John’s Gospel

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Trailer

A characteristic of John’s gospel is the proclamation of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God. From its magnificent prologue whose opening words match the opening words of the Pentateuch, to its concluding words urging faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the Gospel of John has as its central focus the revelation that in Christ, the Maker of the Universe, YHWH, the great ‘I Am’ takes flesh and lives among us.

One of the ways in which this conviction is expressed in the Gospel is through an extraordinary series of claims made by Jesus, all of which reveal different aspects of the divine reality and the relationship of that divine reality to human beings.

I AM the Living Bread
I AM the Light of the World
I AM the Good Shepherd
I AM the Way
I AM the True Vine
I AM the Resurrection and the Life
before Abraham was, I AM

Exploring: History and Geography

Geography/Archaeology

A comprehensive introduction to the places and locations in John’s gospel is given on a site organised by Felix Just SJ. This site, The Johannine Literature Web, provides an extraordinary array of online resources for the study of the fourth gospel and the other New Testament writings associated with the name of John. Articles from this site will be referred to several times in this module. The only cautionary comment to be made is that some of the student projects are not as accurate and insightful as the ones written or organised by Just himself.

Maps of Israel and Jerusalem in the Online Bible Atlas and a contoured map of Jerusalem indicate the lie of the land in the time of Jesus. A black and white printable map of Jerusalem is available, as is a black and white map of Israel.

A unique feature of the Gospel of John is the reference to several journeys of Jesus to Jerusalem. In contrast to the synoptic gospels, the fourth gospel shows Jesus making three and possibly four visits to the Holy City during his ministry.

The writer of the fourth gospel also shows considerable familiarity with the countryside and with Jerusalem itself. Evidence about locations in the gospel have been confirmed by archaeological discoveries. For instance, excavations in the late 19th century confirmed the existence in Jerusalem of the five porticos at the pool of Bethesda described in John but destroyed when the city was sacked in 70 CE while recent excavations have uncovered the original pool at Siloam.

History/politics/religion

A Portrait of Jesus’ World provides a good brief introduction to society at the time of Jesus, and a fine collection of primary texts in relation to the political, religious and cultural milieu of Jesus’ time is gathered on a site entitled Into His Own. These primary texts are immensely helpful in building up a picture of the Jewish/Hellenist society in which Jesus exercised his ministry and which formed the writers of the New Testament literature. The many quotations from ancient sources are well organised under clear headings. They supply a context for the emergence of Christianity and provide manageable excerpts for students learning how to work with primary texts. A brief article which suggests some questions to ask about primary sources may help you and your students get the best out of using them. Finally, a significant influence on first century religious thought (and some think, on the Gospel of John) was Gnosticism. It was gnostic distortions of Christian thought which led to the first efforts to clarify Christian belief. Scroll through another introductory article for a brief assessment of the impact of the various religious positions of the time on John.

Consider

  • Much has been made of the Hellenist influence on John’s gospel. Using the recommended sites and any other resources you have access to, define and describe Hellenism. What  political, social and intellectual impact did it have on first century Palestine?
  • Using the gospel and a black and white map trace as accurately as you can the movements of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John. Work out the distances for each journey and use this information to calculate approximately how far Jesus would have travelled during his ministry according to John’s gospel.
  • Produce either a powerpoint tour guide or an illustrated brochure tour guide of Galilee or Judaea, describing the places in these regions where, according to John, Jesus worked.
  • Research the region of Samaria indicating the main features of its geography (provide an annotated map), the main facts of its history and its religious heritage, explaining why there was such ill-feeling between Jews and Samaritans. Don’t forget to look at the primary document extracts on the Into His Own site.
  • What was gnosticism? What are some of its major teachings? What aspects of the Gospel of John suggest gnostic themes? Could the gospel have been written to combat gnosticism?

