There are 13 such references, and if details not mentioned in the Synoptics are included, the number increases to 20. In a time when most interpreters believed John was fictional, these references were treated as symbolic rather than historical recollections. According to Albright, however, considering the degree of the devastation created in Palestine and especially in Jerusalem by the Roman armies and also the almost complete break in the continuity of Christian presence in those areas after the war, any correct data that could be validated archaeologically or topographically must have been carried into the Diaspora in oral form by Christian refugees. Indeed, later Christian tradition does tell of the escape of some Christians from Jerusalem to Pella in Transjordan.
In an updated, comprehensive survey of the archaeological status of all topographical references in John, Urban C. von Wahlde indicates that of the 20 Johannine sites, 16 have been identified with certainty: Bethsaida (1:44); Cana (2:1, 11; 4:46‑54; 21:2); Capernaum (2:12; 4:46; 6:17, 24); the harbor (6:24, 25); the synagogue (v. 59); Jacob’s well (4:4‑6); Mount Gerizim (4:20); the location of Sychar (4:5); the Sheep Gate (5:2); the pool(s) of Bethesda (5:2); Tiberias (6:1, 23; 21:2); the pool of Siloam (9:1‑9); Bethany, near Jerusalem (11:1‑17; 12:1‑11); Ephraim (11:54); the Kidron Valley (18:1); the Praetorium (18:28, 33; 19:9); Golgotha (19:17, 18, 20, 41); and the tomb of Jesus (19:41, 42). Of the remaining four, two can be narrowed to within a relatively restricted area: the place in the temple precincts for the keeping of animals (2:13‑16) and the place where Pilate brought Jesus (19:13); the other two are still highly controversial: Aenon near Salim (3:23) and Bethany beyond the Jordan (1:28; 10:40).6
In his concluding observations, von Wahlde makes two important statements. The first is that archaeology has confirmed the remarkable accuracy of the topographical information in John, with a great number of details provided in some instances. As a matter of fact, he says, “It is precisely those places described in the greatest detail,” as in the case of the pools of Bethesda, the place of crucifixion, and the location of Jesus’ tomb, “that can be identified with the greatest certitude.” The second statement is that there is “no credible evidence to suggest that any of the twenty sites is simply fictitious or symbolic.” Though acknowledging the possibility of some sites having a secondary symbolic meaning, von Wahlde concludes that “the intrinsic historicity and accuracy of the references should be beyond doubt.”7
Despite the premature identifications endorsed by Albright, his main contention remains valid: John’s early Palestinian and Judean topographical references must derive from Diaspora Christians in the Greco‑Roman world, probably by means of orally conveyed tradition. This means that instead of a second‑century creation completely detached from the time and places of the events it describes, the Gospel of John does contain good, ancient reminiscences, which necessarily favors the authenticity of its content. As Paul N. Anderson declares, “Albright’s archaeological contribution forced biblical scholars to consider again significant aspects of Johannine historicity, having been sidestepped by the previous century or more of critical scholarship.”8
Careful investigation, however, has led most scholars to reject this hypothesis. Simply put, the Nag Hammadi documents do not furnish any evidence at all of a pre‑Christian Gnostic redeemer, as described by Bultmann and several others, that might have influenced the theology and literature of the Gentile churches, of which John’s Gospel would be the finest example. If these documents allowed, for the first time, Bible scholars to encounter the Gnostics in their own words, they also witness to the distance that exists between Gnostic ideas and those of the New Testament. Arthur D. Nock says that the Nag Hammadi writings confirm what is already implicit in the church fathers, namely, that Gnosticism was indeed a second‑century “Christian heresy with roots in speculative thought.”9
The final discovery to help rescue the reputation of John’s Gospel for historical reliability was the Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered in 1947 near Khirbet Qumran, close to the ruins of an ancient Jewish settlement, the scrolls consist of a large number of biblical manuscripts, mostly fragmentary, and of other documents as well. Since they have been shown on the basis of paleography and carbon‑14 tests to date from the period of Christian origins (200 B.C.–A.D. 70), these documents are of great interest not only to Old Testament research and the history of Judaism, but also to New Testament scholarship, particularly in relation to John’s background. The scrolls have made it plain that even before the Christian era there already existed in Palestine a literary setting in which Jewish, Greek, and even pre‑Gnostic religious ideas were combined in a way that once was thought to be unique to John and of the second century onward.
Parallels and points of contact between the scrolls of Qumran and John are numerous, and this has been decisive in establishing the fundamental Jewishness of the Fourth Gospel. It is no longer necessary, nor correct, to appeal to an eventual second‑century Hellenistic or Gnostic milieu to explain the distinctiveness of this Gospel. Though the conceptual and theological differences between John and Qumran should not be overlooked, the similarities in vocabulary and images are of great importance in determining the nature of Johannine tradition: It is now possible to demonstrate that this tradition is much closer to that of Christianity itself than it had previously been thought possible.
