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

The Use of Scripture in Saint John's Gospel

The purpose of this section is to review how the Fourth Gospel alludes to the Old Testament.  It is perhaps worth noting that John would appear to limit his use of the Old Testament to only a few of the Books.  There are several references to the Prophets Isaiah, Zechariah and Jeremiah and frequent allusions to the Psalms.  The rest of the works cited come from the Pentateuch. The Historical books not usually directly referred to, nor indeed are  the minor prophets.  However, there is one significant exception to this observation, viz. Jn 7:42 (ref. below).  In this verse the Old Testament books of I Samuel and Micah are referred to.  Furthermore, this is the only time in the Gospel when John alludes to the Davidic Messiah and so there is something rather atypical occurring in the text.  The evangelist clearly prefers to use the Pentateuch, Psalms and Major Prophets and, as will be discussed elsewhere, the dominant messianic concept presented in the Fourth Gospel is the Mosaic one.  Some scholars propose that the evangelist draws from the some parts of the Wisdom Literature, perhaps with regard to the Bridegroom imagery;  however this position is not without its critics.

While many have tried to impose meaning into the way John has utilised Scripture there is no obvious pattern or structure inherent to his choice of citations. John does not attempt to present in a sequential manner, the revelation of God in the Old Testament.  There is no following of the unfolding of the history of salvation in his Gospel.  Any efforts to demonstrate pattern or sequence in his choice of Scriptural references have been unsuccessful.  One factor which is worth noting, is the manner in which Scripture is presented by the Evangelist.  In the first part of the Gospel - up until the middle of chapter 12 - the Scriptures are simply cited with the comment "... it is written".  However, in the second half of the Gospel the Scriptures are often cited with the claim ... 'This was to fulfill the Scriptures'.  This usage becomes particularly prominent during the Passion Narrative, indicating that fulfilment is an important theological theme for the evangelist.  The following table demonstrates this fact.  The table compares the texts cited by John to their original Old Testament use.
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Table outlining John's direct use of or allusion to the Old Testament
 Ref.  Text of John's Gospel OT Citation Equivalent OT Text
Jn 1:23 "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord’"
Isa 40:3 'A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God."'
Jn 1:45b Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote."  .
Jn 2:17b His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." Ps 69:9 "It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; 
The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me."
Jn 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up… Num 21:9 "So Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live."
Jn 5:46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. . .
Jn 6:31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, "He gave them bread from heaven to eat." Exod 16:4
Ps 78:23f
"Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day."

"Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven;
He rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven."

Jn 6:45 It is written in the Prophets, "And they shall all be taught by God". Isa 54:13

Jer 31:33f

"All your children shall be taught by the Lord,
And great shall be the prosperity of your children."

"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord", for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…""

Jn 7:38 As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Isa 44:2f


Zech 14:8

 "Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground."

"On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem half of them to the eastern sea, and half to the western sea..."

Jn 7:42 Has not the Scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived? I Sam 16:1f

Micah 5:2

The Lord said to Samuel, "I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons."

"But you , O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you will come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel."

Jn 8:17 In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. Num 35:30 "If anyone kills another, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; bu noone shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness."
Jn 10:34 Jesus answered, "Is it not written in your law, ‘I said you are gods’? Ps 82:6  "I say, 'You are gods', children of the most high, all of you;"
Jn 12:13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him shouting,
"Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord".
Ps 118:26  "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  We bless you from the house of the Lord."
Jn 12:14-16 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
"Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt!"
His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him...
Zech 9:9  "Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
Jn12:38 This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
"Lord, who has believed our message,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?"
Isa 53:1  "Who has believed what we have heard?  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?"
Jn 12:40f … Isaiah also said, "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might look with their eyes and understand with their hear and turn – and I would heal them".  Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.  Isa 6:10 "Make the minds of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they many not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed." 
Jn 13:18 "I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen.  But it is to fulfill the Scripture, 'The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me'." Ps 41:9 "Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me."
Jn 15:25 It was to fulfil the word that was written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause’. Ps 35:19

Ps 69:4

"Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye."

