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Bible Commentaries

Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament


- John

by A.T. Robertson




The test of time has given the palm to the Fourth Gospel over all the books of the world. If Luke's Gospel is the most beautiful, John's Gospel is supreme in its height and depth and reach of thought. The picture of Christ here given is the one that has captured the mind and heart of mankind. It is not possible for a believer in Jesus Christ as the Son of God to be indifferent to modern critical views concerning the authorship and historical value of this Holy of Holies of the New Testament. Here we find The Heart of Christ (E. H. Sears), especially in chapters John 0:14-17. If Jesus did not do or say these things, it is small consolation to be told that the book at least has symbolic and artistic value for the believer. The language of the Fourth Gospel has the clarity of a spring, but we are not able to sound the bottom of the depths. Lucidity and profundity challenge and charm us as we linger over it.


The book claims to be written by "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 21:20) who is pointedly identified by a group of believers (apparently in Ephesus) as the writer: "This is the disciple which beareth witness of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his witness is true" (John 21:24). This is the first criticism of the Fourth Gospel of which we have any record, made at the time when the book was first sent forth, made in a postscript to the epilogue or appendix. Possibly the book closed first with John 20:31, but chapter 21 is in precisely the same style and was probably added before publication by the author. The natural and obvious meaning of the language in John 21:24 is that the Beloved Disciple wrote the whole book. He is apparently still alive when this testimony to his authorship is given. There are scholars who interpret it to mean that the Beloved Disciple is responsible for the facts in the book and not the actual writer, but that is a manifest straining of the language. There is in this verse no provision made for a redactor as distinct from the witness as is plausibly set forth by Dr. A. E. Garvie in The Beloved Disciple (1922).


It is manifest all through the book that the writer is the witness who is making the contribution of his personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. In John 1:14 he plainly says that "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory" (εθεασαμεθα την δοξαν αυτου). He here associates others with him in this witness to the glory of the Word, but in John 21:25 he employs the singular "I suppose" (οιμα) in sharp dis- tinction from the plural "we know" (οιδαμεν) just before. The writer is present in nearly all the scenes described. The word witness (μαρτυρεω, μαρτυρια) so common in this Gospel (John 1:7; John 1:8; John 1:19; John 3:11; John 3:26; John 3:33; John 5:31; John 12:17; John 21:24, etc.) illustrates well this point of view. In the Gospel of Luke we have the work of one who was not a personal witness of Christ (Luke 1:1-4). In the Gospel of Matthew we possess either the whole work of a personal follower and apostle or at least the Logia of Matthew according to Papias preserved in it. In Mark's Gospel we have as the basis the preaching of Simon Peter as preserved by his interpreter John Mark. John's Gospel claims to be the personal witness of "the disciple whom Jesus loved" and as such deserves and has received exceptional esteem. One may note all through the book evidences of an eye-witness in the vivid details.


It is not only that the writer was a Jew who knew accurately places and events in Palestine, once denied though now universally admitted. The Beloved Disciple took the mother of Jesus "to his own home" (εις τα ιδια, John 19:27) from the Cross when Jesus commended his mother to his care. But this Beloved Disciple had access to the palace of the high priest (John 18:15). Delff (Das vierte Evangelium wiederhergestellt, 1890) argues that this fact shows that the Beloved Disciple was not one of the twelve apostles, one of a priestly family of wealth in Jerusalem. He does seem to have had special information concerning what took place in the Sanhedrin (John 7:45-52; John 11:47-53; John 12:10). But at once we are confronted with the difficulty of supposing one outside of the circle of the twelve on even more intimate terms with Jesus than the twelve themselves and who was even present at the last passover meal and reclined on the bosom of Jesus (John 13:23). Nor is this all, for he was one of the seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1) when Peter speaks to Jesus about the "Beloved Disciple" (John 21:20).


