The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

The gospel of John

Icon of Jesus

Icon: Like John’s gospel, a refined portrait of Christ

John’s gospel does not resemble any of the synoptic gospels. It does not follow Mark’s narrative outline, and few of the stories appear in anything like their original form in Mark. There are, moreover, numerous stories not found in any of the synoptics: The marriage at Cana, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, “I am the bread of life,” the woman caught in adultery and the raising of Lazarus, to mention a few. Its most striking feature is Jesus’ lengthy discourses found nowhere else in Christian scripture; moreover, they are maddeningly unresponsive. Jesus answers questions that aren’t asked and does not answer questions that are. At times, depending on one’s point of view, Jesus seems like either an evasive know-it-all or a misunderstood sage. In this a highly-developed theology written between 85 and 95 BCE, Jesus is presented as more divinely human than humanly divine. He has foreknowledge of immediate events, for example, and a kind of above-it-all demeanor. There is no sense of urgency as he passes through John’s narrative dispensing discourses, predicting events and generally remaining unflappable and unintelligible to those without faith. It is clear from John’s gospel that Christology had come a long way since the days of Paul: Jesus is said to be the very Word (“Logos”) of God by whom all things were made and which became flesh and dwelt among us “full of grace and truth.” (See John 1.)

Tradition names the author of this gospel as John the beloved disciple, but it’s unlikely that John himself wrote it. Some have called it a “Gnostic gospel” because of its themes of light imagery and the “Logos theology,” but it’s unlikely that Gnosticism had much if anything to do with John’s gospel because its most likely publication date. There were plenty of “Gnostic gospels” written from the mid-second century onward, but John’s gospel was written well before the end of the first.

(Note: Gnosticism is the name given to a wide range of philosophies that arose in the mid-second century and continued to influence Christian theology and non-Christian religious and philosophical thinking at least to the mid-fifth century. Orthodox Christian theology rejected Gnostic systems, but Gnostic-type theology and philosophy have continued to be proposed down to the present day. Generally, Gnostic systems propose that there is a body of secret knowledge that can be learned in stages by those properly initiated and admitted to the process. The Masonic movement, for example, was regarded as such by 18th-century Roman Catholicism, which forbade its members from joining the Masons, a prohibition that was largely ignored.)

John’s gospel is the best example of how all four canonical gospels – those accepted as authentic Christian scripture – are less about history and more about theology. In all four cases, Christian tradition delivered a body of knowledge about Jesus to the various authors, and each composed an account of the teachings of Jesus set in the context of his life from a particular theological perspective. None of the gospels is a history of Jesus’ life and times. The gospels are books of theology that interpret Jesus’ life and ministry. There are surely unverifiable facts about Jesus in these accounts, but facts were of less importance to the authors than developing a coherent interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and teachings in light of their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. It is instructive in understanding the role of these accounts in the life of the early church that virtually none of stories told about Jesus in the gospels appears in any other Christian scripture. The early church’s most immediate experience of Jesus was of his risen presence with the church in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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