from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Gospel of John

Embedded in the so-called "spiritual gospel" is an architectural hostility toward Judaism.

 

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin

THE SPIRITUAL GOSPEL

John's gospel is different from the other three in the New Testament. That fact has been recognized since the early church itself. Already by the year 200, John's gospel was called the spiritual gospel precisely because it told the story of Jesus in symbolic ways that differ sharply at times from the other three. For example, Jesus dies on a different day in John's gospel than in Matthew, Mark and Luke.... Whereas in the three synoptic gospels Jesus actually eats a passover meal before he dies, in John's gospel he doesn't. The last supper is actually eaten before the beginning of passover. So that the sequence of events leading up to the actual crucifixion are very different for John's gospel. And one has to look at it in say, why is the story so different? How do we account for these differences in terms of the way the story-telling developed? And the answer becomes fairly clear when we realize that Jesus has had the last supper a day before so that he's hanging on the cross during the day of preparation before the beginning of Passover.

So here's the scene in John's gospel: on the day leading up to Passover, and Passover will commence at 6 o'clock with the evening meal, on the day leading up to that Passover meal is the day when all the lambs are slaughtered and everyone goes to the temple to get their lamb for the passover meal. In Jerusalem this would have meant thousands of lambs being slaughtered all at one time. And in John's gospel that's the day on which Jesus is crucified. So that quite literally the dramatic scene in John's gospel has Jesus hanging on the cross while the lambs are being slaughtered for passover. John's gospel is forcing us, dramatically at least, through the storytelling mode, to think of Jesus as a passover lamb. Jesus doesn't eat a passover meal, Jesus is the passover meal, at least within the Christian mind in the way that John tells the story.

Now this theme of the Lamb of God, the Passover symbolism, actually is shot through the entirety of John's gospel. From the very first scene of John's gospel when Jesus enters the story for the first time, he does so by coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. And when Jesus enters, John sees him coming and looks and says, "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." So the whole story is now bracketed by this one motif, the Lamb of God. And of course that's the kind of symbolism that would eventually become one of the most profound and dominant in all of Christian theological tradition. Later on we will find just that one image a lamb showing up in all kinds of Christian art from the catacombs to the great mosaics at Ravenna because in just that small little capsule form we have a whole theological tradition wrapped up. It's a theological statement about the significance of the death of Jesus.

The symbolism of John's gospel while it is probably the most evocative of any in the New Testament, is also provocative. The language of John's gospel is intentionally antagonistic at times toward Jewish tradition and toward Jewish sensitivities. The idea of the Passover of course is very Jewish but John tends to turn some of those ideas in a much sharper way against Jewish tradition. At one point in John 6 Jesus says, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you will have no life in you." But the idea of drinking blood is absolutely abhorrent to Jewish dietary regulations. So the very language and the symbolism that is so rich within John's gospel also has a decidedly political tone to it in terms of the evolving relationship between Jews and Christians. John's gospel is witness to a Christianity that's moving farther and father away from Jewish tradition. And in fact it's seeing Jewish tradition often as actually hostile to the Christian movement.

Allen D. Callahan:

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School

JOHN'S GOSPEL AND ATTITUDES TOWARDS JERUSALEM

Each of the gospel writers has certain concerns that he must address, certain questions that he must answer, and certain crises that he must negotiate. [In] the fourth gospel, the gospel according to John, Jesus' relation to Jerusalem and the Jerusalem authorities is more of a concern. There are more people in the dramatis personae of John's gospel who hailed from Judea. We encounter some figures there that we don't encounter anywhere else in gospel traditions. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea. These are Jerusalemite non-priestly elites. One of the things that this suggests is that the sources of the fourth gospel are closer to this social stratum of people and their concerns. Not so, for Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Galilean traditions are the signal traditions there, and so Jesus' activity in the Galilee and among people in Northern Judea have pride of place....

When we look at the concerns of these differences, the concerns that are suggested or reflected in these differences, one of the ways of explaining [these] differences, is seeing that they're coming from different points and different strata of Palestinian society.

How does that affect the picture [of Jesus] that emerges?

Jesus emerges differently in these portraits. Clearly those who identify more strongly with Northern Palestinian traditions and concerns and identify with problems that are characteristic of Galilee... are going to depict a Jesus who has more to say about those things. Now, let's say such people who hail from Northern Palestine, have, in so many words, written off the priestly establishment in Jerusalem. They have no "in" with those people. They're alienated from them. They're not going to be concerned with what went on in various strata [of] Judean society, how certain Judean people responded to Jesus, how certain people responded to the Jesus movement. However, in John's gospel, there's some indication that among Jerusalemite elites there was [a] split. There are some non-priestly elite types who sympathize with Jesus.... The priestly establishment, as a whole, are clearly the bad guys. John is very clear about this. But this distinction between the priestly and the non-priestly elites is very interesting. It's a distinction which John is very careful to make, that the synoptic tradition, as a whole, is not very careful to make. That this decision to condemn Jesus and the machinations that were involved to send Jesus to the cross are blamed on a particular sub-set of Jewish leadership. John shows us exactly who's responsible, within the Jerusalemite ruling elite, for Jesus' execution....

What's often said about John's gospel is you can place a beginning of outright hostility between [members of the early Jesus movement] and mainstream Judaism...

