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John's Gospel

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated: 
Monday November 01, 2004

Eyewitness Claim

Are there any internal, meta-gospel statements that describe for us how we are to understand this work?  There do, indeed, appear to be two direct claims in John's Gospel that this material includes eyewitness reportage about events which really transpired.

End of Chapter 20

In the gospel of Luke, the prologue obviously appears to function as a statement of purpose.  John's prologue starts, not with such a statement, but with the Logos narrative.  However, at the end of chapter 20, he concludes:

"Jesus did many other signs also in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God."  (20.30-31)

This appears to many scholars to be the ending of an original work, with chapter 21 added on.  John seems to sum up here with a statement of purpose.  He could have said a number of things which explicitly supported a metaphorical understanding of the work, but he didn't.  Instead he indicates two things:  (1) The stories presented here are "signs" that were done in the presence of the disciples, who function as eyewitnesses to the events; (2)  The reason for writing these accounts is that the reader might believe the truth of the Jesus Claims.  They are evidence for the deity of Christ.

End of the Gospel

The actual ending of the Fourth Gospel is a direct meta-gospel declaration.  

"This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.   Jesus did many other things as well.   If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."  (21.23-25)

The point clearly seems to be that one of Jesus' twelve disciples wrote down "these things" as his eyewitness testimony.  This statement is followed by further testimony:  Some set of people ("We") who knew this disciple bears witness that these things did take place (or alternately, that they were penned by the disciple in question).

The commentators seem to agree that a real connection with eyewitness testimony is being asserted here. 

The sentence plainly emphasizes the signal importance both of what the soldiers refrained from doing and of what they did.  An eyewitness guarantees the truth of what has just been stated:  it is simplest to view him as the person referred to as 'that one' (but often simply 'he').  ... Most exegetes have considered 21:24 to be an editorial addition to chap. 21, and viewed it as the earliest attestation of authorship, or at least the source of, this Gospel.  There is a growing consensus that v 35 comes from the same editorial hand, and that it was inserted as a recollection of the Beloved Disiple's witness to this event, thereby underlining its importance (and his).  (Word 354)

Who are 'We'?  Who is the 'disciple'?  One commentary draws a distinction between the beloved disciples' eyewitness testimony and the actual written Fourth Gospel.

First, one must examine the relationship between the expressions 'who is testifying to these things' and 'has written them.'  ... As the verse is constructed, the reference to writing is given as corroboration of the beloved disciple's witness.  That is, the beloved disciple is pivotal to the community, not merely because he provides the oral testimony of an eyewitness, but because his testimony has found its way into the written form of this Gospel.  By corroborating the beloved disciple's witness, v. 24a stresses the connection between this Gospel and the beloved disciple's witness, while at the same time seeming to attribute the actual authorship of this Gospel to someone other than the beloved disciple himself.  John 21:24 thus has the same function as 19:35:  to point to the beloved disciple as the source of the traditions about Jesus that are interpreted in the Gospel.  (New 863)

Jerome concurs that the disciple's 'writing it down' does not necessarily mean personally,

It is this same disciples who is the witness for these things:  It is the beloved disciple who is the author of the foregoing Gospel.  It is he who wrote these things:  The question of actual literary composition of the Gospel is, of course, not solved by this attestation; just as 19:19 says, literally, that 'Pilate wrote a title', when the sense is that he was responsible for its being written, so here. (Jerome 466)

It does seem a stretch to deny that 'writing it down' means that he personally wrote it down - the comparison with Pilate is inexact because of context.  It appears to be the point of the passage that the disciple himself wrote it down.  However, for our purposes, it is enough if the Gospel writer is simply claiming to be faithfully recording the content of eyewitness testimony about what happened.  It's not even important (here) whether the author got it right!  The important thing is the explicit claim - The disciples really witnessed (many of) Jesus' works, and the 'beloved disciple' (whoever that might be) gave his testimony, encapsulated in the gospel account.  Even, per Jerome,

[20.30-31]  The meaning of these signs.  It is on this note that John concludes his Gospel.  He says, in effect:  The first disciples believed, seeing Christ's visible presence; but you, who have not seen it, yet have as much reason to believe.  You have the eyewitness testimony of this Gospel, and you have in the living presence of the Church the 'signs' that have been pointed out here ...  (Jerome 464)

Objections and Answers

There are two possible objections:  (1) 'so that you may believe' refers a spiritual 'faith' rather than a knowledge about, or belief in, matters of fact; (2) These are later scribal insertions, not part of the original gospel.

1.  Spiritual Faith Engendered

This interpretation was already encountered and discussed in the section on Luke's prologue.   This approach relies on two possible ambiguities.

It is contended, in reference to 2 Peter, that 'eyewitness' may refer to 'spiritual initiate', rather than bearing the common sense.

It means 'observer, spectator' ... The term was also used technically for the higher grade of initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries, evidently as those who had seen the vision of the divine mysteries.  Most commentators think that this technical usage is echoed in 2 Peter.  (Word 215)

Some commentators, as mentioned in the discussion about Luke, interpret 'belief' and 'faith' as referring to a spiritual faith in opposition to factual belief.

