Introduction to John

Background Information on John Gospel


Tradition dating from the late Second Century and recorded by St Irenaeus identified the author of the Gospel as John, Son of Zebedee and one of the twelve apostles mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels. Most scholars no longer accept this tradition.

The text itself distinguishes the final editor from the Beloved Disciple, who is claimed as the original author. This claim to the Disciple’s original authorship may also be a simplification. Many scholars think that, while the basic content of the Gospel derived from the Beloved Disciple, the actual text was written not by him but by a disciple from the community he founded. For the purposes of this commentary, the Beloved Disciple, the disciple-author and the final author are treated as one voice.

Who was the Beloved Disciple? He was probably neither one of the Twelve (only two members of the Twelve, Judas and Thomas, are specifically identified as such in the text) nor an apostle (the designation never occurs in the narrative). He certainly knew Jesus well. He was familiar with Jerusalem, and shows much more familiarity with and interest in Jesus’ Jerusalem ministry than in his ministry in Galilee.

Time and Place of Composition

Scholars generally agree that the final text of the Gospel of John appeared in the late First Century, the last of the four Gospels to be written. There is no clear evidence where the work was written. The tradition stemming from St Irenaeus named Ephesus.

A well argued view considers the work to have been written by and for a Jewish community. Its members were familiar with their traditional Jewish Scriptures as well as other later religious works written in Greek and circulating in the Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora. If this community originally lived in or around Palestine, it is possible that its later exclusion from mainline Jewish community worship led to its moving to Ephesus. Though basically a Jewish community, it may have counted among its members former disciples of the Baptist, Samaritans and Greeks.

Literary Nature of the Gospel

The Gospel presents a theological meditation on the mystery of Jesus. Its purpose is markedly different from that of the Synoptic Gospels. While it mentions various incidents from the life of Jesus, its purpose is not primarily historical but theological. It was written to explore the implications of Christian living in light of the divine reality of Jesus. The long discourses placed on the lips of Jesus do not present the actual words of Jesus but are the composition of the author. They reflect the Beloved Disciple’s personal knowledge of the historical Jesus, and his inner experience of the Risen Jesus developed over his later years within the community of fellow-believers. Some actual words and images used by Jesus may have been accurately remembered and recorded. The author wrote in the hope that the reflections would help readers to deepen their personal faith experience. 

This Commentary

For ease of exposition, the commentary will generally treat the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel text as though they were his actual words.


After some early uncertainty, the Gospel was accepted into the Church’s Canon of Inspired Scriptures as a work written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Who is Jesus?

The Gospel’s audience was a community of disciples who already believed. The purpose of the Gospel was not to give them further historical detail of the activity and teaching of Jesus, but to lead them to deepen their faith in the Jesus to whom they had already given their lives. From the privileged position of their present experience of the risen Jesus, the Beloved Disciple wished to open them ever more to the mystery of Jesus. He wanted to encourage them to allow themselves to be drawn into that mystery, to undergo the mystery themselves and to be transformed by it

The Gospel of John would deal consistently with the question: Who is Jesus? What mattered intensely for the Beloved Disciple was people’s response to that question. The best answers remain always open-ended. No disciple ever fully exhausts the depths of the mystery of Jesus. The narrative will clearly state its purpose at the conclusion of its second last chapter: these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name [20.31].

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