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John in Sociolinguistic Perspective

A Survey of Recent Literature of the Fourth Gospel

The Fourth Gospel has been called 'a pool in which small children can paddle and elephants can swim'. I doubt whether the same can be said of the literature about the Fourth Gospel, which bears a much closer resemblance to the vast Atlantic ocean as viewed from Europe before the time of Columbus: it appears deep, stormy, treacherous and uncrossable. The Gospel of John holds such a fascination for Christians all over the world, due at least in part to its distinctive style and content, and also to the incomparable influence it has had on developments in the later church, in key areas such as christology and the practice of the Lord's Supper. It is not surprising that while most Christians find the Gospel a refreshing stream of living water, many students of the Gospel feel when confronted with the abundance of literature on the Gospel that their stream of living water has suddenly become Niagara Falls and they are being sent over in a barrel. The aim of this introduction is to attempt to provide a brief survey of some of the most recent and/or important literature, to help students of this Gospel (which truly is so fascinating and worthy of study) not to become lost in the flood.


Recent times have seen not only a renewal of interest in the Gospel of John, but also what may be called major upheavals as the tide of opinion in certain key areas has essentially reversed. The most obvious area where such a radical reversal of opinion may be seen is in the question of the background to the Gospel, the thought-world of religious and cultural currents which underlies it. For many years, it was generally accepted that John was the most Hellenistic of the Gospels. Thus C. H. Dodd, in his major work The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, regarded John as primarily an attempt to restate the Gospel message for readers in the wider Hellenistic world, although he recognized the many points of contact with rabbinic and 'Hellenistic' Judaism as well. That the Fourth Evangelist was the furthest removed of the four Gospels from the Jewish roots of Christianity was taken for granted, and attempts were made to explain why John was so different. One answer that was popular for a very long time was Rudolf Bultmann's proposal of a Gnostic background, but this suggestion today has lost much of its support, since the Gnostic 'redeemer myth' which Bultmann proposed as the background to the Gospel is only found in later literature, and most likely has been influenced by Christianity rather than vice versa. Today, the Jewishness of the Fourth Gospel has come much more sharply into focus, a key reason for this being the realization that Hellenism had influenced all streams of Judaism by the first century C.E., and that this meant that 'Hellenistic' elements in the Fourth Gospel did not need to be regarded as evidence of a non-Jewish background of thought. Very important in connection with this change of consensus was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which showed in a clearly Jewish group ideas which bore striking affinities to many aspects of Johannine thought and imagery. A useful book to refer to on this topic is a collection of key essays published in 1972 and reprinted recently, entitled John and the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by James Charlesworth.

Important works to refer to on the current consensus on the background of John include James Dunn's article, "Let John be John: A Gospel for its Time", and John Ashton's excellent introduction, Understanding the Fourth Gospel. Also important is the very recent collection of essays, Exploring the Gospel of John. In Honor of D. Moody Smith, edited by R. Alan Culpepper and C. Clifton Black. This volume is a collection of essays by important Johannine scholars on most of the major topics connected with the study of the Fourth Gospel. On the theology of the Fourth Gospel, see the concise introduction to the subject by D. Moody Smith, The Theology of the Gospel of John, and on the history of Johannine scholarship, see R. Kysar's The Fourth Evangelist and His Gospel. Also helpful and concise is Barnabas Lindars, John. There are many brief introductions to John, and it is not necessary for students to read all of them to get an idea of Johannine scholarship: choose one or two, and refer to the others when you need more information on a particular topic. Another useful, brief introduction to the Gospel is John W. Pryor, John: Evangelist of the Covenant People. Stephen Smalley's book, John: Evangelist and Interpreter, and John Painter's John: Witness and Theologian are also worth reading as introductions to the Gospel, as are the introductions to the major commentaries:


D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, and G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, are surely the two most important commentaries written in our time by evangelical scholars. Both are highly recommended. Among the very useful features of the latter are the inclusion of separate bibliographical material in connection with each passage, and the separation of the treatment of each passage into sections entitled Translation (the author's own translation, with notes on difficulties or textual variants of importance), Form/Structure/Setting (dealing with literary and other structural questions), Comment (a detailed treatment of the text verse by verse) and Explanation (a briefer summary of the author's conclusions concerning the section as a whole, without the detailed discussion). This makes the work particularly accessible to beginners who may wish to bypass some of the more detailed discussion at first or may not be fluent in Greek, which is discussed where appropriate in the other sections but not in the Explanation section. Another evangelical commentary by a well-known scholar, which focuses more on the application and relevance of John's message for today, is Ben Witherington's John's Wisdom.

Three other major commentaries have been written by catholic scholars: the one-volume commentary by Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John, the two volume commentary by Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, and the three volume commentary by Rudolf Schnackenburg. These last two are essential to refer to, since their size makes them able to include a wealth of information a much more detailed discussion of a number of important issues.

