Criswell Theological Review 3.1 (1988) 17-29.
Copyright © 1988 by The
I. Fluctuating Perspectives on John
Depending on the story-teller, the development of modern biblical
scholarship can appear unbearably dull or altogether engrossing. It
would take some effort, however, to review the vicissitudes of the
Gospel of John during the past two centuries without succumbing to
the fascination of this subject.
Consider the question of historical value. How does one account
for the fact that, while at the beginning of the 19th century the Fourth
Gospel was almost universally regarded as the most valuable source
for the life of Jesus, few critics by the end of the century thought that
it provided any significant historical information at all? And what has
caused scholars in the 20th century to move in a more conservative
direction, so that it is no longer disreputable to argue that this docu-
ment contains some amount of independent, reliable material?
Or take the related issue of date of composition. The traditional
view that the Gospel was written toward the end of the 1st century
gave way to a remarkable theory that pushed the date well into the
middle of the 2nd century. The well-known discovery in 1933 of the
Rylands Fragment (papyrus 52, containing only a few verses from
John 18), which can be dated firmly no later than A.D. 135, seemed
magically to restore the Gospel to its traditional setting. Yet more
recent research has suggested, to at least one prominent scholar, that a
* A few portions of this article (especially the first section) are reproduced from
"The Present State of Johannine Studies," to appear in a future volume of The New
Testament Student (ed. J. H. Skilton;
18 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
date prior to A.D. 70 is reasonable, and that therefore the Gospel of
John may well be as ancient as Mark!1
And what does one do with the wild divergences that have
characterized modern explanations regarding the origin of this docu-
ment? The old and straightforward view that the Apostle John, as
eyewitness of the events, composed it in
his life was displaced by attempts to attribute the work to a non-
Palestinian, Hellenistic author deeply influenced by gnostic thought.2
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls showed that many features
used as evidence for a Hellenistic background did not at all contradict
a Palestinian setting, and alternate theories have surfaced in the last
several decades. Particularly influential has been the attempt to see
the Fourth Gospel as the product of a 1st-century Christian commun-
ity, somehow or other related to the Apostle John perhaps, though
this theory comes in many variations.
The controversy does not end here. Did the author (or redactor?)
use the other Gospels for some of his material or was his composition
quite independent of the synoptic tradition? Was his work character-
ized by bringing together earlier sources or by composing an original,
unified document? Did he address unbelievers in order to evangelize
them or did he rather have in mind strengthening the faith of those
who already believed? Did he emphasize the miracles of Christ as
signs that lead to faith or as obstacles on the way to faith? The issues
appear to continue on indefinitely.
As far as the ancient church was concerned, the answers to most
of these questions were not in doubt, and while we are under no
obligation--historical or theological--to accept the views of 2nd-
century believers, it would be foolhardy to ignore the evidential value
afforded by certain aspects of that consensus. In short, one must
recognize that the external evidence attesting to the authorship of
John is ancient, clear, and explicit. Even in the midst of serious
debates in the early church, no real evidence can be found for some-
one other than John the Apostle having written it.
Irenaeus, for example, begins his discussion of the origins of this
Gospel (in a passage where he argues that it was written to combat
Cerinthus and his heresy) with a straight reference to John, that is,
1 See J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM, 1976) chap
9. On p. 307 he suggests that a primitive form of the Gospel of John had taken shape in
year 55, and that it was given final form in the late 60s. In a posthumously published
Priority of John (ed. J. F. Coakly;
these ideas more fully.
2 This approach can best be seen in R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Com-
mentary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971 [orig. 1950]). See further below.
