GJohn as Polemic: A brief history of John studies (H&J Part 02)

Many have believed the Gospel of John stands against a backdrop of intra-Jewish community conflict.  But could the Fourth Gospel also have a relationship with early Gnosticism?  Could the gospel actually contain a carefully structured argument against Gnostic opponents or ideas current in John’s first-century environment?  Many scholars, both ancient and modern, have thought so.

In this entry I discuss the history of the idea that the Gospel of John is a polemic, specifically an anti-Gnostic polemic.  Opinions surveyed include that of Irenaeus of Lyon, J.L. Martyn, E.F. Scott, R. Bultmann, C.H. Dodd, Raymond Brown, E. Yamauchi, P. Perkins, Craig Keener, Kyle Keefer, Peder Borgen, George MacRae, Greg Riley, April DeConick, Elaine Pagels, Christopher Skinner, and more.

I also offer a way of untangling the messy business of sorting out what is potentially Gnostic and anti-Gnostic in the Fourth Gospel, a way which most John scholars have failed to consider.

H&J Part 02:


4 thoughts on “GJohn as Polemic: A brief history of John studies (H&J Part 02)

  1. Thank you for your studies on the background of the book of John. I think you are on the right track. I have long thought that the historical background was being ignored regarding this book, especially with regard to the author’s Jewishness. John was a Jew whom I think held the basic Jewish monotheism as a complete given assumption. He could write the things about Jesus in slightly mystical ways without even considering it a threat to his core monotheism.
    I also suspect that John likely wrote his original text in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and then had it translated. It is likely that there are no Hebrew/Aramaic copies ever to be found, since what he wrote was not aimed primarily toward Jews, but toward Gnostic Gentiles.
    John’s use of the “word” in John 1 is likely no different than the Hebrew way of referring to God in a similar manner of referring to the “arm of the Lord” or the “hand of God”, etc. Sadly, the non-Jewish elements converted this Hebraic thought into a Greek framework of thought and scrambled its meaning.
    I like how you bring out the facts that John goes out of his way to show that Jesus is a real flesh and blood human who did not just appear to be human, even after the resurrection. The other Gospels don’t seem to have this level of concern, likely because the authors may have not encountered the Gnostic way of thinking enough to be concerned about it.
    Just last night I read Jn. 20:17 and reflected on the fact that Jesus must have just resurrected an hour or two earlier and really thought that He was about to ascend any minute. The ascension did not happen until 40 days later.
    Thanks again.


  2. After listening to your Part 3 section, plus additional personal reflection, I should note that I stand corrected from what I stated above, that “what he wrote was not aimed primarily toward Jews.” I agree with you that it was written to both Jews and Gentiles. John goes out of his way to show the erroneous thinking of the Jewish leadership. This is important given the fact that the Jews at the time of John’s writing were still dealing with the fallout of the great slaughter of AD 70, plus the destruction of the temple, which was in part provoked by this same leadership. Jesus predicted all of this, as only seen in the book of John, and with the Samaritan woman He also noted that worship did not depend on the temple, nor even Jerusalem. Judaism was being forced to deal with their present reality, and John shows them that the solution is accepting that Jesus is the Messiah, the ultimate leader.


  3. George, thanks for your good comments. Yes, I think it is important that we do not narrow our focus too acutely in the direction of either “Judaism” or “Hellenism” in John; this may cause us to lose sight of important information. And you are correct: this was a time in which new solutions were needed to deal with new problems, e.g. the loss of the Temple, the acclimatization of Jewish-Christianity to the Hellenistic world, etc.


  4. Pingback: Dealing with Objections to GJohn as anti-Gnostic polemic (H&J Part 05) | Buried Deep

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