Module 1


On completion of this module it is expected that you will be able to:


As the title suggests, this module concerns itself with an introduction to the entire unit as well as an examination of the introduction to the Gospel, commonly called the Prologue (1:1-18). As part of this introductory module you will become familiar with the world and the events of the first century, because the Gospel was written for readers in that first century. This historical, religious and social context is known in modern scholarship as 'the world behind the text'. You will examine the meaning of this phrase in the next module.

Internet Tools you may find helpful

Since you may not have access to a theological library the following reference tools can be found using the internet.

1.1 When and Why?

The Jewish world of the first century was not uniform. There were various groups within Judaism who lived out their faith in different ways. The gospels identify some people as Sadducees, some are called Pharisees, one of Jesus' disciples is called a Zealot, and there are many other ordinary Jewish people not aligned with any of these terms. From archaeological discoveries near the Dead Sea we now know of a further group of pious Jews who lived at Qumran and scholars believe these people were called the Essenes. This last group never appears in the Gospels but they lived during the time of Jesus' ministry, just a short distance from Jericho.

The Pharisees were a group who emerged after the exile (587 BCE) and they sought to make every aspect of life holy. They were strict observers of the Law and brought the Law into ordinary living. They tended to be more a lay group although priests could also be within the Pharisaic schools. While placing great value on the written Law they were also open to new interpretations of the law ie. the oral law as passed on from teacher to disciples. They tried to apply the law to daily living so that all life was pure, and they could live as a holy people.

The Sadducees are a priestly group; the name possibly derives from Zadok, the high Priest at the time of Solomon. They arose after the time of the Maccabean rebellion 180 BCE. They were members of the high priestly families and through their association with the Temple and the High Priest they were like an aristocratic, wealthy upper class. They conserved traditions, particularly strict traditions of worship and purity as it served their interests to maintain the status quo. As the group in power, they were co-operative with the Roman government to ensure their religious freedom and their powerbase. Unlike the Pharisees they only accepted the written law.

The Zealots as their name suggests were a group of Jews who zealously fought for Jewish independence. In 164 BCE Judas Maccabeus had defeated the Greek forces and established an independent Jewish (Hasmonean) kingdom. This independence was only lost in 63 B.C.E. when the Roman general Pompey brought his army into Israel. During the adult life of Jesus, Galilee was ruled by a Jewish King Herod Antipas, but Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator. In 66 C.E. Jewish opposition to Roman rule led to a revolt. Rome was quick to reply. As the Roman armies swept down towards Jerusalem many refugees, forced out of their villages by the advancing army, joined together as 'The Zealots' and’eventually fought with the Jerusalemites during the final siege.

The Essenes seem to have their beginnings after the time of the Maccabees when the Jewish King appointed his own brother as the High Priest who was not of the family of Zadok and so should not have been appointed. For some this illegitimate High Priest meant that all sacrifices in the Temple were now desecrated. The Essenes broke with the Temple worship and set themselves up as a community waiting for the End of Time, when God would establish the Kingdom and set up a true High Priest. Scholars today believe that this group were the ones living by the Dead Sea, about 50 km from Jerusalem. Until the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947 little was known about the beliefs and practices of this group.

To the above list of recognisable groups within Judaism can be added a fifth group called by various names, 'Followers of the Way' (Acts 9:2; 18:25; 19:23; 24:14) and possibly 'The Nazarenes'. Eventually they were called 'Christians' to distinguish them from other Jewish groups. These people believed that the Messiah (in Greek ‘the Christos’) who was long awaited by the Jewish people, had now come. They proclaimed that a man called Jesus was the true Messiah and that God's final Kingdom was just about to come. They respected the laws of Judaism, still went to the Temple to offer sacrifice and kept the Jewish feasts. At first this group was entirely Jewish but in time they proclaimed their faith to non-Jews and welcomed these Gentiles to join with them in accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

In 66 C.E. there was a Jewish uprising against Rome. For a few years the struggle continued until Jerusalem was besieged. The people were starved. Great siege engines were brought in to knock down the gates. Finally the Romans managed to break into the Temple area and in the year 70 the Temple was destroyed. Jews were banished from Jerusalem and the Temple area was left as rubble for some centuries.