Also important among English language commentaries is C. K. Barrett's, The Gospel According to John, important not only as an excellent commentary but also because it works with the Greek text. Also excellent is C. H. Talbert's commentary on the Gospel and Epistles of John, Reading John, which deals in particular with literary matters as well as the more traditional questions.

Having mentioned literary questions, it is appropriate to mention several important recent commentaries which take a literary approach to the Fourth Gospel. Among the most important are Mark W. G. Stibbe, John's Gospel and the two volumes by Francis J. Moloney, Belief in the Word (on John 1-4) and Signs and Shadows (on 5-12). On literary approaches, another work which is an absolute must to read is Alan Culpepper's, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel.

Before proceeding, we should mention certain works which are useful inasmuch as they set out in a helpful way relevant contemporary parallel texts; however, they may also frequently set out irrelevant 'parallel' texts which are at quite a distance from the time in which the Fourth Gospel was composed (this is particularly true of Odeberg, and less so of the other two), and thus must, like all lists of parallels, be used with caution. The student needs to ask time and again whether there is likely to be any real connection between the two texts, or between the worlds of thought that lie behind them, as well as whether, even if the same language is used, the same meaning is being conveyed, as the same language can have very different functions in a different context or thought-world.

These cautions having been noted, useful for clear charts of parallel material are Dodd's Interpretation (already cited above) and, on the prologue, Craig A. Evans, Word and Glory. On The Exegetical and Theological Background of John's Prologue. Also still useful is H. Odeberg's The Fourth Gospel, published in 1929.

History and Historicity

Another area which has been the focus of interest in recent times has been the question of the historicity of John's Gospel. The general consensus among scholars has for a long time been that the Fourth Gospel is of little or no historical value, at least as far as questions relating to the historical Jesus are concerned. This still remains the view of most scholars. However, a few interesting arguments have been brought against this consensus. The most notable and controversial has been John A. T. Robinson's, The Priority of John. Robinson has been severely criticized, and at least some of the criticism has been justified. Nonetheless, some of his most important points have not been taken seriously enough: e.g., the fact that not only John, but all the evangelists present us with not only history, but also theology, and that even documents which are not 'historical' in the strict sense can give us access to something of the character of a historical individual. Robinson is not a 'conservative,' and conservatives who want to defend the historicity of John as traditionally understood should not simply cite Robinson to support their arguments, but should read his book carefully and thoughtfully.

More balanced is the brief but insightful treatment in one of Jimmy Dunn's more 'popular' works, The Evidence for Jesus, as well as his article "John and the Oral Gospel Tradition". See too C. H. Dodd's book, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, which argues that John contains independent versions of material preserved in the Synoptics, and which is thus potentially historically valuable.


One place where scholarly consensus appears to have remained more or less unchanged even in recent times is in the area of authorship. The traditional ascription of the Fourth Gospel to John the son of Zebedee is accepted by few, although there is almost as little tangible evidence against the traditional view as there is for it. We simply do not know for certain. However, there have nonetheless been a few important studies of the question of authorship in recent times which, if not giving us the allusive name we would like to attach to him, at least give us insights into the character of the evangelist. Of particular importance are Martin Hengel's, The Johannine Question, and James Charlesworth's The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John?.


Connected with the question of authorship is the question of literary sources which the evangelist may have used. One rather obvious source which it was for a very long time generally agreed that John used was one or more of the Synoptic Gospels. However, here too the tide has turned in recent times, and the majority of scholars would appear to agree that the evangelist did not use any of the Synoptics directly, although it is another question whether he was aware of them or had ever read any of them. A helpful, brief survey of the debate in this area is D. Moody Smith, John Among the Gospels: The Relationship in Twentieth-Century Research. See too the volume John and the Synoptics, edited by A. Denaux.

The other main aspect of the question relates to the hypothesis of a 'Signs Source.' The Evangelist begins to number the signs done by Jesus, then ceases to do so after the second, and this fact has led some to suppose that the numbering derives from a literary source which the evangelist used. Proposed reconstructions of the source are obviously extremely hypothetical. For two different attempts at such reconstruction see the two major books on the subject by R. T. Fortna, The Gospel of Signs: A Reconstruction of the Narrative Source Underlying the Fourth Gospel, and The Fourth Gospel and its Predecessor, and Urban C. von Wahlde's The Earliest Version of John's Gospel: Recovering the Gospel of Signs. Another work on the subject in recent times is Thomas L. Brodie, The Quest for the Origin of John's Gospel: A Source-Oriented Approach. Brodie regards John as having many sources, including the Synoptic Gospels and the Old Testament. Brodie's book rejects earlier hypothetical sources, but his attempts to demonstrate direct use of extant texts at times seems rather far-fetched. See too the short study by Barnabas Lindars, Behind the Fourth Gospel, and also D. Moody Smith, The Composition and Order of the Fourth Gospel, and his collection of essays, Johannine Christianity: Essays on its Setting, Sources, and Theology.

