Literary Features of the Fourth Gospel compiled by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
Greater Focus on Jerusalem:
Most of the action in the Fourth Gospel takes place in and around Jerusalem (all except the first half of chapter 2 and all of chapters 4 and 6); in contrast, the Synoptic Gospels tell of Jesus being in Jerusalem only for less than one week, just before he is arrested and executed. The Fourth Gospel mentions several people, places, architectural and historical details not mentioned in the other three Gospels:
People who lived near Jerusalem: the man at the pool of Bethesda; the man born blind and his parents; Martha, Mary, and Lazarus of Bethany.
Places in and around Jerusalem: the pool of Bethesda, the pool of Siloam, the Portico of Solomon.
Architectural details not mentioned in the Synoptics: the pool of Bethesda had five porticos.
Historical details not mentioned in the Synoptics: that the Jerusalem Temple had been under (re)construction for 46 years.
On the one hand, the Fourth Gospel contains far fewer narrative stories than are found in the Synoptic Gospels.
On the other hand, the Fourth Gospel contains far more dialogues and monologues of Jesus than are found in the Synoptics.
Simple but Highly Symbolic Language:
The Greek vocabulary in John is very basic, simple, and realistic; not as abstract as in Paul's letters or later Christian writings.
Yet many Johannine words have deeper symbolic meanings, referring to spiritual truths far more complex than the physical objects to which the words ordinarily refer.
Examples: word, light, life, bread, water, wind, world, lamb, shepherd, hour, bread, vine, sleep, etc.
Examples of opposing nouns and adverbs: light/darkness, life/death, above/below, spirit/flesh, truth/lies, free/slave, God/devil, etc.
Examples of opposing verbs: live/perish, confess/deny, accept/reject, believe/not believe, see/be blind, not be judged/be judged, love/hate, etc.
See especially the many dualistic contrasts in 3:16-21 and 5:19-47.
Rhythmic language (not necessarily rhymes)
Short phrases of about the same length
Repeated words and phrases, with minor variations
Stair-step progressions of thought and images
Lofty tone, solemn pronouncements
Misunderstandings and Multiple Meanings:
One of the most interesting literary features of the Gospel according to John is that the dialogues between Jesus and other characters often revolve around words and phrases that have multiple meanings. The literary pattern is frequently the same: the Johannine Jesus says something, one or more other characters misunderstand him, and Jesus slowly brings the dialogue partner(s) to a deeper understanding. Often the misunderstanding is because people interpret Jesus' words on a plain or physical level, whereas he is really speaking on a more symbolic or spiritual level.
2:19-22 - "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
Misunderstanding by the authorities: the physical temple in Jerusalem
Intended/symbolic meaning: the temple of Jesus' own body
3:3-7 - "No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born anōthen."
Misunderstanding by Nicodemus: "...born again" (physical birth from mother's womb)
Intended/symbolic meaning: "...born anew" or "...born from above" or "born of the Spirit"
3:8-12 – "The pneuma blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the pneuma."
Lack of understanding by Nicodemus: "How can these things be?" (v. 9; since pneuma can mean "wind, breath, spirit, or Spirit")
Intended/symbolic meaning: Jesus speaks about "earthly things" (like "blowing wind") to help people understand "heavenly things" (like an "unseen spirit";
4:10-15 - "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you hydōr zōn."
Misunderstanding by the Samaritan woman: "flowing water" or "spring water"
Intended/symbolic meaning: "life-giving water" or "an (interior) spring of water gushing up to eternal life"
4:32-34 - "I have food to eat that you do not know about."
Misunderstanding by the disciples: someone brought Jesus something to eat
Intended/symbolic meaning: "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work"
6:41-51 - "I am the bread that came down from heaven."
Misunderstanding by the crowds: Jesus is the son of Joseph; how can he claim to have literally "come down from heaven"?
Intended/symbolic meaning: Jesus is the "living bread"; "whoever eats of this bread will life forever"; "the bread that I will give... is my flesh"
7:33-36 - "I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. / You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come."
