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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > J > Gospel of St. John

Gospel of St. John

This subject will be considered under the following heads:

I. Contents and Scheme of the Gospel;
II. Distinctive Peculiarities;
III. Authorship;
IV. Circumstances of the Composition;
V. Critical Questions Concerning the Text;
VI. Historical Genuineness;
VII. Object and Importance.

Contents and scheme of the gospel

According to the traditional order, the Gospel of St. John occupies the last place among the four canonical Gospels. Although in many of the ancient copies this Gospel was, on account of the Apostolic dignity of the author inserted immediately after or even before the Gospel of St. Matthew, the position it occupies today was from the beginning the most usual and the most approved. As regards its contents, the Gospel of St. John is a narrative of the life of Jesus from His baptism to His Resurrection and His manifestation of Himself in the midst of His disciples. The chronicle falls naturally into four sections:

When we come to consider the arrangement of matter by the Evangelist, we find that it follows the historical order of events, as is evident from the above analysis. But the author displays in addition a special concern to determine exactly the time of the occurrence and the connection of the various events fitted into this chronological framework. This is apparent at the very beginning of his narrative when, as though in a diary he chronicles the circumstances attendant on the beginning of the Saviour's public ministry, with four successive definite indications of the time (i, 29, 35, 43, ii, 1). He lays special emphasis on the first miracles: "This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee" (ii, 11), and "This is again the second miracle that Jesus did, when he was come out of Judea into Galilee" (iv, 54). Finally, he refers repeatedly throughout to the great religious and national festivals of the Jews for the purpose of indicating the exact historical sequence of the facts related (ii, 13; v, 1; vi, 4; vii, 2; x, 22; xii, 1, xiii, 1).

All the early and the majority of modern exegetes are quite justified, therefore, in taking this strictly chronological arrangement of the events as the basis of their commentaries. The divergent views of a few modern scholars are without objective support either in the text of the Gospel or in the history of its exegesis.

Distinctive peculiarities

The Fourth Gospel is written in Greek, and even a superficial study of it is sufficient to reveal many peculiarities, which give the narrative a distinctive character. Especially characteristic is the vocabulary and diction. His vocabulary is, it is true, less rich in peculiar expressions than that of Paul or of Luke: he uses in all about ninety words not found in any other hagiographer. More numerous are the expressions which are used more frequently by John than by the other sacred writers. Moreover, in comparison with the other books of the New Testament, the narrative of St. John contains a very considerable portion of those words and expressions which might be called the common vocabulary of the Four Evangelists.

What is even more distinctive than the vocabulary is the grammatical use of particles, pronouns, prepositions, verbs, etc., in the Gospel of St. John. It is also distinguished by many peculiarities of style, — asyndeta, reduplications, repetitions, etc. On the whole, the Evangelist reveals a close intimacy with the Hellenistic speech of the first century of our era. which receives at his hands in certain expressions a Hebrew turn. His literary style is deservedly lauded for its noble, natural, and not inartistic simplicity. He combines in harmonious fashion the rustic speech of the Synoptics with the urban phraseology of St. Paul.

What first attracts our attention in the subject matter of the Gospel is the confinement of the narrative to the chronicling of events which took place in Judea and Jerusalem. Of the Saviour's labours in Galilee John relates but a few events, without dwelling on details, and of these events only two — the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (vi, 1-16), and the sea-voyage (vi, 17-21) — are already related in the Synoptic Gospels.

