Herman Hendrickx, C. I. C. M.

Theology Annual vol. 12 1990-1991 p.167-180




I. Setting, Date, Authorship

1. Setting

The issue of the setting of the Fourth Gospel is really a kind of condensed history of a particular Christian community in the first century. The best efforts to reconstruct that history result in at least a three-stage view.

At the first stage, the Johannine community constituted a part of a Jewish synagogue. That is, the earliest Johannine Christians were Jewish Christians who believed that the Christian faith was continuous with the Jewish faith and who were content to live within the context of a Jewish community. At this first stage we may suppose that their beliefs were not radically different from Jewish beliefs. Their view of Jesus was that he was the Messiah who had come and then promised to return to fulfill the hopes of the Jews as well as the Christians.

The second stage of this history brought the split between the Christians and the Jews of the synagogue. It appears that the Johannine community experienced an expulsion from their religious home in the synagogue for at least two reasons.

First, their increasingly successful missionary efforts among their colleagues in the synagogue began to pose a threat to the leadership of the synagogue, and an earlier emphasis on what the two groups had in common was steadily giving way to an emphasis on the differences. Involved in this may also have been the effective missionary work of the Johannine Christians among Samaritans (Jn 4).

The second reason for the expulsion was the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in A. D. 70 and the resulting crisis of faith. The destruction of the temple brought a kind of identity crisis for the Jewswhat is Judaism without a center of sacrificial worship?and may have resulted in purging sympathizers of Jesus of Nazareth from some synagogues. (In three places in the Gospel the expulsion of the Christians from the synagogue is echoedJn 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). This informal and localized expulsion of the Christians (like those remembered in the narratives of Acts, e.g., 19:8f.) was possibly (later) formalized and made a common practice by the Council of Jamnia (ca. 90 A. D.).

This expulsion had a mighty effect on the Christian community, producing a trauma of faith of major proportions. It was amid this crisis that the fourth evangelist gathered the traditions of the community and interpreted them so as to address the needs of the newly isolated community. It was then that the major themes of the Gospel took shape, providing the Johannine Christians with assurance and confidence in the midst of the uncertainty of their recent experience of deprivation. Furthermore, it was in the subsequent, and perhaps violent, debate with the members of the synagogue that the Gospel found its setting (e.g., Jn 16:2).

The third stage of the history of the community was close to, if not identical with, the setting for the publication of 1 John. While the crisis of the expulsion from the synagogue had been resolved and the community was an independent Christian body, there appeared some internal conflicts over the interpretation of the original Gospel of John in general, and proper belief and practice in particular. Moreover, relationships with other Christian communities had become important (cf. Jn. 21). Certain additions to the Gospel appear to address this situation.(1)

2. Date and Authorship

The task of dating the gospel has become a question of dating the stages in the history of the Johannine community and in reality has become less important for the interpretation of the document than its setting.

For the most part, scholars still date the gospel in the last decade of the first century. Those who hold that the expulsion of the Johannine Christians from the synagogue was a result of the formal decree of the Council of Jamnia (ca. 90 A. D.) must date it within a few years after that council. The first stage of the history of the community sketched above should be dated 40-80, the second 80-90, and the last 90-100.

The identity of the fourth evangelist is hopelessly lost in anonymity. He was not an eyewitness and is not to be identified with the "beloved disciple." It is more likely that the evangelist (whom we shall continue to call John for the sake of convenience) writes of a revered founder of the community whose witness is the basis of the community tradition. The writer speaks of this honoured figure as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." While some scholars have attempted to identify this figure with someone known to us from the gospels (most often John, son of Zebedee, or Lazarus), it seems wiser to admit that we do not know.(2)

II. The Johannine Community

1. Johannine Community Origins (3)

The disciples who follow Jesus in Jn 1:35-51 include names known in the other gospels (Andrew, Peter, Philip); and the titles given to Jesus there are found in the other gospels (Messiah, Son of God, King, Son of Man). It would seem, then, that at least in its origins Johannine Christianity was not too distant from the dominant style of Christianity in the movement centered on Jesus.

In Jn 4, however, Samaritans are being converted (but not by the original disciples of Jesus); and Temple worship in Jerusalem is declared as losing significance (Jn 4:21-24). Here John has departed significantly from the description of the ministry in the other gospels and is closer to the developments described in Acts 6-8. There (without a break of communion) Hellenistic Jewish Christians separate administratively from the Hebrew Christian majority in Jerusalem who are faithful to the Temple observances; and (in the person of Stephen) Hellenist preaching proclaims that God does not dwell in the Temple.

