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The New Testament




The Gospel of Luke is the first part of a two-part work. The second part is the Acts of the Apostles. In the Gospel the author tells the story of Jesus; in Acts, the story of the early Christians. Traditionally the author is identified with the physician Luke who was a companion of Paul (Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24). Some scholars doubt the identification, because they believe that the picture of Paul in Acts is inconsistent with what we know about him from his own Epistles.

Experts say the Greek style of Luke and Acts is better than that of Matthew, Mark, or John- better, in fact, than any other Greek in the New Testament except that of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Greek was probably the author's first language. He was quite possibly a Gentile, and he probably wrote for a Gentile Christian audience. Most modern scholars think this Gospel was written in the 70s or 80s of the first century, perhaps between 80 and 85. The author apparently used Mark as one of his sources, as well as a now-lost collection of sayings of Jesus known as Q. Some scholars think the author wrote a first draft of his Gospel (Proto-Luke), and later expanded it to produce the Gospel we now have. Upholders of this theory think the material from Mark was added at the time of the revision.

A number of features distinguish Luke from the other Gospels. The author is interested in setting the career of Jesus into the context of the history of the Roman Empire. Thus he places the birth of Jesus in the reign of Augustus (2:1) and the beginning of John the Baptist's preaching in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (3:1-2). The author displays more interest than other Gospel writers in persons to whom his society showed little respect, especially women and the poor. Material found only in Luke includes some of the most striking New Testament passages on the value of compassion and human kindness, for example the parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son.

PROLOGUE (1:1-4)

The Gospel is addressed to a certain Theophilus. Since he is called by the complimentary title "most excellent" (1:3), some readers have guessed that he may have been a high Roman official. The author says he will write about things many have written about before, based on accounts handed down from eyewitnesses.


The angel Gabriel appears to the priest Zacharias in the Temple, and tells him his wife Elisabeth will bear him a son who will be called John and who will "be filled with the Holy Ghost" and turn "many of the children of Israel... to the Lord their God" (1:15-16). Because Zacharias hesitates to believe the message, he is struck dumb. Nevertheless, Elisabeth becomes pregnant. Six months later, the angel appears in Nazareth to the virgin Mary, who is "espoused" (we would probably say betrothed) to Joseph, a descendant of King David, and tells her she will have a son, and will call him Jesus. When Mary asks how she will conceive, the angel says it will happen by the power of God, and that Jesus "shall be called the Son of God" (1:35). Mary accepts the angel's word and goes to visit Elisabeth, who is related to her. After Elisabeth gives birth, her son is named John, and Zacharias' speech is restored.

The Roman Emperor Augustus orders "all the world should be taxed," and apparently requires people to register for tax purposes in their ancestral towns. Accordingly, Joseph takes Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, about five miles south of Jerusalem. There she gives birth to Jesus and lays him in a manger (a feeding trough in a stable), because there is no room in the inn. Shepherds, watching over their sheep in the night, see an angel who announces the birth of "a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord" (2:11), and they go and see Jesus. Notice the emphasis here on poverty and hardship. Jesus is born in austere circumstances, and his first visitors are poor working people. Later, the child Jesus is taken to the Temple in Jerusalem, where he is hailed by two pious Jews, Simeon and Anna. Simeon declares that Jesus is to be "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel" (2:32).

NOTE: The taxation census takes place when Cyrenius is governor of Syria (2:2). Cyrenius, or more correctly Quirinius, was a Roman legate of Syria who held a census of Judea in A.D. 6-7. Many scholars consider this date too late for the birth of Jesus, especially in view of the chronological references to Herod (1:5) and Tiberius (3:1).

The infancy narrative of the first two chapters summarizes many of this Gospel's theological themes. The emphasis on the Temple, the references to the messianic hopes of Israel, and the miraculous birth announcements- which parallel those of Ishmael (Genesis 16), Isaac (Genesis 17, 18), and Samson (Judges 13)- place the births of Jesus and John in the context of Jewish tradition. Give particular attention to the four poems that appear in this part of the Gospel. They are known by their opening words in Latin: the Magnificat (1:46-54), the Benedictus (1:68-79), the Gloria in excelsis (2:14), and the Nunc dimittis (2:29-32). The language of the Magnificat is based on the Psalms and on the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10). It emphasizes God's special relationship with poor and "unimportant" people.

