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JOHN - Introduction

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John - Introduction

Supplemental Commentary:



In taking up the Gospel according to St. John, the reader will notice at once a difference from the viewpoint of the Synoptics.  The first three Evangelists move among the plain realities and the simpler folk of Galilee.  The fourth strikes a higher note in his account of our Lord's life and teachings.  This is evident at once in the Prologue.  Again, John the Baptist is introduced mainly as a witness, with little said of his ministry, which is known from the Synoptics.  The public life of Jesus is given chiefly as it touches Jerusalem (though still more clearly in its chronological outline than in the other Gospels).  For the Synoptics the ministry in Galilee is the chief concern.  This field John seldom invades, and when he does it is with his own purpose in view.  Even in the story of the Passion, where all four Gospels unite, John seems to follow his own path.  He omits the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the Agony in the Garden, and even the trial before the Sanhedrin.  He adds, however, many details throughout the Gospel which are passed over by the others.

The recognition of these differences leads to some considerations which are important for a better understanding of the Gospel of St. John.

First of all, the author presupposes that his readers know the story from the Synoptics.  This is evident from an examination of any matter which John records in common with them.  That this was his intentional method may be concluded from the fact that, while he certainly knew the other Gospels, he shows not the least trace of literary dependence on them.  And yet his Gospel clearly grows out of the same experiences and traditions.  In both John and the Synoptics the story is fundamentally the same: Christ is the incarnate Son of God, come into the world to accomplish man's redemption by His death on the cross.  In all essential features this agreement will hold for the entire Gospel.

Secondly, the first three Gospels record those features of Christ's life which had commonly figured in oral teaching before any of the New Testament was written.  St. John's message is rather the person of Christ as an object of belief, on whom depends our possession of light and life.  This aim commits the author to a course not followed, though certainly supposed, by the others.  John centers on the king, they on the kingdom; he upon the divinity of the messenger, they on the essential value of the message.  The two positions are in no sense exclusive; they are rather correlative, and often they actually overlap.

Thirdly, the comparison reaches its high point in the modal differences apparent in St. John's picture of Christ.  This must be expected from the author's point of view and the scenes in which he presents the Master.  Expounding His teachings before the mixed and unprejudiced folk of Galilee, employing stories and similes which abound in familiar, homely allusions, our Lord will appear in a different light.  In Jerusalem, He not only had another audience, more sophisticated, narrower, but His instructions often took the nature of a debate, a polemic.  The parables of Galilee there become allegories.  The miracles are fewer, and are often selected because of their logical connection with the discourse the Evangelist is reporting.  And yet there is no trait in John's picture of our Lord that opposes what we know of Him from the Synoptics.  Both show us Christ, but under different conditions.

Finally, it will be noticed that the author of the Fourth Gospel has left upon his writings the impression of his own personality.  This accounts for much of its difference in tone.  The authors of the other Gospels were dependent upon formal oral teaching, not original with any of them.  Their voices, therefore, blend with the common voice of the Church in Jerusalem.  John, intent upon his own thesis, more uniformly colors both discourse and narrative with his own style and disposition.  Thus, he is  inclined to repetition, a trait he might have learned from Christ Himself.  The discourses he recalls were spoken many years earlier, but were deeply impressed upon his mind; long and serious meditation had made them a part of his own thought.  With a mind wholly conformed to the Master's, his expression of these discourses is largely his own.

These differences between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics were recognized in the early centuries of Christianity.  Eusebius cites St. Clement as saying: "Last of all John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospels, being urged by his friends and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel."  St. Augustine warned that prayer was needed for reading the Gospel whose author, because of his sublimity, had merited the symbol of the Eagle among the Evangelists.

The Author.  Catholic tradition has held unbrokenly from the second century that St. John the Apostle is the author of the Fourth Gospel.  The same tradition attributes to him the writing of the Apocalypse and the three Epistles which bear his name in our New Testament canon.  We can here but suggest the line of evidence upon which this tradition rests.

External evidence.  In view of the fact that the Gospel was not written until about the year 100 A.D., the testimony of the second century is most interesting.  This Gospel was known in all sections of the Church, and is often explicitly attributed to John the Apostle.  Recently a papyrus dating from the first half of the second century was found in the John Ryland Library, Manchester, England, which proves to be a section of this Gospel in circulation in Egypt.  St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died about the year 107 A.D., was probably influenced in his writings by the Gospel.  Justin Martyr, who died at Rome in 165 A.D., certainly knew it.  Tatian the Syrian (born 110 A.D.) took from it the chronological sequence for his narrative based on the four Gospels.  The later ecclesiastical writers of this century and the first part of the third century explicitly ascribe the Fourth Gospel to John the Apostle.  For this we can cite the Muratorian Fragment, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus in Gaul, Tertullian in Africa, Polycrates in Ephesus.