It is true that an ambiguous statement of Papias (circa A.D. 120) is contained in Eusebius where the phrase "the Elder John " (ο πρεσβυτερος Ιωαννης) occurs. The most natural way to understand Papias is that he is referring to the Apostle John by this phrase as he describes the teachings of the apostles by "the words of the elders" just before. This interpretation of the allusion of Papias has been rendered almost certain by the work of Dom John Chapman, John the Presbyter and the Fourth Gospel (1911). Not before Eusebius is the error found of two Johns in Ephesus, one the apostle, the other the so-called Presbyter. "Papias is no witness for the admission of two Johns of Asia Minor. Irenaeus, too, in any case, knows of but one John of Asia Minor. And this John was an eye-witness of our Lord's Life" (Bousset, Die Offenbarumg des Joh., p. 38, translation of Nolloth, The Fourth Evangelist, p. 63, note). Let this be admitted and much becomes clear.


In 1862 a fragment of the Chronicle of Georgius Hamartolus, a Byzantine monk of the ninth century, was published. It is the Codex Coislinianus, Paris, 305, which differs from the other manuscripts of this author in saying that John according to Papias was slain by the Jews (υπο Ιουδαιων ανηιρεθη) while the other manuscripts say that John rested in peace (εν ειρηνη ανεπαυσατο). The passage also quotes Eusebius to the effect that John received Asia as his sphere of work and lived and died in Ephesus. This same George the Sinner misquotes Origen about the death of John for Origen really says that the Roman king condemned him to the Isle of Patmos, not to death. Another fragment of Philip of Side, apparently used by Georgius, makes the same erroneous reference to Papias. It is therefore a worthless legend growing out of the martyrdom promised James and John by Jesus (Mark 10:39; Matthew 20:23) and realized by James first of all (Acts 12:1). John drank the cup in the exile to Patmos. The correction to Peter in John 21:20-23 would have no meaning if the Apostle John had already been put to death.


Loisy (Le Quatr. Evangile, p. 132) says that if one takes literally what is given in the body of the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple he is bound to be one of the twelve. Loisy does not take it "literally." But why not? Are we to assume that the author of this greatest of books is playing a part or using a deliberate artifice to deceive? It may be asked why John does not use his own name instead of a nom de plume. Reference can be made to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, no one of which gives the author's name. One can see a reason for the turn here given since the book consists so largely of personal experiences of the author with Christ. He thus avoids the too frequent use of the personal pronoun and preserves the element of witness which marks the whole book. One by one the other twelve apostles disappear if we test their claims for the authorship. In the list of seven in chapter John 0:21 it is easy to drop the names of Simon Peter, Thomas, and Nathanael. There are left two unnamed disciples and the sons of Zebedee (here alone mentioned, not even named, in the book). John in this Gospel always means the Baptist. Why does the author so uniformly slight the sons of Zebedee if not one of them himself? In the Acts Luke does not mention his own name nor that of Titus his brother, though so many other friends of Paul are named. If the Beloved Disciple is John the Apostle, the silence about James and himself is easily understood. James is ruled out because of his early death (Acts 12:1). The evidence in the Gospel points directly to the Apostle John as the author.


Ignatius (ad Philad. vii. 1) about A.D. 110 says of the Spirit that "he knows whence he comes and whither he is going," a clear allusion to John 3:8. Polycarp (ad Phil. S 7) quotes 1 John 4:2; 1 John 4:3. Eusebius states that Papias quoted First John. Irenaeus is quoted by Eusebius (H.E. V, 20) as saying that he used as a boy to hear Polycarp tell "of his intercourse with John and the others who had seen the Lord." Irenaeus accepted all our Four Gospels. Tatian made his Diatessaron out of the Four Gospels alone. Theophilus of Antioch (Ad Autol. ii. 22) calls John the author of the Fourth Gospel. This was about A.D. 180. The Muratorian Canon near the close of the second century names John as the author of the Fourth Gospel. Till after the time of Origen no opposition to the Johannine authorship appears outside of Marcion and the Alogi. No other New Testament book has stronger external evidence.