Examining: Genre and Author

Here the gospel genre is explained while Unlocking the Riches of John’s Gospel provides a brief introduction to the purpose and themes of the Fourth Gospel. Though traditionally John the apostle was held to be the author of the gospel, the scholarly consensus is that it is very difficult to establish with certainty the identity of its author. View a detailed discussion of the internal and external evidence of authorship arranged in an accessible format as well as a discussion of different hypotheses on another page of the same site.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave a talk to some theology students during which he explains how some of his own pre-conceptions of the Gospel of John have been challenged and changed over the years.

A further well considered introductory article The Gospel of John by William Cannon compares the gospel with the synoptic gospels. This article contains informed speculation about the probable identity of the author and date, as well as useful comments about the kind of writing used in all the gospels.

Consider

  • Is the Gospel according to John biography, history or theology?
  • Organise groups to analyse the internal and external evidence for authorship of the fourth gospel. Choose a couple of speakers to present the evidence. Invite the class to consider their verdict.
  • Could the Gospel writer have been a woman?

Examining: Time and Place

Several of the articles in the previous section have discussed the date and possible location of the writing of the Gospel of John. While biblical scholars often ascribed a late date of composition for the gospel because of its theological sophistication, most scholars suggest a date not much later than the synoptic gospels, the year 90 CE while some argue for an even earlier date. (Scroll through the document to read the discussion of the dating of John). The discovery of afragment of John’s gospel dated to 135 CE was instrumental in proving that the gospel was not written late in the second century as was surmised for some time. Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts (click on the ‘Palaeography’ icon across the top of the page) shows you how papyrus was prepared, and provides lots of other interesting information about the production of ancient documents.

Many scholars and especially Fr Raymond Brown suggest that the gospel arose in the context of a Johannine Community which may have gathered around the Apostle John and preserved traditions about Jesus distinctive to him. Fr Herman Hendrickx explains this Johannine Communityand how it may have come about. In doing so he revisits some of the discussion of authorship and dating already covered but includes an introduction to some of the groups included in the text of the Gospel itself.

Ephesus is often suggested as the place where the gospel originated, as John (if he indeed wrote the gospel) was thought to have gone there to live and work after the death of Peter and Paul. Whether or not this is so, the architectural remains of Ephesus are among the best preserved of the New Testament sites and give a fine sense of the Roman milieu in which the gospels were first received. Click on the interactive map button under the statue of Artemis on a tourist guide to Ephesus to see an impressive panoramic map of the town’s ancient ruins, which identifies many of the buildings. Other scholars suggest a Palestinian location for the writing of the Gospel. Certainly its writer was familiar with the features of Palestine and the layout of Jerusalem as archaeology has ascertained.

Consider

  • Why did some biblical scholars conclude that John’s Gospel was written so much later than the synoptic gospels? Outline the argument that John was written even earlier than the other gospels. What dating seems most likely to you?
  • Use the image of the Rylands fragment (a torn scrap of papyrus on which is written words from John 18:31–33), the Alexandrian (Greek) translation of John 18:31–33 and the manuscripts section of Jesus.com to see if you can decipher some of the Greek words of the fragment yourself.
  • In groups devise a crossword puzzle based on theories about the background and setting of John’s gospel.
  • What do the ruins/artefacts of Ephesus tell us about the culture and populace of a Hellenic city in Asia Minor in the first century? What would have been the biggest challenges confronting those preaching the gospel in such a place?

Encountering: Reading the Text

There are many sites which provide versions of John’s gospel online. A reliable and well set out version is the New Revised Standard Version, the standard English version often recommended for study purposes by New Testament scholars.

The New American Bible is a modern Catholic translation used in the Liturgy in America, with helpful introductions to each book of the Bible. The poetic The King James Version is one of the early English translations. Gospel Parallels is an arrangement of the four canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—in columns so that you can see similarities and differences in the texts at a glance. A new video film entitled The Gospel of John was released in 2004. It is a dramatised narration of the Good News version of the Gospel of John, faithful to the text, which could be  useful for class use. Reviews have been extremely positive on the whole, though some make the point that the discursive style inevitably impedes the dramatic impact. However, the discourses are seen in the context of Jesus’ actions, and so are true to the intention of the gospel.

