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The purpose of John’s Gospel Essay

‘To tell the truths about Jesus rather than recount the facts of his life.’ Critically examine and evaluate this claim concerning the purpose of the author of the Fourth Gospel.

There are several alternative views about the purpose of John’s Gospel. I plan to examine the view that it was written to tell truths about Jesus, and discuss its likelihood within the context of some of the other theories.

In order to assess this view of the gospel’s purpose, it is necessary to discuss for whom John was writing, as his purpose will hinge upon his audience. If he was writing so his audience could ‘see’ and have faith in Jesus then he may well have been writing for unbelievers. Karl Bornhauer has proposed that the gospel was written as a straightforward missionary tract for unbelieving Jews. Only Jews, he claims, would have understood the document, because it is preoccupied with Jewish matters and omits any reference to the institution of the Christian rites of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In its final edition, the gospel was written in Greek, possibly because this is what Hellenistic Jews spoke.

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On these grounds, the gospel was written to convince Jews of the Christian claim that Jesus is the Messiah. Robinson agrees with this view but Smalley thinks that by the time this gospel was written, the Christian mission to Israel was largely over. The ‘Jews’ featured in the gospel are Jesus’ enemies, not potential Christians – while some believe in him (12:11) the majority are responsible for his death. John’s attitude to them would therefore have been polemical not missionary. This seems like a relevant view, also, because it is doubtful that John would have succeeding in converting these Jews by casting them into the role of Jesus’ enemies; he would merely have alienated them. Therefore I do not believe John’s Gospel was written to convert unbelieving Jews.

Another theory, from Raymond Brown, is that John was addressing Diaspora Jewish-Christians; Greek speaking Jews already converted to Christianity, or those torn between their faith in Jesus and their loyalty to Judaism. They were mistrusted and seen as subversive to the law, and attempts were made to exclude them from the synagogue. The polemic against ‘Jews’ would not apply to them, and the author’s emphasis on Jesus as the Messiah and as the fulfilment of all the Jewish feasts and institutions would be a strength to their faith if they were allowed to remain in the synagogue, and an encouragement to them if they were forced to withdraw.

There are three references to being put out of the synagogue in John’s Gospel, and two instances of those who overcame their fear of the Jews, and even at risk of expulsion from the synagogue, publicly acknowledged Jesus (the blind man, and Joseph of Arimathea). Jesus is also portrayed positively, attending festivals. Brown concludes that John is inviting Jewish-Christians in the synagogues of the Diaspora to follow the example of such people. However, despite the fact there is internal evidence to support this, it is unlikely these were the sole intended recipients. Smalley suggests that the gospel could also have been written for Christians, to challenge their faith, to encourage their belief and to help them grow into the Christian way of life. There is nothing exclusive about the gospel; its perspective is infinitely wide, and it may well have been intended for all Christians everywhere.

It is, however, also possible that John was writing for a particular group around him, because his gospel was originally anchored in a real life situation which helped to shape its tradition, and caused its publication. Smalley thinks the Johannine church was made up of many disparate groups of people suffering under the Romans’ persecution. These groups included Judaisers, ex-heretics, ex Gnostics, those from Gentile and Jewish backgrounds and ex-pagans, but all were followers of the beloved disciple, and the purpose of writing a gospel for all of these people would be to reconcile them, and thus show the universality of Christianity.

C H Dodd and C K Barrett are the two scholars most associated with the belief that John is a work of evangelism. The gospel itself states that it contains an evangelical purpose: ‘so that you may believe Jesus is the Christ’ (20:31). Thus its main purpose would be to persuade people to grow in faith, (which is a different thing from belief). A discussion between Jesus and Thomas (20:26-28) seems to emphasise this – Thomas sees because he believes. Jesus is saying that without actually seeing him on earth, faith is a spiritual perception. Thomas needs to see reality. This theme is running through the gospel, the light and dark imagery symbolising ‘seeing faith’, and demonstrating that Jesus is the light of the world and the source of eternal life. So, Smalley concludes that the gospel was written so that its readers could find out truths about Jesus and believe he is the life-giving Messiah (v 31). Dodd thinks the gospel is written in two parts, chapters 2 – 11 being the signs, and 12 – 20 being the passion. Thus Jesus is shown being glorified.