A second limitation of material is seen in the selection of his subject-matter, for compared with the other Evangelists, John chronicles but few miracles and devotes his attention less to the works than to the discourses of Jesus. In most cases the events form, as it were, but a frame for the words, conversation, and teaching of the Saviour and His disputations with His adversaries. In fact it is the controversies with the Sanhedrists at Jerusalem which seem especially to claim the attention of the Evangelist. On such occasions John's interest, both in the narration of the circumstances and in the recording of the discourses and conversation of the Saviour, is a highly theological one. With justice, therefore, was John conceded even in the earliest ages of Christianity, the honorary title of the "theologian" of the Evangelists. There are, in particular, certain great truths, to which he constantly reverts in his Gospel and which may be regarded as his governing ideas, special mention should be made of such expressions as the Light of the World, the Truth, the Life, the Resurrection, etc. Not infrequently these or other phrases are found in pithy, gnomic form at the beginning of a colloquy or discourse of the Saviour, and frequently recur, as a leitmotif, at intervals during the discourse (e.g. vi, 35, 48, 51, 58; x, 7, 9; xv, 1, 5; xvii, 1, 5; etc.).

In a far higher degree than in the Synoptics, the whole narrative of the Fourth Gospel centres round the Person of the Redeemer. From his very opening sentences John turns his gaze to the inmost recesses of eternity, to the Divine Word in the bosom of the Father. He never tires of portraying the dignity and glory of the Eternal Word Who vouchsafed to take up His abode among men that, while receiving the revelation of His Divine Majesty, we might also participate in the fullness of His grace and truth. As evidence of the Divinity of the Saviour the author chronicles some of the great wonders by which Christ revealed His glory, but he is far more intent on leading us to a deeper understanding of Christ's Divinity and majesty by a consideration of His words, discourses, and teaching, and to impress upon our minds the far more glorious marvels of His Divine Love.

Authorship

If we except the heretics mentioned by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.11.9) and Epiphanius (Haer., li, 3), the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel was scarcely ever seriously questioned until the end of the eighteenth century. Evanson (1792) and Bretschneider (1820) were the first to run counter to tradition in the question of the authorship, and, since David Friedrich Strauss (1834-40) adopted Bretschneider's views and the members of the Tübingen School, in the wake of Ferdinand Christian Baur, denied the authenticity of this Gospel, the majority of the critics outside the Catholic Church have denied that the Fourth Gospel was authentic. On the admission of many critics, their chief reason lies in the fact that John has too clearly and emphatically made the true Divinity of the Redeemer, in the strict metaphysical sense, the centre of his narrative. However, even Harnack has had to admit that, though denying the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel, he has sought in vain for any satisfactory solution of the Johannine problem: "Again and again have I attempted to solve the problem with various possible theories, but they led me into still greater difficulties, and even developed into contradictions." ("Gesch. der altchristl. Lit.", I, pt. ii, Leipzig, 1897, p. 678.)

A short examination of the arguments bearing on the solution of the problem of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel will enable the reader to form an independent judgment.

Direct historical proof

If, as is demanded by the character of the historical question, we first consult the historical testimony of the past, we discover the universally admitted fact that, from the eighteenth century back to at least the third, the Apostle John was accepted without question as the author of the Fourth Gospel. In the examination of evidence therefore, we may begin with the third century, and thence proceed back to the time of the Apostles.

The ancient manuscripts and translations of the Gospel constitute the first group of evidence. In the titles, tables of contents, signatures, which are usually added to the text of the separate Gospels, John is in every case and without the faintest indication of doubt named as the author of this Gospel. The earliest of the extant manuscripts, it is true, do not date back beyond the middle of the fourth century, but the perfect unanimity of all the codices proves to every critic that the prototypes of these manuscripts, at a much earlier date, must have contained the same indications of authorship. Similar is the testimony of the Gospel translations, of which the Syrian, Coptic, and Old Latin extend back in their earliest forms to the second century.

The evidence given by the early ecclesiastical authors, whose reference to questions of authorship is but incidental, agrees with that of the above mentioned sources. St. Dionysius of Alexandria (264-5), it is true, sought for a different author for the Apocalypse, owing to the special difficulties which were being then urged by the Millennarianists in Egypt; but he always took for granted as an undoubted fact that the Apostle John was the author of the Fourth Gospel. Equally clear is the testimony of Origen (d. 254). He knew from the tradition of the Church that John was the last of the Evangelists to compose his Gospel (Eusebius, Church History VI.25.6), and at least a great portion of his commentary on the Gospel of St. John, in which he everywhere makes clear his conviction of the Apostolic origin of the work has come down to us. Origen's teacher, Clement of Alexandria (d. before 215-6), relates as "the tradition of the old presbyters", that the Apostle John, the last of the Evangelists, "filled with the Holy Ghost, had written a spiritual Gospel" (Eusebius, op. cit., VI, xiv, 7).

