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The Gospel of John: A Miracle of Composition



The Gospel of John:

A Miracle of Composition


Hyatt Carter



The Gospel of John, as a whole, has a five-part structure.1 The structure is a complex chiasmus, with an A-B-C-B'-A' pattern, and the chapters and verses can be outlined as follows:


 A: Part 1 (1:19-4:3)

  B: Part 2 (4:4-6:15)

   C: Part 3 (6:16-21)

  B': Part 4 (6:22-12:11)

 A': Part 5 (12:12-21:25)


The defining feature of a chiasmus is its parallel structure, meaning that if you compare A with A', and B with B', you will find in each pair a statement (in A) and a restatement (in A') of the same or similar words, phrases, ideas, or motifs.2 Located at the center, C is the hinge or pivot on which the chiasmus turns.


Below, Part 1 and Part 5, and Part 2 and Part 4, are arranged in columns so that you can easily see the parallel elements (in blue font) in the matching sequences. Note how the paired sequences line up in reverse order: 1-21, 2-20, 3-19 . . . and so forth, revealing the concentric shape and symmetry of this form of chiasmus.



Part 1


witness and discipleship


Seq. 1 (1:19-51): At the Jordan. Jesus’ first coming. Baptist and disciples witness. Simon is called Peter (Rock). Two unnamed disciples and Nathanael are present.


Seq. 2 (2:1-12): Mary at Cana. “Woman, what have you to do with me?” Nuptial situation. Water to wine.


Seq. 3 (2:13-25): “Destroy this temple (Jesus’ body) . . . .”


Seq. 4 (3:1-21): Discourse at night to Nicodemus on eternal life, discipleship, water, and the Spirit.


Seq. 5 (3:22-4:3): The Baptist repeats his witness to Jesus.



Part 5


witness and discipleship


Seq. 21 (20:19-21:25): At the Lake. Jesus’ second coming is discussed. Thomas witnesses. Simon Peter is told: “Feed my sheep.” Two unnamed disciples and Nathanael are present.


Seq. 20 (21:1-18): Mary at the tomb. Woman, why are you weeping?” Nuptial language from Song of Songs.


Seq. 19 (chs 18-19): Jesus’ body is destroyed in the passion.


Seq. 18 (chs 13-17): Supper discourse at night on washing of feet, discipleship, eternal life, and the Spirit.


Seq. 17 (12:12-50): Palm Sunday, crowd witnesses to Jesus.




Part 3


the new exodus


Jesus walks on the sea, declares “I am he”

and brings the new Israel to the other shore of the sea.




Part 2


response: positive and negative


Seq. 6 (4:4-38): Samaritan woman. Jesus is the Messiah.


Seq. 7 (4:39-45): Samaritan men hear, believe, and profess: “You are the Savior of the world.”


Seq. 8 (4:46-52): Pagan official does not see but believes.


Seq. 9 (5:1-47): At feast, Jesus cures a paralytic and makes himself equal to the Father.


Seq. 10 (6:1-15): Multiplication of the loaves near Passover.



Part 4


response: positive and negative


Seq. 16 (10:40-12:11): Bethany women. Jesus is the Messiah.


Seq. 15 (10:22-39): Jesus declares: “My sheep hear my voice . . . they shall never perish.”


Seq. 14 (9:1-10:21): The Pharisees refuse to see and believe.


Seq. 13 (7:1-8:58): At feast, Jesus refers to cure of paralytic and makes himself equal to the Father.


Seq. 12 (6:22-72): The loaves are explained as the Eucharist near Passover.



*    *    *    *    *



If we descend one level, structurally, we find that Part 1 (1:19-4:3) has the same fivefold chiasmic structure:


Seq. 1 (1:19-51): The Baptist and the disciples witness to Jesus.

 Seq. 2 (2:1-12): Water of the old covenant is changed into wine of the new covenant.

  Seq. 3 (2:13-25): “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

 Seq. 4 (3:1-21):     Water of the new covenant and rebirth to eternal life

Seq. 5 (3:22-4:3): The Baptist reiterates his witness to Jesus.


Not just Part 1, but all five Parts reveal this fivefold structure.3



*    *    *    *    *



Descending yet another level, we find that Sequence 1 of Part 1, with its five sections, has the same structure:


 (A) The Baptist witnesses to Jesus (1:19-39).

  (B) Andrew finds Simon (1:40-41).

   (C) Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter (1:42).

  (B') Philip finds Nathanael (1:43-45).

 (A') Nathanael witnesses to Jesus (1:46-51).


And, once again, not just Sequence 1, but all the Sequences are structured according to the same fivefold pattern. 



*    *    *    *    *



For one further descent, let us turn now to Sequence 18, The Farewell Discourse of Jesus (13:1-17:26).