If you want more information on this event Josephus Jewish Wars Book 7 describes the final taking of Jerusalem and also the capture of Masada (chapter 8).

The Roman army then continued down to the last Jewish outpost of resistance at Masada and eventually captured this fortress from the Zealot defenders only to find that everyone had suicided rather then surrender. Only three women were found alive to tell the story. On their way to Masada the Roman army destroyed the community of the Essenes at Qumran. It is likely that this community knew of their danger and hid their precious writings in the nearby caves where they were found this century.

So by the year 70 there are only 2 Jewish groups surviving - the Pharisees and the Christians. The Zealots and Essenes were destroyed in the uprising and with the Temple gone the Sadducees no longer had a powerbase. Both these groups - the Pharisees and the Christians now had to reappraise their central ways of living and worship. The Temple no longer existed. This meant that the daily sacrifices for sin could no longer be offered. How could Israel live as a Holy people? Where could Israel encounter God and celebrate the great feasts commemorating God's saving acts in their history without the Temple?

The Pharisees, led by Rabbi Johannan ben Zakkai, held ongoing discussions at a place called Jamnia (Yavneh) between the years 80 and 90. The Rabbis needed to develop a firm and clear identity on which to build Jewish faith without the Temple sacrifices and priesthood. Synagogue worship and the Law were the two pillars on which Rabbinic Judaism was built. However, the focus of many synagogue prayers was to pray for the Messiah to come.

One group of survivors, the mixed Jewish and Gentile group known as Christians believed that the Messiah had already come. They were celebrating in their prayers and giving thanks (eucharistia) for the coming of Jesus the Christ. The two surviving groups therefore had very different and opposing stances on the critical issue of Jesus' identity. To the Rabbis, Jesus was a false Messiah, while to the Christians he was God's gift of salvation to the world.

To counter any false ideas the Rabbis added a prayer to the morning synagogue prayers. There is a special prayer called The 18 Benedictions. One was added, the 12th Benediction - For apostates may there be no hope, and may the Nazarenes and the heretics suddenly perish. This prayer (called the Birkat ha-minim) had to be prayed aloud and anyone who could not pray this benediction was identified as a heretic and expelled from the synagogue. This Benediction may not have been directed specifically at Christians, but in a time of crisis in Judaism it was necessary to expel any people with unorthodox views.

This is the historical situation that seems to lie behind the story in John chapter 9 when a Blind Man is cured by Jesus and we are told that "anyone who confessed Jesus as the Christ was to be put out of the synagogue" (aposynagogos) (9:22, 34). The term aposynagogos does not appear in other literature of the New Testament but it occurs in two other places in the Fourth Gospel - "Many believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue" (12:42). "I have told you these things to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues" (16:1-2).

These considerations have led scholars to the conclusion that this gospel was written towards the end of the first century (95 -100), during a time after the destruction of the Temple, and after the Rabbinic discussions at Jamnia. We cannot be entirely sure if Jamnia had a wide influence but we can say that the Gospel reflects a time of conflict in one locality between the church and the local synagogue.

Exercise 1.1

Read Neusner, J. "Judaism in a time of Crisis: Four Responses to the Destruction of the Second Temple." Judaism 21(1972): 313-27. (Reading 1.1)

Identify the four different responses.

What written documents reflect these four responses?

How does each group try to live without the Temple?

1.2 Who And Where?

There are various opinions about the author of this Gospel.

Around a hundred years after the Gospel was written, ie. towards the end of the second century, a famous Christian writer and martyr called Irenaeus (about 130-200 C.E.) identified the author of this Gospel as a man named John, called a disciple of the Lord and the one who leaned on Jesus at the Last Supper ie. the disciple whom Jesus loved. "Lastly John, the Lord's disciple, who also reclined on his breast, himself produced the Gospel when he was staying in Ephesus in Asia".

