The following is an aside on the nature of the documents we are dealing with when we read the New Testament Gospels. I apologize for the length. But it is a discussion in which the Gospel of John compels us to engage.

At the end of the story of the healing of the invalid by the Sheep Gate in John chapter 5, there is a significant shift in the focus of text.

Up to verse 16 the text has focused primarily on the invalid and his healing. At verse 16, the healed man disappears from the story and the text begins to centre almost completely on the person of Jesus.

It is a difficult transition.

It would be less than honest for an interpreter of John’s Gospel to fail to point out that the statements in John’s Gospel attributed to Jesus pose a number of challenges.

It is at least curious that the majority of the seven long Johannine monologues in which Jesus speaks about himself are completely missing from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

It is generally agreed by most biblical scholars that Mark’s Gospel is the earliest of the four Gospels, written some time around 70 CE. John’s Gospel is usually thought to have been written at least 20 years later.

How are we to explain that apparently the incredible wealth of material relating to Jesus that is included in the Gospel of John, was completely unknown to Mark, Matthew or Luke  or ignored by them, and was simply lying around somewhere for 20 years waiting for John to bring it to light? And how can we account for the dramatic difference in style between Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptics which is primarily taken up with parables, stories, and images, and the teaching attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John where we find long didactic sections of theologically dense discourse on the nature of the Christ?

In an attempt to answer these questions, modern scholarship commonly proposes that the writer of the Gospel of John has placed words into Jesus’ mouth that, while reflecting the true nature of Jesus’ teaching, were not necessarily directly spoken by Jesus. It is suggested that, John’s Gospel represents two decades of mature reflection upon the reality of the living presence of Jesus as experienced in the community of faith.

For some contemporary readers of the Gospel of John this is a shocking suggestion. Our modern literal minds tend to present us with only two options. Either the words attributed to Jesus were spoken by Jesus as they were recorded, or they were not. According to this understanding, it is simply a lie to say Jesus spoke words he did not speak.

We live today in an age when words can be exactly recorded as spoken. These words can then be revisited in either written or recorded form. This was not the case in Jesus’ day. No one sat at Jesus’ feet as he taught recording every word as he spoke. Even the earliest Gospel was not written until some thirty years after Jesus physically departed.

Fragments of Jesus’ teaching were written down earlier and the stories certainly circulated orally in a community that would have worked hard to preserve the authentic words of Jesus. But, even in our day of instant recording, the significance of words is profoundly effected by their context and the speaker’s tone of voice. The most faithful account of words spoken in one situation is never a perfect record of exactly what was said or what was meant by the speaker.

Even taking into account the determination of early Christians to faithfully record Jesus’ words and the extraordinary recall of people more accustomed than we are to depending upon their memory, it must be acknowledged that the reporting of Jesus’ words in the Gospels involves some interpretation. This is particularly true in John’s Gospel.

Is it a problem to acknowledge that the Gospels are not necessarily word for word accounts of precisely the words Jesus spoke on every occasion? Are the Gospels disqualified if we acknowledge that they involve some degree of interpretation and theological reflection on the part of the writer?

To acknowledge that there may be times when the Gospel writers put words in Jesus’ mouth that were not a precise record of exactly what he said, will only be a problem for two reasons.

1. We will have trouble accepting that the Gospel writers created some of the words attributed to Jesus if we refuse to recognize, or accept that it was a common ancient practice for faithful disciples to reproduce the teachings of their master using the writer’s own words while attributing those words to their revered teacher. In the absence of immediate recording devices, this was the only possible way for the followers of a great teacher to pass on their teacher’s wisdom.

2. It will be difficult to accept the suggestion that the Gospel writers reproduced the teaching of Jesus in their own words, if we are determined that the authority for the teaching in the Gospels resides only in the specific words spoken by Jesus as he uttered them during his earthly ministry. This problem disappears if we locate the authority of Scripture in the actual texts themselves as we have received them.

The biblical texts are artifacts. They were created by their authors under the guidance and inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. Our challenge as modern readers is to grapple with the texts as they present themselves. We aim to be open to the same Holy Spirit who inspired the original documents and to join in a conversation with these texts that opens us to the presence and action of God’s Spirit at work in and through the words of the Bible.

So, in my approach to John’s Gospel, I am perfectly willing to accept that the words I am reading may not be precisely the words Jesus spoke. But, I am convinced that, if Jesus was reading the words he is reported to have said in the Gospel of John, he would say, “Yes that is exactly what I meant.” Although we may not be hearing precisely the literal words of Jesus at all times in the Gospels, if our hearts are open, we are certainly hearing the voice of Jesus.

The authority of the texts resides in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in both the writer and the reader. It does not depend upon perfect historical accuracy (which is impossible anyway).

So, when I read the words attributed to Jesus in John’s Gospel, I read them as if they were spoken by Jesus. But I also recognize that they contain mature reflection on the character and nature of Jesus that emerged only after the Christian community had lived with the presence of Jesus in their midst for several decades.

The power of this approach can be seen in Jesus’ curious reply to his persecutors following the healing of the invalid by the Sheep Gate.

In response to their accusation that Jesus is violating the sabbath, Jesus says,

‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ (John 5:17)

For the early church this was a triumphant affirmation that, in their experience, the work of Jesus was not confined by any boundaries of tradition or time. In the early church the presence and action of Jesus were every bit as real as they had been for the man healed by the Sheep Gate.

The problem that Jesus began to encounter in John chapter 5 is that certain people were determined to restrict God’s work within parameters they found acceptable and manageable. Jesus is pointing out that the Spirit will not be confined by any human stipulations or demands.

As Jesus has already pointed out,

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. (John 3:8)

In the text of Scripture, we listen for the voice of God’s Spirit. We allow the words of the text to break open our heart to new depths. We seek God in our interaction with a word that is alive and active. We encounter in this interaction a God “who is still working.”  Like the early church, we trust that, in these words, we encounter the reality of the living presence of God at work.