I have a few posts I want to do that will take a good deal more work than I'm willing to do right now, so I'm resorting to the old "repost something written a while ago" trick. I have lots of stuff from my old website that I'd eventually like to get transferred over here, so I might be doing this again the next time I feel the urge not to come up with anything new. I originally wrote the basis of this post for a listserv discussion whose context I don't remember, and I sent the message on 23 April 2001. I revised it on 20 January, 2003 and posted it to my website. I haven't changed any of the substance this time around, though I have reformatted it a bit and added links to the scriptures referenced. [I'm struck by how different my writing sounds after three years, not just in terms of readability (which I think has improved a lot) but even vocabulary. Remember this phenomenon for when I talk about Pauline authorship of the later letters attributed to him, often declared to be in a style incompatible with being his work.]
Some people claim that the gospel of John is a much later retelling of the story of Jesus� life that is only loosely connected to the actual life of Jesus of Nazareth. The arguments for this view often beg the question, but I�m less concerned in this writing with refuting the reasons for thinking this (negative reasons against the arguments) and more with positive reasons to resist this view. This gospel seems to assume the other gospels at many points, and that explains much of the differences, which fits quite well with the view that John was written to expand and explain much of what just appears in the other gospels. This often involves leaving out details that the reader would already be familiar with, and it usually also involves fuller accounts of the meaning and explanation behind some basic themes about Jesus� identity and mission. This fits nicely with the traditional authorship of the apostle John, writing significantly later than the other gospels to expand on them regarding things they don�t cover or explain fully or things whose theological punch they don�t develop. This is so obvious to someone open to the traditional view that one must wonder how anyone can ignore this point without ignoring much of the gospel of John.
One key theme throughout the book is truth. How can the author focus so much on truth while hypocritically fabricating so much of the contents of the book? The kind of hypocrisy this view would require of the author doesn�t fit too well with the incredible moral fiber of the author of this book. Consider some examples.
The book starts with a description of what might be called "the continuity of Christian truth" (I believe D.A. Carson's term). John 1:14-18 discusses this one called Jesus, full of grace and truth. John testified about him, declaring his fulfillment of prophecy from past speakers of truth. The law was given through Moses, and grace and truth are now realized through Jesus Christ, and since no one has seen the Father, this only begotten God �- this Jesus Christ �- is the only one who is revealing God. He has explained him. This places Jesus in a long line of truth-speakers, placing truth as crucial to the book from the outset.
The book ends with a comment about the contents of the book:
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are many other things, which if they were written in detail I suppose that even the world would not contain the books that would be written. �- John 21:24-25
The purpose of preparing disciples to be witnesses to the truth is a central theme (e.g. John 15:26-27; 16:12-15). The truth of the contents of the book is of utmost concern to the writer, and the testimony to these things from the disciple whom Jesus loved is crucial for the writer (whether the writer is that disciple or not). John 10:40-42 shows the importance (to the writer) of witnesses to events in a specific setting.
Lots of people claim that they can trace development of theology from the earlier writings of the New Testament to the later ones such as John. According to the more extreme examples of this sort of view, that would make the gospel of John rife with new themes and theological claims that don�t appear in the earlier New Testament writings. The author of John is well aware of a growth in theological reflection and understanding throughout the first century. On one level, some kind of development of theology is acknowledged within all the gospels. Mark especially notes that the disciples did not understand things, and their understanding took time. John emphasizes quite strongly exactly the same thing. Jesus points out that the Spirit would lead his disciples into all truth. This is clearly portrayed in the book not as innovations in theology but a development in understanding, which requires that at least seeds of the truth were available all along.
So when he was raised from the dead his disciples remembered that he said this, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. �- John 2:22
For as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise again from the dead. �- John 20:9
Those are only two examples. Much of Jesus� final discourse to his disciples in chapters 14-17 and much of the preceding encounters with Jewish leaders can provide similar examples.
John the writer didn�t just acknowledge this distinction between what the disciples (including, most likely him as John the apostle, in my view) understood at the time and what they took a longer time to come to understand. He emphasized this distinction. This indicates that he is being quite careful to avoid anachronism. He makes all these asides about what the disciples didn't understand at the time (but had available to them in that Jesus was talking about it in a not-so-plain way). This makes the distinction quite plain. Then it seems strange to suppose that so much of this gospel is just plain made up. His whole point is that it took time for the disciples to come to understand much of what Jesus did and taught (and perhaps even much of how he went about these endeavors). If he painstakingly notes as asides what wasn't known at the time, why think most of the book was made up and not available at the time?
This explains (rather than undermines) the whole point of John's gospel. Mark and the other synoptics were written at a time when the disciples hadn't arrived at as much of an understanding of lots of Jesus' actions and teachings. John wrote a gospel a bit later to add to the account, given a fuller understanding.
This point is stregthened by the numerous other features of Mark (or the other synoptics) that get explained if John is historically reliable. For example, three items in Mark seem odd alone but are explained by John's treatment of an extensive ministry in Galilee not mentioned in the synoptics. Mark 14:49 speaks of Jesus' constant teaching in the temple but doesn't ever explain when that was. Mk 10:32 reports that the disciples were fearful of their journey southward. If Jesus had had no contact with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, just the fact of heading south shouldn't seem so fearsome. Then the ease of securing the colt (Mk 11:1-7) and upper room (Mk 14:12-16) get explained if Jesus had contacts in the Jerusalem area. Mark doesn't explain any of these things. John's treatment of the Jerusalem ministry would provide the missing explanation.
John 2:19 is a claim by Jesus, found only in John, regarding the destruction of the temple. Mark 14:58 and 15:29 assume this statement. Mark gives no reason why Jesus needed to be brought to Pilate. John does (18:31). Mark shows Peter in the courtyard of the high priest (14:54, 66-72) but doesn't explain how he got there. John explains it (18:15-18). The call of the disciples in Mark 4:18-22 seems very mysterious, with these guys seemingly following for no reason. It makes much more sense historically if Jesus knew them first, and they knew much of him, as John 1 explains.
Additionally, there's the point that John's developed Christology is by no means too late a development in early Christianity, since the closest parallels are in Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, passages many scholars (especially the most liberal ones) take to be older hymns from early Christianity adopted by Paul in his letters. I think it may well be that they are hymns adopted for later use by Paul, though that doesn't mean he didn't write the originals. Either way, the writer of John is clearly in touch with the wider church, and if the liberal scholars are right about those two passages then John's Christology is not that late at all.