In the sixth episode of this series “The Words that Make the World“, Archbishop Mark Coleridge looks into how the gospel of John brings us into a different world, providing a different interpretation of Jesus.
Episode 6 – John provides a unique gospel interpretation – is available here:
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- Episode 6: John provides a unique gospel interpretation - Transcript
Episode 6: John provides a unique gospel interpretation - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
Once again, welcome back to this the sixth of our podcasts exploring how the New Testament came to be. In many ways, we’re just touching on the mountaintops. It would take a much longer time to do the detail, in other words, to go down into the valleys. It would be well worth doing. But not here and not now.
We have seen to this point the world of the synoptic Gospels, as they’re called, Matthew, Mark and Luke, in the order in which they appear in the New Testament, though it’s not the order in which they were composed. I would suggest that Mark was composed sometime in the late sixties. And that Matthew and Luke about the same time perhaps the mid-eighties.
And the key event that had happened between Mark and Luke and Matthew is of course, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. So synoptic simply means that they look at Jesus with the same eye. That’s what synoptic means. Now there’s truth in that, but it’s not the total truth. There’s no question that Luke and Matthew use Mark’s text, but they are drawing upon other traditions clearly as well. And there were all kinds of texts and traditions floating around in the early church. This was a time of extraordinary fermentation. So, they had various sources available to them, but one of them was undoubtedly Mark’s gospel.
Now, so in one sense they look with the same eye, but in another sense, they are very different interpretations of Jesus. And that’s what they are. They are essentially interpretative portraits of Jesus. Keeping in mind that there is nothing in the Gospels that is pre-Easter. Even though the story is told as if there were they begin before Easter. But Easter had happened, and everything was seen through the lens of the resurrection. So, in that sense, there is nothing in the Gospels before Easter. They’re all paschal texts, proclamations of the risen Christ.
Now, if we turn from the world of the synoptics, with all their different interpretations of Jesus, and look to the world of John, we enter a quite different world. Not in any way contradictory. But very, very different from the synoptics. First of all, chronologically, we’re later. The Gospel of John is probably towards the end of the first century. So, I am imagining that it’s the last of the four gospels written.
And the world that it presents is quite different. In large part because the challenges it seeks to address, the crises that it is addressing are quite different than anything found in Matthew or Luke or Mark earlier. Not totally different, but different enough for the Gospel, the fourth Gospel, as it’s sometimes called. To present a very, very different portrait or interpretation of Jesus crucified and risen.
For instance, in the Gospel of John. Jesus doesn’t talk about the kingdom of God, the basileíā toû Theoû in Greek. This is very distinctive of the preaching and teaching of Jesus in the synoptic tradition. But you don’t find Jesus in John’s Gospel talking about the kingdom of God. The focus is more upon Jesus himself. Jesus doesn’t talk about God’s kingdom but talks about himself. So, the question of the identity of Jesus is absolutely central to John’s Gospel and we’ll see how that works itself out in just a moment. There’s also significantly less moral teaching in the Gospel of John than you find certainly in a gospel like Matthew.
So, he’s not so much focused upon the, whoever the fourth evangelist was, and we’ll come to that. Not so much focused upon the moral teaching of Jesus, most of which was grounded in the Mosaic tradition, looking back to Moses, therefore. There’s not terribly much that’s original to the moral teaching of Jesus as it comes to us in the Synoptic Gospels.
The world of the fourth Gospel is a potently symbolic world. I mean, the symbolism of the fourth Gospel is quite extraordinary. The symbolism of the temple in Jerusalem becoming the body of Christ. That whole interplay which works throughout the Gospel is, again, very, very powerful, poetically and theologically. Also, the symbolism of light and darkness. You find it right from the beginning of the Gospel in the famous text we call the prologue. Light and darkness. So, this is a highly symbolic work. And a work of both theological and literary or artistic sophistication.
It always fascinates me that the Gospel of John is written in a very simple Greek. It’s one of the texts, if you’re teaching beginner’s Greek, as I did years ago. One of the texts you start with is the Gospel of John. Strangely, because its Greek is very simple, almost schoolboy Greek. So clearly it was not written by someone whose mother tongue was Greek. And yet, despite the simplicity of the Greek, the poetic and artistic sophistication is extraordinary. And theologically, it is profound in all kinds of ways.
The other thing that has often struck me about the fourth evangelist, whom we call John. Is that he is a great dramatist. The sheer dramatic power of some of the scenes is unforgettable. And I’m thinking of famous scenes like The Samaritan Woman, The Man Born Blind, The Raising of Lazarus. Those great stories that come in the first half of the Gospel. But also, the dramatic power of John’s passion narrative that we hear every Good Friday is just extraordinary. These are theologically exalted and complex texts. And yet there’s a vividness of characterisation and sometimes a vividness of detail that makes the text so dramatic and gives that sense that whoever wrote this stuff was an extraordinary dramatist.