Silva: APPROACHING THE FOURTH GOSPEL 19
without attempting to defend that view or even suggesting that it was
disputed by anyone.3 Roughly contemporary, but proceeding from a
very different geographical setting (and thus providing broad and
independent testimony), is Clement of Alexandria's comment that
"last of all John, aware that the external facts [ta> swmatika<] had been
made plain in the [synoptic] Gospels, was urged by friends and
inspired by the Spirit to compose a spiritual Gospel."4
Other early quotations could be adduced, all of which point in
the same direction. For most scholars of antiquity, the uniform
character of such early testimony could not be set aside except by
alternate evidence of the most persuasive sort; curiously, mainstream
biblical scholars tend to place much less confidence on the weight of
external data than do their colleagues in classical scholarship.5 True,
the 2nd-century testimony for the authorship of John is not consistent
in every respect--one of the key quotations contains a puzzling
ambiguity.6 But the appeal to these variable elements misses the
central point: the ancient church does not appear to have debated the
issue of Johannine authorship. Considering especially the theological
divisiveness that centered on the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel,
the question must be asked why we find no attempts to defend the
Johannine authorship of this book against specific attacks. The only
viable answer is that by the middle of 2nd century John's authorship
was universally recognized: there was no competing figure and no
Throughout the centuries, therefore, it was taken for granted that
the Fourth Gospel had special value not only as a theological docu-
ment but also as a historical source for the life and teachings of
3 lrenaeus, Against Heresies 3.11: This section contains his well-known analogy of
the Gospels (four corners of the earth, four winds, four living creatures, and four
covenants), which does reflect some kind of theological controversy, but not with
regard to authorship.
4 Quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.7. Elsewhere (3.24.7-8, LCC
translation) Eusebius reports: "John, it is said, used all the time a message which was
not written down, and at last took to writing for the following cause. The three gospels
which had been written down before were distributed to all including himself; it is said
that he welcomed them and testified to their truth but said that there was only lacking
to the narrative the account of what was done by Christ at first and at the beginning of
the preaching. The story is surely true."
5 Cf. G. Kennedy, "Classical and Christian Source Criticism," The Relationship
among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (ed. W. W. Walker, Jr.;
6 In particular, the earliest witness (that of Papias, quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesi-
astical History 3.39.3-4) can, but need not, be interpreted as making a distinction
between John the Apostle and another John. See especially the analysis by R. H.
Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and
Theological Art (
Eerdmans, 1982) 611-16.
20 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Jesus--a work written by an eyewitness to supplement the synoptics.
In modern times isolated arguments against the Gospel's authenticity
began to appear, and most of these were collected in 1820 by a
certain K. G. (C. Th.) Bretschneider, though with little effect, since
F. Schleiermacher's heavy dependence on John proved quite influen-
tial. The work of D. F. Strauss, however, dealt a heavy blow to the
Gospel's credibility, and this new viewpoint was thought to be con-
firmed by the Marcan hypothesis of synoptic origins.7 By the end of
the century, it was commonly assumed that the Fourth Gospel could
not have been written by an apostle or by an eyewitness at all, and
the rise of the History of Religions school further encouraged many
scholars to attribute the Gospel's composition to an unknown theo-
logian who lived in the 2nd century. Combined with a concern with
the possible sources used by the evangelist, the view that the Gospel
of John is a late Hellenistic document was given definitive expression
by R. Bultmann.8
As already pointed out, the second quarter of this century began
to witness a significant shift that led to the so-called new look on the
Fourth Gospel.9 By the phrase is not meant a return to apostolic
authorship, nor to complete historicity, but a viewpoint that allows
for the strong possibility that genuine Johannine tradition lies behind
the Gospel. The term Johannine tradition (or community) becomes
the pivotal issue, and scholars have been devoting .their energies to
reconstructing the historical situation at the end of the 1st century that
gave rise to the Gospel-a subject that will occupy us again shortly.
II. General Purpose
Misjudging a writer's (or a speaker's) intention can very easily
lead to a distortion of the material being interpreted. It is therefore
valid and essential for scholars to inquire into the purpose of biblical
writings, and for this task we are usually dependent on internal
evidence, since explicit statements are rare. True, the Gospel of John
provides an explicit statement of purpose ("that you may believe,"
20:31), yet ironically there is more controversy on this issue than there
is perhaps with regard to the purpose of any other NT book! Indeed,
not a few scholars disregard the significance of 20:31 altogether.10
7 Cf. A. Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (
1969 [orig. 1906]) 85-87, 12.5-28.