"More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely."

Jn 16:21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. Isa 13:7-8 "Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt, and they will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor."
Jn 16:32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Zech 13:7 "Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is my associate," says the Lord of hosts. Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones.
Jn 17:12 I guarded them and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. . .
Jn 19:24 So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfill what the scripture says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." Ps 22:18 "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots."
Jn 19:28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty". A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. Ps 69:21 "they gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink".
Jn 19:36 These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, "None of his bones shall be broken". Ps 34:20

Exod 12:46 (ref. to killing the Lamb)

Num 9:12 (ref. to Passover Lamb)

"He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken."

"It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the animal outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones."

"They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break a bone of it;"

Jn 19:37 And again another passage of scripture says, "They will look on the one they have pierced". Zech 12:10 "And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one weeps for an only child, and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a firstborn".
Jn 20:9 ... for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. . .

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This second-level viewing of the Scripture citations would therefore appear to indicate that the Evangelist does have a clearly planned purpose in his use of the Old Testament text.

In spite of the lack of sequence and pattern, however, no-one could deny that the evangelist is conscious, in the background all the time, and occasionally in the foreground, of the motifs of salvation history.  Old testament typologies are frequent - the references to Moses, the bronzed serpent and Jacob's ladder are just a few examples.  In the use of typology the concept of fulfilment is important.  As has been mentioned already, John used Scripture to show that Jesus did indeed fulfill what had been foretold in the Old Testament.  This adds weight to the view that John was indeep pursuing a typological approach in his Gospel.

Midrash or Targum?
Renee Bloch puts forth the idea that the way in which John treats Scripture in his work is an early example of Midrash. (This is the process of interpreting the scriptures, making them meaningful and intelligible for later generations).   She writes, 'The symbolism of the Fourth Gospel, its interest in the meaning of names, its penchant for word-plays, etc. are also related to certain midrashic tendencies.' (Hanson, 235)  This claim does not go unchallenged, however.  Le Deault contends that midrash had not developed into a literary genre by New Testament times.  He argues that the genre applicable here is Targum. (This is the practice of translating Hebrew Old Testament texts into Aramaic during the public reading of the Law and the Prophets.  It developed in the last centuries B.C.E. when Hebrew was being spoken less frequently in Palestine.  There is considerable agreement that some of these translations had been written down before the time of Christ). Given the narrow range of Old Testament sources used in the Fourth Gospel, this is a credible point of view.  Whichever of the two is correct, the fact remains that both genres, Targum and Midrash, presuppose the existence of an original text.  Most scholars agree that while John may appear to use targumic and midrashic techniques the Gospel as a single piece of literature is neither pure Targum nor pure Midrash.

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Uniquely John
One of the concerns which this debate has raised is the extent to which John attributes to his own words and his own teachings to the person of the historical Jesus.  In the past scholars have felt that John used Old Testament incidents and words to create a work which is more fiction than fact.  Hanson  maintains that this is not so describing countless examples which show the evangelist's familiarity with the Scriptures (Hanson, 245).  He works these intricately into his narrative and does so in a way which is totally consistent with his theological (and specifically Christological) perspective.  Thus,it is claimed, 'John only inserts teaching, conversations, and incidents that have no basis in the historical tradition, if he believes he has justification in Scripture for doing so.'  This therefore imposed a limit on what he writes of non-historical material.  This viewpoint elevates the role that Scripture plays in the composition of this Gospel - a role that goes beyond the text that is cited.  For the author of the Fourth Gospel scripture is not just a prop.  It could be argued that the motivation behind the writing of the Gospel lies in the significance of the Old Testament in the mind of the author.  John uses the Old Testament frequently, directly and indirectly, to show that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all that had been promised in the Old Testament.  He is the Logos who was present at the creation of the world, who interacted with the great figures of Salvation History, and who now gives the world new life.  The need to hide from the glory of God no longer pertains.  That glory is seen in the person of Jesus crucified, risen and ascended into heaven, viewed with the eyes of faith and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.  "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9).

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