Today, I am presenting a paper in the Gospel of John seminar that I am taking as part of my Ph.D. studies. The title of my paper is “Group Audiences in John”. Primarily, I exam the three main audiences with whom Jesus interacts in the Fourth Gospel: “the crowds”, “the Jews”, and “the disciples”.
“The crowds” refers to a heterogeneous group of people who have possibly heard about Jesus, but who are not closely associated with him. In the Gospel, they tend to respond positively to Jesus’ signs, but they respond to his teachings with ambivalence.
“The Jews” refers to representatives of the religious leadership based primarily in Jerusalem. In reference to audience, the phrase “the Jews” does not refer to all Jewish people. When interacting with Jesus, the religious leaders tend to respond negatively to both Jesus’ signs and teachings.
“The disciples” refer to that group of people who are more closely associated with Jesus and who spend the most time with him. Most of Jesus’ teaching in the Fourth Gospel are directed toward “the disciples”, while there are usually other groups present to hear the teachings as well. “The disciples” tend to respond positively to both Jesus’ signs and teachings.
This is the interesting aspect of the group audiences in John: while each audience as a group tends to respond to Jesus in a certain way, association with a specific group does not guarantee a certain response. Also, association with a certain group (even “the disciples”) does not guarantee that an individual is a follower of Jesus Christ in reality.
Judas is the primary example of one who is associated with “the disciples” but who is not shown as a real follower of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Judas is usually called one of “the disciples” and even one of “the Twelve” (a select group among “the disciples”), but he is also usually identified as the one who would betray Jesus. Similarly, in John 6:66, many of “the disciples” turned away from Jesus and no longer walked with him.
Also, Nicodemus is associated with “the Jews” but he is shown responding to Jesus in a neutral to positive light in several instances. The best example is in John 19:39, where Nicodemus (who is never called a “disciple”) is shown responding to Jesus in the same way as Joseph of Arimathea (who is called a “disciple” but is not called one of “the Jews” in the Gospel of John).
Here is one more interesting thing that I discovered about group audiences in John’s Gospel: there is never an instance where an individual or sub-group is associated with more than one of the group audiences. As I mentioned above, while Nicodemus responds to Jesus in a similar way as Joseph, Nicodemus is never called one of “the disciples”. Similarly, Joseph is never associated with “the Jews” in the Fourth Gospel. “The disciples” who stop following Jesus are never called “the crowd”. Members of “the crowd” or “the Jews” who start believing Jesus and following Jesus are never called “the disciples”.
So, what do I do with this analysis? Primarily, I conclude that in John’s Gospel, the author uses these group identifiers (“the crowds”, “the Jews”, and “the disciples”) to indicate general response tendencies of those who are curious about Jesus, those who are antagonistic toward Jesus, and those who are closely associated with Jesus respectively. Being identified with one of these groups in John is not equated with having eternal life (or the other synonyms that John uses for eternal life, such as “abundant life”, “abide in me”, etc.).
Instead of group association being identified with eternal life, John (through Jesus) gives the same answer to members of each of the three groups: eternal life is through Jesus and through following him. He tells all three groups this in John 6. He tells “the Jews” that true disciples (not simply one associated with “the disciples”) are ones who keep his commandments. Similarly, he tells “the disciples” that they will truly become his disciples by abiding in him, keeping his commandments, and loving him.
John’s use of audience may be perplexing at first, because we expect “the disciples” to be shown in a positive light as those who have received eternal light. Instead of associating with a group that identifies themselves as “the disciples” or even that are called “the disciples” by others, the Gospel of John calls everyone to “follow” Jesus, regardless of what others do (1:43; 21:19, 22).