The identity of the author of the fourth Gospel of the New Testament canon is conspicuously obscure. Among the disciples in the upper room, in an honored location among those present, was one identified only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23 NIV 1984). In the closing lines of the Gospel, this same person is revealed as the source of the testimony being recorded in the book known as “John” (John 21:24). If the traditional conclusion is accurate, this beloved disciple was John, brother of James and son of Zebedee. He was a fisherman in a family enterprise that was sufficiently successful to have access to a boat and to employ workers (Mark 1:19-20). If the beloved disciple is “the other disciple” (John 18:15-16), he was known to the household of the high priest.
Assuming this reconstruction to be correct, how did a Galilean fisherman with personal connections in Jerusalem become an exquisite story-teller? We will probably never have an answer to that question. Perhaps the hours and days of mending the fishing tackle and maintaining the boat provided the necessary opportunity for John to share tales with James, with their father, and with the hired laborers. Whoever he was, and however he honed his craft, the disciple whom Jesus loved was, indeed, a superb narrator.
As explained in the text of the Gospel, what we possess in this document includes an account of a sequence of “signs” intended to guide us to a recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God (John 20:30-31). Narrative art is evident in the accounts of each of these signs, two of which share a particular temporal quality.
Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus encountered a man who had been infirm for thirty-eight years. After the account of the healing (118 words), John commented, in an almost nonchalant manner, “The day on which this took place was a Sabbath” (John 5:9b NIV 1984). The subsequent conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities is a result of Jesus’ perceived violation of the Sabbath. On a subsequent visit to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who had been blind from birth. The report of the gift of sight (199 words) is followed by another seemingly offhand comment: “Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath” (John 9:14 NIV 1984). As before, a conflict erupts, now between Jesus and some prominent Pharisees, over Jesus’ neglect of the official Sabbath traditions.
The narratives share a focus on the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders concerning appropriate Sabbath behavior; however, John’s chronological information is introduced in a distinctive manner. Similar accounts in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) inform the reader of the Sabbath context of events from the outset of the encounters. By withholding this information until the critical moment when Jesus’ opponents enter the fray, John places greater emphasis on this detail. What significance could this temporal marker possess beyond the issue of proper Sabbath observance?
John demonstrated a similar deftness elsewhere in his Gospel. In his account of the events in the upper room on the night Jesus was arrested, immediately after revealing Judas’ intent to betray his teacher and reporting the departure of the imminent traitor, John informed the reader concerning the conditions under which Judas’ exit occurred: “And it was night” (John 13:30b NIV 1984). The meal Jesus had shared with his companions could not have commenced before sunset; therefore, as chronology the note is unnecessary. John was interested in more than the darkness that had settled upon the city that evening; John wanted the reader to notice the darkness that had settled upon the heart of this troubled disciple.
Returning our attention to the two healings mentioned above, the two postponed Sabbath notices serve to draw the reader’s attention to the Sabbath character of the healings themselves. The Sabbath was patterned on the Creation narrative, in which God rested on the seventh day. Six times in that Creation narrative the reader is informed that evening and morning have transpired, and the relevant day is counted. No such notice is present at the conclusion of the seventh/Sabbath day. The Creation Sabbath was a day in which God enjoyed his Creation, celebrating his relationship with the man and the woman in particular. The lack of a concluding notice for that celebration suggests that God’s desire was that the relational character of Sabbath never cease. Sin by the man and the woman frustrated that desire.
With their impaired condition, neither the paralyzed man nor the man blind from birth was deemed eligible to draw near to God within the precincts of the temple. By healing these two men, Jesus brought Sabbath to them; physical restoration was accompanied by a restored access to the holy presence. In both instances “that day” was a Sabbath on which the healed man encountered the presence of God. Would John have expected his readers to recognize and comprehend this subtlety? Though the details cannot be provided here, John’s reports of declarations by Jesus during the Feat of Tabernacles (John 7:37-38 and 8:12) indicate that John expected his readers to appreciate allusions to Jewish traditions and rituals.
We were formed by the Creator as beings who appreciate narrative art. Much of what we learn about God in the Bible is presented in narrative form. As children we learn most effectively through stories; even as adults, if we will permit them to do so, stories can inform and transform us. Often the task of biblical exegesis is inseparable from the charge to hear the stories being told and to evaluate our lives and relationships from the perspective of those narratives. Here theologians find themselves sharing common ground with historians and with scholars devoted to the comprehension and appreciation of literature. Boundaries between the disciplines in the Christian academy are porous. To the academic who exclaims “Good fences make good neighbors,” we must respond, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”).