These Hellenist Christians, not Peter or the Twelve, are the ones who convert Samaria. The Johannine community consisted not only of the type of Hebrew Christians whose heritage is preserved in many other New Testament writings, but also of groups similar to the Hellenists, more radical in their attitudes toward Judaism. There were also Samaritan converts. This mixture may have hastened innovative developments in Johannine Christology and made Johannine Christians particularly troublesome in the eyes of Jews who did not believe in Jesus.

In any case, beginning in Jn 5 a dominant theme of the Johannine account of Jesus' ministry is the hatred that "the Jews" have for Jesus because he is making himself God. The divinity of Jesus as one who had come down from God (an aspect of divinity not apparent in the other gospels) is publicly spoken of and attacked. There are long debates between Jesus and "the Jews" that grow increasingly hostile.

What lies beneath the surface becomes apparent in the story of the man born blind (Jn 9).(4) The Jews in anger say, "We are the disciples of Moses; we know that God has spoken to Moses. As for that fellow (Jesus), we do not even know where he comes from" (Jn 9:28-29). The man born blind, who is described by them as one of the disciples of "that fellow", also speaks as a "we": "We know that God pays no attention to sinners .... if this man (Jesus) were not from God, he could have done nothing" (Jn 9:31,33).

The synagogue and the Johannine community are thus alienated from each other as disciples of Moses and disciples of Jesus; and through the medium of struggles in Jesus' own life, the struggles between these two groups are being told. (In other words, the Fourth Gospel narrates on two levels: the level of Jesus' life and the level of the community's life). Just as the man born blind is put on trial before the Pharisees or "the Jews", so have members of the Johannine community been put on trial by synagogue leaders. Just as the man born blind is ejected from the synagogue for confessing that Jesus has come from God, so have the Johannine Christians been ejected from the synagogue for their confession of Jesus (see also Jn 16:2).

To have suffered expulsion from the synagogue because of a belief that Jesus had come from God inevitably sharpened and tightened the adherence of Johannine Christians to their high Christology.(5) Jesus is so much one with the Father (Jn 10:30) that he is not only Lord but also God (Jn 20:28). Over such issues the Johannine Christians were willing to criticize even other Christians. There is contempt in the Fourth Gospel for Jews who believed in Jesus but who were unwilling to confess it openly lest they be put out of the synagogue (Jn 12:42).(6) There is hostility towards Jewish disciples who have followed Jesus openly but who object when it is said that he has come down from heaven and can give his flesh to eat (Jn 6:60-66) or because he is described as existing before Abraham (Jn 8:58).

Such criticism of others suggests that the Johannine Christians must have been extremely controversial because of their Christology, challenged both by Jews who did not believe in Jesus and by Jews who did believe in him. The courtroom atmosphere of the Fourth Gospel with its constant stress on testimony / witness, accusation, and judgment (Jn 1:19-21; 5:31-47; 7:50-51; 8:14-18; etc.) and with its debates over the implications of Scripture texts (Jn 6:31-33; 7:40-43, 52; 10:34-36) reflects the controversies and how they were conducted.

The struggle with the synagogue and the resultant polemic atmosphere are very important in understanding what is present in the Fourth Gospel but also what is absent. The synagogue leaders apparently thought that the Johannine confession of Jesus as God denied that basic faith of Israel: "The Lord our God is one." In response, the evangelistand his communitydefended the divinity of Jesus so massively that the Fourth Gospel scarcely allows for human limitation. Jesus cannot ask a simple question without a Johannine footnote explaining that he already knew the answer (Jn 6:5-6). Jesus cannot choose a follower who goes bad without Johannine insistence that he foresaw this from the beginning (Jn 6:70-71). Jesus cannot utter a prayer of petition without the assurance that he is only educating the bystanders to the truth that the Father always hears him (Jn 11:41-42). Jesus cannot ask that the hour of the passion pass from him (as he does in the other gospels), for his coming to the hour is intentional (Jn 12:27). The passion of Jesus cannot be narrated in a way that would place him at the mercy of his captors, for he has sovereign power to lay down his life and take it up again (Jn 10:18; see 18:6). The entire presentation protects Jesus from whatever could be a challenge to divinity. It is very important to understand that this particular Christology can be understood only when seen in the context of the community's situation.

2. Johannine Relations with Outsiders

The pre-gospel period of distinctive Johannine formation took several decades from the 50s to 80s, and the Gospel was probably written ca. A. D. 90. Universalism is certainly not absent from an outlook that includes the statement: "God so loved the world ... that the world might be saved through him" (Jn 3:16-17). Yet, as we see in the following verses, Jn 3:18-21, dualism is an important modifying factor in this universalistic outlook. The human race is divided into non-believers and believers, into those who prefer darkness and those who prefer light. Since the Johannine community identifies itself with the believers, it is no surprise that those outside the community are looked upon as more or less shadowed by darkness.

