Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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9. John


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say about the historical circumstances underlying John’s Gospel, including what can be known of the book’s author, audience, sources, and date of composition.
  • identify distinctive literary features and theological perspectives that mark John’s Gospel as different from the other New Testament Gospels.
  • explicate the Johannine theme of Jesus as one who makes God known and as one who can actually be identified as God.
  • explain the distinctive Johannine understanding of Jesus’s death as his glorification and of salvation as abundant/eternal life.
  • describe John’s vision of the Christian life as a relational experience of loving Jesus and one another while abiding in Christ and receiving the help of the spiritual Paraclete.
  • describe John’s vision of the world as a hostile environment for believers and indicate how John’s treatment of “the Jews” has proved problematic for some Christians.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Comparative Chart

A helpful exercise after reading all four (or even simply focusing on two) Gospels is to create a comparison/contrast chart so that students can quickly see some of the differences in the Gospels that they have been reading about. This can be done in class as a group exercise or even as a homework assignment that is then used for the basis of a short class discussion. Some basic points of comparison in the chart are: community situation, place, author, time of writing, process of writing and sources used, purpose, themes, key passage. Have students create a grid-chart and fill in the information.


In this exercise students create their own quick visual reference for comparing and contrasting the four Gospels. This chart can then serve as a study guide or for reference in in-class discussions. By creating the chart themselves, students have processed the information one more time in analytical fashion.

2. Word, Wisdom, Christ

Initiate a discussion of the prologue (John 1:1–18) by reading it with the class in relation to Genesis 1:1–2:4a and Proverbs 8. John uses and adapts the imagery of these two passages. Various themes and echoes arise in comparing the prologue with the two creation passages that illumine the way John connects Jesus to the figure of divine wisdom, God’s power in speech that creates everything through word, the motifs of light and darkness, and even the incarnation of God’s self in human form. This exercise of reading and observing works well in an inductive format. Ask students what echoes they hear from Genesis in Proverbs and in John, then from Proverbs in John. What imagery is similar (e.g., light and darkness) and how does John change the use of the imagery (e.g., in Genesis there is no value assigned to light or dark, in John 1 light is good and darkness evil)? How does Jesus compare to the figure of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs? What is the role of speech in all three passages? Why might words be so important; what power do speech and language have in human society?


These three passages offer an easy way for students to see the interplay of Jewish texts in the first-century mind. That is, John interprets Jewish traditions to explain and describe Jesus. Students can discover this for themselves by identifying the echoes and parallels between the three texts. The instructor can take the discussion and observation to another level—how John changes the value of the imagery of light and darkness—thereby adding another dimension to students’ analyses.

3. Telling, Showing, Being

According to John, Jesus is the true revelation of God (text pp. 184–85). Powell argues that Jesus “tells, shows, and is” God in this Gospel. Ask students to identify and analyze a favorite passage in small groups (3–4 students) by examining the ways in which Jesus “tells, shows, and is” God in that passage. Does Jesus always do all three in each passage? How does he tell, show, and reveal God? Are there recurring themes or motifs that students can identify (e.g., “I am” statements or “living” elements such as water, bread, the vine). How are these literary, theological, and rhetorical elements different from the portrayal of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels?


This is another inductive analysis of the text, working from a short (student selected) passage in small groups to more general themes in class discussion. In part, students are learning to work together as they discuss a passage and to depend on one another as a learning group. Additionally, students can identify the differences between Synoptic portrayals of Jesus and the Johannine portrayal. Finally, the instructor can begin a discussion about rhetorical presentation; that is, how the form of the writing (telling, showing, being/revealing) functions to convey who Jesus is: God.

4. Anti-Semitism in the Gospel?

It is important to address the question of anti-Semitism in the fourth Gospel. To initiate a discussion of this question, begin with a definition of anti-Semitism on the board. It may also be helpful to present the rhetorical use of polemic and the defensive posture that can arise in a community that feels itself and its core identity to be under attack. Powell discusses this historical background to the setting of John on pages 189–91. Next, examine some of the key passages and invite students to see the ways that the motif of conflict, the ambiguous use of “the Jews” and the seemingly incongruent command to “love one another” (text p. 191) function in the Gospel. What problems arise when modern-day readers hear these passages? How might (or has—if students are researching the topic) the Gospel of John been used to incite Christians against Jews today? In the last one hundred years?


In many Christian writings over the past two thousand years, polemic against Jews and Judaism has had deep roots. This written and oral polemic has, unfortunately, been accompanied by political discrimination and oftentimes vicious persecution—even genocide. It is important, therefore, to read the polemical language about “Jews” and “Judaism” in New Testament Christianity with careful attention to historical context and to contemporary uses. Students should understand first how to set New Testament Christian polemic in the context of a sibling rivalry, voiced by the minority group. Second, students should be able to think about how the dynamic of the language changes when the sociopolitical power shifts.

