The Theology of the Gospel of John

The Theology of the Gospel of John

 

 

 

John and the Synoptic Gospels

When the Gospels are studied, John always takes a place separate from the other three Gospels included in the New Testament, known as the Synoptic Gospels precisely because one can set them side by side in parallel and find that large sections overlap. In contrast, John's Gospel offers a rather different portrait of Jesus. Mark's Gospel starts with Jesus' baptism. John's Gospel begins its narrative section with the same event, but without mentioning that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels with narratives concerning the events surrounding Jesus' birth. While John's Gospel presumes that Jesus was born, it shows no interest in this event per se. Instead, John's Gospel begins with the Word who was in the beginning with God, the Word who subsequently became flesh and dwelt among us in the human life of Jesus. Language similar to this, drawn from Jewish traditions about the figure of Wisdom, is found in the epistles, as for example in Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-3. But in contrast even with these writers, who do use rather exalted language in reference to Jesus, John's Gospel still has important differences. The Jesus described in John's Gospel walks around on earth conscious that his real origins are in heaven. Even if we presume that a reasonable amount of time passed between the composition and redaction of the Synoptic Gospels and the composition and editing of John's Gospel, we are still left wondering how the Gospel of John ended up being so different, and why or what factors led its author (and any subsequent editors who may have been involved with the process) to produce a Gospel that presents Jesus so distinctively. In what follows I will attempt to provide a short introduction to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of John's distinctive characteristics.

 

Let us begin by looking at some of the distinctive features of the Gospel of John a bit more closely, before going on to ask why such differences might exist. In the Synoptics, Jesus is mostly a wandering teacher and healer, a storyteller, speaking mostly in parables with an emphasis on the Kingdom of God. In contrast, John's Gospel contains long discourses in the first person. Although statistics can at times be misleading, here I think a simple numerical count shows up a genuine and important difference. The term 'kingdom' appears 47 times in Matthew, 18 times in Mark, and 37 times in Luke; in John, it occurs only 7 times. And whereas the first person pronoun 'I' appears on Jesus' lips only 17 times in Matthew, 9 times in Mark and 10 in Luke, in John Jesus is presented as using 'I' a full 118 times! Rather than speak of the 'Kingdom of God', John's Gospel has a preference for the phrase 'eternal life' (for these figures see James Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus, London: SCM, 1985, pp.34-35. See also Dunn, The Partings of the Ways, London: SCM, 1991, p.314 n.56 & n.58). While John does contain illustrations that are not wholly unlike the Synoptic parables, more typical of John's style are the well-known 'I am' sayings: 'I am the light of the world', 'I am the bread of life', I am the good shepherd' and so on. The well-known language of being 'born again' is also exclusive to John's Gospel, although Matthew and Paul do speak of new creation, and the Synoptics know a similar tradition which refers to the need to become as children in order to enter the kingdom of God (see Dunn, Evidence for Jesus, p.38). Similarly, whereas the main dialogue partners of Jesus in the Synoptics are the Pharisees, John groups all Jesus' opponents together under the common heading 'the Jews', a phrase that we will need to look at more closely.

 

How do these considerations affect one’s assessment of the historicity of John’s Gospel? Ordinary believers in churches are for the most part used to taking the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John as straightforward accounts of the words of the historical Jesus. However, to those who read the Gospels with an openness to the possibility of different voices saying different things, it is immediately apparent that there are huge differences between the presentation of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels and in John. One problem that immediately arises is that the general reliability of the Synoptic accounts makes the Johannine presentation appear suspect from a historian’s point of view, and the fact that tradition makes John the latest Gospel does nothing to allay our suspicion. Yet a number of recent writers have helpfully shown evidence that if John is not a straightforward account of the historical Jesus, neither is it a pure work of fiction. C. H. Dodd (1963) changed the tide of scholarship on this issue by a detailed study of the historical details in John and of sayings in John which appear to be independent versions of sayings recorded in the Synoptics. John Robinson (1985) took this argument to an extreme in arguing that John's picture, while different, is just as reliable as the Synoptic portrait, since it stems also from the historical Jesus. While Robinson downplays the distinctiveness of John at times, he makes a number of important points that have not been taken with sufficient seriousness by the scholarly community. At any rate, a fair, balanced, middle position is that taken by James Dunn (1985). In his view, to regard John as simply historical is to ignore the vast difference between the way the Jesus presented in his Gospel speaks in comparison with the Synoptics. For example, the language of the Kingdom abounds in the Synoptics but is extremely rare in John, while the Johannine Jesus uses the first person pronoun ‘I’ over a hundred times, in comparison with less than twenty occurrences in the Synoptics. There is also a huge difference in the frequency of Father/Son language. But to regard John as pure fiction is to ignore the fact that many of John's details and settings for discourses seem to be historically reliable. The only answer seems to be to regard the author of the Fourth Gospel as doing what was a frequent practice in his time: based on the words of his master, the author created discourses in which he presented what he considers that his master would have said in response to certain new situations which have arisen since his death. One may usefully compare John's presentation of Jesus with Plato's presentation of Socrates' trial, where it is generally assumed that Plato did not present an account of what Socrates said on that occasion, but primarily what he felt that he would have said had he been given the opportunity to answer his accusers at such length. This is not to say that nothing in John stems from the historical Jesus, but simply that the discrepancies between John and the Synoptics necessitate caution, and that we cannot rely on John to present the words of the historical Jesus, in particular when he differs from other sources that have multiple attestation and are generally considered by historians to be more reliable. This does not involve excessive skepticism: it is to do nothing more than reassert what is in itself a Biblical principle: one witness on his or her own does not have the same value that two or three witnesses have in proving a case!

 

But let us not be overly pessimistic in our conclusions either! Let me quote John Robinson at length:

 

John is still concerned with what Jesus is really saying and meaning, and the words, like the actions, can be understood at very different levels. Yet he does not simply set them down straight, and then comment upon them - allowing the sayings and their interpretation to stand side by side, with the raw material presented in its untreated state. Rather, it is worked up; the interpretation is thoroughly assimilated and integrated. But the same is after all true in different degrees with the Synoptists. For they too are interpreting the words and works of Jesus in the light of the one whom they have discovered him to be within the life-setting of their communities. One may freely grant that how they represent Jesus as speaking may be more like how he would have been heard if one had had a tape recorder around. That is to say, by the criterion of verisimilitude, as he was to be encountered 'in the flesh', their record may be truer to life. But in terms of what he was really saying, this may not be the case…The Johannine Christ is the Jesus John saw. No one else may have seen him thus. It is a highly personal portrait. The vocabulary, the perspective, the interpretation are distinctively and recognizably his. Yet the colouration may not be purely subjective (John A. T. Robinson, The Priority of John, pp.298-9).

 

In order to explain the distinctive features of John’s Gospel we have noted in the preceding section, the two main factors that are regularly appealed to are the author of the Gospel, and the distinctive context in which he wrote. It is to a consideration of these two issues that we now turn.

 

 

Author and Context

To assume that the traditional title of this work gives us an adequate answer to the question I have just posed is extremely naïve. Modern Biblical scholarship has shown over the past few centuries that the traditional authorship of a number of Biblical books simply cannot be taken for granted, without a great deal of further examination and discussion of the issue. This is nowhere more true than in relation to John’s Gospel. For those approaching this book without the presupposition that the Church’s traditions regarding authorship are accurate (that is, hopefully, all Protestants and most other modern readers!), the question becomes “Why should one attribute this book to a particular Galilean fisherman who followed Jesus, rather than to any other of the large number of followers that he had?” If one jettisons Church tradition as providing authoritative answers to this question, then one is essentially left only with only the internal evidence within the Gospel itself. And within the Gospel the ‘Beloved Disciple’, the author or source of information for the Fourth Gospel, remains anonymous (unless of course John 11:3 tells us who he is). We may thus set aside the traditional question of authorship, and focus instead on the author inasmuch as he can be known from the hints given within the book he wrote.

