The Bible in and as History: John

So finally we round out the four Canonical gospels with John.  We’ve thus-far seen Jesus as a revolutionary preacher, as a religious Icon, and as a sort of Wizard performing Magic for the faithful.  What we have also seen though, are four closely related Gospels.  Mark, Mathew and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because there are elements of unity between all three.  Speeches that repeat.  Doctrines that repeat, sometimes almost word for word.  You can see, in the Synoptic Gospels, a story told through three lenses, but linked to common sources.  As mentioned previously, most believe Luke, for example, was composed utilizing Mathew and another source, some sort of Oral tradition now lost.

John is the odd man out then.  This Gospel comes from another tradition, another set of sources, and though it possesses some similarities, it also is very set apart.  One can read Mathew for example and then John and see two almost completely different narratives.  In this Gospel, John the Baptist is more a sign himself than a Prophet.  One set to clear the way for the Messiah, and one of several.  What’s more, nothing regarding Jesus’ miracle birth is covered in John.  Like Mathew, it goes straight into his ministry, though the things it talks about are quite different.

In common with the other Gospels, Jesus preaches in Galilea, but he performs many more miracles, especially of healing, and some of the things he expressly does in the other gospels, such as his disputations with authorities over his disciples picking wheat on the Sabbath, are omitted.  None of the familiar Parables are here, nor are many of the sections regarding Jesus’ teachings.  Though he feeds the multitudes and walks on water, he also claims directly to be the son of God, and that he is sent from Heaven, which the Jews Dispute.  He turns water into Wine at the wedding of Cana.  He uses his power to raise Lazarus from the Dead, as a foreshadowing of his own resurrection.

Jesus’ execution is more similar to what has transpired before, with his judgement, being brought before Pilate, his crucifixion.  Though while the crucifixion has various places within the Gospels, here it seems more a known outcome.  Less something the people do without realizing what they are doing and more a fore-ordained event permitting Jesus to return to ‘the Father’.

After his death, his resurrection is also far more drawn out. There are more references to his disciples seeing him, and he delivers greater messages and portents after his resurrection.  This is a Jesus for whom the resurrection was assured, and offers not a break, but a continuation, or perhaps culmination of his ministry.

John is written, as each of the Gospels are, in a particular historical context and for a particular audience.  Its authorship is in dispute.  Traditionally it is according to John the Apostle, one of Jesus twelve apostles, though this is not considered likely by most biblical scholars.  Its authorship is generally placed at 80-100 CE, and it is placed within a tradition of Johannine literature, which includes John, the First, Second and Third Epistles of John and the Book of Revelations.  It is believed there was a specific or several specific, Johannine ‘sects’ that composed these particular works, based around a theological conception of Jesus as a direct deity and interceder.  That is, in Mark, you have Jesus as a very Jewish-type Prophet.  John see’s Jesus as a more mythical figure, who rather than being the Son of God who shows us the way through his teachers, is the Son of God who gives us the way through his existence.

The context of this group in the case of the Gospel of John is also the emerging divergence between Judaism and early Christianity.  It is clear that initially, ‘Christians’ were in a way a ‘sect’ of John the Baptists followers, who were themselves a sect of unorthodox Judaism(for the 1rst century that is).  Over time there came to be separation, as more Gentiles entered the faith, as the faith mutated and split.  By the time of the Gospel of John, there is a clear need to differentiate one-self from ‘The Jews’ of the Second Temple.  Keeping in mind of course that this temple was destroyed in 70 CE, right before John was likely written.  So you have the orthodox Jewish religious authorities, with the central object of their authority having been destroyed by the Romans, dealing with a separate sect supporting eclectic and apocalyptic claims regarding the death of their saviour figure two generations or so earlier.  John clearly sets out to provide separation between ‘Christians’ and ‘Jews’.  Its language establishes ‘The Jews’ as separate from the author, and it is here one finds the most direct ‘blame’ for Jesus Crucifixion.  While in later centuries this would be a source of justification for anti-Semitism, John is largely concerned with the preservation of its own religious community.

Interesting to consider is how this book, compared to the other three Gospels, enters into ‘Canonicity’.  The Gospel of John was clearly in use in a host of early Christian communities, though not all.

Its message seems to have appealed in a broader Roman World, in a way perhaps that Matthew or Mark might not have.  As we shall see going forward, the Pauline works will take a subsect of a subsect of Judaism and transform it into a distinct religion, infused with Greek and Roman tradition, as well as Hebrew.

With the Gospels finished we move on to works that vary more in their content; Next time is Acts.




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