The Gospel of John as a source for Jewish Messianism? (Part 1)

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by Neil Godfrey

The tendency within New Testament studies is not to consider that the Johannine perspective might possibly reflect a Jewish sectarian perspective, but to see John and the Johannine Jesus, who is Messiah, as anti-Jewish.

A recent publication with a challenging title and edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini is Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism: Royal, Prophetic, and Divine Messiahs. How could that be? The Gospel of John is widely considered the most Christian-theologically advanced of the gospels and even anti-Jewish.

. . . in the Gospel of John, Jesus has descended from heaven, has been sent by the Father, is one with the Father, and is the only begotten of the Father. This Johannine portrayal of Jesus as the divine Son of God is thought to have been possible only in later Christian thought. . . .

. . . scholars do not deem John’s Christology to reflect Jewish messianic expectation, at least directly. Rather, John’s Christology is understood to reflect a Johannine version of the Synoptic Jesus set in the context of late first-century intra-Jewish diaspora dialogue and conflict or less specifically a Christianized or theologized development of Jewish messianic expectation.

. . . For many, John’s high Christology indicates its derivation from the community, which in turn negates its historicity. How much more problematic then is it to read the Gospel of John’s Christology as a form of Jewish Messianism? (16f)

Yet the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has exposed certain similarities between the Gospel of John and some form of early Judaism in Palestine.

The challenge for Johannine scholarship has been where to go and what to do after noting John’s relationship with early Judaism. (18)

Benjamin Reynolds suggests the reason scholars stop short after doing little more than remarking upon certain points in common is that to go further

means traveling into uncharted waters, into places that Johannine scholarship does not go, such as reevaluating the possibility of historical evidence in John’s Gospel, the context in which the Gospel was written, and the height of its Christology.

Reynolds can say that “scholars almost without exception” address the Gospel of John as an instance of “early Christian (and thus not Jewish) belief in the Messiah.”

Attempts at Using John as Evidence for Jewish Messianism

Sigmund Mowinckel

Sigmund Mowinckel

Mowinckel cites

  • John 4:25 along with Ps. Sol. 18:8-10 and 1 En. 49:3 to indicate Jewish and Samaritan belief that the Messiah would teach people “a right understanding of the law.’
  • John 4:25 and 6:14 as evidence that the Messiah is the Prophet: “This passage [6:14] seems to imply that ‘the Prophet’, simpliciter, was a title of the Messiah.”
  • John 1:21,25 as one of a number of examples that indicate that it was “presupposed in the Gospels as a common Jewish belief” that Elijah would precede the Messiah.
  • John 7:41-42 . . . with other texts as an example of Mic. 5:1 giving rise to the idea that the Messiah would originate from Bethlehem.

When the people came to the conclusion that Jesus was truly ‘the Prophet that should come into the world’, the natural consequence was that they should proclaim Him king (John vi, 14f.). Thus, the Messiah is ‘the prophet’ . . . This passage seems to imply that ‘the Prophet’, simpliciter, was a title of the Messiah. This is in harmony with the fact that Old Testament passages which spoke, or seemed to speak of a special prophet in the future (like Malachi’s prediction of the return of Elijah, or the reference in Deuteronomy to the coming of a prophet like Moses), were by some interpreted Messianically, whereas other [Jewish] scholars took them to refer to a prophetic forerunner of the Messiah (see above, pp. 298ff). — Mowinckel, p. 322

Mowinckel, Sigmund. 1956. He That Cometh. Translated by G. W. Anderson. New York; Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Marinus de Jonge

Marinus de Jonge

If statements made by Jewish opponents or sympathizers in the Fourth Gospel do not agree with expressions or conceptions found in the Jewish sources, or show only partial agreements, we may not exclude the possibility that the Gospel, as only source, has preserved truly Jewish notions and beliefs. After all, the Jewish material is variegated, and very scanty and haphazard. Yet the Johannine material can only be used to fill in the gaps or to correct the picture after due allowance has been made within the Fourth Gospel. (Jonge, p. 79)

Since the majority of statements, particularly in John 7, come from the Jewish crowd, de Jonge argues that these statements are “a complete misunderstanding” or “they represent an inadequate formulation of belief.” The Gospel, thus, attempts to ignore, reinterpret, or correct such insufficient Jewish messianic understandings. (25)

Jonge, Marinus De. 1977. Jesus: Stranger from Heaven and Son of God: Jesus Christ and the Christians in Johannine Perspective, trans. John E. Steely. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press.

Dietmar Neufeld

Similar to Marinus de Jonge. The messianism of the Gospel of John has grown out of reflection on sectarian Jewish ideas of the messiah, the same ones that are raised by the Jews and then “corrected” by Jesus in the gospel.

Richard Bauckham

[H]e contends that the messianism of the Fourth Gospel corresponds to the myriad of messianic beliefs in the first century.

William Horbury

William Horbury

The passages he discusses are

  • John 1:45 (“we have found the one of whom Moses wrote in the law and also the prophets”)
  • and 12:34 (“We have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; how do you say that it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”).

