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Gnosis and the New Testament: Knowledge and Revelation in John

Because of the very distinctive—and extensive—use of terms related to knowledge and revelation in the Johannine writings, it has been necessary to devote a separate supplemental article to this topic. The vocabulary, language and imagery used in the discourses of Jesus in Gospel are so close, at many points, to that in the letters, that most scholars ascribe them to a single Christian community or “school” of authorship. Tradition establishes the apostle John as the author of the Gospel and letters both, though, strictly speaking, they are all anonymous works. Regardless of how one theorizes the actual authorship of the writings, there is strong evidence that, in the discourses of Jesus, the actual words of Jesus—i.e. the historical sayings/teachings—have been edited and given an added interpretative layer within a literary dialogue (and homiletic) format.

I have previously discussed the specific vocabulary related to knowledge and revelation (cf. Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series). The extent to which they occur in the Gospel and letters of John is striking:

  • The verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ, “know”) occurs 56 times in the Gospel, and 26 in the letters—more than a third of all occurrences in the NT (222). Interestingly, the related noun gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”), is not used (on this, cf. the following special note).
  • The verb ei&dw (oi@da) (“see”), which is essentially interchangeable with ginw/skw in Greek at the time of the New Testament, occurs 85 times in the Gospel, and another 16 in the letters—again, more than a third of all occurrences in the NT.
  • Other verbs for seeing are used frequently in the Gospel and letters:
    o(ra/w (“see, perceive”, 31/8); ble/pw (“look [at], see”, 17/1); qewre/w and qea/omai (“look with wonder, look [carefully] at, behold”, 24/1 & 6/3)
  • The noun fw=$ (“light”), 23 times in the Gospel, 6 in the letters (29 out of 73 in the NT); in addition, we have the related verbs for giving/shining light: fai/nw (3), emfani/zw (2), fanero/w (15).

Knowing and Seeing (& Hearing)

Fundamentally, the references involving knowing and seeing (taken together) can be divided into several categories:

  1. Jesus (the Son) knows the Father, and makes Him (his word, his truth, etc) known to his disciples
  2. Disciples/believers know him (the Son), and the Father through him; by contrast, the “world” does not know
  3. Jesus knows his disciples (believers), who are also known by the Father

1. The Son knows/sees the Father

The main passages expressing this knowledge of the Father are: Jn 5:32; 7:29; 8:14, 19, 55; 10:15; 12:50; 13:3; 15:15; 17:25. Frequent in the discourses of Jesus is the idea that the Son has seen and heard the Father, and does/says what he sees/hears the Father doing/saying. This is expressed in Jn 3:32; 5:19ff; 6:46; 8:26, 38, 40; 12:49-50; 15:15 (cf. also 10:18, 37; 14:10; 17:6-8). The basic image derives from daily life—the dutiful son, as a pupil or apprentice, imitates his father, following the pattern and example of behavior. In 16:13, it is extended to the Spirit, who, like the Son (and as the abiding presence of the Son in the believer), will speak (only) the things he hears from the Father.

In turn, the Son makes known the Father to humankind, especially to his followers (believers). It is for this purpose that he was sent into the world by the Father (cf. below). The specific verb gnwri/zw (“make known”) occurs in Jn 15:15:

“…all the (thing)s that I heard (from) alongside my Father I (have) made known [e)gnw/risa] to you”

It is also found (twice) in the prayer-discourse of Jesus in chapter 17 (v. 26):

“and I made known [e)gnw/risa] to them Your name, and will make (it) known [gnwri/sw], (so) that the love with which you loved me might be in them, and I (also) in them”

An interesting example is Jn 1:18, where the verb e)chge/omai (“lead/bring out”) is used. The statement (by the author) emphasizes that no one has ever seen God, but that Jesus, the unique Son (of God) “…the (one) being [i.e. who is/dwells] in the lap of the Father, this (one) has brought (Him) out”—i.e. brought God out in the sense of declaring and making Him known.