8 See above, n. 2.
9 J. A. T. Robinson, "The New Look on the Fourth Gospel," SE 1. (1959) 338-50.
10 Cf. R. Kysar, The Maverick Gospel (Atlanta: John Knox, 1976) 14-15, Following
Fortna, Kysar thinks that the statement belonged to a signs source but becomes
inadequate as a description of the whole book.
Silva: APPROACHING THEE FOURTH GOSPEL 21
The basic concern among scholars is that the Gospel, as it stands,
looks much too complicated to be viewed as an evangelistic docu-
ment: unbelievers could not possibly understand the numerous subtle
nuances in the text. Many scholars who do wish to take 20:31 seriously
find it possible to deny a missionary motive in the book's composition
by leaning on the present tense of pisteu<hte: "Since here the present
would mean 'keep believing,' it would imply that the readers of the
Gospel are already Christian believers."11 Correlating this idea with
1 John 5:13, R. E. Brown and others interpret the statement as indicat-
ring the goal of deepening the faith of the disciples.
The controversy has been vitiated by three problems. (1) In the
first place, we have a serious textual ambiguity. The decision between
the present and the aorist variant is sufficiently difficult that it would
seem folly to build a case on either reading.12
(2) But even if one could be sure of the text, it would still be rash
to draw any conclusion from that, since the use of the tenses (i.e.,
aspects) resists any neat categorization,13 In the Gospel of John itself
11 R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (2 vols.; AB 29, 29A;
Doubleday, 1966-70) 2.1056. Brown adds that the aorist, attested by most witnesses,
"could be translated 'may come to faith,' implying that the readers are not yet Christian."
L. Morris (The Gospel According to John
1971] 855-56) states that if the aorist is correct, then an evangelistic aim "is beyond
reasonable doubt." This kind of argument is rightly criticized by D. A. Carson, "The
Purpose of the Fourth Gospel: John 20:31 Reconsidered," JBL 100 (1987) 639-51, esp.
12 Discussions of this textual problem have failed to do what would appear to be
the first order of business, namely, isolate those instances of iva plus the subjunctive of
pisteu<w where there is no textual variation. The relevant passages are 1:7; 6:30; 9:36;
11:15, 42; 14:29. In all of these cases the aorist is used, and so we may infer that the
aorist is the characteristic Johannine usage. We can hardly deduce from this fact,
however, that the aorist should be preferred in those cases where we do encounter
textual variation, for scribes would naturally have tended to assimilate an original
present to the characteristic Johannine usage. We should indeed note that there are at
least three passages where the original reading is almost certainly the present (17:21
corrected to the aorist by P60 x2 A C3 D fl,13 and Maj; 19:35; 6:29; probably 13:19
belongs here too, though only B and C have the present). The aorist perhaps made
better sense to the scribes in these passages. In any case, there is no comparable
evidence to support the view that an original aorist was changed to a present in spite of
many opportunities to do so. With some doubts, I would choose the present at 20:31.
13 Not surprisingly, several writers qualify their statements with "strictly inter-
preted" or a similar
remark. (Cf. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According
Greek New Testament [
assume the textbook distinction between "keep believing" for the present and "start
believing" for the aorist (which in any case is doubtful), we would have to recognize
that a writer's usage may vary from that pattern: see especially Mark 5:36 mo<non
pi<steue, which hardly means "keep believing" (is Luke 8:50 a stylistic "correction"?)
and 13:21 mh> pisteu<ete, which cannot suggest "stop believing" (contrast Matt 24:23).
22 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
we should note 6:29 (contrast v 30) and 17:21, where the present is
more clearly attested even though Jesus is speaking to unbelievers. On
the other hand, at least one passage where the aorist is uncontested
(11:15)14 makes plain that John's usage is not determined by the
question whether faith is or is not already present. One needn't be
troubled by these apparent "inconsistencies"--no Greek speaker or
writer was likely to let an important point hang on such subtle
differences. In spite of some grammarians and many preachers, aspec-
tual distinctions do not a sermon make.