No part of the Bible has provided more materials used in Christian worship than Luke 1, 2. The Gloria in excelsis forms part of the Roman Catholic Mass. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the Roman Catholic Divine Office, the Benedictus appears in the morning service and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in the evening service. The Hail Mary, until recently one of the most popular Catholic prayers, is based on the words spoken to Mary by the angel (1:28) and by Elisabeth (1:42). (The infancy narrative of Luke has also been a favorite source of themes in Western art. There are hundreds of paintings of the Annunciation to Mary, many by the greatest masters. Paintings of Jesus and Mary in the stable also take their inspiration from Luke.)

The births of Jesus and John the Baptist are presented in parallel form. The Gospel writers are aware that both men were preaching in Palestine about A.D. 30, that John was preaching first, and that the beginnings of Jesus' ministry lay in John's. The authors don't try to draw attention away from John, but they emphasize that John was the forerunner of Jesus.


John the Baptist begins preaching in the fifteenth year of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Upholders of the Proto-Luke theory have suggested that this chronological notice was originally the beginning of the Gospel, and that the author added the first two chapters later. The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius was A.D. 28-29.

John preaches repentance. When asked what should be done, he says, "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise" (3:11). He tells tax collectors to exact no more than what is due, and he tells soldiers, "Do violence to no man" (3:14)- advice seemingly inconsistent with their profession. People wonder whether John is the Christ, but he predicts one mightier than himself is to come. Jesus, then "about thirty years of age" (3:23), is among the people John baptizes. When Jesus is baptized a heavenly voice says, "Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased" (3:22).

At 3:23-38 there is a genealogy of Jesus quite different from the one at Matthew 1:2-16. Efforts have been made for centuries to reconcile the two genealogies, but none has been very convincing. Note that this genealogy traces Jesus' descent from Adam, the common human ancestor, emphasizing the universality of Jesus' mission. The genealogy is followed by an account of the temptation of Jesus that is quite similar to the account at Matthew 4:1-11.


In Luke, the Galilean ministry begins with a dramatic incident. Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth on the sabbath and reads a text from the prophets (Isaiah 61:1-2): "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted...." (4:18). Then he says "This day is this Scripture fulfilled...." (4:21). His declaration produces great confusion. Jesus expects the people want a sign, but he declines to give one. Instead, he cites Old Testament stories in which the prophets Elijah and Elisha perform miracles, not for Jews, but for Gentiles. Here, Luke is looking toward the extension of Christianity to Gentiles. The infuriated people of Nazareth try to throw Jesus off the top of a hill, but he escapes.

Jesus performs miracles of healing and gathers followers. He chooses the twelve apostles (6:13-16). He arouses the hostility of scribes and Pharisees over such issues as healing on the sabbath, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and forgiving sins.

At 6:17-49, Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Plain. It corresponds to the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5:1-7:27, but is much shorter. A good deal of the material found in the Sermon on the Mount appears in Luke in different contexts. Evidently the two authors have arranged their material differently.

Like the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain begins with Beatitudes. Compare Luke 6:20- 23 with Matthew 5:3-10. You'll be struck by the difference of tone. Where Luke says "Blessed be ye poor," Matthew says "Blessed are the poor in spirit"; where Luke says "Blessed are ye that hunger now," Matthew says "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness." The two versions use many of the same words, but Luke's Beatitudes are concerned with concrete social and economic conditions, while Matthew's are concerned with spiritual and moral matters. Another significant difference is that in Luke, though not in Matthew, the Beatitudes are paralleled by a corresponding series of "Woes:" "woe unto you that are rich!... woe unto you that are full!" (6:24-25), and so forth. Jesus' reported hostility to the rich has disturbed many readers. Some think he means what he says- that it's wrong to be rich- while others suggest that he means it's wrong for the rich to use their wealth for bad purposes.

Jesus travels through northern Palestine accompanied by the twelve (the apostles) and by a group of women whom he had healed. In first-century society, Jewish and Gentile, it was generally thought that men and women should relate to each other only through marriage and family ties. Jesus breaks with convention very dramatically by including women among his close friends. Many conventional people were probably as shocked by Jesus' traveling companions as they were by his teachings.

Near the end of the account of the Galilean ministry, Jesus asks his followers "whom say ye that I am?" Peter answers "The Christ of God" (9:20). Then, in a pattern familiar from the other synoptic Gospels, Jesus commands his followers to tell no one, and teaches them about the suffering and death of the Son of man.


Much of the material that appears only in Luke is found in this long account of Jesus' final trip from Galilee to Jerusalem. Four teaching incidents stand out in particular.