Regarding 1:45, Horbury notes the expectation that the Messiah was prophesied in the law,

and regarding 12:34, he points out the association of the Messiah with the Son of Man, claiming that the crowd’s question indicates an association between the Messiah and the Son of Man.

Horbury posits that the crowd’s question “Who is this Son of Man?” does not derive from ignorance of the Son of Man idea but from the claim that the Son of Man is to suffer. Pre-Christian Jews, Horbury indicates, believed from the law and Daniel 7 that the Son of Man was to conquer rather than suffer.

Horbury, William. 2003. Messianism Among Jews and Christians: Biblical and Historical Studies. London; New York: A&C Black.

Messianic Texts and Themes in the Gospel of John

If you are a bit rusty on the Gospel of John here is a list of “primary texts that serve as important links to Jewish messianic expectation in the Gospel of John”:

• John the Baptist’s denial that he is the Christ, Elijah, or “the prophet” (John 1:19-21; cf. 3:28)
• Andrew’s declaration to Peter: “We have found the μεσσίαν” (1:41)
• Philip’s declaration to Nathanael: “We have found the one of whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote” (1:45)
• Nathanael’s exclamation “You are the Son of God, the King of Israel” (1:49)
• Jesus’s statement to the Samaritan woman that the one speaking with her is the μεσσίας (4:25)
• the crowd’s claim that Jesus was the prophet who was to come into the world and their subsequent attempt to make him king (6:14-15)
• the crowd’s claim that when the Christ comes no one will know where he is from (7:27)
• the expectation by the crowd that the Christ will do signs (7:31; cf. 10:41)
• the crowd’s question about whether Jesus was the prophet or the Christ
• and whether the Christ was David’s descendant and would come from Bethlehem (7:40-44; cf. 7:52; 9:17)
• that those who believe Jesus to be the Christ will be thrown out from the synagogue (9:22; cf. 12:42; 16:2)
• Martha’s exclamation: “I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who comes into the world” (11:27)
• John’s account of the triumphal entry when the Passover crowd proclaims “Hosanna, blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” (cf. Ps. 118:25-26) and the citation of Zech. 9:9 as reason for Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem (12:13-15)
• the crowd’s expectation that the Christ will remain forever (12:34)
• the Gospel as witness to Jesus’s signs so that readers may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (20:30-31)

< and additionally, the two references to Jesus as “Jesus Christ” (Ίησοΰ Χρίστου,

1:17; Ίησουν Χριστόν, 17:3)

These texts and their contexts serve as the primary material for discussion of whether or not John’s Gospel reflects an early Jewish understanding of the Messiah. (30 f)


Horbury, William. 2003. Messianism Among Jews and Christians: Biblical and Historical Studies. London; New York: A&C Black.

Mowinckel, Sigmund. 1956. He That Cometh. Translated by G. W. Anderson. New York; Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Reynolds, Benjamin, and Gabriele Boccaccini, eds. 2018. Reading the Gospel of Johns Christology as Jewish Messianism. Vol. 106. Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.

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7 thoughts on “The Gospel of John as a source for Jewish Messianism? (Part 1)”

  1. I vaguely remember Bruno Bauer saying that Jewish messianism was probably a reaction to Christianism, but I don’t quite remember where.

    I’m going to dig around to see if I can find the citation.

  2. This seems interesting. Though the opening of GJohn insists that Jesus is the “word,” or logos. A very Greek word, concept, from as early as Heraclitus, c. 500 BCE (?).

    So if this Logos or “Word” is found in Jewish culture, it was probably borrowed by them from the Greeks. Especially 1) after Alexander the Great took over the Mediterranean, Tyre, c. 330 BCE. And then 2) redoubled again when the Romans took over Jerusalem in 64 BC. And 3) tripled when Rome burned Jerusalem in 70 AD. Romans totally ruling Israel from these last two dates.

    Hellenized Jews like Philo used this Word especially. Significantly, at the exact time Jesus is said to have appeared, c. 30. AD

    1. In ANE and Greco-Roman religion the king/messiah was a Logos like figure or described in the exact same way the logos is described by John, Philo, Plutarch etc. Judaism most likely got this logos concept from Egyptian religion if it didn’t come up with it on it’s own. GJohn was probably influence by both the Jewish and Middle Platonist(Plutarch, Philo) Logos.

      The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson

      The text alludes to the Heliopolitan creation account centered on the god Atum, but goes on to claim that the Memphite god Ptah preceded the sun god and that it was Ptah who created Atum and ultimately the other gods and all else ‘through his heart and through his tongue’. The expression alludes to the conscious planning of creation and it’s execution through rational thought and speech, and this story of creation ex nihilo as attributed to Ptah by the priests of Memphis is the earliest known example of the so-called ‘logos’ doctrine in which the world is formed through a god’s creative speech…It lies before, and in line with, the philosophical concepts found in the Hebrew Bible where ‘God said, let there be light, and there was light'(Genesis 1:3), and the Christian scriptures which state that ‘In the beginning was the word[logos]…and the word was God…all things were made by him…'(John 1:1,3)


      It is difficult to say how far the rabbinical concept of the Memra, which is used now as a parallel to the divine Wisdom and again as a parallel to the Shekinah, had come under the influence of the Greek term “Logos,” which denotes both word and reason, and, perhaps owing to Egyptian mythological notions…

      In the following quotes the Egyptian and Roman kings are described in the same was as the Logos is described by gJohn and Middle Platonists like Philo and Plutarch.