No other gospel so lends itself to a diagnosis of community relationships in terms of opposition. Yet if stress on opposition is inevitable, we must not forget the light which shines within the Johannine community of faith and which is the main emphasis of the Gospel. Otherwise we might get the impression that the Johannine community had a negative self-identity. The Fourth Gospel is not an in-group manifesto meant as a triumph over outsiders; its goal is to challenge the Johannine community itself to understand Jesus more deeply (Jn 20:31).

2.1 Non-Believers Detectable in the Gospel

2.1.1 The World

Although the first impression is of a favorable Johannine attitude toward the world (Jn 3:16-17), actually the term "world" becomes more common in the gospel for those who reject the light. It has been proposed that there is a virtual identity in the gospel between the world and "the Jews." Nevertheless, the world is a wider concept. The fact that the opposition to "the Jews" dominates Jn 5-12 while opposition to the world dominates Jn 14-17 suggests a chronology in relationships.

The shift in opposition "the Jews" to the world may mean that now the Johnannine Christians are encountering Gentile disbelief, even as formerly they faced Jewish unbelief. By the time the gospel was written, the Johannine community had sufficient dealings with non-Jews to realize that many of them were no more disposed to accept Jesus than were "Jews", so that a term like "the world" was convenient to cover all such opposition.

2.1.2 The Jews

The expulsion from the synagogues had taken place some time before the gospel was written; but the Johannine Christians were still persecuted and being put to death by "the Jews." That means that, even if they had moved into more contact with Gentiles, they still lived in a place where there were synagogues.

The many references to "the Jews" should not be interpreted in terms of the Fourth Gospel being used as a missionary tract to be used in converting Jews, and containing ample scripture references. There are other reasons for including the Gospel scriptural arguments used in times past.

First, any religious group that has split off from another group will preserve in its arsenal arguments that justify the stance it took. They serve for the education of the next generation lest there be backsliding, even if there is no hope whatsoever that the erstwhile opponents will be convinced by the arguments.

Second, there were believers in Jesus still hidden away in the synagogues (see below); and the Johannine writer seriously desired to embolden these to confess Jesus, even if it meant that they would be thrown out of the synagogues. The arguments in the Gospel gave the Johannine Christians ammunition to be used in winning over those whom they knew to be crypto-Christians.

2.1.3 The adherents of John the Baptist

John portrays the first followers of Jesus as disciples of John the Baptist and the Johannine movement itself may have had its roots among such disciples. Therefore, it is surprising to find in the Fourth Gospel such a large number of negative statements pertinent to John the Baptist. He is not the light (Jn 1:9); he does not antedate Jesus (Jn 1:15, 30); he is not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet (Jn 1:19-24; 3:28); he must decrease while Jesus must increase (Jn 3:30). All this becomes intelligible when we hear in Jn 3:22-26 that some of the disciples of John the Baptist did not follow Jesus (contrast Jn 1:35-37) and jealously objected to the number of people who were following him.

If once more we read the Gospel partly as an autobiography of the Johannine community, we are led to suspect that Johannine Christians had to deal with such disciples and that the negations are meant as an apologetic against them. The fact that they are refuted in the Gospel, not by direct attack upon them as non-believers, but through careful correction of wrong aggrandizement of John the Baptist may mean that the Johannine Christians still held hope for their conversion (compare Acts 18:24-19:7).(7)

2.2 Other Christians Detectable in the Gospel

In the purview of the Johannine writer, clearly there are some who say they believe in Jesus but who, in fact, are no longer true believers.

2.2.1 The Crypto-Christians (Christian Jews within the Synagogue)

John 12:24-43 supplies the clearest reference to a group of Jews who were attracted to Jesus so that they could be said to believe in him, but were afraid to confess their faith publicly lest they be expelled from the synagogue. John has contempt for them because in his judgment they prefer the praise of people to the glory of God. He tells the story of the man born blind in Jn 9 as an example of someone who refuses to take the easy way of hiding his faith in Jesus and is willing to pay the price of expulsion for confessing that Jesus is from God (Jn 9:22-23, 33-38). This man is acting out the history of the Johannine community.

From the Johannine mirror-view of the Crypto-Christians it is difficult to reconstruct the details of their Christology and ecclesiology. We may guess that in their view the Johannine Christians had unnecessarily and tragically brought about the synagogue action against themselves. In their judgment the expulsion of the Johannine Christians may have been just as much the fault of their radicalism as it was of synagogue intransigence.