It has been suggested that the gospel is a polemic or an apology, and according to Bultmann, one against the Baptist sect. Its main purpose would be to demonstrate the inferiority of John the Baptist to Jesus. John the Baptist is described only as ‘a man sent from God’ (1:6) and his role is heavily played down in comparison with the synoptics – Jesus, not John, is the light (1:8), the Baptist is neither the Christ nor the Elijah, but merely a crying voice (1:19-23), Jesus existed before John, and is greater (1:30), Jesus performed many signs, but John never worked a miracle (10:41). Only in this gospel does Jesus not get baptised.

Therefore, the suggestion has been raised that John’s gospel was written to refute the claim of a ‘Baptist group’. Bultmann argues that the author of the gospel was a former Gnostic who had been part of a Baptist sect before becoming a Christian – Gnosticism flourished in the 2nd Century – and his disciples were given to Jesus. Smalley is very critical of this view, saying the only other evidence we have of a Baptist sect is in Acts 19, and this is debatable. Although it is possible there was a Baptist sect in the 3rd Century, this wasn’t unusual judging by the other sects in existence – e.g. Manichaeism – and there is little evidence to suggest such a group created any real problem for the early Christian church. Furthermore, I do not think the author could have been meaning to downgrade John the Baptist, because he isn’t mentioned very much – the gospel is about Jesus.

Another possibility is that the gospel is a polemic against heresy, in particular, against Gnosticism. Gnostic influences, or pre-Gnostic ideas, were brought to bear on the Christian gospel once it was carried from a Palestinian to a Graeco-Roman environment. We also know from Gnostic redeemer myths, in which deliverance from the ‘lower world’ of matter is effected by a non-earthly, ideal, saviour figure and appropriated by ‘knowledge’, that such ideas – when taken over by Christians – involve a denial of the physical reality of Jesus in his life and death. Edwin Hoskyns argued the gospel was anti-Gnostic, as did E Scott, who thought John was basically a reinstatement of the Christian good news in Hellenistic terms. But he also found evidence that the author of John wrote to counteract heretical, Gnostic teachings – he insists on the reality of Christ’s life, denies the Gnostic hierarchy of intermediate spiritual agencies, opposes the Gnostic idea that divine sonship is possible apart from the Christ, avoids Gnostic watchwords, and so on.

Barrett thinks John was writing whilst Gnosticism was developing; and essentially was trying to ‘nip it in the bud’ before it really became successful (although Bultmann disagrees and thinks it was already established by c.100 AD). Gnostics, in general, think Jesus’ message is for an elite, and only some will get to Heaven. The author of John was clearly conscious of Gnosticism, and apparently not completely or directly critical of it – he uses Gnostic imagery such as light and dark, heaven and earth, is sensitive to the importance of knowledge, and accepts a dualist framework for his theology of salvation.

Bultmann believes that the author of John is actually a former Gnostic who is editing the sign source (which is the heart of the ministry), and that John uses a separate source from the synoptics, in which the signs do not feature. Bultmann thinks Gnosticism used the sign source too, but attached the redeemer myth to it. John is therefore editing out Gnostic influences, reclaiming the text – this means that Gnosticism and John are similar, but the conclusion is different. So through using Gnostic ideas, John is actually showing that Christianity is universal. However, this to me does not hold much weight as an argument because the author has been so ambiguous – he swings between supporting the Gnostic way of thought and opposing it. Had the author been writing a polemic, he would surely have left no doubt about his point.

It has also been questioned whether John might have been trying to interpret or complement the synoptics, or perhaps going beyond them completely to write an ‘ultimate’ gospel. Evidence for this is that it was part of Jewish tradition to write a commentary on something previous: Windisch and Lightfoot think it is an assumption to say that the author of John’s gospel used the synoptics as a source, (although John was written late, C 100 AD) and he might have used a non-synoptic sign source.

Windisch thinks John was written, to supersede the synoptics, by a single author who must have known the gospel of Mark and other synoptic material. Windisch claimed John was ‘autonomous and sufficient’ so might have been replacing them completely. Lightfoot developed this idea, but said that the synoptic gospels would have had too strong a position in church for John’s gospel to achieve this, and was only interpreting them, to ‘draw out the significance of the original events’. This was suggested long before by Clement of Alexandria, when he wrote of a ‘spiritual gospel’. I think the idea of interpretation is probably more likely than that of replacement, as John does not seem to be meant to be independent, but probably complements the synoptics.

