Rule 6

The gospel of John is an even freer edition of earlier gospels.

Anyone who compares the gospel attributed to John with the other three New Testament gospels will see at once how different it is. Yet, the kernel of the tradition reported by Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-7) is present. Jesus is crucified, dead and buried, and then resurrected and appears to his disciples and others. This core tradition, however, is expanded into a gospel narrative that has both similarities with the other New Testament gospels and striking differences.

The gospel according to John begins by locating Jesus, as God's Word (in Greek, Logos), "in the beginning" with God. There is no birth story, but the gospel refers to the work of John the Baptist as a prelude to the ministry of Jesus. Like the first three gospels of the New Testament Jesus feeds a crowd, heals and performs miracles (called "signs" in this gospel) before he goes to Jerusalem to his death. But in the gospel of John, unlike the other New Testament gospels, Jesus journeys several times to Jerusalem during his ministry to attend Jewish festivals and to teach in the temple. Moreover, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the temple (Jn. 2:13-22), whereas the other three gospels of the New Testament place this cleansing of the temple just prior to the arrest and death of Jesus. (Mk. 11:15-19, Mt. 21:12-13, Lk. 19:45-46)

Jesus appears before the Jewish Council, is handed over to Pilate, is crucified, and is resurrected. But the details contrast sharply with the other New Testament gospels. Jesus does not pray in agony with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, those who arrest him first fall "to the ground" (Jn. 18:6) before him, and he dies on the cross as though he has not experienced any pain. Peter plays much the same role in all four gospels, as the leader of the disciples who denies he is a follower of the arrested Jesus. But his supporting cast in the fourth gospel is much different. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who are prominent in the first three gospels, are not named in the gospel of John. Moreover, Thomas has a significant speaking role, and the author of the gospel is identified as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." (Jn. 21:20)

In the first three gospels of the New Testament Jesus comes to John the Baptist to be baptized, although in the gospel of Luke he is baptized after John is imprisoned. (Lk. 3:18-22) However, the gospel of John does not report the baptism of Jesus. Instead, John the Baptist draws on images from Exodus 12 and Isaiah 53:7 to identify Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn. 1:29) As this is liturgical language from the church, which survives to this day, we might wonder whether John the Baptist actually said this or if the author put the language of the church onto his lips.

Similarly, in the gospel of John we find Jesus teaching his disciples: "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." (Jn. 6:54-56) Surely this language is not to be read literally, unless it refers to the church's sacrament of the Lord's Supper (also called the Eucharist or Communion). But if this is the meaning, which seems most likely, then did Jesus actually say this? Or, again, has the author taken these words from the language of the early church and attributed them to Jesus?

We also find in the gospel of John that Jesus does not teach in parables, as he does in the other gospels, but argues at length with opponents who are identified as "the Jews." If the language of the gospel of John were confirmed in the other New Testament gospels, or in Paul's letters, one might suppose that the fourth gospel records a different oral tradition, perhaps dating back to the time of Jesus. However, the language of the fourth gospel is so unlike the other New Testament gospels that we may conclude it is not a factual account of the teachings of Jesus but instead is the author's understanding of what the gospel means for his church.

In the first three gospels of the New Testament Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before he is crucified, but in the gospel of John he is crucified on Passover. (Jn.18:28) Because earlier in the fourth gospel Jesus is identified as the sacrificial Lamb, his death on Passover in this gospel account is not surprising. The gospel of John uses narrative to explain and defend the worship of his church, which is being criticized by Jews who recognize Jesus as a prophetic rabbi but object to worship that seems pagan and is being promoted to replace Jewish practice.

To read more about the gospel of John. © Robert Traer 2016