When a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to be saved, Jesus asks him what the Law says. The lawyer replies, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself" (10:27). Jesus says he is right, he should do just that! Notice the remarkable differences between the way this Gospel presents the identification of the two greatest commandments and the way it is presented in Matthew (22:35-40) and Mark (12:28-31). Here, instead of answering the man directly, Jesus asks a question of his own and draws the answer from his questioner. Then the lawyer asks who his "neighbor" is. Jesus replies with the parable of the good Samaritan (10:30-35). Notice the striking realism of Jesus' story, and all the detail he puts into a few sentences. Notice, too, the special regard for the outsider and the downtrodden that is so characteristic of Luke. The priest and the Levite are members of the Jewish religious elite, while the Samaritan belongs to a group considered "heretics" and "half-breeds." Jesus concludes the parable with another question: Which man proved to be a neighbor to the robbers' victim?

NOTE: This parable implicitly criticizes the Law. The priest and the Levite may lack compassion, but they may also be prevented from helping the thieves' victim by their observance of the Law. The man lying by the roadside was "half dead." If he looked like a corpse, a priest or a Levite would have been afraid to touch him because contact with dead bodies made a person unclean, according to the Law (Numbers 19:11).

At 11:2-4, Jesus teaches his followers the Lord's Prayer, not only in a different context but also in a different form from the Lord's Prayer of Matthew 6:9-13. Moreover, there's a textual problem here. The King James Version follows those Greek manuscripts of Luke that coincide most with Matthew. Modern scholars, using better manuscripts, prefer a different reading of the text. In the New American Bible, for example, the form of the Lord's Prayer given in Luke reads: "Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins for we too forgive all who do us wrong; and subject us not to the trial." The form that appears in Matthew has become standard in Christian worship, but some writers think that the shorter form in Luke may be closer to the words Jesus originally spoke.

When Pharisees and scribes reproach Jesus for eating with sinners, he tells them the parable of the prodigal son (15:11-32). This parable depicts sin and forgiveness very dramatically. How would you feel if you were the father of a foolish son who adopted a disreputable manner of life and later came home full of regrets? Would you call for the robe and the ring, and kill the fatted calf? How would you feel if you were the older brother, who has always behaved in a thoroughly respectable way, seeing his father make such a fuss over the brother who had gone astray? In this parable, Jesus makes vividly real the idea that "joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" (15:7). Does Jesus think the "ninety and nine" really exist? (Bartolome Murillo [1617-1682] illustrated this parable with his painting The Return of the Prodigal, now in Washington, D.C.)

Finally, at 16:19-31, Jesus teaches another striking parable, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Here, as in the Magnificat and Beatitudes, love for the poor is paralleled by hostility to the rich. The rich man receives all good things in this life, then goes to hell; the poor man suffers in this world, but afterward he is received into Abraham's bosom. Notice the irony of the ending: "neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (16:31). The author of Luke depicts Jesus as looking ahead to his own resurrection.


When Jesus enters the holy city he weeps, and predicts a time when Jerusalem's enemies "shall cast a trench about" the city (19:43). Later, he says the city will be "compassed with armies" (21:20). Scholars think these passages refer to the Roman siege of Jerusalem that ended with the fall of the city in A.D. 70. Some think these passages could have originated only after the event, but others point out that sieges of cities were a familiar part of ancient warfare.

NOTE: Compare the "Little Apocalypse" passages of Mark (13:1-37), Matthew (24:1- 44), and Luke (21:5-36). The reference to the siege is the most distinctive feature of the version appearing in Luke. In Matthew and Mark a profanation of the Temple is apparently one of the signs that will precede the coming of the Son of man. In Luke, the emphasis is on a military disaster at Jerusalem.

THE PASSION (22:1-23:56)

In Matthew and Mark, the reasons for Judas' betrayal of Jesus aren't explained, apart from the fact that he receives money. In Luke, Satan enters into Judas (22:3), a theme found also in John (13:2, 27). This detail helps to set the Passion in the context of a struggle between good and evil.

Jesus eats the Last Supper with the apostles, and he gives them the eucharistic bread and cup. Afterwards, he tells them "that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors..." (22:37). The quotation is from Isaiah 53:12, one of the "suffering servant" passages which, whatever meaning may have been intended by the original author, had a great influence on the Christian concept of a suffering Christ. This passage is the only place in the Gospels where Jesus explicitly identifies himself as the "suffering servant."

The prayer of Jesus at the Mount of Olives and his arrest are told here in much the same terms as in the other synoptic Gospels. The author of Luke adds a dramatic touch to the story of Peter's denials. After Peter denies Jesus the third time, and the cock crows, Luke says "the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter" (22:61). Then Peter remembers that Jesus had foretold the denials, and he weeps.