As the latest of the Gospels and by the oldest living apostle, it is only natural that there should be an infrequent use of the Synoptic Gospels. Outside of the events of Passion Week and the Resurrection period the Fourth Gospel touches the Synoptic narrative in only one incident, that of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the walking on the water. The author supplements the Synoptic record in various ways. He mentions two passovers not given by the other Gospels (John 2:23; John 6:4) and another (John 5:1) may be implied. Otherwise we could not know certainly that the ministry of Jesus was more than a year in length. He adds greatly to our knowledge of the first year of our Lord's public ministry ("the year of obscurity," Stalker) without which we should know little of this beginning (John 1:19-4). The Synoptics give mainly the Galilean and Perean and Judean ministry, but John adds a considerable Jerusalem ministry which is really demanded by allusions in the Synoptics. The Prologue (John 1:1-18) relates the Incarnation to God's eternal purpose as in Colossians 1:14-20 and Hebrews 1:1-3 and employs the language of the intellectuals of the time (Λογος -- Word) to interpret Christ as the Incarnate Son of God.


So different is it in fact that some men bluntly assert that Jesus could not have spoken in the same fashion as presented in the Synoptics and in the Fourth Gospel. Such critics need to recall the Socrates of Xenophon's Memorabilia and of Plato's Dialogues. There is a difference beyond a doubt, but there is also some difference in the reports in the Synoptics. Jesus for the most part spoke in Aramaic, sometimes in Greek, as to the great crowds from around Palestine (the Sermon on the Mount, for instance). There is the Logia of Jesus (Q of criticism) preserved in the non-Markan portions of Matthew and Luke besides Mark, and the rest of Matthew and Luke. Certain natural individualities are preserved. The difference is greater in the Fourth Gospel, because John writes in the ripeness of age and in the richness of his long experience. He gives his reminiscences mellowed by long reflection and yet with rare dramatic power. The simplicity of the language leads many to think that they understand this Gospel when they fail to see the graphic pictures as in chapters John 0:7-11. The book fairly throbs with life. There is, no doubt, a Johannine style here, but curiously enough there exists in the Logia (Q) a genuine Johannine passage written long before the Fourth Gospel (Matthew 11:25-30; Luke 10:21-24). The use of "the Father" and "the Son" is thoroughly Johannine. It is clear that Jesus used the Johannine type of teaching also. Perhaps critics do not make enough allowance for the versatility and variety in Jesus.


It is further objected that there is no difference in style between the discourses of Jesus in John's Gospel and his own narrative style. There is an element of truth in this criticism. There are passages where it is not easy to tell where discourse ends and narrative begins. See, for instance, John 3:16-21. Does the discourse of Jesus end with verse 15,16, or 21? So in John 12:44-50. Does John give here a resume of Christ's teaching or a separate discourse? It is true also that John preserves in a vivid way the conversational style of Christ as in chapters 4,6,7,8,9. In the Synoptic Gospels this element is not so striking, but we do not have to say that John has done as Shakespeare did with his characters. Each Gospel to a certain extent has the colouring of the author in reporting the words of Jesus. An element of this is inevitable unless men are mere automata, phonographs, or radios. But each Gospel preserves an accurate and vivid picture of Christ. We need all four pictures including that of John's Gospel for the whole view of Christ.


