Get the CD Now!

An Introduction to the New Testament



Occasion. By the early years of the second century the Christian movement had reached a point where it had become clear that the field of Christianity was the Greek world. Its public was to be the men and women not necessarily of Greek blood but of Greek speech and Greek culture. The long discipline of Greek civilization had prepared a people capable of appreciating the inward and spiritual values of the new religion. These people had, in fact, in no small degree already helped to shape its thought and life. To them, at any rate, Christianity was now addressing itself.

It is usually held that the Greek genius found its highest expression in the great days of the Athens of Pericles and Plato. But it was another great service of that same genius that it adopted the struggling Christian faith and became its standard-bearer for a thousand years.

There were, no doubt, among those of Latin speech and stock persons like the younger Pliny and Paetus and Arria [1] whose sensibilities were fine, but the whole trend of Roman life was the other way. While the Greek devoted his leisure to athletic sports, as he has taught us to do, and to witnessing great plays of

[1] Pliny Letters iii. 16.


Sophocles or Euripides or even Aristophanes in the theater, the Roman found his entertainment in the brutal spectacles of the amphitheater, where men fought with wild animals or with one another until they died. [1] It was not until two generations later that Christianity began to find a Latin public.

To meet the needs of this Greek public some adjustment had to be made. Christianity was addressing it in Jewish terms. A Greek who felt like becoming a Christian was called upon to accept Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. He would naturally ask what this meant and would have to be given a short course in Jewish apocalyptic messianic thought. Was there no way in which he might be introduced directly to the values of the Christian salvation without being forever routed, we might even say detoured, through Judaism? Must Christianity always speak in a Jewish vocabulary?

The old books of Christianity were unsuited to this new situation. There was, of course, the great Gospel of Matthew. But how unpromising its beginning would be to a Greek! The great masterpieces of Greek literature knew so well the importance of the opening sentence. "I have often wondered," the Memorabilia of Socrates began, "by what possible arguments the accusers of Socrates persuaded the people that he deserved death at their hands." Here was an opening sentence the world has never been able to forget. The opening lines of the Iliad and of the Odyssey lay before

[1] In his Res gestae ("Achievements") 22, Augustus boasts that, in the eight gladiatorial exhibitions he had given, ten thousand men had fought.


the reader the great theme of each poem in a short paragraph. This was the kind of approach the Greek mind demanded. Twenty-five or thirty lines of Jewish genealogy made quite a different impression upon the Greek inquirer, just as they do upon us. Was there no way in which Christian truth could be stated in forms that would be immediately intelligible and welcome to the Greek mind? The times demanded that Christianity be transplanted to Greek soil and translated into universal terms. [1] The Gospel of John is the response to this demand. .

Contents. The Jew, once possessed of a truth, said that revelation had given it to him. The Greek, when he gained possession of one, said he had reached it by reason. Which was right? What would we say? We would say there was a truth in both. And so thought the author of the Gospel of John. Jesus is more than the Messiah of Jewish nationalistic expectation; he is the Logos—the Word of Revelation that came upon the prophets, and also that Reason by which Stoic philosophy found its way to truth. In this one word, which has both meanings and which John uses in both senses at once, [2] he performs the wedding of reason and revelation, of philosophy and religion.

In the Gospel of John the function of Jesus is not so" much sacrificial as to bring life and impart it: "I have come to let them have life," 10:10. "I am Way and

[1] Definite apologetic interests have recently been discerned in John (E. C. Colwell, John Defends the Gospel [Chicago, 1936]), but these were certainly subordinate to the broader, deeper needs and uses outlined above.

[2] As be does anwqen, "again," "from above," in John 3:3, 7.


Truth and Life," 14:6. "I myself am Resurrection and Life," 11:25. Salvation is, in fact, eternal life. Salvation is closely related to knowledge. Plato faced the question whether a man could be really good without also being wise. In John, Jesus is the Light of the World, the Light that makes knowledge possible, 8:12. But knowledge of what? Of the truth. "You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free," 8:31. Life, light, truth, freedom, knowledge—this is the atmosphere we know, and this is the atmosphere of the Gospel of John.