More common is the verb fanero/w (“make/cause [to] shine [forth]”), where it refers to Jesus making God known (17:6)—especially His work and power (through miracles, etc), as in 2:11; 9:3; the same is expressed by the verb deiknu/w in 10:32; 14:8. It is also used in reference to Jesus’ appearing to his disciples—1:31; 14:21f; cf. also 7:4. In 1 John, it occurs in the more traditional sense of Jesus’ appearance (and future appearance) on earth (1:2; 2:28; 3:2, 5, 8, also 4:9).

Closely related is the key motif of Jesus as light (fw=$)—Jn 1:5-9; 3:19ff; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9; 12:35-36, 46; and cf. also 1 Jn 1:5-7; 2:8-11. John the Baptist is also a light (5:35) , but only insofar as he reflects and reveals the true light (1:5ff). The verb fai/nw (“shine light”) occurs in 1:5; 5:35; 1 John 2:8; while e)mfani/zw (“make [light] shine in”) is used in Jn 14:21-22 associated with the personal (abiding) presence of Jesus in the believer.

2. Believers know/see the Son

It is specifically Jesus’ disciples (believers) who come to know him (the Son). The main references are Jn 6:69; 8:28; 10:4-5, 14-15, 27, 38; 14:9, 17, 20; 17:3, 7-8, 23; cf. also 3:11; 18:21. People see the signs (miracles, etc) which Jesus does (2:23; 4:19, 48; 6:2, 14, 26; 11:45), and also come to see him (on this narrative motif, cf. below). They also hear his voice—cf. 3:29; 5:25, 28, 37; 12:29f; 18:37, and note 4:42; 11:43f; 20:16. Through the Son, believers see and hear the Father—this motif is frequent (cf. above), but emphasized particularly in Jn 14:7-8ff; 17:3.

By contrast, the “world”—that is, unbelievers—do not know him. Even Jesus’ own disciples have difficulty understanding, and are unable to know completely. This is a theme which runs throughout the narrative; of the many references, cf. 1:10, 26, 31, 33; 4:32; 7:27-28; 8:14, 19, 55; 9:29; 12:35; 14:9, 17; 15:15, 21; 16:3; 17:25; 20:14. The contrast is part of the dualism in the Johannine writings (to be discussed in Part 6). It is also expressed through the contrast of seeing vs. not-seeing (i.e. blindness)—chapter 9; 12:40; 1 Jn 2:11.

In the letters of John, knowing Christ essentially functions as a central point of religious identification, marked especially by the presence and manifestation of Christian love—cf. 1 Jn 2:3ff, 13-14; 4:2, 6-8, 16; 5:19-20; it also includes the same dualistic contrast found in the Gospel (1 Jn 2:11; 3:1, 6, etc). Likewise, the twin motif of seeing/hearing occurs (1 Jn 1:1-3; 3:11; 4:14; 2 Jn 6), as well as the specific idea of knowing the Father by way of the Son (4:8ff, 12, 14; cf. also 2:23; 5:9; 2 Jn 9).

3. Believers known by Jesus (and the Father)

Jesus’ knowledge of his disciples (believers), as those chosen and given to him by God (cf. below), is emphasized in Jn 2:25; 6:64; 10:14, 27; 13:11, 18. Within the narrative, the various references of Jesus coming to his disciples (cf. below) and, specifically, seeing them (1:42, 48; 11:33; 19:26, etc), take on added meaning. A reciprocal relationship is expressed—Jesus sees (and comes to) believers, who also see (and come to) him. Ultimately, these passages are tied to an overriding sense of Christian identity, for believers as those who come from (or out of) God, just as Jesus himself comes from God. This motif will be discussed next.

Other concepts and expressions

The rich treasury of Johannine language and imagery can only be surveyed partially here. I will endeavor to point out a few of the most relevant ideas and expressions used in the Gospel and letters.

