During the past decade and a half there has been a revolution in New Testament studies, and at the center of this revolution stands the Fourth Gospel. The Gospel of John has often been a storm center in New Testament research. Sixty years ago the historical accuracy of this Gospel was under attack. Liberal scholars, committed to the doctrine of evolution in ideas, decided that this Gospel reflected an “advanced” Christology and was more theological than the Synoptic Gospels, hence must be considerably later than a “simple” Gospel like Mark. Because John’s Gospel was more theological, and hence late, its historical trustworthiness was considered slight. During this time the study of this Gospel was neglected, especially by Continental scholars. Traditionally, Continental scholars have concentrated on St. Paul, and it is British scholars who have given most attention to the Fourth Gospel during the past half century.
Much of this revival of interest in John is due to the influence of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Soon after the publication of the Scrolls, scholars began to point out verbal parallels between the Scrolls and the writings of the New Testament, especially in the Johannine writings. These parallels indicated to several, including Oscar Cullmann, William Brownlee, W. F. Albright, F. L. Cross, and others, that the theological environment of the Fourth Gospel was Palestinian. Liberal scholars for two generations had been saying that the Fourth Gospel was a result of Greek ideas mingled with Hebrew-Christian concepts, a “Gospel for the Hellenists” (Bacon). This led to the positing of a date toward the middle of the second century and a locale outside Palestine. The significance of the Scroll discoveries is that it no longer was necessary to posit a second-century date to account for such concepts as the “Spirit of Truth,” “eternal life,” “light versus darkness,” and the like. The change in scholarly opinion is reflected in the fact that F. C. Grant has been saying that John is the work of an anonymous writer of the second century who sought to present Jesus in as non-Jewish or anti-Jewish a way as possible, while in contrast his son, R. M. Grant, finds that this Gospel is quite Jewish in background and reflects southern Palestine prior to the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66–70.
Date And Authorship
The trend toward an earlier date was anticipated in 1942 by A. T. Olmstead, who concluded that the alleged Aramaic original was written prior to a.d. 40. E. R. Goodenough compared this Gospel with Philo and concluded that the concepts in John were earlier than those of Philo, necessitating a date toward the middle of the first century (JBL, LXIV, 145–182). Meanwhile Gardiner-Smith called attention to data that convinced W. F. Howard and several other Johannine scholars that John was not dependent on the Synoptic Gospels and hence could have been written prior to or contemporary with them. He argued convincingly that it is not necessary to assume a uniform growth in the development of religious ideas; instead it may be assumed that Christology developed more rapidly in some places than in others. Thus it is not necessary to assume that a long life of reflection preceded the composition of this Gospel.
Some scholars, in their new look at the Fourth Gospel, go even beyond the traditional position. That position is to regard John as being the last of the four Gospels and designed to supplement them. This was the position of Eusebius, and the early Church generally, and is still the prevailing view. However, an increasing number of scholars tend to view John as relatively early. It is coming to be regarded not only as independent of the Synoptic Gospels but as having been written prior to some of them. Scholars like W. F. Albright, R. M. Grant, J. A. T. Robinson, C. L. Mitton, and Oscar Cullmann are now inclined to believe that the substance, although not necessarily the final editing, belongs to Palestine prior to A.D. 70. They consider the Gospel the recollections of an eye-witness, although few would contend for apostolic authorship. It is noteworthy that an increasing number of critical scholars are coming to the position that the Fourth Gospel is the witness of an apostle, whether or not he did the actual writing. Many are coming to believe that it reflects the memory of the Apostle John. This is in striking contrast to the fashion a generation ago to consider John’s Gospel the work of a gifted mystic who did a maximum of theologizing with a minimum of factual data.
Even more exciting than speculation concerning date, author, and readers are the recent discoveries and discussion regarding the text of the Fourth Gospel. The earliest known portions of the New Testament are two fragments from this Gospel (P52 and P2). The earliest copies of an entire book of the New Testament are of this Gospel. Bodmer Papyrus II (P66) has been dated by experts at c. A.D. 200, making it 125 years older than other manuscripts.