Of still greater importance is the testimony of St. Irenæus, Bishop of Lyons (d. about 202), linked immediately with the Apostolic Age as he is, through his teacher Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John. The native country of Irenaeus (Asia Minor) and the scene of his subsequent ministry (Gaul) render him a witness of the Faith in both the Eastern and the Western Church. He cites in his writings at least one hundred verses from the Fourth Gospel, often with the remark, "as John, the disciple of the Lord, says". In speaking of the composition of the Four Gospels, he says of the last: "Later John, the disciple of the Lord who rested on His breast, also wrote a Gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia" (Adv. Haer., III, i, n. 2). As here, so also in the other texts it is clear that by "John, the disciple of the Lord," he means none other than the Apostle John.

We find that the same conviction concerning the authorship of the Fourth Gospel is expressed at greater length in the Roman Church, about 170, by the writer of the Muratorian Fragment (lines 9-34). Bishop Theophilus of Antioch in Syria (before 181) also cites the beginning of the Fourth Gospel as the words of John (Ad Autolycum, II, xxii). Finally, according to the testimony of a Vatican manuscript (Codex Regin Sueci seu Alexandrinus, 14), Bishop Papias of Hierapolis in Phrygia, an immediate disciple of the Apostle John, included in his great exegetical work an account of the composition of the Gospel by St. John during which he had been employed as scribe by the Apostle.

It is scarcely necessary to repeat that, in the passages referred to, Papias and the other ancient writers have in mind but one John, namely the Apostle and Evangelist, and not some other Presbyter John, to be distinguished from the Apostle. (See SAINT JOHN THE EVANGELIST.)

Indirect external evidence

In addition to the direct and express testimony, the first Christian centuries testify indirectly in various ways to the Johannine origin of the Fourth Gospel. Among this indirect evidence the most prominent place must be assigned to the numerous citations of texts from the Gospel which demonstrate its existence and the recognition of its claim to form a portion of the canonical writings of the New Testament, as early as the beginning of the second century. St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died under Trajan (98-117), reveals in the quotations, allusions, and theological views found in his Epistles, an intimate acquaintance with the Fourth Gospel. In the writings of the majority of the other Apostolic Fathers, also, a like acquaintance with this Gospel can scarcely be disputed, especially in the case of Polycarp, the "Martyrium of Polycarp", the "Epistle to Diognetus", and the "Pastor" of Hermas (cf. the list of quotations and allusions in F. X. Funk's edition of the Apostolic Fathers).

In speaking of St. Papias, Eusebius says (Church History III.39.17) that he used in his work passages from the First Epistle of St. John. But this Epistle necessarily presupposes the existence of the Gospel, of which it is in a way the introduction or companion work. Furthermore, St. Irenæus (Adv. Haer., V, xxxii, 2) cites a sentence of the "presbyters" which contains a quotation from John 14:2, and, according to the opinion of those entitled to speak as critics, St. Papias must be placed in the front rank of the presbyters.

Of the second-century apologists, St. Justin (d. about 166), in an especial manner, indicates by his doctrine of the Logos, and in many passages of his apologies the existence of the Fourth Gospel. His disciple Tatian, in the chronological scheme of his "Diatessaron", follows the order of the Fourth Gospel, the prologue of which he employs as the introduction to his work. In his "Apology" also he cites a text from the Gospel.