Recent Johannine Scholarship
By explicitly referring to the Dead Sea Scrolls and other archaeological findings that vindicated John’s knowledge of the topography and institutions of Palestine prior to the Jewish war, Robinson spoke of what appeared to him to be straws in the wind, but which he was inclined to take seriously, because all of the straws were blowing in the same direction. Then, at the end of the article he expressed his conviction that Johannine tradition is not the result of a later development, but goes back to the earliest days of Christianity.12 So the question whether John’s material is historically reliable or theologically conditioned, that is, whether the author should be regarded as a witness to the Jesus of history or to the Christ of faith only, Robinson’s answer was clear: “Because he [John] is the New Testament writer who, theologically speaking, takes history more seriously than any other, he has at least the right to be heard—on the history as well as on the theology.”13
Though few have accepted Martyn’s thesis in all of its details, virtually all Johannine interpreters became persuaded that despite being profoundly theological, John’s theology is not floating in the air, so to speak, totally isolated from or unaffected by history. This was indeed a huge advance in relation to previous research, and this is Martyn’s main contribution to Johannine studies, though he remained rather skeptical about the historicity of the Gospel story as a whole. It is true that he suggested that the Gospel preserves two historical levels, that of Jesus and that of the evangelist, but, in line with classical redaction criticism which was still under the influence of a strong anti‑supernaturalistic view of reality, he actually believed that the traditions about Jesus have been so thoroughly reshaped and rewritten in face of the prevailing circumstances at the evangelist’s time that the historical figure of that early first‑century Galilean can hardly be glimpsed through the Johannine lens.
After two or so decades, dissatisfaction over the value of historical‑critical approaches caused Johannine scholarship to follow two opposite directions. On one hand, several new interpretive methodologies were adopted, such as sociological and literary criticisms. The latter, for example, is essentially a postmodern and reader‑oriented approach that attempts to interpret the text without appealing to anything that lies outside or beyond it (e.g., its historical setting) and assuming its unity against all forms of source and redaction‑critical techniques. This means that the old questions of authorship and historicity lose their relevance altogether. On the other hand, and in part because of the same archaeological findings reported above, the issue of history in John was reopened and started to be tackled again in a much more straight and objective way than ever before.
Two twin areas of research in which long‑standing positions also soon began to change had to do with the genre of the Fourth Gospel and its relation with the Synoptics. Different as it is, John is not a theological treatise per se, but a Gospel, that is, a narrative of Jesus’ ministry, and as such it stands together with Mark, Matthew, and Luke. This is what it claims for itself (20:30, 31), and this is what it is.
Like the Synoptics, the Gospel of John begins with the appearance of John the Baptist and ends with the passion narrative, and everything is within a chronological framework that seems much more complete and accurate than theirs. Already in 1969, Käsemann was impressed by the fact that “John felt himself under constraint to compose a Gospel rather than letters or a collection of sayings” and found this to be detrimental to some of Bultmann’s arguments. “For it seems to me,” he said, “that if one has no interest in the historical Jesus, then one does not write a Gospel, but, on the contrary, finds the Gospel form inadequate.”16 Moreover, John’s author claims to be a direct eyewitness of at least some of the events he records (21:24; 19:34‑35; cf. 1:14), which strongly emphasizes the importance for him of Jesus as a historical figure. In 1 John, he is even more explicit on this (cf. 1:1‑3; 2:18‑25; 4:1‑3; 5:6‑9), and the Epistle would make little or no sense at all without the Gospel.
This led to a complete re-evaluation of the traditional consensus that John was dependent on the Synoptics. As early as 1938, P. Gardner‑Smith had already argued that John was written independently from the Synoptics, a thesis that was taken even further by C. H. Dodd, a couple of decades later, and which was congenial with the historical value of John. After an exhaustive analysis of the Gospel, Dodd concluded it was highly probable that the fourth evangelist employed an ancient (oral) tradition independent of the other Gospels and deserving serious consideration as a contribution to the knowledge of the historical facts concerning Jesus Christ. Independence, however, is not in itself equivalent to historicity, as dependence does not necessarily make a composition fictional. So, even if it can be demonstrated that John did know and used one (usually Mark) or more of the other Gospels, in view of the cumulative evidence this can no longer detract from John as containing genuine tradition.
It is puzzling that though having more archaeological and topographical material than all three Synoptics combined, there are still those who consider John to be entirely non‑historical. In this case, how to account for that material? Where did it come from and why was it included? Was it only for rhetorical effect or to lend a sense of realism to the narrative? One thing that needs to be said out loud is that the attitude that takes that material as a positive sign of the character and origin of the Johannine tradition should not be so quickly dismissed as a misuse of critical sensibility.
Johannine research is deeply indebted to archaeology. The theological and philosophical approach of post‑Enlightenment scholars, who seldom applied historical analysis to the Fourth Gospel, was severely crippled by a number of artifactual and topographical findings. Such findings called for a complete reassessment of the problem of history in this Gospel and gave rise to more objective discussions of several related issues. Though the archaeologist’s shovel will never be able to demonstrate the veracity of statements such as “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14),17 “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (3:16), and “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31), or episodes such as the miracle at Cana (2:1‑11), the feeding of the five thousand (6:1‑15), and the resurrection of Lazarus (11:17‑44), it has helped more than anything else to put John’s Jewishness, antiquity, and even historical likeliness on a firm foundation.
As for the historical reliability, though practically all scholars now agree that behind John’s material lie some good traditions, most of them continue to hold that a larger amount of that material still proves more suspicious than not. This, however, appears to be more the result of a presupposition that rejects supernaturalism than the conclusion of sustained argument. And this is where the discussion ends, for in the final account one’s reaction to this Gospel will always be bound to an individual decision, not so much to the weight of evidence (12:37; 20:29).
Wilson Paroschi, Ph.D., is Professor of New Testament at the Latin American Adventist Theological Seminary, Brazil Adventist University, São Paulo, Brazil.