The Gospel of John can be considered to be a personal reflection on Jesusâ€™ life and teaching by someone who knew him. His work quite effectively supplements the gospels written by others, and here we should be particularly thinking of Matthew’s Message and the Gospel of Mark.
The work gives us no indication that its author was one of the twelve apostles (a title that never appears in this work). He is probably the one that was identified by early second century Christians as “John the Disciple:” not an apostle but a significant early disciple of Jesus – perhaps being too young at that time to have played a prominent role during Jesus’ lifetime.
Rather than being one of the twelve, the impression we gain from the Gospel of John is that its author belonged to the elite of Jewish society ; he even had a personal connection to the high priest. His grasp of high philosophy is quite apparent in the prologue found in the first chapter of this work. Throughout this work the author shows confidence in his handling of subtle concepts. For example, it is not surprising that he is the only one who records Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
Significantly, Jesus recognized in the person of this disciple someone who was able to provide personal security for his mother at the time she needed it, urging him to take her into his own home (in Jerusalem).
It is striking that, although the author is identified by name in the title to the work, the author is identified within the work only by the circumlocution, “the disciple Jesus loved.” We can probably attribute this honourific to the final editor and publisher of the Gospel of John, replacing “I” and “me” with this circumlocution.
At the beginning of the work another strategy is in play. Here the author can also be found as the disciple who is conspicuously not named (John 1:35-42). This disciple (and Andrew) responded to Jesus” call even before Peter, yet the author of this work did not draw attention to this claim; he seems to have hidden this fact behind deliberate ambiguity.
Whereas Matthew presented Jesus’ teaching in concise dialogues and in aphorisms, John used his account to bring out Jesus’ teachings in extended dialogues. Although it is likely that Jesus used aphorisms, and probably often summarized his teachings in the form found in the Sermon on the Mount, it is also likely that his teaching method would oftentimes have been closer to the longer dialogues found in the Gospel of John.
If the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount were presented using the form of extended dialogues found in the Gospel of John, the size of such a work would have exceeded all reasonable bounds for a work produced at that time. In this context, one can reflect on the author’s hyperbolic statement about the number of books that would have been required to record all the things that Jesus did (John 21:25); one can say the same thing about Jesus’ teachings. In presenting his dialogues, John knew that his approach was different from that adopted by Matthew, Mark and Luke. His objective was different from that followed by those three men, but nevertheless intended to supplement the accounts found in Matthew’s Message and in the Gospel of Mark,Â providing a different perspective on the same events from Jesus’ life.
A truthful witness
The question is sometimes raised as to whether John was truthfully reporting on the events of Jesus’ life.
In regard to Jesus’ teaching, it would be extraordinary to claim that Jesus was unable (or unwilling) to engage in the extended and philosophical dialogues found in this work. It is more likely that such dialogues would have reached a limited audience, and probably would have been beyond the “less philosophical” disciples, who Jesus deliberately chose as the ones to carry forward, authoritatively, his message.
Nevertheless, there will always be an audience for the kind of philosophical way of thinking found in this work. Here it is significant that “John the Disciple,” who alone reports such dialogues, only came into prominence after it appears that all those who made up the twelve had died or being dispersed to reach other nations.
On a different note, even though John’s claim that Jesus turned six large water jars into good wine has the marks of hyperbole, there is no reason to doubt John’s testimony about this, especially since he (indirectly) reports it was the reason that he put his trust in Jesus.
Surprisingly, there are only a few indications of an editor’s intervention in the final production of the text as we have it today. Firstly, we have the note that appears to belong to the period after the author’s death, which refers to the rumour of him living until Jesus’ return (John 21:23). Secondly, there are the words confirming his testimony (John 21:24). Finally, we have the editor’s testimony to his belief in the truth of his source: “The one having seen [the death of Jesus] has borne witness, and his witness is true” (John 19:35). On this basis, we can reasonably conclude that the Gospel of John, in its final form, was touched up by an editor, probably after the author’s death, and then published with the real author’s name (John) embedded in the title of the work from its first issuance.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).
Martin Hengel, The Johannine Question (London: SCM Press, 1989).