The Fourth Gospel emphasizes that the destiny of Jesus of Nazareth was bound up with the figure of John the Baptist (cf. John 1:15, 26–28, 29–34). By John he found his first disciples (John 1:35–39). For a time his work paralleled that of the Baptist, perhaps in somewhat of a strained relation to some of John’s followers (cf. John 3:22–30). According to the witness of John, he was the Lamb of God whom the Father chose, as once before in the story of Abraham and his son (cf. Gen. 22:8; John 3:16).

The Synoptic Gospels have not narrated the activity of Jesus in the Jordan valley, because for them his ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem was decisive. The work of Jesus in the Jordan valley was evidently unaccompanied by any miracle, even as John also accomplished his work without miracles (cf. John 10:41). According to all the Gospels, the ministry of Jesus was confirmed by miracles first in Galilee. It is important to hold to this point on which the Gospels concur.

Perhaps Jesus’ zeal for the purity of the Temple (cf. John 2:12–22) is a Hasidic and Zealotic trait. For sure, his unique, insistent and sharp attack upon the priestly society in Jerusalem does not reflect the secluded protest of Qumran. Jesus acted to confront the whole people with a decision. His change of water into wine (cf. John 2:1–11) revealed the Messiah who was reviving the powers of ancient time, even as once Elisha cleansed the water in Jericho (cf. 2 Kings 2:19–22). To adduce Hellenistic and heathen parallels, as speculative research is wont to do, does not fit the action of Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth evinces no Hellenistic traits. He rose from a movement which was antithetical to Hellenism. His miracles in feeding the multitude, changing the water, and raising the dead recall the time of Moses and Elijah, and signify that ancient, old-Israelite motives became historic in Jesus of Nazareth.

Although the preaching and teaching of Jesus, his thought and fundamental eschatological-apocalyptic view, suggest many a point of contact with the Qumran scriptures, no one should regard him as an Essene. His miracles, his conflict with the Law, his seeking out of sinners, all exhibit a sharp contrast to Qumran theology. Jesus and his disciples were directly related to the movement of John the Baptist, but very soon developed their own idea of purity, holiness, and atonement.

Historical Evidence

All the Gospels are historical and doctrinal commentaries on the history of Jesus. They not only give witness for faith, but also historical information which is relevant to scholarly discussion. To resort to the history of tradition, to form criticism, to literary criticism, and to the work of redaction, does not release us from the primary question: what actually happened? At the beginning stood the history of Jesus, not a theological construction.

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Exegetical criticism has disputed most of all the historical worth of the Fourth Gospel. Since F. Christian Baur, one has seen its actual significance in the sphere of Spirit, Doctrine, and Symbol, but not in history. We hear today that the older historical and miracle tradition was reconstituted under the influence of gnostic-colored sayings and words of that time so that faith, upon which the gospel of John lays decisive importance, becomes a new existential understanding of man. But the biblical-Hebraic faith, which centers in the sending of Jesus (cf. John 20:31) loses its stability and reality when one detaches it in this modern sense from its roots. At the basis of the Fourth Gospel is the earlier historical and miracle tradition, only elucidated by the corresponding tradition of word and saying. Both materials form an inner unity and should not be divorced from one another. The Qumran Find pertains in a special way to the Fourth Gospel. It is now possible to compare Iranian dualism, late Jewish apocalyptic, Qumran sectarianism, and Johannine theology with each other. The Fourth Gospel knows a definite, fundamental Palestinian-Jewish stratum, from which it then passes over to a general, oriental-Hellenistic thought-form. There is good reason to be cautious in leaning upon the diverse concept of “Gnosis.”

Yet it has also been recognized that precisely the Fourth Gospel ascribes importance to historical associations, and does not look upon them only as illustrative material.

1. The activity of Jesus is arranged fundamentally into three geographical periods which also differ in their substance: At first Jesus was connected with the Baptist in the Jordan valley of Judaea (cf. John 3:22; 4:3). Then follows the ministry of miracle and teaching in Galilee and the surrounding area (cf. John 2:1 ff.; 4:43 ff.). Finally, a coherent grouping begins with the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem (cf. John 7:1–13; 10:22–39). This last sojourn in Jerusalem was at times interrupted (cf. John 10:40–42). The Johannine outline appears capable of taking in the Synoptic material, but not vice versa.