Consider

  • Read the Gospel of John in two or three sittings so that you get an overall sense of the gospel. Note the parts that make a special impression on you, or parts that puzzle you or are difficult to understand. Compare your notes with someone else.
  • Extract the ‘signs’ excerpts from the gospel to be read together in class. Note where these signs occur in the gospel, who witnesses them and their significance. Why might John’s gospel sometimes be called ‘the gospel of signs’?
  • As a point of comparison, read the beginning of each of the gospels on the gospel parallels site. They are set out in columns and are easy to compare. The very first verses of each of the gospels are important because they set out what the writer is hoping to do. What frame of reference is set for the fourth gospel by its beginning?
  • If you are able to view The Gospel of John write review notes for the film or set up an ‘At the Movies’ style panel discussion of the film.

Encountering: Studying the Text

Introductory Sites

As he does for the synoptic gospels, Richard Martin provides on his Narrow Gate site, a dot point orientation to the Gospel of John. This provides an overview and sets out some of the special characteristics of the Fourth Gospel.

Henry Wansborough OSB, the highly respected editor of both the Jerusalem Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible, is the author of an online booklet-style introduction to John which provides a succinct and scholarly outline of the gospel. A shorter summary recapitulates some of the points about composition and dating made in the previous section and introduces some of the themes and concerns of the text itself.

A variety of short essays on the PBS site From Jesus to Christ discuss the fourth gospel under headings like ‘The Spiritual Gospel’, ‘John’s Gospel and the Attitude to Jerusalem’, ‘Gospel of John Stands Apart’, ‘Jesus in John’. Each of these introduces a particular characteristic dimension of the gospel.

Aspects of the fourth gospel have been understood to have been influenced by Gnostic thought. However, gnosticism rejects matter and diminishes the importance of the body, while the central point of John’s gospel is that through the person of Jesus, the ‘word made flesh’, glory is restored to the sons and daughters of God. Read a review of a fine book Flesh and Glory, which discusses the key significance of the flesh of Jesus in the fourth gospel.

Many people have also commented on the importance of the senses in John and noted the fact that despite the lack of specific references to the institution of the sacraments, the Gospel of John is the most profoundly sacramental of all the gospels.

Structure, Themes and Christology

The structure most often suggested for John divides the Gospel into two main parts: the Book of Signsintroduced by the Prologue John 1:1-18, and the Book of Glory beginning at Chapter 13, its conclusion at Chapter 20:31 and an Epilogue: Chapter 21.  A page on the Johannine Literature Web outlines the main emphases of each chapter. The Johannine Literature Web also has a very useful page devoted to exploring the connections between themes and symbols in John’s gospel and themes of the Old Testament. A page set up by an English school teacher contains a brief introduction to the Christology of John’s gospel in accessible language. Scroll through the index on the home page for further articles. As has been noted above, a distinctive feature of the fourth gospel is both the way Jesus’ miracles are understood as signs and the way in which each sign is explored and explained in the text.

Richard Martin’s page on the significance of the Jewish Feasts is unavailable temporarily but some excerpts from an ebook draws connections between the actions of Jesus and the great Jewish feasts. The feasts suggest a chronology for Jesus’ ministry as well as presenting him as the fulfilment of Jewish hopes and longings.

Taking quite a different tack, Jesus and Women in the Gospel of John discusses the significant part played by women in the gospel as does a section of a paper discussing social justice themes in John.

John contrasted to the Synoptic Gospels

Writers on John often point out how different the Gospel of John is from the other gospels. A well set out summary of the ways in which John’s gospel differs from the synoptic gospels, together with two theories about why these differences exist, is part of a larger site which provides a good introduction and general study of John. A feature of this site is the detailed exegetical commentary provided for each chapter of the gospel. Finally, a survey of recent commentary on John would help teachers purchasing print resources for the study of John’s gospel to make an informed choice, as would the extensive bibliography on the Johannine Literature site.