The Johannine Community

Closely connected with both the question of historicity and the literary development of the Fourth Gospel is the question of the history of the community which produced it. The starting point of most recent interest in this area can be traced back to J. Louis Martyn's History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, which suggested that the Gospel tells a story on two levels, one of which is, at least ostensibly, about the historical figure of Jesus in the second or third decade of the first century C.E., the other of which relates to the present situation and needs of the Johannine Christians.

The realization that certain topics in John, like the christological controversy and the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue, reflect the issues current in the church or churches for which John wrote, opened up a fresh line of inquiry into the Gospel. One of the most important and influential works in this area has been Raymond Brown's The Community of the Beloved Disciple, which attempts to trace the history of the community, and also provides a helpful survey of earlier attempts. Oscar Cullmann's The Johannine Circle is also useful. See too the works already cited Ashton and Hengel, and the recent article by Urban C. von Wahlde, "Community in Conflict: The History and Social Context of the Johannine Community".

Closely related is the use of the social sciences to study the Fourth Gospel. We will have opportunity to note further works in this area when we consider the topic of christology below, but we should not close this question without making mention of an important work for any interested in this area to read, namely David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community. Also important is the article by Bill Domeris, "Christology and Community: A Study of the Social Matrix of the Fourth Gospel", and that of Fernando F. Segovia, "The Significance of Social Location in Reading John's Story".


Probably the topic which has been the focus of the most interest in connection with the Gospel of John is that of christology, which is understandable given its incomparable influence on the creeds and the faith of the church in subsequent centuries. The question of why John's christology is so distinctive, while nonetheless having so many points of contact with earlier Christian writings, is a puzzle that scholars are still wrestling with. Two contrasting views on the question of development can be found in James Dunn, Christology in the Making and Maurice Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God.

In addition to the major volumes by various authors on the christology or theology of the New Testament in general, there are a number of important studies specifically on John's Gospel, such as William Loader, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel: Structure and Issues, and the useful article by Maarten Menken, "The Christology of the Fourth Gospel: A Survey of Recent Research". On the Son of Man sayings there has been a particularly large amount of interest in recent years. A review of previous research can be found in the first chapter of Delbert Burkett, The Son of the Man in the Gospel of John. Burkett's own solution, however, is rather speculative to say the least. See too Robert Rhea, The Johannine Son of Man, and Francis J. Moloney, The Johannine Son of Man. See also Ashton, Understanding and Dodd, Interpretation. There are still fundamental disagreements among scholars concerning the background of the Johannine sayings and their relationship to the earlier Synoptic tradition.

Sociological approaches to the christology of the Fourth Gospel also began with the Son of Man sayings. The decisive essay on the subject which sparked off much subsequent research is Wayne A. Meeks, "The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism". Meeks argued that the evangelist's portrait of Jesus as a 'stranger from heaven', who is in the world but is not of the world but 'from above', expresses the Johannine Christians' sense of alienation from the social world they lived in, particularly in wake of their expulsion from the synagogue. Meeks' viewpoint has been given further treatment in Jerome Neyrey's book, An Ideology of Revolt: John's Christology in Social-Science Perspective.

Also of great interest is the question of Jesus' divinity in the Fourth Gospel: i.e. the Logos christology of the prologue, the attribution of the designation 'God' to Jesus, and the controversy over whether Jesus was 'making himself God' or 'making himself equal with God'. A useful treatment of important passages in this discussion is to be found in Murray J. Harris, Jesus as 'God'. Also of interest on this topic are two articles: Lars Hartman, "Johannine Jesus-Belief and Monotheism", and Wayne Meeks, "Equal to God". See too Brown, Community and Robinson, Priority. On a slightly different aspect, see Marianne M. Thompson, The Humanity of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. And on Jesus as 'agent' in the Fourth Gospel (i.e. the sending motif), see Peder Borgen, "God's Agent in the Fourth Gospel" and A. E. Harvey, "Christ as Agent".

After writing something like this, one is always left with a feeling of inadequacy - so many other books of quality and importance could be mentioned, if only there was time and space. Even the most reknowned scholars have a hard time keeping up with the literature on the New Testament subjects they are working on. I suppose there is no better way to close than to echo the words of John himself: Many other books have been written on John which have not been mentioned, but these have been mentioned that you may begin to study the Fourth Gospel, and studying may come to grow in your love for it and understanding of it. If all the books on John were included, I suppose that the whole Internet would not have room for them.

by James F. McGrath
Durham, England

Published October 10, 1997.
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Theological Gathering 4, Fall 1997

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