The Fourth Gospel, attributed to the apostle John, focuses more than the other three on Christ’s divinity and the three divine persons. For this reason, the Greek tradition calls St. John the Theologian. It differs significantly in style and structure from the other Gospels and has always been one of the most closely read and studied books of the Bible.
In this interview, Dr. William M. Wright IV explains his pick of five books that can help us unlock the riches of the Gospel of St. John.
From the Fathers on, the Church has attributed the Fourth Gospel to the apostle John. Of course, it would still be the Word of God even if it were written by someone else. What matters is that the Church recognises that it has been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, could you share your own view on its human authorship and whether it is rooted in the teaching of St. John. Did its author also write the Letters of St. John and Revelation? There are a couple of related questions here.
In the New Testament canon, five writings are associated with a figure named John: the Gospel of John, the three Letters of John, and the Book of Revelation. Of those five writings, the three Letters of John and the Gospel of John are very closely related in their theology, literary style, and in some of their idiom. Ironically, the Book of Revelation is the only of those five writings to name its author as John. It has some striking convergences with the other Johannine writings. For example, the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation are the only writings in the New Testament to call Jesus the Word of God. In Chapter One of the Gospel of John, and in the Canon of the Mass, Jesus is called the Lamb of God. The lamb that was slain yet is alive is also a primary image for Jesus in the Book of Revelation. So, the Gospel and the Apocalypse are the only writings to really foreground the image of Jesus as the lamb.
At the same time, there are enough literary, stylistic, and theological differences to register between the Gospel and the Letters, on the one hand, and the Apocalypse, on the other. We might think of the Gospel and the Letters as siblings of the same household, while the Apocalypse might be a cousin. There is a family resemblance between them. They are all, you might say, in the same orbit of New Testament Christianity, but they may not be from the exact same household.
For my part, I like to think that the beloved disciple is the son of Zebedee, whose traditions were preserved in the Gospel by one of his students or by a group of students, among whom may have been this John the Elder.
Discussions of the human authorship of John are related to a figure in the Gospel narrative who is called “the beloved disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. He appears on about a half dozen occasions, starting explicitly in Chapter 13 at the Last Supper. The Gospel claims to preserve his eyewitness testimony. However, there is an indication at the very end of the Gospel that the beloved disciple has died. So, the Gospel—or at least the very end of it—was written after his death. You have this authoritative teacher, an eyewitness to Jesus, called the beloved disciple, whose testimony is preserved in the text we call the Gospel of John, perhaps by one of his students. It was not unusual for writers in antiquity to use secretaries and scribes in the composition of their texts. The great example of this is Paul, at the end of the Letter to the Romans, and perhaps Peter, in the First Letter of Peter, where the secretary who is penning the composition is named.
Seemingly, everyone in antiquity knew who this anonymous figure, the beloved disciple, was: so much so, that they did not bother to write it down for the rest of us. There is evidence from the second century that names him as John. John was a very common name in antiquity. In the New Testament there is John the Baptist, John the son of Zebedee, and John Mark. The visionary of Revelation is also named John. So, when it comes to the beloved disciple, two principal candidates emerge in antiquity: John, the son of Zebedee, and John the Elder or Presbyter, an enigmatic figure who is mentioned in a couple of early Christian sources. Some scholars associate the Fourth Gospel with him; others with the son of Zebedee. On the basis of the evidence, it is not clear that an airtight case is ever going to be made. For my part, I like to think that the beloved disciple is the son of Zebedee, whose traditions were preserved in the Gospel by one of his students or by a group of students, among whom may have been this John the Elder. I cannot prove that exegetically, but it is not totally unfounded either.
John makes explicit what is implicit in the synoptic Gospels.
When was the Fourth Gospel written? Well, the conventional wisdom is that the Fourth Gospel was the last to have been written. There are also early Christian sources that say John lived to the time of the emperor Trajan, which is roughly the mid-nineties on our calendar. The hints that are obliquely mentioned in the Gospel of John, the conventional wisdom, and the testimony of the early Christian sources converge. It was probably written somewhere in the decade of the nineties of the first century.
The fourth Gospel is very different is style and structure from the other three and often more difficult to understand. Could you give some keys to reading it? One of the helpful principles was mentioned by the British Johannine scholar, C.K. Barrett, and repeated by one of my teachers, Luke Timothy Johnson: John makes explicit what is implicit in the synoptic Gospels.
For example, in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus will very often talk about God as “the Father” or “my Father”. Less frequently, he will talk about himself as “the Son”. What John will do is emphasise and amplify Jesus's identity as the Son of the Father. He will draw out and emphasise what is present to a lower degree in the synoptic tradition. That is one principle to keep in mind.
Secondly, and on a more spiritual note—here I want to give credit for this principle to my mentor and cowriter Fr. Francis Martin—whenever you are going to read Scripture, the first thing to do is repent of your sins, make an act of contrition, and ask the Holy Spirit, who inspired this text, to also illumine it and show us what he wants us to see. That would be point number two: pray before reading the text.
Thirdly, read it slowly. This Gospel has so many layers to it. There are so many things going on. As you mentioned, it can be confusing and hard to understand. That is why commentaries can be helpful. Whenever we come across something that is puzzling and we suspect that there is something deeper going on, there probably is something deeper going on. Therefore, we need to really take our time with it.
For your first book, you have picked what is arguably the most authoritative modern commentary on John in English: Fr Raymond E. Brown’s. He also published a separate, concise commentary. Why have you chosen this more thorough and technically advanced one? Brown does have a smaller commentary. In that respect, it is a point of entry into his study of John and definitely a good place to start.
As you mentioned, Fr Raymond Brown's commentary on John is the landmark commentary by an American New Testament scholar. It is very thorough. It is very insightful. It is filled with linguistic, historical, and theological sensitivity. The two volumes came out respectively in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is over fifty years old. Still, it has stood the test of time, not only because of its influence, but also because of its wealth of information. It is definitely worth our time, especially at a higher level of study of the Gospel of John.
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