Answer.  First, I did not see in any of the commentaries on this passage, especially in Word, any indication that 'eyewitness' meant anything other than a person who had physically watched something transpire (see above).  Second, in this same commentary, the question about the meaning of 'believe' had more to do with whether it implied 'come to believe' or 'continue to believe, even more strongly.'

'These have been written that you may believe" ... But in what sense?  ... Strictly speaking, the former should indicate making an act of faith putting one's trust in Jesus as the Messiah, etc; the latter, a continuing to hold the faith already reposed in Jesus.  (Word 387, emphasis theirs)

Third, the referent of that belief is 'that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God', which we will try to flesh out below.

2.  Later Scribal Insertion

This is an approach already seen with Luke and Matthew.  It is possible that every narrative comment comes from a later scribal insertion.

Answer.  I would point the reader to answers given in the Matthew section.  In addition, it is interesting to note that, in John, the narrator's presence seems to be experienced throughout the story, therefore if it is to be accounted for on the basis of scribal insertion, it is a rather large set of additions.

First, the intrusion of the narrator's voice directly into the storytelling (vv. 30-31) is not unusual in the Fourth Gospel; indeed, it is one of the distinctive traits of the Fourth Evangelist's narrative style. ... the narrator comments on the source and veracity of the testimony in 19:34.  The narrator's words in 20:30-31 belong to this same category of interpretive comment; the Fourth Evangelist interrupts the flow of the narrative to ensure that the reader grasps the significance of what has just been recounted.  (New 851)

Be that as it may, the standard interpretation is not to see this as coming from a mid-second century scribe, but to as belonging to the beloved disciple's close followers (if not to John himself in many places).  However, if this is the case, the prima facie meaning is not diminished or changed in the least.  Why is that?  Because the secondary source is backing up, certifying, testifying to the factual validity of the stories and claims in John.

Deity and Resurrection


It is certainly clear that the resurrection of Jesus is described as a physical one:  Jesus is buried; the stone is rolled away and grave clothes lying to the side, the tomb is empty; appearances to the disciples culminate in Thomas' confession.  But this is all part of the story itself.  Certainly, within the story these are the things that took place.  But does the author really intend to tell us that Jesus got up and walked out of his tomb?

The closest thing to a clear meta-gospel statement about this is the close proximity of the resurrection accounts with the eyewitness claims quoted above.  If we agree with the reasoning above, then, surely, the empty tomb and appearances are part of the narrative attested to.  In fact, they are the culmination of the "signs" done "in the presence of His disciples."  The writer can hardly, in this context, mean that all the stories except the resurrection are to be taken factually.


It is common knowledge that John's gospel emphasizes the deity claim in the clearest and most persistent manner of the four gospels.  Jesus is not, within this story, a mere human who is spiritually in tune with God.  He is the Logos Himself, emptying himself and coming to earth to dwell temporarily as a human being.  Again, within the story, the deity of Jesus comes together with the resurrection in Thomas' famous "My Lord and My God."  Although we are clued in, as readers, from the first, we also see a development of Jesus' self-disclosure to his disciples.

It is obvious that "Son" is a metaphor.  Even given the virgin birth, by which Jesus is quite literally the "son" of God, he is not the Son of God in exactly the same way that I am the son of my father.  Calling him the Logos rounds out the image, but only by using another metaphor.  And so, it's clear from even the most orthodox perspective that metaphor is at work here. 

But, for John, is there a Fact behind this metaphor?  Is he serious about his contention that Jesus pre-existed, was God's agent in creating the world, deserves true worship, etc.?  We are stuck within the story, like Wittgenstein's fly in the bottle.  Once again, we must look for meta-gospel clues.  And once again, the short Statement of Purpose - examined above - is telling:

"Jesus did many other signs also in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God."  (20.30-31)

This takes us out of the story, out of the bottle.  And outside the story, we are presented with the meta-gospel claim that Jesus is the Son of God.  It seems to me that this gives us warrant to interpret "Son of God" by means of the explanations provided in the prologue:  "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us."

The Prologue and John the Baptist

The next point is a very indirect point, but one that seems interesting and fruitful to me.  I have always thought it odd that the Logos-oriented prologue should be interrupted by short statements about John the Baptist.  It interrupts the flow of thought and jerks us away from the lofty imagery.  In fact, this has led some commentators to think that the John the Baptist phrases are later, rather clumsy interpolations within an earlier poetic hymn.

Recently it occurred to me that perhaps the author did this on purpose:  the purpose being to precisely anchor the "Word became flesh" in history.  John the Baptist was undeniably a real person, in fact a rather famous prophet figure.  The writer intertwines his lofty expression with the dirt-and-grit of the Baptist.  He not only uses a historical figure, but he makes John the Baptist's purpose in life to prepare the way for, and bear witness to, Jesus.


I am struck by the fact of the explicit claim in the narrative that it is based not only on eyewitness accounts, but on the personal experiences of Jesus' "beloved disciple."  This claim may be true or it may be false, but it is a claim.  It is a striking case of exactly the kind of meta-gospel statement we are trying to find.