At the outset, the first three gospels may have us overlook the work and skills of its writers. Whatever vision they wanted to transmit about their Savior, they dealt so plainly with the witnesses that oftentimes we seem to have seen and heard Jesus himself.
Comparatively, John’s gospel is very different. This book has matured along with him in his life. His experience as an apostle moved him to constantly re-interpret the presence of the resurrected Jesus in the Church.
John does not let us ignore his purpose: “This has been recorded that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God” (Jn 20:31). The faith of the Church proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. But how should we understand this term? Though Jesus’ resurrection had manifested the divine character of his person, one could wonder how and from what moment was Jesus Son of God and to what extent was he identified with God. John’s Gospel clearly asserts that Jesus’ existence was forever in God. This assertion on Jesus’ origin helps us understand the range of his work. The eternal Son-of-God-become-human did not only come to teach us the way of amending our selves, but also to transform the whole creation.
John did not create his gospel from nothing. Here we find quite a number of precise witnesses including more confirmed details than the other gospels. How ever, he did not confine himself to his own remembrances. As time passed, he ex pressed and developed Jesus’ words by crafting discourses in which Jesus, “with the help of John”, actually talks to us.
John’s Gospel is controversial be cause the purer and harder a truth is, the lesser are those who are able to receive it. This is why this gospel raised controversies within the very Church but was later acknowledged as word of God and as apostolic witness.
So it is that John’s Gospel was written and re-written and was most probably published only after the death of his author, about the year 95, as a small paragraph added at the end let it understand. In this last composition it seems that John organized it around the three Passovers which mark out Jesus’ public ministry.
Here we find an important element to understand John’s mind. He finished writing twenty years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Roman armies. John knows as well as Paul that Jesus’ resurrection originated a new age. The revelation to the Jewish people and the great liturgies in the Temple belong to a certain extent to the past, but in this first covenant that has become the old covenant are found the keys to the understanding of Jesus’ achievements. This is why John will call to mind the Jewish feasts and religious symbols such as the water, the palms, the lamb… and he will show how these are transfigured in the Christian life and liturgy.
This is why three sections can be gleaned after an opening that we call the week of discovery (till 2:16). These are:
– In 2:17 Jesus goes up to the Temple for the Passover: chapters 2–5 develop the sign of the Temple.
– In 6:4 the Passover is mentioned again and John develops the sign of bread.
– In 13:1 we find the third Passover, when Jesus is put to death at the moment in which the lambs are sacrificed in the Temple. The lamb will be the third sign.
Is John the author of the gospel called by his name?
This question is very difficult to answer. There are many reasons to doubt authorship of the apostle John, but there can be found as many reasons to vindicate the traditional attribution to John.
As we said in the Introduction to the gospels, an unavowed reason leads some persons to look for other authors than the very apostles. John’s message is clear and it hurts. Must we accept that the One who marked him forever and probably loved him more than the other apostles was the eternal Word of God, God born from God? What a stunning assertion! Perhaps we would prefer that this kind of things were not said by a direct witness but added later by some theologian. This would have easier idealized the person of Jesus because, by looking from afar he would not have borne the full weight of his human presence: his way of looking, of eating, of washing, and the scent of his sweat…
We must however recognize that strong arguments move us to doubt John indeed as the author, and for many scholars the primary point is this: dozens of years went by between the first and so fresh accounts about the doings of Jesus, and the discourses which were built later from them and which seem to sometimes forget the original tradition. Is it possible that one of the first witnesses of Jesus have ran such a long tread?
The one who shaped John’s Gospel discourses in the 70ths, most probably near Ephesus where according to a very ancient tradition John withdrew and died, was a theologian. His interest for the liturgy and the Temple lets us think that he was a priest. Can this fit with the person of John, Zebedee’s son, a fisherman of Tiberiadis? Is it possible that such a vision of Jesus, the Messiah, and then the Son of God, Savior of the world, had been borne in him and that he has expressed it in his gospel?
The answer to such questions depend mostly from each one’s experience. We may have met believers who are deeply and truly theologians though they have not passed through university. They encountered some outstanding personality and this was enough to awaken their gifts. Later they became one of these few apostles who continually go over the events and the discoveries of this ministry, always eager to understand the ways of God. Do they need some books, some friends to help them to mature in their thinking? The same God who pours in them wisdom will direct to them this kind of help.
Can’t this be the case of John, so close to Jesus and then apostle for some sixty years? He did not go, as Paul did through rabbinical schools, and this is why he does not use sophisticated arguments, but ever so, couldn’t he be a Theologian, this someone who knows God?