Irenaus is writing at a time when this Gospel is in great danger of being rejected as a legitimate or canonical Gospel. Some are saying it comes from a heretical group called the Gnostics who emphasised knowledge (gnosis) and the mind, and downplayed the value of the physical and human experience. To rescue this gospel it was important to attribute it to an eyewitness, preferably one of the disciples - even better if it was one of the inner circle of Apostles - Peter, James and John.

The earlier commentaries of Schnackenburg (1965) and R. E. Brown (1966) identify John, the son of Zebedee as the disciple called in the Gospel the Beloved Disciple. This disciple is the authority behind the text, probably the leader of the community that produced this Gospel. The actual author of the gospel, the evangelist, was a disciple of this John. In his later work -The Community of Beloved Disciple (1974) Brown changed his view. While still naming the Beloved Disciple as the authority behind the text, he no longer identified this disciple as John son of Zebedee.

Most contemporary scholars take the view that the unnamed disciple, later called the Beloved Disciple, is the authority behind the Gospel. This unnamed 'other' disciple was at first a disciple of John the Baptist but then with Andrew was the first to be called to discipleship (1:35-42), he was present as eye-witness to the crucifixion (19:26, 35) and was the first to come to Easter faith (20:8).

You will notice that more recent authors speak of The Fourth Gospel, while earlier commentators called it St. John's Gospel. Care is now taken to show that there is some uncertainty about the identity of the actual author.


The gospel shows great interest in Jewish traditions, the feasts, the cycle of pilgrimage festivals, the symbols of Judaism. It also givens details of Palestinian topography ie. knowledge about the setting of Jacob's well (Jn 4:6); the exact location of John's baptising ministry (3:23); information about the pool of Bethesda (5:2); naming the Kedron as a seasonally flowing river (18:1). These facts lead scholars to conclude that its origins lie in the early preaching by a group within Palestine.

The gospel is also unique in its awareness of Hellenistic dualism and language ie. logos, light-dark, above-below, spirit-flesh, ascending descending. This language is very similar to the ideas found in Gnostic religions. So the Gospel, while having its origins in Palestinian Judaism, was also for a community within a Hellenistic setting familiar with Greek thought and religion. The traditional site of Ephesus is still seen as a likely setting. We know from Paul's Epistles that this Greek city, dedicated to the Goddess Artemis, had a strong Christian community.

Exercise 1.2

Read Moloney, The Gospel of John, 1-11.

What is the 'breakdown' or conflict situation that lies behind the gospel?

What is the 'breakdown' or conflict situation that lies behind the letters?

1.3 Relationship To The Synoptics

When looking at the synoptic gospels we could see a relationship between them. Mark was the first gospel written in the mid 60's. Matthew and Luke (both written in the 80's) show a dependency on Mark and on another common source of sayings called "Q". These three synoptic Gospels follow a similar outline with Jesus beginning his ministry in Galilee then making one journey to Jerusalem leading to his arrest and death. The Fourth Gospel is remarkably different.

Exercise 1.3.

Skim read The Fourth Gospel and make a note of the following:

Where does it mention Jesus is in Jerusalem?

What Jewish feasts are named?

List the miracles that are described? Which of these are also found in the Synoptics?

Note any parables you find, and references to the Kingdom.

Note any exorcisms.

Whereas the synoptics tell the story of one journey to Jerusalem, the Fourth Gospel has three journeys. This in fact is far more likely given the command to go up to Jerusalem for the three major Feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. There is no story of Jesus exorcising which is so dominant in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Nor does Jesus teach using vivid parables as we find in the Synoptics. The Kingdom is only mentioned in two chapters (3:3, 5; 18:36). In the synoptics there are many miracles and cures. In John there are very few, they are quite dramatic, they are told in great detail and frequently lead into a long discourse.

The Miracles (Signs) in John:

Chapter 2. Wedding at Cana.

Chapter 4. Cure of an official's Son in Capernaum.