            But at least as interesting and important as the issue of the author is the context in which he wrote. Because, as one quickly discovers when reading John, the context in which the Gospel was written appears to have had a very profound influence in shaping the content of the Gospel. It is thus more important in John’s Gospel than in any other New Testament book to learn to read it on two levels. On the one hand, John’s story claims to be about a historical figure, Jesus, who lived some decades earlier. On the other hand, this claim cannot be taken at face value, since in John one finds that Jesus, John the Baptist, and the narrator all speak in the same way, a way that bears close resemblance also to the language, expressions, and turns of phrase in the Johannine Epistles. So it is clear that, at the very least, the author has passed any traditional material he has inherited through the lens of his own unique perspective and language. In fact, those who know the Gospel of John well should not be surprised to find that a voice other than that of the ‘historical Jesus’ is to be found in it. The author gives a great deal of attention to the role of the Paraclete, the ‘other comforter’, the Spirit of Truth who will reveal things that Jesus could not say while physically present with the disciples on earth (cf. John 16:12-13).

            A number of scholars have focused attention on the unique perspective of the Fourth Gospel’s author as the explanation of this work’s distinctive features, and clearly there is some truth in this. Explanations along these lines (as proposed by authors like John Robinson and Martin Hengel) focus on the unique perspective that the Fourth Evangelist had, much as Plato and Xenophon had different perspectives on the work of Socrates. But however much this may be part of the explanation of the Fourth Gospel’s distinctiveness, it quickly becomes obvious that all four Gospels had unique authors, and so while this author's unique perspective and style are important, they are not the only factors that interest us in looking for an explanation of why John is unique. When we read or study any piece of writing, if we ask why the author wrote what he or she did, we are usually looking for something beyond the level of 'He wrote what he did because he was Isaac Asimov and not John Grisham' or 'because he was Victor Hugo and not William Shakespeare'. In the same way, we are unlikely to be satisfied with an answer that says that John wrote what he did, as he did, because he was not Matthew, Mark or Luke. When we ask the question 'Why?', we are interested not just in the level of the individual author, as important as that may be, but also in the level of context. What factors, what social setting, what contemporary problems and issues, what influences led him to write as he did?

            An influential figure in sparking off the contemporary interest in the history of the Johannine community as a key to understanding the Fourth Gospel is J. L. Martyn. He asks towards the beginning of his trend-setting study, "May one sense even in [the Fourth Gospel's] exalted cadences the voice of a Christian theologian who writes in response to contemporary events and issues which concern, or should concern, all members of the Christian community in which he lives?" Martyn answers this question in the affirmative, and thus emphasizes that "when we read the Fourth Gospel, we are listening both to tradition and to a new and unique interpretation of that tradition" (J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 1979, pp.18-19). Martyn is suggesting that attention to the context in which John wrote, and the needs of the church for which he wrote, can illuminate the question of why the Evangelist wrote as he did. Martyn’s work was pioneering in calling for a reading of John’s Gospel on two levels. As we go on to examine the distinctive features of the Fourth Gospel’s theology, it will be crucial to have in mind some information about the Christian community that produced this Gospel and about the context in which they lived and wrote and formulated their theology.

 

 

The Context of John’s Gospel

Anyone who reads John's Gospel carefully will notice that the opponents of Jesus are presented and referred to somewhat differently than in the Synoptic Gospels. Where in the Synoptics one finds references to scribes and Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, in John the most common way of referring to Jesus' opponents and dialogue partners is 'the Jews', and occasionally 'the Pharisees'. The use of the phrase 'the Jews' to denote Jesus' opponents is of particular interest for a number of reasons, not least of which is the obvious fact that Jesus and his disciples are themselves also very clearly Jewish. The author of this Gospel is not unaware of this, and in the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4, not only does the woman refer to Jesus as 'a Jew' (cf. John 4:9,20), but also Jesus himself is presented as affirming that 'salvation is of the Jews' (4:22). And so I would like to spend a few moments looking at this aspect of the Fourth Gospel, both because of the fact that these references to ‘the Jews’ have played a role in justifying anti-Semitism in the past, which makes it important that we understand them correctly, and also because these references are crucial clues concerning the context in which John wrote.

So what has led the author to refer to Jesus' opponents in the manner that he does, as ‘the Jews’? The answer of most scholars is that John is reflecting the situation in his own time. On the one hand, after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE, the Pharisees grew in prominence and influence, whereas other Jewish movements and sectarian groups slowly died out. This is at least one of the reasons why John no longer mentions other groups like the Sadducees - they either no longer existed or had no real influence in his time and his area. On the other hand, the references to 'the Jews' also need to be understood in terms of the growing influence of Pharisaic Judaism, since this meant that Judaism could be referred to in much more generalized terms than would have been appropriate in the pre-70 period.

Yet these considerations are not sufficient in and of themselves to explain many of the Johannine references to 'the Jews'. For example, what are we to make of John's statement in John 7:12-13, that at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem the crowds discussed about Jesus, and yet we are told that "no one spoke about him openly, for fear of the Jews"? What can it possibly mean to say that crowds of Jews in Jerusalem discussed about the Jewish man Jesus and yet were afraid of 'the Jews'? Well, perhaps an illustration from the way we sometimes speak in English will be helpful. I lived in Romania for 3 years. I could say that "If I had applied for Romanian citizenship, the Americans would have taken my passport away". Now obviously I am not denying that I myself am an American by speaking this way. Nor do I mean that random Americans would start coming up to me on the street and try to search my pockets for my passport. It is clear from the context that what I really mean by 'the Americans' in this context is 'the American authorities', the American government. In John, the phrase 'the Jews' often refers to the Jewish authorities, representing the position of certain Jewish authorities in John's own time. In other instances, it is shorthand for 'the unbelieving Jews', that is, the Jewish people spoken of in generalizing terms in light of the fact that most Jews did not accept Christian claims about Jesus. Once again, in using the phrase in this way, John has one eye on the situation in his own time and context.

I feel it is extremely important to recognize that John is not writing as a Gentile Christian about the Jews as a race. He is writing as a Jewish-Christian and as the leader of a Jewish-Christian community about other Jews who either do not believe in Jesus or have not yet made up their minds. There is thus no sense in which his language, even at its most fiery, should be regarded as anti-Semitic. (There is insufficient space here to deal with the issue of the reference in John 8 to ‘the Jews’ as children of the Devil. The most important thing to remember is that this is language typical of Jewish sectarianism in this period: the Essenes at Qumran call their opponents (the rest of Judaism!) ‘sons of Beliar’. Note also that in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus calls Peter not even ‘a son of Satan’ but simply ‘Satan’!) This Christian (or perhaps I should say Messianic Jewish?) community has experienced exclusion from the synagogue, and is thus making its claims over against the majority in the Jewish community, who have essentially defined these Christians out of their definition of Judaism. It is important to understand these points, so as to counteract the misuse to which texts like these have been put in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. John is not writing as a non-Jew about 'the Jews'. He is writing as a Jewish Christian who feels he and his community have been wrongly ‘defined out’ of the definition of Judaism by others who have no right to do so, and thus refers to his opponents  - perhaps with a touch of irony - as 'the Jews'.

This phrase 'the Jews' and the way it is used in John are thus important in terms of helping us to understand the Fourth Gospel in its original context. The debates between the Johannine Jesus and 'the Jews', and the references to followers of Jesus being thrown out of the synagogue, are features that are unique to John. Most if not all scholars agree that these debates actually reflect debates that were going on in John's time between a group of Christians of Jewish origin on the one hand, and the leaders of the synagogue of which they used to be a part on the other. John’s Gospel thus seems to fit the type of a religious sect that is either in the process of, or has recently broken off from, its parent religion. By looking at the indications we are given in the Gospel itself about the context in which the Gospel was written, we are given a picture of one or more Jewish-Christian communities involved in an intense debate with their 'parent community' - that is, the Jewish community of which they had once been a part, but in which they now no longer feel welcome. The Gospel of John represents (among other things) this group's attempt to justify its own existence by arguing its case over against the objections and criticisms raised by the synagogue leaders. The debates between Jesus and 'the Jews' in John’s Gospel may therefore be taken to reflect debates going on in John’s own time. The focus of the debates narrated in the Fourth Gospel is almost exclusively Christology. Jesus is accused of 'making himself equal to God' and of 'making himself God' (John 5:18; 10:33). At one point they attempt to kill him by throwing stones at him, because he said 'Before Abraham was, I am' (8:58). Likewise in John 19:7 the Jews tell Pilate that according to their Law Jesus must die, because he 'made himself the Son of God'. And thus, since the focus of the conflict with these synagogue leaders, and the focus of this author's arguments, have to do with Christology, and so let us now turn our attention to John's distinctive presentation of who Jesus is.

