In order to review the methodologies, and to illustrate that they can be used with any book, this chapter applies all of the methods to the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John From a Literary-Historical Perspective
The Gospel of John, like the Synoptic Gospels, is a Greco-Roman biography. In the Prologue (John 1:1-18), John refers to Jesus as the "Word" of God who existed with God from the beginning, who, in fact, is God. It is only at the end of this mystical reflection that John explains that the Word of God is Jesus. The prologue, then, provides the reader with a very different expression of the nature of Jesus than any of the Synoptic Gospels. This biography is not about a mortal man; it is about a being who is, in his own right, divine.
The Gospel of John can be divided into two parts. The first twelve chapters narrate Jesus' public ministry over several years. During this time, Jesus performs seven public "signs" and gives speeches that demonstrate his identity. Because Jesus has clearly expressed his identity, he condemns those who do not believe and eventually decides to end his public ministry. The next seven chapters (13-19) take place over the course of only one day. In these chapters, Jesus has his last supper with his disciples (though it is not a Passover meal) and is betrayed. He delivers a final discourse, known as the "Farewell Discourse," in which he explains that he will soon return to heaven, but he will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples for assistance and comfort. Chapters 18-21 describe Jesus' passion and resurrection.
The Gospel of John from a Redactional Perspective
Applying the redactional method to John is difficult since his sources must be reconstructed from the Gospel itself. The author of the Gospel of John most likely did not utilize the Synoptic Gospels because his stories are unique. Most scholars agree that three of John's sources can be isolated on the basis of writing style, the repetition of stories, and the presence of literary seams. These sources are the Signs Source, the Discourse Source, and the Passion Source. John probably used other sources as well (e.g., the prologue and the last chapter of the Gospel).
The Gospel of John from a Thematic Perspective
The Thematic Method isolates and analyzes an author's themes through the course of his narrative. One use of thematic approach is to trace certain descriptions of Jesus through the Gospel. As the prologue points out, Jesus existed with God from the beginning (cf. 17:5) and is the Word of God (cf. 10:30; 11:25); he brings life and light to the world and is rejected by his people (cf. 9:5; 12; 19). John draws on and develops these themes throughout his Gospel.
The Gospel of John from a Comparative Perspective
The Comparative Approach can be used to show differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels. John is the only Gospel that explicitly states that Jesus is equal to God and participated in the creation of the universe. In John, there is no birth narrative. Jesus is not baptized by John (at least it is not explicitly described). The temptation narrative is not present. Jesus does not preach an apocalyptic message and does not teach in parables. John's Jesus proclaims his identity openly: his discourses and signs are meant to reveal his true nature. Because Jesus' identity is abundantly clear, those who reject him are more strongly condemned than in the Synoptic Gospels.
The Author of the Fourth Gospel
Like the other Gospels, the Gospel of John was written anonymously, though it has traditionally been attributed to John the son of Zebedee, thought to be the "beloved disciple" mentioned in the Gospel. Some of the stories may go back to one of Jesus' followers, but the Gospel itself was written well after the deaths of the disciples. In addition, our investigation has shown that this Gospel is the compilation of a number of different sources.
The Johannine Epistles
In addition to the Gospel, the Johannine community produced three letters (1, 2, 3 John). Early Christians grouped these letters with the 'catholic' or 'general' epistles because they were thought to address general problems experienced by Christians. In truth, however, these letters address specific issues within the Johannine community.
The Questions of Genres and Author
The person who penned these epistles was most likely not the final redactor of the Gospel of John. He was surely from the same community, though, since many themes are strikingly similar. The epistles, however, reflect a later time in the community's history when these Christians were encountering different problems than those reflected in the Gospel. Scholars believe that the same person wrote all three letters even though the form of 1 John differs from the other two epistles. The second and third Johannine epistles follow the standard form of ancient letters. 1 John, on the other hand, does not include all of the elements of an ancient epistle (e.g., the author does not introduce himself, name his addressees, offer an opening greeting or thanksgiving on their behalf, and he does not conclude with final prayers or well-wishings).
The New Testament Epistolary Literature and the Contextual Method
Epistles are 'occasional' literature-that is, they address specific issues to specific communities at specific times. The contextual method is particularly helpful for interpreting this kind of occasional literature because it focuses on the historical circumstances surrounding its production. The social history of a text, in other words, is used to explain the text itself.
The Johannine Epistles From a Contextual Perspective
The Johannine letters indicate that a schism has occurred within the community. One group of Christians left the community because, according to the author of 1 John, "they have denied that Jesus is the Christ" (2.22). This letter, coupled with 2 John, makes it clear that these secessionists adhered to a docetic Christology: they believed Jesus did not come in the flesh. In the Gospel, Jesus is depicted as equal with God; some members of the Johannine community continued pushing their Christology higher and higher until not only was Jesus equal with God, he was God. If Jesus was God, moreover, he could not be flesh and blood-he only appeared to be human. The Johannine Epistles were written from the more conservative point of view: Christ was flesh and blood, he was the savior who had come in the flesh for the salvation of all humans.
Reflections on the Contextual Method
One difficulty with the contextual method is that we only have access to one side of the conversation. We can only surmise what the secessionists believed on the basis of what the author of the Johannine Epistles wrote. What can we know about the situation of the Johannine Epistles? First, we know that the author was not present within the community because he expresses his desire to visit them. Second, he sees himself as an authority figure who is able to dispense useful advice to a community. The letters urge the community to remain faithful to the teaching they have received and not to be influenced by the secessionists.