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The Jewish and Greek (Hellensitic) influences on John

Exploring the Jewish and Greek influences on John's Gospel as suggested by RE Brown

Mark Cooper

on 14 October 2012

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Transcript of The Jewish and Greek (Hellensitic) influences on John

Exploring how John's gospel was influenced by the Greek and Jewish environment in which it was written The Greek and Jewish Influences on John's Gospel Greek Influences
1. Gnosticism
John and Christian Gnosticism
John and the reconstructed pre-Christian Gnosticism
2. Hellenistic thought
John and Greek Philosophy
John and Philo
John and the Hermetica

Jewish Influences
1. John and the Old Testament
2. John and Rabbinic Judaism
3. John and Qumran Summary of the Greek & Jewish influences Gnosticism
Scholars for Gnostic influences are: Bultmann, Bauer
Scholars against Gnostic influences are: Buchsel, Percy & Schweizer

All these scholars recognise that John's gospel has some Gnostic similarities such as: dualism e.g. light vs darkness, intermediary beings between God and man etc


where they differ is whether or not John was influenced directly by Gnosticism Greek Influences Gnosticism as we know it did not develop fully until the 2nd Century CE. This means that John's gospel pre-dates Gnosticism by about 100 years. This would suggest that John could not have been directly influenced by it.

However some scholars suggest that there may have been a pre-Gnosticism that John was influenced by. Scholars call this pre-Chrisitan Gnosticism or Jewish Gnosticism.

In 1947 a number of Gnostic Christian gospels were discovered in the Egyptian desert. These went back to the 2nd Century CE. Scholars were able to compare these to the gospel of John to see if there were any direct similarities. This would prove that John was influenced by Gnosticism.


When John was compared to the Gnostic Christian Gospels of Thomas (Barratt, Braun) and the Gospel of Truth (Brown), it was found that the vocabulary and terminology used by John that might have been considered Gnostic was used very differently in the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Thomas. RE Brown therefore concludes that John was not influenced by a pre-Christian Gnosticism but rather the Gnostic gospels discovered in Egypt may well have been influenced by John. John and Christian Gnosticism The context of John’s Gospel
01 Examine how John’s Gospel draws from both a Greek and a Jewish background.
Expect examples as evidence of Greek background. e.g. Prologue (Logos), signs (token), discourses (symbolism). Use some examples from the Signs and Discourses to support answer.
Greek background identified into various strands e.g. Platonism, Stoicism, Philo.

Expect examples of evidence of Jewish background. e.g. Prologue (Genesis, Moses), signs (Old Testament signs/symbolism), discourses (symbolism)
View that background is Hellenistic Judaism.
Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran) show Jewish rather than Greek background.
Material from any part of John’s Gospel is valid.
If only Greek or Jewish background discussed Maximum level 5
(30 marks) AO1

02 ‘A knowledge of the Greek and Jewish backgrounds is essential for an understanding of John’s Gospel.’ How far do you agree?
Essential for understanding:
Gives deeper insight into person and ministry of Jesus.
Jesus’ teaching made clearer
Expect examples to illustrate.
Not essential for understanding:
Can be understood without background knowledge
The background adds nothing of significance.
Expect examples to illustrate.
Revelation (understanding) through Holy Spirit
Discussion about “essential”. i.e. some degree of help.
Discussion that Gospel does not have Greek/Jewish background.
(20 marks) AO2 Essay This theory is suggested by Bultmann. In studying John Bultmann reconstructed a form of Gnosticism focusing on a redeemer myth.

The problem with this theory is that it presupposes that a type of Gnosticism existed when John wrote his gospel. Also in trying to prove his theory Bultmann uses the Gospel of John to construct the Gnosticism rather than an external source.

This argument form Bultmann has many critics including: Brown, Colpe & Schenke John and a Reconstructed Pre-Christian Gnosticism Judaism by the time John wrote his gospel had already been heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought. Greek philosophical ideas had been brought to Judaism indirectly through Alexander the Great 400 hundred years before John wrote his gospel.

John therefore is indirectly influenced by Greek/Hellenistic thought.

However Brown wonders if there may have been a more direct influence on John when he wrote his gospel.

These could have come from Greek Philosophy, Philo & the Hermetica Hellenistic Thought The scholars Abbott & Inge believe that John did borrow ideas from Greek philosophy particularly from Platonism and Stoicism.

Platonism: This is based around dualism. John contrasts between what is above and what is below (3:31), between spirit and flesh (3:6, 6:63), between eternal life and natural existence (11:25-26), between the real bread from heaven (6:32) and natural bread, between the water of eternal life (4:14) and natural water.

These ideas can be compared to Platonism that believed that there is a real world, invisible and eternal, contrasted with the world of appearances here below.

However Brown points out that these ideas could have come form Judaism. He refers to the Old Testament: Isaiah 31:3 where there is a contrast between spirit and flesh, and he refers to the Qumranic texts that show dualism.

Stoicism: The key example here is found in the Prologue where John refers to the Logos. This term was used prolifically by the stoics. Did John get this idea from them? However Brown argues that there is no reason why John could not have used this term from how it was used in current Judaism of the time. Just because John used the Logos does not mean that he read Zeno and Stoicism. John and Greek Philosophy Philo of Alexandria lived the same time as Jesus. Philo attempted to combine Jewish and Greek thought. Philo also used the term Logos.
Dodd believes that John was directly influenced by Philonian thought. Brown disagrees believing that both John and Philo shared a common source of the Old Testament where the term Logos is used in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. Brown believes that this accounts for the similarities. John and Philo John and the Hermetica The Hermetica is a collection of Greek literature that grew up in Egypt in the 2nd and 3rd Century CE. The thought in this literature is a mixture of Platonism and Stoicism.