      Temples of Ancient Egypt Edited by Byron E Shafer

      The royal ka was the immortal creative spirit of divine kingship, a form of the Creator’s collective ka. The ka of a particular king was but a specific instance, or fragment, of the royal ka… Only in retrospect could he be portrayed as predestined by the Creator to rule Egypt as truly perfect from the beginning, as divine seed, son of the Creator, the very flesh of god, one with the Father, god’s incarnation on earth, his sacred image.

      Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 1, Origins to Constantine By Margaret M. Mitchell, Frances M. Young, K. Scott Bowie

      The earliest and most insistent analogy between the way Christ was celebrated and pagan cultic activity is to be found in the use of the language from the ruler-cult tradition, by then associated with the divinisation of the Roman emperor, particularly but not solely in Asia Minor. An inscription from Ephesus speaks of Julius Caesar as ‘the god made manifest, offspring of Ares and Aphrodite and common saviour of human life’. For Christians, Jesus was God manifest, God’s offspring and the Saviour of all. In Pergamum an inscription reads:’Caesar, absolute ruler(autokrator), son of god, the god Augustus, overseer of every land and sea’, For Christians, God was the autokrator who oversees everything, seeing even into the hearts of human beings, ultimately their judge, and Jesus was the one who exercised these powers on God’s behalf. Inscriptions accord to the emperors titles such as ‘lord’ and ‘god’, ‘king of kings’, saviour, and ‘high priest’, all of which Christians ascribed to Christ… And it is not just titles that provide parallels: the birthday of the emperor Augustus was ‘good news’ (evangel or gospel); the ‘presence'(parousia or advent) of the sovereign was a matter of hope and expectation for a city. For Christians hope and expectation were focused on the return of Christ, and they knew it as his parousia. Given all this evidence, it is hardly surprising that many scholars, especially since Bousset, come to the conclusion that it was only in the context of Hellenic syncretism that the cult of Jesus could have developed. Here apotheosis was accepted for kings, heroes and philosophers…

      Notice in the above quote the Roman king was sometimes referred to as “High Priest”. The Egyptian king was referred to as the “Solar Priest”.

      King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature by Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins

      Most importantly, the passage confirms that the king could be addressed as elohim, “god”. The latter point is further illustrated in Ps. 45:6, which is most naturally translated as “Your throne, O God, endures forever.” The objection that the king is not otherwise addressed as God loses it’s force in light of Isaiah 9. The fact that the king is addressed as God in Ps. 45:6 is shown by the distinction drawn in the following verse, “therefore God, your God, has anointed you.” The king is still subject to the Most High, but he is an elohim, not just a man… In light of this discussion, it seems very likely that the Jerusalem enthronement ritual was influenced, even if only indirectly, by Egyptian ideas of kingship. At least as a matter of court rhetoric, the king was declared to be the son of God, and could be called an elohim, a god.

      So the king being described as something very similar if not exactly like the Logos seems to have been common in ANE and Greco-Roman relgion.

      1. The savior, king, and logos all have the same role essentially. They act as mediator between god and humanity. This why savior gods(like Osiris and Dionysus, both associated with kingship and the logos), kings, and the Logos are all described the same way.

        The Gospel of Thomas and Plato : A Study of the Impact of Platonism on the Fifth Gospel By Ivan Miroshnikov

        The double role of Plutarch’s Osiris is determined by his intermediary status: in order to act as an intermediary between the transcendent God and the world, he needs to participate in both transcendence and immanence. The very same double role is ascribed to Logos in Philo: according to Mos. 2.127, the cosmic Logos deals with both “the incorporeal and paradigmatic forms” and the visible objects that imitate these forms. The fact that Philo’s Logos and Plutarch’s Osiris are functionally identical and that Osiris can also be called Logos demonstrates that Philo’s philosophy of Logos was part of a larger Middle Platonist tradition and that this tradition as a whole should be recognized as a possible background for the Johannine Logos.


        MacDonald observes that the Fourth Gospel sounds themes proper to the Greek god Dionysos (the Roman Bacchus), not least as he was depicted in Euripides’s play The Bacchae. A divine figure, offspring of a divine father and human mother, takes on flesh to live among mortals, but is rejected by his own; miraculously provides wine; includes women as his close devotees; dies a violent death—and returns to life.

        Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets By Fritz Graf, Sarah Iles Johnston

        Like his father, he[Dionysus] is destined to usher in the next, even greater phase of cosmic history, but unlike his father, he falls prey to the titans…the unfulfilled promise of his truncated kingship glimmers behind the different role he takes on, once he is reborn, as a mediator between the world of the living and that of the dead.

  3. So Comparative Religious Studies suggest that the savior messiah figure in Christisniy and GJohn, could have come from many nearby religions, philosophies. If it was found in 1) Judaism, Jews could have 2) borrowed it in turn from Greek, 3) Roman. and 4) Egyptian concepts, among others.

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