 

 

 

In the Beginning was the Word

The Logos or Word is not a common feature in the Christology of John’s Gospel, but it has an importance that is far greater than can be determined simply by counting the number of occurrences. By placing the prologue (John 1:1-18) that describes Jesus as the Word become flesh at the beginning of his Gospel, it becomes the lens through which the rest of the Gospel is read. Many have emphasized that the author intends the whole story of Jesus to be read through the lens of and in the light of the prologue. So it is important that we understand the prologue, both its background and its interpretation.

 

It was long assumed that the background to John's use of Logos is to be found in Greek philosophy, and if there is any Jewish influence at all, it derives from Hellenistic Jews such as Philo, who have sought to explain Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. However, it is important to ask as well why the concept of the Logos appealed so much to Philo, or to John, or to any Jewish monotheist. In fact, just as scholarship has shown that one cannot draw a hard and fast line between ‘Judaism’ and ‘Hellenism’ as hermetically-sealed compartments, so we shall see that, even if the Logos concept in John ultimately derives from the world of Greek philosophy, John inherited it already filtered through the lens of earlier Jewish use and adaptation of the concept.

 

John's prologue's Logos Christology is perhaps the NT passage which had the greatest affect on the direction that theology and particularly Christology took in the subsequent centuries, since it gives a clear assertion of the pre-existence, divinity, and of the real incarnation of the Logos as Jesus Christ. Anyone familiar with the OT will know that the phrase 'the word of God', or more often 'the word of Yahweh', was very common (cf. Ps.33:6; 107:20; 147:15,18; Isa.9:8; 55:10f; Wisd.18:14-16). The verses noted above are those most usually quoted by those who argue that the 'word of God' was something of an independent hypostasis in the OT, but this assertion is questionable, since there are a greater number of passages which have similar language, but which clearly are using idiomatic language to emphasize their point (e.g. Num.22:38; Jer.23:29). J. D. G. Dunn (Christology in the Making, p.218) agrees with Bultmann's assertion that "God's Word is God insofar as he calls men into being...God's Word is God's act...the manifestation of his power, the real manifestation of God. It is God present, the praesens numen". G. F. Moore (quoted ibid, p.219) writes of Wisd.18:15f: "It is an error to see in such personifications an approach to personalization. Nowhere either in the Bible or in the extra-canonical literature of the Jews is the word of God a personal agent or on the way to become such". Dunn (ibid) likewise cites Wisd.9:1-2,17  as evidence that in the OT 'Spirit', 'Word' and 'Wisdom' were "simply variant ways of speaking of the creative, revelatory or redemptive act of God" (cf. also Ps.33:6; 147:18; Pr.3:19). Dunn therefore concludes that barring Philo, there does not seem to have been in pre-Christian Judaism such speculation about or personalization of the Word or Wisdom of God.

 

In the extant writings of Philo, we can see that Logos was an important term, since it appears 1400 times. At first there would appear to be no disputing that the Logos does appear as a distinct being from God. The following passages are important:

 

"To his Word, his chief messenger, highest in age and honor, the Father of all has given the special prerogative, to stand on the border and separate the creature from the Creator. This same word both pleads with the immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject" (Heres.2-5).

 

"...of necessity was the Logos appointed as judge and mediator, who is called 'angel'" (Qu.Ex.II.13).

 

"The incorporeal world is set off and separated from the visible one by the mediating Logos as by a veil" (Qu.Ex.II.94).

 

"...follow the guidance of that reason (logoV) which is the interpreter and prophet of God" (Immut.138).

 

"This hallowed flock (the heavenly bodies) he leads in accordance with right and law, setting over it his true Word and firstborn Son, who shall take upon him its government like some viceroy of a great king" (Agr.51).

 

"...God's firstborn, the Word, who holds the eldership among the angels, their ruler as it were..." (Conf.146).

 

"Nothing mortal can be made in the likeness of the most high One and Father of the universe, but only in that of the second God, who is his Logos" (Qu.Gen.II.62).

 

Philo adopted much from Platonism, which believed that there was a real world, of ideas and forms, which is perfect, and of which our world is just a shadow or copy. His adaptation of platonic thought was aided by Ex.25:40:

 

"...no actual tabernacle or altar is meant (Lev.10:8-10), that is the visible objects fashioned from lifeless and perishable material, but those invisible conceptions perceived only by the mind, of which the others are copies open to our senses" (Ebr.132).

 

From Stoicism, Philo derives his talk of divine reason (logoV) immanent in the world, permeating all things & present also in man, the seminal logos, so that man's highest good is to live in accordance of this divine reason. Yet these Platonic and Stoic ideas do not remain unchanged in Philo's scheme, which has Jewish roots. The 'ideas' of Platonism are understood as thoughts in the mind of God; and the Stoic concepts are reshaped even further, since for the Stoic the Logos is something material, and the system tends towards pantheism. The term logos has two aspects, 'thought, reason' and 'speech, utterance', the unexpressed thought within the mind, and the thought expressed in words. Yet these two shades of meaning often overlap, the two meanings running into each other.

 

For Philo, God is further removed from man and the physical universe than the realm of ideas, and thus is unknowable even to the purest intellect, although God has left a 'shadow' of himself in his creation, and also God is knowable in the sense that God is the archetype of the Logos. As Philo writes of the Logos,  "...that same Word, by which he made the universe, is that by which God draws the perfect man from things earthly to himself" (Sac.8). The Logos for Philo is what is knowable of God, although in truth God himself is unknowable. From the way Philo expresses himself, t is not always clear whether for Philo the Logos is something separate from God, or only a way of speaking of what is knowable of God, much as the corona is what is visible of the sun, and yet the corona is neither a distinct entity from the sun, nor the sun in its entirety (Dunn, op.cit., p.226). The Logos of God is God in his self-revelation. And there is, as we shall see later, a sense in which Philo seems quite happy to give a 'both/and' (or 'neither/nor') answer to these sorts of questions.

 

It should be noted that outside of Johannine writings, the phrase 'the Word of God' seems to have much the same sense as in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 1 Pet.1:24f; Heb.4:12f; 1 Tim.4:5; 2 Tim.2:9; etc.). It is only in John that the phrase takes on this specialized sense. Yet nothing in John's prologue prior to 1:14 would have sounded terribly odd or unfamiliar to a Hellenistic Jew familiar with such speculations as found in Philo. Yet John, if he uses Philo's terminology, is asserting that the Logos, the 'appearing God', is not any other God than God himself. The manifestation of God has become a human being. Building on the very Jewish concept that 'no one has ever seen God', John "makes the very Philonic assertion that the Logos is both as close to God as man can conceive or perceive, and reveals as much of God to man as is possible to be revealed...The point is, however, that it is not the Philonic incorporeal Logos that provides the bridge to and from God, but the man Jesus Christ" (Dunn, op.cit, pp.243f). As we can see from Philo's language, other terms which John used link up with the same thought (e.g. firstborn Son), but John in any case does not use 'Logos' after Jn.1:14, because the Logos has really taken on flesh, and now is the human person Jesus. (We can see the importance of John's formulation for later thought: if Christ is the Logos (in Philo's terms, qeoV rather than ‘o qeoV), then modalism is excluded, and if the Logos became the man Christ Jesus, rather than just speaking through him, then adoptionism is excluded). The thought world demonstrated in the writings of Philo is probably the most significant one in understanding the background of Johannine use.

 

Dunn writes (Christology, p.243) of John's prologue: "Prior to v.14 we are in the same realm as pre-Christian talk of Wisdom and Logos, the same language and ideas that we find in the Wisdom tradition and in Philo, where, as we have seen, we are dealing with personifications rather than persons, personified actions of God rather than an individual divine being as such. The point is obscured by the fact that we have to translate the masculine Logos as 'he' throughout the poem. But if we translated logos as 'God's utterance' instead, it would become clearer that the poem did not necessarily intend the Logos in vv.1-13 to be thought of as a personal divine being. In other words, the revolutionary significance of v.14 may well be that it marks not only the transition in the thought of the poem from pre-existence to incarnation, but also the transition from impersonal personification to actual person".