In the morning, Jesus is questioned by the Jewish council of chief priests, scribes, and elders, then by Pontius Pilate, and then by Herod Antipas (the ruler who killed John the Baptist). The account in Luke emphasizes the role of the Jewish leaders in the decision to have Jesus executed, and deemphasizes Pilate's responsibility. When the councillors hand Jesus over to Pilate, they accuse him of "forbidding to give tribute to Caesar" (23:2), of claiming to be a king, and of stirring up the people from Galilee to Jerusalem. After hesitating and trying to reason with them, Pilate sentences Jesus to die.

Luke offers some details about the Crucifixion found nowhere else. In all four Gospels, Jesus is crucified with two other men. According to Matthew and Mark, these others are thieves, and they revile Jesus (Matthew 27:38, 44; Mark 15:27, 32). In Luke alone we read the story of the good thief. One of the criminals who is being crucified with Jesus mocks him. The other criminal tells him to stop and asks Jesus, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (23:42). Jesus answers, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (23:43). This brief exchange is, in Luke, the final instance of Jesus' compassion for sufferers and sinners. Salvation, it appears, is to be had for the asking.

When Jesus is dying, instead of the desolate cry reported in Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34), he calls out, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (23:46).


The last section of the Gospel is divided into three parts. First, the women go to the tomb, find it empty, and are told by two angels that Jesus is risen. Second, two of Jesus' followers meet Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but they don't recognize him. They tell him they're perplexed about everything that has happened, and he shows them from Scripture (presumably the Old Testament prophets) that the Christ should suffer before being glorified. When they are eating together, "he took bread, and blessed it, and brake [broke], and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight" (24:30-31). Readers have found this story beautiful, and also puzzling. Why don't the two people recognize Jesus? What are we supposed to think is the nature of their experience? The recognition of Jesus in the breaking of bread, in any case, has been taken as a reference to the Eucharist.

Finally, Jesus appears to the apostles in Jerusalem, and tells them he is risen from the dead. To show that he has a real body, he eats a piece of broiled fish and some honey. Then he tells them, "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations" (24:47). He leads them out of Jerusalem to Bethany, blesses them, and is taken into heaven.

[The New Testament Contents]



Most scholars agree that John was written later than the other Gospels, around A.D. 100. Tradition ascribes it to the apostle John, son of Zebedee, and identifies him with the "disciple whom Jesus loved" referred to in the Gospel. The Gospel itself says that it owes its authority to that disciple's testimony (21:24). Many modern scholars think the Gospel does represent a preaching and teaching tradition probably going back to the apostle John, but that it was written, and perhaps rewritten, by his followers. The three Epistles of John were written either by the same person who wrote the Gospel or by someone writing in the same tradition. Certainly the language of 1 John closely resembles that of the Gospel.

The fourth Gospel is organized differently from the synoptics. The synoptics describe Jesus as first teaching in Galilee, then making a journey to Jerusalem at the end of his life. John reports several journeys between Galilee and Jerusalem.

Many miracle stories and parables found in the synoptics don't appear in John, nor does the Lord's Prayer or the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. On the other hand, many familiar stories about Jesus, such as the meeting with the Samaritan woman, the forgiving of the woman taken in adultery, and the raising of Lazarus, appear only in John. In the discourses reported in this Gospel, Jesus describes himself in powerful metaphors. He calls himself the "good shepherd," the "bread of life," the "true vine," the "resurrection and the life," the "light of the world." A central concern of this Gospel is who and what Jesus is.

PROLOGUE (1:1-18)

While Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus, and Matthew and Luke with the events surrounding his birth, John begins before the creation of the world. The very first words of the Gospel echo the opening of the book of Genesis, in the Old Testament: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made" (1:1-3).

"Word" here translates the Greek logos, which means word, thought, or reason. The idea that God, in creating the world and in dealing with the human race, acts through an intermediary is hinted at in the Old Testament (Proverbs 8:22-31, Wisdom 7:24-27, 9:9-10). There, this being is called Wisdom. In John the logos, or Word, is a divine being (1:1), which created all things (1:3), and "which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (1:9).

The use of the Greek word logos for a divine Word or Reason isn't unique to the New Testament. Philo (about 20 B.C.- A.D. 50), a Jewish writer of Alexandria in Egypt, who tried to show that the teachings of the Old Testament were consistent with Greek philosophy, uses the word logos. So do the pagan religious books known as the Hermetica, which were written in Greek, probably in the first three centuries of the Christian era. In both cases, the logos is seen as being intermediate between God and the world.

