Since my educational and professional training have revolved around story and narrative structure, I approach John’s Gospel from a literary and narrative perspective. In doing so, I have noticed structural story patterns and followed them where they seem to lead: the Gospel of John parallels the ordering of the books of the Tanakh. Although John’s Gospel has long been viewed as anti-Semitic due to its repeated use of the term “the Jews” as a blanket designation of the enemies of Jesus, John’s compositional structure points to the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s logos, now in flesh appearing. Jesus is the incarnation of a nation: Israel’s history is his story.
This essay employs narrative pattern recognition: it analyses John’s sections and compares those with the metanarrative sections of the Tanakh, noting parallel patterns. Discrete parallels have also been noted in secondary sources, which are cited. By suggesting that the Fourth Gospel parallels the Tanakh as a whole, this essay seeks to bring these secondary sources into conversation about John’s compositional strategy.
John’s narrative famously differs from the other Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life. For example, none of the other three Gospels mention a wedding in Cana or Jesus’ first miracle there, or Jesus' meeting with Nicodemus, or his raising of Lazarus from the dead. None of Jesus' healing miracles in John are mentioned in the other Gospels, and John places Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in a radically different location—at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke place it in his final week before his crucifixion).
These differences have long triggered wonder about the underlying structure of John and the text itself invites it: John specifically states that not everything that Jesus did has been included (20:30; 21:25). John even ends with the statement: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”((Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptural quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.))
Endings emphasize meaning. For example, Matthew ends with The Great Commission. But John’s Gospel uses its final words to state that the author has been selective. If John’s narrative does not contain all that Jesus did, what was the selection principle?
A number of underlying structural models have been put forth. D.A. Carson lists some of them in his seminal commentary, The Gospel According to John.
Egil A. Wyller holds that Plato's Simile of the Cave is the most plausible model for the structure of John's Gospel… “Another scholar has detected a massive concentric structure patterned to match the concentric structure in the Prologue.”… George Mlakushyil “finds major chiasms and what [he] calls 'bridge-pericopes' and 'bridge-sections'…” [Carson comments:] “Although this or that detail may be disputed, [Mlakushyil] does succeed in showing how unified and tightly organized the Fourth Gospel is. It is anything but haphazard.”((Donald A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 103.))
George R. Beasley-Murray in his World Biblical Commentary agrees: “There appear to be signs of careful thought by the Evangelist as to the form of his work... the account of the ministry that lies before us in the Fourth Gospel displays signs of most careful construction.”((George R. Beasley-Murray, World Biblical Commentary, 36, John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), xci.))
Challenging long-held, anti-Semitic interpretations, the main flow of recent Johannine scholarship has emphasized John’s Semitic roots. What is increasingly recognized, according to Carson, is the fundamentally Jewish and Old Testament background to John's Gospel. In this context, he concludes: “Although John's use of the Old Testament is not as frequent or as explicit as that of Matthew, it is not slight...Rarely articulated, there is nevertheless an underlying hermeneutic at work, a way of reading the Old Testament that goes back to Jesus himself.”((Carson, John, 98.))
From his opening words, it is obvious that John has made up his mind about Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word… the Word was God.” John knows what he has seen and heard, and now he is making his case: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45). The opening chapter of John’s Gospel points to the books of Moses and the prophets to confirm Jesus’ identity.
Since John’s prologue clearly points to Genesis, could John’s subsequent chapters likewise point to subsequent Scripture books? I argue that they do: John’s first five and a half chapters reflect the Law, and the remainder of John’s Gospel reflects the Prophets and the Writings of the Hebrew Bible.((The Hebrew Bible consists of three parts: the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings. “Moses and the Prophets” is a way of designating the whole of the Hebrew Bible, including the Writings. Lewis Foster, “Luke” in the NIV Study Bible(eds. Kenneth L. Barker et al.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 1621. )) John’s Gospel is not just making the case for Jesus verbally, it is also making it structurally.