 

There is a quote from Augustine's Confessions, which can show how John's conception of the Logos related to that in Hellenistic philosophy:

 

In them (some of the books of the Platonists) I read - not, of course, word for word, though the sense was the same and it was supported by all kinds of different arguments - that 'at the beginning of time the Word already was; and God had the Word abiding with him, and the Word was God...And the light shines in the darkness, a darkness which was not able to master it'. I read to that the soul of man, although it 'bears witness to the light, is not the light'. But the Word, who is himself God, 'is the true light, which enlightens every soul born into the world. He, through whom the world was made, was in the world, and the world treated him as a stranger'. But I did not find it written in those books that "he came to what was his own, and they who were his own gave him no welcome. But all those who did welcome him he empowered to become children of God, all those who believe in his name'. In the same books I also read of the Word, God, that his 'birth came not from human stock, not from nature's will or man's, but from God'. But I did not read in them that 'the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us'.

 

Yet in order to get behind John's and or Philo's thought, it is also important to look at what there is in Jewish writings less influenced by Hellenistic thought which could bridge the seemingly large gap between OT use of the phrase and Philo's use. Another question that is regularly asked is: How did a religion of strict monotheism like Judaism ever come to find such talk acceptable? In the OT the 'Word of God' is God's will or action towards his people, revealed to his people. What is the intermediate stage between this early conception, and the concepts found in Philo and John? What are we to make of the references to concepts like Memra in the Targums, Aramaic paraphrases/expansions of Scripture? It is our view that John’s Christology would not have been a problem for Jewish monotheists: Jewish opponents of this Christian community objected to various things being said about Jesus, but the problem was not so much what was said as who these things were said about. This will hopefully become clearer in the next section.

 

 

 

John’s Christology and Jewish Monotheism

 

I. The Importance of the Question

The focus of this section – namely, how and whether John’s Gospel fits with Jewish monotheism, is a question that seems to be of much interest to many people in different fields: not only New Testament scholars, but also systematic theologians, those engaged in inter-religious dialogue, and probably many others. When Christians meet with Jews and Muslims, the oneness of God is often a point of contention: although Christians claim to be monotheists, what they call monotheism looks quite different from what other religions call monotheism. It is usually to John’s Gospel that Christians look when they want to understand whether they are closer to Jews and Muslims who believe in one God, or to Hindus who believe in a variety of divine beings.[1]

            Closely related to the question which we have posed is the question of the relationship between the doctrines which are regarded as orthodox by Christians throughout the world, in particular the doctrine of the Trinity, and the teaching and self-understanding of Jesus himself. For most Christians, belief in the Trinity is fundamental, whereas in the eyes of some people today - including a number of New Testament scholars! - this doctrine is an aberration, a departure from the monotheism of Jesus and his first followers, one which was perhaps made under the influence of pagan converts coming into the church (So especially Maurice Casey,  From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God, Cambridge: James Clarke, 1991; idem., Is John’s Gospel True?, London: Routledge, 1996). The question of whether the author of the Fourth Gospel perverted Christian beliefs or preserved them is thus at least a question of interest, and very probably a question of some urgency.

            In answer to the question posed, I will argue that, in terms of Jewish monotheism as it existed in the first century, John was completely, undeniably and without reservations a monotheist.

 

II. Johannine Monotheism: The Evidence

The aim of this section is therefore to study John’s Gospel in comparison with the writings of some of his Jewish contemporaries, to evaluate to what extent John’s view of Jesus would have been acceptable within the context of first-century Jewish monotheism. (In our study we shall follow the methodology recommended by Larry Hurtado: rather than defining monotheism in an a priori and abstract way, we intend to compare John’s Gospel to other Jewish writings whose authors would have considered themselves to be monotheists. Cf. Larry W. Hurtado, “What Do We Mean by ‘First-Century Jewish Monotheism’?” SBL 1993 Seminar Papers, (ed. David Lull; Atlanta: Scholars, 1993) 348-368.)

 

A. The Prologue (1:1-18)

The best place to begin is usually at the beginning, and so in turning to John we may look first of all at the prologue, the hymn-like passage found in John 1:1-18, which we have looked at in a more general way above. The opening line, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, is obviously of crucial importance for answering the question we have raised concerning the extent to which the author of John’s Gospel was a monotheist, and to which his portrait of Christ may rightly be said to be monotheistic. How do such assertions as those made in the prologue compare to what we find in other Jewish sources?

            In first-century Judaism, the one true God was distinguished from others in that he was uncreated, whereas all other beings had come into existence. For the Jewish philosopher Philo, as for many philosophers of the time, God’s Word or Logos bridged the gap between God and creation. In fact, Philo describes the Word as “neither uncreated...nor created” (Quis Her. 206). This may sound like gibberish to us today, but for Philo, and probably for many others in his time, it made sense in terms of their worldview. The Word was ‘part’ of God, since it existed within him before it came forth, and yet it was distinct from God and could come into contact with the material world. The Word bridged the gap between the transcendent God and the creation. The existence of this ‘bridge’ between God and creation means that, although certain religious practices, such as cultic worship, distinguished Israel’s one God from all other beings, no clear separation was made, no hard and fast dividing line was drawn, between God and creation. A number of experts are convinced that in the first century Jews and Christians had not yet formulated a clear doctrine of creation out of nothing. On this view, God was believed to have created out of ‘non-being’, but that ‘non-being’ was understood as formlessness, shapelessness, chaos, the origin of which was not (for whatever reason) the subject of speculation and reflection. This was the view of the world and of creation prevalent in the ancient world, and there is no unambiguous evidence that Jews or Christians moved away from it prior to the second or third century. This is not to say that they were opposed to such a view, but simply that it appears that the issues which necessitated the definition of this doctrine had not yet arisen. (See further on this subject Gerhard May, Creatio ex Nihilo (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994) 25; Peter Hayman, “Monotheism - A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?" JJS 42 (1991) 3-4; Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981) 75-77; Francis Young, “Christology and Creation: Towards an Hermeneutic of Patristic Christology”, in The Myriad Christ, Leuven: Peeters, 2002, pp.191-205; Rowan Williams, Arius. Heresy and Tradition (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987. See also Wisdom of Solomon 11:17). Perhaps many Jews (and Christians) may have thought of God as creating eternally, so that there was no question that the universe’s existence was ultimately dependent on God. Cf. e.g. Philo, Op.Mund. 7,13,18ff. On this subject see also N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, London: SPCK, 1992, p.248-259.

At any rate, there is much evidence to suggest that the Word or Logos was the only ‘dividing line’ or ‘boundary marker’ between God and creation, but the edges were blurred slightly on both sides, since the Word was “neither created nor uncreated”, being both the Word of God himself, and yet also being described as if a separate being. One might say that the boundary between God and creation in first century Judaism was more like a river than a wall: the exact edges of the boundary were not clearly defined, but nonetheless the existence of the boundary was not in question. There was thus, in the mind of first century Jews, what might be called a ‘hierarchy of being’, with God on top, then his Word or Wisdom or powers, then angels and heavenly beings, then humans, lions, slugs, mosquitoes, and whatever else, but without an absolute dividing line being drawn to distinguish God from creation. Yet whatever ambiguity the existence of various personified divine attributes and other such figures may create for us today, first century Jews affirmed that there was one God who was above all, the creator of all, who was distinguished from other beings in being alone worthy of worship and in being the sole ruler of all things, whose will ultimately is always realized (cf. Richard Bauckham, God Crucified, Carlisle: Paternoster, pp.10-13). This was not felt to be in contradiction with belief in ‘intermediary’ figures of various types.

            We should immediately be struck with the paradox that John asserts: he says both that the Word was with God and that the Word was God. This paradox is comparable to what Philo asserts concerning the Word: “neither uncreated nor created”. This understanding of the Word is crucial to the role that the Word fulfils, as the one through whom the creation of all things takes place. God’s transcendence was so emphasized in Hellenistic thought that it was felt to be inappropriate to suggest that God created directly, or came directly into contact with the material world. The idea of the Logos thus made it possible both to regard God as creator, and at the same time to maintain his transcendence.