What is distinctively Christian about the concept of the logos in John is the statement that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (1:14). The Word is in fact identified with Jesus. Many scholars think the prologue of John is a rewritten version of a hymn, and some think the original hymn was of non-Christian origin. Be that as it may, the crucial point here is the belief that the Word became a particular human being, Jesus.

Why does the author of John begin with such a heavy dose of theology? Clearly, he's trying to explain what it means to say that Jesus is the Son of God. The idea that the man who lived and died in Palestine is also a divine being who participated in the creation of the universe lies behind the later formulation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which identifies Jesus as God the Son. Many scholars explain the prologue of John further, by looking at the ideas it denies.

In the early centuries of Christianity there was a religious movement known as Gnosticism (from the Greek gnosis, meaning knowledge). Gnosticism included many different schools of thought, but in general Gnostics believed the material universe was an evil place, created by an evil spirit, and that human beings were trapped in it. Jesus, according to Christian Gnostics, was a good spirit who came to liberate human beings from their imprisonment in the universe. Because they thought of matter as evil, many Gnostics thought Jesus didn't have a real body, but that his body was a phantom.

The prologue to John stresses two points seemingly intended to deny Gnostic beliefs. The first is that the Word created all things: if there is evil in the world, it doesn't come from an evil creator. The second is that the Word became flesh: Jesus didn't just seem to be a man, but had a real human body. Fully developed Gnostic doctrine is known to us from literature written after New Testament times, but Gnostic ideas were probably in circulation when the Gospel of John was written. The prologue may be an attempt to explain Jesus in a way that rules out Gnostic ideas.

MINISTRY OF JESUS (1:19-12:50)

The account of Jesus' ministry in John seems to illustrate the words of the prologue: "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (1:11). Jesus performs miracles and makes some very striking speeches. Everything he says and does reveals that he is the Christ, but most people fail to understand, and Jesus runs into more and more opposition.

The section from 1:19 to 12:50 is sometimes called the Book of Signs because of the prominence it gives to seven signs, or miracles, Jesus performs. These are the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana (2:1-11), the cure of the nobleman's son (4:46-54), the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (5:2-9), the feeding of five thousand people (6:5- 14), the walking on the Sea of Galilee (6:16-21), the cure of the man who was blind from birth (9:1-12), and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44). Some scholars have tried to deduce from the miracles a sevenfold pattern in the structure of this part of the Gospel, but others are unconvinced. In any case, Jesus' speeches and conversations will show you better than anything else how the author of John wants his readers to understand Jesus.

The account opens at 1:19 with John the Baptist's testimony. The Baptist plays an important part in this Gospel. He bears witness to the identity of Jesus, saying "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (1:29), and it is he who sees the Spirit descending on Jesus.

The image of Jesus as the Lamb, found here, and at 1 Peter 1:19, and often in the book of Revelation, suggests the idea that Jesus is a sacrificial offering. At John 19:36 Jesus is identified with the paschal lamb, which was eaten at the Passover festival. Some scholars have thought that, because the Aramaic word for lamb also means young man or servant, the expression may also be intended to suggest Servant of God. Like the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:7, Jesus "is brought as a lamb to the slaughter." (In art Jesus is often depicted symbolically as a lamb, notably in the painting The Adoration of the Lamb by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck [1385?-1441], which is the central panel of the great Ghent Altarpiece.)

Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding in Cana, a village in Galilee about nine miles from Nazareth. After his mother tells him the wine has run out, he turns washing water into good wine. The change represents a transformation of what is common and cheap into what is precious and desirable.

Then Jesus goes to Jerusalem for Passover. He drives the sellers of oxen, sheep, and doves and the money changers from the Temple. This passage has confused readers, because it comes at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, while the synoptics place the cleansing of the Temple among the events of Jesus' last days. Some readers have thought the Gospels refer to two different episodes, but most scholars think they've just arranged their material differently.

Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee, comes to see Jesus. Jesus tells him, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God" (3:3). The saying perplexes Nicodemus, and Jesus explains that a person must "be born of water and of the Spirit" (3:5). The idea of a second birth is found elsewhere in the New Testament (see, for example, 1 Peter 1:3, 23). It carries with it implications both of baptism ("of water") and of the birth of faith in the heart ("of the Spirit"). Here, Jesus stresses the importance of faith, explaining that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.... He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already" (3:16, 18). This passage illustrates John's "realized eschatology"- that is, the belief that judgment is not something that happens at the end of the world, but rather here and now, in people's own response to Jesus. This "realized eschatology" is found side by side in John with a more conventional "futuristic eschatology"- a view that places judgment at the end of the world and stresses the reward and punishment of good and evil actions (for example at 5:28-29).