(3) But there is a third and more substantive question--the nature
of faith. Most writers appear to assume (consciously or not) a polari-
zation between initial and continuing faith, but such a conception can
hardly find support in the text of the Gospel itself. This point has been
seen clearly by Bultmann, who comments: "So far as the Evangelist is
concerned it is irrelevant whether the possible readers are already
'Christians,' or are not yet such; for to him the faith of 'Christians' is
not a conviction that is present once for all, but it must perpetually
make sure of itself anew, and therefore must continually hear the
Taken at face value, 20:31 does suggest a distinctly (though not
exclusively) evangelistic aim, in contrast to 1 John 5:13, which ex-
plicitly assumes the presence of faith among the readers. Church
history would seem to bear out this understanding of the Gospel. Its
theological difficulties notwithstanding, the Gospel of John has always
been a primary tool of evangelism. Probably no other book of the
Bible is more frequently suggested to unbelievers as a means of
becoming acquainted with the basic facts of Christianity. And is it a
coincidence that new Bible translations are characteristically intro-
duced with a sample from the Gospel of John?
What needs emphasis, of course, is that John has not written a
book to be discarded (like an elementary Greek grammar!) the minute
we have acquainted ourselves with its contents. The author surely
viewed his material as a source for continued instruction, inspiration,
and renewal. In fact, his artistry and uniqueness lies precisely in this,
that the Fourth Gospel (to use the oft-quoted characterization) is like
a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant swim.16
14 Cf. also 13:19 (see above, n. 12) and note what the textual tradition has done to
15 Bultmann, John, 698-99. Of course, whether Bultmann's own existentialist con-
ception of faith corresponds to John's is a different question altogether.
16 This description, attributed to a variety of writers, is apparently ancient, but I
have not been able to ascertain its origin.
Silva: APPROACHING THE FOURTH GOSPEL 23
III. Specific Occasion
Even after insisting that the Gospel has in view both evangelism
and edification, we have certainly not exhausted all the elements that
may have motivated the author and thus played a role in the composi-
tion of this document. Unfortunately, these more specific and, I think,
subordinate elements cannot be identified apart from a careful exe-
gesis of the book as a whole. Here we are faced with an important
example of the so-called hermeneutical circle: our understanding of a
particular passage depends on our ability to place that passage within
its proper setting or context, yet we cannot confidently describe that
context prior to some interpretive work on the text.
To complicate matters, most discussions regarding the origins of
the Fourth Gospel come with a heavy dose of speculative ingredients.
While some students may justifiably feel put off by this free flow of
scholarly imagination, we would make a mistake to ignore the theories
altogether. As long as they are understood for what they are--working
hypotheses only--they can provide a base for responsible exegesis. At
the very least, they will prove stimulating!
Rather than survey the whole landscape, however, it will be
worth our while to review briefly what is probably the best known
and most influential conjecture. After completing his very detailed
and useful commentary on the Gospel of John, and in the midst of
preparing a massive commentary on the Johannine epistles, Brown
published a popularized synthesis of his conclusions.17 Brown, who
views the Gospel as the result of several stages (from an independent
tradition to a distinctive Johannine presentation and then to an actual
written Gospel, subsequently revised more than once), associates the
final product with a well-defined Christian community that was inter-
acting with six distinct groups:
*Christians of apostolic churches generally: though their Christology was
perceived by the Johannine community as insufficiently developed, unity
with them was both possible and desirable (cf. John 17:22-23).
*Jewish Christians who depended heavily on signs and who did not
accept Christ's deity: the Johannine community did not regard them as
true believers (cf. John 6:60-66).
*Crypto-Christians: Jews who, though considering themselves to be Chris-
tians, had not even broken with the synagogue (Nicodemus is considered
by some, though not by Brown, a prototype of this group).
17 R. E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (
1979); note especially the chart on pp. 168-69. Also influential has been J. Louis Martyn,
History and Theology in
the Fourth Gospel
24 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
* Adherents of John the Baptist: disciples who viewed the Baptist as more
important than Jesus (cf. the "polemic" in John 1:8 and 3:30).
*"The Jews": unbelieving members of the synagogue who persecuted
members of the Johannine community and who excommunicated those
professing faith in Jesus (cf. John 9:34).