The Gospel of John and Anti-Judaism

A difficulty with the Gospel of John is the fuel it has provided for anti-Jewish sentiments. It is reasonable to suppose that, as a prophetic figure in his own time, Jesus would, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and most of the prophets of Israel, have offered a critique of his own people and their faithlessness. But how is it that this critique has been taken as a basis for anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic attitudes which culminated in the atrocities of Nazism just a generation ago and continues into our own time? A few online articles address this important issue, contextualising it and showing the dangers of a crudely literal understanding of the text. A good place to start is Jews in the Fourth Gospel on the Johannine Literature site which sets out the references to ‘the Jews’ in John and attempts to identify three main groups referred to by the term in the fourth gospel.

Raymond Brown, a Sulpician priest and a foremost biblical scholar until his death in 1998, has two online articles on the problem of anti-Judaism in John’s gospel. One, entitled ‘Jesus versus the Jews’, explores some of the motivations behind the writing of the gospel which have determined the way in which ‘the Jews’ were depicted. The other is his discussion of the Passion narratives, John’s among them. He carefully identifies four stages in the development of the narratives:

  • Stage One: What happened in 30 or 33 CE when Jesus was executed on a cross;
  • Stage Two: How the first believers (Jewish) interpreted the passion of Jesus against a scriptural background;
  • Stage Three: The beginning of the use of ‘the Jews’ to describe one of the two groups arrayed against Jesus;
  • Stage Four: The use of ‘the Jews’ to describe those involved in the death of Jesus in circumstances when the Christians were no longer “Jews.”

A rather difficult article entitled Wrestling with Johannine Anti-Judaism squarely faces the great shame of anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution in the history of the Church, derived at least in part from the sacred texts. The author makes the (very Catholic) point that the scriptures do not equal revelation, and that while the gospel is an inspired document it is still mediated through human and thus fallible, agency. However, they conclude that, despite its anti-Jewish sentiments, ‘the text projects an alternative world of all-inclusive love and life that transcends its anti-Judaism. It is the world of the text, and not the world of the author, that is a witness to divine revelation.’

Dennis Hamm SJ ‘Are the Gospel Passion Accounts Anti-Jewish?’ makes the point that there are many positive references to ‘the Jews’ as well as negative references in John’s Gospel and that Jesus himself is always presented as a devoutly observant Jew. He explains the hostile references in the Gospel in terms of the breakdown of relationships between the synagogue and the communities of early believers in Jesus.

It is Accomplished’ is a challenging explanation of the universal significance of the crucifixion. It outlines how seeking to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus implicates us in the very pattern of human scapegoating and violence that Jesus’ death subverted. According to this view, those who crucified Jesus were simply the particular agents at a particular time of the universal human predisposition to blame, exclusion and violence. Jesus’ potent critique of ‘the Jews’, especially in John, is not an attack on the Jewish faith per se but on the conventional human culture and religiosity the religious leaders of his time represented which is reproduced time and time again throughout human history within Christianity and beyond it.

Finally, the International Council of Christians and Jews have produced a guide—Rightly Explaining the Word of Truth—to help preachers and teachers of the New Testament avoid simplistic interpretations of the text which perpetuate distrust and dislike of the Jewish people.

