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John Introduction

Who? When? Where? Why?
Rabbis and Disciples

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The Romans had invaded Greece in 63BC and conquered their empire – which included Israel. For a period the Jews were allowed the freedom to mainly govern themselves. But in 37BC they rebelled (unsuccessfully) against Rome and in response Israel became a full Roman Province with a King forced on them – Herod the Great. Herod himself was a Jew; he rebuilt the Temple and encouraged the Jews to continue with their religious way of life.

Ten years after he died, Judea had come under direct Roman control and the tensions between Jews and Romans continued to increase until the full-scale revolt in AD66, when in response the Romans overran Israel, finally destroying the Temple in AD70, and overcoming the last Jewish outpost at Masada in AD73.

Before that, the Romans had allowed the Jews a measure of autonomy. They permitted the Sanhedrin to maintain law and order with a religious flavour. It was made up of 71 representatives - Sadducees (the wealthy ruling class) and Pharisees (religious Law-makers); but the majority were chief priests. The leader of the Sanhedrin was appointed by Rome and given the title ‘High Priest’. At the time of Jesus this was Caiaphas.

The Pharisees managed an uneasy truce with the Romans but during Jesus’ years of ministry there was continuing tension between Jews and the occupying forces of Rome to whom they were forced to pay taxes.

The Jews were allowed a small detachment of ‘Temple Guards’ to use as their police, protecting the temple treasures, but also on the look-out for any hint of rebellion amongst the people. The power of the Sanhedrin could be taken away at any time so it was important for them that any hint of popular uprising was quickly stamped on (John 11:47-50)

Also the Roman Antonia Fortress was situated close to the Temple and the resident Roman soldiers would also have been on constant look-out for troublemakers.

Three times a year the population in Jerusalem of about forty thousand, was swelled by an extra two hundred thousand pilgrims who came to the main festivals of Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles (Booths). Every male Jew who had been born in Israel was expected to attend the Temple at these times (Exodus 23: 14-17) and the large crowds meant that all the soldiers would have been on the alert for potential trouble.

What is a Disciple?

Some of the following has been taken from:

In the time of Jesus, the Galilean people were actually more educated in the Bible and its application than most Jews. More famous Jewish teachers came from Galilee than anywhere else in the world. They were known for their great reverence for Scripture and the passionate desire to be faithful to it. This translated into a vibrant religious community, devoted to strong families and their country. Their synagogues would echo with the debates and discussions about keeping the Torah. They resisted the pagan influences of Hellenism far more than did their Judean counterparts. When the great revolt against the pagan Romans and their collaborators (66-74 AD) finally occurred, it began among the Galileans.

It was into this culture that Jesus was born and he spent most of his life in Galilee.

Six months earlier, John the Baptist was born. His family lived further south, so they were nearer to Jerusalem and the Temple. They were a priestly family and they too would have been steeped in the scriptures, and would have known all about the rabbinical life.

In the first century, where there were schools they would have been associated with the local synagogue. Apparently the community would hire a teacher (respectfully called "rabbi") for the school which would take place in the synagogue, although he had no special authority in the synagogue itself.

This school would be for young children and it may well have been for both boys and girls. The teaching focused primarily on the Torah, emphasizing both reading and writing Scripture. Large portions were memorized and it is likely that many students knew the entire Torah by memory by the time their education was finished.

As the children grew older, most students (and certainly the girls) stayed at home to help with the family and in the case of boys to learn the family trade. It is at this point that a boy would participate in his first Passover in Jerusalem (a ceremony that probably forms the background of today's bar mitzvah in orthodox Jewish families today.)

The best (male) students could continue their study (while still learning their trade) with other men from their town. This form of secondary school was also taught by a rabbi of the community. They studied the prophets and other writings in addition to the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. They would learn the accepted interpretations of the Torah: the ‘Oral Torah’, and to learn how to make their own applications and interpretations.

Memorisation continued to be important because most people did not have their own copy of the Scripture so they either had to know it by heart or go to the synagogue to consult the village scrolls. Memory was enhanced by reciting aloud, a practice still widely used in Middle Eastern education, both Jewish and Muslim. Constant repetition was considered to be an essential element of learning.

A few (very few) of the most outstanding of these students sought permission to study with a famous rabbi often leaving home to travel with him for a lengthy period of time. These students were called ‘talmidim’ in Hebrew, which is today translated as ‘disciple’.

There was much more to a talmid than what we would call a student. A student would want to learn what the teacher knows in order to pass an exam. A talmid wanted to become just like their teacher. That meant that students were passionately devoted to their rabbi and noted everything he did or said.