*The world: those who reject the message of Jesus (Jews included).
We should remind ourselves that we have no explicit evidence
for such a reconstruction. The groups listed above (as well as the
compositional stages undergirding the theory) are pure inferences
from the Gospel's text, which of course does not directly address the
issues with which we are dealing. Moreover, reconstructions of this
sort often suggest that the characters and stories described in the
Gospel, insofar as they represent a specific situation at the end of the
1st century, do not necessarily correspond to realities at the time of
With those caveats in mind, we can still appreciate the exegetical
value of formulating a plausible setting for the composition of the
Gospel. One need not deny the historicity of, say, the healing of the
blind man (John 9) to admit the possibility that John recounted that
incident because it was distinctively applicable to his situation. The
remarkable differences between John and the synoptics must be
accounted for in some way. We may fully accept that the incidents
recorded by John really took place, but that fact does not answer the
question, Why did John choose these incidents and not others? None
of the NT books was written in abstraction. Rather, they were com-
posed to meet real and specific needs. Telling the story of Jesus was
not motivated by antiquarian interests but by the need to apply that
story to concrete problems faced by later believers.
These considerations, incidentally, raise the important question
whether the Gospel was written to supplement the synoptics. That
John knew and used the other Gospels was taken for granted through-
out the history of interpretation as late as the 1st half of this century,
though in recent decades such a view has been held by a minority of
scholars.18 Affecting the debate, however, has been the gratuitous
assumption that "knowledge of" = "literary dependence on." Happily,
a few scholars have made the point that these two elements must be
18 The change in perspective was the result primarily of P. Gardner-Smith's work,
commentary held out for the view that John at least knew Mark, but few have
19 See especially B. de Solages, Jean et les Synoptiques (Leiden: Brill, 1979). This
position, already anticipated by J. N.Sanders and B. A. Mastin (A Commentary on the
Silva: APPROACHING THE FOURTH GOSPEL 25
Surely no Christian community at the end of the 1st century
would have been unaware of the synoptic tradition. Without precisely
using Mark, John may well have wanted to provide information not
found in that tradition--as Eusebius's remark regarding the content of
John suggests.20 One can also argue that John supplements the syn-
optics theologically by combining several of their themes into one
complete picture. Without placing undue emphasis on the specific
relationship that may have obtained between John and the synoptics,
we may legitimately assume some knowledge of them on his part as
well as a desire to provide additional information and interpretation.
IV. Literary Structure
How does the author go about achieving his purpose? What tools
has he used in putting the material together? The Gospel of John
almost seems to invite a distinctive approach in answering these
questions: to a greater degree than most other biblical books, this
work can be treated as a piece of literature in the narrower sense.
Accordingly, much energy has been devoted in recent years to the
analysis of its literary character.
Particularly impressive among studies of this sort is R. A. Cul-
pepper's 1983 monograph.21 Using some of the standard concepts in
the analysis of narrative (real/implied author, implied reader, plot,
etc.), Culpepper presents the Fourth Gospel as a carefully crafted
piece of art. Inevitably, the question arises whether one may apply to
this document--or any of the Gospels for that matter--categories that
have been developed for the description of fictional writing. Culpepper
Gospel According to John [HNTC;
R. Beasley-Murray (John [Word
biblical Commentary 36;
xxxvii, following D.Moody Smith). The case for John's dependence on all three
synoptics is argued capably by F. Neirynck (Jean et les Synoptiques. Examen critique
de l'exegese de M.-E. Boismard [BETL 49; Louven: University Press, 1979]). On the
related question of possible sources used by John, see especially the critique by D. A.
tions," JBL 97 (1978) 411-29, esp. 428-29.
20 Cf. above, n. 4.
21 R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design
(Foundations and Facets: NT; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983). Different in approach is
G. Mlakuzhyil, The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel (AnBib 117;
techniques of so-called structuralism, text linguistics, etc., with questionable success.