Jesus' work on earth is finished, not postponed. Paul, viewing Jesus as the Messiah of Jewish expectation and believing that the supreme function of the Messiah was to judge the world, concluded that Jesus would return to complete his messianic work. But in the Gospel of John Jesus declares that he has completed the work God had given him to do, 17:4, and his last words on the cross are, "It is finished!" 19:30.

Jesus' death has little of its old sacrificial meaning of which Paul made so much. Here it is the sign of his unfaltering, utter devotion to his followers: "He loved those who were his own .... to the last," 13:1. It is also to be the signal for his followers in all the world to rally to his standard: "If I am lifted up from the ground, I will draw all men to myself," 12:32.

But what then becomes of his expected return of which Paul had spoken so confidently? It has already been realized. He was himself Resurrection and Life, 11:25. In John, Resurrection, Second Coming, and the gift of the Spirit are made one. John substantially


returns to Matthew's picture of Jesus restored as a spiritual presence to his disciples.

This is the meaning of the "little while" so repeatedly emphasized in 16:16-19, where the expression occurs seven times. "In a little while you will not see me any longer, and a little while after, you will see me again." There is to be no long absence, only a short one—a few hours or days comparable with the interval between his last discourse and his death the next afternoon. Jesus himself after the Resurrection imparts the holy Spirit to the disciples, 20:22, in contrast with Luke's account, where it comes upon them after the Ascension at Pentecost, Acts 2:4. So Resurrection, Return, and the gift of the Spirit are identified.

What, then, becomes of Judgment, of which Paul had made so much as a messianic function? We remember Matthew's gigantic canvas of the general Judgment, so stupendously pictured in the final parable of Jesus' last discourse. It disappears as a future expectation, to be replaced by another profounder kind of judgment within the human soul. "God did not send his son into the world to pass judgment upon the world, but that through him the world might be saved," 3:17. "No one who believes in him has to come up for judgment," 3:18a. "He has committed the judgment entirely to the Son," 5:22b. "He has given him the authority to act as judge, because he is a son of man," 5:27. "I have come into this world to judge men," 9:39a. "The judgment of this world is now in progress," 12:31.


Judgment is just a terrible, perpetual, automatic process by which men by their own choices convict or acquit themselves. It is particularly for the sin of unbelief: "The helper will bring conviction to the world about sin, .... as shown in their not believing" in Christ, 16:8, 9. Sin in John is rather shadowy, at least as compared with Paul's idea of it. With Paul it was a terrible reality, haunting his life with a deep sense of guilt. "What a wretched man I am," he cried. "Who can save me from this doomed body?" Rom. 7:24. With John sin is chiefly unbelief.

For in John faith has become belief. It means intellectual assent; the old mystic side—trust, fiducia—has fallen away from it. With Paul it had both aspects; now it has only the intellectual meaning. And with this comes the creation of an intellectual approach to Christianity that was of enormous value to the church. For the Gospel of John set the new religion upon the rails of thought and theology upon which it was to run for a thousand years. The Greeks called it the Gospel of John the Divine [1]—the Theologian—as we speak of the "Great Divines." So clearly did they recognize this great quality in it.

But great as was the service of the Gospel of John to theology, its service to Christian devotion was no less. If we pause to consider what are the world's great classics of devotion, we think at once of certain Psalms, notably the twenty-third. What has the New Testament to set beside it? Nothing in Paul; he is always too argumentative for that mood, even in

[1] d qeologoV


I Corinthians, chapter 13 or 15. Not the Sermon on the Mount; it is too didactic. But when we turn to the Upper Room discourses in John, chapters 14-17, we are satisfied. Of all New Testament literature they alone possess that great devotional quality: "Your minds must not be troubled; you must believe in God and believe in me."

This balance, this poise, is a marked characteristic of John. Just as his sacrifice of the old idea of a Final Judgment was for the Greek mind, and for the modern mind, more than compensated for by his doctrine of the inner judgment through our own choices, so his apparent neglect of one side of faith is fully made up by his splendid development of the mystical side of religion. He has here, in fact, in Greek fashion simply analyzed the older experience of faith into its two great aspects: the intellectual and the mystical, belief and trust.

