The Old Testament in Relation to St. John's Gospel
by Paul Fraser

Old Testament Characters in the Fourth Gospel

Aside from Moses, who is clearly the most important OT character in the Gospel according to John, there are only a few references to a few other patriarchs, kings, and prophets from the Hebrew Bible:

Moses           Elijah           Jacob           Isaiah           David


There can be no doubt that the person of Moses and the experience of the Exodus are pivotal in the Fourth Gospel.  These aspects of the Old Testament story are axiomatic to John's understanding of the person and mission of Christ.  Jesus is the giver of the new commandment.  He is the new leader of the people.  There are connections on many levels between the Fourth Gospel and the wilderness tradition of the Jewish people [see also manna and water elsewhere on this website]. John exploits these theological links to great effect.

This discussion contains the following sub-sections:

Parallels between Moses and Jesus

There are many parallels between Moses and Jesus in the Gospels and in early Christian tradition. In the catacombs, for example, there are a number of pictures where the link is preserved.  In several instances there is a representation of Moses and the rock from which the waters flowed being paired with one of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  In another representing the marriage at Cana, Jesus touches the water pots with a rod (such as that used by Moses in the exodus tradition) while Moses appears in an adjoining picture.  One can only assume that behind these representations there lies a parallel literary tradition.  For a Scriptural parallel we find connections in the stories of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness; the setting and the time-frame both echo the exodus story, for example.  The bread of life discourses echo strongly the manna imagery from the exodus period. Furthermore, in Matthew 5-7 we see Jesus ascend the mountain to give a new law to his people.

Westcott, more than a century ago, reflected upon the messianic expectations of the people of Israel at the time of Jesus.  His work looks very closely at the Mosaic expectancy and compares this to the Davidic tradition.  While the latter is clearly the more popular he goes on to claim the "... image and promise of Moses moulded the expectations of some among them.  These looked for a Prophet rather than for a King..." (Westcott, 132).

That the Johannine tradition sees this Mosaic concept as central to its theology is emphasised by the Prologue: "The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (1:17).

What had been claimed for the Torah is now being transferred to the Logos.  It is also interesting to note that nowhere in the Fourth Gospel is Jesus called the Son of David.  Clearly, the focus is on the Mosaic tradition and connection.

As the following list shows, the Fourth Gospel includes thirteen direct references to Moses:

John 1:17  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 
John 1:45  Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." 
John 3:14  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up
John 5:45-46  Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. / If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 
John 6:32  Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 
John 7:19  "Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?" 
John 7:22-23  Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs), and you circumcise a man on the sabbath. / If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man's whole body on the sabbath? 
John 8:5  Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" 
John 9:28-29  Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. / We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." 

This  is significantly more than any other OT character in the Fourth Gospel, which itself is an indication of the parallel which the evangelist sought to make.

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The Messiah

In Deuteronomy 18:15-19 we read:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.  This is what you requested of the Lord our God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: "If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die."  Then the Lord replied to me: "They are right in what they have said.  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people.  I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet who shall speak to them everything that I command."
Based on the Deuteronomic tradition Jewish expectations concerning Moses took two forms.  While some looked for a second deliverer (Moses of course being the first), others thought of a return of Moses as a forerunner of the Messiah.  Elijah was the other great forerunner in the tradition.  The presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration is probably a reference to this particular tradition.  If Jews were to raise the objection that Jesus could not be the Messiah because the two expected forerunners had not appeared the Transfiguration provided an effective reply.

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The Law

"The Law" (Gk nomos) appears some 14 times in John's Gospel.  While Jesus urges his disciples to keep the Law, it could be said that Jesus sees the law as being unable to regulate human action. The Law is the body of teaching revealed to Moses which served as a basis for the entire social and religious life of Israel.  The evangelist does not limit "The Law" to the Pentateuch.  For example, in John 10:34 we read 'Is it not written in your Law, "I have said you are gods"?'  Here, the text cited comes from Psalm 82:6.  It is evident from this and other citations that John includes the Psalms and the Prophets in that body of Literature which he calls "The Law".

John actually attempts to show that "The Law" points to Jesus as the Christ, seeing the Law as a prophetic thing.  Indeed, it could be argued that John sees Jesus as fulfilling the Law, as its completion.  He goes beyond the Law.  The dialogue between Jesus and the Jews in John 7 illustrates this point very well.  Jesus has been branded a sinner for healing on the Sabbath and so they try to kill him.  In verse 19 John points out that Jesus knew the will of the people and then turns their own argument back on them.  For in trying to kill Jesus they break the Law themselves.  In this encounter Jesus identifies his work with the work of Moses - on on a more elevated level:

"If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man's whole body on the sabbath?"(7:23)
Rabbinic teaching applies many titles to the Law:  light of the world, water of life, bread of life, good shepherd, way, truth and life.  In John's Gospel these are now applied to Jesus.  John is clearly making the statement that in the Revelation of Jesus Christ a new law, a life-giving law, now applies.  The revelation of God is now no longer in Moses.

When Jesus speaks of the Law in John's Gospel he presents it as the Law of the Jews.  This point is developed by Brinsmead in an essay entitled 'Law and Commandments in the Gospel of John'.  He takes three occasions in which Jesus speaks of the Law.  Note how in each instance Jesus distances himself from The Law:

John 8:17        "In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid".
John 10:34      'Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods'?"'
John 15:25      "But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: 'They hated me without reason'."
It would appear that John is also distancing himself -- and perhaps indicating that the Johannine community itself was distanced -- from the Jewish Law at the time of writing.  The Law is no longer to be used as a rule of life for the Christian community.  It has been replaced by Jesus Christ.  This does not mean that the Law has no value; it certainly does, insofar as it points towards the Christ revelation.  However, it is no longer to be an object of devotion.  Only Jesus is worthy of this devotion.

