Literary Techniques in Gospel of John


Reading through the Gospel of St. John, one is immediately impressed by the depth of meaning implied in the narrations and the discourses and by the symbolism which abound in the narrations. The evangelist has delved into the depth of the mystery of Christ-event and has collected the precious pearls from the depth of the ocean and exposed them in the Gospel of John. From another angle, we may say that the evangelist has grown wings like eagles and has flown high up in the skies of the mystery of Christ-event and is presenting the experience of that contemplative journey.

In this context, it is relevant to remember that the symbol given to the Gospel of John is “eagle” (Ezek 1: 4-14), because of the theological, mystical heights in which the author flies. The Johannine world has the special language, symbolism, style, and theological vision. There are many expressions which are repeated here and there is a beautiful harmonisation of poetic rhythm and tone. Journeying through this world of the Gospel of John will give us a special theological experience. [The intuitive dimension of Gospel of John resonates with Indian mystical sensitivity.]

a)     Scenes and Dialogues introduced through Narrations of Events

The evangelist narrates an event as an introduction to the following discourse of description of scenes. John 5 is an example for this. This chapter begins with the narration of healing the paralytic on a Sabbath day. The rest of the chapter is discussion on the authentic meaning of Sabbath. The discourse on Sabbath is introduced through the narration of Sabbath healing. Other examples are: John 6: 1-15, 22-26.

b)     Structure of the Discourses and Dialogues

The evangelist of the Gospel of John uses a particular structure in the presentation of the discourses and dialogues. It consists of the following elements:

  • Revelation
  • Misunderstanding, and
  • Clarification

In John 3, in the dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus gives a revelation saying, “unless you are born anew, you will not see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3: 3). The result is a misunderstanding from the part of Nicodemus who asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old” (Jn 3: 4). Jesus in reply clarifies and removes the misunderstanding (Jn 3: 5-11). Other examples are: John 4: 10-14; 11: 17-27 etc.

c)      Double Meaning Words

The evangelist of the Gospel of John uses the words with double meaning in order to focus on a particular message. The “misunderstanding” mentioned above as part of the structure of Johannine discourses is the result of a double meaning word or expression in the revelatory statement of Jesus.

An example is found in John 3: 3. The expression “born again” actually has two meanings: “to be born a second time” and “to be born from above”. What is usually translated as “again” is the word in Greek “anothen” literally (ano + then) means “from above”. Jesus in fact implies “being born from above,” that is, through power of God.

Another example is found in John 3: 14; “is lifted up”. Naturally it refers to the crucifixion of Jesus. But for the evangelist of the Gospel of John crucifixion itself is exaltation and glorification. He chooses this word to combine both the crucifixion and the exaltation. The evangelist of the Gospel of John contemplates the process of crucifying a person. The crucifixion – fixing the person to the cross – happens in the horizontal position. Then, the crucifix is lifted up and erected. In this process of “lifting up” the evangelist sees already the exaltation of the Son of Man. The resurrection, then is on the cross itself.

d)     Irony

The evangelist of the Gospel of John gives message to the readers/hearers (of the community) through ironical situations and speeches.

In John 18: 28, the trial of Jesus before Pilate begins in irony. Being the Passover, the Jews who brought Jesus to Pilate, refuse to go inside the pretorium. Jesus is taken inside; but the Jews wait outside saying that they want to celebrate the Passover undefiled. According to the evangelist of the Gospel of John, the real Passover lamb is Jesus (Jn 1: 29) and hence it is by entering the pretorium that we can participate in the Passover. The evangelist tells us that the real Passover is going on inside. The Jews who think they are pure by being outside are challenged by the evangelist. The believers are invited to go inside to be close to Jesus.

In John 11: 49-50 we have another example of irony. Caiaphas, the high priest says, “you know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed”. Without Caiaphas’ knowledge, he was speaking of the expiatory value of Jesus’ death. His intention, however, was only to convince the associates to kill Jesus.

e)      Explanatory Notes

The evangelist of the Gospel of John is very much conscious of his readers/listeners and wants to help them understand the message as best as possible. For this purpose he employs the technique of giving explanatory notes at particular moments of narration, when he thinks the reader may not understand without an explanation. They also contain mystical insights. Through these texts the evangelist gives expression to the divine self-understanding of Jesus.

An apt example is John 7: 39. In John 7: 37-38, Jesus reveals himself as the source of living water in the words: “…Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink”. As the Scripture has said, “from the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”. Then the evangelist adds a sentence of his own, “Now he said this about the Spirit, which the believers in him were to receive, for as yet there was no Spirit because Jesus was not yet glorified”. This is a composition of the evangelist in explanation of the revelation of Jesus.