Consider

  • Encourage class members to learn by heart the core verses of Jesus’ I am’ claims. (They also feature in the visual introduction to the Gospel of John here on RESource. Interpret one (or more) of the ‘I am’ claims in painting, sculpture or collage.
  • Choose (or compose) music or a sound collage to accompany a ‘readers’ theatre’ proclamation of:
  1. the cleansing of the Temple
  2. part of the farewell discourse
  3. the scene at the tomb
  4. one or more of the “I am’ claims rehearsed by students (see above)
  5. another chosen part of the gospel.
  • Explain the significance of the expression ‘I am’ and the special meaning of one of Jesus’ ‘I am’ discourses.
  • Choose one of the symbols that characterise John’s gospel and follow references to it throughout the text. Describe how this symbol opens up the mystery of Christ.
  • Prepare a decorated ‘show bag’ containing 7 to 10 objects, each of which symbolises aspects of John’s gospel. Each object should be accompanied by notes on why it has been chosen and why it is significant in relation to the gospel. In groups of five or six students take it in turn to present the contents of their bag, explaining their choices and inviting responses and comments. Afterwards, students write up their notes and submit the bag, its contents and written work for assessment.
  • What does the portrayal of women in the gospel suggest about the roles of women in the Johannine community?
  • Choose 5–10 significant exchanges in John’s Gospel. Break the class into small groups and allocate each group the task of preparing a mime of that exchange. Each group presents their mime to the whole class. At the end of its performance each group invites identification, comment and discussion of the significance of the scene to the gospel as a whole and to contemporary/personal life.
  • Using the gospel and a map of Jerusalem , trace the movements of Jesus during the last week of his life as described in John’s gospel.
  • Choose a character in the gospel of John (apart from Jesus) that you would like to have as a friend. Explain in detail why you chose this person.
  • Having read and discussed the section entitled ‘The Gospel of John and Anti-Semitism’, how would you respond to someone who asserted that the Holocaust was the inevitable outcome of anti Jewish sentiments embedded in Christian scripture?

Encountering: Biblical Exegesis

See Richard Ascough’s very useful guide to Biblical Exegesis. Look at an example of exegesis of Chapter 4 of the Gospel of John which contains the account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. It is an online example of a detailed examination of a text.

While older students need to learn how to consult concordances, dictionaries and commentaries to expand their knowledge of the text and test their own insights, the key emphasis for younger students ought to be learning how to read a text carefully with few non-specialist resources. Junior students might click on John 20:19–29  for a method of examining a text from John’s gospel.

Consider

  • Use the guidelines offered by Richard Ascough to prepare an exegesis of:
  1. John 1:40–51
  2. John 2:13–22
  3. John 7:37–39
  4. John 11:1-44
  5. John 15:1–4
  6. John 19:38–42
  • or another extract from the gospel relevant to your study.

Encountering: Praying with the Text

A meditative guided reading (again from the Johannine Literature page) of selected texts from the Gospel of John shows teachers/students how to use the gospel text as a basis for prayer.

Three visual aids which could assist learning about contemplative prayer or praying with John are a modern icon of Christ and the Beloved Disciple from the USA, a carved likeness of John resting his head in the arms of Christ (a fine image of the disciple as one who listens to the heart of Christ made in Germany in the later Middle Ages) and another modern icon of St John by William McNichols SJ, accompanied by an account of how he came to ‘write’ it.

The Prayer and Song section of the Taizé site has a very useful section on preparing for prayer together. It includes musical notation for learning the Taizé style chants as well as an outline of a typical prayer time at Taizé, a European centre of prayer which is immensely popular with young people.

Not many people realise that devotion to the Sacred Heart, so popular in the first half of the 20th century, drew its inspiration from the Gospel of John. Unfortunately the devotion became excessively sentimental and fell out of favour in the second part of the century. Schools and parishes named for the Sacred Heart might be especially glad to recover a more holistic spirituality of the heart of Christ. A short article by a young father and theologian shows how devotion to the heart of Jesus is firmly based in both scripture and tradition and has the ability to touch and soften all human hearts.

Another article is more traditional in tone (the author vividly recalls the importance of the devotion in his childhood) but makes an insightful comment on the relationship between love and suffering, and how contemplating the image of theSacred Heart ‘implies coming into the presence of the God who is deeply touched by the reality of suffering and sorrow’.

In the Liturgy of the Church, the synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke are read semi-continuously in a three year cycle. John’s gospel is not read in such a systematic way, but readings chosen from John are always used at key periods of the Church Year. For example, John is read during the seasons of Lent (the gospels of water, light and life of Sundays 3, 4 & 5 of Lent are particularly closely associated with the Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults) and Easter each year. The Good Friday Passion narration is always taken from John, and the Prologue is the daytime gospel for the Christmas feast (which unfortunately means that it is rarely heard as most parishes substitute the account of the birth of Jesus in Luke).

