Gospel of John: Background


The Gospel of John was looked at with suspicion for a long period of time on account of the apparent gnostic and Hellenistic background. Very often, from parallelism conclusion was drawn on dependence. There are similarities between Johannine language and gnostic language. Gnosticism has its etymological origin in Greek “gnosis,” which means “knowledge”. It was a dualistic current of thought widely diffused throughout the Mediterranean zone during the first and second centuries. Several of the gnostic systems feature a redeemer who descends from above in order to impart knowledge to an elite circle of intimates, thereby ensuring their salvation.

The evangelist of the Gospel of John presents Jesus as one who reveals the Father (God). Jesus presents his relationship with the Father with the root “know” (Jn 10: 15). However, could Gospel of John have come from the gnostic world vision?

First of all, systematic gnostic thought postdates the Gospel of John. So gnostic ideas in its preliminary form might have been part of the culture of Johannine time and the traces of that unconscious and non-systematic influence may be found in the Gospel of John. Moreover, in the Gospel of John salvation is attained not through knowledge but through faith in Jesus, the incarnate logos. It implies a relationship with Jesus on the personal level. Further, Gospel of John emphasizes positively incarnate historical existence of Jesus (Jn 1: 14, the Word became flesh…). It goes against the trend of Gnosticism that the material, physical world is bad.

The same arguments are valid also for the Greek philosophical background proposed for the Gospel of John on the basis of the use of logos in the prologue. It is true, that the Gospel of John uses a vocabulary that belongs to Greek Philosophy. But, are the implications of the words Greek-Philosophical? We must be aware of the fact that Jewish culture was very much influenced by Hellenistic culture. The usage of Greek words, without losing the Jewish implications was part of this influence. The studies today have shown that gnosis (knowledge), although a Greek word, has typical Old Testament and Jewish semantic content in terms of personal relationship than logical or intellectual ideas. The logos (word) used in the prologue can be understood only in the Old Testament and Jewish background.

Now positively, the background of the Gospel of John is Jewish and the Old Testament. Without this background, one cannot really understand the meaning of the Gospel of John. We have already explained the importance of Jewish feasts as the background of the teachings of Jesus.

Further Jewish and Old Testament background may be noted on three levels. They are:

i. The references to the personalities and characters of the Old Testament: Abraham (Jn 8: 56); Jacob (Jn 4: 5-12); Joseph (Jn 4: 5); Moses (Jn 5 – 6).

ii. The themes and symbols from the Old Testament: light, darkness, glory, truth, tent, Manna, wine, covenant, temple, water, Sabbath, etc. For an example: John 1: 14, reads: “the word became flesh and lived among us… And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth”. Without understanding the Old Testament theme of Exodus and its background, this verse cannot be completely interpreted.

iii. Citations from the Old Testament and many allusions (the allusions are indirect references to Old Testament texts, themes, symbols, events, and persons). They are abundant in the Gospel of John. There are 19 Old Testament citations in the Gospel of John and 14 of them have no parallels in the Synoptic tradition.

What do you think?