Introduction to John, Part 2
Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on October 1, 2006
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that you had a good week. It was a busy one for me. In addition to the Steelman Lectures and Thompson Lectures, I was in Florida yesterday doing a program on Moravian missions for our churches down there, so forgive me if I’m a bit tired this morning. I am also preaching and serving communion at Fries Memorial Church immediately following this lesson. Since some of the people at Fries listen to me on the radio, I had to write a separate sermon for this morning! I haven’t seen as much of my family as I would like in recent days, but my wife and daughters do have a tradition when I travel. They paint their toes and eat chocolate.
Aramaic Gospel: The Gospel of John was written in Greek, but scholars have long speculated that there may have been an original version of the gospel that was written in Aramaic. I took a course in advanced Greek and biblical interpretation when I was at Moravian Seminary with just one other student. She won the language prize for both Greek and Hebrew, and was simply brilliant. She kept recognizing surprising things in John’s Gospel that pointed to Hebrew or at least Aramaic grammar. I could not see them, but I’ve since learned that other scholars have. It is similar to reading something written by an Asian-American that leaves out the word “the” because Chinese doesn’t have a definite article. Greek was probably not the first language of the author.
Aramaic was the common language in the ancient Near East, and it is similar to Hebrew. There is little doubt that Jesus and the original disciples all spoke Aramaic; therefore we would expect early Christian writings to have been in that language. We need to remember, though, that most people in the ancient world did not read and write. Scribes were seen almost like priests because they knew the sacred art of transferring sounds to papyrus. Since Greek was the dominant language for business and government, it was more likely for things to be written in Greek than Aramaic. It is likely that a person who spoke Aramaic would want his or her words written down in Greek, just as a person who speaks Meskito in Honduras might have someone write what he or she says down in Spanish.
Poetry: In the 1920s a scholar named C. F. Burney proposed that the Gospel of John reads better if it is put back into Aramaic. He believed that the Greek mistranslated many words and ideas. He proposed that the Gospel of John was originally Aramaic poetry, which would have been much easier to remember in oral transmission. (Raymond Brown, Gospel of John, vol. 1, CXXXIII) As we go through the gospel, we will see many passages that do indeed seem more like poetry than prose. One reason we read John at solemn occasions, such as funerals, is because it is such a poetic and dignified book. As we saw with the Book of Genesis, this style may indicate that these passages were originally part of worship. They are liturgical pieces, and some may have been hymns. We will also see that the difficulty with this exalted style is that it can become very monotonous in places. John’s Gospel does not have a lot of narrative. If it were a play, there would be a lot of monologues and voice-over narrations. It is important to remember that the Gospel of John was not written for a general audience. It was written specifically for a worshiping community.
Anti-Jewishness of John: I mentioned last week that John’s Gospel is very Jewish even though many of the sayings in it are openly hostile to Judaism. These two facts are not contradictory. Many of know from personal experience that we say the harshest things about the people we are closest to. One of the realities of racism in America, for instance, is that people tend to be most hostile to those who live near by. Thus, racism in the South and certain urban areas tends to be focused on African-Americans. In other parts of the country, racism focuses on Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, or Jews. In the first century, Jews and Samaritans were closely related people who hated each other and wrote very harsh things about each other. Some of that ancient racial prejudice colors the Gospel of John, as we shall see.
Not only are people hostile to their neighbors, they are particularly harsh toward a group that they have voluntarily left or been kicked out of. In our day, a book on the Mormons or Masons written by someone who left the group is rarely objective because the author is trying to justify why he or she left. In many cases the more zealous a person had been when they were part of the group, the more bitter is their attack on the group later. We can see this type of unfair hostility in the Gospel of Matthew’s portrayal of Pharisees as hypocrites, one and all. John’s Gospel goes further and rejects the Jews entirely.
We will see many places where John uses the word “Jews” to describe the enemies of Jesus. It is not the chief priests and Sadducees who hand Jesus over to the Romans in John. It is the Jews. It is not the Pharisees who argue with Jesus; it is the Jews. If the only gospel you had was the Gospel of John, you could easily make the mistake of thinking that the disciples of Jesus were not Jews. The book distinguishes between the followers of Jesus, such as Mary and Martha, and “the Jews” who were with them in the house. In John, Jesus refers to the Torah as “your law,” as if he was not Jewish.