Now, was it the Apostle John? It’s impossible to know. That the fourth Gospel and also the other texts that are called Johannine, things like the Letters and the Book of Revelation. They do take their rise from a tradition that looks back to the tradition of apostolic preaching attaching to the Apostle John. But it’s impossible to know who exactly wrote every part of John’s Gospel. Because clearly, by the end of the first century, this text or these texts have undergone all kinds of modifications through use in catechesis and preaching and so on. So, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge between the time of the Apostle John and the settling of the texts that become the Gospel of John. So, in a sense, we can say the Gospel takes its rise from the tradition of John, the Apostle John. But did he write every word of the Gospel? Almost certainly not.
It’s often been remarked that in the fourth Gospel, you don’t find many of the things that are central to the other Gospels. Jesus isn’t a great teacher of parables for instance in the Gospel of John. There is no transfiguration is a thing that’s often been remarked upon. Why does John not have an episode which is so central to the synoptic Gospels? Why is there no story of the Transfiguration?
Well, the answer to that seems to be that the whole Gospel is a transfiguration story. And in many ways, I think that’s true. That moment on the mountain that you find in the synoptic Gospels, where the glory of God shines forth from the person, the body of Jesus. That in a sense is the whole point of John’s gospel. That even that which seems to be shame and dishonour, supremely of course the cross. Is a moment of glorification. So, the whole thing, the whole Gospel is about the glorification of Jesus in the face of rejection, and supremely the rejection that climaxes on the dark mountain of Calvary.
Now, you have to ask what were the situations, the crisis situations, that the fourth Gospel might be addressing in the late first century. Now, in the case of John, it’s difficult to identify one. There seems to be a convergence of a number of critical situations that led to the composition of the fourth Gospel.
The first of them seems to be that there were false teachers floating around by this stage. And by false teachers what I mean is teachers who were in one way or another denying either the divinity or the humanity of Jesus. Now, both were tempting to say he wasn’t God. He was an extraordinary human being. An extraordinary teacher or miracle worker or whatever on the one hand. Or to deny his humanity. He wasn’t really human. He just seemed to be human. He was really divine.
So, a tendency to rush to one end of the heretical spectrum or the other. Seems to have emerged by the end, or to be emerging by the end of the first century. Because one of the things that John is absolutely determined to do right from the beginning of his Gospel, the great prologue. Is to get the balance right between humanity and divinity in Jesus. In other words, as the church would come to say later, Jesus is true God and true man. Truly divine and truly human. And to hold those two things intention, is to find your way onto the royal road of what eventually will come to be known as orthodoxy.
So, John is seeking to establish that balance or tension, call it what you will between the divinity and the humanity. So, if you look at the prologue. In the beginning was the word. Now, this is clearly echoing the start of Genesis. Where we’re told in the beginning exactly the same word, in Greek an Archē, in Hebrew Bereshith, the same expression. In the beginning was the word. Well, that again echoes Genesis, because God spoke a word in the beginning in Genesis. Light, and there was light.
Jesus is called the word, the word made flesh. So, God with us. The God who becomes one of us becomes human. The word was with God, and the word was God. So, divinity is established, all things were made through him, and light overcome, the darkness could not overcome. John goes before him to bear witness. And the true light was then rejected, we’re told. But then the punchline comes in verse 14 of the prologue. The word became flesh. So, there’s this huge build up, this cosmic sense of the divine Logos, the word. This is divinity to the power of two, as it were. And then with a kind of a thud almost in verse 14, the word became flesh, humanity, and dwelt among us. Full of grace and truth. Now truth is a word to underline. Because it’s one of the Johannine buzz words, as we shall see.
So, no one has ever. This is the last line of the prologue. No one has ever seen God. But the only son who is in, this is a hard thing to translate, in the bosom of the Father, says the RSV that I have in front of me. Who is towards God, pros ton theon. We don’t know what that means exactly. Pros ton theon in Greek means towards God. Has made God known we’re told. And what that really means, or has in the Greek is that he has given us the exegesis or interpretation of God. He has interpreted God. You want to know what the real God looks like? If you want, do you want to know what the real God means? Then you don’t have to look further than the word of interpretation that we’re given in Jesus who’s one of us. So, focus on him and get the balance between his divinity and humanity right and all doors will open. Is what we get right at the start of the fourth Gospel.
Now, those who deny the humanity of Jesus are often called Gnostics. Which is a word that comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnōsis. Now, the Gnostics, they’re slippery. They’re hard to define or tie down. But they are undoubtedly a major influence at this time and into the second century. And it was one of the great struggles of early Christianity. Now, the Gnostics said that there was secret knowledge was the way to salvation, and it was secret knowledge, gnosis, that was available only to the select few.
Now, this was very attractive to many people. So again, that question of truth. And consider the question put on the lips of Pilate in the passion narrative that we hear on Good Friday. Where Pilate says to Jesus almost mockingly, what is truth? That question is at the heart of the fourth Gospel. And in fact, what John’s Gospel says is the truth of God is not some secret knowledge available only to a few. But the truth is love. God is truth. But yes, God is love. And that love, that truth, is available to everybody, not to some elite. It is available to everybody.
