Home > apologetics, Bible Study, hermeneutics, John > Hermeneutics: The Gospel of John… as Allegory?

Hermeneutics: The Gospel of John… as Allegory?


In online Christian discussion groups, I’ve recently come across a rather unusual idea: an  allegorical approach to the gospel of John (which came out in discussion of the temple cleansings mentioned in John’s gospel as compared to the synoptic gospels).  Aside from the brief note in my old NIV Study Bible, that some people believe it’s referring to one cleansing, I had not met anyone who actually held such a view.  Apparently though, it is “the standard teaching of the Presbyterian Church of Australia and PCA in America that there was only one cleansing and that John’s gospel isn’t Chronological in linearity.”

Beyond the “who cares?” attitude that some may have, interpretation of this incident gets to the heart of hermeneutics and how we approach the Bible.  Do we treat the Bible as plain language, considering everything in the text? Or do we just pick some general theme and approach that a certain Bible book supposedly has, and thus disregard the actual details in that text?

The following is excerpted from a discussion with someone who spiritualizes the gospel of John (in the same allegorical manner as others do with more obvious books, such as another of the apostle John’s books, Revelation).  The conversation includes a second biblical commenter, referred to as BC:

Allegorizer: The Synoptic gospels…Mark begins at the beginning of his ministry. The VERY beginning. Matthew begins at the same time as Luke at Jesus birth. John just wrote his gospel differently. His message and method was different.

Me:  Mark 1:14 skips ahead some period of time after Mark 1:1-13: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

This comes AFTER several chapters in the gospel of John, while John the Baptist was still baptizing: note the sequence of days in John 1 and 2, and then John 3 and these details in John 3:22-24: “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).” The early chapters of John occur in-between Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, and before John is put in prison, which is where Mark 1:14 resumes.

Allegorizer:  but you think that Jesus ransacking the temple wasn’t important enough for John the second time around or the synoptics the first time around? If they all record it once, why not record BOTH of them? Both of them were obviously important.

Me: John’s gospel also tells us that the most important contributing factor, humanly speaking, for the Jewish leaders to put Jesus to death, was the resurrection of Lazarus. Now why is that very important event only mentioned in John’s gospel?

Each gospel tells different events as observed by the different writers, and they don’t all include the same details. It is very reasonable from the chronology of John’s gospel, that an earlier temple incident happened, before John the Baptist was put in prison.

Allegorizer: again, John had a different method of writing. He abused Greek to the point where students to this day *hate* reading him.

BC: I can read John without hating his Greek. I read John in English (and Portuguese too), and I can understand that there were two cleansings. Why you mention Greek, I don’t know.

Allegorizer:  My point was that they all have ONE cleansing. if one cleansing is important enough for 3 but not 1 why not the 1 and if 1 why not the 3? They’ve already recorded one. why not record both? Obviously they’re both important.

No, there was but one cleansing. John had a different method behind his writing and the purpose wasn’t to give a chronological biography. You’ll note that the gospel of John can be divided into 7 parts a few ways. 7 I Ams, 7 Signs.

BC:  You ignored (the) point about Lazarus. According to you, that was not important at all since it is not mentioned elsewhere.

Allegorizer: No I didn’t.  The difference is that none of the synoptics recorded Lazarus. I’m looking for consistency. If one cleansing was important enough for John but not the others, then the second was important for the others and not for John. They’re being inconsistent.

Me: So answer the question: if John is just a different type of writing and so non-sequential as to be so difficult to understand, why did he alone mention Lazarus’ restoration to life? Furthermore, why did he bother to put so many time-reference indicators in the text, such as “the next day” repeatedly in John 1 and 2, and indicating that John the Baptist was still free, not yet in prison, at the end of John 3, which clearly comes in John’s sequence of events AFTER John 2.

John 2:12 After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.
Next verse: 13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Then Jesus is there in Jerusalem for the Passover and subsequent events: Nicodemus’ visit, and then in John 3:22 AFTER THIS —
Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).

Allegorizer: the clarity of the text is still there, but its chronology isn’t linear. John’s presentation of Jesus’ ministry is thematic (water>healing>healing paralysis>feeding 5000>walking on water>healing the man born blind>raising Lazarus>and an arguable 8th sign rising from death) they build to a climax.

Me: Oh, so because John’s gospel happens to include certain themes — and actually the greatest theme is his seven signs — that means we can ignore everything else in the text?

Final observations:

1)      No doubt the same person who thinks John’s gospel isn’t sequential, thinks Revelation isn’t sequential either. The same author used the same time reference indicators such as “and ” and “after this,” so we can know the chronology.  The underlying hermeneutical issue is the same.

