Earlier, I raised the somewhat wild possibility that the fact that John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is the key to his Gospel. While I did not elaborate because my students were discussing the book (giving too much info away is bad as a discussion leader) I am interested in conveying in this forum some of the thoughts about John that I have had the last two weeks.

The Gospel of John is usually the part of Scripture that we will point new Christians or unbelievers to. Why we do this is no longer clear to me–my hunch is that we think John is a simple and clear text, when the reality is that it is one of the most difficult texts to interpret in the New Testament (see, for instance, my brother’s clear rejection of Jesus’s rationality because of his apparent contradictions in John 5 and 8).

It will be my basic supposition throughout these reflections, however, that John knows what he’s doing in his writing–that where an apparent contradiction occurs, it is not because John (or Jesus) isn’t smart enough to figure out that sill law of non-contradiction, but rather that John is inviting us to examine the text more closely, to attempt to discern whether the apparent contradiction is a real contradiction (it’s not).

But rather than begin with the unknown, I’ll start with the known (or at least the less confusing): John’s purpose in the gospel is clear: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the 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, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). In 20:30, ‘many other signs’ implies that he has just completed a sign. While Jesus has just miraculously appeared to the Disciples in a locked room (20:24-29), it is most likely that this ‘sign’ covers the whole of the resurrection as indicated by Jesus’s minor rebuke of Thomas’s disbelief.

The concept of ‘signs’ in the Gospel of John is clear: they are intentional and miraculous acts by Jesus to build belief in people. In my next post (which probably won’t happen until Sunday), I will examine the various places throughout the Gospel where the concept of signs is employed.

See also:

The Key to the Gospel of John

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

13 Comments

  1. The decorabilia guy is your brother? That is very interesting.

    As for the “key” did you give that to us, or is that going to be in part three? I had considered that you enigmatically left it in your post and are inviting us to examine the text more closely.

    But more seriously, in discussions with nonbelievers, apologists constantly defend Biblical authority using the accuracy and consistency of the Bible across many books saying that it is just too unlikely the result of human effort. But in these posts you have shown that on the surface it is inconsistent, and then supposed the (apparent) inconsistency was a purposeful attempt to invite readers to dig more deeply. But why might the reader dig more deeply? Doesn’t a contradiction, on the surface, undermine the reason for accepting Biblical authority in the first place?

    Your supposition is also illogical on the surface because in this same post you quote John as saying “…but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” So are we to believe that John wants to lure those who don’t believe by recording contradictions? To a nonbeliever, can a contradiction have anything but the opposite effect?

    And why does the text in John 5 not contradict the text in John 8?

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  2. Warren,

    All excellent questions, and questions that I will hopefully address. If the explanation for my previous post doesn’t happen in verse three, it will in four or seven or eleven or whenever I finally come around to it. I’m going to work my way slowly. Your explanation for my ‘engimaticness’ (if you will permit me to make up a word) gives me far too much credit. Really I left it ambiguous because I didn’t want my students finding out what I thought about the issue while we were still discussing the text in class.

    Also, regarding contradictions, it seems that in a text as sophisticated as John’s (a sophistication that is yet to be demonstrated) there is good grounds to view any overt contradiction as merely apparent. So I fail to see how it has the opposite effect.

    Additionally, I should note that the text of John not looking to have him explain contradictions. I’m a believer (for reasons that include, but are not exhausted by the inerrancy of Scripture) and hence I am predisposed to think that contradictions in John are apparent–we can debate the rationality of this position (I’d rather not), but I’d prefer to wait until I’m done with the series of posts (since that would probably demand another series). However, that means that I’m going to presume John’s rationality and look for an explanation for an apparent contradiction, rather than base my belief in his rationality on the resolution of that contradiction. It’s a slight difference, but crucial.

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  3. I look forward to the developement of your lesson. The reason that I was given to read Gospel of John first is that it is the Gospel of love.

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  4. I’ll stay tuned, then, for that.

    As for inerrancy, this was part of my point in my third paragraph. Are you a believer because you believe in the inerrancy, or do you believe in the inerrancy because you are a believer? You see, your response states that inerrancy is one of the causes of your belief, but then that your belief is the reason you presuppose inerrancy. The purpose of my point wasn’t to claim your support for inerrancy was circular; it was to point out that since John was written for nonbelievers, not believers, presupposition as a believer would seem off-limits, rationally, as an explanation for apparent contradictions.

    In this response, you also note “sophistication.” And so I’ll wait to see a case for that. But even if John’s writing style is sufficiently sophisticated, is it not embellishing for him to put contradictions in Jesus’ mouth?

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  5. As a side note I wonder if your brother reads Greek. I would imagine that he does, so I am concerned that the difference between alethes and alethinos are not lost him, since both are translated into English as truth. As Vines notes in his Dictionary of NT Words.

    I also wonder just how prevalent it is to critisize Biblical text based on English translations, which as noted, do not always convey the subtleties of the original language.