No more persuasive is M. J. J. Menken, Numerical Literary Techniques in John: The
Fourth Evangelist's Use
of Numbers of Words and Syllables (NovTSup 55;
26 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
himself, whatever his views on the historicity of John,22 treats the
material as though it had no historical significance and leaves the
impression that the real value of the Gospel is the artistry with which
the author communicates his message, whether or not there is any
factual basis for that message.
Such a conclusion, however, would appear to undermine the
author's avowed desire to instruct his readers concerning actual events
(John 20:30), to say nothing of the intensity with which he affirms the
historicity of his account (see especially 19:35). Of course, we cannot
assume that literary techniques used to enhance the dramatic effect of
a narrative are the exclusive property of fictional writers. Certainly
many of Culpepper's insights shed light on the significance of the text
without compromising its historical basis--though we may indeed
need to grant the evangelist a greater amount of literary flexibility
than we have been accustomed to.
In any case, we may accept that the evangelist has exercised
special care in the composition of this Gospel. Can we proceed to
determine whether it can be "outlined"? The task of outlining a book
should be seen as an effort to place passages in their proper context,
since ascertaining the connection of a statement to what precedes and
follows it is essential to its proper interpretation. Accordingly, a good
outline does not merely describe contents but reveals the progression
of the argument. And although we aim to approximate the author's
own thought, several different outlines may be "equally" valid--though
perhaps not equally helpful.
Now one finds, with regard to the Gospel of John, almost uni-
versal agreement (a) that a prologue and an epilogue should be
recognized as discrete sections and (b) that a major break occurs
between chaps 12 and 13. Among points of disagreement we should
note the question whether the body of the book begins at 1:19 or 2:1
and the debate whether chaps 18-20 constitute a third major section.
Another issue that deserves comment is the well-known observation
that chaps 2-12 appear to contain seven signs (2:1-12; 4:46-54; 5:1-15;
6:1-15, 16-21; 9:1-14; 11:lff.) and seven discourses (3:1-21; 4:1-26;
5:16-47; 6:22-59; 7-8; 9:35-10:21; 12:20-36). Indeed, some scholars
(e.g., Morris) have tried to structure the Gospel by using either or
both of these sets, though one can argue that such a move obscures
other, more fundamental, themes. Using C. H. Dodd's important
analysis as a point of departure, we may suggest the following outline.
22 Culpepper explicitly states that he does not wish to deny "any historical core or
matrix of the gospel" (ibid., p. 11), and at the end of the book he deplores the common
divorce between fiction and truth (pp. 234-37).
Silva: APPROACHING THE FOURTH GOSPEL 27
Note in particular the significance of geographical notes in the first
sections and the contrast between chaps 9-12 and chap 20.
Introduction (Chap 1)
Jesus Reveals His Glory to the World (Chaps 2-12)
The New Order (Chaps 2-4)
The Life-Giver (Chaps 5-8)
The World's Unbelief (Chaps 9-12)
Blind and faithless leaders (Chaps 9-10)
The raising of Lazarus (Chap 11)
Life through death (Chap 12)
Jesus Reveals His Glory to the Disciples (Chaps 13-20)
The Last Evening (Chaps 13-17)
Lowly service and Jesus' comfort (Chaps 13-14)
Final instructions (Chaps 15-16)
Intercessory prayer (Chap 17).
The Passion (Chaps 18-19)
Arrest and trials (Chap 18)
Crucifixion and burial (Chap 19)
The Disciples' Faith (Chap 20)
Epilogue (Chap 21)
V. John and the Old Testament
Careful attention to the literary character of the Fourth Gospel
will quickly reveal how pervasive has been the influence of the OT in
its composition.23 The point is particularly significant in that the law-
gospel polemic is prominent in it as well. The strong and well-known
antithesis of 1:17 ("the law was given through Moses; grace and truth
came through Jesus Christ") has to be understood in the light of 5:46
23 In addition to numerous specific studies, cf. the synthesis by E. D. Freed, Old
Testament Quotations in the Gospel of John (Leiden: Brill, 1965).