Responding: Lived Responses, Then and Now

The Gospel of John is deeply incarnational, focusing as it does on the Word made flesh who lived amongst us. The communion with God made possible through Jesus taking flesh and dwelling among us is the great theme running through the gospel. Jesus repeatedly invites all whom he encounters to come to him and through him find love, friendship and union with God. It is for this reason that the Gospel of John has been a major influence on the Christian mystical tradition.

A chronological list of Western mystics which includes many Christian writers shows how strong the mystical impulse is within Christianity. Links attached to each name direct you to biographies and/or writings. In addition, reference is made to Christians whose gift for human friendship and love was responsible for drawing others to the love of God.

Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were two great Spanish mystics whose passion for God was responsible for the purification and reform of the Church in 16th century Spain. Their writings continue to inspire men and women of the 21st century. One example is the singer Loreena McKennitt who has set St John’s poem The Dark Night of the Soul to haunting music. Her site contains both her own translation of St John’s poem and a more traditional translation together with the Spanish original.

The relationship between St Francis de Sales and St Jane Frances de Chantal is one of many examples of Spiritual Friendship. The early English saint Aelred of Rivaulx also valued the role of friendship. His thoughts on the characteristics of genuine friendships are relevant to anyone working at developing authentic personal relationships—and aren’t we all?

John Henry Newman, an Englishman of the nineteenth century, was the greatest English convert to Catholicism of the past two centuries. A master of English prose, he maintained an extraordinary range of friendships with men and women, Catholic and Protestant, of his day. In a sermon on the feast of St John, reflecting on the love between Jesus and ‘the beloved disciple’, he argues that ‘the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us’. His personal motto was a phrase from the writings of Francis de Sales ‘cor ad cor loquitur’—‘heart speaks to heart’.

Consider

  • Listen to Loreena McKennitt’s version of ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. Explain how the imagery of the poem by John of the Cross challenges our usual way of speaking and thinking about God.
  • What are the characteristics of a great friendship? How does your view compare with the opinions of Aelred or one of the other men and women mentioned in this section.
  • Collect as many as you can of the sayings that contain the image of the heart, e.g. ‘getting to the heart of the matter’, ‘from the bottom of my heart’, ‘hearty congratulations’ etc. What does the word ‘heart’ stand for in each different expression? What did Newman’s motto ‘heart speaks to heart’ mean to him? What does it mean to you?

Responding: Responses in Art and Music

We have already looked at a couple of icons and images of John above but two other rich sources of artwork related to the Gospel of John are to be found on the Textweek site and in the Art and Images section of the Johannine Literature web.

Looking carefully at art that depicts scenes and themes from the Gospel of John reveals the various responses that artists have had to the gospel. Ask yourselves questions like: What is happening in this picture? Who or what is depicted? What response to the text does each convey? How has each artist interpreted the particular text? Which pictures most faithfully express the intent of the gospel as I understand it? How does this picture increase my understanding of the text?

Reviews of two theatre productions based on memorisation and interpretation of the actual words of the gospel might inspire classes or groups to attempt their own understanding of the gospel or help them prepare their own interpretations.

An American Methodist site which contains a Choral Reading subtitled Women of the Anointing, Crucifixion, and Resurrection (extracted from all of the gospels) could give you some ideas about how to produce a similar reading, selected perhaps from John alone. The Textweek Movie index has links to films which explore various themes raised in the gospel.

A collection of titles of liturgical music related to the Gospel of John is available online, but classical music inspired by the Gospel of John is also very beautiful. You could try listening to works by J S Bach, Thomas Tallis and Arvo Part, to name a few composers who have all interpreted parts of John’s gospel in music.

Responding: A Personal Response

Express in prose, poetry, collage, power point presentation or music your understanding of the following words of Jesus written in the Gospel of John 17:22 and your response to them:

‘I have given them the glory you gave to me,
that they may be one as we are one.
With me in them and you in me,
may they be so completely one
that the world will realise that it was you who sent me
and that I have loved them as much as you love me.’’

or

Choose one of the great images from the gospel and express your response in any medium you prefer. How has the encounter with ‘the Word made flesh’ in John’s gospel been transforming for you?