The Gospel of John is unique in the New Testament. For example, the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke largely tell the same stories. John, on the other hand, introduces readers to unique events from the Savior’s life—and seems to do so with a theological purpose. In this interview, Eric Huntsman explains that themes of “encounter and discipleship” in the Gospel of John have real-life application for Christians today.
Learn more by reading Eric Huntsman’s book about discipleship in the Book of John: Becoming the Beloved Disciple: Coming Unto Christ Through the Gospel of John.
What draws Eric Huntsman to the Gospel of John?
The greatest draw to me is the portrait of Jesus that it paints. The Jesus in John is the most divine and the most majestic. In many ways, it is the Jesus Christ that I came to know as a young man reading the Book of Mormon, because that volume of restoration scripture shares a similar “high Christology.”
But I am also drawn to the other characters in the Gospel of John. In many ways, it is the most dramatic and contains long, developed dialogues between Jesus and figures like Nicodemus, the woman the well, and the sisters of Lazarus that not only make them very real but represent different types of people today.
What is the main message of the Gospel of John?
The gospel itself states that its purpose is “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (20:31).
1. Christology of the Gospel
Now the “Jesus” and the “us” in this declarations also provide what I think are the two main themes of the Gospel. The first, primary theme is the high Christology of the Gospel. In it Jesus is the absolutely divine Son of God; as the “Word made flesh,” he is the divine Jehovah only thinly veiled in the flesh of the man Jesus.
2. Encounter and discipleship
But the secondary theme is one of encounter and discipleship. How do people respond to the incarnate Word when they encounter him? Some reject him, but to those who accept him he gives power to become the sons and daughters of God.
But there are a variety of kinds of people who accept Jesus and become his disciples—and their walks of faith are often different. Some, like the Twelve give up everything and follow him full time. Some, like Nicodemus, come to him hesitantly and only fully at the end of the story.
The woman at the well and her fellow Samaritans are outsiders who still embrace him fully. And the Bethany family of Martha, Lazarus, and Mary are the only people besides the figure of the Beloved Disciple himself about whom it is specifically said, “Jesus loved them.”
I argue that these different characters represent different types of disciples today—we all come to Jesus differently and our walks of faith may vary, but when we believe we have life through his name.
Why is John’s gospel so different from the Synoptic gospels?
An early Christian source, Clement of Alexandria, wrote:
But last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain the Gospel, being urged by his friends and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.Clement of Alexandria
The suggestion seems to be that the Synoptics—Mark followed closely by Matthew and Luke—recorded the basic story line of Jesus ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection, but the writer of John wanted to convey a deeper, more spiritual side to the Jesus story.
That certainly helps explain the Fourth Gospel’s more theological bent. But as any reader soon sees, there are “basic external facts,” in the sense of incidents and stories,” that John had which the others simply do not. These include miracles like changing water to wine, the healing at the Pool of Bethesda, the raising of Lazarus, and encounters like those between Jesus and Nicodemus and the Samaritan Women. The other gospels just simply did not seem to know those.
That would seem to suggest a separate source and an independent composition process from the others.
Who is the author?
All of the Gospels are formally anonymous, meaning that they never directly identify or name their authors. The traditional attributions date no earlier than the second century—though they might have been based upon reliable, early tradition.
Most scholars of the Gospel of John tend to dodge the authorship issue by simply referring to the Beloved Disciple, the figure close to Jesus, who seems to have been the source behind the tradition and the text—if not the author himself.
One proposition is that he shared his witness and told the stories he remembered about Jesus, and then his students wrote that down. Although, there is nothing that prevents us from assuming that the Beloved Disciple didn’t write his own story down himself, at least in an early version.
The text does exhibit signs of later revision and additions. John 21, seems very much to be like an epilogue that was added later, and the final verses were clearly written by a late editor.
Does Joseph Smith shed any light on authorship?
Joseph Smith does not seem to have questioned the traditional attribution of most biblical books, certainly not the Gospels. But we need to remember that his inspired revisions and additions generally had to do with content—and not attributions.
On the other hand, he famously changed the titles of Matthew and John from “The Gospel according to Matthew” and “The Gospel according to John” to “The Testimony of Matthew” and “The Testimony of John.”
The earliest manuscripts of the JST do not make that change for Mark and Luke, which seems to be significant inasmuch as Matthew and John were apostles. The implication may be that these Gospels carry additional weight as apostolic witnesses or testimonies, and we might derive from that support for the idea that the figure of the Beloved Disciple was in fact the apostle John, which is what tradition has always held.
