Literary Characteristics of the Gospel of John

Taken from Donald Hagner’s The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Baker Academic, 2012)

  • Repeated use of key terms. This is to be expected, and it is caused in part by the repetitious character of the lengthy discourses.
  • Key word links. Important key theological words serve to link various periscopes.
  • Pointless stylistic variations. At the same time, the Evangelist uses synonyms and can vary the way he expresses himself.
  • Double meanings. The Evangelist apparently is fond of words that have a dual meaning. Two notable examples: In the stamen of John 3:3, 7, that one must be ‘born again,’ the word anōthen can also mean ‘from above.’ And the verb hypsoō can mean both ‘to lift up’ literally and ‘to exalt’; thus, the lifting us of Jesus on the cross is at the same time his exaltation.
  • Misunderstandings. Of course, double meanings can lead to misunderstandings, as in John 3. The repeated misunderstandings that occur in the Johannine dialogues usually become vehicles for Jesus’ teaching. Familiar examples are the saying about the destruction and raising up of the temple, which was taken literally but was meant by Jesus to refer to the death and resurrection of his body (2:19-21). In the discourse on the bread of life (6:22-59), the eating of Jesus’ flesh and drinking of his blood are taken literally but actually are an allusion to the Eucharist.
  • Asides. The Evangelist often inserts a comment in the form of an aside, as, for example, in 10:6; 12:33. [In a footnote Hagner notes that one scholar has counted more than a hundred examples of this in this Gospel.]
  • Irony. This important device pervades the narrative of the Fourth Gospel. Irony effectively conveys the message and truth of the narrative by means of the incongruity of appearance and reality, causing the characters to misunderstand what is happening or to be unaware of the meaning of what they themselves say. An excellent example of the author’s use of irony is the statement by the Jewish leaders in 11:48, ‘If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation,’ which is exactly what happened when they did not let Jesus go (cf. 12:19). Another example is this statement by Caiaphas: ‘You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish’ (11:49-50). It was Caiaphas who did not know what he said.
  • Symbolism. Symbols, so very important in John, are earthly realities that point beyond themselves to a transcendent reality. Just for that reason, they serve function very close to the purpose of the Gospel itself. Among the many symbols active in the narrative, three core symbols stand out: light, water, and bread, each of which points to the meaning of Jesus. All three symbols are basic to life and thus to the meaning of Jesus to bring eternal life.
  • Aporias. Abrupt transitions in the narrative have been noted, particularly between chapters 4 and 5, and again between chapters 5 and 6. Whereas chapters 4 and 6 take place in Galilee, chapter 5 has Jesus in Jerusalem. This has led some to rearrange the order of the chapters, putting chapters 4 and 6 together, followed by chapter 5 and the beginning of chapter 7. No manuscript evidence exists to support this reordering of the content of John’s Gospel. The other famous aporia occurs between chapters 20 and 21, a subject examined above. Two factors may be at play here: the probably existence of a later redactor or redactors belonging to the Johannine community, but much more important, what is at work is the freedom of the Evangelist to impose order on the materials as he sees fit and without regard for transitions per se. (283-84)

Donald Hagner


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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