On his way back to Galilee, Jesus passes through Samaria, and meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. He asks her for a drink of water, though Jews would normally "have no dealings with the Samaritans" (4:9). Jesus uses the occasion to offer a striking symbol of spiritual life: "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst" (4:13-14). After some talk about the religious differences between Samaritans and Jews, the woman says she knows "that Messiah cometh, which is called Christ," and Jesus replies "I that speak unto thee am he" (4:25-26). The woman tells her neighbors, and many of them believe in Jesus. Notice that the first person in this Gospel to whom Jesus actually says he's the Christ is a woman, a Samaritan, and a person whose marital arrangements (4:16- 19) don't meet conventional moral standards. She's also the first person to preach Jesus to non-Jews!

At 5:16 the theme of conflict between Jesus and "the Jews" is introduced: "therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him." The reasons given are Jesus' violation of sabbath rules, and his claim that God is his Father. The theme appears several times again, notably in chapter 8 and in the account of the end of Jesus' life.

Some readers have felt that the Gospel of John is anti-Semitic. Yet the Gospel shows Jesus regularly celebrating the Jewish religious festivals, and even depicts him as saying "salvation is of the Jews" (4:22). Many scholars think that the passages in which "the Jews" appear as adversaries of Jesus refer in fact to the Jewish religious authorities (the chief priests, and especially the Pharisees). When this Gospel was written, the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed, the Pharisees were the only remaining Jewish authorities, and the split between Christianity and Judaism was becoming final. The references to expulsion from synagogues at 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 suggest that John may well have been written at a time when the expulsion of Jewish Christians from synagogues was a major issue.

After miraculously feeding five thousand people near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus speaks in images of food: "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger" (6:35). As he had spoken of two waters, he now speaks of two foods: "Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die" (6:49-50; on manna, the miraculous food of Israel in the desert, see Exodus 16:14-35). The reference to bread from heaven seems primarily a reference to Jesus' satisfying spiritual hunger, but there may also be an allusion to the Eucharist here. In any case, Jesus swiftly moves on to a clearer reference to the Eucharist: "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life" (6:54).

Some people who had followed Jesus are perplexed by this speech and desert him. Jesus asks the twelve apostles whether they, too, will leave him. It's in this context that the Gospel of John places Peter's confession "thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God" (6:69). Jesus has become controversial. Even some of his own relatives, at this time, don't believe in him (7:5).

Scribes and Pharisees bring Jesus a woman who has been caught committing adultery, and ask him whether she should be put to death by stoning, as the Jewish law provides. Jesus replies, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her" (8:7). The accusers leave, one by one, and Jesus advises the woman to "go, and sin no more" (8:11). Some scholars think that the story is set at a time when the Romans have forbidden Jewish courts to impose the death penalty, so Jesus faces the dilemma of breaking Roman law by advising punishment or Jewish law by advising clemency. Maybe they're right, but there's a lot more to the story than that. Jesus gets himself out of a potentially difficult situation, but he saves the woman's life. And he teaches the lesson that all are in need of mercy.

You should be aware that this passage (7:53-8:11) is placed here in some manuscripts, at the end of John in others, and after Luke 21:38 in others. Still other manuscripts omit it. It looks as if the story of the woman taken in adultery wasn't originally part of the Gospel of John. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not a genuine ancient story about Jesus.

When Jesus says "I am the light of the world," Pharisees reply that he bears witness to himself, and lies (8:12-13). Jesus asserts that his witness is true, saying "Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man" (8:15) and he claims that two witnesses testify for him- himself and his Father. The controversy continues with heated language on both sides. Jesus accuses his opponents of being children of the devil and they accuse him of being possessed by a devil. When "the Jews" ask "Art thou greater than our father Abraham...?" (8:53), Jesus replies "Before Abraham was, I am" (8:58). This claim recalls the exalted view of Jesus expressed in the prologue.

Jesus then contrasts true and false religious leadership. "I am the good shepherd," he declares (10:11). He says of the shepherd that "the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out" (10:3). The good shepherd is even ready to die to protect his sheep from wolves. He contrasts the good shepherd with the "hireling... whose own the sheep are not" (10:12), who deserts the sheep in time of danger. In yet another confrontation, "the Jews" ask him whether he is the Christ. He says they don't believe in him because they aren't his sheep (10:26). When he says "I and my Father are one" (10:30), they want to stone him for blasphemy, but he escapes.