But that does not keep us from accepting that the Gospel of John had an interesting, and perhaps complex, compositional history. John may well have been the Beloved Disciple. He testified and perhaps wrote often about his experiences with Jesus. He or one of his followers wrote the first version of the Gospel, and others of his school redacted or edited it. For instance, one of them added the final verses.
But the whole Gospel as we now have it goes by the name of John because he was the authority behind the text.
How can Latter-day Saint familiarity with the Book of Mormon illuminate John’s compositional history?
The example I often use is that of Amulek’s sermon to Zoramites about Christ’s “infinite and eternal atonement” in Alma 34. His words were presumably written in the record of his missionary companion, Alma, who then included them in the Large Plates. Mormon subsequently abridged them into his record, which Joseph Smith eventually translated.
This example shows us that a text can go through several stages of composition (and go through additional editing and translation), but that does not make it any less scripture.
What four parts is the Gospel of John traditionally divided into?
The Gospel of John is traditionally divided into four parts, namely the Prologue, the Book of Signs, the Book of Glory, and the Epilogue:
1. The Prologue (1:1-51), which itself divides into two parts. The first part is the Logos Hymn (Greek for “word”) of 1:1-18. The second part deals with what I call “the great chain of witnesses” in 1:19-51, starting with John the Baptist and ending with Nathaniel.
2. The Book of Signs (2:1-11:57), which is structured around seven miraculous signs interwoven with dialogues and sermons.
3. The Book of Glory (12:1-20:31), which consists of the Johannine passion and resurrection narratives.
4. The Epilogue (21:1-25), about the Risen Lord’s appearance to seven disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, his final dialogue with Peter, and the final witness of the Beloved Disciple.
What are some of the challenges translators have faced in John 1:1?
The challenge of John 1:1 is not so much a question of translation as it is of interpretation. The Greek is, for the most part, straightforward. It’s pretty close to what we have in the KJV when translated directly:
In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, And what God was, the Word was.
The only thing that I did in my translation above that is significantly different was to render the third phrase by what we call “a qualitative predicate nominative,” which is what the New English Bible also does. That is, rather than directly equating the Word with God, I to suggest that the Word was the same as God.
What people often strain at is “What is meant by ‘in the beginning’” or “What is meant by ‘the Word’”?
While Hugh Nibley and a few of our other Latter-day Saint commentators tried to associate the Greek archē with something like “the council,” it is pretty clear to me that instead the evangelist was consciously echoing the opening of Genesis.
What is more interesting, of course, is what the author (or source!) meant by logos, simply translated as “the Word.” The JST, perhaps in more of a midrash than anything else, rendered the first verse as “In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son.”
This is certainly true, but I tend to think that this is an example of the JST teaching another true thing through the text rather than necessarily recreating the original meaning per se. And that is because in Greek, logos had such an interesting and broad range of meanings—word, idea, organizing principle, etc.
I have always been attracted to the idea we can derive from Aristotelian thought, namely that logos is what separated humanity from the rest of the animal world. Animals can communicate in rudimentary ways, of course, but human beings have ideas, emotions, and concepts that they convey to each other through spoken or written words.
Just as words are the way I communicate with another, Jesus is the way that God the Father communicates and interacts with his creation.
But the Genesis 1 echo makes it more than that: Jesus is the way God effects or brings about creation, just as in Genesis 1:1 He said, “Let there by light”—and there was.
What are the seven “I am” statements in John?
There are seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John:
- “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, 41, 48).
- “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
- “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7, 9).
- “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14).
- “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
- “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
- “I am the true vine” (John 15:1).
What are the seven miraculous signs in John?
The Gospel of John includes seven miraculous signs, including changing water to wine and raising Lazarus from the dead:
- Water to wine (John 2:1–11)
- Healing the nobleman’s son (John 4:46–54)
- Healing the man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–18)
- Feeding the five thousand (John 6:1–15)
- Walking on water (John 6:1–15)
- Healing the man born blind (John 9:1–41)
- The raising of Lazarus (John 11:38–44)
Why does John have fewer miracles than the other gospels?
The word for “miracle” in John, at least when the narrator speaks of them, is semeion, which more properly means “sign.” I call them “miraculous signs” to distinguish them from other signs in the Gospel, such as what I can “enacted signs.” Those are when Jesus does something, like cleaning the temple or entering Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey. They symbolize something about Himself.