“In the beginning God…” declares Genesis. John echoes the opening words of Genesis in mirroring creation accounts (from Genesis' “Let there be light” to John's “The light shines in the darkness.”).((Nicholas Perrin, Finding Jesus in The Exodus(New York, NY: FaithWords, 2014), 90. “The well-known opening words of John’s gospel simply drip with Genesis…”))
John’s new creation account of “the true light” then echoes the Fall: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
Genesis’ Fall is repeated in Exodus, where God dwells amidst Israel in the Tabernacle, but Israel defies God’s will. N.T. Wright comments: “The story of Israel and its land is set in deliberate parallel to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden((N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began(New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), 94.))…the biblical writers see the story of Israel as Adam and Eve writ large…”((Ibid., 103.)) Since they comment on one another, Genesis and Exodus should be read together—in matching creation accounts (Israel’s exodus being the new creation); matching Falls (Israel, like Adam, rebels against God); and matching grace: “When we read Genesis and Exodus together,” Wright argues, “the construction of the tabernacle toward the end of Exodus and the role of Aaron the high priest within it can be seen as a renewal or restoration of the original creation.”((Ibid., 95.))
To those who did receive him, John continues, “he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” “Children not of natural descent but born of God” echoes both Adam and Eve in Genesis, on the one hand, and Israel in Exodus, on the other—the miraculous offspring of Abraham (whose wife Sarah was barren), Isaac (whose wife Rebecca was barren), and Jacob (whose wives Rachel and Leah were barren”((Tamar Kadari. “Leah: Midrash and Aggadah.” Jewish Women’s Archive. Jewish Women: a Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/leah-midrash-and-aggadah: [According to the Midrash,] “The Rabbis learned from the wording (Gen. 29:31) ‘and he opened her womb’ that Leah was barren until God remembered her and enabled her to become pregnant (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Roni Akarah 20:1). They applied to her the verse (I Sam. 2:5): ‘While the barren woman bears seven,’ for she had first been barren, and then bore seven children (Gen. Rabbah 72:1).”))) resulting in God’s declaration in Exodus 4:22 that Israel is his firstborn son.
Nicholas Perrin writes that as John’s opening words recall Genesis, “at the same time, John’s Prologue is shot through with Exodus imagery.”((Perrin, Exodus, 91.)) “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (lit. “tented” or “tabernacled” among us) echoes God’s dwelling among Israel in the Tabernacle in Exodus, the first time God dwells among humans since the time of Adam and Eve in the garden.
John the Baptist states that the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove from heaven. There is one instance in the Hebrew Bible where a dove descends as a message of new life. In Genesis 8, Noah's returning dove descends on the ark, the vessel of God’s grace, bringing evidence of new life on a new earth.((The apostolic faith holds that baptism is symbolized by Noah's ark (1 Peter 3: 21) andby Israel’s Exodus-journey through the Red Sea (1 Cor 10: 1,2).))
In Noah’s time God punished the world for its sin. Here John the Baptist introduces Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” “Lamb of God” recalls Abraham telling Isaac, en route to sacrificing him, that “God himself will provide the lamb” (Gen 22:8). John the Baptist uses the term twice in the first chapter of John—“Look! The Lamb of God…”—pointing back to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.((Gary M. Burge, “Gospel of John.” The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John’s Gospel, Hebrews-Revelation. General editor, author Craig A. Evans. (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 2005), 45. “Jesus is first described as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (29). Every interpreter finds this phrase to be difficult because the words “lamb of God,” while commonplace in Christian vocabulary, do not appear elsewhere in the New Testament except here and in 1:36. The crux is understanding what “lamb” (Gk: amnos) means. For the Palestinian Jew, all lamb sacrifice was a memorial of deliverance (esp. Isaac’s deliverance[emphasis mine]), forgiveness of sin, and messianic salvation.”)) Israel began with that promised child, and now Jesus, Israel's culminating child of the promise, is here. Concurrently, “Lamb of God” also recalls Israel’s Passover lamb in Exodus: God’s people, protected by the sacrificial blood of the lamb, are spared from divine judgment on Egypt.
