How many signs are featured in John’s Gospel? In large part, this seems to depend on whom you ask. When I wrote my BECNT commentary on John, I surveyed a considerable amount of literature on John’s Gospel in general and on people’s views on Jesus’ messianic “signs” in John in particular. I found that commentators widely agree on six Johannine “signs” but beyond this the consensus crumbles. The six undisputed Johannine “signs” are:
(1) The turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1–11)
(2) The healing of the official’s son (4:46–54)
(3) The healing of the lame man (5:1–15)
(4) The feeding of the multitude (6:1–15)
(5) The healing of the man born blind (chap. 9)
(6) The raising of Lazarus (chap. 11)
I also noticed that if there is any consensus as to an additional, seventh, sign in John, it is that this seventh sign is Jesus’ walking on the water (6:16–21).
In a detailed scholarly article published several years ago in the Bulletin of Biblical Research, I have sought to get to the bottom of the matter by taking a careful look at the six undisputed signs; seeking to identify common characteristics of these signs; and developing a profile of a Johannine “sign” that could then be used to evaluate any other possible signs in John (such as the walking on the water).
The definition that emerged was this: “A sign [in John] is a symbol-laden, but not necessarily ‘miraculous,’ public work of Jesus selected and explicitly identified as such by John for the reason that it displays God’s glory in Jesus who is thus shown to be God’s true representative (cf. 20:30–31).” The criteria for evaluating any further signs were stated as follows:
(1) Is a given work performed by Jesus as part of his public ministry?
(2) Is an event explicitly identified as a “sign” in John’s Gospel?
(3) Does the event, with its concomitant symbolism, point to God’s glory displayed in Jesus, thus revealing Jesus as God’s true representative?
A few explanatory comments are in order here. First, you will notice that all six undisputed signs (and even the walking on the water) occur in chapters 1–12 of John’s Gospel, which is concerned with Jesus’ mission to the Jews. The statement in 12:37 that, “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him,” effectively closes the book on this chapter in Jesus’ ministry, and the final reference to the “signs” in the purpose statement (20:30–31) merely reiterates this without adding any new signs in the interim between chapters 12 and 20 (hence neither the crucifixion nor the resurrection or any other related events are Johannine signs).
Second, it appears that every one of the signs is identified as such at least somewhere in John’s Gospel (notice that often this is somewhat indirect and sometimes not until several chapters later; see below). Here is the list of the six undisputed signs in John again, this time with the reference in John’s Gospel where this event is identified explicitly as a “sign”:
Identified as a “sign”
The turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1–11)
The healing of the official’s son (4:46–54)
The healing of the lame man (5:1–15)
The feeding of the multitude (6:1–15)
6:14, 26, 30
The healing of the man born blind (chap. 9)
The raising of Lazarus (chap. 11)
Importantly, however, this criterion rules out Jesus’ walking on the water, since it is nowhere explicitly (or implicitly) identified as a sign in John. Notice in this context that a sign is more than merely a symbolic act or the use of symbolism (though it includes symbolism by virtue of being a “sign,” signifying something about Jesus the Messiah).
Third, as John 20:30–31 makes clear, John selected certain events in Jesus’ public ministry to the Jews (see point #1 above) as signs because they all demonstrated that Jesus was the Christ and Son of God. This, of course, would fit the walking on the water and perhaps other elements in John’s Gospel, but any candidate for “sign” (like the six undisputed signs) must fit all three criteria, not merely one or two.
Hence, I concluded, with the walking on the water ruled out as sign (though it includes an “I am” saying and certainly manifests Jesus’ supernatural origin in form of a theophany), we are left either with only six signs—certainly a possibility in that six may be a number of incompletion—or we should look for a seventh, and eight, etc., sign elsewhere.
Enter the temple clearing (my preferred term for what is more commonly called the temple “cleansing”; for an explanation see my BECNT commentary). It seems to fit the three criteria: (1) it is a symbol-laden, public work of Jesus; (2) it may be explicitly identified as such in 2:18 (though some may disagree; see further below); and (3) it shows Jesus to be God’s true representative.
Some may say that the reference in 2:18 is somewhat indirect in that the Pharisees are merely asking Jesus for a sign (other than the temple clearing). I point to the later identical dynamic at 6:30, however, where the Jews ask Jesus, “What sign then will you give …?” and where, as in 2:19, Jesus proceeds, not to perform another sign—he just fed the multitudes, an undisputed Johannine sign—but rather explicates the significance of the feat he had just performed, thus unpacking the significance of the sign in terms of how it pointed to him as God’s Messiah. The same, I argue, is the case with 2:18, where, rather than performing the sign the Jews demanded, Jesus explicates the significance of what he had just done, showing how the temple clearing was a prophetic, symbolic act conveying the notion of the imminent destruction of the temple and its raising—though, as the evangelist points out subsequently, the “temple” of which Jesus was speaking was not the literal temple (though it would be destroyed, too) but Jesus’ body, which would be “destroyed” (crucified) and “raised again in three days” (2:19). Thus I concluded that the temple clearing is Johannine sign #7.
You may disagree. Why? The most common objections are:
(1) The fact that the first two signs in John are numbered (2:11: #1; 4:54: #2). If the temple clearing is #2, then 4:54 would be #3, not #2. Answer: the numbered signs mark these two signs as having both been performed in Cana of Galilee, a literary inclusio, constituting John 2–4 as the “Cana Cycle.” This does not rule out additional signs, say, in Jerusalem, as the references to just these kinds of signs in 2:23 and 3:2 demonstrates. In fact, the temple clearing is precisely this kind of sign: one of the many signs Jesus performed in Jerusalem during his visit at that juncture in his ministry, selected by the evangelist for its messianic significiance.
(2) The fact that the temple clearing, other than the six undisputed Johannine signs, is non-miraculous. This is clearly the most commonly raised objection. However, as I have attempted to show in the above-mentioned article, the miraculous, while usually found, is not a necessary component of the Johannine conception of sign, as is usually (erroneously, in my opinion) assumed. Look at the Old Testament: there are two clusters of references involving the Greek word for “sign,” sēmeion: (1) the “signs and wonders” performed by Moses at the exodus (but note how Jesus disparages the seeking of such at 4:48); and (2) prophetic “signs” which are non-miraculous but involve prophetic symbolism, usually conveying the notion of judgment. We do not need to give an example of (1), since no one disputes this, but as an example of (2) we offer Isaiah’s walking about stripped and barefoot as a sign of God’s judgment for Egypt and Cush (Isa 20:30). Note that the word sēmeion is used in this passage in the LXX, but, as I usually say in my classes, there surely is nothing that is miraculous at the sight of Isaiah in his underwear!
Now, then, while Jesus’ temple clearing may not fit the “signs and wonders” category, it fits category (2), that of a prophetic sign, perfectly: Jesus acts as a prophet who prophesies the coming doom on the Jerusalem sanctuary and on old-style Judaism through their rejection of the Messiah.
I find it ironic, therefore, that so many people identify “sign” with “miracle” when John has switched from “miracle” (dynamis in the Synoptics) to “sign” precisely to downplay the miraculous and to focus instead on the significance of these acts in terms of messianic symbolism (note that “sign” in its very essence points beyond itself to some underlying meaning). By reinterpreting “miracles,” John has given us a deeper, more profound understanding of the way in which they point to Jesus as the Messiah.
Convinced? Good. Still not convinced? Please read the full article.