A Niche Market For John’s Gospel

Market NicheIn modern terms a niche market is defined as a subset of the market on which a specific product is focusing. The market niche therefore informs the specific product features aimed at satisfying specific market needs to impact a particular demographic group. We are suggesting that indeed such a niche market existed at the end of the first century. The existence of a number of groups, including Israelite Samaritans and especially early interest in mission to the Samaritans, would point to the need for a specialized evangelistic publication like the Gospel of John.

Though the author of this chapter believes that Samaritans were the Northern tribes not in Jesus’ definition, but in their own instead, it is, nevertheless, not difficult to see how the Gospel of Matthew could not have been used in missional work with Samaritans since the author chose to highlight Jesus’ prohibition to go to Samaritans: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matt.10:5-6) In Matthew, Jesus denied that Israelite Samaritans have any claim to the name Israel. Jesus could have easily said, “For now, only go to the Judeans.” Instead, according to Matthew, Jesus called non-Samaritan Israelites – the sheep of Israel. Other important reasons for Matthew not being directed to the Samaritan Israelites include the focus on Jesus’ Davidic dynasty in Matthew (Mat.1: 1). This focus is carefully and consistently avoided in the gospel of John. We will investigate this later in this chapter.

It is likely that the author of John’s Gospel was also conscious that Matthew, Mark and Luke would be largely ineffective in reaching Israelite Samaritans. The reason for this would have been the importance they gave to the new reconstituted community of Israel through the symbolically chosen 12 apostles. The idea was very Israelite, but “politically incorrect” because none of Jesus’ 12 apostles were of Israelite Samaritan origin. The argument would have been simple: Jesus, claimed to be King of all Israel (north and south), but he chose his 12 disciples only from the Jewish Galilee. Galilee was of course geographical north, but to Samaritans it was an ideological south.[17] That would have been unacceptable and contradictory for the Samaritans, given their view of Israel’s history. It could be objected that the Samaritans really cannot be equated with “Northern Israel.” Their territory was purely that of Ephraim. There were many other northern tribes. Though the observation is correct, it fails to see this Gospel contextualized writing. The purposeful avoidance by Gospel’s author of the symbolic twelve apostles did not have to do with what really was, but with what was perceived to be by the Israelite Samaritans. In other words, what was important is that in their own eyes they were the legitimate representatives of the Northern Israelites. These reasons, among others, called for a gospel that would not compromise the Jesus story, but would present it in a way that could be understood and believed by a wholly different audience, the type of audience that defined itself in opposition to the Judean priestly elite and the leading Judean families who constituted the formal Jewish authority ruling from Jerusalem.

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If the writer of the Gospel of John had the Samaritan community and its large Diaspora in mind as a primary intra-Israelite audience, then we are justified in expecting to see certain examples that would suit this context. Here are some examples:

In Mk. 11: 9-10 and in Mt.21: 9 at Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem the crowd shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David,” whereas in Jn. 12: 13 there is a stunning difference in the description of the same event. The crowds in John shout: “Hosanna… (to) the King of Israel.” It is also interesting to note that in the book of Luke, Jesus is referred to in the same way as in the gospel of John: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Lk.19:38)[18] Consistent with the Samaritan rejection of the Davidic dynasty as legitimate rulers of Israel in John 1: 45, Jesus is simply called the Son of Joseph (also Jn.6: 42). The Davidic connection is hereby consistently avoided. This very connection that John seems to take pains to avoid is emphasized the by all other evangelists. Though there are many references in the gospels, here are some that are representative: Mat.9:27 (“Have mercy on us, Son of David!”), Mk.10:47 (“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”) and in Lk.1:27 (“… to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.”)

Jesus speaks of his ministry to the other sheepfolds, uniting them under his rule in Jn.10:16 “And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd.” Historically this has been interpreted to mean simply uniting Jews and Gentiles together in the one body of Christ. The current authors are committed to the understanding that Israel’s God unites all nations of the world into one Body through Jesus’ love, his sacrifice, and his rule. However, while we agree that this text applies to “all” by extension, it seems to us that first of all it should be applied to the reunification of Northern and Southern Israel. A similar thought is expressed in the next chapter of John, John:11:

“Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one”(John 11:49-52).