Jesus’ narrative follows Israel’s narrative: the gathering of the first of the 12 disciples parallels the beginning of Israel’s 12 tribes in Genesis.((N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus(New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011), 87. “[Jesus] chooses twelve of his closest followers and seems to set them apart as special associates. For anyone with eyes to see, this says clearly that he is reconstituting God’s people, Israel, around himself.”)) And Jesus’ words to disciple Nathaniel, “a true Israelite”((Charles J. Ellicott, A Bible Commentary for English Readers, Volume 6, (London, Cassell & Company, 1905). “There is clearly some unexpressed link with the history of Jacob. The word for "guile" is the same word as the LXX. word for "subtlety" in Genesis 27:35. The thought then is, "Behold one who is true to the name of Israel, and in whom there is nothing of the Jacob (Genesis 27:36).”))—“you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”—puts Jesus in the place of Jacob (Gen 28:12), Israel’s founding father and namesake.((James D. Purvis, “The Fourth Gospel and the Samaritans,” The Composition of John’s Gospel, Selected Studies from Novum Testamentum compiled by David E. Orton (Leiden, The Netherlands, Koninklijke Brill NV, 1999), 158. “This is an obvious allusion to the story of Jacob’s experience at Bethel (Genesis xxviii 10-17).”)) ((Psalm 68:17 hints at the Exodus parallel of Jacob’s ladder when legions of angels descend on Israel—God’s firstborn son—at Sinai: “The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary.”))
Nicholas Perrin states that the Cana wedding points to the Genesis creation account: the six water jars mirror Genesis’ six days of creation, and the wedding takes place on the 7thday of John’s narrative.((Author’s personal conversation with Nicholas Perrin.)) (And, as in Genesis, in John’s Gospel we can only track the first seven days.) Yet the Cana wedding simultaneously echoes Exodus: The prophet Isaiah speaks of God as Israel's husband (Isa 54:5), as do Jeremiah (31:32), Ezekiel (16:8-9; 23:4-5), and Hosea (1-3). Israel's prophets repeatedly invoke the metaphor of marriage to clarify Yahweh's love for the nation of Israel. And the wedding took place in Exodus.((Wright,Jesus, 66. “…the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, where the ‘marriage covenant’ between them and their God was sealed.”.)) ((Peter J. Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament(Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000), 78-79. “The Marriage Supper of Yahweh, Exodus 20-24.”)) As the Book of Jeremiah (2:2) states: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert…”
John 2 starts with a wedding. And at that wedding, Jesus alludes to Moses' first plague: Jesus changes water into wine; Moses changed water into blood (Exod 7:20).
In his essay, “The Wedding At Cana (John II: 1-11): A Pentecostal Meditation?,” Joseph Grassi sees the miracle of new wine as having striking similarities with Pentecost, and then reaches the same conclusion that Jesus’ first sign at Cana points to Exodus, Pentecost marking the giving of the New Torah which parallels the giving of the covenant in Exodus.((Joseph Grassi, “The Wedding At Cana (John II: 1-11): A Pentecostal Meditation?”, The Composition of John’s Gospel, Selected Studies from Novum Testamentum compiled by David E. Orton (Leiden, The Netherlands, Koninklijke Brill NV, 1999), 125. “There are some indications that Christians thought of Pentecost in terms of the celebration of the giving of the New Torah through the resurrection of Christ. In Acts, ch ii, the sound of a mighty wind, the flames of fire, the voices understood in many languages all remind us of the account of the giving of the covenant in Exodus xix […] The reference to the third day [John 2:1] has been interpreted in various ways […] However, with Pentecost in mind, the three days before the giving of the Torah and covenant on Sinai have a very special place in Jewish tradition. They are called the ‘days of bounding’ […] It was a time of prayer and preparation. It was on the third day that Moses went up to the mountain (Ex. xix 16).”))
John writes that Jesus went to the Cana wedding “on the third day,” recalling both Genesis 22:4—on the third day, Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah—and Exodus 19:16-20—on the third day, the Lord came down on Mount Sinai (and Moses went up).
The wedding-half of John 2 concludes: “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” That statement parallels the text immediately following the Mount Sinai covenant when God revealed his glory to Israel (Exod 24:16-17; Deut 5:24).((Grassi, Wedding, 128.))
If the first half of John 2—the wedding—symbolizes the renewed creation of the first half of Exodus that culminates with the Mount Sinai nuptials, consider that the second half of John 2 has Jesus' re-establishing the temple, paralleling the second half of Exodus that records the establishment of the tabernacle, God's dwelling on earth. Right after the dramatic Passover((The second half of John 2—the temple cleansing—takes place during Passover: a new Exodus is at hand.)) temple cleansing, Jesus introduces himself as the dwelling of God on earth: “Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days.” Israel’s final temple is here.
