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The Gospel of John


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Historical Background

  • 336-323 B.C.E. Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, extends his empire across the Near East, with the result that Hellenism (Greek-derived, Greek-speaking culture) becomes the dominant culture in those lands (which include the traditional habitat of the Jews, as well as a number of other religious cultures).
  • [323-40 B.C.E Judaea successively ruled by Hellenistic Greece, Syria, and Rome, with a brief interlude (ca. 140-135 B.C.E) of independence following the success of the Maccabean Revolt.]
  • ca. 200 B.C.E. the Septuagint, a translation of the Old Testament into vernacular Greek, is created, according to tradition by a collective of 70 translators (hence the name, "Septuagint," from Latin septem [seven] + -ginta (>viginti, twenty). The Septuagint was designed to help Jews who were now using Greek as their primary language to remain familiar with their sacred texts, but it had the side-effect of making Hebrew Scripture available to the Greek-speaking population at large for the first time.
  • 39 B.C.E. Herod (later the Great) declared King of Judaea by the Roman Senate.
  • 4 B.C.E. Jesus is born (according to scholarly concensus) Herod dies. His son Archelaus replaces him as ruler of Judaea.
  • 6 C.E. (="A.D.") The Emperor Augustus exiles Archelaus, replacing him with a Roman prefect. Thus, for the first time since the Maccabean Revolt 150 years earlier, Judaea is directly governed by a foreign, pagan authority instead of by a Jewish religious leader. Taxes are now paid directly to Rome (instead of being filtered through a local Jewish ruler). As a result, the power structure of the region is awkwardly divided among persons, systems, and cultures: the (pagan, Roman) Prefect lives in Caesaria (on the coast), visiting Jerusalem about 3 times a year, for festivals; the (pagan, Roman) High Priest lives in Jerusalem; the population, however, is mostly Jewish (thus it's unlikely that Jesus would have met any Romans in most of his travels).
  • 4 C.E. scholars' accepted date for the birth of Jesus
  • ca. 33 C.E. crucifixion of Jesus
  • ca. 50 C.E. letters of Paul the Apostle
  • ca. 70 C.E. Gospel of Mark
  • sometime between 70 and 100 C.E.: Gospels of Matthew and Luke
  • ca. 110 C.E. Gospel of John.

Study questions

  1. At the end of class on Tuesday, I asked you to consider further the relationship between Matthew's Gospel and the Hebrew Scriptures we read (Genesis, Exodus). In particular, I asked you to revisit the handout I gave you on "Pattern in Genesis" (click here for an online copy) and to consider the ways in which those patterns (or their inverses) also played out in the life and ministry of Jesus--as narrated by Matthew.
    Please perform the same exercises for the Gospel of John. Does it make sense to use the "Patterns in Genesis" table when discussing John's use of Hebrew scripture? In what ways are his uses of/allusions to Hebrew Scripture similar to Matthew's (in style and/or purpose), and in what way(s) are they different? How many such allusions can you identify? Is there a pattern in the way they are used (style, purpose)?

  2. As you did for the birth and youth narratives in Matthew and Luke, I'd like you to compare, thoughtfully, the Gospels of Matthew and John as you read the latter. Did you find John easier or more difficult to understand? What important differences did you notice in the way John designs his narrative (what kinds of events, speeches, symbols, and themes he focuses on; what details he actually changes (from the version in Matthew); and what he omits)? What do these reflect about John's plan for his Gospel--that is, for whom is John writing and what does he want his audience to do? What effect(s) is he striving for? What, in John's view, is the most important aspect of the Christian cult, and how does he try to deliver that aspect in his Gospel?

    Most importantly, what do you have to do to be saved, according to Matthew? According to John? How do their conceptions of salvation influence the way they shape their texts?

    In your analysis, please pay particular attention to the following passages:
    (a) the opening (first few verses) of each Gospel
    (b) the feeding of the 5 thousand (incl. walking-on-water episode): John 6, Matt. 14:13-23
    (c) the Last Supper: John 13-14; Matt. 26:20-56. Note that John dates the Supper differently from Matthew: in Matthew (and the other Synoptics), the Supper is the first Seder, or Passover meal (and the "bread" Jesus offers his disciples is therefore matzah, the unleavened bread of the Passover); in John, the meal is the last chametz meal, the last meal before the beginning of Passover. Look back at the origins of the Passover festival, Exodus 12:3-11. Why does John (and not Matthew) time the Last Supper to coincide with the previous evening?

  3. Keep a close watch on John's use of everyday objects such as water, wine, bread, fish, light. How does John transform these objects to form the basis of his symbolic vocabulary? What is special about the way he does this? (Again, thoughtful comparison with Matthew may yield some insight here.)

  4. In particular, note the extent to which the above object-symbols are culinary. I asked you to pay particular attention to the emphasis on eating and drinking in Exodus; those considerations should bear fruit here as you contemplate the same themes in John. Note carefully each instance in which eating is emphasized (with literal or figurative intent), and hypothesize about (a) the role of these references in John's symbolic system and (b) to what degree their meaning is intertextual (i.e. depends on our correlating them with another text: in this case, Exodus).

  5. Pay attention to John's use of time and space. Compare with Matthew's use. How does John's concept of the relationship between the "now" of Jesus's ministry and the "then" of history (particularly Biblical history) differ from Matthew's?

  6. When you discussed Genesis with John, I assume you gave some consideration to the issue of language (its role in both the first and second Creation stories; the story of Babel; etc.). Now, consider John's concept of (and symbolic use of) language. What parallels can you draw with the way language was treated in Genesis? In what way(s) is John's use of language (as a concept or theme) different/special?
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