It is just here that the chief attack is made on the Fourth Gospel even by some who admit the Johannine authorship. It is now assumed by some that the Fourth Gospel is not on a par with the Synoptics in historical reliability and some harmonies omit it entirely or place it separately at the close, though certainly Tatian used it with the Synoptics in his Diatessaron, the first harmony of the Gospels. Some even follow Schmiedel in seeing only a symbolic or parabolic character in the miracles in the Fourth Gospel, particularly in the narrative of the raising of Lazarus in chapter John 0:11 which occurs here alone. But John makes this miracle play quite an important part in the culmination of events at the end. Clearly the author professes to be giving actual data largely out of his own experience and knowledge. It is objected by some that the Fourth Gospel gives an unnatural picture of Christ with Messianic claims at the very start. But the Synoptics give that same claim at the baptism and temptation, not to mention Luke's account of the Boy Jesus in the temple. The picture of the Jews as hostile to Jesus is said to be overdrawn in the Fourth Gospel. The answer to that appears in the Sermon on the Mount, the Sabbath miracles, the efforts of the Pharisees and lawyers to catch Jesus in his talk, the final denunciation in John 0:23, all in the Synoptics. The opposition to Jesus grew steadily as he revealed himself more clearly. Some of the difficulties raised are gratuitous as in the early cleansing of the temple as if it could not have happened twice, confounding the draught of fishes in chapter John 0:21 with that in John 0:5, making Mary of Bethany at the feast of a Simon in chapter John 0:12 the same as the sinful woman at the feast of another Simon in John 0:7, making John's Gospel locate the last passover meal a day ahead instead of at the regular time as the Synoptics have it. Rightly interpreted these difficulties disappear. In simple truth, if one takes the Fourth Gospel at its face value, the personal recollections of the aged John phrased in his own way to supplement the narratives in the Synoptics, there is little left to give serious trouble. The Jerusalem ministry with the feasts is a case in point. The narrative of the call of the first disciples in chapter John 0:1 is another. The author followed Simon in bringing also his own brother James to Jesus. John was present in the appearance of Christ before Annas, and Pilate. He was at the Cross when no other apostles were there. He took the mother of Jesus to his home and then returned to the Cross. He saw the piercing of the side of Jesus. He knew and saw the deed of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. E. H. Askwith has a most helpful discussion of this whole problem in The Historical Value of the Fourth Gospel (1910).


Critics of all classes agree that, whoever was the author of the Fourth Gospel, the same man wrote the First Epistle of John. There is the same inimitable style, the same vocabulary, the same theological outlook. Undoubtedly the same author wrote also Second and Third John, for, brief as they are, they exhibit the same characteristics. In Second and Third John the author describes himself as "the Elder" (ο πρεσβυτερος), which fact has led some to argue for the mythical "Presbyter John" as the author in place of the Apostle John and so of First John and the Fourth Gospel. It is argued that the Apostle John would have termed himself "the Apostle John" after the fashion of Paul. But the example of the Apostle Peter disposes of that argument, for in addressing the elders (1 Peter 5:1) he calls himself "your fellow-elder" (ο συνπρεσβυτερος). In the Epistles John opposes Gnosticism both of the Docetic type which denied the actual humanity of Jesus as in 1 John 1:1-4 and the Cerinthian type which denied the identity of the man Jesus and the aeon Christ which came on Jesus at his baptism and left him at his death on the Cross as in 1 John 2:22. One of the many stories told about John is his abhorrence of Cerinthus when found in the same public bath with him. As Westcott shows, the Epistles of John prove his actual humanity while assuming his deity, whereas the Fourth Gospel proves his deity while assuming his humanity.


It should be said at once that the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel does not depend on that of the Apocalypse. In fact, some men hold to the Johannine authorship of the Apocalypse who deny that of the Gospel while some hold directly the opposite view. Some deny the Johannine authorship of both Gospel and Apocalypse, while the majority hold to the Johannine authorship of Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse as was the general rule till after the time of Origen. The author of the Apocalypse claims to be John (Revelation 1:4; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 22:8), though what John he does not say. Denial of the existence of a "Presbyter John" naturally leads one to think of the Apostle John. Origen says that John, the brother of James, was banished to the Isle of Patmos where he saw the Apocalypse. There is undoubted radical difference in language between the Apocalypse and the other Johannine books which will receive discussion when the Apocalypse is reached. Westcott explained these differences as due to the early date of the Apocalypse in the reign of Vespasian before John had become master of the Greek language. Even J. H. Moulton (Prolegomena, p. 9, note 4) says bluntly: "If its date was 95 A.D., the author cannot have written the fourth Gospel only a short time after." Or before, he would say. But the date of the Apocalypse seems definitely to belong to the reign of Domitian. So one ventures to call attention to the statement in Acts 4:13 where Peter and John are described as αγραμματο κα ιδιωτα (unlettered and private or unschooled men). It is curious also that it is precisely in 2Peter and the Apocalypse that we have so many grammatical solecisms and peculiarities. We know that the Fourth Gospel was reviewed by a group of John's friends in Ephesus, while he was apparently alone in the Isle of Patmos. The excitement of the visions would naturally increase the uncouth vernacular of the Apocalypse so much like that in the Greek papyri as seen in Milligan's Greek Papyri, for instance. This being true, one is able, in spite of Moulton's dictum, to hold to the Johannine authorship of both Gospel and Apocalypse and not far apart in date.