Jesus goes to Bethany, the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, two sisters and a brother who are close friends of his. Lazarus is dead. Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again, and Martha replies that she knows he will rise on the last day. Jesus says "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (11:25). He goes to the tomb where Lazarus is buried and restores him to life.

The raising of Lazarus points toward the death and resurrection of Jesus in two different ways. On the one hand, Lazarus' resurrection anticipates Jesus' own resurrection. On the other, Bethany is very near Jerusalem, and "the chief priests and the Pharisees" (11:47) learn about the miracle and consider what they should do. Some of them are afraid that the popularity of Jesus may lead to a disastrous confrontation between the Romans and the Jews. Caiaphas, the high priest, remarks "that it is expedient... that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not" (11:50). The author of the Gospel, while maintaining that the words of Caiaphas are spoken in the course of conspiratorial discussion against Jesus, nevertheless finds in them a prophecy that Jesus will die for the nation, and not for the Jewish nation alone, but to "gather together in one" all "the children of God" (11:52).

Six days before Passover, Jesus returns to Bethany. Mary anoints his feet with a precious ointment, and Jesus says that this prefigures his burial, for similar ointments were used in embalming. The next day Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed by crowds of people as "King of Israel" (12:13).


John's account of the Last Supper is quite different from that in the synoptics. Here, there is no mention of the Eucharist. Instead, Jesus gives his final teachings to his followers. He begins with a symbolic action, washing their feet. He explains that this is a lesson in humility.

Jesus foretells his betrayal by Judas Iscariot. The story seems to move on two different tracks. On the one hand, the Gospel says clearly that the devil enters into Judas (13:2, 27). On the other, Jesus himself says to Judas "That thou doest, do quickly" (13:27). Jesus willingly accepts death, but why are the two themes- the devil's initiative and Jesus' own initiative- so closely tied together here? Do you think it suggests Jesus' ability to use even great evil to advance the fulfillment of God's plan?

The episode of Jesus' prediction of his betrayal introduces the disciple "whom Jesus loved," who is "leaning on Jesus' bosom" (13:23). The Beloved Disciple appears again, standing by the cross at the Crucifixion (19:26), visiting Jesus' tomb with Peter on Easter (20:2-8), and again at Jesus' resurrection appearance in Galilee (21:7, 20). He is probably also referred to at 18:15-16. The Gospel says that its text is based on the Beloved Disciple's testimony (21:24). Who was this man, evidently Jesus' intimate friend at the end of his life? The traditional answer is John, the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles. A few scholars have suggested that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple, because the Gospel stresses the fact that Lazarus was a beloved friend of Jesus (11:3, 5, 11, 36). Others have suggested John Mark, to whom the authorship of the Gospel of Mark is traditionally assigned. Most readers, however, have regarded the traditional identification of the Beloved Disciple with John, son of Zebedee, as the most probable.

"A new commandment I give unto you," Jesus declares, "That ye love one another" (13:34). The value of Christian love is strongly emphasized in the Gospel of John- although the stress is on Christians loving each other, whereas in the synoptics it's more generally on loving one's neighbor (Luke 10:25-37) and even one's enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

When Jesus tells Peter "Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterward" (13:36), Peter announces that he is willing to die for Jesus- and Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows. Imagine Peter's dismay when he hears this! Jesus immediately says "Let not your heart be troubled" (14:1). He says that he is going to prepare a place, with his Father, for his followers. When Thomas asks "how can we know the way?" Jesus declares, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (14:5-6). Then Philip says "show us the Father, and it sufficeth us" (14:8). After all this time- on the last night of his life- Jesus is still faced with skeptical ideas among the members of his inner circle of followers! "Have I been so long time with you," he asks, "and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (14:9). He doesn't say that he is the Father. Instead, he's repeating something he said earlier: "he that seeth me seeth him that sent me" (12:45). Both passages recall the words of the prologue: "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" (1:18). In other words, it is through Jesus that God is known.

The incomprehension displayed by Peter, Thomas, and Philip shows that they're not well prepared to get along without Jesus' guidance. Accordingly, Jesus promises that the Father will send "another Comforter" to them, who will remain with them forever (14:16). This Comforter "is the Holy Ghost... he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you" (14:26).

"I am the vine," Jesus says, "ye are the branches" (15:5). The significance of this image lies in the fact that branches are not only joined to the main vine, but also derive their life from it. If the branches are cut off, they wither and die. Jesus develops this theme of unity further in the prayer with which he concludes his discourse: "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us" (17:20-21). Earlier, Jesus says "I and my Father are one" (10:30). Here he prays that his followers, too, will participate in the unity that he and his Father share.