            Thus Philo and John both speak of the Word as mediator of creation, as one who is part of the reality of God and yet distinct from and subordinate to God. Both refer to the Word as ‘God’, and yet both emphasize that the Logos is subordinate in some sense to the one true God who is above all. Philo makes this point by referring to the Word as a ‘second God’, while John makes this point by portraying Jesus as calling the Father “the only true God” in John 17:3. For both, then, the Word is an expression of the reality of God himself, and yet distinct from and subordinate to God, in a way that can only be described as paradoxical. Yet in spite of this paradox, it is clear that if Philo fits our portrait of what a first-century Jewish monotheist looks like, then so also does John: both held that there was one God above all who was uniquely worthy of worship, who created all things through his Word. There is unambiguous evidence that Philo understood himself to be a monotheist: he writes, “Let us, then, engrave deep in our hearts this as the first and most sacred of commandments, to acknowledge and honor one God who is above all, and let the idea that gods are many never reach the ears of the man whose rule of life is to seek for truth in purity and goodness” (Decal. 65). This comes from the pen of the same Philo who speaks of the Word as a ‘second God’! It thus becomes clear that both Philo and John - and many other Jews of their time - felt that belief in one God who is above all is compatible with belief in a second figure who reveals and represents God. John’s belief was different from Philo’s in that he identified this Word with Jesus, but on the question of the oneness of God, it appears that they would have both agreed.

 

B. ‘Making Himself (Equal to) God’ (John 5 and 10)

A second passage of key importance for understanding Johannine Christology and the way John understood the relationship between Jesus and God is chapter 5 of the Gospel. There Jesus is depicted as healing a paralyzed man on the Sabbath. The Jewish authorities object to this, and the Johannine Jesus justifies his action by saying: “My Father is always at work even until this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). To understand this response, we need to know that Jewish tradition claimed that God continued to work even on the Sabbath, since it was clear that even on Saturdays someone was busy upholding the universe. This was explained in various ways by Philo and by the later rabbis, but it is clear that already in the first century it was thought that God worked on the Sabbath, and that this was a prerogative of God alone. For Jesus to claim to do what God alone does was for this reason understood as a claim to be ‘equal to God.’

            When we read this passage, we might be tempted to backtrack on the conclusion we reached when looking at the prologue: After all, if John had not abandoned monotheism, what was all this fuss and fighting about? If John had believed in one God, why was it necessary for him to defend himself against the accusation that Jesus had ‘made himself equal to God’?

            In order to understand this, we need to understand that Jesus - and also the heavenly Word - were understood in terms of what we may call ‘agency’: these figures, like the Old Testament prophets, angels and many others, were ‘agents’ of God.[2] Now when we use this term we don’t mean that they sold houses for God or booked gigs for God to perform at local clubs on Saturday nights. When we speak of ‘agency’ we are speaking of what in Greek would have been called ‘apostleship’ - the situation in which someone is sent to represent someone else. In the days before mobile phones, fax machines, the internet and telecommunications, this was an essential part of life. If a king wanted to make peace with another nation, he did not go in person - or at least not in the first instance - but sent his ambassador. When a wealthy person wanted to arrange a property purchase or sale in another region, he sent a representative. When God wanted to address his people, he sent a prophet or an angel. Agency was an important part of everyday life in the ancient world. (On the concept of agency see further Peder Borgen, “God’s Agent in the Fourth Gospel,” The Interpretation of John  (ed. John Ashton; London: SPCK, 1986) 67-78; A. E. Harvey, “Christ as Agent” The Glory of Christ in the New Testament (ed. L. D. Hurst and N. T. Wright; Oxford: Clarendon, 1987) 239-250; Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord (London: SCM, 1988); also Jan-A. Bühner, Der Gesandte und sein Weg im 4. Evangelium (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1977), passim. It may perhaps be helpful to some to mention here that the term ‘agent’, like the term ‘angel’ which is applied often to Jesus/the Logos in early Christian (and Jewish) writings, has to do with function and does not have really have ontological issues in view).

            Now there were certain basic rules or assumptions connected with agency in the ancient world. The most basic of all was that, in the words of later Jewish rabbis: “The one sent is like the one who sent him” (cf. Mek.Ex. 12:3,6; m. Ber. 5:5). Or, in words which are probably better known to those of us familiar with the New Testament, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives not me but the one who sent me” (Matt. 10:40). These are words which the Gospels record Jesus as saying to his apostles, and ‘apostle’ is simply the Greek word for ‘one who is sent’, an ‘agent.’ When someone sent an agent, the agent was given the full authority of the sender to speak and act on his behalf. If the agent made an agreement, it was completely binding, as if the person who sent him had made it in person. Conversely, if someone rejected an agent he rejected the one who sent him. The agent was thus functionally equal or equivalent to the one who sent him, precisely because he was subordinate and obedient to, and submitted to the will of, him who sent him.

            This helps us to understand what is at issue in John 5. The issue is not whether there is really only one God - John affirms explicitly that he believes that there is only one true God. Rather the debate centers around Jesus’ relationship to the one God. Jesus claims to do what God does. If he is God’s appointed agent, then there is no reason to regard this as illegitimate: it would not be the first time that God appointed one of his agents to act or speak on his behalf, to proclaim his message and do his works. However, ‘the Jews’ as they are presented in the Gospel of John do not recognize Jesus as one who has been appointed by God. They thus accuse him of “making himself equal to God.” That is to say, the problem is not ‘equality with God’ in and of itself, but whether Jesus acts in this way as God’s agent. The issue is whether Jesus has been sent by God and is obedient to God, or whether he is a rebellious, glory-seeking upstart who claims divine prerogatives for himself. ‘The Jews’ accuse Jesus of making himself equal to God - that is to say, they accuse him of putting himself on the level of God, by claiming to do what God does when he has not in fact been appointed by God. They thus feel that Jesus has committed blasphemy: by making these claims, he is felt to have insulted God. (On this subject see further my article, “A Rebellious Son? Hugo Odeberg and the Interpretation of John 5.18”, NTS 44 (1998) 470-473. The accusations of ‘blasphemy’ and of Jesus ‘making himself (equal to) God’ in John closely resemble the Synoptic tradition found in Mark 2:5-7. In Mark, some objected to Jesus claiming to do what God does, either because they felt this was something which God would not delegate to an agent, or because they did not accept that Jesus is God’s appointed agent. In John we have evidence of increased controversy over the same issues that were sticking points between Christian and non-Christian Jews from the very beginning).

            How is Jesus portrayed as responding to this charge? He adamantly denies it. Listen to the words which are used: “The Son can do nothing of himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing...By myself I can do nothing...I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:19,30). Jesus is emphatically said to be God’s obedient Son and agent. In the ancient near east, the eldest son was usually the principle agent of his father. A son was also expected to learn his father’s trade, watching him carefully and learning to imitate his Father. John has this in mind when he uses this type of language to justify the actions and claims of Jesus: Jesus does what God does, and as one who shares in a Father-Son relationship with God, that is precisely what should be expected. Only if Jesus were a disobedient son would he not do what he sees his Father doing. There is thus no problem of monotheism in John 5. The issue is about whether Jesus is putting himself on a par with God, seeking his own glory in a way that detracts from the glory and honor due to God alone. John emphasizes that Jesus is in fact God’s appointed agent, and because this is the case there is nothing illegitimate about his behavior: he does what God does not as one who is rebelling against the divine authority by setting himself up as a rival to the unique honor and glory of God, but as God’s obedient Son and agent whom he sent into the world.

