We’re going to start a walk-through of a commentary on John’s Gospel. D.A. Carson writes from a strongly Calvinistic perspective. He tends to use terms like “law” and “gospel” more loosely and with broader range than I would. He is not very sacramental in his outlook. Yet he does attempt to play fair with his sources.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991.
“Introduction” pp. 21-104
Carson’s commentary, which is aimed at the pastor or lower level scholar, attempts to defend a view of the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel. He proposes that the text was written at least in large part for the purpose of evangelizing unbelievers. Prior to the textual commentary, he provides a lengthy introduction.
John’s Gospel is distinct from the other canonical Gospels. “There are no narrative parables in John, no account of the transfiguration, no record of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, no report of Jesus casting out a demon, no mention of Jesus’ temptations” (Carson 1991, 21). It seems clear that different events were chosen for inclusion. John records events which are not in the Synoptics. Carson also notes several instances which may seem to be contradictions between John and the Synoptics, along with chronological challenges (Carson 1991, 22). The language usage in John is quite distinct from that of other New Testament writings. Carson considers this an evidence of the author’s independence (Carson 1991, 23).
The earliest manuscripts and comments seem to show an early practice of gathering the fourGospels together, often with Acts (Carson 1991, 24). John’s Gospel was used by Gnostics in the second century to justify their points of view (Carson 1991, 25). The text was also used by orthodox Christians as early as Justin Martyr (Carson 1991, 25). Carson goes on to discuss several of the early authors who make references to John as the author of the Gospel.
Though there was considerable debate about John’s Gospel through the time of the reformation, there was strong agreement that it was authored by John the apostle and could be reconciled in its message with the Synoptic Gospels (Carson 1991, 29). Carson notes that in 1835, the work of David Friedrich Strauss applied the idea of “myth” to the miraculous in John, thus discounting the authenticity (Carson 1991, 30). From that point, studies were divided as to the reliability of the message of the Fourth Gospel. Carson details some of the debate, particularly focusing on Bultmann and his opponents, He suggests that the writing may well knowingly preserve materials and ideas independently of, but not contradictory to the Synoptics (Carson 1991, 34).
Carson reviews some recent scholarship. Observing that the book is now 25 years from publication, the information could use an update. In general terms, while some scholars pursue the idea of some form of source criticism (Carson 1991, 35), there is also a growing movement toward some form of literary criticism, which considers the text as a body not closely connected to a historic context (Carson 1991, 38).
Carson next turns to a discussion of the Gospel’s “authenticity.” By this he means an evaluation of its reliability as “witness to the origins, ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the Messiah” (Carson 1991, 40).
As to source criticism, it is clear that John used various sources of information (Carson 1991, 41). Trying to identify the sources is another matter altogether. At the same time, the text has numerous strong and unifying characteristics (Carson 1991, 42). Carson suggests that many attempts to engage in source criticism are based on an assumption that thought will necessarily develop in a linear and consistent way (Carson 1991, 44).
Carson identifies a considerable unity of style and structure in John (Carson 1991, 45). There are signs throughout indicating a sermonic style consistent with a work of one who has practiced telling the material many times (Carson 1991, 46).
Carson questions the standard discussion of a relationship between John’s Gospel and the Synoptics. Rather than looking for a literary dependence, Carson suggests that the Gospels, informed by eyewitnesses of real events, were strongly influenced by those very events (Carson 1991, 50). While it seems likely that John had read at least Mark and Luke, it is unfair to suggest that his knowledge of events is dependent on those accounts (Carson 1991, 51). Carson prefers to see congruity of concepts. He describes it as “an interlocking tradition” (Carson 1991, 52). The different accounts are complementary. Carson observes that John can contribute to an understanding of the Synoptics and that the Synoptics can aid in interpreting John. Complementarity is reciprocal (Carson 1991, 54). Carson illustrates this briefly by discussing the growth in the Christology of the disciples, both in the Synoptics and John.
