John: Gospel to The World?

It is often said that John is the Gospel to the world (Matthew to the Jew, Mark to the Roman, Luke to the Greek). But in 1924 Israel Abrahams said, "To us Jews, the Fourth Gospel is the most Jewish of the four!" How is that so? If it so, why do so many people tell new converts to begin reading this Gospel?

The opening remarks (1:1) of John’s Gospel are reminiscent of the Creation story in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” In fact, it is very likely that John purposely arranged his Prologue to cause the reader to reflect back upon the Creation account. Immediately, then, we see John’s purpose is to interact with Old Testament theology or Jewish philosophy generally.

John’s “Gospel manifests perhaps the sharpest polemic in the NT against the “Jews”—a polemic matched in force only by passages such as Matthew 23[1] Repeatedly, the Gospel of John refers to “the Jews” (sixty-four times) as if they were the antagonists of the church (Some suggest that neither Paul nor Luke writes with this same tone[2]). Some sources indicate that there are scholars who accuse the Gospel of John as being anti-Semitic[3]. As one reads the epistles of John (1, 2, and 3 John) one cannot help but notice the resistance and disagreement being experienced by John. 1 John 2:18 describes antichrists who have come into the world; later John identifies them as “liars” (2:2) who are denying genuine Christology. These signs should leave little doubt that much of Johannine theology is concerned with polemics and is situated in a time of theological debate.

Despite these facts we have the comments of Israel Abraham, as seen above. A better question is probably how we should interpret his comments and/or in what context were they spoken. The latter is not possible since the source is not available to me, but the former can certainly be attempted.

Israel Abraham was not a Zionist and therefore tended to have inclinations like those of Reformed Judaism. “His departure from the orthodox philosophy of Judaism was undoubtedly responsible for otherwise inexplicable errors in his exposition of some Jewish ritual practices.”[4] Therefore, from my limited perspective, it may be correct to consider the possibility that Abraham’s statements are not orthopraxis and were not intended as they are often received. Abraham’s comments probably address the generality that John’s Gospel possibly interacts with Jewish philosophy and the Old Testament more than any other Gospel and not any positive inclination toward the particular Christology that John describes.

The Gospel of John is certainly a tool for evangelism, but it serves didactical purposes equally, if not primarily. John’s disposition compels Him to declare, to all, that the person of Yahweh has come in human nature! He has revealed to us His glory in a way that Moses could not see, which Abraham could only dream, and which Jacob could only long.

The profound truths in the Johannine texts are au fait to introduce potential converts to Christianities most important character and work, but they are didactical, as well, for mature believers to understand proper Christology. John’s Gospel then is like a coin; it has two distinct sides, yet both sides share currency and significance. It seems unnecessary to even attempt to situate John’s Gospel entirely in one purpose. It is common in letter writing to cover various topics and have multiple intentions, even if embryonic, in what is being written. This is certainly plausible for the Johannine writings.

Dr. Elmer Towns notes John’s use of two key words, “believe” (98) and “life” (36). He goes on to say that “John wrote with a twofold purose—as noted in John 20:31[5]—to communicate Christ through His miracles and teachings so people might, first, believe that Jesus was indeed who He said He was, the Son of God; and second, have eternal life because of their belief”[6]

In 20:31, “there lies an ambiguity in the phrase “that you may believe,” and it is compounded by uncertainty as to whether the original text read να πιστεύσητε or να πιστεύητε; the former could suggest the making of an act of faith, the latter a continuing in faith, the former a missionary purpose, the latter an instructional or parenetic purpose, the former that the Gospel was directed to outsiders, the latter that it was directed to those within the Church. Whether in reality such distinctions can be justly maintained on the basis of the difference between an aorist and a present subjunctive is dubious; nevertheless, the majority of recent scholars incline to the latter view.”[7]

[1] Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Editors:, Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. Copyright © 1992 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A, InterVarsity Press

[2] Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. Editors: Martin, Ralph P., and Peter H. Davids. Copyright © 1997 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA®. InterVarsity Press

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.bookrags.com/biography/israel-abrahams/

[5]but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31 NKJV)

[6] The Gospel of John: Believe and Live by Dr. Elmer Towns. Copyright © 2002 by Tyndale Theological Seminary

[7]Beasley-Murray, G. R. (2002). Vol. 36: Word Biblical Commentary : John. Word Biblical Commentary (lxxxviii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.


Ryan said...

Excellent presentation of the topic.

Lourie and said...

Are you by any chance a Liberty University student. I am just wondering by your reference to Dr. Towns and his book "John, Believe and Live". If so, where did you locate your info on Israel Abrahams??
Could use your help.
Thanks and GOD Bless

James Anderson said...

Yes, I am. Dr. Towns is a great professor. I have been blessed to study under him and Dr. Habermas.

I listed my sources after the article. Feel free to take another look. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Christianities ????????

Daniel and Michal said...

Dr. Towns is a wonderful teacher. I happen to be in his Bible 323 class, The Gospel of John. I actually just started.
Thank you for the help!

Adversus Trinitas

"...unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." (John 8:24 ESV)