In describing the rule of life for the Christian which comes from the Father, John avoids use of the term Law.  He continues this practice all through his writings -- the Letters and the Book of Revelation.  Instead he chooses to use the word 'commandment' as we see in the following texts from the Fourth Gospel:

John 13:34    "A new commandment I give you..."
John 14:15    "If you love me, you will obey what I command".
John 14:21    "Whoever has my commandments and obeys them..."
John 15:10    "If you obey my commands you will remain in my love".
John 15:12    "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you"
John 15:14    "You are my friends if you do what I command".
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Moses and the Serpent

John 3:14-15 draws upon the account of Moses fashioning the bronze serpent, read about in the Book of Numbers. He is assuming that the reader is familiar with the incident. Scholars have drawn out the striking parallel between the two passages, as can be seen in the table below.

 Num 21:4-5   John 3:14-15
esthsen auton epi shmeion He set it on a 'pole'
MwushV uywsen ton ofin  Moses lifted up the serpent
paV o dedhgmenoV  everyone who had been bitten
paV whoever
idwn auton when he saw it
o pisteuwn  believes
zhsetai  should live
en autw ech zwhn aiwnion  in him may have eternal life

The earliest commentary that we have on the bronze serpent is in Wisdom 16:5-14.

          "For when the terrible rage of wild animals came upon your people
          And they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents,
          Your wrath did not continue to the end;
          They were troubled for a little while as a warning
          And received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law's command.
          For the one who turned toward it was saved,
          Not by the thing that was beheld,
          But by you, the Savior of all.."

It is clear from the very beginning that there was a tendency in the commentaries to shift the emphasis from the serpent itself to God's power that lay behind the serpent. Maneschg uncovers this same tendency in the Rabbinic literature wherein the words for 'pole' and 'sign' are used interchangeably (Hebrew  nes and 'wt).

T.F. Glasson asserts that John's emphasis is on the importance of 'beholding' the son of God. In Numbers 21 the emphasis is on life rather than just on healing - so if we look on the Son, we will live. Note the link between 'seeing' and 'believing'.. For John they are intrinsically linked.

Also, the pole in the Book of Numbers is referred to as the "sign" (Gk shmeion; Hebrew nes). These two words are linked by the Targum of Onkelos. Some scholars suggest that John has the shmeion of the cross in mind - the cross and resurrection are the seventh and final sign in the Gospel. In this we can also see an echo of Isaiah 11:10-12, where the 'root of Jesse' is to 'raise an ensign for the nations'. There also the Hebrew for 'ensign' is nes, which the LXX translates with shmeion. Borgen sees in this whole incident part of a 'polemic against the ascents of Moses and of all others who are said to have ascended into heaven.'  John, he says, reverses Moses' order of ascent and descent - for the Logos it is descent followed by ascent. Given the challenge that this represents to the core of Judaism, this passage then might reflect an underlying dispute between Church and Synagogue.

This passage should convince us that John was familiar with Jewish methods of scriptural exegesis. He appears to have had access to the Aramaic literature and tradition - rendering him well capable of opposing the Synagogue traditions.

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The Prophet Elijah is an important figure in the Fourth Gospel, even though he is only referred to on two separate occasions (Jn 1:21, 25).  It was widely accepted that Elijah (and Moses) would be the two forerunners to the Messiah.  This is one reason why the Transfiguration was an important event in the synoptic Gopsels.  John, in the Prologue, manages to include a reflection of this particular tradition.  It is something of a problem that John the Baptist (Jn 1:25) denies that he is the Prophet (Elijah).  Possibly the Evangelist is trying to re-fashion the concept, with John not being the return of the historical Elijah but rather a forerunner working in the spirit and power of Elijah (Lk 1:17).  It is clear from the Evangelist's imagery that John the Baptist is an Elijah figure - he is desciribed as a burning and shining lamp which is similar to the description of Elijah found in the Book of Ecclesiasticus - 'Also there arose Elijah the prophet as fire, and his word burned like a torch' (48:1).

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There are both direct and indirect references to the Patriarch Jacob.  At the end of the first chapter we see an allusion to the Genesis story of Jacob's Ladder (Gen 28:12) - "Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (Jn 1:51). This is a significant use of the story, not just in terms of its content: by placing this Old Testament event in the beginning of his Gospel John is announcing the role of Jesus as the fulfilment of all that had been promised.  He is the One who is capable of fulfilling this because he comes from above - he descends.  Jesus is the link between God and his creation, the one who can help us up out of our sinfulness.

The other references to Jacob are almost incidental.  They both occur in story of the Samaritan Woman at the well in John 4.  The story of Jacob is recalled - he gave the ground to his most favored son, Joseph (Jn 4:5) and he also gave the well to the ancestors of the woman (Jn 4:12).  Jesus is asked if he is greater than Jacob.  The ensuing conversation indicates that Jesus is greater than Jacob.  He will give the people a spring, rather than a well.  The water from the well grows stagnant and might actually cause harm.  The water of the spring is fresh and pure.

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