In John 11: 51-52, after Caiaphas has spoken about the need for Jesus to die for the whole nation, the evangelist gives an explanatory note in favour of the readers. “He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation and not for the nation only but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.”

Other examples are: John 4: 2; 12: 33; 18: 9.

f)      Inclusion

An inclusion is formed through the repletion of the same word, theme, expression, name, and so on at the beginning and at the end of a narrative or teaching. The repeated word or words will be a key to the understanding of the meaning of the text.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry at Cana, the evangelist of the Gospel of John reports the presence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, addressed by Jesus as “woman” and so too at the end of the ministry (Jn 2: 1-11; 19: 25-27).

Between the first and the last signs (1st and the 7th) there is an inclusion through the repetition of the two themes: glory and faith (Jn 2: 11 and Jn 11: 4, 44).

g)     The Rule of Two

The evangelist employs a technique of drama in the Gospel of John in order to invite the focused attention of the readers/hearers on the desired person or situation or words. The evangelist allows only two persons at a time in a scene.

An apt example for this in John 4. As the narration starts Jesus and the disciples are in the scene (Jn 4: 1-6). When the disciples go to the town Jesus and the woman are in dialogue (Jn 4: 7-26). The woman goes to the village and Jesus is with the disciples (Jn 4: 31-38).

In John 11, we have dialogues between Jesus and the disciples (Jn 11: 7-16), between Jesus and Martha (Jn 11: 17-27), and between Jesus and Mary (Jn 11: 28-33).

h)     Dramatic and Progressive Presentation of Personalities

The evangelist of the Gospel of John introduces and presents the different moments in relation to a character progressively and with purpose.

We have the character of Simon depicted through John 1; 6; 13; 18; 20; 21. It begins with the call and goes on with the confession of faith, intervention during washing of the feet, prediction of denial, intervention during arrest, denial, presence in the empty tomb, and acceptance of the mission.

Judas Iscariot too appears in John 6; 12; 13; 18. Each appearance sheds more and more light on his negative character.

The role of Thomas in the Gospel of John. Only three times he is on the Gospel scene and they are crucial: John 11; 14; 20. In John 11: 16, Thomas’ special character is asserted as he says to the disciples who are unwilling and afraid to go to Judea: “Let us also go that we may die with him”. In John 14: 5, again Tomas intervenes and impresses the readers/hearers: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And the final appearance in John 20: 26-29, is also the climax of the Gospel narration. Thomas proclaims his faith in the risen Jesus: “My Lord and My God”.

i)       Jewish Feast as Background of Jesus’ Teaching and Action

The Gospel of John mentions four feasts of Jews as the background of Jesus’ teaching and action. They are:

  1. Passover
  2. A Great Feast of Jews
  3. Feast of Tents (Tabernacles) and
  4. Feast of Dedication

The Passover feast serves as the background of Jesus’ teaching about the temple (Jn 2: 13-25), of multiplication of loaves and discourse on the Bread of life and living Bread (Jn 6: 1-71), and of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Jn 13 – 20).

A Great Feast mentioned in John 5: 1, is probably Sabbath and it is the background of Jesus’ healing and teaching on Sabbath.

Feast of Tents (Tabernacles) act as the background for the four revelations given by Jesus in John 7 – 10, namely, “come to me and drink” (Jn 7: 37-39), “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8: 12, “I am the Door” (Jn 10: 7-10), and “I am the good Shepherd” (Jn 10: 11-18). At the end of these teachings the evangelist mentions of the Feast of Dedication too (Jn 10: 22).

The background of the feast highlights the meaning and relevance of the teachings of Jesus and show the prophetic subversion of the religiosity of the time.

j)      “I am” Sayings

One of the means by which Jesus reveals His divine identity according to the evangelist of the Gospel of John is “I am” sayings. This is the divine self-revelatory formula used in the Old Testament. It may be used for presentation, qualification, identification, or recognition. The form may be either absolute (“I am”) or with a nominative predicate (“I am the light”). For the Old Testament background the following texts are helpful: Genesis 28: 13; Exodus 3: 14; Isaiah 43: 10-25; 51: 12; 52: 6. In the Gospel of John we find both absolute usage and the usage with nominative predicate.

Absolute usage is found in: John 6: 20; 18: 5.

Nominative predicates are found in: John 6: 35, 41; 8: 12; 10: 7, 11; 11: 25; 14: 6; 15: 1.

What do you think? .... Type your comments below.