• When and Where
It has been said of this gospel that it is “a pool in which a child can wade and an elephant can swim.” John is widely accessible, of great depth, endlessly fascinating and very demanding.
Most scholars place it right about 90AD. Consensus is that this Gospel is written after the destruction of the Temple and we have an extant copy that dates from about 125AD. Most scholars also suspect there are earlier and later “layers” of editing (whether by one person or several) – the most obvious example is the material in Chapter 21, which appears to be an addition after an original conclusion. While some parts are likely much older oral tradition, there is a strong consensus that the form of John as we have it and its language is a product of the early 90’s.
This Gospel, as well as the letters known as 1, 2, and 3 John and the Book of Revelation all are thought to have emerged from a “Johanine community.” Traditionally John, son of Zebedee has been thought to be the author of each, but given the vast differences in the sophistication, vocabulary and style of Greek used that is most unlikely. More plausibly, different authors who were all shaped within the same faith community account for these texts.
• Key Insights
The Gospel of John contains many of the best-known and most beloved verses in all of scripture: Chapter One’s prologue, John 3:16, the beautiful “I Am” statements and many more. Its language is powerful, symbolic and archetypal. Many things are clearly explained, others are ambiguous – indeed word play and misunderstanding of key words is a major element of many of the scenes where Jesus gives extended monologues.
Note that John is very different from the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). The timeline is significantly different, reflecting 3 or possibly 4 years of activity as opposed to the single year of the Synoptics. Scenes in common, like the cleansing of the temple, appear in a different order – in Mark et al, that is the act that sets the authorities against Jesus in the final week; in John it comes near the beginning of his ministry.
These differences were recognized and discussed in the early centuries of Christianity. In the 200’s, Clement of Alexandria described John as a “spiritual gospel,” recognition that this text powerful language is more symbolic than literal and factual. Irony and even comedy are key features.
• Big Picture
As we approach this text, I think this insight may be helpful to you. Native American storytellers often begin by saying, “I don’t know if this is how it happened, but I know this story is true.”
In an oral culture storytelling is more about meaning that it is about documenting “facts.” We struggle with this idea in our post-literary media culture, though storytelling as an art does still exist. The author(s) of this gospel are master storytellers making faith claims and inviting us to chose to join them.
Blessings on your reading!