John Gayford considers the Fourth Gospel’s sayings and signs


St John’s Gospel is seen as jewel of the New Testament and for some the first choice Gospel. Like anything valued its provenance is important (meaning its history of ownership and validity in art and literature) this can increase or decrease its value. The author of the gospel is not specifically identified by name but there is internal evidence it was written by a disciple close to Jesus (“the disciple whom Jesus loved” (21.20,24). The title the Gospel according to St John (kata ioannen) was added some centuries later. The Fourth Gospel differs from the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) both in style and contents and can even be called a symbolic discourse and presents the ministry of Jesus as taking place in three years rather than in two. The Fourth Gospel does not talk about the miracles of Jesus: they are referred to as the signs of his divinity. The Gospel of St John is deceptively simple in style and vocabulary, its Christology is projected in striking poetry using metaphors but also has mystic qualities suggesting a hidden depth. Thus it operates at two levels, facts are given but also they have symbolic meanings related to the theology of St John, with an emphasis on love and community, contrasting with the synoptic Gospels.

A hypothesis is put forward that the Gospel was written in five stages, possibly similar to the Synoptic Gospels. An initial version based on the witness of the personal experiences of Jesus. In St John’s Gospel this can be seen as source material and may have included different eyewitness accounts including the account of the “Beloved Disciple”, John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee; both of whom could have been the same person. Authorship and writer need not be the same, and many attributed authors in the Bible never put quill to parchment. John was a Galilean fisherman who had as his native language Aramaic, he may have spoken Greek for trading purposes but this would have been a rustic Greek, not the excellent Greek of the New Testament Gospel. 

There are claims of the development of a close knit Johannine Community, these were people who were devoted to Johannine tradition and expressed their version of the Christian faith as derived from this tradition. St John the Apostle is always seen as the father figure. To the leading preacher we give the title of The Evangelist, he was either a close friend of the Beloved Disciple or the same person. There were many members of this group but we are mainly concerned with the literary members. It seems there were elders, the author of the letters and loosely associated with them a seer, the author of Revelation. Over decades this corpus of material developed mainly in the oral tradition. Eventually the leading evangelist drawing on his own material and on other sources wrote a structured literary work. This material was organised by The Evangelist and possibly by a theologian into a structured Gospel that we would recognise today and became the first edition of the Fourth Gospel. The Evangelist may have written this himself or used scribes. It is written in good Greek and incorporated the work of other members of the group. The Gospel we have may have been edited several times (redacted), possibly by the same person, making it fit the need of the community in changing situations. New material could have been introduced that had been unknown or excluded from previous editions. This possibly happened around 80-90 AD. The final edition was made, possible after the death of The Evangelist, There was clearly a respect for the Johannine tradition and text. This is shown by additions being made either by insertions or parallel texts, brought together in St John chapter 6.35-50 and said again in 6.51-58. 

We do not know exactly where exactly where or when the Gospel was written with claims being made that it was written in Alexandria, Ephesus or a Jewish City in lower Galilee, in any case a world steeped in Old Testament tradition. By tradition St John had a long life living in Ephesus and having a prominent role in the life of the Church with St Jerome claiming he wrote or dictated his Gospel in old age being one of the last of the eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus. This implies that John reflected on the theological effects of events as is written at the end of his Gospel (St John 24.24-25). This is the nearest we get to internal evidence the Gospel was written by St John.

Some consideration needs to be made of the effect Gnosticism had on the acceptance of St John’s Gospel. Gnosticism came into focus in the middle of the second century and so was not very active when the Fourth Gospel was being transmitted at the end of the first century but had an effect on its acceptance by the Church in the second and third century. Although not a religion in its own rite it was a series of parasitic ideas that attached itself to what it saw as attractive hosts. The mystical metaphorical qualities of St John’s Gospel made this seem a ready host. Commentaries by Valentinus and Heracleon in the later part of the second century project Gnostic cosmology and dualistic ideas into the Fourth Gospel text and hindered its acceptance by conventional biblical scholars of the time. Irenaeus (c.130-c.200) was a strong critic of Gnosticism but he was a powerful defender of St John’s Gospel. His claim is that the Gospel was written at Ephesus by John the Apostle the son of Zebedee after he had read the Synoptic Gospels towards the end of his long life. This, according to his account, was in the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117) and thus must have been written at least at the very end of the first century when John was a very old man indeed. This information is reputed to have come from Polycarp (c.69-c.155) whom Irenaeus heard speak when he was young. Polycarp is reputed to have been instructed by Apostles including John. There is also from this source an account of John running away from a public bath because Cerinthus; a known Gnostic, described as an enemy of the truth, was there. These facts are also recorded by Eusebius (c.260-c.340) who in addition to being Bishop of Caesarea is given the title Father of Church History. 

