Introduction to the Gospel of John.
Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on September 24, 2006
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. We have the pleasure of having Dr. Marjorie Suchocki, one of America’s more famous theologians, in our pulpit this morning. This evening we have Dr. John Cobb, who has been the leading voice for process theology and inter-religious dialog for over half a century. This is one of the benefits of our Comenius Scholar program with Wake Forest Divinity School.
John’s Gospel: With such theological luminaries in town, it is with a certain caution that I invite you to join me in an exploration of the Gospel of John this year. We will slowly and thoughtfully examine this very theological book in the Bible. Christians today are divided over John’s Gospel. For many people it is the center of the Scripture, the one book most necessary for Christians to read and understand because it is the gospel that most clearly displays Jesus as fully divine. Other people find it a very difficult and confusing book that distracts from the compelling picture of Jesus found in the other three gospels. You may be comforted to know that there were similar debates about John’s gospel in early Christianity. One reason why John is the Fourth Gospel is to make sure people read the other three first.
We won’t be able to answer all of the questions that swirl around this Fourth Gospel, but I think that we can shed some light on the book. I hope that you will find deeper insights about faith and life as we ponder the mysteries of salvation with John. We will draw upon some of the extensive research into John’s Gospel that was conducted in the 20th century, which should open some of the doors that you may have found locked when you’ve read the Gospel on your own.
Gospel: Before going too deeply into John’s Gospel, we should first ponder the question of what a Gospel actually is. The word Gospel is the old English translation of the Greek work evangelion. Evangelion means “good news,” or can mean good words or even good spell. During the 16th century the Protestant reformers called themselves Evangelicals because they were reclaiming the Good News of the New Testament from centuries of Catholic tradition. Today, an Evangelical is someone who believes that salvation depends on a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior. When I refer to John the Evangelist, I am not talking about a television preacher talking about heaven and hell. I’m referring to the author of John’s Gospel, the person who wrote the “Good News” of Jesus Christ.
A Gospel is a particular type of literature. It is based on the genre of the Greek biography, but its subject is Jesus. John’s Gospel is very honest in that it tells us that the book was written for a very specific purpose. John 20:30-31 states, “Now Jesus did many other sings that are not written in this book. But 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.” A gospel is not an objective biography, such as we would expect from a modern history like David McCullough; it is a story intended to persuade you that Jesus is the Messiah. The evangelists did not spend years in the archives sifting through records and letters of the disciples trying to recreate the past as it actually was. They told the story that they knew and interpreted it for their audience. John’s Gospel originated in the preaching of the Good News of Jesus in weekly worship.
Other Gospels: There are four books in the New Testament that are called Gospels. They were originally anonymous, but ancient tradition named the authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Scholars called these Gospels canonical because they are part of the New Testament canon, or the authoritative books of the Christian church. There were many other gospels written in the first four centuries of the Christian era that were not approved by the church for use in worship or teaching. Many of these other gospels were discovered in a place called Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1947 and have been published in English translation.
The reason I am mentioning these other gospels is to let you know that the early church had to discern what writings were sacred scripture and which were not. The bishops used many criteria to choose among books. The most important was that it expressed the teachings of the apostles. They tried to trace every book back to one of the original apostles, but it was not sufficient for a book to claim apostolic authorship. There was a Gospel of Peter, for instance, that was rejected, and few bishops believed that Thomas wrote the Gospel that bore his name. It was the content of the books that was important, not what it said on the title page.
In the 19th century biblical scholars speculated that John’s Gospel had close affinities with some of the rejected gospels, especially the Gospel of Thomas. We will see that Jesus in John is different than the Jesus of the other canonical gospels, but research into the Nag Hammadi library has shown that John is more like the Gospel of Luke than it is any of the non-canonical gospels. Despite the fact that John’s Gospel is so different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the early church recognized it as an authentic, apostolic expression of faith.
The Synoptic Problem: I have mentioned several times that John is different from the other three New Testament gospels. Matthew and Luke were both based on the oldest gospel, Mark. In fact, over 90% of the verses of Mark’s gospel are found in Matthew and Luke Thus it is not surprising that all three gospels are very similar. They use the same basic outline of Jesus’ ministry: baptism, temptation, ministry in Galilee, transfiguration, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, cleansing of the Temple, Last Supper, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. Matthew and Luke include a lot of material, especially parables, that is not found in Mark, but for the most part these three gospels have a similar perspective. That is why they are called Synoptic, which means to look together.
Even a casual reader of John’s Gospel notices that it is quite different from the Synoptic Gospels. Rather than teaching in parables Jesus speaks in very long discourses, which sometimes do not seem to fit the context of the story. There are only seven miracle stories in John, fewer than the other gospels, and they are called signs. Each of the seven is important and has symbolic meaning. In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus repeatedly tells people not to tell others that he is the Messiah, but in John’s gospel, Jesus is upset that people do not recognize him as the Messiah.
On closer reading, we will see other significant differences. John’s Gospel has no birth narrative, nor does it mention that Mary was a virgin when she conceived. The gospel begins with a very theological prologue that connects the story of Jesus to the story of creation. There is no narrative of Jesus’ baptism; instead John the Baptist tells his disciples about baptizing Jesus. Most of the gospel takes place in Judea, especially Jerusalem, rather than Galilee, like the other gospels. Jesus cleanses the Temple at the beginning of his ministry rather than the end, and there is no transfiguration in John. More surprising, perhaps, is that Jesus does not institute Holy Communion during the Last Supper; instead he washes his disciples’ feet. Most disturbing for many people is that Jesus died on a different day in John’s Gospel than he did in the Synoptic Gospels. All agree that it was a Friday, but the date is different.
