I expect this to be the first of two posts on John’s gospel as I resume this series after Christmas. But anyone coming to this version of the story after reading the other three immediately sees significant differences in both style and content. Short pithy sayings are out, and long meditations are in. There are no exorcism stories from Jesus’s ministry, but the cross is portrayed as a casting out of Satan, described as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31). Disciples who occur as significant characters in the synoptic gospels, like James and John the sons of Zebedee, don’t get a mention, while others like Philip and Thomas, who only appear as names in the first three gospels, get speaking parts in John.
Tradition has identified John the son of Zebedee with the beloved disciple and the author of the gospel. Most scholars feel there are various problems with that, not least that the character of the disciple whom Jesus loved doesn’t appear in the account of the ministry, but only in the Last Supper discourse. It would also be a strangely arrogant way for a disciple of the servant lord to refer to himself. It may be much easier to see a fan of the apostle John using the phrase. Whatever relationship the gospel as we have it has to the apostle John (and the tradition it does is early and strong) it doesn’t seem to be a straightforward one of authorship.
Rather than organize a whole year around this rather different gospel, the lectionary uses it for the key seasonal times of the year and as a supplement to Mark. The longest supplementary use in ordinary time is the reading of the bread of life discourse over several Sundays in the summer1. This no doubt reflects the origins of the lectionary as a Roman Catholic one intended for the Mass, and the importance of the bread of life discourse for the church’s eucharistic theology.
One key way in which John is different from the other gospels is the more overt and reflective way the writer spells out the meaning of who Jesus is and what he does. Some people have characterized the difference between John and the synoptics as the difference between a painting and photographs. I’m not sure that works: some paintings strive for realism and some photographic work is very symbolic.
I prefer to think of this gospel as a meditation more than a straightforward story. It seems to me that John (to give the author his traditional name) is someone who has meditated very deeply on the stories of Jesus, and then carefully arranged the fruit of those meditations as a connected narrative following the pattern of the gospels he knows. He invites the reader to become a fellow meditator with him, to look out for hidden meanings with him, and delve into the mystery of faith with him. He wants to lift the curtain on the reality of Jesus, and invite the reader to see the truth behind the visible human: real bread, real light, real water, real human, real God.
Another way in which John differs from the synoptics is the amount of time Jesus spends in and around Jerusalem. After the introductory story of the wedding in Cana, only three (or three-and-a-half2) stories take place in Galilee. One is a story of Jesus healing a royal official’s son, the other two take place together, as in Mark and Matthew: the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the lake. These Galilean stories are when John feels most like the synoptic gospels, although he returns to his own distinctive voice when he develops the bread of life meditation out of the feeding miracle.
However, most of John’s gospel takes place in Judea and Jerusalem. An exception is the conversation with the woman at the well, which takes place in Samaria. Most of Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem are occasioned by liturgical festivals: Passover twice (John 2:13ff; and from John 12 onwards), Tabernacles (John 7), Hanukkah (John 10:22) and one unspecified festival (John 5). This Judean ministry may be part of the explanation for one of the more difficult problems contemporary readers of John have to face. John regularly refers to Jesus’s opponents as “the Jews.”3
The word that comes typically to be translated as Jew originally meant “Judean – a person from Judea” and was an ethnic as much as a religious identity. In part it may be the origins of the Jesus movement as a Galilean peasant movement that lead John to repeatedly characterise the Judean leadership bluntly as “the Jews”. That fits well with the portrayal of Galilee as a safe place for Jesus, and Judea as a hostile one. It does seem to be part of John’s overall picture.
However, it also seems likely that it represents some early Christian experience of not being accepted as loyal Jews by many synagogue congregations. Twice he has some slightly odd references to people who believe in Jesus being likely to be “put out of the synagogue” (John 9.22, 12.42). Most scholars believe this may be a reference from the time John was writing, being put back into his gospel story. If John’s group is being excluded from the worship of Judean groups living among Gentiles, John will effectively reject that Judean identity as well. It seems, however, that his language slips, and “Jews” comes to mean not just Judeans, but ethnic Jews who don’t believe in John’s Messiah Jesus.
John embraces a sectarian identity with some relish: for him the world’s hatred is proof his community is truly following the rejected Jesus. Leaving his own ethnic identity behind is part of that process. It is understandable in its first-century context, but that generalised label “the Jews” has helped fuel far too much hatred and violence against Jewish people down the centuries for us to be comfortable with it. Certainly, Christians should avoid copying this item from John’s vocabulary in our own descriptions of Jesus’ ministry and conflicts with Jewish leaders of his day, even if we still have to read it as the translation which does most justice to the text of John’s gospel. Sometimes, however, I suspect we would do better to gloss it as “the Judeans” or “the Jewish leaders” depending on the context.
In my second post on John, I shall deal with two key themes of the fourth gospel: the question of truth, and the role of the Spirit.
- The whole of John 6 is read over five Sundays: Propers 12 – 16, or the 17th – 21st Sundays in Ordinary Time (Year B)
- The half-story is a brief conversation between Jesus and his brothers, when he chooses not to go up to Jerusalem with them, but to wait behind in Galilee, and go up secretly. (John 7:1-7).
- John and Matthew are the gospels which are most likely to get accused of anti-Semitism. They can certainly be used to fuel it, and their language can give rise to unhelpful stereotyping in the careless listener or reader. I explored the question of Matthew’s anti-Semitism in this post.