28 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
("if you believed Moses, you would believe me"). The new order
instituted by Christ must be seen as a fulfilment, not a rejection, of the
Other articles in the present issue will develop some of the
theological themes in the Gospel of John and so we need not pursue
this matter here. It may be useful, nevertheless, to illustrate the impact
that the OT has had in the very structuring of John's narrative. Chap 6
provides one of the best examples, since the Exodus 16 background is
Exodus 16 itself is part of a larger narrative (Exod 15:22-17:7)
that emphasizes the goodness of YHWH in providing for his people.
Three incidents are recorded here:
(1) In Exod 15:22-27 the people are thirsty and all the water they find is
bitter; God was testing them, but they grumble in their trial; still, the
Lord provides drinking water for them.
(2) In chap 16 the people are hungry and they grumble again (vv 3, 7); this
incident is also described as a time of testing (v 4), and the Lord pro-
vides manna for their needs (vv 13-16).
(3) Chap 17 records another incident when the people are thirsty; their
grumbling is more serious, since now they turn the tables on God by
testing him (vv 2-3); the Lord's generosity is even more dramatic, since
he, who is the Rock, stands on the rock of Horeb, ready to be struck so
that the people may have water to drink (v 6).
Of course, the trial of the Israelites in the wilderness corresponds
to Adam's temptation, a point made subtly in the narrative by the use
in 16:15 of a phrase taken from Gen 1:29.24 Moreover, 16:23 appears to
connect the giving of the manna to the Passover celebration by the
use of another phrase taken from Exod 12:6.25 Not surprisingly, the
Exodus 16 narrative became charged with eschatological expecta-
tions. Within the pages of the OT itself, the giving of the Spirit
(mentioned in the corresponding passage in Num 11:17) is tied to the
giving of manna and water (Neh 9:20). The apocryphal work 2
Baruch promises that "the treasury of manna will again descend from
on high" (29:8), while the later rabbinic midrashim reflect an explicit
24 The phrase is "for you for food" (hlkxl Mkl). I owe these observations to the
important work of U. Cassuto,
A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (
Magnes, 1967 [orig. 1951]) 196, 198.
25 "For you for keeping" (trmwml Mkl).
26 Note in particular the Midrash on Eccl 1:9, "as the first redeemer caused manna
to descend, so will the latter redeemer cause manna to descend." For these and other
references see Brown, John, 1.265.
Silva: APPROACHING THE FOURTH GOSPEL 29
As we turn our attention to John, we may wonder whether he
structured his narrative with a view to paralleling Exodus 15-17. Just
as that passage speaks of God's providing water-manna-water, so
John presents Jesus (who was already identified as YHWH in 1:14,
alluding to Exod 34:6) as the one who provides his people with water
(John 4:13-14), manna (6:32-35), and water (7:37-38). John makes a
point of advising us that the feeding of the five thousand took place
near the time of Passover (6:4), when the Exodus 16 narrative was
probably read in the synagogues. Understandably, their messianic
expectations may have been heightened-thus their desire to make
Jesus king on the spot (6:15). John also exploits the theme of the
people's grumbling (6:41,43,61,66), alludes to the Adamic temptation
(6:37 = Gen 3:24; 6:50 = Gen 2:17 and 3:3; 6:51 = Gen 3:22),27 and
reminds us of the significance of the Spirit's instruction (6:63; cf. also
v 45, a quotation from Isa 54:13).
One of the great climactic elements in the Gospel of John comes
in 19:34, where the evangelist--e alone among the Gospel writers-
tells us that Jesus was struck with the soldier's spear so that blood and
water came out from him. Much effort has been spent on the anatomi-
cal significance of this incident, but we may be sure that John was not
at all motivated by medical questions. For him this was a matter of
the greatest importance, as we may gather by the strong affirmation in
the following verse (19:35). The allusion to Exodus 17 is too clear to
be missed. The long-suffering YHWH, abundant in grace and truth,
was suffering for his people, that they might receive the Spirit of
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood, From thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure, Cleanse me from its guilt and pow'r.
27 Cf. A. Guilding, The Fourth Gospel and
Jewish Worship (
28 I first heard this approach from my teacher E. P. Clowney. For a recent and
clear defense, see Gary M. Burge, The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the
Johannine Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 93-95, 133-35.
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