On the ethical side the gospel has its great doctrine of love as a Christian virtue and of the love of God. Christians are to love one another. "I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must love one another. By this they will all know that you are my disciples—by your love for one another," 13:34, 35; compare 14:15, 21, 24. The great text of 3:16 only restates the thought of Rom. 5:1-11:

"God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that no one who believes in him should be lost, but that they should all have eternal life." All this, of course, culminates in the great climax in the First Epistle: "Whoever does not love does not know


God, for God is love," 4:8. "God is love, and whoever continues to love keeps in union with God and God with him," 4:16b. "There is no fear in love but perfect love drives out fear. .... We love because he loved us first," 4:18a, 19a.

John never mentions the church or its officers, but no gospel lays more stress on both. The Good Shepherd, willing to lay down his life rather than lose a single sheep, is the pattern for all Christian shepherds (Lat. pastor) who must enter the sheepfold through him who is also the door—that is, through a vital sharing of his experience of complete devotion to the protection and welfare of the sheep. The responsibility of the Christian ministry has never been more finely set forth, 10:8-16.

While the church is never mentioned in John, it is symbolized in Jesus' circle of personal followers and in the group of disciples in the Upper Room, chapters 13 f. It is shown silhouetted against the dark background of the brutal and hostile world: "It is because you do not belong to the world, but I have selected you from the world, that the world hates you," 15:19. "In the world you have trouble; but take courage! I have conquered the world," 16:33. "They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world," 17:16.

The church is also sharply distinguished from the Jews. Of course, Jesus and all his personal followers were Jews, but John constantly pictures him and his followers as standing over against "the Jews" who oppose and misunderstand him. This is so foregone a


conclusion, indeed, that it sometimes seems that Jesus does not wish or expect them to understand him. "Why do I even talk to you at all?" 8:26a. More than sixty times in the gospel "the Jews" appear as the opponents and enemies of Jesus. Their animosity to him and the animosity felt by the evangelist for them plainly reveal the stage of opposition that had developed between church and synagogue when the Gospel of John was written. Church and synagogue are at war.

The church is sharply distinguished not only from the world and the Jews but from the sects which were now emerging into clearer light. The Docetists who held that Jesus was too divine to suffer agony and death are opposed in the gospel's insistence upon the reality of Jesus' death. The soldier's spear thrust left no room for doubt on that point, 19:33, 34. Yet Docetic notions of his immateriality continued to appear in the Gospel of Peter and the Acts of John. [1] There were still those who regarded John the Baptist as the Messiah, or at least as the new Elijah of Mal. 4:5, like the men Paul found at Ephesus, Acts 19:1-7. Justin mentions Baptists among the Jewish sects, Dialogue lxxx. 4, and in the third century the Clementine Recognitions speaks of people who declare John to be the Messiah. Against this view of John, the gospel repeatedly emphasizes his subordination to Jesus: "He who was to come after me is now ahead of me, for he existed before me," 1:15. "He admitted—he

[1] M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, 1924), pp. 91, 251, 252, 254.


made no attempt to deny it—he admitted that he was not the Christ," 1:20. Of Jesus, John says, "He must grow greater and greater, but I less and less," 3:30.

The warning against the sects culminates in the Intercessory Prayer, which forms the climax of the Upper Room discourse, chapter 17. The one request Jesus makes for his followers is that they may be one, 17:11. For them and for all who through their message later come to believe, Jesus prays again, "Let them all be one," 17:21. "That they may be one just as we are, .... so that they may be perfectly unified," 17:22, 23. This repeated emphasis upon the need of unity among believers points unmistakably to the time, early in the second century, when the sects were beginning to honeycomb the churches.

The approach to the gospel reflects the characteristic Greek disposition to announce the theme of a book in its opening lines. In a lofty and somewhat abstract Prologue the writer seeks to place Jesus in philosophical, eternal, and cosmic relationships. He is the Word of Revelation, the Reason of Philosophy. It was to him that God said, "Let us make man." He is that divine Wisdom through which creation was effected. He was the light of mankind, the bringer of life to men. These are no mere narrow national terms; they are so broad that they have never been outgrown.