The Farewell Discourse not only has an overall A-B-C-B'-A' structure, but each of its five sections also has five subjections that, individually, have the same chiasmic structure: a-b-c-b'-a'. As a whole, the Discourse looks like this:


 Section A (13:1-32)

  Section B (13:33-14:31)

   Section C (15:1-25)

  Section B' (15:26-16:33)

 Section A' (17:1-26)


But an analysis of Section A reveals that within Section A there are five subsections of a deeply embedded chiasmus:


 (a) The hour has arrived (13:1)

  (b) All are clean except one (13:2-11)

   (c) The footwashing is an example for the apostles (13:12-17)

  (b') Jesus singles out the one who is not clean (13:18-27)

 (a') The hour of Jesus’ death and glorification is set in motion by

   the departure of Judas (13:28-32).


An analysis of the other four sections of The Farewell Discourse would reveal the same elegant structure.



*    *    *    *    *



Therefore —


   The Gospel as a whole

    Each of the five parts

     Each of the twenty-one sequences

      Some sections of the sequences


 — all of these were carefully designed and written using chiasmus, and its fivefold format, as an organizing principle.


Such consummate artistry suggests a level of inspiration that, in itself, inspires wonder.


Some icons in the Greek Orthodox tradition, ones that evoke a special reverence, shine with such spiritual splendor that they are said to be acheiropoieta (Greek αχειροποίητα), “not made by the hand of man.” The structure of the Gospel of John is of such elegance, and such depth, that it too seems a miracle of composition.4





1. While small units of chiasmus had been found, and acknowledged, in the Fourth Gospel, it had long been the opinion among New Testament scholars that the Gospel of John, in its entirety, had no overall chiasmic structure. However, as John Breck writes:


“This was certainly the pre­vailing opinion among Johannine scholars, until publication in 1984 of Peter Ellis’s The Genius of John, which pays tribute in the first instance to the evangelist and his extraordinary literary as well as theological skills. But it acknowledges implicitly the contribution of John Gerhard, S.J., whose doctoral dissertation produced compelling evidence that the whole of the Fourth Gospel is in fact chiasmically arranged.  Working closely with Gerhard, Ellis took up and further developed this thesis.”


Ellis showed conclusively that the Fourth Gospel, as a whole, follows the A-B-C-B'-A' pattern and that the work is also “. . . divided into 21 ‘sequences,’ that correspond only roughly to its 21 chapters.” The Gospel is thus organized as follows:


 A: Part 1 (1:19-4:3)

  B: Part 2 (4:4-6:15)

   C: Part 3 (6:16-21)

  B': Part 4 (6:22-12:11)

 A': Part 5 (12:12-21:25)


 A : Seq. 1 (1:19-51)

  B : Seq. 2 (2:1-12)

   C : Seq. 3 (2:13-25)

    D : Seq. 4 (3:1-21)

     E : Seq. 5 (3:22-4:3)

      F : Seq. 6 (4:4-38)

       G : Seq. 7 (4:39-45)

        H : Seq. 8 (4:46-52)

         I : Seq. 9 (5: 1-47)

          J : Seq. 10 (6:1-15)

           K : Seq. 11 (6:16-21)

          J' : Seq. 12 (6:22-72)

         I' : Seq. 13 (7:1-8:58)

        H' : Seq. 14 (9:1-10:21)

       G' : Seq. 15 (10:22-39)

      F' : Seq. 16 (10:40-12:11)

     E' : Seq. 17 (12:12-50)

    D' : Seq. 18 (chs. 13-17)

   C' : Seq. 19 (chs. 18-19)

  B' : Seq. 20 (20: 1-18)

 A' : Seq. 21 (20:19-21:25)



2. It should be pointed out that statement and restatement are usually not simply equal, but that the restatement amounts to some increase or augmentation.


This is what James L. Kugel, in his book, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, calls The What’s More Factor:


A is so, and what’s more, so is A'


As Kugel observes, the second part never merely repeats the exact meaning of the first, “it almost always represents an advancement in the form of heightening, intensifying, specifying, elevating, or seconding.”



3. Another example can be found at the very beginning of John’s Gospel, where the Prologue initiates the A-B-C-B'-A' pattern:


 A (1-8): Through the pre-existing Word, all things came to be.

  B (9-11): The true light is rejected by his own.

   C (12f): To all who believe, power is given to become children of God.

  B' (14): The Word become flesh is accepted by those who beheld his glory.

 A' (15-18): Through Jesus Christ, grace and truth came to be.


Comparing A and A' and B and B', note how the italicized words reflect recurring motifs. C, as the conceptual center of the chiasmus, marks a turning point (rejected-accepted) as it states the central truth to which the concentric structure invites our attention.



4. It has been proposed, by many scholars, that the Fourth Gospel is a composite work of an original author and several later redactors or editors. Ellis presents a compelling case that the Gospel of John is the work of one author, that it is, indeed, the Gospel of John: the beautifully crafted work of that man whom Jesus so loved that he became known as the Beloved Disciple.


*    *    *    *    *



The outlines and tables in this presentation derive especially from two books:


The Genius of John:

A Compositional-Critical Commentary on the Fourth Gospel

by Peter F. Ellis


The Shape of Biblical Language:

Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond

by John Breck






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The Gospel of John: A Miracle of Composition
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Beauty of Structure in the Four Gospels
Dogen's Use of Chiasmus in Shobogenzo
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