It has to be remembered that there is strong probability that all the Canonical Gospels existed in an “oral form” (possibly with guiding notes) before they existed in a written form that we would recognise today. It seems reasonable to conclude that the Fourth gospel had a long gestation period and minor changes could well have been made into the second century. These changes could have been made to refute criticism and to fulfil the needs of the community that the Gospel was to serve. There were no printing presses and no date of publication, scribes had to copy the text allowing plenty of scope for editing. 

The appearance of advanced Christology and sacramental theology in St John’s Gospel has been seen as late additions: editing and redaction likely continued after completion. Even if it was completed after the Synoptic Gospels there is a body of opinion claiming it was being written at about the same time but was longer in its gestation. 

The structure of St John’s Gospel is simple. It consists of a prologue (1.1-18) which was probably written later, the Book of Signs (1.19 to 13.1) the Book of Glory or Exaltation (13.1 to 20.31). In the Book of Glory we meet Jesus as our Saviour. Finally a postlude again probably written later tells us of the author (chapter 21). The Gospel in the Book of Signs does not speak of the miracles of Jesus but see them as signs of his divinity. There seven signs generally accepted but suggestions have been made of an eighth sign. 

There are also the Ego eimi (‘I am’ sayings of Jesus). Meditation on these sayings of Jesus in St John’s Gospel has given rise to positive hermeneutic Christian interpretations. There are again classically seven of these sayings. Jesus does not only refer to who he is but also to what he does. We can trace these sayings back to the Old Testament (Torah and Wisdom). There is an element of past, present and future, glimpses of the eternal nature of Our Blessed Lord emerge, pointing to his divinity and reasons why we can trust him.

The Book of Glory or Exaltation starts “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that the hour had come to depart from this world and to go to the Father” (13.1). We then have the last discourse of Jesus with his disciples which is marked by repetitions and contradictions but tells of the last meal of Jesus with its Eucharistic importance. The final flourish is his statement “if you love me you will keep my commandments”. There is the promise of the Holy Spirit (the Advocate). We travel to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is betrayed, arrested and brought to trial before the Jewish authorities and Pontius Pilate resulting in his condemnation to death by crucifixion. The passion of Jesus continues with the Way of the Cross and his execution which St John see as Jesus entering into glory of the Father as our saviour. The resurrection of Jesus is testified by Mary Magdalene and confirmed by Peter and John; after this he appears to the other disciples. 

Finally we can be critical of the epilogue (21.24-25) with its internal clue to the authorship. St John’s Gospel appears to have two endings. The first (20.39-31) some see as the intended ending. Then (21-25) was added later, seeming as if it had been written in hast with an element of biblical hyperbole. This is not unusual: most authors have difficulty with a satisfactory ending.

From time to time St John’s Gospel has been attacked as a Hellenization of the historical Jesus but now biblical scholars are acclaiming it as the most reliable and accurate account of the real historical Jesus by telling us what Jesus said, did and who he is. The Fourth Gospel has long been valued as a foundation document of the Christian faith with the most advanced Christology in the New Testament, summed up when Jesus is reported as saying “The Father and I are one” (St John 10.30). When Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) called St John’s Gospel a spiritual Gospel he spoke for many over the centuries who have valued it as a source of spiritual inspiration: and still is for many. The literary skills of the author of theFourth Gospel is to be admired in the way dialogue and discussion are used. It contains more discursive material than the synoptic gospels but not at the expense of the narrative nature of the Gospel. History has shown it is also a classic text of world literature and is keeping this place after almost 2000 years. St John’s Gospel is full of symbolism, poetry and the mystery of the Christian faith and is a gospel of eternal life. 


The Book of Signs and the Ego Eimi sayings of Jesus.


The Book of Signs does not speak of the miracles of Jesus but see them as signs of his divinity. The seven signs generally accepted are:-


  1. Changing water into wine at the Wedding at Cana “the first of the signs” (2:1-11).
  2. Healing a royal official’s son in Capernaum, (4:46-54).                                                                     
  3. Healing the paralytic at Bethesda, (5:1-15).
  4. Feeding the 5000, (6:5-14).
  5. Jesus walking on water, (6:16-23). 
  6. Healing the man blind from birth, (9:1-7).
  7. The raising of Lazarus, (9:11-45). 


The Ego eimi (“I am sayings” of Jesus). There are classically seven sayings:- 


  1. “I am the bread of life” (6:35)
  2. “I am the light of the world” (8:12)  
  3. “I am the door” (10: 9) 
  4. “I am the good shepherd” (10:11) 
  5. “I am the resurrection”  (11:12) 
  6. “I am the way” (14:6)“ 
  7. “I am the true vine” (15:1).