Like Tatian, who apostatized about 172 and joined the Gnostic sect of the Encratites, several other heretics of the second century also supply indirect testimony concerning the Fourth Gospel. Basilides appeals to John 1:8 and 2:4. Valentine seeks support for his theories of the ons in expressions taken from John; his pupil Heracleon composed, about 160, a commentary on the Fourth Gospel, while Ptolemy, another of his followers, gives an explanation of the prologue of the Evangelist. Marcion preserves a portion of the canonical text of the Gospel of St. John (xiii, 4-15; xxxiv, 15, 19) in his own apocryphal gospel. The Montanists deduce their doctrine of the Paraclete mainly from John 15 and 16. Similarly in his "True Discourse" (about 178) the pagan philosopher Celsus bases some of his statements on passages of the Fourth Gospel.

On the other hand, indirect testimony concerning this Gospel is also supplied by the oldest ecclesiastical liturgies and the monuments of early Christian art. As to the former, we find from the very beginning texts from the Fourth Gospel used in all parts of the Church, and not infrequently with special predilection. Again, to take one example, the raising of Lazarus depicted in the Catacombs forms, as it were, a monumental commentary on the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of St. John.

The testimony of the Gospel itself

The Gospel itself also furnishes an entirely intelligible solution of the question of authorship.

(1) The general character of the work

In the first place from the general character of the work we are enabled to draw some inferences regarding its author. To judge from the language, the author was a Palestinian Jew, who was well acquainted with the Hellenic Greek of the upper classes. He also displays an accurate knowledge of the geographical and social conditions of Palestine even in his slightest incidental references. He must have enjoyed personal intercourse with the Saviour and must even have belonged to the circle of his intimate friends. The very style of his chronicle shows the writer to have been an eyewitness of most of the events. Concerning the Apostles John and James the author shows a thoroughly characteristic reserve. He never mentions their names, although he gives those of most of the Apostles, and once only, and then quite incidentally, speaks of "the sons of Zebedee" (xxi, 2). On several occasions, when treating of incidents in which the Apostle John was concerned, he seems intentionally to avoid mentioning his name (John 1:37-40; 18:15, 16; cf. 20:3-10). He speaks of John the precursor nine times without giving him the title of "the Baptist", as the other Evangelists invariably do to distinguish him from the Apostle. All these indications point clearly to the conclusion that the Apostle John must have been the author of the Fourth Gospel.

(2) The express testimony of the author

Still clearer grounds for this view are to be found in the express testimony of the author. Having mentioned in his account of the Crucifixion that the disciple whom Jesus loved stood beneath the Cross beside the mother of Jesus (John 19:26 sqq.), he adds, after telling of the Death of Christ and the opening of His side, the solemn assurance: "And he that saw it hath given testimony; and his testimony is true. And he knoweth that he saith true: that you also may believe" (xix, 35). According to the admission of all John himself is the "disciple whom the Lord loved". His testimony is contained in the Gospel which for many consecutive years he has announced by word of mouth and which he now sets down in writing for the instruction of the faithful. He assures us, not merely that this testimony is true, but that he was a personal witness of its truth. In this manner he identifies himself with the disciple beloved of the Lord who alone could give such testimony from intimate knowledge. Similarly the author repeats this testimony at the end of his Gospel. After again referring to the disciple whom Jesus loved, he immediately adds the words: "This is that disciple who giveth testimony of these things, and hath written these things; and we know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24). As the next verse shows, his testimony refers not merely to the events just recorded but to the whole Gospel. It is more in accordance with the text and the general style of the Evangelist to regard these final words as the author's own composition, should we prefer, however, to regard this verse as the addition of the first reader and disciple of the Apostle, the text constitutes the earliest and most venerable evidence of the Johannine origin of the Fourth Gospel.