But that is the point with the miraculous signs. They are not so much great deeds (Greek, dynameis), which is the word the Synoptics use when they talk about miracles, but signs that reveal something about Jesus—that He is the Creator, that He re-creates by healing or atoning; that He brings light and illumination; and, most of all, that He brings life.
The fact that there are only 7 of them when Mark has 19 and Matthew and Luke have 21 each makes it clear that the Johannine evangelist is being purposefully selective. Although the fact that there are seven probably suggests that they are meant to represent the totality of what Jesus did and who He is (inasmuch as seven is the number of completeness).
There is, however, and eighth miraculous sign. It is the miraculous catch of 153 fish on the Sea of Galilee in John 21:6, 11. But I do not think that erodes the numerical significance of the first seven—both because John 21 as an epilogue was probably added later and because it was performed after the resurrection.
That might suggest that it is saying something about the Risen Lord, who knows and numbers all whom He will bring into his kingdom.
How does the Gospel of John uniquely focus on discipleship?
I have written a little book on this called Becoming the Beloved Disciple: Coming unto Christ through the Gospel of John. As I noted above, encounter—especially when it leads to discipleship—is, in my view, the second theme of the Gospel.
This Gospel uses the term for disciple, mathētēs, more than any other gospel. And it focuses on average disciples as much or more than on special witnesses like the Twelve. A mathētēs was not only a student who learned from the Master, but also an apprentice, who strove to become like the Master.
But what is significant to me about the sharply drawn characters of the disciples in John is that they Everyman and Everywoman figures in many ways. Because they portray different responses to Jesus and different kinds of walks of faith, readers can find themselves in one or more of them.
There are standard kinds of disciples such as those in the great chain of witnesses in chapter 1: they hear or learn about Jesus from someone else and respond by following Jesus right off. There is the mother of Jesus, who already knows who Jesus is at Cana and leads others to trusting him.
Nicodemus, to me, represents more of an intellectual who questions and wonders, yet cannot understand by his mind alone. It is not until the end when he sees Jesus having been lifted up on the cross that he finally understand and accepts that Jesus is the Christ.
The Samaritan Woman is an outsider as a woman, a member of a marginalized ethnic group, and one whose life choices were questionable.
The Bethany family of Martha, Lazarus, and Mary are close friends of Jesus. Peter and Thomas are faithful but fallible disciples who are devoted but impulsive.
The point is that they are ALL disciples.
What provides unity in the midst of this diversity of discipleship is the figure of the Beloved Disciple himself. Nameless, each of us can see ourselves in this character. We are all striving to be disciples—and we are all loved by the Lord.
The scenes that feature the Beloved Disciple indicate what experiences and attributes we should all share:
- We lean in arms of the Savior’s love at the last supper (John 13:23);
- We stand at the foot of the cross, sharing a testimony that He died for us (19:26);
- We run to the empty tomb, full of hope that He lives (John 20:2); and
- We continue to follow Jesus even to the end, sure that our testimony is true. (John 21:20)
How does Eric Huntsman know Jesus Christ better because of the Gospel of John?
As I mentioned above, the Christology of the Gospel of John is similar, very similar, to that of the Book of Mormon. Growing up in the Church, one of the ways I came to know the Lord was through reading the Book of Mormon. So, when I first started to really study John, I realized that this was the Jesus whom I loved and worshiped!
But the symbolism, the dialogues, the drama, and the miraculous signs speak to me. Jesus comes alive to me in its pages, and he doesn’t just come alive as the Man from Nazareth. He comes alive as the divine Word made flesh, the Lamb of God, and the Risen Lord.
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About the interview participant
Eric Huntsman is a Latter-day Saint scholar who holds a PhD in Ancient History and Classics from the University of Pennsylvania. He began teaching at BYU in various capacities in 1989, and currently serves as the Associate Director of the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Miracles of Jesus, God So Loved the World: The Final Days of the Savior’s Life, and Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament.
- What Led to the Christmas Story in Luke?
- What Does Ann Madsen Recall About Living in Jerusalem?
- How Did Ancient Christians Understand the Divine Nature?
- How Was the New Testament Canonized?
- Who Was Mary Magdalene?
Eric Huntsman and the Gospel of John resources
- Becoming the Beloved Disciple: Coming Unto Christ Through the Gospel of John (Deseret Book)
- New Testament History, Culture, and Society (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- Hard Sayings and Safe Spaces: Making Room for Struggle as Well as Faith (BYU Speeches)
- Select Publications of Eric Huntsman (BYU New Testament Commentary)
- Eric Huntsman’s Personal Blog (Online)