            The same applies to John 10:33, where the same sort of language is used: Jesus is accused of “making himself God.” This would, in the view of his opponents, be blasphemy, precisely because they regard Jesus as a rebellious upstart rather than as an appointed agent. Other figures had at times sought to claim divine prerogatives without being appointed by God: Adam grasped at equality with God; the king of Babylon in Isaiah’s time was accused of blasphemy for exalting himself. Perhaps most relevant for John 10 is the figure of Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus was the king of Syria in the period when Israel was under the dominion of Syria. He claimed to be ‘god manifest,’ and for various reasons which we can not go into now he outlawed the observance of the Jewish law and began a severe persecution of the Jewish people. The dialogue in John 10 is set at the feast of Dedication or Hanukkah, which celebrated the rededication of the temple after it had been desecrated by Antiochus. It is interesting to note that the books of the Maccabees, which describe the desecration of the temple and its subsequent rededication, contain more than a third of all the occurrences of the word ‘blasphemy’ in the Greek Old Testament, which appears to have been the version that John knew and used. Most striking of all is 2 Maccabees 9:12, where Antiochus Epiphanes is presented as repenting on his death bed, and asserting that “no mortal should think that he is equal to God,” a phrase very reminiscent of the language used in John 10, and also in John 5:18. The issue once again is thus whether Jesus is a glory-seeking rebel against God’s authority like Antiochus, or rather an obedient agent who does the will of him who sent him. Whether or not there is one God who is uniquely worthy of honor is not at issue: the issue is Jesus’ relationship to that one true God.

 

C. ‘I AM’ (John 8)

Finally, we may consider the dialogue with Jewish opponents depicted in John chapter 8. This part of John is famous because it presents Jesus as using the phrase ‘I am’ absolutely - Here (and in one or two other places in John), Jesus does not say “I am such and such” (for example, “I am the good shepherd” or “I am the light of the world”), but rather simply says “I am.” Most scholars think that this use of ‘I am’ reflects the occurrence of this phrase in the Septuagint version of Isaiah as a name for God. This in turn appears to have been based on an interpretation of the name ‘Yahweh’ revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14-15. So, even if everything we have said so far is true, someone will probably ask: surely when Jesus is presented as saying ‘I am’ the meaning is ‘I am Yahweh,’ and if that is the case then Jesus is clearly claiming to be none other than the God revealed in the Old Testament, and is thus redefining monotheism in a radical way.

            This logic would be convincing except for one crucial problem. As C. K. Barrett has rightly pointed out, it is simply intolerable to suggest that John presents Jesus as saying “I am Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, and as such I do exactly what I am told”. Yet the Johannine Jesus says in John 8:28: “When you have ‘lifted up’ (that is to say, “When you have crucified”) the Son of Man, then you will know that I am, and that I do nothing of myself, but speak just what the Father has taught me.” Thus, whereas the king of Babylon is accused in Isa.47:8 of blasphemously claiming “I am, and there is no other,” Jesus claims something very different: “I am, and I do nothing of myself, but only the will of him who sent me.” Jesus’ use of ‘I am’ thus appears to be connected with him being the agent who has been sent by God, and there are contemporary Jewish writings which can help use to understand a little bit of what is going on here.

            In a first century Jewish writing entitled The Apocalypse of Abraham, Abraham is described as being granted a visit to heaven. Sent to guide him on his heavenly visit is an angel, who identifies himself as “Yahoel.” The name Yahoel is made up of the two main names for God in the Old Testament, “Yah” or “Yahweh” and “El.” The angel thus has the same name as God. This is not because that angel is really God himself or is confused with God. No; it is because God has given his name to the angel in order to empower him. This is explicitly stated in the book itself (10:3,8). This is thus one of a number of examples from Jewish thought of God’s agent being given God’s name in order to empower him for his mission. In later times, the Samaritans made much the same sort of claims for Moses. The early Christians applied these ideas to Jesus. The clearest example of this is in the quotation from an early Christian hymn preserved in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), which says Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross; Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Lord here is thought of as God’s name, since the name “Yahweh” was for the most part not actually pronounced by Jews in this period, and in the Septuagint translation they translated the Hebrew name of God with the Greek word for Lord (kyrios). This practice has been followed by most modern versions of the Bible, which is why the name “Yahweh” which occurs so frequently throughout the Jewish Scriptures is not found in them: it has been replaced by LORD (usually in capital letters). At any rate, here once again we see Jesus exalted to heaven to a place second only to God himself, and given God’s very own name. This was a way that, in this period of Jewish history, God was believed to honor and empower his agents, and it is a continuation and development of this idea that is found in John. This is particularly clear in John 17:11-12, where Jesus prays for his disciples saying, “Father, protect them by the power of your name - the name you gave me - so that they may be one as we are one” (Don Carson regards those MSS which state that the Father gave a name to Jesus as more reliable (Gospel According to John, Leicester: IVP, 1991, p.562), as does George Beasley-Murray (John, Dallas: Word, 1987, p.293). Likewise Leon Morris accepts this as the original reading, although without explanation (The Gospel According to John, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, p.728). The name ‘I am’ which Jesus bears is the Father’s name, and the Father gave it to him because he is the Father’s agent.

            Of course, terms like ‘Name’ and ‘Word’ were somewhat interchangeable in first century Jewish writings, and thus viewed through the lens of the prologue, it would not be far off the mark to speak of John as regarding Jesus as not just one who bears God’s name, but as God’s name ‘made flesh’; that is to say, Jesus and the name are identified to a far greater extent than in the case of, for instance, the angel Yahoel. Nevertheless, the fact that ideas of this sort were so widespread in first century Judaism strongly suggests that John was as much a Jewish monotheist as the rest of his Jewish contemporaries, who made use of similar imagery and motifs.

            There’s an illustration of agency, and of the difference between the way John and his opponents view Jesus, that I sometimes use when teaching on this subject. Have most of you seen the film The Mask of Zorro? In one scene, the prison guard comes into the prison and asks whether any of the prisoners there is or has ever been the masked man, Zorro. One after another, prisoners start shouting "I'm Zorro", "I am Zorro". This is the sort of claim that John's Jewish opponents think Jesus is making. They accuse him of being mad, of having a demon. They are convinced that there is no way that he could really be the Messiah, God's chosen agent, and so they view him as being like one of these prisoners, who is making claims about himself that are untrue and unjustified, and perhaps even a bit crazy. On the other hand, later in the film Antonio Banderas' character is taught by Zorro, learns his techniques, and his aims become one with the original Zorro's aims. So when he appears on the scene, wearing the mask of Zorro, doing the work of Zorro, there is a real sense in which one can legitimately say that he now is Zorro. This is not completely unlike the way the author of the Fourth Gospel views Jesus. The point John makes again and again is that, as God's Word become flesh, as the Messiah, as one who stands in a Father-Son relationship with God and fully represents God's will as God's appointed agent, Jesus does not 'make himself' or 'make himself out to be' anything. Rather, he is the one whom God the Father has sent, and this is how Jesus is described throughout John's Gospel. As God's true, even supreme agent, he not only bears and expresses God's full authority, but he can even be called by the name of him who sent him, and thus Jesus in John is called 'Lord', 'God' and 'I am'. But he bears these names precisely as God's agent, and thus Jesus is presented in John 8:28-29 as saying "…then you will know that I am, and that I do nothing of my own accord. What I say is what the Father has taught me. He who sent me is with me, and has not left me by myself, for I always do what pleases him". Jesus in John is not a rival to God. He is God’s obedient Son and agent. He is the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Word, presented in Jewish categories to answer Jewish objections raised to the beliefs that this Gospel's author and his community held dear. It was this context of conflict, it seems, that was a key, determining factor, which led the author of the Fourth Gospel to present Jesus in the manner that he did. John’s development of themes that were present in earlier Christian literature, which viewed Jesus as embodying God’s Wisdom and Spirit, and as God’s obedient Son, led to this portrait of Jesus as God’s unique agent, one who has unique authority precisely because he is uniquely obedient, and who conversely is uniquely obedient precisely because he is the unique agent, the Word become flesh. None of these ideas is wholly absent from all earlier Christian literature, and they have their roots in Jewish thought. What is unique in John is the way they are configured and developed. I am convinced that the Fourth Evangelist made these distinctive developments precisely in order to counter the sort of Jewish objections we have just looked at. Non-Christian Jews had objected that Jesus is making himself out to be the Son of God and even God. John answers these objections by emphasizing that Jesus does not do or say anything of himself. He thus does not fit their paradigm for understanding him: Jesus does not look like a glory seeker in the least, because he consistently turns the focus away from himself to the Father who sent him. Yet as God’s unique agent, as the Word become flesh, he has an authority that is like that of no other, do speak and act on his Father’s behalf.