Internal evidence.  The Gospel itself confirms this tradition of its author's identity.  His language, his knowledge of the geology and customs of Palestine, his acquaintance with rabbinical doctrine, prejudices and methods of argumentation, his familiarity with the local religious and political conditions, all indicate a native of Palestine.  Further, his claims to have been an eyewitness of what he records (1, 14; 19, 35).  He apparently was present at the Last Supper, and hence was an Apostle.  Still, he carefully hides his identity, referring to himself only as "the disciple whom Jesus loved."  All of these conditions, as may be gathered from the other Gospels and the Acts, are fulfilled only in St. John the Apostle.

St. John.  From what we know of the life of St. John, he appears especially qualified for the writing of the Gospel.  This natural aptitude imparts a special value to his writings.  He was the brother of the Apostle James.  His father, Zebedee, was a prosperous fisherman (Mark 1, 19 f).  Salome is believed to have been his mother, and a sister of Mary, the mother of our Lord; she was among the holy women who followed Jesus (Mark 15, 40 f; Luke 23, 49).  John's home was the village of Bethsaida, on the shores of Lake Genesareth.  Though a relative of our Lord, John learned of His Messianic character first from John the Baptist, among whose disciples he was numbered.  He was among the first to attach themselves to Christ (1, 35).  Later he was called more permanently, which Peter, Andrew and James (Mark 1, 20), and is named among the chosen Twelve (Mark 3, 17).  He was of an enthusiastic disposition, and shared with his brother the title of "sons of thunder" (Mark 3, 17; 9, 38; Luke 9, 49.54).  He may have shared the ambition of his mother, who asked for her sons important places in the Messianic kingdom of Jesus (Matt. 20, 20; Mark 10, 35 ff).

John was especially intimate with his Master.  Together with Peter and James he was privileged to see the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the Transfiguration, and the Agony in the Garden.  At the Last Supper he reclined at the right of Jesus, and rested his head on the Master's bosom.  He was the only Apostle present at the Crucifixion, and there was honored by our Lord with the care of His Blessed Mother.  Thereafter Mary resided in the home of John.  He could therefore well speak of himself under the title by which Christian tradition knows him, "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (21, 20).

We know too that he was closely associated with Peter.  He may have been the other disciple known to the High Priest (18, 15), though this is uncertain.  He ran with Peter to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection (20, 1 ff); he was again with Peter at the Sea of Galilee (21, 1 ff); he was close to him in Jerusalem in the early years of the Church (Acts 3, 1; 4, 13; 8, 14; Gal. 2, 9).

It is well attested from the second century that John later lived in Ephesus and died there at a ripe old age.  When he first came to this city is not known, but it is generally thought to have been just before the destruction of Jerusalem--hence about 66 A.D.  Of his life at Ephesus we know only that he was held in high respect because of his association with our Lord, and that he had some contact with the other churches of Asia Minor.  Tradition has preserved a few other items.  Tertullian relates that in the persecution of Domitian (89-96) John was cast into a cauldron of boiling oil at Rome.  Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Eusebius tell of his more certain banishment to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Apocalypse.  During his residence at Ephesus he wrote the three Epistles which bear his name, and toward the end of his life, the Gospel.  Irenaeus is authority for the fact that John was still alive at the beginning of the reign of Trajan (98-117).  His death at Ephesus is generally placed at about 100 A.D.

Conditions of the Times.  More than the other Gospels the work of St. John reflects the conditions of the age in which it was written.  In this respect it has further value as showing the trials through which the Faith had to pass at the end of the first century.  In fact, it was written to protect the Faith against these difficulties.

Ephesus was one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire, and one of the great centers of the ancient world.  We know something of its earlier character from the experiences of St. Paul (Acts 19).  The church at Ephesus and throughout the territory dependent on it owed its establishment to the Apostle of the Gentiles.  At that time the obstacles to the Faith arose principally from the pagan worship of Diana, the tutelary goddess of the city, and from the cult of Rome and the Emperor.  But the city also enjoyed an intellectual life which brought it fame.  Several philosophers held forth there, and in one of their halls St. Paul had established himself to lecture on Christianity (Acts 19, 9).  While Paul was in prison in Rome the church at Ephesus and the vicinity was disturbed by false teachers who cast doubt on the power of Christ to meet the needs of mankind.  (Cf. Epistles to Colossians and Ephesians.  The continuation of these difficulties may be seen also in the Epistles to Timothy.)  These doubts arose mainly from the influence of Judaism, from which sect many of the early converts had been won.  The Baptist sects, which claimed John the Baptist as the author of their doctrines, were another disturbing element.  Their presence may be learned from Acts 18, 24-28; 19, 1-7.