The title asks whether the purpose of John’s gospel was historicity or not. For a large part of history, it was not thought to be accurate in the modern historian’s sense, especially as St Clement of Alexandria referred to it as a ‘spiritual gospel’. Some events in John appear to occur in a different order to the synoptics, e.g. the last supper, which occurs at Passover in the synoptics but is first thing in John. But according to Lightfoot, the author was well aware of the historical truth lying at the heart of the Christian tradition, and even if he can sit lightly to ‘subordinate aspects’ of his main historical subject, he may give us better guidance than the synoptics.

Smalley has tried to answer the question by examining Acts: Martin Dibelius believes Acts is not historical at all, F F Bruce says it is a summary of history but a sanitised version. But why would an author write one factual gospel and one inaccurate gospel? Paul is the main character in Acts, and Paul’s inaccurate writings seem to contradict. Galatians also mentions a missing journey to Arabia which Acts leaves out – though according to Catchpole, this could have been because it wasn’t successful. But Smalley points out that in Acts, the council of Jerusalem is mentioned, which isn’t in Paul. This means Acts and Luke are probably not historical, so John could still be. Despite this, Schmeitzer has said that the only thing the gospel shows is that Jesus existed, not anything about him.

I do not think this can be true judging by the apparent structure of the gospel. Smalley divided it up into four parts (the prologue, the ministry, the passion, and the epilogue). Guilding identified a two-year cycle within the narrative, although he thought it was a liturgy. However this does suggest history was important, or why would the author put the gospel into a historical context? The gospel has a clear time period, and mentions historical figures. Smalley identified that the author must have thought about structure as well, and said that the main purpose was to show who Jesus is (thus agreeing with the title’s claim). Jesus performed miracles which C H Dodd called ‘sign sources’, and Smalley thinks that these, along with the discourses and the ‘I am’ sayings, are meant to show the reader who Jesus actually is, and what his purpose is. None of these three things have a historical purpose, although John might be historically accurate, containing historical and geographical tracts. I could accept this view, as it allows for the miracles to be only literary devices, designed to show the role of Jesus.

The gospel is certainly centred about Jesus, who seems to be acting as a pastor – he cares about his people (as in Paul’s letters). Smalley questions whether or not John’s Gospel contains the same kind of Kerygma as the rest of the New Testament writings. C H Dodd identified the Kerygma in early speeches of Peter in six different parts throughout Acts: 2:16-21, in which the Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled, 2:22-32 and 3:15, where it is stated that Jesus is from the Davidic line, 2:33-36 and 4:11, stating that Jesus is the lord, 2:33 and 2:38, in which the Holy Spirit is given, 3:20 and 10:42, where it proclaims that Jesus will return, and 2:38-40 and 3:19 which says man should repent their sins. In John, the Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in John 1:1 and 1:14. 1:14 and 7:14 state that Jesus is from the Davidic line, 17:20-22 and 15:1-6 that Jesus is the lord, 20:21 that the Holy Spirit has been given, 6:39, 6:44, 14:3 that Jesus will return, and 20:31 that man should repent.

C H Dodd thinks this Kerygma is in John, Peter and Paul. Smalley accepts it is there in John and Paul but thinks it is less developed. He also believes there is a significant difference between its presence in John and in Paul, because Jesus is supposed to be ‘the second Adam’ in Paul, but John has a greater emphasis on surpassing Moses. He argues that the fourth gospel is much closer to the synoptics than to Paul, that Paul never saw the historical Jesus, only the risen Jesus, and is therefore incomplete. I would agree with Smalley’s reasoning because in the Kerygma and in Paul there is little reference to Jesus’ historical life, so the purpose of the gospels might have been to put teachings of Jesus into a historical setting.

In conclusion, it is impossible to be sure of the purpose of John’s Gospel, but it seems likely that the author wanted to communicate truths about Jesus, his role on earth, his divinity, etc. Smalley’s views seem well supported by evidence, and I would agree that the gospel couldn’t have been a purely historical account – although it may well have a true frame of events. Surely spreading the good news about Jesus would be more important than relating everything he said and exactly as it happened. Robinson, who thought the gospel was written before the synoptics, said that historicity might have been a purpose, but not the main one. Most of those who think the synoptics came first will disagree and think John’s history is inaccurate, but as Brown as said, the accuracy is irrelevant, as the narrative frame is probably only there to strengthen teachings about Jesus.

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