It also meant the rabbi-talmid relationship was a very intense and personal system of education. As the rabbi lived and taught his understanding of the Scripture to his students, they listened and watched and imitated so as to become like him. Eventually they too would become teachers passing on a lifestyle to their own talmidim.

John the Baptist was effectively a Rabbi – with disciples. Jesus would become one too.

Can we know for certain that John wrote this book?

To answer this we need to look at Jesus and his ‘talmidim’ or disciples.

To gain a useful insight into the people who followed Jesus we need to read Luke 6 12-17:

12 One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus had spent all night in prayer before calling his ‘Disciples’ to him.

How many disciples did he have?

Not twelve! Verse 17 speaks of a ‘large crowd’

But it seems that there was also a group who were perhaps more committed; those who were ‘called’ by Jesus: ‘Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him’ (Mark 3:13).

From verse 13 it is obvious that there were more than twelve in this group as he ‘chose twelve of them’. How many there actually were we don’t know – personally I would guess less than a hundred (but there were at least 72 – see Luke 10:1)

The Twelve that Jesus designated as Apostles (V13) were specifically chosen from the other disciples. There were no volunteers.

So it seems his followers were made up of

Whenever the Apostles are listed, the list starts Peter, his brother Andrew, then James, and his brother John. Peter, James and John made up the ‘Inner circle’, although it seems that sometimes Andrew was included. They were all fishermen from Bethsaida who worked in partnership together.

(James and John were named "sons of thunder" by Jesus (Mark 3:17)).

We are told that James and John’s family business used hired men (Mark 1:20), so it might be that they were sufficiently well off to support them (and maybe Jesus?) during the three years of Jesus’ ministry, and then later as the Apostles became missionaries.

Peter, James and John had the exclusive privilege of witnessing and testifying about events in the life of Jesus that no others were invited to see. The three were present at the resurrection of Jarius' daughter (Luke 8:51), the transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:2), and Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33).

Only Peter and John were sent to prepare the upper Room for the Last Supper (Luke 22:8) and when Jesus was taken to the High Priest’s house, only Peter and John followed (John 18:15). John was also the only recorded disciple to be present at the crucifixion of Jesus.

Assuming that John did write this Gospel, he did not mention the first three of these events at all. Perhaps he would have found it difficult to write about them without mentioning himself, and he deliberately wanted to focus the attention on Jesus.

Although Peter, James and John are often mentioned in the other Gospels, John and his brother James are never mentioned by name in John’s Gospel. Where he plays an important role a euphemism is used: ‘The Disciple Jesus loved’ or just ‘the other disciple’. If this had been written by someone else it would seem most improbable that his name would never have been used.

Also when writing about ‘John the Baptist’, Matthew, Mark and Luke are the only ones to use that title. John only refers to him as ‘John’. Obvious really, if that’s your own name and you are not going to talk about yourself! I’m sure then, that John, the son of Zebedee, is the author of this Gospel.

How old was John?

When did he write this Gospel?

It is assumed that the Apostles were of a similar age to Jesus. As John is always mentioned after James, we can assume he was James’ younger brother, so he could have been a few years younger that Jesus. Personally I guess he was perhaps in his 20’s during Jesus’ three years of ministry.

The Romans laid siege to Jerusalem in AD70 and destroyed the Temple, so John might have been 60-70 when that happened. He mentions specific areas of Jerusalem in the present tense (e.g. John 5:2), but it is unlikely that he was still living there when he wrote his gospel, many believing we was living in Ephesus by then and was simply writing from memory.

There is a tradition that John lived to a good age, but 90 would be exceptional and as he grew older he would be less able to travel. It’s safe to assume then that this Gospel was probably written sometime between AD50 and AD90.

Why was it written?

John obviously was close to Jesus during the three years of his ministry and would have seen and heard all that he did and taught. So he would have a vast store of material to draw on.

John’s gospel is different to the other ‘Synoptic’ gospels. It seems that this was not written as a historical narrative, but rather John selected different events from the life of Jesus, not necessarily in any historical order, to build a structure which would lead the readers to faith – as it still does today! And John states this as his specific aim:

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

Words of Jesus in John

Often in John’s Gospel Jesus’ own words are recorded. It is suggested that there are some passages where, following Jesus’ words, John has added a further explanation: e.g. John 3:16-21. (See also John 3:31-36 following John the Baptist’s words).

For those compiling ‘Red Letter’ bibles (where the words of Jesus are printed in red) working out which words are Jesus’ and which are John’s can become a real problem.

This may also explain the differences in style that are sometimes apparent. To me it is not a problem. If we are happy that the Bible is God’s word, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the words themselves are important whoever wrote or spoke them.

John 1b NIV Copyright