A later and graver danger to the Faith grew out of the philosophic traditions of the city.  In Greek thought from the time of Plato there was a tendency to remove God from immediate contact with creatures, on the ground that spirit and matter are incompatible.  This, applied to our Lord, became the basis of the teachings of Docetism, which denied the reality of His human nature.  Others taught that the gulf between God and creatures was spanned by intermediate beings, of which Christ was one.  Still others, like Cerinthus, thought that Christ was but a man upon whom the Deity came at the time of His baptism, and from whom the Deity departed just before the Passion.  Thus the true nature of our Lord was obscured or denied, in the matter of either His divinity or His humanity.

These internal dangers were even more serious than the persecutions, which raged during St. John's last years.  Inaugurated by the madman Nero, persecution of Christianity was, from the time of Domitian, the set policy of the Roman Empire.  The Jews, who feared and hated the growing power of the Church, sought every opportunity to interfere with her progress.  Their attack was both doctrinal (as we know from the Epistle to the Galatians) and political.

Purposes of the Gospel.  St. John's office, therefore, was not to write once more the story of Christ and His teachings.  These were everywhere available at the end of the first century, through the circulation of the Synoptics.  He had rather to consider the new conditions faced by the Church, and to provide the instruction most needed.

1.  His main purpose he himself states in 20, 31: "These (signs) 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."  In other words, he seeks to prove that Christ is God incarnate, and that only through faith in Him can we have life.

2.  Since this faith was endangered by the philosophical heresies then appearing about him, John also wished to show that our Lord possessed a real human nature while remaining the eternal Son of God.  Of this he had already written in his first Epistle.

3.  Against the Baptist sects he wished to urge that the Precursor [John the Baptist] admitted the superiority of Christ, to whom he bore witness.  Against the Jews he would point out their guilt in refusing to accept our Lord as the Messias.

None of these purposes in any way interferes with the historical accuracy of the facts John records.  On the contrary, to be of value for his thesis, his evidence had to be most faithful.  This thesis was of eminent importance: a faith in Christ which touched the eternal welfare of his readers.  The detection of error or inaccuracy in his writing would have defeated his purpose.  Hence, apart from our conviction that John's writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit, we have natural reasons for complete confidence in the historical worth of his Gospel.



Prologue 1, 1-18

I. The Public Ministry of Jesus 1, 19 -- 12, 50
1. Christ Reveals His Mission and Divinity 1, 19 -- 4, 54

2. Christ Confirms His Mission 5, 1 -- 6, 72

3. Conflicts with the Jews 7, 1 -- 12, 50
II. The Passion, Death and Resurrection 13-21
1. The Last Supper 13, 1 -- 17, 26

2. The Passion and Death of Jesus 18-19

3. The Resurrection of Jesus 20-21

Confraternity Bible:



St. John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved," was the last to write his Gospel.  He was a young man when first called to the apostolate and lived to an advanced old age.  At Ephesus, where he lived till about the year 100 A.D., he wrote the Gospel at the request of the Elders.

John and James were the sons of Zebedee, of the town of Bethsaida.  They were fishermen by trade.  They had attached themselves as disciples of John the Baptist, and from him learned that Jesus was the Messias.  They were among the first whom Jesus invited to follow Him, and later were called to be with Him permanently.  They were among the chosen Twelve.  With Peter, they were permitted to share some of the more hidden experiences of their Master.

John was particularly intimate with Jesus, as his title of "beloved disciple" and his position at the Last Supper clearly show.  To him our Lord entrusted the care of the Blessed Virgin.  We do not wonder, therefore, that he was able to reach such spiritual heights in his Gospel, or that tradition has assigned to him the symbol of the eagle.

The purpose of the Gospel is stated in 20, 31: ". . . that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name."  To establish this truth, the evangelist recounts certain of our Lord's miracles, and the teachings which were associated with them.  He assumes that his readers know the Synoptic Gospels, and in some points completes their narrative.  But all other possible motives of the Gospel are subordinate to his main theme, which he unfolds with convincing force.