Dr. Henry B. Sharman used to say that the Gospel of John is a book of a few great ideas to which the writer returns again and again. These ideas are laid before the reader in the Prologue. They are Revelation, Incarnation, Regeneration, the Impartation of


Life. It is to present them that the gospel is written. They are of more importance in the writer's mind than mere historical facts. He is, in short, one of those men who care more for truth than for fact. The eyewitness testimony to what happened here or there is subordinated to the testimony of religious experience. Jesus says to Thomas, "Is it because you have seen me that you believe? Blessed be those who believe without having seen me!" 20:29. It is the inward appreciation of Jesus that supremely matters. It is written on behalf of those mystic later followers, those beloved disciples, who may enter more deeply into Jesus' life and spirit than did the eyewitnesses themselves.

The form in which this Christian theologian-mystic put his teaching was a gospel narrative. In form it is the story of Jesus' revelation of himself to his disciples and his followers.

The new narrative differed from the older ones in many details. In it Jesus' ministry falls almost wholly in Judea instead of in Galilee and seems to cover three years instead of one. The cleansing of the Temple stands at the beginning instead of at the end of his work. Nothing is said of his baptism, temptation, or agony in the garden. His human qualities disappear, and he moves through the successive scenes of the gospel perfect master of every situation, until at the end he goes of his own accord to his crucifixion and death. He does not teach in parables, and his teaching deals, not as in the earlier gospels with the


Kingdom of God, but with his own nature and his inward relation to God.

In his debates with the Jews he defends his union with the Father, his pre-existence, and his sinlessness. He welcomes the interest shown by Greeks in his message, 12:20-23, prays for the unity of the future church, chapter 17, and interprets the Lord's Supper even before he establishes it, 6:48-58. His cures and wonders, which in the earlier gospels seem primarily the expression of his overflowing spirit of sympathy and helpfulness, now become signs or proofs to support his high claims. The writer has, in short, read back the Jesus of experience into the Jesus of history. Jesus is made to declare, in what has been termed the "I style," the church's developing views of his nature and person.

The gospel contains no parable like those of the Synoptists, unless, as Professor Moulton said, the Vine and the Branches is to be considered one. But in a sense the gospel is itself, much of it, parable. Much of it is so disturbing and difficult historically and so luminous figuratively. Certainly, no one can carry through a literal interpretation of the whole gospel; such efforts invariably shatter on the command to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, 6:53, 54.

It is not simply the physical difficulties with the Johannine wonders that perplex us; it is their moral difficulty. The water made wine—if fact, what a use of supernatural power—to replenish the refreshments at a party; as if there were no crushing burdens and


dreadful sores on the world's life that such power might have been used to heal! Taken symbolically, however (and that is the way in which everybody really takes it), the story teaches the gospel's power to transform and enrich human life.

While the Gospel of John is a narrative, yet, when it is properly paragraphed in the modern fashion, the fact emerges that it is very largely dialogue. It is mostly conversation. This broad literary fact about it (which all standard English forms of it completely obscure) is of great significance, for it at once places it as a literary type in the tradition of the most characteristic form of Greek philosophical literature—the dialogue. This is just what the author intended it to be—a combination of gospel and dialogue. As such it may be regarded as standing between the Platonic dialogues and the dialogues between Jews and Christians of which Ariston of Pella (ca. A.D. 140) wrote the earliest example known to us and Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 160) the earliest that is extant.

This trait stamps the Gospel of John again as distinctly Greek in feeling and method. In fact, the gospel may be said to be intensely Greek from Prologue to Epilogue in every fiber of both thought and language. [1] Paul looked down the long vista of existence and saw a trial before the court of Christ awaiting every man, II Cor. 5:10; John saw reunion in a Father's house, 14:2. Paul declared himself the slave of Christ, Phil. 1:1 etc.; but Jesus says in John, "I do not call you

[1] On the language cf. E. C. Colwell. The Greek of the Fourth Gospel (Chicago, 1931).


slaves any longer, .... now I call you friends," 15:15. This is the substitution of the Greek idea of religion as friendship for the oriental idea of religion as servitude. Before the Christian believer stretched a broadening way to larger powers and fuller knowledge: Jesus' followers are to do greater works than his, 14:12; their helper, the Spirit of truth, will guide them into the full truth, 16:13.