There have been various speculations about the philosophical concepts underlying John’s Gospel. Carson notes that John uses a vocabulary rich in terms used by other religious groups. The more important consideration is the referent. What does a term refer to? This is a very important factor in understanding a message (Carson 1991, 59). Carson points out that John’s references are overwhelmingly related to the Old Testament and a Palestinian Jewish understanding of history and philosophy. This, then, gives context to the message (Carson 1991, 60). John’s Gospel, then, uses philosophical language expressly to show how Jesus fits into the entirety of religious and philosophical thought (Carson 1991, 62).
Carson moves on to discuss the “new criticism” which analyzes John in terms of a novel (Carson 1991, 63). The search is for some sort of truthful insight which has no necessary relationship to actual events (Carson 1991, 64). Carson observes that in every age, readers have been aware of the distinction between factual and fictional narratives. The Gospels have always been recognized as relating factual accounts (Carson 1991, 66).
The ascription of authorship is a common question. Carson sees the early, external, evidence as very strong in affirming the apostle John as the author (Carson 1991, 68). Modern scholars who dismiss Johannine authorship almost uniformly do so based on internal, rather than external, evidence. Carson discusses the passage in Eusebius where Papias is cited as possibly discounting John the apostle as the author. Carson sees this as possibly an attempt of Eusebius to contradict Papias, a closer source to the author (Carson 1991, 70). Carson goes on to treat evidence in John and commented on by the Synoptics which points strongly to John the son of Zebedee as the author (Carson 1991, 73).
Carson discusses the dating of the Gospel in some detail. Because of recent papyrus discoveries he considers any second century date very unlikely (Carson 1991, 82) It appears to have been written after the death of Peter about 64, based on 21:19. The lack of any mention of the destruction of AD 70 suggests a date before 70 or considerably afterward (Carson 1991, 83). Many suggestions of late authorship are based on a premise that the sophisticated Christology shown took a long time to develop. Carson does not consider this a necessary assumption (Carson 1991, 84). His inclination is to tentatively hold a date between 80 and 85.
As to the purpose of John’s Gospel, Carson notes four common ut problematic assumptions. First is that John depended on, then purposely made a contrast with, the Synoptic Gospels. This fails to see the complementary nature of the biblical texts (Carson 1991, 87). Some suggest the book was an effort of a polemical Johannine community trying to promote one point of view. There is, however, disagreement about the actual purpose of the text (Carson 1991, 88). Others focus on one or another of the themes or literary features. Again, there is little agreement about which is preeminent (Carson 1991, 88). Some commentators try to synthesize a variety of views. This may confuse the purpose of the Gospel with its theoretical effect (Carson 1991, 89). Carson prefers to accept the author’s statement in 20:30-31, that the text is written so the reader may believe (Carson 1991, 90). The Gospel makes many references to Old Testament concepts, suggesting that the reader likely was familiar with the ideas, but needed to see them in light of Jesus’ work (Carson 1991, 91). Carson suggests that the author’s statement of purpose can articulate all his reasons for the material selected and his mode of presentation (Carson 1991, 93). It all encourages belief in Jesus.
Carson finds John’s theological work to be well integrated, thus difficult to reduce to a list of emphases (Carson 1991, 95). The fullness of Jesus’ identity is certainly important. Carson lists many of the titles used of Jesus, along with multiple chapter and verse references, to help illustrate the author’s concern with identity. Likewise, the concept of salvation is important in John, as is the eschatological nature of the Christian life (Carson 1991, 97). The work of the Holy Spirit and the relation of Jesus to the Old Testament are also important concerns (Carson 1991, 98), as is the way people misunderstand Jesus (Carson 1991, 99).
As regards preaching, Carson urges “attention to the narrative” (Carson 1991, 101), not divorcing passages or verses from their overall context. Above all, the preacher needs to remember that the Gospel is about Jesus, not about us.