The tendency in John to identify the Jews with unbelief played an important and tragic role in the development of European anti-Semitism. Passages from John’s gospel were woven into the Holy Week liturgies of the Greek and Roman churches so that each year the Jews were singled out as the killers of Christ. Sometimes people left the sanctuary on Good Friday and attacked the Jewish part of the city. Building on the Gospel of John, Jews were identified with Satan in Christian preaching and art. This tendency reached its climax in the passion plays of the Middle Ages which were the basis for Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. As we read John’s Gospel, we must keep in mind that this book has contributed to the murder of many people through the centuries. This was obviously not the intention of the author, but we cannot ignore the consequences of the anti-Jewish statements in John. We need to read with open eyes.
In the other gospels we meet a number of Jewish sects, and it is clear that they responded to Jesus’ teaching in different ways. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, most of these Jewish sects disappeared. John was writing for an audience for whom the Sadducees and Essenes were as important as the Whigs or Tories are to us. So he made no distinctions among the historical opponents of Jesus the way the other Gospels and Paul, do. It is not the Sadducees who hand him over to the Romans, for instance, it is simply the Jews. John uses the term “the Jews” 70 times, while the other gospels use it only five or six times each. For the most part, in John, the term “the Jews” has become “almost a technical term for the religious authorities, particularly those in Jerusalem, who are hostile to Jesus.” (Raymond Brown, Gospel of John, vol. 1, LXXI) In fact, John uses the word Jew the way a Samaritan would, as a term to describe enemies.
Jewishness of John: Keep in mind that some of the hostility toward Judaism in John is because it is a Jewish book written by a Jew for a community that included many Jews and Samaritans. It may seem less evident to you that John’s Gospel is more Jewish than Matthew’s Gospel, but the evidence is there. John quotes the Old Testament less than Matthew, but John’s Gospel draws extensively on the stories and figures of the Old Testament. Jesus is directly and positively compared to Old Testament figures, such as Abraham, Moses, and the Servant of Isaiah.
Jesus also participates in a variety of Jewish rituals, such as the Feasts of Passover and Tabernacles and the Sabbath. Unlike Luke, John appears to know what these rituals were actually like. Luke only knows Jewish ritual, like purification, from the Old Testament and not from personal experience. John is actually an important source for understanding Jewish worship prior to the destruction of the Temple. Passover is particularly important to John since it provides the way of interpreting the death and resurrection of Jesus. There are three Passover festivals in John rather than just one as in the other gospels. Plus, Jesus visits the Temple and synagogue more often in John than the other Gospels. We will see that much of Jesus ministry is either part of Jewish festivals or in the shadow of the Temple.
Expulsion from the synagogue: If John’s Gospel is so Jewish, then why is it so hostile to the Jews? One clue to answering this puzzle is that throughout the Gospel mention is made of the followers of Jesus being “thrown out of the synagogue,” or we might say excommunicated from the Jewish community of faith. The rabbis in John’s Gospel, for instance, threaten to expel a man that Jesus healed. Jesus often warned his followers that the Jews would cast them out of the synagogue, which we don’t see in the other Gospels. Outside of John’s Gospel there is no indication that the followers of Jesus were threatened with expulsion from the synagogue before Jesus was crucified.
It was after the death and resurrection of Jesus that the followers of Jesus were removed from the life of the Jewish community. We see some of this history in the life of Paul, who was persecuted by Jews and pagans during his career. Even so, Paul was still able to travel from city to city preaching about Jesus in the synagogues. Paul was Jewish and Christian, and his biggest arguments were with other Jewish Christians. The situation was different by the time that John wrote his Gospel. In the decades following the destruction of the Temple the leaders of the Pharisees went about the long and complicated task of rebuilding the nation as a spiritual people bound together by the covenant with Abraham. The synagogue became the focal point of religion and community life. The leaders tried to unify the people as the chosen people who were living without the Promised Land, without the Davidic Monarchy, and without the Temple in Jerusalem. They created a new Jewish identity around the Torah and the synagogue.