(3) Comparison of the Gospel to the Johannine epistles

Finally we can obtain evidence Concerning the author from the Gospel itself, by comparing his work with the three Epistles, which have retained their place among the Catholic Epistles as the writings of the Apostle John. We may here take for granted as a fact admitted by the majority of the critics, that these Epistles are the work of the same writer, and that the author was identical with the author of the Gospel. In fact the arguments based on the unity of style and language, on the uniform Johannine teaching, on the testimony of Christian antiquity, render any reasonable doubt of the common authorship impossible. At the beginning of the Second and Third Epistles the author styles himself simply "the presbyter" — evidently the title of honour by which he was commonly known among the Christian community. On the other hand, in his First Epistle, he emphasizes repeatedly and with great earnestness the feet that he was an eyewitness of the facts concerning the life of Christ to which he (in his Gospel) had borne testimony among the Christians: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, of the word of life: for the life was manifested; and we have seen and do bear witness, and declare unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father, and hath appeared to us: that which we have seen and have heard, we declare unto you" (1 John 1:1-3; cf. 4:14). This "presbyter" who finds it sufficient to use such an honorary title without qualification as his proper name, and was likewise an eye- and earwitness of the incidents of the Saviour's life, can be none other than the Presbyter John mentioned by Papias, who can in turn be none other than John the Apostle (cf. SAINT JOHN THE EVANGELIST).

We can therefore, maintain with the utmost certainty that John the Apostle, the favourite disciple of Jesus, was really the author of the Fourth Gospel.

Circumstances of the composition

Passing over the intimate circumstances with which early legend has clothed the composition of the Fourth Gospel, we shall discuss briefly the time and place of composition, and the first readers of the Gospel.

As to the date of its composition we possess no certain historical information. According to the general opinion, the Gospel is to be referred to the last decade of the first century, or to be still more precise, to 96 or one of the succeeding years. The grounds for this opinion are briefly as follows:

The place of composition was, according to the above-mentioned prologue, the province of Asia. Still more precise is the statement of St. Irenaeus, who tells us that John wrote his Gospel "at Ephesus in Asia" (Against Heresies III.1.2). All the other early references are in agreement with these statements.

The first readers of the Gospel were the Christians of the second and third generations in Asia Minor. There was no need of initiating them into the elements of the Faith; consequently John must have aimed rather at confirming against the attacks of its opponents the Faith handed down by their parents.

Critical questions concerning the text

As regards the text of the Gospel, the critics take special exception to three passages, 5:3-4; 7:53-8:11; and 21.

John 5:3-4

The fifth chapter tells of the cure of the paralytic at the pool of Bethsaida in Jerusalem. According to the Vulgate the text of the second part of verse three and verse four runs as follows: ". . . waiting for the moving of the water. And an angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond, and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the pond after the motion of the water, was made whole, of whatsoever infirmity he lay under." But these words are wanting in the three oldest manuscripts, the Codex Vaticanus (B), Codex Sinaiticus (aleph), and Codex Bez (D), in the original text of the palimpsest of St. Ephraem (C), in the Syrian translation of Cureton, as well as in the Coptic and Sahidic translations, in some minuscules, in three manuscripts of the Itala, in four of the Vulgate, and in some Armenian manuscripts. Other copies append to the words a critical sign which indicates a doubt as to their authenticity. The passage is therefore regarded by the majority of modern critics, including the Catholic exegetes, Schegg, Schanz, Belser, etc., as a later addition by Papias or some other disciple of the Apostle.

Other exegetes, e.g. Corluy, Comely, Knabenbauer, and Murillo, defend the authenticity of the passage urging in its favour important internal and external evidence. In the first place the words are found in the Codex Alexandrinus (A), the emended Codex Ephraemi (C), in almost all minuscule manuscripts, in six manuscripts of the Itala, in most of the codices of the Vulgate, including the best, in the Syrian Peshito, in the Syrian translation of Philoxenus (with a critical mark), in the Persian, Arabic, and Slavonic translations, and in some manuscripts of the Armenian text. More important is the fact that, even before the date of our present codices, the words were found by many of the Greek and Latin Fathers in the text of the Gospel. This is clear from Tertullian [On Baptism 1 (before 202)], Didymus of Alexandria [De Trin., II, xiv (about 381)], St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine [Sermo xv (al. xii), De verbis Evangelii S. Joannis), although the last-mentioned, in his tractate on the Gospel of St. John, omits the passage.