For years the monumental work of Westcott and Hort has stood almost unchallenged as the best available text. Recent textual discoveries, however, have provided attractive new alternatives to the standard text. Important recent commentaries on the Fourth Gospel, including those of Dodd, Bultmann, and Barrett, reflect an unwillingness to accept any one text as definitive. These scholars prefer an “eclectic text.” In many instances contextual evidence outweighs textual evidence from manuscripts (e.g., C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 1953, p. 433). Bultmann often makes a decision concerning a disputed text on exegetical grounds rather than manuscriptural evidence alone. Evidence from the newly published P66 has now been incorporated into the twenty-fourth edition of the Nestle text, making it the most responsible text available.
Scholars are now showing much interest in the newest addition to Johannine texts, the Bodmer Papyrus XIV–XV (P75), which reveals a marked affinity with Codex Vaticanus. The variations between these two texts is much less than the variations between P75 and other extant texts (C. L. Porter, “Papyrus Bodmer XV [P75] and the Text of Codex Vaticanus,” Journal of Biblical Literature, December, 1962). The significance of the new Papyrus P75 is that it is now claimed to be the best available text for the Fourth Gospel, as Kenneth W. Clark of Duke University and scholars working with him have shown. The new discovery also enhances the already immense prestige of Codex Vaticanus.
Bultmann’s influence has been felt in Johannine studies in two ways. He has argued at great length that this Gospel is largely the result of second-century Gnostic influences, something comparable to Harnack’s “acute Hellenization” of Christianity. Two archaeological discoveries have dealt an all but decisive blow to this assumption. The Qumran literature shows that the alleged Gnostic influences were known in a Palestinian locale prior to the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66–70. Recent discoveries of Gnostic writings at Nag Hamadi in Upper Egypt have shed new light on the second-century Gnostics. The effect of these discoveries on Johannine studies is to vindicate the judgment of the church fathers, who, many scholars had feared, were unduly biased against the Gnostics. In the light of this clearer understanding of Gnosticism, it is apparent that the Fourth Gospel, far from being influenced toward Gnosticism, was written to refute this heresy. The Gospel spoke to its intellectual environment rather than from it.
Bultmann has also contended that there are four principal literary sources or layers in the Gospel. First, he says, there is the prologue (Vorlage) from a “revelation source”; second, a miracle-source; third, the passion-resurrection source; and finally, the evangelist himself, who welded the three source-materials together. Some scholars have ignored this thesis. Some, like Barrett and Ruckstuhl, have examined it and rejected it completely. The application of radical form-critical procedure to this Gospel apparently is having little if any lasting influence (D. M. Smith, “Sources of the Gospel of John,” New Testament Studies, April, 1964). The sum total of this form-critical approach to John is to renew the quest for the historical Jesus.
Purpose Of The Gospel
Recent scholarship is more interested in the purpose of the Gospel than in its authorship. J. A. T. Robinson (Twelve New Testament Studies, 1962, p. 117) regards the author as a Jew speaking to other Jews, especially the Jews of the Dispersion (i.e., outside of Palestine). Although far from being a narrow nationalist, the author, he thinks, has written the most Jewish book of the New Testament, with the exception of the Revelation. Oscar Cullmann (Expository Times, November, 1959) believes that the author, like Stephen and the men of Qumran, was hostile to the temple and priesthood and that he wrote to the Jews with a Greek culture, thus “rehabilitating” the Hellenists.
Van Unnik believes that the Gospel was written primarily to convert those in the synagogues of the Dispersion. Mitton argues that one of the purposes of the Gospel is to provide information concerning the “historical personality of Jesus of Nazareth” (Expository Times, August, 1960). The older view is that the author was a Jew who wrote for those who had a Jewish background but were also aware of current trends in thought. This would account for his use of such general terms as logos, truth, light, and life.
Thus within a decade the critics are returning to a much more conservative position with respect to the historical trustworthiness, the apostolic origin, the Palestinian locale, the “primitive” factuality, and the authentic theological insights of this greatest of the Gospels.
T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more