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

"In the beginning"
The Evangelist's Use of Scripture
Johannine Sources

"In the beginning..."

From the very first words in John’s Gospel there can be no doubt as to the author’s intent: John wishes to link the revelation of God in Jesus Christ to the revelation of God in the Old Testament. The Prologue resonates with the creation story from the Book of Genesis. Further into the Gospel one reads of the Patriarchs and the Prophets. The reader will come to associate the suffering servant of Deutero-Isaiah and the suffering of the prophet Jeremiah with the suffering of Jesus Christ and the subsequent revelation of God’s glory. New significance is given to these Old Testament episodes when they are read in the light of the story of Jesus. Conversely, new insights into John’s theology can be derived from making ourselves aware of the Old Testament connections.

Culpepper  writes:

"During the historical past, the history of Israel, he came into the world and enlightened those who had eyes to see him (Jn 1:9). Moses and the Prophets wrote about him (Jn 1:45; 5:46), and Abraham saw his ‘day’ (Jn 8:56). Isaiah, presumably in the heavenly vision (Is 6) saw ‘his glory’ (Jn 12:41). No one actually saw him, just as no one was able to see God (Jn 1:18; 6:46), but there is little doubt for John that the logos was the inspiration of the prophets and Jesus was the fulfillment to which they pointed." (Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 106). These few sentences draw together some of the major connections between John’s Gospel and the Old Testament. Sometimes these connections are very clear and directly cited. In other parts of the Gospel the Old Testament allusions are more indirect and less obvious. With the passage of time many of the allusions do not immediately strike us and one of the challenges we face is to pose the question – what might these things have meant to the first century reader, to the author's initially-intended audience?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus frequently appeals directly to the Scripture of the Old Testament. The passages he cites affirm the work of God and the goodness of God; they indicate that he is the continuation, if not the culmination, of that work.

Four aspects of the Fourth Gospel’s relationship with the Old Testament will be examined here.  These are

The section on direct citations will examine how John, through various characters in the Gospel, uses texts from the Old Testament directly.  The other three sections will look specifically at Old Testament characters who are mentioned in the Fourth Gospel, some theological themes that appear to echo the Old Testament, and some general background information on Old Testament events mentioned or implied in the text.

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The Evangelist's Use of Scripture

There are many frameworks against which we might investigate the Evangelist's use of Scripture.  There is ample evidence of rich typology in the narrative.  For example, there can be little doubt that the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness (3:14) is presented as a type of Jesus' crucifixion.  The manna in the desert, referred to throughout Jn 6, is undoubtedly a type of Jesus, the Bread of Life.  There are many other examples of this, and they will be identified and discussed in the relevant sections of this site.  There is also evidence of allegory in the Fourth Gospel, but these instances are much rarer and sometimes difficult (or too ambiguous) to interpret to the extent where they might be helpful.  One of the dominant and persistent motifs in the Fourth Gospel is the manner in which John uses events from Salvation History in order to demonstrate that it is only in the person of Jesus Christ that these events find fulfilment.

There is a clear sense of continuity within the scope of salvation history as presented by the Fourth Evangelist. The revelation of God has been continuous, and reaches its fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ.  This theme begins in the prologue, and at the end of the first chapter there is a reference to the revelation of the Word to Jacob at Bethel, as illustrated in the table below:

Reference in the Fourth Gospel
Old Testament Revelation of God
1:14,17  "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth .... from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." The same Word is represented as having appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai (where he 'pitched his tent among us').
1:51   "And he said to them, 'Very truly, I tell you! you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man'." The Word is identified with the appearance of God to Jacob at the top of the ladder reaching up to heaven.

Indeed several of the major theophanies of the Old Testament are alluded to at some point in John's Gospel.  The revelation on Sinai will be examined in a particular way.  The Exodus experience marked a turning point in the history of Israel.  It was a defining moment, and the person of Moses emerges as the great leader and the Law-giver.  Throughout the Fourth Gospel, there are many allusions to the wilderness journeying of the people of Israel, whether by direct quotation from the text of the Old Testament or by reference to events that occurred during the journey to the Promised Land.  This is evidently the single most significant connection between the Fourth Gospel and the community of the Old Testament.

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Johannine Sources

When comparing the Fourth Gospel to the Synoptic tradition, it becomes very evident that John is using sources of which we are unaware.  He attributes words to Jesus which appear to reflect a later time period theologically speaking.  For example, in Jn 6:44 Jesus says that the Father draws to Jesus those who are to be raised on the last day.  This sentence would appear to have been inspired by Jeremiah 31:2-3.  There is little likelihood that this verse is based on the verbatim teaching of Jesus, who would more likely claim that the Father draws the elect to himself.  Thus we see evidence of a higher and more developed Christology.  There are several such instances in the Gospel, all of which have some origins in the Old Testament.  Consequently there appears to be a defining principle in the Gospel whereby John will insert teaching, conversations and incidents that have NO basis in historical tradition as long as he believes he has justification in Scripture for so doing.  Thus, John is prepared to go beyond the tradition insofar as he is authorised by Scripture.  John is so convinced of the eschatological significance of the Christ revelation  and its continuity with the Old Testament revelation that he incorporates not only the historical tradition but also the entire spectrum of scriptural tradition.  Given his theological position, this would appear to be a very valid perspective for John to adopt.

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OT Citations
OT Events
OT Characters
OT Themes

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This page was last updated on 09/27/01