An even more careful reading shows that some of the twelve disciples in John’s gospel have different names, such as Nathaniel, and women play a greater role than any gospel other than Luke. The first person to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah in John’s Gospel is a woman, and the first person to see him resurrected is a woman. We’ll look at these things in detail, but for now it is important to recognize just how different John is from the other three gospels in the canon. Our goal in this study is not to reconstruct the biography of the historical Jesus of Nazareth using the Gospel of John; it is to explore the meaning of John’s Gospel and what it tells us about faith and life.
Many scholars, particularly the Jesus Seminar, dismiss John’s Gospel as unhistorical, but at times it is more accurate than the other gospels. The descriptions of places in Jerusalem and Judea are very accurate and reflect first-hand knowledge of Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed the city. John’s Gospel is also more accurate in its presentation of Jewish rituals than any other Gospel, and it displays a deep knowledge of the Old Testament, especially as it was used in synagogue worship. It is possible that John gives information about the historical Jesus not found in other sources.
Authorship: One of the big debates in biblical studies has been the question of who wrote John’s gospel. Ancient tradition identified the author as the disciple John, who was the son of Zebedee. This John appears prominently in the other gospels, and is often associated with Peter and Andrew, but he doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel. Instead there is disciple identified as “the one whom Jesus loved.” This Beloved Disciple was very close to Jesus in a way that Peter was not. We will see that there is strong evidence that this Beloved Disciple was the preacher and teacher whose lessons formed the basis for the original version of the Gospel. By the end of the 2nd century, bishops identified this Beloved Disciple with the disciple John, and they called this book the Gospel according to John. This identification was rejected by modern biblical scholars who believed that the gospel showed a degree of theological development and sophistication beyond the capacity of a fisherman. A number of other figures were proposed as the author, but none of the proposals was convincing. Though most scholars prefer to leave John’s Gospel anonymous, others, like Raymond Brown, have argued that it makes the most sense to trust the tradition and declare that John the disciple of Jesus was the author.
Dating: The next big question is when John was written. A fragment of John’s gospel found in Egypt was dated to the early 2nd century. This indicates that John’s Gospel was known in Egypt by at least 110 AD, and perhaps earlier. Some of the most important church theologians of the 2nd century were familiar with the gospel and considered it sacred Scripture. Some people declared heretics used the gospel as well. Around 175 AD the Christian scholar Tatian used John’s Gospel along with the other three in composing his harmony of the gospels. Though this harmony, the Diatesseron, was rejected by the church, it is an indication that 2nd century theologians recognized John as an important source for the life of Jesus. The scholarly consensus today is that John’s Gospel was written no later than 100 AD, about the same time as Matthew and Luke.
There is also general scholarly consensus that the final version of the Gospel was written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, it was the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent expulsion of Christians from the synagogues that probably prompted the writing of the Gospel. But we’ll discuss the Temple in a later lesson. For now, keep in mind that the Temple was the symbolic center of the Jewish people scattered throughout the world. Think of it like the White House, Statue of Liberty, and the Liberty Bell rolled into one as the symbol of the nation. King Herod, who was king when Jesus was born, spent a fortune rebuilding the Temple. Though the project was never finished, it was a magnificent building that was intended to show the world how Great Herod was.
The Romans recognized the importance of the Temple and generally respected the sacred status of the Temple. But in 66 AD the Jews in Judea rebelled against Rome. The headquarters of the rebellion was the Temple, and many Jews around the Empire supported the rebels. The future emperor Vespasian systematically and brutally suppressed the revolt. He let his son Titus besiege the city of Jerusalem, and in 70 AD Titus captured the city, killing thousands of inhabitants. He had the walls of the city torn down and he destroyed the Temple so completely that archaeologists do not know for sure where it was. The predictions of the destruction of the Temple in the New Testament were probably written after the fact. Not one stone was left on another.
This was the greatest blow to Judaism since the Babylonian Exile, and it permanently shaped the nature of Judaism. The Pharisees were the only Jewish sect to survive the disaster and they defined Judaism since the priesthood was no longer needed. The old temple worship was transformed into synagogue worship, and the canon of Scripture was determined. Judaism as we know it was being defined at the same time that the Christian church was being organized.
Not surprisingly, some of the Jewish leaders blamed the Christians for the disaster. The Christians had blasphemed by following Jesus as the Messiah. Paul the Apostate had declared that the Temple and the Torah were unnecessary since Christ was the perfect sacrifice. As the Jewish leaders defined the boundaries of Judaism more strictly in their struggle to survive in a hostile empire, they began to excommunicate Christians from the synagogue.
Around 85 or 90 AD, a Benediction Against the Heretics was introduced into Jewish worship. We will discuss this again later when we deal with the anti-Jewishness of John’s Gospel. For now, I will just say that it is odd that this is called a benediction since it is really a malediction. Most scholars are convinced that the author of John’s Gospel was probably Jewish and that his readers had probably been excommunicated from the synagogue and ritually cursed. Hence, it is likely that the Gospel was written around 90 AD by a Jewish follower of Jesus. New week we will discuss the Jewishness of this most anti-Jewish gospel.