Attention is drawn to the action of the blind man's parents (Jn 9:18-23). They not only tried to shield themselves from scrutiny but deliberately turned the inquisitors' attention back upon their own son, knowing full well that he will be subject to the very sentence that they themselves are afraid to face. To what extent their behavior reflects actual events in the history of the Johannine community is, of course, impossible to know. But they remind the reader that, in the Johaninne situation, to avoid an open confession had implications not only for the believer fearful of exposure but also for the others who took the risk and allowed themselves to be involved in the process of confrontation. Self-protection involves the betrayal of others; every individual act has communal consequences.(8)

2.2.2 The Jewish Christians of Inadequate Faith

There were also Jewish Christians who had left the synagogue (or had been expelled), who were publicly known as Christians, who formed churches, and yet toward whom John had a hostile attitude at the end of the century. Their existence is indicated by the presence in the gospel of Jews who were publicly believers or disciples but whose lack of real faith is condemned by the author.

The first clear instance of this is in Jn 6:60-66. The immediately preceding discourse was given in the synagogue (Jn 6:59); and there we saw the utterly hostile objection of "the Jews" to Jesus' claim to be the bread of life, whether that be understood as divine revelation descended from heaven (Jn 6:41-42) or as his Eucharistic flesh and blood (Jn 6:53). But then Jesus leaves the synagogue and engages in dialogue with those whom John calls his "disciples." Some of them complain that what Jesus has been saying in the synagogue is hard to take and deserves no attention. Presumably their distress particularly concerns the last things Jesus said, namely, that the bread of life is his flesh which must be eaten, even as his blood must be drunk, so that the recipient may have life. (Clearly in this scene John has moved out of the historical ministry of Jesus into the life of the church). The scene ends with the words: "many of his disciples broke away and would not accompany him any more" (Jn 6:66). The evangelist refers here to Jewish Christians who are no longer to be considered true believers because they do not share John's view of the Eucharist.

Another instance of Jewish Christians of inadequate faith may be the brothers of Jesus mentioned in Jn 7:3-5. They urge Jesus to go up to Judaea to perform his miracles there, instead of doing them in relative hiding. John equates this with an invitation for Jesus to display himself to the world, and so he comments that even his brothers did not believe in him.

2.2.3 The Christians of Apostolic Churches

Distinct from the Johannine Christians themselves, still a third group of Christians may be detected. They are represented by Peter and other members of the Twelve, and for that reason we call them "apostolic." The Johannine choice of Peter and the Twelve to represent a group of Christians suggests that this group was Jewish Christian in origin, but not necessarily still so in constituency. Philip and Andrew are involved in a scene in Jn 12:20ff. where the Greeks come to Jesus, a scene which is symbolic of an opening to the Gentiles. We know that Peter and the Twelve stand for a group of Christians distinct from the Johannine community rather than for all true Christians because of the consistent and deliberate contrast between Peter and the beloved disciple, the hero of the Johannine community.

Incidentally, it is no accident that John speaks of this hero as a disciple, not as an apostle. Discipleship is the primary category for John; and closeness to Jesus, not apostolic mission, is what confers dignity. In five of the six passages where he is mentioned, the beloved disciple is explicitly contrasted with Peter (Jn 13:23-26; 18:15-16; 20:2-10:20:7; 21:20-23). In the sixth passage (Jn 19:26-27), where the beloved disciple appears at the foot of the cross, the contrast is implicit: Peter is one of those who have scattered, abandoning Jesus (Jn 16:23). Such contrasts cannot be accidental, especially since in several scenes John seems to have added a reference to the beloved disciple in order to establish the contrast.

The Johannine attitude toward these Apostolic Christians is fundamentally favorable. Nevertheless, in the Fourth Gospel these disciples do not seem to embody the fullness of Christian perception. The Johannine Christians, represented by the beloved disciple, clearly regard themselves as close to Jesus and more perceptive than the Christians of the apostolic churches.

The one-upmanship of the Johannine Christians is cegtered on Christology; for while the named disciples, representing the Apostolic Christians, have a reasonably high Christology, they do not reach the heights of the Johannine understanding of Jesus. This seems indicated by Jesus' words to Philip: "Here I am with you all this time and you still do not know me?" (Jn 14:9). We may make an informed guess that the precise aspect of Christology missing in the faith of the apostolic Christians is the perception of the pre-existence of Jesus and of his origins from above.