This has been attacked in various ways in spite of the identity of style throughout. There are clearly three parts in the Gospel: the Prologue, John 1:1-18, the Body of the Book, John 1:19-20, the Epilogue, John 0:21. But there is no evidence that the Prologue was added by another hand, even though the use of Logos (Word) for Christ does not occur thereafter. This high conception of Christ dominates the whole book. Some argue that the Epilogue was added by some one else than John, but here again there is no proof and no real reason for the supposition. It is possible, as already stated, that John stopped at John 20:31 and then added John 0:21 before sending the book forth after his friends added John 21:24 as their endorsement of the volume. Some scholars claim that they detect various displacements in the arrangement of the material, but such subjective criticism is never convincing. There are undoubtedly long gaps in the narrative as between chapters 5 and 6, but John is not giving a continuous narrative, but only a supplementary account assuming knowledge of the Synoptics. It is held that editorial comments by redactors can be detected here and there. Perhaps, and perhaps not. The unity of this great book stands even if that be true.


The late Dr. C. F. Burney of Oxford wrote a volume called, The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel (1922) in which he tried to prove that the Fourth Gospel is really the first in time and was originally written in Aramaic. The theory excited some interest, but did not convince either Aramaic or Greek scholars to an appreciable extent. Some of the examples cited are plausible and some quite fanciful. This theory cannot be appealed to in any serious interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. The author was beyond doubt a Jew, but he wrote in the Koine Greek of his time that is comparatively free from crude Semiticisms, perhaps due in part to the help of the friends in Ephesus.


He tells us himself in John 20:30. He has made a selection of the many signs wrought by Jesus for an obvious purpose: "But these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name." This is the high and noble purpose plainly stated by the author. The book is thus confessedly apologetic and this fact ruins it with the critics who demand a dull and dry chronicle of events without plan or purpose in a book of history. Such a book would not be read and would be of little value if written. Each of the Synoptics is written with a purpose and every history or biography worth reading is written with a purpose. It is one thing to have a purpose in writing, but quite another to suppress or distort facts in order to create the impression that one wishes. This John did not do. He has given us his deliberate, mature, tested view of Jesus Christ as shown to him while alive and as proven since his resurrection. He writes to win others to like faith in Christ.


No one questions that the Fourth Gospel asserts the deity of Christ. It is in the Prologue at the very start: "And the Word was God" (John 1:1) and in the correct text of John 1:18, "God only begotten" (θεος μονογενης). It occurs repeatedly in the book as in the witness of the Baptist: "This is the Son of God" (John 1:34). It is in the charge of the Pharisees (John 5:18) and the claim of Christ himself (John 5:20-23; John 6:48; John 8:12; John 8:58; John 11:25; John 14:9; John 17:5) with the full and frank conviction of the author in John 20:31. He has made good his purpose. He has proven that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. With some critics this purpose has vitiated the entire book. The effort has been made to show that Paul, Peter, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Synoptics give a lower view of Christ without the term θεος applied to him. In particular it was once argued that Q, the Logia of Jesus, used by Matthew and Luke (the non-Markan portions in both Matthew and Luke), gives a reduced picture of Jesus as on a lower plane than God, the Arian or Ritschlian view at any rate as answering for God to us though not God in actual nature. But in the Logia of Jesus we find the same essential picture of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Son of Man as I have shown in my The Christ of the Logia (1924). The only way to get rid of the deity of Christ in the New Testament is to throw overboard all the books in it as legendary or reflections of late theological development away from the original picture. The very earliest picture drawn of Christ that has been preserved to us, that in the Logia of Jesus (drawn W. M. Ramsay believes before Christ's crucifixion), is in essential agreement with the fully drawn portrait in the Fourth Gospel. Each picture in the Four Gospels adds touches of its own, but the features are the same, those of the God-Man Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. The brilliant blind preacher of Edinburgh, George Matheson, sees this clearly (Studies in the Portrait of the Messiah, 1900; St. John's Portrait of Christ, 1910).



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