There is heaven and there is earth. In between stands the tabernacle.((Wright, Revolution, 108. “…the tabernacle was designed as a miniature heaven-and-earth, a “little world” in which God and his people would meet.”)) Both Leviticus and Numbers open with God speaking to Moses from the tent of the testimony, or tabernacle.((Leviticus subsequently repeats that “the Lord spoke to Moses” over 50 times, Numbers repeats it over 150 times.)) In John 3, the tabernacle in the flesh((Burge, John, 42. “This Word dwelt (skênoô) among us and revealed his glory (doxa). This verb for dwelling is employed in the Greek OT for the tabernacle of God. In other words, Christ is the locus of God’s dwelling with Israel as he had dwelt with them in the tabernacle in the desert.”)) meets Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” (Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish ruling council set up by God to function as an extension of Moses).((Wilhelm Bacher and Jacob Zallel Lauterbach, “Sanhedrin,”History of the Jewish People and Jewish Encyclopedia(New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1906): “According to Talmudic tradition it originated in the Mosaic period, the seventy elders who were associated with Moses in the government of Israel at his request (Num. xi. 4-31) forming together with him the first Sanhedrin (Sanh.i.6).” http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13178-sanhedrin))
In Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Andreas Köstenberger points out that the beginning of John 3 has two unique references to the kingdom of God—"significant in that they constitute the only instance of this terminology in the entire Gospel.”((Andreas Köstenberger, “John.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 434.)) Dovetailing with kingdom-terminology, Jay Sklar, professor Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, observes that while Exodus (19:6) established Israel as a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” Leviticus lays out the kingdom laws to enable Israel to live with God in their midst.((Collin Hansen, Daring to Delight in Leviticus,The Gospel Coalition, April 1, 2011. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/daring-to-delight-in-leviticus/)) ((See also R. Laird Harris and Ronald Youngblood, “Leviticus” in the NIV Study Bible (eds. Kenneth L. Barker et al.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 146: “Leviticus is a manual of regulations enabling the holy King to set up his earthly throne among the people of his kingdom…After the Covenant at Sinai, Israel was the earthly representation of God’s kingdom (the theocracy) and, as its King, the Lord established his administration over all of Israel’s life.”))
The Book of Leviticus is Israel’s “How-to-Book of Starting Over.” Leviticus teaches forgiveness of sins and reconciliation in the community through the transfer of guilt: the blood of a clean sacrifice shed in exchange for a pardon of the lawbreaker. Leviticus lays out the means of grace to Israel, how to be cleansed and make a new start. Again and again.
In John 3, the tabernacle in the flesh drives this home. For a full pardon, we need the ultimate new start: a new birth. A new Spirit.
Consider that Nicodemus received his lesson from the sacrificial lamb himself, the sacrifice that would trigger the release of that life-giving Spirit into the world. Jesus explains: “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world...” Jesus’ imagery of the snake in the desert comes from Num 21: 8-9, where anyone who looked at the bronze snake on the pole was saved from imminent death. But here Jesus enlarges the boundaries of God’s kingdom far beyond Israel.
In Numbers, censuses and regulations establish the pedigree of God's chosen people. In John 4, salvation is still from the Jews, but now it is spilling over into not just the world at large, but even to the enemies of Israel. Near the end of Numbers, the nation of Israel is acknowledged and blessed by Balaam, their enemy (Num 23-24). Likewise, near the end of John 4, Jesus is acknowledged by Samaritans: “This is the savior of the world.”
After the conversation with Nicodemus, the remainder of John 3 deals with an apparent rivalry between Jesus and John the Baptist (perceived as such by some of John’s disciples). The first chapter of John established that whoever baptizes is God’s anointed (i.e., the baptizer must be either the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet). So who is God’s anointed? This situation recalls the rivalries in Numbers where Moses’ leadership was doubted by his own siblings, Miriam and Aaron (Num 12) and Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Num 16). In sharp contrast to those mutinies, John the Baptist declares that Jesus is the one whom God has sent (3:34).