5. Misunderstanding

To begin a discussion of what Powell calls the literary motif of misunderstanding (text pp. 183–84), have students analyze the structure of three conversations between Jesus and specific people: the woman at the well (John 4:1–42), Nicodemus (3:1–21), and the crowd/“the Jews” (6:22–59). This exercise requires more subtle reading and may take some direct prompts, or even a “walk-through” with the entire class, to analyze the conversation with the woman at the well. The goal is to help students see four things. First, the woman and Jesus are talking past each other. One asks a question, the other doesn’t respond but speaks of something else. This is not the normal rhythm of conversation. In addition, Jesus uses the word “water” as a metaphor for life and the woman uses the word “water” to refer to wet stuff at the bottom of a well. They are not talking about the same thing—or are they? These elements are the key in the “misunderstanding.” Second, Jesus begins the conversation with a stated request—stated, perhaps, because Jesus is not the one who needs something from the woman; rather, she needs to ask him for something. Jesus then steers the conversation to the point where the woman will ask him for water. Third, over the course of the conversation Jesus speaks for longer and longer periods of time until he finally speaks the words of revelation “I am” (cf. God’s self-revelation to Moses in the burning bush in Exod. 3:6). Fourth, the woman “testifies” to Jesus and her testimony leads to the belief of others in her town. “Testimony” or witness is a central theme in the Gospel of John.

One could structure that conversation this way:

First Round of Conversation: Questions without Answers

  • Jesus tells the woman to give him a drink
  • The woman asks a question
  • Jesus doesn’t answer the question but speaks of living water
  • The woman asks a question
  • Jesus doesn’t answer the question but speaks of eternal life
  • The woman tells Jesus to give her this water/life

Second Round of Conversation: Drawing Closer to the Right Questions

  • Jesus responds with an unrelated command
  • The woman answers
  • Jesus reveals his knowledge of her
  • She observes he is a “prophet”
  • Jesus gives a short speech on worship, salvation, and truth
  • The woman speaks of the Messiah
  • Jesus reveals himself and says “I am” (4:26)

Third Round of Conversation: Having Received the Right Answer from Jesus, the Woman Now Asks the Right Question

  • The woman goes and tells her town about Jesus with a question: “Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29)
  • Many people believe her testimony and confess Jesus (4:39)

When looking at Nicodemus’s story, ask students whether Nicodemus becomes a witness. The story itself is ambiguous. Note that Nicodemus never quite comes out of the “darkness.” What evidence do students use from the text to support their argument?


This is an exercise in “seeing” patterns in the narrative that illustrate the theological core of the Gospel. The first step is to identify “episodes” in the conversation or even levels of conversation. Students may observe that the woman asks questions and Jesus doesn’t answer (hence the title for the first round of conversation). Next, students may observe that the woman has stopped asking questions and is now engaged in conversation with Jesus, conversation which he appears to be guiding. Students may observe that Jesus ends the conversation with divine revelation, “I am.” He states this in response to what the woman has said. But her “correct” question doesn’t come until the third round of conversation when she has become a “witness” to Jesus and moves out to testify. Now she asks, “Could this be the Messiah?” and her phrasing in Greek anticipates an answer in the affirmative. Help students to see that as Jesus has led the woman to ask the right question and to hear the revelation of God (drink the living water) so, too, has John led the readers through a set of conversations that draw them deeper into the revelation of Jesus as God. John has also, by the woman’s example, pointed the readers to the next step: witnessing to the world. By working carefully through the text in this story, you have shown students to “see” new levels. First, patterns in the narrative often show what the narrator is saying. Second, the Gospel functions on two levels—that of the characters and that of the readers. Sometimes what is happening to the characters is also happening to the readers. Third, when students examine the rest of the people Jesus encounters, they may find that the Gospel of John is a series of conversations that reveal Jesus to various people in various ways but following the same pattern. In other words, the pattern of individual conversations imitates the larger narrative pattern of spiraling in toward the bull’s-eye: the “I am” of Jesus’s divine revelation.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Powell opens the chapter on John with a few quotes from important readers of this Gospel living in the second to the sixteenth centuries. Many of them refer to John as a “spiritual” Gospel. What does this mean? What evidence for a spiritual understanding of Jesus and community do you see in the Gospel itself? Are there also passages that portray a “material” portrait of Jesus or material concerns of the author and first-century community (e.g., dealing with concrete, physical, and bodily realities)? How might these two aspects of the Gospel fit together in early Christian understanding of Jesus?
  2. Who is the beloved disciple? How have scholars tried to understand this figure? Look at the passages in John that present both Peter and the beloved disciple (see text box 9.3). Do you see evidence here for competitive traditions in early Christianity represented by two different leaders?
  3. What are some of the problems and (unresolved) questions associated with the authorship and writing of John? How do these questions relate to the process of New Testament writing, editing, collecting, and canonization that we have read about in chapter 3?
  4. How is salvation portrayed in John’s Gospel (text pp. 187–88)? An important part of leading this discussion will be to help students articulate their own understandings of salvation (those understandings they have absorbed from church, synagogue, mosque, pop culture, family tradition, Christian evangelists, friends, etc.) from John’s presentation of Jesus. One way to do this during the discussion is to prep students. First, ask students to write their ideas of salvation on a notebook page for 3–5 minutes. Then ask them to find and write down evidence for John’s portrayal of salvation for another 5–10 minutes. When they are finished, begin the discussion using concrete passages to better understand John.
  5. Chapter 9 in John encapsulates many themes in the entire Gospel and thus can be a quick way to bring these themes to the fore. Ask students to read the passage carefully and then initiate a discussion of the structure, responses to Jesus, conflict, healing, salvation, seeing, believing, John’s readers, Jews, and so on. How does Jesus reveal God in this passage? What misunderstandings arise in conversations? Who is Jesus? Why is the (former) blind man expelled from the synagogue? What might this tell us about the experience of John’s audience?