The context of the narrative seems necessarily to presuppose the presence of the words. The subsequent answer of the sick man (v. 7), "Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pond. For whilst I am coming, another goeth down before me", could scarcely be intelligible without verse 4, and the Evangelist is not accustomed to omit such necessary information from his text. Thus both sides have good grounds for their opinions, and no final decision on the question, from the standpoint of the textual critic, seems possible.

John 7:53-8:11

This passage contains the story of the adulteress. The external critical evidence seems in this ease to give still clearer decision against the authenticity of this passage. It is wanting in the four earliest manuscripts (B, A, C, and aleph) and many others, while in many copies it is admitted only with the critical mark, indicative of doubtful authenticity. Nor is it found in the Syrian translation of Cureton, in the Sinaiticus, the Gothic translation, in most codices of the Peshito, or of the Coptic and Armenian translations, or finally in the oldest manuscripts of the Itala. None of the Greek Fathers have treated the incident in their commentaries, and, among Latin writers, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Hilary appear to have no knowledge of this pericope.

Notwithstanding the weight of the external evidence of these important authorities, it is possible to adduce still more important testimony in favour of the authenticity of the passage. As for the manuscripts, we know on the authority of St. Jerome that the incident "was contained in many Greek and Latin codices" (Contra Pelagium, II, xvii), a testimony supported today by the Codex Bez of Canterbury (D) and many others. The authenticity of the passage is also favoured by the Vulgate, by the Ethiopians Arabic, and Slavonic translations, and by many manuscripts of the Itala and of the Armenian and Syrian text. Of the commentaries of the Greek Fathers, the books of Origen dealing with this portion of the Gospel are no longer extant; only a portion of the commentary of St. Cyril of Alexandria has reached us, while the homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Fourth Gospel must be considered a treatment of selected passages rather than of the whole text. Among the Latin Fathers, Sts. Ambrose and Augustine included the pericope in their text, and seek an explanation of its omission from other manuscripts in the fact that the incident might easily give rise to offense (cf. especially Augustine, "De coniugiis adulteris", II, vii). It is thus much easier to explain the omission of the incident from many copies than the addition of such a passage in so many ancient versions in all parts of the Church. It is furthermore admitted by the critics that the style and mode of presentation have not the slightest trace of apocryphal origin, but reveal throughout the hand of a true master. Too much importance should not be attached to variations of vocabulary, which may be found on comparing this passage with the rest of the Gospel, since the correct reading of the text is in many places doubtful, and any such differences of language may be easily harmonized with the strongly individual style of the Evangelist.

It is thus possible, even from the purely critical standpoint, to adduce strong evidence in favour of the canonicity and inspired character of this pericope, which by decision of the Council of Trent, forms a part of the Holy Bible.

John 21

Concerning the last chapter of the Gospel a few remarks will suffice. The last two verses of the twentieth chapter indicate clearly indeed that the Evangelist intended to terminate his work here: "Many other signs also did Jesus in the sight of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing, you may have life in his name" (xx, 30 sq.). But the sole conclusion that can be deduced from this is that the twenty-first chapter was afterwards added and is therefore to be regarded as an appendix to the Gospel. Evidence has yet to be produced to show that it was not the Evangelist, but another, who wrote this appendix. The opinion is at present fairly general, even among critics, that the vocabulary, style, and the mode of presentation as a whole, together with the subject-matter of the passage reveal the common authorship of this chapter and the preceding portions of the Fourth Gospel.

Historical genuineness

Objections raised against the historical character of the Fourth Gospel

The historical genuineness of the Fourth Gospel is at the present time almost universally denied outside the Catholic Church. Since David Friedrich Strauss and Ferdinand Christian Baur this denial has been postulated in advance in most of the critical inquiries into the Gospels and the life of Jesus. Influenced by this prevailing tendency, Alfred Loisy also reached the point where he openly denied the historicity of the Fourth Gospel; in his opinion the author desired, not to write a history, but to clothe in symbolical garb his religious ideas and theological speculations.