In Numbers –when Israel complains of thirst again—Israel's leader falls fatally short. To set off the flow of water, Moses hits the rock in utter frustration at Israel's lack of faith; he pays for his disobedience by being denied entry into the Promised Land (Num 20:11-13). The Amplified Bible points to 1 Cor 10:4 as a key to this passage where the apostle Paul writes about Israel’s desert journey: “For they drank from a spiritual Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Although a puzzling concept, in John 4 Christ explains exactly this to the Samaritan woman at the well, offering her living water, a spiritual drink of which he is the wellspring.((Köstenberger, Commentary, 439: “As D.A. Carson (1991: 220) aptly notes, Samaritans’… canon was limited to the Pentateuch…” Köstenberger adds: “What is more, even in the Samaritans’ own liturgy it is said regarding the Taheb (the Samaritan equivalent to the Messiah) that ‘water shall flow from his buckets’ (cf. Num. 24:7 [emphasis mine]; see Bruce 1983: 105).” In terms of an implied Samaritan-Balaam connection, note that Num 24:7 is Balaam blessing Israel.))
Jesus then travels to Cana, Galilee –to the people to whom he first showed his glory by turning water into wine-- but voices frustration with the unbelief in his home region, especially when he is asked for another miracle: a father begs for the healing of his deathly ill son. According to E.W. Bullinger, editor of The Companion Bible and author of its Appendixes, the son’s illness symbolizes Israel’s condition during Jesus’ ministry.((E.W. Bullinger, Appendixes to The Companion Bible, The Eight “Signs” in John’s Gospel, Appendix 176 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999), 195.)) Bullinger’s assessment echoes Israel’s literal near-death experience in Num 14:11-12 where God voices his frustration to Moses about Israel’s continuing unbelief: despite witnessing miracles and having seen God’s glory (the exact condition of Cana’s residents in John 4), Israel lacks the faith to take the Promised Land. God initially wants to destroy his son Israel for its unbelief and start over with Moses. Significantly, that national near-death experience is not just an anecdote in the Book of Numbers; this event is the root cause of Israel’s desert wanderings—it is Numbers’ raison d'être. In Deut 1:31-32, Moses looks back and comments on that lowest point of Israel in Numbers 14, stating: “You saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son…yet you did not trust in the Lord your God.” Yet in both Num 14 and in John 4, the deathly ill son is given life.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one [emphasis mine]” precedes Israel’s great commandment (Deut 6:4-5). Compare John 5:18 where the religious leaders want to kill Jesus because he claims equality with God by calling God his Father. While Jesus has been referring to God as “Father”, here Jesus explains for the first time the relationship: through the remainder of John 5 he unpacks how the Son and the Father are of one mind.
Deuteronomy is the first book in the Hebrew Bible where God is called Israel’s Father: “…the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place” (Deut 1:31); “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deut 8:5); “Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you” (Deut 32:6)?
Deuteronomy lays out many blessings if Israel obeys and curses if Israel disobeys God. John 5, in comparison, starts out with “many disabled” lying around a healing pool. After Jesus heals the man who had been sick for 38 years (the same number of Israel’s added wandering years mentioned in Deut 2:14), Jesus tells the healed man: “Stop sinning, so nothing worse happens to you.”((Is disability a punishment for sin? Later on, in chapter 9, Jesus heals a blind man. There, Jesus states that the blind man's disability has nothing to do with the man's (or his parents’) sin. But here, in this specific case, echoing Deuteronomy, Jesus points out a connection between the man's sin and his health.))
The whole book of Deuteronomy is a sermon of Moses; looking back on Israel’s desert journey, Moses testifies of God’s deeds and God’s Law. Jesus testifies of the Father and interprets the Mosaic Law by openly healing the disabled man on the Sabbath (the central sign of the chosen people). Concluding John 5, when Jesus gets into a heated argument with Pharisees, he states: “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.”
Where did Moses write about Jesus? Both Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit on the morning of Pentecost (Acts 3:22,23), and Stephen, moments before his martyrdom (Acts 7:37), take Deut 18:15-19 to be Moses writing about Jesus. The people present at the feeding of the five thousand in John 6—a miracle that echoes Israel receiving manna during the time of Moses (31, 32)—make that same connection with Deuteronomy: “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say: ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world’” (John 6:14).((Burge, John, 71. “To identify him [Jesus] as “the prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14) is no doubt a reference to Deut: 18:15-19 which promises that a prophet like Moses would some day return—and this was viewed in Judaism as a messianic promise.”))
After concluding his Deuteronomy sermon from the east side of the Jordan, Moses ascends a mountain, alone. Jesus, after the feeding of the five thousand on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, withdraws to a mountain by himself (John 6:15).
Geert Heetebrij (MFA, UCLA) is assistant professor of film and media in the Department of Communication at Calvin College.
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