Sunday, November 30, 2014

John: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report".

The gospel of John is the last of the four gospels in the New Testament, and it was also probably the latest.  Scholars generally date it between 85-95 C.E., which was 50-60 years after Jesus’ death.  The first nearly complete manuscript we have is Papyrus-66, which dates from around 200 C.E.  John’s gospel differs in significant ways from the other three.  Perhaps most notable is John’s portrayal of Jesus as God.  This is significant because it shows that the further away we get from Jesus in time, the more he is deified.  It is also important to note that most scholars today do not believe the apostle John wrote this gospel.  Like the other gospels, it was later attributed to him, to give the text authority.  

Instead of a birth narrative, Jesus is described as the divine “word” (or logos in Greek) of God through which the universe was created.  Jesus, the divine logos, was “made flesh” or incarnated into a human being.  In John’s gospel, Jesus gives long, esoteric speeches in which he sounds like a Greek philosopher.  John’s Jesus seems to be an amalgam of Greek and Jewish ideas circulating at the time of its composition.  

After Jesus is divinely “incarnated,” his first human interaction is with John (the Baptist, not the apostle).  When this John sees Jesus, he says, “Here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  This sets up an important theme, which will culminate in Jesus’ execution on the Jewish holiday of Passover, in which Jesus is viewed as a “sacrificial lamb.”  That fact that it is a human, not a lamb, being sacrificed would probably disturb traditional Jewish sensibilities.

This leads me to a regrettable feature of John’s gospel—the demonization of “The Jews.”  In the other three gospels, Jesus main disagreement is with specific Jewish sects and leaders (Pharisees, Sadducees, the high priest).  John’s gospel, however, frequently uses the broad term “the Jews” to refer to those who reject Jesus.  John seems to be making a distinction between the followers of Jesus and “the Jews,” a distinction that is historically suspect because Jesus and his followers were Jews themselves.  Unfotunately, by 85-95 C.E., there was a clear split between Christians and Jews.  In John’s gospel, we wee the first stirrings of the terrible anti-semitism that would infect the Christian church for centuries.

John’s gospel contains many other unique elements which distinguish it from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  For example, the chronological narrative of Jesus’ life is different.  One example is the so-called “cleansing of the Temple.”  This is the episode in which Jesus enters the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and violently overturns the money-changers’ tables.  In the other gospels, this scene happens near the end of Jesus’ life, shortly before his arrest and crucifixion.  In John, Jesus “cleanses the temple” at the beginning of his ministry, right after his first miracle (turning water into wine).   Which version is correct?  Here is evidence that the gospels are not telling literal history, because they disagree on the chronology of this important event.

John contains the famous John 3:16 verse, which does not occur in any of the other, earlier gospels, and is often re-printed out of context on tracts and used for evangelizing purposes: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  I would like to point out two interesting features of this verse.  First, salvation is tied to belief, as opposed to behavior, which seems to be a unique feature of John.  In the other gospels, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about ethics and right behavior (i.e. the Sermon on the Mount).  But, in John, Jesus spends much more time talking about right belief than right action.  This raises a question which the gospels (taken as a whole) do not agree on: Is salvation primarily about believing the right things, or doing the right things?  Another interesting feature of John 3:16 is the implication that human beings are not inherently eternal.  Rather, “eternal life” is something given by Jesus.  Presumably, those who don’t believe in Jesus just die like everyone else.  This is another question to ponder: What does Jesus mean by “eternal life”?

While generally critical of “The Jews,” John’s gospel shows Jesus to be inclusive of those traditionally ostracized by “The Jews” like Samaritans and Greek-speaking gentiles.  This is shown in an incident at a well in Samaria, in which Jesus gives esoteric “living water” to a Samaritan woman.  This inclusiveness of others is also suggested by Jesus bizarre statement: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man (Jesus) and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day ; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  Scholar Adele Reinhartz comments on this strange passage: “The literal meaning is not only repellent but offensive because Jews do not ingest the blood of an animal along with its flesh.  The passage may allude to the practice of theophagy (God-eating) associated with Greco-Roman mystery cults such as the cults of Demeter and Dionysus.  If so, this may be one indication that the gospel’s intended audience included non-Jews.”

Because these sayings are so obviously offensive to Jewish sensibilities, even as metaphor, many of Jesus’ disciples actually leave him at this point.  Probably the most disturbing element of John’s gospel, from a Jewish perspective, is the fact that Jesus self-identifies as God.  This is blasphemy to Jewish monotheism.  There is only one God.  The complex doctrine of the Trinity would not be worked out for a couple hundred years.  

After saying lots of things against “The Jews” and lots of other abstract and confusing theology, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, riding on a donkey, as in the other gospels.  While all the gospels share the basic concluding story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection, they disagree on some interesting details.  Here are a few:

After Judas betrays Jesus and arrives with soldiers, police, and priests to arrest him, Jesus asks, “Who are you looking for?”  They reply, “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Jesus replies, “I am.”  At this statement (Jesus self-identifying as God, the great “I am”) the soldiers, police, and priests step back and fall to the ground.  This amazing moment is unique to John, with its powerfully divine portrayal of Jesus.

Another difference between John and the other gospels are the words Jesus says while dying on the cross.  In Mark, the earliest gospel, Jesus’ only words from the cross are “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  In John, however, Jesus actually has a conversation with his mother and the disciple John.  Jesus also says “I am thirsty” and “It is finished.”  These sayings do not occur in Mark, which is the earlier gospel.

What emerges with a careful reading of the gospels is the clear realization that the gospels are not literal history.  Rather, they are re-constructions written decades after the fact for specific communities with specific beliefs and prejudices.  There may be little relation, for example, between the Jesus of John’s gospel and the actual, historical Jesus.  Everything I’ve read so far suggests that John’s Jesus is the farthest removed from the Jesus of history.

Another significant difference between the earliest gospel of Mark and the latest gospel of John are the post-resurrection appearances.  If we acknowledge that the post-resurrection appearances in Mark 16 are later additions which are not found in the earliest manuscripts, the difference becomes pronounced.  In John, Jesus does all kinds of things post-resurrection.  He walks through walls, visits his disciples in different locations, even stopping so have breakfast with them.  

It seems clear, by comparing early with later accounts, that stories about Jesus evolved as time went on, and different communities developed different ideas about Jesus.  In the gospel of John, again, we get a portrayal of Jesus who is furthest removed in both time and reality from the Jesus of history.  To get at the historical Jesus, we must look to the earliest accounts like Mark and the Q source.  What is the Q source, you ask?  Stay tuned for my book report on professor Burton Mack’s fascinating book The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins!  Coming soon…

"Christ Cleansing the Temple" by Luca Giordano

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