Misunderstanding by the Jewish authorities: going geographically "to the Dispersion among the Greeks"
Intended/symbolic meaning: Jesus is returning to the Father (as specified later)
8:21-29 - "I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come."
Misunderstanding by Jesus' opponents: "Is he going to kill himself?"
Intended/symbolic meaning: Jesus is returning to the Father; "you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am [he]."
8:31-47 - "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
Misunderstanding by Jewish believers: "we have never been slaves to anyone" (political freedom)
Intended/symbolic meaning: "everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin"
8:56-59 - "Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad."
Misunderstanding by Jewish believers: "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?"
Intended/symbolic meaning: "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am."
11:11-15 - "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him."
Misunderstanding by Jesus' disciples: "they thought that he was referring merely to [physical] sleep."
Intended/symbolic meaning: "Lazarus is dead..."; Jesus goes to raise Lazarus from the dead, so the disciples will come to believe
12:27-33 - [Jesus:] "Father, glorify your name." Then a voice/sound came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."
Misunderstanding by the surrounding crowd: some thought it was thunder; others said, "An angel has spoken to him."
Intended/symbolic meaning: "This voice [from the Father] has come for your sake, not for mine."
14:4-6 - "You know the way to the place where I am going"
Misunderstanding by Jesus' disciple Thomas: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"
Intended/symbolic meaning: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
14:7-14 - "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."
Misunderstanding by Jesus' disciple Philip: "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."
Intended/symbolic meaning: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."
Ironic Statements and Broader Irony Conveying Deeper Truths:
Specific Statements can be highly ironic, containing truths far different from the words used:
3:10 - Jesus asks Nicodemus: "Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" (cf. 3:2)
3:14-15 - "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, / that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (cf. 8:28; 12:32, 34)
9:39-41 - Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." / Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" / Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." (cf. 9:2)
11:50 - Caiaphas says: "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."
12:10-11 - Narrator reports: "So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, / since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus."
19:15c - Chief priests claim: "We have no king but the emperor." (cf. 8:33)
19:28 - Dying on the cross, Jesus says: "I am thirsty." (cf. 4:10-14)
Broader Irony forms the basis of much of Johannine Theology:
God sends Jesus into the world as savior; yet the world he intended to save rejects him (cf. 1:10-11)
Jesus' death ("being lifted") is the source of life for all believers
The Evangelist explains the meaning of Semitic names and words:
Messiah = "anointed" (1:41)
Cephas = "Peter" (1:42)
Siloam = "sent" (9:7)
Thomas = "twin" (11:16)
The Evangelist offers the reader extra or background information:
At the Cana wedding, when the steward did not know where the wine came from: "(though the servants who had drawn the water knew)" (2:9b)
While telling about John the Baptizer: "John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison" (3:24)
While Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman: "(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)" (4:8)
After the Samaritan woman asks Jesus a question: "(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) (4:9b)
When Jesus predicts his betrayal: "He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him." (6:71)
In the middle of the narrative of the Man Born Blind: "Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes." (9:14)
After the Blind Man's parents speak: "His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue." (9:22-23)
Explaining Jesus' delay in going to Bethany: "Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was." (11:5-6)
After Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus had fallen asleep: " Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep." (11:13)
The Evangelist gives the reader later, more developed theological viewpoints:
When Jesus says, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19), the Jewish authorities misunderstand. Then the evangelist explains: "But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken." (2:21-22)
When Jesus asks Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" (6:5), the evangelist adds, "He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do." (6:6)
When Jesus tells his disciples, "But among you there are some who do not believe." (6:64a), the evangelist clarifies, "For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him." (6:64b)
When Jesus says, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" (7:37-38), the evangelist explains, "Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified." (7:39)
When Caiaphas says, "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." (11:50), the evangelist adds, "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,11:52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God." (11:51-52)
When Jesus enters Jerusalem and the crowds shout "Hosanna!", the evangelist explains, "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 and had been done to him." (12:16)
When Jesus says, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." (12:32), the evangelist adds, "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die." (12:33)
For example, "the Hour" of Jesus functions as a literary thread, building suspense throughout the Gospel, leading up to the death and glorification of Jesus:
2:4 – And Jesus said to her [his mother], “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
5:25 – “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
5:28 – “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice”
7:30 – Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.