 

III. Conclusion

Thus, if John was asked in his day and age, “Are Christians monotheists?” I am convinced that he would have answered with an unreserved “Yes.” There are only two clear references to ‘monotheism’ in the Fourth Gospel and both affirm the oneness of God in rather axiomatic language, without defense or explanation (John 5:44; 17:3). If the Johannine Christians had been charged with rejecting monotheism, we would expect the writer to make a more vigorous and explicit defense. But it does not happen. Thus, against Dunn, there is nothing that indicates that John would have been regarded by his Jewish contemporaries as having taken “a step too far” (Contra James Dunn, The Partings of the Ways, London: SCM, 1991, p.229).

            However, in the centuries after John wrote, other issues arose, and when it was felt necessary to draw a firmer and clearer line between God and creation, it also became necessary to place God’s Word clearly on one side or the other. It appears that it was the development of the doctrine of ‘creation out of nothing’, which was to a large extent responsible for necessitating the clearer definition of what is today considered orthodox Christian belief. Of course, we would love to know what John would have said if he had lived in that time, when it became necessary to choose between equality and subordination, between continuity with God and distinction from God. But it is somewhat unfair to ask John questions that only arose quite some time after he had lived and died. John does not give any sort of direct or explicit answer to these questions that are so important to us, and were so important to the early Church, because in his worldview, it was still possible to hold that the Word was “neither uncreated nor created” or - in John’s terms - both ‘God’ and ‘with God.’ As we have said, it was only after significant changes in worldview had taken place, probably connected with the development of a clear doctrine of creation out of nothing, that suddenly it became urgent to sort out exactly where the dividing line between God and creation should be drawn. And so it was that Arius and other non-Nicenes said: between God and the Logos, while Athanasius and the Nicenes said: between the Logos and creation. I personally am convinced that if John had been confronted with this question he would have chosen the latter option: Jesus is not the revelation of a lesser god who does not even himself really know the one true God, but rather he is the revelation of God himself. Yet as we have already said, to expect John to answer a question that was only raised later is somewhat unfair. Yet it was this very question which led to the (re)definition of monotheism by Christians in the Trinitarian terms we are familiar with today, and by others in monistic terms. Prior to this there was apparently no problem.

            Justin Martyr, a Christian from the second century, describes a conversation which he had with a Jewish man named Trypho. Here too we find no debate about monotheism; in fact, one of Trypho’s companions who was himself Jewish agrees with Justin, just as Philo and many other Jews would have, that there is a second figure, who is called by God’s name and who appeared in the Jewish Scriptures. Even for some time after John, monotheism was not an issue of controversy between Jews and Christians.

            Thus, to conclude, John in his own day and age did not feel that there was any conflict between Christian belief in Jesus and Jewish monotheism. I suppose the problem which faces us is that John gives us a clear answer to the question, “Were Christians monotheists?” but not to the question “Are Christians today monotheists?”  - that is a question which we have to answer for ourselves (one thinks in this context of the arguments of Jürgen Moltmann, namely that Christians should not class themselves among monotheists but in a separate class as Trinitarians. See his book The Trinity and the Kingdom of God). So, in concluding this section of our brief study of the theology and Christology of John’s Gospel, the question which we must continue to wrestle with is: To what extent do Christians today believe the same things that John and other New Testament authors believed? And inasmuch as our worldview has changed and we have had to answer new questions, have we done justice to the monotheism that was maintained by John and by other New Testament authors, and even by Jesus himself?

 

 

The Son of Man Who Came Down From Heaven

Another distinctive feature or emphasis of the Fourth Gospel is what it says about the pre-existence of the Son of Man. It seems fairly clear that Christians even prior to John's time used some form of pre-existence language in reference to Jesus. However, the exact meaning of such language, and the question of when it was first applied to Jesus, are the subject of a fair bit of debate. Nevertheless, whatever may have been meant by it, it seems clear that whoever composed the hymn found in Colossians 1:15-20 (to take one example) was using the language of pre-existence in relation to Jesus (cf. e.g. James D. G.  Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p.277, esp. n.45). Likewise, around John’s time if not earlier, the author of the Similitudes of Enoch depicted the Son of Man as pre-existent. However, nowhere prior to John's time do we find anyone drawing the conclusion, on the basis of this language, that Jesus (or in the case of Jewish literature the Messiah) was able to talk about heavenly things while he was on earth. John, however, makes precisely this claim. What led John to draw out this potential implication of earlier traditional beliefs, when no one before him had felt the need to do so? Most likely, it was the debate with Jewish opponents over the relative worth of the revelations brought by Moses and Jesus. If Moses had been to the mountaintop, and perhaps (as many in those times believed) had even travelled up to heaven, to receive revelation, then what could Jesus offer beyond what the Jews already had? This objection to belief in Jesus is actually stated clearly by the Jewish opponents in John 9:28-29: “We are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this man, we don’t even know where he comes from”. In response, John emphasizes that Jesus, being the Son of Man, must have 'come down from heaven', and thus he can reveal things that no one else can. The clearest indication that it was this context and these debates that led John to draw the kinds of conclusions he did, is the fact that in both passages where such language is used (chapters 3 and 6 of John's Gospel), the overall theme of the passages in question is explicitly and/or implicitly the relationship between Jesus and Moses. It was thus conflict over ideas, and the need to defend them, that led John to develop traditional christological ideas in the way that he did. This process is what sociologists call legitimation. When a group's views or ideology are called into question, they need to defend their beliefs. And so it was that, in the process of answering objections, ones that were raised in relation to earlier beliefs about Jesus, John found new proof texts, drew conclusions based on earlier beliefs that no one else had before him, and related different beliefs and concepts to one another. The result is a more fully-developed christological portrait of Jesus in John's Gospel, one that has its roots in earlier Christian beliefs, but also goes beyond them in significant ways. Thus I am convinced that the conflicts which provide the background to John’s Gospel can also help us to understand what motivated John to write as he did. On this topic see further my recent book, John’s Apologetic Christology, published by Cambridge University Press.

 

 

 

Where Can Wisdom Be Found?

This question raised in Job 28:12 is one to which Judaism had many different answers in John’s time. Some said that Wisdom was to be found everywhere, as God’s “general revelation.” See, for example, Wisdom of Solomon 7:27-8:1:

 

…in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the man who lives with wisdom….She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.

 

 

Other said Wisdom dwells in Israel, in particular in the Law. See for example Ecclesiasticus 24:8-12:

 

Then the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and the one who created me assigned a place for my tent. And he said, `Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.'    (See also Baruch 4:1-4)

 

 

And 1 Enoch 42:1ff suggests that Wisdom found no dwelling place on earth, and so returned to heaven, accessible only to a select, elite few:

 

Wisdom found no place where she might dwell;

 Then a dwelling place was assigned her in the heavens.

Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, And found no dwelling place:

 Wisdom returned to her place,

and took her seat among the angels...

 

John gives the same answer that Paul gave (“in Christ” – see 1 Corinthians 1:24; Colossians 1:15-20), but his answer is not that far from some of the non-Christian Jewish answers given in his time. Which do you think John would have agreed with most/least, and why?

 

 

And We Beheld His Glory

The emphasis on ‘glory’ (doxa) in John is unmistakable, and is there from the very outset. But much as in Mark’s Gospel, the revelation is paradoxical. In Mark, it is only in light of the cross that human beings can recognize Jesus as the Son of God, and understand who he really is. So too, in John the glorification or lifting up of Jesus is accomplished and recognized precisely in connection with his crucifixion. And so, paradoxically, the ‘lifting up’ of the Son of Man points to the cross, and through it to the exaltation as well. The distinctive emphasis in John is perhaps the much more emphatic emphasis that we have beheld his glory – that is, the Christian community alone has recognized the glory. At times, reading through the lens of the prologue, it has been assumed that the glory is something that shines through the thin veil of Jesus’ humanity, a supernatural light that completely overwhelms and overshadows any humanness Jesus might have. But that is far from the case. For John, the glory of the Word-made-flesh is the glory of the crucified Son of God. In John, there is no transfiguration account, nor anything similar that could lead one to understand glory in terms of bright light and a dazzling display of power. In John, the glory is revealed in the weakness and servanthood of Christ, his exalted portrait of Christ as one whose true origins are in heaven and who has supernatural knowledge notwithstanding. The real humanity of Jesus and his obedience unto death were too much part of John’s assumptions and his Christian heritage for him to deny them. Yet some, reading John, have felt that John leaves his reader with a portrait of Jesus that is not really, fully human.