The difficultly in considering whether John was influenced by this thought is that John pre-dates the Hermetica by 100-200 years. However when comparing John to the Hermetica the scholars Braun and Dodd have noted some parallels in thought and vocabulary. However Brown points out that there could not have been any direct dependence on the Hermetica by John. Kirkpatrick also points out that language used in the Heremtica is absent in John: gnosis, mysterion etc.

Brown points out that John is far closer in vocabulary to the LXX than to the Heremtica. Braun believes that the writers of the Hermetica knew John, hence the similarities.

Brown believes the similarities between John and the Hermetica are there because both shared common sources. Tom Wright on Gnosticism Most scholars now agree that John was more likely to have been influenced by Judaism rather than Greek/Hellenistic philosophy. RE Brown suggest that John could have been influenced by the:

Old Testament
Rabbinic Judaism
Qumran (Essenes)
John and his Jewish influences Surprisingly John has fewer direct OT citations than the synoptics. However what John cleverly does is to weave the OT indirectly within his story of Jesus. Braun points out that John thinks more deeply about the OT citations that he uses e.g. he links Jesus to the Messiah, the Servant of Yahweh, the King of Israel, and the Prophet. Many of John's citations of the OT are subtle, implicit rather than explicit. This suggests that John knew his OT very well, and was able to use it effectively in his description of Jesus e.g. John uses of Genesis within the Prologue (1:1-2:10).

There are references to Abraham (8:31ff), Isaac (3:16) and Jacob (4:5ff). Moses and the Exodus features considerably according to Glasson. Example of John's referecnes to Moses are: 1:17, 5:46, the manna (6:31ff, water from the rock (7:38, the bronze serpent (3:14, the Tabernacle (1:14). The speeches of Moses found in Deuteronomy may have been the influence behind the discourses of Jesus in John.

John explicitly cites quotations from the prophets: 5 from Isaiah, 2 form Zechariah. Brown suggests Deutero-Isaiah for the background to ego eimi, 'I am' used in the discourses.

Brown points out that John refers to the Wisdom Literature and the Book of Psalms.

Some scholars think that John uses the LXX, the Hebrew OT and the Palestinian Targums. John and the Old Testament Rabbinic documents are difficult to date. Most post date John's gospel, but some may have existed during the time of Jesus. Did John therefore use them in the construction of his own gospel?

Schlatter, Strack and Billerbeck believe that there are parallels between John and Rabbinic Judaism.

These parallels could be explained if John was familiar with Jewish customs and the gospel itself was written in Palestine. John and Rabbinic Judaism Brown points out that there are some similarities between John and the Qumran literature particularly regarding dualism.

In the Qumran literature there is what Brown refers to as a modified dualism. There is a struggle between two principles created by God who are locked in a struggle to dominate mankind until the time of divine intervention. They are called the prince of lights (also called the spirit of truth and the holy spirit) and the angel of darkness (the spirit of perversion).

In John's thought Jesus has come into the world as the light to overcome darkness (1:4-5, 9), and all men must choose between light and darkness (3:19-21). Jesus is then truth (14:6), and after his death the struggle to overcome the evil force is carried on by the Spirit of Truth (or Holy Spirit) 14:17, 26). This type of dualism is not found in the OT. Kuhn suggests that the idea may have originated from Zoroastrianism.

Another idea shared between John and Qumran is the ideal of love of one's brother within the community. The synoptics stress the idea to love one's fellow men, but in John the stress is on your love for one's fellow Christian (13:34, 15:12).

Brown also points out a link between water and the giving of the spirit (3:5, 7:37-38) which also has links with the Qumran literature.

Brown believes that John did not have direct dependency on the Qumran literature but rather that they shared the same thought which may not have been exclusive to the Qumran community but more broadly shared.

There are distinct differences between John and Qumran. These are:

Jesus is central, but in the Qumran literature it is the Jewish Law
The Spirit of Truth and the Light are two distinct agents of salvation, but in the Qumran literature they are one and the same being
John and Qumran Look at the Greek influences behind the Signs

Look at some possible Greek influences behind the Discourses Greek philosophy saw 'sign' (semeion) as a token, or signal of something greater than itself. For the Epicureans and Stoics 'signs' pointed to something beyond itself that you could not fully see.

In the same way it has been suggested that the signs in John point to something greater than the obvious. They point to deeper truths about the person of Jesus.

In Platonism there was the idea that this world is a world of shadows in contrast to the 'real' world above. Is the obvious story of the sign the shadow as opposed to the deep truth it points to which is the 'real'.

Is John being influenced by this type of Greek philosophy?

However 'sign' (semeion) could come from the OT 'oth' which is a symbolic act pointing beyond itself, and 'erga' which refers to God's work in the OT. Jesus talks about his miracles as 'erga' (5:17) The Signs The term 'I am' ego eimi could come from Greek philosophy. Barratt makes reference to the goddess Isis or to the Hermetic Corpus where the term ego eimi is used. Howard suggest the term was used in certain 'magical papyri.

'I am the light of the World': Light was a term used in Greek thought to identify God. This is found in the Heremtic literature, Philo talks of 'Lord is my Light' and 'First God is light'.
'I am the Good Shepherd': Schnackenburg refers to 'shepherd' being used in Greek thought to represent deity. Butlmann thinks it refers to a Gnostic Revealer Shepherd, and Jesus is this shepherd

Does John have this in mind?

However in the OT the term is used to denote the language of the divine (Deut 32:39, Isaiah 43:10).

Barratt suggests that 'I am' is a term used for divine self-revelation as in Exodus 3:6, 14 and 20:2)
Grayston believes the term is used for self assertion of deity
Brown says the term is used to reveal different perspectives of God The Discourses
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