The Gospel of John is a charter of Christian experience. For the evangelist, to know Christ through inner experience matters more than to have seen him face to face in Galilee. "Blessed be those who believe without having seen me," 20:29. What supremely matters in religion is not so much what men said or did, here or there, but the power of the Christian experience to create itself anew in the human heart, no matter where or when. Without that what would all the dogmas, all the liturgies, and all the literatures be worth to us?

Our mistake has been that we have dealt with John as though it were just another Mark or Matthew. It cannot be measured by those standards. It is something altogether apart. It is a great creative work of religious genius that has lighted the way for Greek Christianity and for universal Christianity ever since. Its theology may not be ours, for it was a bridge between its faith and its world-view, just as ours must be. Historically, it is less convincing than Mark; ethically it is less exalted than Matthew. Yet it Strikes beyond any of these to the very heart of


Christianity, as above all an inner spiritual life of sonship to God and friendship with Christ.

Problems. Modern learning has sometimes felt that, by a few judicious transpositions, the narrative of John and particularly the movements of Jesus might be made somewhat more plausible. These transpositions—such as that of 7:15-24 to the end of chapter 5; of 10:19-29 to the end of chapter 9; of chapters 15 and 16 to the middle of 13:31; and of 18:19-24 with 18:15-18—are conveniently exhibited in the text of Moffatt's The New Testament: A New Translation. There can be no doubt that such rearrangements, which have long been advocated by Burton, Warburton Lewis, and others, relieve the narrative of John of certain material difficulties. But it must be remembered that topography and chronology were among the least of the author's concerns. His head was among the stars. He was seeking to determine the place of Jesus in the spiritual universe and his relations to eternal realities. These were the matters that interested and absorbed him, not itineraries and timetables, so that practical mundane considerations that might apply to Mark, Matthew, or Luke have little significance for his work. Nor has any probable explanation been offered for the origin of these supposed disarrangements.

The "I style" so characteristic of the Gospel of John is a way of stating ancient belief about Jesus in a fashion well known in antiquity. Various inscriptions exhibit the same use of the first person in describing Isis:


I am Isis, the mistress of every land. .... I gave and ordained laws, .... I divided the earth from the heaven. I showed the path of the stars. I ordered the course of the sun and moon. I devised business in the sea. I made strong the right. I brought woman and man together. .... I revealed mysteries to men. . . . .[1]

There is, therefore, something almost liturgical in sentences like "I am the bread that gives life," "I am the Good Shepherd," "I am the door," "I am the Light of the World," "I am Resurrection and Life," "I am Way and Truth and Life." They are in the religious style of the mystery religions.

The gospel begins with the very phrase that began the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, "In the beginning." It gradually rises to lofty liturgical levels, chapters 14-16, and culminates in the Intercessory Prayer. It is the most considerable prayer in point of length in the New Testament and possesses a liturgical quality so potent that it actually obscures for most readers the main point of the prayer—union against the sects. There is thus an unmistakable literary crescendo about the gospel from the point of view of liturgical values.

The place of the gospel's origin has generally been recognized as Ephesus, and everything seems to confirm this opinion. It shows acquaintance with the collected letters of Paul—Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and probably Philippians,

[1] A. Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (rev. ed.; New York, 1927), pp. 139, 140.


Philemon, and I and II Thessalonians [1]—as well as with Mark and Luke-Acts; perhaps also with Matthew, but that is much less certain. (It is an anachronism to talk of its use of Luke; Luke was not yet separated from its companion-volume Acts, and it was Luke-Acts that John used.) Its opposition to Docetism and the sects and its great concern for a unified Christianity remind us forcibly of the interest of Ignatius of Antioch in just these matters when he passed through Asia Minor sometime between 107 and 117 on his way to martyrdom at Rome. It was here in the province of Asia that he wrote his seven letters, vehemently urging unity against the sects, and especially against the Docetists, upon the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and even upon the far-off church at Rome where he was soon to appear. There is every reason to believe that the Gospel of John belongs to the same place and period that witnessed the writing of Ignatius' letters, that is, Ephesus or the vicinity of Ephesus about A.D. 110.