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  6. EZSmirkzz,

    I can “read” Greek in the sense that I can recognize words and follow a dictionary or critical commentary, but I don’t pretend to know the subtleties of Greek grammar–in other words, I’m no Greek scholar.

    However, I’m baffled by your criticism. In both verses I cited as contradictory, 5:31 and 8:14, the same adjective is used: alethes. Their semantic or connotative distinction with alethinos is a complete red herring. (It’s right there in Vines.)

    When I finish my response to this post, I welcome your comments and criticism.

    Reply

  7. Jim,

    Thanks for the quick response. You are quite correct about the word alethes being used in both verses, and I was wrong. I also wish to thank you for correcting me in the spelling of criticism as well. My concern was a misreading of the notes in Vines, which referred to 8:16 inwhich I am lead to believe alethes is also used in some copies of the MS text instead of alethinos.

    I hope that I have not insulted you as to your scholarship, Greek or otherwise either, as that was not the intention, although it seems to be a forte for me in this neck of the woods. Since I am aware of the many theological biases that do enter into translations of the Bible which I encounter not only in those Bibles, but in those who use those Bibles in their discussions with me, or perhaps more apropo at me, and wondered if perhaps this bias might also extend to those who reject “divinity in skin” as well.

    As for your assertion of contradiction in the two verses I think the responses from Eric Vestrup is probably a better developed argument as any you will get from me at any point.

    Just for clarification as to my view on these things, I am quite sure that over the course of years that the original text has been corrupted by errors and good intentions. Today those corruptions are also indistinquisable one from the other. I also think that the Bible has undergone a great deal of scrutiny that other classical works have not, including those which form a major portion of Christian theology as well as the philosophical and theological concepts of other persuasions, which is to be expected though not admired.

    Given these problems I don’t think Christianity is defined by the nitpicking through words, but the doing of those words that form the coherent ideology of Christian life. Science, philosophy and theology have and will all change, ignoring the Sermon on the Mount seems to be a constant. Were Christians to do those things they would leave themselves and their critics less time and reason to nitpick the Scripture and each other.

    I apologise again, as I seem to have brought in a net full of Red Herrings with this second post.

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  8. […] In my previous post, I claimed that the concept of ’sign’ in John’s gospel has a specific, intentional meaning.  I suggested that part of this meaning is a miraculous activity by Jesus.  However, in the interim I found this excellent essay by New Testament scholar Andreas Kostenberger.  In it, Kostenberger points out that the Old Testament tradition of ’signs’ moves away from the miraculous toward the non-miraculous.  For instance, in the Book of Exodus, Moses is given the ability to perform miraculous deeds to authenticate the authority given to him by God (see Exodus 4:8-9).  However, as the prophetic tradition develops, ’signs’ take on a more symbolic function while still authenticating the prophets ministry (see Ezekiel 4:1-3 as a clear instance of this). […]

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  9. Warren,

    My replies are below.

    “As for inerrancy, this was part of my point in my third paragraph. Are you a believer because you believe in the inerrancy, or do you believe in the inerrancy because you are a believer? You see, your response states that inerrancy is one of the causes of your belief, but then that your belief is the reason you presuppose inerrancy. The purpose of my point wasn’t to claim your support for inerrancy was circular; it was to point out that since John was written for nonbelievers, not believers, presupposition as a believer would seem off-limits, rationally, as an explanation for apparent contradictions.”

    I’m not sure the structure of my beliefs can be reduced quite that simply. In other words, I believe in inerrancy because it seems reasonable to believe in innerrancy (historical reliability, accuracy, etc). However, I am a believer for lots of reasons as well (one of which is inerrancy). These reasons probably might not rationally justify anyone else in believing in inerrancy, but I think they justify me (some of them are experiential–I think that God speaks to me directly through Scripture, and I have some good reason to think that). But if that’s the case, then that gives me additional reason to think that they are inerrant. So I’m not sure it’s an either/or like you seem to set it up as.

    “In this response, you also note “sophistication.” And so I’ll wait to see a case for that. But even if John’s writing style is sufficiently sophisticated, is it not embellishing for him to put contradictions in Jesus’ mouth?”

    I don’t think so. I think Jesus was equally sophisticated. But hopefully I’ll be able to explain what (I think) the relationship between Jesus and John is in the near future. 

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  10. EZSmirkzz,

    No apologies necessary, and no offense taken. (Your Vestrup link is broken; is this the essay you refer to?)

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  11. MatthewLee, I can’t debate circularity in your belief structure because beliefs need have no basis expect personal experience. It is still not my intent to debate this, nor, by the way, to oversimplify your belief structure.

    I am really trying to find out why you said in this post that the contradictions are meant to entice deeper reading. You based this on an assertion of inerrancy by the reader, which would mean that contradictions must be only apparent. That is fine, except you also point out that John is not written for the believer, but rather, the unbeliever who will not be asserting inerrancy, and therefore would have the opposite reaction to contradictions.

    I wood sooner chalk it up to hiding the truth on purpose than to luring unbelievers to read deeper.

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  12. Jim, That is the correct link. You and everyone that posts here have been very gracious with me, thank you.

    Reply

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