THE PASSION (18:1-19:42)

After the Last Supper, Jesus and his followers go to the garden. He is arrested there by officers of the chief priests, led there by Judas. Notice that here there's no mention of the "agony in the garden." Where the synoptic tradition has Jesus pray "Father... take away this cup from me" (Mark 14:36), John has him say "the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" (18:11). John's account of the Passion stresses the inner peace and minimizes the anguish of Jesus as he voluntarily surrenders his life.

Jesus is brought to the high priest and questioned, but he refuses to discuss his teachings on the ground that they are already public knowledge.

Jesus is then brought to Pontius Pilate, the Roman official in charge of Judea. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the King of the Jews, and Jesus replies "My kingdom is not of this world" (18:36). When Pilate declares "I find no fault in him" (19:4), the chief priests and officers shout "Crucify him, crucify him" (19:6). "The Jews" say that Jesus has incurred the death penalty because he claims to be the Son of God. Pilate questions Jesus again, but he learns nothing further. Then "the Jews" cry "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar" (19:12). When Pilate asks "Shall I crucify your King?" the chief priests reply "We have no king but Caesar" (19:15). Pilate orders that Jesus be crucified.

Both Pilate and the Jewish authorities are made to look pretty bad in this account. The Roman Empire of the first century was a brutal dictatorship. Fear was one of the strongest motives among the leaders of the day. John's account stresses fear of the Romans as the main reason why the Jewish authorities ask for Jesus' death (11:48), and fear of the emperor as the main reason why Pilate agrees to have him killed.

NOTE: There's also a deeper criticism of the chief priests implied in their saying "We have no king but Caesar." It's clearly their duty to keep in mind the strong affirmation of the Jewish faith that "the Lord is King for ever and ever" (Psalm 10:16). John's account of the trial of Jesus thus portrays the chief priests as so subservient to foreign rule that they are unfaithful to the principles of Judaism.

Jesus is crucified. His mother, his mother's sister, and Mary Magdalene stand by the cross with the beloved disciple. Jesus entrusts his mother to the care of the beloved disciple. Then he says "It is finished" and dies (19:30). Here, as in the garden, John's account stresses the serenity of Jesus. A soldier pierces the side of Jesus with a spear, and blood and water flow out. Traditionally, the blood and water have been seen as symbols of the Eucharist and baptism, respectively. Jesus' bones, however, are not broken- a symbol used to liken Jesus to the paschal lamb (19:36; see Exodus 12:46). Afterwards, Jesus is buried by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two leading Jews who are among Jesus' sympathizers.


Early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds it open. She runs and tells Peter and the beloved disciple that Jesus' body has been stolen. Peter and the disciple run to the tomb and find it empty. Jesus then appears to Mary Magdalene. She doesn't recognize him until he addresses her by name: "Mary." Then she hails him as her master. Jesus says "go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (20:17). She delivers the message. Notice the strong identification between Jesus and his followers in this short speech. Not only does he call them brethren, but he emphasizes that his Father is their Father.

NOTE: Since women weren't considered competent witnesses in Jewish law, the importance the early Christians assigned to women as the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus- here and in all three synoptic Gospels- represents a startling break with tradition.

On the evening of the same day, Jesus appears to his followers. He breathes on them, saying "Receive ye the Holy Ghost" (20:22), and authorizes them to remit sins. Thomas, one of the twelve, is absent at the time. When the others tell him they've seen Jesus, Thomas says that unless he puts his finger into the holes made in Jesus' hands by the nails he will not believe (20:25). After eight days, Jesus appears again. This time, Thomas is there, and Jesus says "Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands" (20:27), but Thomas hails him as "My Lord and my God" (20:28). This dramatic story gave us the expression "doubting Thomas." An early form of the Gospel may have ended at 20:31, but the text we have adds chapter 21 as an epilogue.

The epilogue deals largely with Jesus' relationships with Peter and the beloved disciple. Jesus appears to a group of his followers on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (or Sea of Galilee). The beloved disciple recognizes him first. After they eat some bread and fish, Jesus asks Peter "lovest thou me more than these?" Peter says he does, and Jesus says "Feed my lambs" (21:15). The dialogue is repeated three times. By telling Peter to act as a shepherd, Jesus is evidently giving him leadership in the Christian community.

Jesus predicts Peter's martyrdom. When Peter asks what will happen to the beloved disciple, Jesus says "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" (21:22). The author says this gave rise to a belief that the disciple wouldn't die. He points out that Jesus didn't actually say that- perhaps because the beloved disciple had in fact died by the time John was written. He asserts, "This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things" (21:24).



ECC [The New Testament Contents] []

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