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Organization and Structure of the Gospel of John - Part 1 of 4

By Edited Sep 30, 2016 0 0


Of all the gospels, John has received the most scrutiny and criticism, likely because it is so different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Many scholars dismiss this gospel, choosing to focus on Matthew, Mark, and Luke because they perceive the gospel of John to be so different as to make it irrelevant. The high similarity and overlap among the first three gospels allow one to view them easily in parallel, from which is derived the designation of “Synoptic,” meaning to look at together. This is interesting, for just as the Gospel of John is structured differently from the other gospels, we can make the same charge against the gospel of Matthew. In preparing his work, he structured his Gospel to appeal more to his primary audience, the Jewish reader. Consequently, Matthew contains five major sections in which he places the signs or miracles, parables, and teachings of Jesus. Of the gospels, Luke’s is the most historically accurate. The fourth gospel, with its “regular Johannine pattern of a miracle (sign) followed by a discourse, and the farewell discourses of John 14-17 strongly suggest that what we have in the fourth gospel is the Evangelist’s meditations on significant words and deeds of Jesus.” [1] This, however, does nothing to diminish the importance of the fourth gospel; in fact, it is the favorite of many believers. To evaluate the work of John by current literary standards does a disservice; it can distort the reality of the writing. This mindset borders on the perpetual, particularly those from the liberal perspective. The most appropriate manner to evaluate the fourth gospel is with the literary and writing standards of the first century. When we evaluate the fourth gospel against first-century technique and style, we can see “the narrator gives the reader a concentrated, more or less chronologically arranged, a block of exposition in the prologue, which proves to be reliable as the work progresses. Comments by the narrator are also distributed throughout the narration and generally serve as introductions or conclusions to scenes, or whole sections, of the gospel, or as transitional or explanatory notes.” [2]

Over the years, various scholars have speculated whether someone added to the gospel, possibly after John’s death, and also whether chapters are in the wrong order in our present day Bible. The gospel of John, while covering the same period as the other gospels, seems almost to tell an alternative story. For example, if one calculates the span of time John's gospel covers, the ministry of Jesus seems to last approximately three and one-half years; however, in reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the ministry of Jesus seems considerably shorter. The other gospel tells of numerous trips Jesus took to Jerusalem and of His ministry to the south in Judea. The other three gospels, on the other hand, have little, if anything to say about His ministry to the south; they focus almost exclusively on the Galilean ministry to the north. Rodney Whitacre and others note that Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to, for lack of better word, simplify the ministry of Jesus. Despite this effort to lessen the pace of His ministry as found in the fourth gospel, the others provide sufficient points of connectivity with the fourth gospel to be compatible.

Another distinct feature of the gospel of John is the dualism found throughout. This dualism, primarily vertical in nature, is seen from the beginning of the gospel when John refers to Jesus as the light. Examples of dualism include above and below (8:23), eternal life and death (3:36), truth and lie (8:44-47), spirit and flesh (3:6), Father and Satan (13:27), and Israel and the Jews (1:19, 17:14). Not only is there a plethora of contrasts, but there also seems different purposes in the dualisms. “On the one hand, some dualistic features appear simply to state the way things are and where they are headed. Some people operate in spiritual ways, headed for life; others operate in worldly ways, headed for death. On the other hand, other dualistic features seems to explain the response of individuals and groups to the Revealer – those who received Jesus’ words and works as being from God shows evidence of having been rooted in knowledge of the Father; rejection of the Revealer are explained as factors of not being rooted in the reality from above and not knowing the Father.” [3] This style of writing has offered a ready excuse for some to question authorship and intent of the fourth gospel.

Because Greek theology is strongly dualistic and the similarity between Hellenistic writing and the fourth gospel is readily apparent, scholars frequently suggest Hellenism was a significant influence on the writing of this gospel. Due in part to its dualism and the fact that Hellenism was so pervasive throughout the Mediterranean region, scholars assert this dualism is proof positive of overbearing Hellenistic, and possibly Gnostic, influence and reason to cast doubt on the validity and authorship of the fourth gospel. “Dualism can indeed be a Gnostic trait, but it also occurs in earlier Hellenism, Zoroastrianism, and the ancient Near East. More importantly, it pervades Jewish thought, most clearly at Qumran, and ethical dualism is prominent in the Jewish wisdom tradition.” [4] However, to fully explain the use of dualism in ancient writings, such as the Bible, Greek writers for many years wrote of God as being “above.” Many passages in the Old Testament contain similar dualism when referring to the heavens above or the One above, meaning God.

A common criticism is that the Apostle John did not write the prologue, that it was an early Church hymn or creed that someone later thought to append to the gospel. Bultmann writes that the prologue “most plainly of all enables us to see how the evangelist has taken up an already existing composition and commended on it by his additions. Admittedly it is not a revelatory address that lies behind the prologue, but a hymn.” [5] To summarize the objection, “the prologue is written in a carefully constructed, interlocking poetic pattern found but rarely in the Gospel proper. Moreover, the prologue employs important theological terms not found elsewhere in the Gospel.” [6] Some scholars believe these differences prove the same person could not have written both. While this may or may not be true, extensive links connect the prologue and the rest of the gospel. As one examines these intricate relationships of theme and concepts, it becomes clear the prologue is part of the original gospel. Jerome Neyrey sees a chiastic structure in the first eighteen verses; it is a “shaping of a passage according to an ‘X’ shape (the Greek letter ‘chi’ is x-shaped, chiasm). In general, a chiasm places parallel words or phrases at the top and bottom of the passage (A & Aʹ and also includes subsequent parallels (B & Bʹ, and C & Cʹ, etc.), thus signaling beginnings and endings, which frame the intervening communication.” [7] This organization points the reader to important points in the passage by the parallel construction and repetitive nature. In the case of this passage, not only is there chiastic structure in the prologue, but major concepts in these eighteen verses are found in the body of John's gospel, a strong argument this portion of the gospel is original material.


Copyright 2016 © Craig B. Manning. All Rights Reserved.



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