8:20 – He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.
12:23 – Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
12:27 – “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
13:1 – Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
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. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.”
17:1 – After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,”
19:27 – Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
See also other uses of "hour" in 4:21-23; 4:52-53; 11:9; 16:2, 4; 16:21, 25
Inclusions and Transitions:
Compare 1:1 ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.") with 20:28 ("My Lord and my God.")
Compare 1:28 (" This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.") with 10:40 ("He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there.")
Compare 2:11 ("Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.") with 4:54 ("Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.)
9:2-3 and 9:41 - both about blindness and sin
11:4 and 11:40 - both about seeing God's glory
2:23-25 leads into chapter 3
11:55-57 leads into chapter 12
12:44-50 concludes the Book of Signs and leads into the Book of Glory
Representative Named Individuals:
Many characters that are anonymous and/or appear in groups in the Synoptic Gospels are replaced by named individuals in John:
Synoptics: Jesus interacts with groups of Pharisees
John 3:1-21 - Jesus dialogues with an individual Pharisee named Nicodemus
Synoptics: Jesus interacts with various groups of Samaritans
John 4:1-42 - Jesus dialogues with an individual Samaritan woman (still anonymous)
Synoptics: An anonymous woman anoints Jesus
John 12:1-8 - The woman who anoints Jesus is identified as Mary of Bethany
Synoptics: Several disciples complain about the waste of perfume, which might have been sold
John 12:4 - Judas Iscariot is singled out as the one who complains
Synoptics: An anonymous disciple of Jesus cuts off the ear of an unnamed servant of the high priest
John 18:10-11 - The disciples is identified as Peter and the servant's name is given as Malchus
Synoptics: Several women go the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter morning
John 20:1-2, 11-18 - Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone, where Jesus appears to her individually
Conventions of Ancient Theater:
Only two "active characters" (individuals or groups) are on stage at any one time; other characters may be nearby but not engaged in the dialogue or action. This convention helps the readers determine the "scenes" into which a larger story can be subdivided.
For example, see John 9:
Jesus dialogues with his disciples (vv. 1-5) - a blind man is the object of discussion, but not yet "active" on stage
Jesus interacts with the blind person (vv. 6-7) - the disciples might still be observing nearby, but are no longer "active"
The neighbors question the ex-blind person (vv. 8-12) - they talk about Jesus, but the narrative does not specify where he is
The ex-blind person is questioned by the Pharisees (vv. 13-17) - the narrative does not say where any other characters are
The parents are questioned by the Jewish authorities (vv. 18-23) - they talk about their ex-blind son, but he does not speak here
The ex-blind person is questioned by the Jewish authorities (vv. 24-34) - they talk about Jesus, who is evidently not present
Jesus finds and dialogues with the ex-blind person (vv. 35-38) - the Pharisees apparently overhear this conversation
Jesus dialogues with the Pharisees (vv. 39-41) - the narrative does not say where any other characters are
Chiasms (Chiastic Structures):
Named for the Greek letter CHI, which looks much like a Latin or English "X".
A chiasm is a text that is structured so the second half balances the first half, with subsections in reverse order.
Something in section A will be repeated or modified or contrasted with something in section A'. The same is true for sections B and B', sections C and C', and so forth.
Rather than having the climax located at the end, the main point of a chiastic text is in the middle!
Chiastic texts can be very short or very long:
A / B / A'
A / B / C / B' / A'
A / B / C / D / C' / B' / A'
A / B / C / D / E / F / G / F' / E' / D' / C' / B' / A'
There are many good examples in the Fourth Gospel: