In this paper, I argue that the influence of John's Gospel on R. L. Stevenson's novel The Master of Ballantrae is significant on several levels. On the level of narrative, I show that both texts are narrated from a perspective which shifts uneasily from omniscience to uncertainty. John's Gospel, particularly its closing chapters, offers a powerful model for the telling of the story of The Master of Ballantrae. The reliability both of Mr MacKellar, the novel's narrator, and of the mysterious editor of the material which makes up John's Gospel, is open to question. On the level of plot, the death, burial and ‘resurrection’ of James Durie, the ‘Master’, at least on one reading of the novel's title, mirrors the death, burial and resurrection of the Johannine Christ. This is no straightforward importation of one set of ideas onto another, rather an imaginative and sophisticated retelling of the climax of the Gospel story. Finally, on the level of characterisation, several of the characters in The Master of Ballantrae share features with players in the Gospel narrative, particularly those who appear in the Passion and resurrection scenes. Pilate's vacillations and Thomas's doubts flesh out our understanding of the characters who witness the death throes of the warring Durie brothers.
Robert Louis Stevenson had grown up hearing the Bible read at home and in church. Despite rejecting the faith of his parents in his twenties, he nevertheless continued to be drawn to the images and cadences of the Bible, and particularly of the Gospels. The relationship between The Master of Ballantrae and John's Gospel is not one of simple dependence: but the influence of the Gospel on the novel, I argue, is clear and distinctive.