A difference in ecclesiology may also have separated Johannine Christians from Apostolic Christians. Unlike other New Testament writings which show that continuity with Peter and the Twelve was becoming an important factor in church identity and self-security, the Fourth Gospel gives virtually no attention to the category of "apostle" and makes "disciple" the primary Christian category, so that continuity with Jesus comes through the witness of the beloved disciple (Jn 19:35; 21:24).

These Johannine ecclesiological attitudes should not be interpreted as aggressively polemic, for there is no clear evidence that the Johannine community was condemning apostolic foundation and succession, church offices, or church sacramental practices. The Fourth Gospel is best interpreted as voicing a warning against the dangers inherent in such developments by stressing what (for John) is truly essential, namely, the living presence of Jesus in the Christian. No institution or structure can substitute for that.(9)

3. Johannine Internal Struggles

The story of the community of the beloved disciple is continued after the Gospel period in the Epistles. The Second and Third Epistles of John are one-page letters written by the same person, who calls himself "the presbyter. " The author of the First Epistle of John never identifies himself, and his work is more of a tractate than a person note. His dominant concern is to reinforce the readers against a group that has seceded from the community (1 Jn 2:19) but is still trying to win over more adherents. While the Gospel reflects the Johannine community's dealing with outsides, the Epistles are concerned with insiders. If the Gospel is dated ca. A. D. 90, the Epistles might be dated ca. A. D. 100. (10)

The Second and Third Epistles of John were written to different churches at a distance from the author (who intends to visit them), and so we know that the Johannine community was not all in one geographical place. Different cities or towns must have been involved. And since this was the period when Christian communities met in house churches that could not have held very many members, in a given town or city there may have been several house churches of Johannine Christians.

The author of the First Epistle says that a group has gone out from the ranks of his community (I Jn 2:19). It seems that both parties knew the proclamation of Christianity available to us through the Fourth Gospel, but they interpreted it differently. Each of the disputing parties was making the claim that its interpretation of the Gospel was correct. Hence the author's almost frustrated appeal to what was from the beginning (I Jn 1:4; 2:7, etc.) His opponents may sound as if they know the Johannine Gospel, but in his judgment they are distorting it precisely because they are ignorant of the tradition underlying it.

The central issue was apparently christological. The secessionists so stressed the divine principle in Jesus that the earthly career of the divine principle was neglected. They apparently believed that the human existence of Jesus, while real, was not salvifically significant. The only important thing for them was that eternal life had been brought down to men and women through a divine Son who passed through this world. The author challenges the wrong conclusions that his opponents have drawn from the commonly admitted incarnational theology, and so he is careful to accompany statements implying pre-existence with other statements stressing the career of the Word-made-flesha stress more formal and explicit than what is found in the Fourth Gospel.

There were also skirmishes on the implications of Christology for Christian behaviour. The author faults the secessionists on three grounds. First, they claimed an intimacy with God to the point of being perfect or sinless. Second, they do not put much emphasis on keeping the commandments. Third, they are vulnerable on the subject of neighborly love.(11)

4. Conclusion

It was within a situation of conflict, crisis and alienation that the Fourth Gospel was written, and against this background it must be understood. The community's traditions about Jesus were powerfully recast in this milieu, reflecting the influence both of forces outside mainstream Jewish piety and of the conflict with the synagogue. This reshaping of an originally independent stream of tradition is what gave the Fourth Gospel its peculiar character, advancing its portrayal of Jesus ever farther from the earlier tradition toward a deeper understanding, in a process perceived by the community as the work of the Spirit of Truth (Jn 14:25-26; 16:12-15).(12)



1.Robert Kysar, John. Augsburg Commentaries (Minneapolis : Augsburg Publishing House, 1986) 14-15.

2.Ibidem 15-16.

3.Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (New York: Paulist Press, 1984) 102-105.

4.David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1988) 41-48 (on the man born blind).

5.In scholarly jargon, "low" christology involves the application to Jesus of titles derived from the Old Testament or intertestamental expectations (e.g., Messiah, prophet, servant. Son of God )titles that do not in themselves imply divinity. "Son of God," meaning divine representative, was a designation of the king (cf. 2 Sam 7:14) ; "lord" need mean no more than "master". "High" christology involves an appreciation of Jesus that moves him into the sphere of divinity, as expressed, for instance, in a more exalted use of Lord and Son of God, as well as the designation "God." Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (London : Chapman, 1979) 25.

6.Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community 37-41 (On Nicodemus). See also 52-59.

7.Brown, Community 59-71.

8.Rensberger, op. cit. 47-48.

9.Brown, Community 71-88.

10.Ibidem 93-97.

11.Ibidem 97-124.

12.Rensberger, op. cit. 28-29.

Prepared by: Holy Spirit Seminary College