So, in other words, this is a serious attempt to put a bomb under the seductions of Gnosticism in these early times. But interestingly, Pope Francis often speaks about new forms of Gnosticism today. So, again, you see how these texts of the New Testament aren’t once upon a time, they’re here and now, they make worlds now.
So, this sense of there being some secret knowledge available only to the privileged few. This is not Christianity. It in fact is heresy, but it can be seductive. So, what is truth? Truth is love. And love available to everyone and the love that meets us where we are. So, the word becomes flesh, one of us.
Now another challenge that the fourth Gospel seems to be addressing concerns the relationship between early Christianity and Judaism after 70. When it was, Judaism was trying to reestablish itself to find a future, as it were. So, relations were difficult. And the polemic between Jesus and his Jewish opponents in the fourth Gospel is more intense even than you find in the Synoptic Gospels. So, in some sense, things must have got worse. So, the fourth gospel seems to be in part addressed to unbelieving Jews who deny that Jesus is the Messiah. Because again, time and again, John is keen to say Jesus is the Messiah. And just in passing, I might add, that certainly early on in the Gospel, John is very keen to say that John the Baptist isn’t the Messiah because there were some people and there still are, who thought and think that John the Baptist was in fact the Messiah.
And that’s why you find him in John’s Gospel saying, don’t look at me, look at him, behold the lamb of God. It’s not me, it’s him. But there’s a group still, a small group, but they exist in the Middle East called the Mandaeans, who still believe that John the Baptist is the Messiah. So, it’s fairly, it’s been a fairly tenacious belief. So, John had to make it clear that the Baptist wasn’t the Messiah. He was the one who prepared the way. So, unbelieving Jews who deny that Jesus is the Messiah, and then those who want to claim that John the Baptist is the Messiah, they’re another group of people who, to whom the Gospel is addressed in order to open their eyes to see the truth of Jesus, who he really is.
Now, the Gospel itself, we have the prologue, which used to come at the end of Mass every time. So, it’s a famous text, that’s verses 1 to 18 of Chapter 1. Then beyond that, you have in the first half of John’s Gospel, you have the book of Signs. Signs of God with us, all of which are pointing to the truth of who Jesus is. And here you get that procession of great stories of the Samaritan woman, the man born blind. The raising of Lazarus is the greatest of the signs. It’s the kind of clincher we begin with the marriage feast of Cana in the Book of Signs, and we conclude with the raising of Lazarus, which looks to the resurrection of Jesus. Though they are different because Lazarus is restored to life, but Jesus is raised into a new dimension of life. So, in other words, Lazarus is resuscitated. Jesus is not resuscitated but raised from the dead. Nonetheless, the raising of Lazarus is one of the great signs. The greatest of the signs that looks to the ultimate sign of Easter.
Seven times we get seven signs. And again, the symbolic number of seven means fullness. And we also, through this first part of the Gospel, we get seven times, an ‘I am’ statement. Now these again point to the divine status of Jesus because I am, that verb to be, in the Old Testament relates to the divine name. What we call Yahweh, which is not really acceptable these days, but the Tetragrammaton, the four letters that sometimes have been rendered, Yahweh or Jehovah come from the verb to be and really can be translated as I am or I will be, or I was. Tenses work differently in Hebrew.
So, when Jesus says, before ever Abraham was I am. An extraordinary claim is being made for his divine identity. So, it’s that that needs to be perceived by a correct reading of the signs that Jesus gives in the first half of the Gospel. Then in the second half of the Gospel, which is often called the Book of Glory. It’s all moving with a kind of an irresistible, unstoppable dynamic towards the crucifixion. Which again looks to be dishonour and shame and defeat. But it’s called the Book of Glory, because it’s going from glory to glory. And the cross, the death of Jesus is recounted as a glorification and that’s the word he himself uses for what is about to happen. So, because it’s you see, it’s the triumph of the love, that is the truth, that is the glory. That’s the way it works logically or theologically.
So, where you least expect the glory of God. The doxa in Greek or the kavod in Hebrew. Where you least expect it, is where you find it. Again, if you have eyes to see. And if you think of that Gospel that we hear the passion narrative that we read on Good Friday, the majesty of Jesus in that moment is unmistakable. And again, it’s the majesty of God, the glory of God in the midst of all that seems most shameful and dishonourable.
Chapter 21 is like an epilogue. Just as we had a prologue, we have an epilogue. But it’s a later edition, but it is nonetheless a very important part of the Johannine tradition. So, in this brief romp through the fourth Gospel. You see how it is a very different world in so many ways from the world of the synoptics. And yet, and yet, even in some of the language that I have used. You see how in deeper ways, in subterranean ways, the tradition that becomes the Gospel of John relates in deep and important ways to what we have seen in the Synoptic Gospels. Next time then, we shall turn to larger considerations about the New Testament, its character, and how it came to be. But for now, we will bid farewell to the Gospels, both Synoptic and Johannine.