John, like the other three canonical Gospels, is a biography of Jesus (see the Introduction to the Gospels). Ancient biographies took different forms, however, and most scholars believe that John is more directly interpretive than the other Gospels. This Gospel’s narratives resemble theirs, but historians often used speeches to help interpret events, and Jesus’ discourses in John’s Gospel certainly do that. Moreover, especially in the passion narrative, many scholars believe that John focuses on the symbolic dimension in some details (compare Jn 13:26 with Mk 14:20; Jn 19:17 with Mk 15:21; Jn 19:14 with Mk 15:25, and see notes on these passages in John; see also the article “The Synoptic Passover Meal Versus John’s Passover Lamb”).
Nevertheless, even though the entire Gospel is written in John’s own style, we frequently find elements confirmed by the other Gospels, showing that John is interpreting rather than inventing his material. Indeed, some distinctive elements of John, such as the Sanhedrin’s reason to want Jesus executed (Jn 11:48 – 50), Pilate’s reason for hesitating to execute him (18:33 – 38), and Jesus carrying his own cross (19:17), fit what is known of the milieu even better than the Synoptic accounts. Many details, such as Jesus citing traditional tabernacle readings at that festival (7:2,37 – 39) and perhaps even his “I am” claim there (see note on 8:58) fit aspects of Jesus’ milieu in ways even better than even most Christians in John’s day would have realized.
Why does John feel free to report a different aspect of Jesus’ ministry than the one reported by Matthew and Luke, both of whom follow Mark’s outline? To some degree, it may be because the material comes from what most scholars believe was an independent eyewitness of Jesus’ Judean ministry (19:35; 21:24) — the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 21:20). Scholars differ on this witness’s identity, but he is among Jesus’ very closest disciples (13:23), in a role that can virtually rival that of Peter (13:23 – 25; 20:2 – 8), suggesting to many scholars that he was a prominent disciple, likely among the Twelve. Thus although scholars differ on his precise identity (and how much of the Gospel stems from him), conservative scholars generally prefer the author whose name was preserved by the second-century church: John. Classical scholars normally start with external evidence when considering authorship, and the earliest external evidence in this case firmly favors John.
Scholars today again differ as to which John was in view (though the earliest Christian tradition did not), but the Synoptic Gospels show us that John son of Zebedee was one of Jesus’ most intimate disciples. A majority of conservative scholars therefore believe that this John is the author of this Gospel. (A minority of scholars hold to a different author, Judean John the Elder, or to a school developing the apostle John’s teaching, or occasionally even to a different figure such as Lazarus, whom Jesus loved in 11:3.) He may have shaped and reshaped it orally over the decades as he continued to recount Jesus’ story, inspired by the Spirit (14:26), but the heart of his Gospel reflects his memory of Jesus.
Tradition holds that the Gospel was written in the 90s of the first century. Since disciples were often in their teens, John had years to learn how to communicate Jesus’ character best; he was possibly in his 80s at the time of writing. Ancient sources show that, in antiquity as today, some people did remain active in their 80s. (Writing a work usually meant dictating it to a scribe, and a long work like this Gospel would usually be revised at least once before wide publication.) The tradition fits the Gospel’s apparent response to a setting that would fit in the 90s.
The Jewish-Roman war of AD 66 – 70 scattered many Jewish followers of Jesus into more stable regions of the Greek east, including the cities in Asia Minor. After the temple’s destruction in 70, the center of Sadducean power vanished, and educated Pharisees competed with other groups, such as the populist followers of Jesus, for the people’s allegiance. (Note the heavy focus on Pharisees in John’s Gospel. Note also Jesus and the Spirit, rather than the temple, as the true holy place, in 1:14; 2:21; 4:21 – 24; 7:37 – 39; 10:36 and note; 14:2 – 6; 15:4.) In at least some places, this rivalry for control led to efforts to make Jewish believers unwelcome in synagogues (cf. 9:22; 12:42; 16:2; earlier, cf. Lk 6:22); later Jewish sources speak of rabbis’ conflicts with followers of Jesus, and indicate that some added a curse against schismatics — which normally included Jewish believers in Jesus — to their regular prayers. These tensions arose not only in Judea, but also apparently in some synagogues in Smyrna and Philadelphia (Rev 2:9 – 10; 3:7 – 9). In the 90s, cities in Asia Minor increasingly accommodated the veneration of the Emperor Domitian as divine. Jews were exempt from the imperial cult, but if Christians were disbarred from some synagogues, their refusal to participate in civic acts honoring the emperor may have been viewed as disloyal. Against considerable social pressure, then, John urges his audience to stand firm in recognizing Christ as both the fulfillment of Jewish hopes and the ultimate Lord. ◆
The apostle John
Primarily Jewish believers
Probably in the AD 90s
John presents Jesus as the Word, the Messiah and the incarnate Son of God, who has come to reveal the Father and bring eternal life to all who believe in him.