Postscript: The Reception of John’s Gospel

Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 48

by Reta Halteman Finger

The Word of God stained glass window at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC. Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich,
The Word of God stained glass window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC.
Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich, via Wikimedia Commons

Origins of John’s Gospel

Any attentive reader of the Gospels in our canon can see that the Fourth Gospel is quite different from the other three, which clearly have a literary relationship to each other. John was written independently, and, according to tradition, emerged from Ephesus in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Ephesus was a major cultural center of the Roman Empire at that time. Warren Carter’s, John and Empire (T&T Clark, 2008) builds on this hypothesis to highlight how John’s author portrays the Jesus-community as an antisociety opposed to “the world.” No matter where it was written, there is no doubt that the values presented in this Gospel are deeply opposed to the display of power, honor, and violence that characterized Caesar’s empire.

What is the oldest archeological evidence of John’s Gospel?

In 1934, a small fragment of papyrus that had been acquired on the Egyptian market in 1920 was transcribed and translated. It was 3 ½ x 2 ½ inches and written on both sides. The text turned out to be from the trial of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Subsequent analysis of the papyrus and handwriting showed it to be the earliest extant writing from the New Testament. It must have been copied sometime in the first half of the 2nd century, possibly as early as 125 CE. The double-sided writing meant that it came not from a scroll but from a codex (papyrus sheets folded into squares and sewn together to make the leaves of a book). The codex was a new development at that time, the forerunner of our books today. Christians were using this new technology earlier than Jewish copyists. If the original copy of John’s Gospel was written in the 90s CE, the fragment now on display at the John Rylands Museum in Manchester, England, could be one of the earliest copies of the original.

When was this Gospel accepted into the New Testament canon?

The biblical canon—the list of books that comprise the Bible as we know it today— was not fixed until the mid or late 4th century. Long before that, however, churches developed lists of texts appropriate for reading in their assemblies. The  Synoptic Gospels were a shoo-in from the beginning, since Jesus was the central authority figure for Christians. But some, especially Jewish Christians, questioned John’s Gospel because it portrayed Jesus as more divine and less human than did the Synoptics.

Divergent ideas about the nature of Jesus were developing as early as the late first or early second century. An early view, considered heretical by what we today might call the “orthodox” church, was Docetism. This is the belief that Jesus was divine but only appeared to be human. The term comes from the Greek word doceō, which means “to seem, to appear.”  Docetism is dualistic. It draws on the concept that spirit is good and matter is evil. Therefore God-in-Christ could never be fully human.

Rylands Papyrus fragment on display."Rylands papyrus" by Raxom - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Rylands Papyrus fragment on display.
“Rylands papyrus” by Raxom – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There are clues to this theological tension already in our New Testament. In 1 John, written some time after the Gospel, the author warns his “children” about the many antichrists that have come (2:18-25). Apparently this community has endured a split within their ranks, for verse 19 states, “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” 

It sounds like circular reasoning which says nothing about specific beliefs. But the author of 1 John begins this sermon with “we have seen Jesus with our eyes and touched him with our hands.” The “eternal life that was with the Father was revealed to us,” and we have seen and heard him (1 Jn 1:1-3). In other words, Jesus was an ordinary human. The Eerdmans NT introduction puts it this way: “Whereas the Gospel declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, 1 John insists that the Messiah, the Son of God is [the human] Jesus.”*

Was Jesus truly human?

It is not easy to hold together Jesus’s full humanity with his full divinity, which is why the church struggled for centuries with so many divergent opinions. Even today, as many fundamentalists exalt John’s Gospel and insist that “Jesus is God,” an under emphasis on his humanity sounds perilously close to ancient Docetism. I have seen this among some of my students when I taught New Testament at a Christian college. As we studied the Gospels, they never marveled at Jesus’s miracles or his resurrection, because, of course, “Jesus was God” and could do anything, hands down. I’m not sure how much attention they paid to his humanity. One professor told me of some students who thought Jesus was so divine he never had to use the bathroom!

It is vital that believers insist on Jesus’s humanity. The entire purpose of “the descent of the Word” is that this Wisdom-Word should “become flesh” and live among us. As we read about Jesus as a “noble shepherd” in John 10, let us not forget that this noble shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. Only humans can die. In our last lesson, when Jesus tests Peter’s loyalty to him, he is not asking for Peter to do any more than he himself has done. “Follow me”—even to death, implies Jesus.

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  If you are part of a church today, what is taught or implied about Jesus’s nature? Is one aspect privileged over the other?

2.  What does Jesus’s humanity mean to you?

* Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology, by Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson (Eerdmans, 2001), p 544. (back to text)

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.