In doing so, the rabbis rejected Jewish dissidents. This was especially true of the Christians. Around 85 AD the men who were recreating Judaism out of the ashes of the Jewish War inserted a Benediction Against the Heretics. It is more a ritual curse than a benediction, and its purpose was to purify the community against false belief and subversive ideas. Organizations do this in times of crisis. Just think of how America responds to dissent in time of war. The Benediction reads in part “Let the Nazarenes and the heretics be destroyed in a moment and let them be blotted out of the book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous.” (Gail O’Day, John, 658) Scholars today believe that the Gospel of John was written by and for people who had been officially excommunicated from the synagogue and cursed, perhaps by members of their own family. The Christians were the minority who felt threatened. We cannot expect such people to be objective in their attitudes. We do not have to adopt their attitudes, though.
Themes of John: Before we launch into detailed study of John, let’s highlight some of the themes. One of the most important relates directly to this conflict between John’s community and the Jewish synagogue. John’s Gospel attempts to prove that Jesus was the Jewish messiah who was rejected by his people. In fact, John is the only evangelist to use the word messias or Messiah, which means “anointed one.” The others use the Greek word christos which also means anointed. There are many indications that some of John’s audience did not know Aramaic or understand Jewish rituals. The Gospel is written for them so that they will understand the connection of Jesus to the Old Testament. It is also written to confirm their faith in Jesus as the Messiah despite the opposition from the synagogue. We have this kind of literature today. One group writes something to convince you that your beliefs or wrong, and your group writes something in response to counter what the opponents said. Think of John’s Gospel as being like something written to keep Democrats as Democrat rather than switching parties. Much of the Gospel is answering specific Jewish objections to the claim that Jesus was the Messiah who was raised from the dead and who sits at the right hand of God.
Another major theme of the Gospel is that Jesus was truly a human being. These portions of the gospel were not written to counter Jewish attacks on the faith of the church but to counter ideas that were emerging within the church from pagan converts to Christianity. We know from the non-canonical Gospels that I mentioned last week that many early Christians believed that Jesus was a divine savior sent from heaven. They did not believe that such a divine savior could suffer and die. They viewed Jesus more like an angel than like a man. In response to such ideas, John’s Gospel stresses the humanness of Jesus as well as his divinity. We see this same theme in the Letters of John.
Eschatology: The most important theme of the Gospel of John is the reason we continue to value it today. It is a book that is intended to strengthen faith, love, and hope among the followers of Jesus who are living in a difficult and dangerous world. For the most part, we can leave aside the polemical aspects of the book, which are expressions of a particular historical period, and instead focus on the inner message of the Gospel. Jesus Christ is the divine agent of God who lived as a human being, bringing healing and hope to all who recognize him.
An important word in Christian theology is eschatology. It means the doctrine of the Last Things, normally the doctrine of the End Times. Eschatology covers everything from the Second Coming to the afterlife. In the New Testament we see several different types of eschatology. There is an apocalyptic eschatology, such as we see in Revelation. This is the one that is popular on newsstands today: the end is coming soon and it will be violent. There is also a delayed eschatology that focused less on the sudden end of history and more on the fate of the individual after death. This type of eschatology says that we all face a day of judgment, but we do so when we die. This type of eschatology is more interested in heaven than in earth. We also see this in the New Testament.
There are echoes of these two types of eschatology in John’s Gospel, but the most important theme in the Gospel is what is sometimes called realized eschatology. This means that the promises of the end time are being experienced now. In John’s Gospel, as we shall see, eternal life is not for the future; it begins now. Jesus brings in the kingdom of God during his lifetime, not in the future. His presence brings healing and new vision. His followers experience rebirth and live in the foretaste of heaven. His spirit remains with them, and through his spirit they learn to love. We will see that this Gospel has two main parts: The Book of Signs, which includes 7 symbolic miracles of Jesus, and the Book of Glory, which focuses on his last days with his disciples.
One last point to make about John before we launch into the first chapter next week; more than any other Gospel John is written from the perspective of the resurrection. John’s church believed strongly that Jesus was still alive and that his spirit was still guiding the church.