The Gospel of John ends with the twentieth chapter, which closes with what is manifestly the Finis of the gospel:

There were many other signs which Jesus showed before his disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these have been recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life as his followers.

[1] A. E. Barnett, "The Use of the Letters of Paul in Pre-Catholic Christian Literature" (unpublished dissertation; Chicago, 1932), p. 612; University of Chicago Abstracts of Theses ("Humanistic Series"), IX, 509. I add Philemon to Dr. Barnett's list, comparing vs. 16 with John 15:15.


Chapter 21 forms an epilogue later added to the completed gospel, probably when it was combined with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke to form the great quartet of gospels which soon became the Scripture of the churches and later the nucleus of the New Testament. Verse 24 shows that the writer of the Epilogue, who must have been one of the editors of the Fourfold Gospel collection, is not identical with the author of the gospel. In the gospel the beloved disciple is an ideal figure—such a follower of Jesus as would have seen him in his true greatness and in his larger relationships. But in the Epilogue the author, who has evidently passed away, is identified with this beloved disciple: "It is this disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down, and we know that his testimony is true." The new conclusion that now ends the book, verse 25, is even more appropriate as the Finis of the Fourfold Gospel: "There are many other things that Jesus did, so many in fact that if they were all written out, I do not suppose that the world itself would hold the books that would have to be written." It said, in effect, to those previously attached to one gospel or another: "Do not be surprised to find in this collection words and acts of Jesus that you never heard of before. He did more than even these four narratives contain, and if all he did were recorded, the books would fill the world."

The Epilogue is added to meet objections to the new gospel, to bring it more into harmony with its companion gospels, to commend it to their adherents, and to, enforce its message by a strong indorsement.


In harmony with Matthew an account of a Galilean reappearance of Jesus is now added, 21:1-14. The miraculous catch of fish and the breaking of bread recall scenes in Luke, 5:1-10; 24:30-35. The second half of the Epilogue, 21:15-25, includes a recognition of the leadership and pastoral office of Peter more in line with the Synoptic representation and fitted to commend the gospel to those who cherished his memory; an allusion to his martyrdom as foretold by Jesus, like those of James and John, 21:18, 19 (cf. Mark 10:39); and a reference to the beloved disciple as once supposed to be destined to survive until Jesus' coming. Such a disciple—a man with such insight and sympathy—the writer of the Epilogue declares was the author of the Gospel of John, 21:24.

From the time of Irenaeus (A.D. 180-89) certainly, and probably from the time of the making of the Fourfold Gospel corpus (115-25), the name of John has been attached to the gospel, doubtless from the fact that John the Elder was the writer of II and III John and very probably of I John, also. The question of the identity and personality of John the Elder belongs, however, to the discussion of the Johannine letters.

But the thoroughly Greek character of the thought and interest of the gospel, its literary (dialogue) cast, its thoroughly Greek style, its comparatively limited use of the Jewish scriptures (roughly about one-fifth of Matthew's), its definite purpose to strip Christianity of its Jewish swaddling clothes, its intense anti-Jewish feeling, and its great debt to the mystery


Religions [1]—combine to show that its author was a Greek, not a Jew. [2] In the Gospel of John the Greek genius returns to religion.


Bacon, B. W. The Fourth Gospel in Research and Debate (New York, 1910).

Robinson, B. W. The Gospel of John (New York, 1925).

Scott, E. F. The Fourth Gospel: Its Purpose and Theology (Edinburgh, 1906).

[1] Cf. H. R. Willoughby. Pagan Regeneration (Chicago, 1929). chaps. v-viii.

[2] Yet the contrary position is affirmed by B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels, pp. 418, 419.

The HTML for this chapter was crafted by Wally Williams.

Go to the Table of Contents for An Introduction to the New Testament

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.