The writings of Loisy and their rationalistic prototypes, especially those of the German critics, have influenced many later exegetes, who while wishing to maintain the Catholic standpoint in general, concede only a very limited measure of historical genuineness to the Fourth Gospel. Among this class are included those who acknowledge as historical the main outlines of the Evangelist's narrative, but see in many individual portions only symbolical embellishments. Others hold with H. J. Holtzmann that we must recognize in the Gospel a mixture of the subjective, theological speculations of the author and the objective, personal recollections of his intercourse with Christ, without any possibility of our distinguishing by sure criteria these different elements. That such a hypothesis precludes any further question as to the historical genuineness of the Johannine narrative, is evident, and is indeed candidly admitted by the representatives of these views.

On examining the grounds for this denial or limitation of the historical genuineness of John we find that they are drawn by the critics almost exclusively from the relation of the Fourth Gospel to the Synoptic narrative. On comparison three points of contrast are discovered: (1) with respect to the events which are related; (2) in regard to the mode of presentation; and (3) in the doctrine which is contained in the narrative.

(1) The events related

As regards the events related, the great contrast between John and the Synoptists in the choice and arrangement of materials is especially accentuated. The latter show us the Saviour almost exclusively in Galilee, labouring among the common people: John, on the other hand, devotes himself chiefly to chronicling Christ's work in Judea, and His conflicts with the Sanhedrists at Jerusalem. An easy solution of this first difficulty is found in the special circumstances attending the composition of the Fourth Gospel. John may - in fact must - have assumed that the Synoptic narrative was known to his readers at the end of the first century. The interest and spiritual needs of these readers demanded primarily that he supplement the evangelical story in such a manner as to lead to a deeper knowledge of the Person and Divinity of the Saviour, against which the first heresies of Cerinthus, the Ebionites, and the Nicolaites were being already disseminated in Christian communities. But it was chiefly in His discussions with the Scribes and Pharisees at Jerusalem that Christ had spoken of His Person and Divinity. In his Gospel, therefore John made it his primary purpose to set down the sublime teachings of Our Saviour, to safeguard the Faith of the Christians against the attacks of the heretics. When we come to consider the individual events in the narrative, three points in particular are brought forward:

(2) The mode of presentation

As regards the mode of presentation, it is especially insisted that the great sublimity of the Fourth Gospel is difficult to reconcile with the homely simplicity of the Synoptics. This objection, however, entirely disregards the great differences in the circumstances under which the Gospels were written. For the Christians of the third generation in Asia living in the midst of flourishing schools, the Fourth Evangelist was forced to adopt an entirely different style from that employed by his predecessors in writing for the newly-converted Jews and pagans of the earlier period.

Another difficulty raised is the fact that the peculiar Johannine style is found not only in the narrative portions of the Gospel, but also in the discourses of Jesus and in the words of the Baptist and other personages. But we must remember that all the discourses and colloquies had to be translated from Aramaic into Greek, and in this process received from the author their distinctive unity of style. Besides in the Gospel, the intention is by no means to give a verbatim report of every sentence and expression of a discourse, a sermon, or a disputation. The leading ideas alone are set forth in exact accordance with the sense, and, in this manner, also, they come to reflect the style of the Evangelist. Finally, the disciple surely received from his Master many of the distinctive metaphors and expressions which imprint on the Gospel its peculiar character.

(3) The doctrinal content

The difference in doctrinal content lies only in the external forms and does not extend to the truths themselves. A satisfactory explanation of the dogmatic character of John's narrative, as compared with the stress laid on the moral side of the discourses of Jesus by the Synoptists, is to be found in the character of his first readers, to which reference has already been repeatedly made. To the same cause, also, must be ascribed the further difference between the Gospels namely, why John makes his teaching centre around the Person of Jesus, while the Synoptics bring into relief rather the Kingdom of God. At the end of the first century there was no need for the Evangelist to repeat the lessons concerning the Kingdom of Heaven, already amply treated by his predecessors. His was the especial task to emphasize, in opposition to the heretics, the fundamental truth of the Divinity of the Founder of this Kingdom, and by chronicling those words and works of the Redeemer in which He Himself had revealed the majesty of His glory, to lead the faithful to a more profound knowledge of this truth.