Chapter 5. Healing of a man paralysed for 38 years.

Chapter 6. Multiplication of loaves. Walking on Water.

Chapter 9. Cure of a man blind from birth.

Chapter 11. Raising of Lazarus who was dead for 4 days.

Chapter 21. The great catch of fish.

In this Gospel we find no birth story, no events in Nazareth, no temptation, no agony in Gethsemane, no institution of Eucharist. These differences lead scholars to conclude that John is independent of the other 3 Gospels and yet draws on a common stock of oral traditions. This can be represented in the following diagram.





1.4 How The Gospel Developed

R. E. Brown in his commentary suggests 5 stages in the development of the Gospel.

Exercise 1.4

Read: J. Ashton, "Religious Dissent" in Understanding the Fourth Gospel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. 124-59. (Reading 1.2)

Imagine a letter in the Catholic Press stating that the Fourth Gospel would no longer be used in Christian liturgy because it is anti-Semitic.

Write a short paragraph in response to this accusation explaining who 'The Jews' are in this Gospel and why they are treated to harshly.

1.5 The Structure Of The Gospel

The Gospel can be divided into two major blocks, frequently called 'The Book of Signs' and ‘The Book of Glory', framed within a Prologue and a Conclusion. Many modern commentators propose that Chapter 21 is a slightly later addition to the original Gospel, perhaps written after the deaths of Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Their deaths may have caused confusion and dismay within the community, so a final editor added this chapter to explain these deaths and console the community. This additional chapter, an epilogue, must have been added very early since every manuscript we posses contains this chapter.

Prologue: 1:1-18 - information given to you - the reader

1:19 - 12:50 BOOK OF SIGNS

Opening Days 1:19-51

From Cana to Cana

(A journey into correct faith) 2:1-4:54

"The Feasts of the Jews" 5:1-10:42

Sabbath Chapter 5

Passover Chapter 6

Tabernacles Chapter 7:1 –10:21

Dedication Chapter 10:22-42

Transition: The Raising of Lazarus 11:1-12:36

Conclusion to the book of Signs 12:37-50

13:1 – 20:29 BOOK OF GLORY

Last Discourse 13:1-17:26

Footwashing Chapter 13

Jesus' Departure Chapter 14:1- 16:33

Jesus' Prayer to the Father Chapter 17

The Passion and Death 18:1-19:42

The Resurrection 20: 1-29

Epilogue: 20:30-31 "that you may believe."

Addendum: 21:1-25. The Johannine Church

1.6 The Johannine Prologue 1:1-18.

The Prologue introduces the reader to the major theological themes of the Gospel. Where Mark's gospel began with Jesus’ Baptism and told the story of his adult ministry both Matthew and Luke provided a theological introduction to Jesus' ministry in the way they told the story of Jesus' birth. The Fourth Gospel pushes Jesus' origins back even further in time to a pre-existence with God 'in the beginning' whenever that was. This gospel reflects many decades of theological pondering on the identity and mission of Jesus. While it is not yet a fully articulated Trinitarian faith, which was expressed, in the later Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (431), this Gospel expresses belief in the divine origins of Jesus.

Exercise: 1.6.1

Read through the Prologue and divide it into sections.

Who is introduced in verse 1?

Who does John bear testimony to?

Instead of a person what image is used in these early verses (4-9)?

What are the two responses to the light?

What is meant by ‘his own’ who do not receive him?

What gift is offered to believers?

What was the earlier gift given to Israel?

What change happens in verse 14?

What change in language do you notice in verse 14?

Who are named in verse 17?

What clue is there that from verse 14 we are reading eyewitness testimony?

How does your bible translate verses 16 and 17?

Can you check a different translation and compare how it treats verses 2, 14, 16, and 17?

