Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Gospel According to John

Introductory Comments
Each of the gospels in the New Testament tells the story of Jesus in a unique way. Matthew, Mark and Luke, while unique, share significant similarities. While John shares some similarities, the difference between this gospel and the three others in the New Testament is dramatic and easily witnessed. All four Gospels have much in common; they contain stories of miraculous healings and a miraculous feeding; the gathering of the disciples and Jesus’ teaching to them; Jesus’ conflicts with the religious leaders of his day; and the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion…. The distinctiveness of John’s portrait is easily recognizable: Jesus’ teaching in John contains few of the parables well-known from the other Gospels and he teaches in much longer speeches. The “I am” sayings that characterize his speech in John do not occur in any other Gospel…. All four Gospels participate in the same work of interpreting the story of Jesus for the life of the faith community. (Gail O’Day, New Interpreters Study Bible).

There is much that could be said about the overall character of John’s Gospel. Typically, a Johannine story is followed by a long discourse by Jesus on a theme the story introduces, a technique not found in the synoptics. The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel has a different personality from the Jesus of the synoptics; he is more the divine Christ than the human Jesus, and his statements are lofty and sometimes seem abstruse. The Greek of John’s Gospel is also different; although the ideas in his Gospel are complex, the Greek is relatively simple. (John Sanford, Mystical Christianity: a psychological commentary on the Gospel of John, 5). John’s Jesus is more seer-like that the Jesus of the other gospels: a prophet, an enigma, a stranger from heaven. He is in touch with truths that defy easy comprehension. (Blake Morrison in Revelations, 297).

So what can we say about this Gospel’s author, his methods, his context. Sanford calls this writing “polished” and notes that it “shows all the signs of having been written by an educated man, trained in philosophical thought, with a sophisticated form of Greek at his disposal” (7). The Gospel itself claims that it is based on the witness of one called “the Beloved Disciple.” While the disciple John has his name attached to the Gospel, it is more likely that the author of the Gospel was not himself a contemporary of Jesus. Whoever the Beloved Disciple was, and a number of persons postulate that it was a rather minor character who really did witness some of Jesus' life and ministry in Jerusalem, the author of the Gospel was probably a disciple of his, in addition to being a disciple of Jesus. Whoever the anonymous author was, he was a literary artist, in a way different from Luke, but no less artistically astute. There is debate about how much use the author made of other sources related to the other Gospels. The safe answer is “probably some.” But his style is his own. Perhaps most important of all is the systematic way the Fourth Gospel introduces various motifs in the Prologue and then weaves these motifs throughout the chapters that follow: light vs. darkness, above and below, seeing and not seeing, truth and falsehood, life and death, flesh and spirit. (Sanford, 6).

The author of John’s Gospel probably completed his work in the years 90-125. Most agree that this was the last of the four New Testament Gospels to be completed. The author was from a stream of the emerging Christian tradition associated with the figure of “the Beloved Disciple.” Scholars speak of the Johannine community (from which also came the letters of John and perhaps Revelation). The author represents the Johannine school, a group of theological teachers and interpreters within the Johanine community, a particular stream of early Christianity whose center was apparently Ephesus…. From within the Johannine school, the Gospel of John presents a distinctive interpretation of Christ and the church that was at first suspect in developing “mainstream” Christianity but liked by the stream of Christians later considered to be Gnostics and heretics…. The Gospel of John, originally written for a distinctive, somewhat sectarian Christian group was accepted by the mainstream of the church, which thereby received one of its most profound statements of the meaning of Christian faith. (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 285-286)

One other feature of this community it is important to mention is the presence within it of a number of Jewish Christians who had been expelled from the larger Jewish community. There are a number of anti-Jewish passages in John, and while they should not be easily excused, one can try and understand their context (for an important book on anti-Jewish strains within early Christianity and their on-going impact on Jewish-Christian relations see Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew). After the Temple was destroyed, Jewish and Jewish Christian life changed dramatically…. The references in John suggest that the conflicts and disagreements between Jewish Christians and synagogue-based Judaism became intense in the years following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, as Jews and Jewish Christians worked to establish their religious identities within the Roman Empire. (Gail O’Day, New Interpreters Study Bible). The history of Christian persecution of the Jews should cause us to cringe when we encounter anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament. Whatever the tensions were which cause such passages to be written, they were never an excuse for the virulent anti-Semitism that has plagued the church. There are theological debates to be had between religions, but the use of power to silence religious discourse does not represent the heart of Christianity.

All this has some importance for us because it reminds us of the dynamism of the early Christian or Jesus movement. There is more than one way to describe what God was up to in Jesus, more than one way to talk about how he “incarnated God,” more than one way to talk about the saving work of God in Jesus. Too often the church has tried to make rigid certain of these multiple interpretations, to our own diminishment.

So The Gospel of John was composed in the late first or early second century CE. It comes out of a stream of Christian thinking affiliated with the Johannine community, which traced its origins back to a “Beloved Disciple.” It was both a Jewish and Gentile community, but even among the Jews, influences from the Hellenistic culture were felt. This was one of four unique efforts preserved in our New Testatment to tell the story of Jesus. “The Fourth Gospel provides a biblical model for the mission of the church in every generation to interpret its faith afresh to itself and the world” (People’s New Testament Commentary). We are invited to that journey.

But the Gospel itself expresses still another hope for its existence. “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). “For John, this is what matters most: the possibility that by reading this gospel we will in some way – emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually, spiritually – be liberated” (Blake Morrison, Revelations, 300). What more powerful a promise could we ask for as we begin reading. Read on!

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