While it is true that God brings Jews and Gentiles together (see the chapter on Romans 11), this does not mean that all New Testament texts that deal with unity are referring to Jews and Gentiles. Remember that the New Testament is above all a collection of Israelite documents. As such, they were primarily concerned with Israelite issues. Reunification and the reestablishment of Israel were very much on the agenda of all of the movements that constituted various expressions of Israel’s faith in the first century. The prophets frequently spoke of the hope of reunification. An example of this is found in Ezekiel 34. After making charges against the shepherds of God’s people, the prophet writes, God speaking here: “I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them” (Ezekiel 34: 22-23). Jesus is set forth as the New Shepherd of Israel in the context of the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31: 31-32. This covenant spoke of the future reestablishment of the covenant between Israel’s God and with both houses of Israel, the ten Northern tribes and the Southern tribe of Judah in the South: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…” (Jeremiah 31: 31). This central theme of unification has been almost completely ignored in Christian and Messianic Jewish discussions of Jeremiah 31: 31. In a very real sense, the unity between Israelites and Non-Israelites, Jews and Gentiles in Pauline terminology, begins with the unity of Israelite Samaritans (North) and Israelite Jews (South). It is important that we see their symbolic re-joining as a vital stage in the development of God’s reconciliation program for the entire world (Rom.11).

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John tells a number of stories that relate to the idea of resurrection and eternal life.[19] In one of these stories Jesus is accused by “the Jews” of being demon-possessed and a being a Samaritan. He denies that he is demon-possessed, but he does not deny that he was a Samaritan (Jn. 8:51-52). But, perhaps, what is more significant is that Matthew, Mark and Luke thematically lead the story to culmination with the resurrection of Jesus. If as most scholars believe, John was the last gospel to be written, the he reverses this order. Jesus is the eternal un-dying Logos or Word of God (Jn.1: 1, 14). In the Gospel of John, all of what Jesus says and does from the beginning of the book to the end is a result of who Jesus eternally always was (Jn. 21:22-25). It is striking that almost every conflict Jesus has with “the Jews” in this gospel has to do with this very idea, climaxing with the decision to kill Lazarus – the living and powerful symbol of Jesus’ resurrecting power (Jn.12:9-12).

Throughout this Gospel narrative Jesus is set forth as the victor over death, resurrecting close friends and even members of “the Jews” (John 11:1-45). “The Jews” in John feel so threatened that they conspire to destroy the evidence of Jesus’ resurrecting power by killing Lazarus (Jn.12:10). This commitment to stop Jesus’ actions in turn resulted in his murder and then in the final victory of Jesus over his enemies again via resurrection from the dead. The authority of “the Jews” was successfully challenged and debunked by Jesus. It was done through the power of the ultimate miracle of resurrection. More important than this, however, was His demonstration of authority with the laying down and picking up of his own life and picking it up again (Jn.10:18). This is the point where Samaritan disbelief and their own authority structure were powerfully challenged as well.

This means that John may have adopted an interesting strategy. He portrayed the enemies of the Israelite Samaritans and other groups like them who were opposed to Judean authorities, as rejecting and seeking to kill Jesus at all costs. Interestingly enough John consistently showed them opposing Jesus on two main issues – the resurrection and the source of authority. Official Samaritan doctrine denied resurrection at this stage in its development. They agreed with Jesus that the Jerusalem Priestly elite and the wealthiest Judean families, called “the Jews,” by the Samaritans, had no spiritual authority.

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. Brian

    We always think of the Samaritans as confined to the small area around Mount Gerazim, but by late-1st century they were spreading out into the Roman world, competing with the Jews and developing Gnostic ideas, With all the competing Gospels out there for Jew and Gentile by then, one tailored to Samaritans makes sense (especially post-Simon Magus).

  2. Ray Luff

    The only problem I have with your theory about the need for a targeted gospel geared toward the Samaritans is the late dating of this gospel. John lived the longest and this gospel may have been written as late as 90 AD. The missionary journeys of Paul to the Samaritans and beyond would have all ended by then and Paul himself died earlier than John. Certainly the gospel originally went out by the testimony of eyewitnesses as Paul put it and the Hebrew Tanakh scriptures. Jesus himself on the road to Damascas preached about Himself from the prophets. (Tanakh). So I am certain that all that was needed was the Old Testament Tanakh and a correct interpretation of the prophecies regarding the Messiah and the Good News that Jesus had fulfilled those prophecies, including his death as predicted by Daniel 9.26, furthered by the good news of His resurrection.

    Daniel 9.26 And rafter threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself:

    The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), cxix.

  3. […] The Judean Temple authorities (and their followers) accused Jesus of seeking approval from the Galilean Jewish People of the Land (Am HaAretz). They also accused him of being a Samaritan (an incorrect charge, but the kind strangely enough he does not deny). Given this background, it is possible that this verse does not refer to a personal experience of salvific power of God at all, but to Jesus’ royal commitment to the salvation of “all Israel,” which would include other Israelites like the Israelite Samaritans. […]

  4. […] recent research does suggest that John was in some way writing as a corrective to Mathew, whose gospel could not have possibly been used as an evangelistic tool to reach Samaritans. After all it is in Mathew that Jesus tells the twelve disciples: “Do not go among the Gentiles or […]