            For example, Ernst Käsemann writes, "Does the statement 'The Word became flesh' really mean more than that he descended into the world of man and there came into contact with earthly existence, so that an encounter with him became possible? Is not this statement totally overshadowed by the confession 'We beheld his glory', so that it receives its meaning from it? I am not interested in completely denying features of the lowliness of the earthly Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. But do they characterize John's Christology in such a manner that through them the 'true man' of later incarnational theology becomes believable? or do not those features of his lowliness rather represent the absolute minimum of the costume designed for the one who dwelt for a little while among men, appearing to be one of them, yet without himself being subjected to earthly conditions?" (The Testament of Jesus London: SCM, 1968, pp.9-10). Thus Käsemann sums up John's picture of Jesus as "God walking on the face of the earth" (pp.75).

            John A. T. Robinson replied to Käsemann's arguments by asserting that while John is liable to be (mis)understood in a Docetic way, this was clearly not the intention of John. "John is content...to let the flesh be 'diaphonous' of the spirit (to use Teilhard de Chardin's word), so that the glory is visible in and through it...But flesh that is diaphonous does not look like flesh: the shining through of the divine gives a docetic appearance...By all the standards of verisimilitude, the Gospel looks docetic, static and unhistorical. Indeed, taken literally, as a biography, it is docetic, and it is not in the least surprising that this is the charge which it has invited from the beginning. Yet we should do the author the justice of accepting that such a judgment is in his eyes a fearful misunderstanding" (Robinson, "The Use of the Fourth Gospel for Christology Today", in Christ and Spirit in the New Testament, ed. B. Lindars and S. S. Smalley, pp.61-78). Similarly, James Dunn (Unity and Diversity in the NT, SCM Press, London 1977, p.296) argues that it is not possible to weaken the force of the statement in John 1:14a to simply that of a divine 'appearance' among men: "The ancient world was quite familiar with that idea, and could express it in various ways. John chooses none of them. Instead he affirms simply and pointedly, 'The Word...became flesh' - not appeared as or 'came down into', but 'became' - a confession which (as Schnackenburg puts it) 'can only be understood as a protest against all other religions of redemption in Hellenism and Gnosticism'". Yet there are examples of ginomai being used in this sense of ‘appeared as’, and so C. K. Barrett (The Gospel According to Saint John, SPCK, London 19782, p.165) is probably right to suggest that egeneto in v14 most likely means exactly what it did in v6, to 'come on the scene'. He thus renders it: "The Word came on the (human) scene - as flesh, man".

            Yet all this being said, it is still important that we take these questions seriously. As Käsemann counters objections rhetorically, asking, "In what sense is he flesh, who walks on the water, and through closed doors, who cannot be captured by his enemies, who at the well of Samaria is tired and requires a drink, yet has no need of drink and has food different from that which his disciples seek? He cannot be deceived by men, because he knows their innermost thoughts and even before they speak. He debates with them from the vantage point of the infinite difference between heaven and earth. He has need neither of the witness of Moses nor of the Baptist. He dissociates himself from the Jews, as if they were not his own people, and he meets his mother as the one who is her Lord. He permits Lazarus to lie in the grave for four days in order that the miracle of his resurrection may be more impressive. And in the end the Johannine Christ goes victoriously to his death of his own accord. Almost superfluously the Evangelist notes that this Jesus at all times lies on the bosom of the Father and that to him who is one with the Father the angels descend and that from him they again ascend...How does all this agree with the understanding of a realistic incarnation?" (op.cit. p.9)

            Barrett responds by appealing to the concept of paradox (in his essay "Paradox and Dualism", in Essays on John), in which he asserts that paradox, unlike dualism, is not a plain contradiction, but implies a relationship between two contrasting propositions. Thus when John says that 'the Word became flesh' and 'we beheld his glory', "...it is a paradoxical glory that we see, since it consists not in God's self assertive might, but in his faithfulness and self-giving, and in order that it might become visible the Logos adopted a paradoxical, unexpected role - a role that might at first seem inconsistent with his deity" (p.105). Perhaps the paradox of exaltation and glory in John’s Gospel is not unlike the paradox in the Book of Revelation (5:5-6): the triumph of the Lion of Judah is announced, and John looks and sees…a Lamb that appeared to have been slain! The fact that the author of the Fourth Gospel likewise introduces Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and presents him as being crucified at precisely the time the Passover lambs were slaughtered, gives us an insight into this aspect of his understanding of Jesus’ death.

 

 

Realized Eschatology and the Spirit

Our look at John’s Gospel would be incomplete were we not to mention eschatology. In John’s Gospel, there appears to be relatively little that remains for the future. The judgment has already taken place: the line has been drawn, and sides are taken in the here and now (see John 3:18). The apocalyptic emphases found in the Synoptic Gospels have for the most part vanished. The second coming of Jesus is practically replaced by the coming of the Spirit (John 14:16-18). In John 14:23 a similar idea is expressed, as Jesus and the Father will return…to make their home in the believer. This is not to say that John has completely dissolved the tension between ‘already’ and ‘not yet’. But certainly the emphasis is far greater on one pole than on the other. This is perhaps clearest in John 11:24-26. In response to a statement of futurist eschatology, the Johannine Jesus shifts the emphasis wholly into the present: Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and so those who believe live even though dead, while those who do not are dead even if they live. Here we see another important point too: that John’s whole worldview is united, so that his eschatology and his Christology are interlinked. Ecclesiology and pneumatology tie in here too: those who believe are a united community that experiences life and lives united in love through the presence of the Spirit, who teaches them all things and leads them into deeper truths that Jesus did not speak of while he was with them. The developments that John made are thus legitimated through this appeal to the Spirit: John and his community may have had to rethink various issues regarding things like Christology and eschatology, but they were confident that the Spirit was their guide in this whole process.

 

 

Conclusion: Points to remember about John

In conclusion, what are some of the key points you need to remember about John's Gospel?

 

(1)   As we mentioned briefly, the question of who wrote the Gospel and where is hotly debated, and you can easily find the arguments for and against the traditional view of authorship in pretty much any commentary or introduction to the New Testament. But as the external evidence is largely inconclusive, we felt it better to focus on the internal evidence, which may not provide us with a name, but nevertheless gives us some idea of what was going on in the author's time.

(2)   John's Gospel has a number of distinctive characteristics. Its language, its chronology, its christological concepts, its stories, the teaching it attributes to Jesus - all these things set it apart from the other three Gospels included in the Christian canon.

(3)   John's context is largely responsible for these differences, although we should not neglect the personal aspect, the fact that it was one particular author who decided to relate traditional materials about Jesus to his context in this way.

(4)   The context of the Fourth Gospel is almost without doubt one in which one or more Christian communities were involved in conflict and debate with the leaders of the local Jewish community. The leaders in question had expelled one or more Christians from the synagogue or had threatened to do so. John's Gospel is an attempt to answer some of the objections and accusations that had led to this situation.

(5)   The debates were christological in focus - that is, they had to do with what these Christians believed about Jesus. The debates in John do not for the most part appear to focus on distinctively Johannine beliefs. Rather, John is providing answers in relation to controversies that had been brewing or actually occurring for some time, but which had intensified in such a way as to make it necessary to give new or more fully developed answers.

(6)   John's Gospel is thus perhaps best described as a work of apologetic and/or legitimation, written by and for Christians who were in conflict with one or more local Jewish communities. John's Gospel thus gives us a unique insight into the process that led from Christianity being one of many Jewish movements vying for the adherence of the Jewish populace, to a religious group that had to find an understanding of its identity independent of a Jewish majority who did not view Jesus the way they did.

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Not to mention the relationship between Christianity and the Old Testament revelation of God as one.

 

 

[2] On agency see especially Larry W. Hurtado, one God, One Lord, London: SCM, 1988, and also the works cited in the next footnote. The term ‘agent’ used here, like the term ‘angel’ which is applied often to Jesus/the Logos in early Christian (and Jewish) writings, has to do with function and does not have ontological issues and considerations in view.

1