Fulfillment of Johannine signs: A study of John 12:37-50

Timothy Joseph Scannell, Fordham University


This study examines the narrative structure of the Gospel of John, focusing particularly on the passage that most modern-day scholars regard as the conclusion of the first part of the Fourth Gospel. Despite the popularly-accepted bipartite division of John, an analysis of 12:37-50 in the context of the whole Gospel narrative indicates that it does not divide the Gospel into two separate books, i.e., a "Book of Signs" and a "Book of Glory." It serves, instead, to show that the inability of the signs Jesus performed to lead many to faith was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and that these signs were interrelated to the future sign that Jesus would become when he was "lifted up" on the cross. It was this sign that would effectively reveal the glory of God and, overcoming the power of the devil and the human hunger for self-glory, draw all people to Jesus. This passage exposes the inadequacy of the bipartite structural division of John by pointing out its failure to recognize the common themes and ideas present in both "books" of the Gospel as well as its failure to distinguish between the two different types of signs contained in the Gospel. These signs are distinct but interrelated and they progress narratively from the miraculous signs Jesus worked to the greater sign he became in his death and resurrection. The concluding verses of chapter twelve reveal that the lesser signs of Jesus are to be fulfilled in the greater sign that he promised at the beginning of his ministry (2:19-21). This understanding of 12:37-50 necessitates a re-evaluation of the commonly-held division of John's Gospel into two distinct books. A tripartite narrative structuring of the Gospel that sees a progression in the presentation of the signs, beginning with the inaugural sign Jesus performed at Cana and culminating in the greater sign he became on the cross, is preferable. A bipartite structural division, based on the thematic development of the different types of signs, not on signs and glory, might still be maintained. The passage which is the focal point of this study reveals that two complementary literary structures, one narrative, one thematic, exist side by side and overlap in the Fourth Gospel. The Gospel of John, then, must be treated, not as two "books," but as a single book that presents the bipartite development of two different types of signs within a tripartite narrative structure.

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Recommended Citation

Scannell, Timothy Joseph, "Fulfillment of Johannine signs: A study of John 12:37-50" (1998). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9825865.