It is superfluous to say that in the teaching itself, especially regarding the Person of the Redeemer, there is not the slightest contradiction between John and the Synoptists. The critics themselves have to admit that even in the Synoptic Gospels Christ, when He speaks of His relations with the Father, assumes the solemn "Johannine" mode of speech. It will be sufficient to recall the impressive words: "And no one knoweth the Son, but the Father: neither doth any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal him" (Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22).

(4) Positive Evidence for the Historical Genuineness of the Gospel

The reasons urged against the genuineness of the Fourth Gospel are devoid of all conclusive force. On the other hand, its genuineness is vouched for by the whole character of the narrative. From the very beginning the events are portrayed with the precision of an eyewitness; the most minute subsidiary circumstances are mentioned; not the least suggestion can be found that the author had any other object in mind than the chronicling of the strict historical truth. A perusal of the passages describing the call of the first disciples (i, 35-51), the Marriage at Cana (ii, 1-11), the conversation with the Samaritan woman (iv, 3-42), the healing of the man born blind (ix, 1-41), the raising of Lazarus (xi, 1-47), is sufficient to convince one that such a chronicle must necessarily lead the readers into error, if the events which are described be otherwise than true in the historical sense.

To this must be added the express assertion made repeatedly by the Evangelist that he speaks the truth and claims for his words unqualified belief (19:35; 20:30 sq.; 21:24; 1 John 1:1-4). To reject these assurances is to label the Evangelist a worthless impostor, and to make of his Gospel an unsolvable historical and psychological enigma.

And finally, the verdict of the entire Christian past has certainly a distinct claim to consideration in this question, since the Fourth Gospel has always been unhesitatingly accepted as one of the chief and historically credible sources of our knowledge of the life of Jesus Christ. With entire justice, therefore, have the contrary views been condemned in clauses 16-18 of the Decree "Lamentabili" (3 July, 1907) and in the Decree of the Biblical Commission of 29 May, 1907.

Object and importance

The intention of the Evangelist in composing the Gospel is expressed in the words which we have already quoted: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (xx, 31). He wished also by his work to confirm the faith of the disciples in the Messianic character and the Divinity of Christ. To attain his object, he selected principally those discourses and colloquies of Jesus in which the self-revelation of the Redeemer laid clearest emphasis on the Divine Majesty of His Being. In this manner John wished to secure the faithful against the temptations of the false learning by means of which the heretics might prejudice the purity of their faith. Towards the narrative of the earlier Evangelists John's attitude was that of one who sought to fill out the story of the words and works of the Saviour, while endeavouring to secure certain incidents from misinterpretation. His Gospel thus forms a glorious conclusion of the joyous message of the Eternal Word. For all time it remains for the Church the most sublime testimony of her faith in the Son of God, the radiant lamp of truth for her doctrine, the never-ceasing source of loving zeal in her devotion to her Master, Who loves her even to the end.

Sources

Commentaries on the Gospel of St. John. In early Christian times: the Homilies of ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM and the Tractates of ST. AUGUSTINE; the extant portions of the commentaries of ORIGEN and ST. CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA; the expositions of THEOPHYLACTUS and EUTHYMIUS, who generally follow Chrysostom, and the exegetical works of ST. BEDE, who follows Augustine. In the Middle Ages: the interpretations of ST. THOMAS AQUINAS and ST. BONAVENTURE, of Blessed ALBERTUS MAGNUS, RUPERT of DEUTZ, and ST. BRUNO OF SEGNI.

About this page

APA citation. Fonck, L. (1910). Gospel of St. John. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08438a.htm

MLA citation. Fonck, Leopold. "Gospel of St. John." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08438a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael Little.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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