Well, I think the distinction that I just described rightly complicates that generalization because it's a dangerous one. Historically, it's proven to be very dangerous. It's not just a misconstrual of the evidence that we have. It's a very tendentious misconstrual.... John's drama is at pains to show that a certain subset of Israelite leadership railroaded Jesus. That's very important for him. Perhaps, as we move farther away from Judea, that picture, or at least the crispness of that picture, is compromised by other concerns. And so I would characterize the synoptic tradition, as perhaps a move away from the center of events, in terms of the juridicial machinations that resulted in Jesus' execution. And that focus is then compromised by other concerns that are mediated through the reporting of Galilean traditions.

Nonetheless, by now, the followers of Jesus, the early Christians, and the mainstream religion of the Jews are beginning to head off a separate track. Can you accept that? What's happening?

Well this certainly isn't as clear before the war. I see the Jesus movement as yet another option within what we identify as Judaism, that complex of people and institutions and traditions of ancient Israel. So Jesus is a new option at the end of the first century. It's not clear before the war that it's mutually exclusive [from other options]. There are still some kind of conversations going on with other parts of Judaism and those conversations are apparently substantive, even though they're not altogether unproblematic....

Helmut Koester:

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School

GOSPEL OF JOHN STANDS APART

The Gospel of John, of course, stands apart from the other three gospels. For one reason, simply because Matthew and Luke use common sources. They both use the gospel of Mark. They both use the so-called synoptic sayings gospel, and therefore great similarities are evident, particularly the outline of the ministry of Jesus. Now the Gospel of John has some relationships to the sources used by the other gospels.... The passion narrative in John is essentially the same as the passion narrative in Mark, Matthew, Luke and in the Gospel of Peter. The other thing that is common with the other gospels is a chain of miracle stories....

What makes the Gospel of John different is another element. And that's the element of Jesus' discourses and dialogues with the disciples. Now what are those? They are not comparable to collections of sayings of Jesus that we have, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount. They're very different, because the collections of sayings strings those sayings together with almost never a question of the disciples interfering. It's just a collection. Now what we have in the speeches and dialogues of Jesus in the Gospel of John is not a collection of traditional materials, but is ultimately a reflection on traditional materials. That is, the Gospel of John constructs the speeches of Jesus in an effort to interpret traditional sayings of Jesus.

I'll give you a very obvious example, the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus and recognizes he is a great teacher, he's come from God, and Jesus now tells him something that is, in fact, the quotation of a traditional baptismal saying. "Unless you're reborn, you will not enter the Kingdom of God." This saying is found in other contexts; a second century apologist, Justin Martyr, quotes the same saying in his report of the Christian baptismal liturgy.... Now John takes that saying as the basis of the development of dialogue. He changes the saying somewhat, so that Nicodemus understands the rebirth not to be a rebirth by the spirit from above, but physical rebirth, and therefore says, "How can anybody who has gotten old now go back to his mother's womb and be reborn?" And this gives the occasion now for the explanation of what this saying of Jesus means. And that explanation fills the whole rest of the chapter....

Essentially all the major speeches of John are developed out of traditional sayings materials. And what is interesting here is that some of these sayings have parallels in the sayings we find in the synoptic gospels. But some of the sayings also have parallels which we now find in the Gospel of Thomas. So John draws on a different set of traditional sayings of Jesus than do the first three gospels of the New Testament.

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

JESUS IN JOHN

Jesus in the Gospel of John is difficult to reconstruct as an historical person, because his character in the gospel is in full voice giving very developed theological soliloquies about himself. It's not the sort of thing that if you try to put in a social context would appeal to a large number of followers. Because it's so much Christian proclamation and Christian imagery, and it's very developed. It's a very developed Christology. Jesus must have had some kind of popular following or else he wouldn't have ended up killed by Rome. If the historical Jesus was saying the sorts of things that John's Jesus said, he probably would have been fairly safe. It would have been very difficult for early first century Jews to have tracked what that Jesus was saying.

Does that Jesus have enemies in this gospel?

Jesus is depicted as having enemies in all the gospels. In John, again, the Pharisees come in for their typical negative role. The chief priests, and the high priests move against Jesus and engineer the ambush in Gesthemane. But there's no trial before the Sanhedrin in John. There's no face-off between the chief priest and Jesus in John the way there is very dramatically in Mark, where there are not one, but two full meetings of the entire priestly court, the night after this incredibly long day of Passover. So, Jesus' enemies are really provided to give a kind of dimension to the plot. But the story of John's Jesus is really the story of this divine figure who comes from above and appears to the world below. And then, as he's hanging on the cross, in a scene that's curiously leeched of pathos and anguish, he says, "It is finished." And that's where the gospel's complete.

Why would the author of John want to have shifted history around and twisted it in order to present Jesus in opposition to Pharisees?

As any parent of a two year old knows, the first two words a child masters when forming its own identity [are], "Mine" and "No". And I think if we look at the Gospel of John, what we see is a kind of very architectural hostility, shaped inside the story of Jesus. Because this community is developing its own identity vis a vis the synagogue across the street. I mean, in one sense, if we remove the Gospel of John from the Christian canon, if we didn't have it right next to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and instead, if we put the gospel of John next to the Dead Sea Scroll library, we'd see the sorts of issues that Jews fight about forever. You know, this guy's the Prince of Darkness... this one isn't any good, this is the only right way to do it...this is the sort of dynamic that we get, shaping the way John presents Jesus' life in that particular gospel.

Read more on the Gospel of John in this essay by Marilyn Mellowes.

 

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

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