2)    Well said by another person in the discussion:  Just from a human nature standpoint, I can see the crooks at the temple having to be run off more than once……..

Such an approach to God’s word reminded me of Medieval Catholicism, when allegory was the standard approach to God’s word.  Surpringly, though, even the Catholics – going back to Augustine – did get this part right, a sequential-enough understanding to accept two different temple cleansings a few years apart:  In any case, the Church Fathers and Scholastic Doctors believed that there were two Temple cleansings. Most notably, we refer to the authority of Chrysostom, Augustine, and Cornelius a’ Lapide.  John Calvin likewise affirmed the two temple cleansings:

for the other three also relate what we here read that Christ did, but the diversity of the time shows that it was a similar event, but not the same. On two occasions, then, did Christ cleanse the temple from base and profane merchandise; once, when he was beginning to discharge his commission, and another time, (Matthew 21:12; Mark 11:15; Luke 19:45,) when he was about to leave the world and go to the Father, (John 16:28.)

Presbyterian R.C. Sproul likewise affirms two temple cleansings:

“how long do you think after Jesus did that, that those tables were right side up and the money changers were back in business?  Do you really think that when He goes through and cleans the temple on the first occasion, that that was the end of it? I don’t, for a minute.”

  1. January 3, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Good interaction. It’s sad to see people think that allegorical hermeneutics is something, but in the end it’s just the result of a fanciful imagination

    • January 3, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      Thanks, Jim. Very true, and a good way of putting it, “fanciful imagination.”

  2. BradK
    January 11, 2013 at 6:36 am

    Regarding Revelation being sequential, the view that it is not sequential is very common, is it not? For that matter, isn’t the view that the gospel of John may not be entirely sequential pretty common as well? This view does not require allegorizing the gospel, does it?

    On John as allegory, are these comments of Clement of Lexandria cited by Eusebius relevant?

    “Again, in the same books Clement has set down a tradition which he had received from the elders before him, in regard to the order of the Gospels, to the following effect. He says that the Gospels containing the genealogies were written first, and that the Gospel according to Mark was composed in the following circumstances:-Peter having preached the word publicly at Rome, and by the Spirit proclaimed the Gospel, those who were present, who were numerous, entreated Mark, in as much as he had attended him from an early period, and remembered what had been said, to write down what had been spoken. On his composing the Gospel, he handed it to those who had made the request to him; which coming to Peter’s knowledge, he neither hindered nor encouraged. But John, the last of all, seeing that what was corporeal was set forth in the Gospels, on the entreaty of his intimate friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.”

    Of course, “spiritual gospel” does not require that John be allegory, but it appears that Clement may have recognized something fundamentally different about the gospel of John compared to the others and that this difference may have gone beyond merely recounting events that the other gospels did not and/or possible changes in order. It is probably safe to say that anyone reading all four gospels for the first time is struck by the marked difference. Wondering about what exactly is the fundamental difference between John and the other gospels is what led me to your blog post, btw. I did a google search on “gospel of John as allegory” and got here. Allegory is not exactly what I would call it, but I am not sure what to call the difference or what the difference is between John and the other gospels. Thanks for your blog post.

    • January 11, 2013 at 9:26 am

      Thanks for your comment, Brad, as this is a good topic to consider.

      Regarding Revelation, the idea of it being spiritualized and non-sequential first came about through Augustine in the early 5th century, and his idea was then accepted for the next 1000 years of Roman Catholicism, and as a result of that holdover from Catholicism, is an idea unfortunately still with us today. As to the gospel of John, I don’t see that the idea of it being non-sequential is all that common (other than in the teachings of some Presbyterian groups, as mentioned above).

      Yes, the gospel of John is recognized as being different from the synoptic gospels, as containing a lot of material not found in the three synoptic gospels, and written with a different purpose: John’s use of the signs to convey teaching, highlighting selected teachings from our Lord. As John said in his epilogue, Jesus did many other signs, such that the whole world could not contain all that could be written; he wanted to specifically highlight the seven signs, pointing to the spiritual significance, the spiritual truths behind the actual, physical miracles.

      The point made here in this post is about overall hermeneutics, and how we look at a text as normal, plain language. The fact that John had a different emphasis and style in his teaching, to highlight particular things Jesus did and said, things not contained in the synoptic gospels, does not mean we completely throw out all the normal language references that John did include, such as the time sequence markers and details found in the gospel of John. We do not have license to just “pick and choose” certain stylistic features of John’s gospel, the “spiritual” aspect of it, and disregard the rest of the content of that gospel. The approach that I was responding to was from someone who very clearly allegorized the gospel of John, rejecting the normal language references in the text, with a general idea that “John’s gospel is different” and “John’s gospel is so difficult to understand,” etc.

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