Coming from God

This often involves the specific preposition e)k (lit. “out of”). Frequently Jesus speaks of himself (the Son) as coming from, or “out of”, God—Jn 7:17; 8:42; 16:28ff, and cf. also 1:14; 3:2; 17:5; 1 Jn 1:2. More or less synonymous is the idea of his coming out of heaven (or “above”), as in Jn 3:13, 27, 31; 6:32-33ff; 8:23. The (spatial) dualism of above/below, heaven/earth, etc., is related to the conceptual dualism of Jesus “stepping down” and “stepping (back) up”, using the related verbs katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw. As Jesus came down out of heaven (from God), so he will be returning back into heaven (to the Father). At the same time, those who believe in him, are also said to be “(out) of God”, especially under the image of being born from Him—Jn 1:12-13; 3:3ff; 8:47; 18:37. This will be discussed further in Part 5 (on Election/Predestination). Being “of God” is important in the Johannine letters as signifying Christian identity—cf. 2:16, 29; 3:9-10, 19; 4:2-3ff; 5:1, 4, 18-19; 3 Jn 11.

Coming into the world

Related to the concept of Jesus coming from God, out of heaven, is the specific motif of his coming into the world. This is expressed most clearly in Jn 1:9, 11; 3:31; 5:43; 8:14; 9:39; 11:27; 12:46-47; 18:37. For the closely connected use of the verb fanero/w (“make to shine, make manifest, cause to appear”) to describe this appearance of Jesus on earth, cf. above. Coming into the world also means coming to the people—to human beings generally, but also to the people Israel, and, more specifically, to the people (believers) chosen by God.

Coming to the disciples / Disciples coming to Jesus

This twin motif occurs frequently in the Gospel narrative, but the “coming” carries a deeper significance in John, due to the previously mentioned concepts, as well as to the added motif of seeing. The references here which include the element of sight/seeing are marked with an asterisk:

Two other, related, concepts should be mentioned:

Sending

In the Gospel, Jesus is identified as (the Son) who was sent by God the Father, using both verbs a)poste/llw and pe/mpw: the references are too numerous to mention them all—3:17, 34; 4:34; 5:23-24, 30, 36ff; 6:38-39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28-29, et al. The Spirit is also sent by the Father (and the Son) to believers, 14:26; 15:26; 16:7; and Jesus sends forth his disciples (believers), just as the Father sent him (4:38; 17:18; 20:21).

Abiding/remaining in

As in the Pauline letters, the Johannine writings frequently refer to believers being “in” (e)n) Christ, just as Christ is “in” the believer. Sometimes this is specified in terms of truth, love, or the word(s) (logo$, r(hma) of Jesus. Most frequently, it involves the verb me/nw (“remain, abide”), which becomes a distinctly Johannine theme and unique for an understanding of both revelation and the believer’s religious identity (in Christ). For more on this latter point, cf. the discussion in Part 4.

The frequency with which both aspects are mentioned together, side-by-side, is striking.

Giving & Receiving

One other way revelation is expressed in the Gospel of John is with the verbs di/dwmi (“give”) and lamba/nw (“take [hold of], receive”). These two verbs occur together at the beginning of the Gospel, in 1:12, 16-17 (cf. the note on these), and again at several points throughout. God the Father gives to the Son, who, in turn, gives to his followers (believers). At the same time, believers themselves are among the things given by God to Christ (17:2ff). Those who trust in Christ and come to him also receive him. In 17:8, the verbs lamba/nw and di/dwmi are used together, along with ginw/skw (“know”); I discuss this verse in a separate daily note. For more on the prayer-discourse of chapter 17, cf. my earlier note on 17:3.

Glory/Splendor

Finally, we should mention the numerous occurrences of the term do/ca (“esteem, honor”, i.e. “glory, splendor”, esp. when used of God), along with the related verb doca/zw. While do/ca is related to the idea of divine revelation throughout the New Testament, it carries special significance in the Gospel of John, as it is distinctly tied to the person of Christ, and his identity with God the Father. This glory/splendor is at the center of the two-sided presentation of Christ in the Gospel—his descent (stepping down) from God the Father, and his ascent (stepping up) back to the Father. The death and resurrection/exaltation of Jesus stands between these two points, much as the vision described in Jn 1:51, which is offered as a vision of glory of God/Christ promised to believers (cf. also 3:3, 36). For the key passages referring to do/ca, cf. Jn 1:14; 2:11; 5:44; 7:18; 8:50, 54; 11:4; 12:23, 28, 41, 43; 13:31-32; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1ff, 22ff. These cover virtually the entire range of meaning connected with the idea of revelation in John.

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