2. Small chronological notices should not be overlooked. We read in John 2:20: “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” This precise number is congruous with the historical interval if fitted into the Jewish computation of time, by which, in this instance, only the actual years of building were counted. To that number must be added the Sabbath years in which the work of building was suspended. Also the Johannine dating of the death of Jesus on Friday, the 14th of Nisan, should be credited as accurate.

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3. The prominence given to Cana in Galilee (John 2:11) is fully justified: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory.” Cana, eight miles north of Nazareth, was closely related geographically and historically with the home city of Jesus. It is understandable that the presence of his mother was mentioned at the marriage feast. It was after that that Jesus removed with his mother, brethren and disciples to Capernaum, which belonged to another area of geography and territorial history (cf. John 2:12). We may well see in that removal a connection with adverse pressure upon the family of Jesus in Nazareth (cf. Luke 4:30 f.).

4. According to more recent geological investigations in Palestine, the gospel of John is thoroughly right when it takes the water from Jacob’s well to be well water and not cistern water (cf. John 4:6 ff.). The water flows under the earth from below Mount Gerizim.

5. Archaeological discovery has confirmed the location of the Pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate (cf. John 5:2). From the ruin it is possible to trace the trapezoid form of a double pool, constructed in the Hellenistic era, which had special significance for Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. The remains of strong and high columns point to the Herodianic period. Of late, French excavations have been resumed with success.

6. Occasional reference to sites in the Fourth Gospel, as Bethany “beyond the Jordan” (1:28), “Aenon near Salim” (3:23), Ephraim (11:54), go back to exact knowledge of their location by the Evangelist; they are not to be symbolically or allegorically understood. The region of Aenon by Salim lies southeast of Nablus and Shechem (cf. W. F. Albright). Most likely the Samaritan highland was accessible to John the Baptist.

7. The Evangelist took special care to identify sites in the Passion history: the brook Kidron (18:1), the garden in which Jesus and his disciples tarried (18:1), the court of the high priest Annas (18:15), the Praetorium (18:28,33; 19:9), the Pavement, in Hebrew, Gabbatha (19:13), Golgotha (19:17), and the garden in which the new tomb lay (19:41). All these sites indicate his accurate knowledge of the topography of Jerusalem. Above all, the tomb of Jesus was a holy site for the Evangelist as it bore testimony to the Resurrection (cf. 20:1–18).

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8. The Gospel gives a clear picture of the Jewish custom of burial, of mourning, and of comforting the survivors. It mentions the binding of the body “in linen clothes” (19:40), which protected but did not hinder the individual parts. Both the binding and the cloth wrapped about the face belonged to preparation for burial, in the case of Lazarus as well as in that of Jesus (cf. 11:44; 20:7). If at all possible, the body was washed, prepared, and buried on the day of death. Then the procession of mourners went back, and it lay upon the friends to comfort the survivors. Jesus appears at first in John 11:17 ff. as a friend who has the task of comforting the two sisters. Then he lays aside that role, does not go into the house of mourning, but waits near the grave of Lazarus in prayer to God.

Excavations In Palestine

In a recent article, W. F. Albright has pointed out how drastically the Jewish revolt, between 66 and 70 A.D., desolated Palestine and altered the relations of men to each other. His excavations in Geba and Bethel have uncovered traces of Roman occupation where it was engaged in a radical process of destruction. Of a certainty the relations between Jews and Christians were disrupted at this time, for Christians were decried as traitors by the Jews, and on the contrary as Jews by the Romans. In these years there was many an exodus and flight of Christians so that Palestinian traditions had to be collected elsewhere. In the opinion of Albright this happened to the Johannine tradition, which was then edited in Asia Minor.

On the one hand, the Johannine tradition thinks entirely theologically, and refers the source of thought and being to God himself, but has at the same time quite definite historical and earthly interests which should not be underestimated. The Fourth Gospel must be carefully read and understood, because it contains valuable material which helps to delineate the “Jesus of History.”


Otto Michel is Professor of New Testament at University of Tuebingen, Germany. From his earlier days at Halle he has maintained a stalwart witness for the Gospel against various forms of liberalism. In addition to being a stimulating lecturer, he is well-known through his contributions on both Romans and Hebrews in the H. A. W. Meyer Commentary series.

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