Background to some terms

The Word. (logos) There has been much discussion on why the evangelist chose to introduce the historical Jesus as the incarnation of the 'Word'. Some scholars saw in the reference to the ‘logos evidence of a Greek, even Gnostic source. More recent scholarship has favoured a Jewish background for this term. Judaism has a strong tradition of the prophetic Word which is a word of creation (Gen 1:1-2:4a) and a Word that always accomplishes God's will (Is 55:10-11). In later Jewish writing Creation came about through God's Wisdom (sophia) which also existed in the beginning with God and entered into history (Sirach Proverbs).

Some scholars also look to the Jewish theology found in the Targums as a possible background to explaining the term 'logos'. The Jewish Bible was first written in Hebrew and later was translated to meet the needs of communities who may have lost contact with the original Hebrew language. We know that by the first century the Hebrew bible was also available in a Greek translation, called the Septuagint (LXX). In Palestine the Bible was translated into the common language of Aramaic over many centuries. These Aramaic translations are called the Targums and they are not an exact translation, but more a translation and explanation of the original Hebrew. The term used in the Targum for 'Word' is 'Memra'.


"The Word (logos) became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us" (1:14). The Greek word, skenoo translated ‘dwelt’ can also be translated ‘tabernacled’. In the Old Testament God’s glory filled the Tabernacle (skene). The image of Jesus as the presence of God now tabernacling with us is an important theme in the Fourth Gospel.

Gift (charis) "The fullness of a gift which is true" (1:14)

"a gift instead of a gift" (1:16

"the gift which is true" (1:17)

In verses 16 and 17 two gifts are described. Many translations do not express the comparison between these two gifts well. In the reading booklet you will find an article by Ruth Edwards where she analyses the Greek expression Charin anti charitos, which is usually translated as ‘grace upon grace’ (Reading 1.4). Because the article uses some Greek terms a brief summary is presented here.

In the Epistles of Paul the Greek word charis is usually translated ‘grace’ since Paul is speaking about the free gift of a gracious God. "Grace" becomes Paul’s shorthand way of saying God’s gracious gift of love. When translators find the same Greek term charis in the Fourth Gospel, influenced by Paul, they translate this also as ‘grace’. But the term in ordinary Greek simply means a ‘gift’ and the term anti usually mean ‘instead of’. So if we read John without being influenced by Paul’s theology, verse 16 would read in ordinary Greek – a gift instead of a gift. Verse 17 then goes on to name these two gifts : the Law given through Moses and a true gift given through Jesus Christ. There is no repudiation of the gift of the Jewish Law in the Fourth Gospel. It was something of value, but now a new gift is being offered which fulfils and perfects the former gift to Israel.

Exercise 1.6.2

Read : F. Moloney, "The Gospel of John", 33-47 and the article M. Coloe, "The Structure of the Johannine Prologue and Genesis." Australian Biblical Review 45, (1997): 40-55. (Reading 1.5).

According to this reading what contrasts are being established?

Why does Moloney translate verse 1, "What God was the Word also was."

From your knowledge of the Gospel story who are 'his own who did not receive him' (v. 11)?

What promise is made to those who do receive him?

What was the first gift given to the people of Israel?

What is the 'true' gift now being given through Jesus?

Further Reading

Edwards, R. "XAPIN ANTI XAPITOG (Jn 1:16). ‘Grace and Law in the Johannine Prologue’." JSNT 32 (1998) 3-15. (Reading 1.4).

Evans, C. Word and Glory: On the Exegetical and Theological Background of John's Gospel. JSNTSup 89. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.

McNamara, M. Targum and Testament: Aramaic Paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible: A Light on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

Neusner, J. "Varieties of Judaism in the Formative Age." In Jewish Spirituality from w the Bible through the Middle Ages, ed. Arthur Green. 171-97. London: SCM, 1985.

Rightly Explaining the Word of Truth: Guidelines for Christian Clergy and Teachers in their use of the New Testament's presentation of Jews and Judaism. Kew, Vic: Council of Christians & Jews (Victoria), 1993.

Scott, M. Sophia and the Johannine Jesus. JSNTSup 71. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.

Vermes, G. Jesus and the World of Judaism. London: SCM, 1983 (Pages 74-88 discuss the Targums and the problem of dating).


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