This Holy Week past I read the Gospel of John on the assumption that there is something to be gained by doing so in the form we currently have it. That may seem rather obvious. It’s certainly not a novel approach. And it’s worth observing that it doesn’t negate other readings. Those remain possible, fruitful, relevant. In my case I had started reading the Gospel of John because it was part of the liturgical schedule at church. What I mean by reading John’s Gospel as we have it is reading it in its final editorial form, as it has taken its place in the Christian New Testament. Biblical scholars remind us that this Gospel was probably first written for a particular community at a particular moment in time. This must certainly be the case in a general way, i.e. for the early Christian community (as scholars Richard Bauckham and others suggest), or in a more specific way, i.e. for the Johannine community (as scholars John Ashton and others suggest). Still, the challenge of understanding what the Gospel of John says remains complex.
Reading the text today involves the interaction of at least two worlds: that of the first century and that of twenty-first. And this challenge entails three kinds of differences at a minimum: that of language, culture, and location. When we come to a text like the Gospel of John we approach it from our lifeworld. And when a text derives from the distant past, from another culture, that lifeworld is probably alien to us in many respects. Even if we start with my stated reading assumption, we quickly realize that the editorial history of a text has a direct bearing on its understanding. For the Gospel of John as for Homer’s Illiad, the text as we have it reflects a complicated history, both oral and written, communal and individual.
The Gospel of John assumes a great deal of familiarity with the Jewish Scriptures and the context of Roman Palestine. Consider the Prologue (chapter 1, verses 1 to 18), which invokes a connection to the start of the Jewish Scriptures. “In the beginning…” To make sense of this beginning, to understand what is being implied in John’s Gospel, I need to know something of the beginnings of the Jewish Scriptures as well. To understand that beginning is to know how that beginning was composed and subsequently read over time. The Prologue to John’s Gospel makes a fairly overt connection between “the Word” (Logos) as divine wisdom and the providential act of creation by God in Genesis. A summary of that Prologue might run something like this: the Word was at the beginning; the Word was God and was with God; the Word is the light of the world and that which sustains the life of the world; but the Word, as the Light and Life of the world, came into the world, and was not understood by it.
The Gospel of John’s use of the word Logos has led past interpreters to connect its themes to ancient Greek thought. However, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the greater understanding afforded by the Qumran community which deposited those scrolls, interpreters have moved away from the Greek context and towards one of greater relevance, that of Second Temple Judaism. For the way in which John speaks of “the Word” in the Prologue can be appropriately connected to the way in which the personification of Wisdom was presented in ancient Israelite texts and traditions. To quickly state a scholarly conclusion: John portrays “the Word” in the same way as Wisdom was depicted in ancient Jewish thought, as beside God. In short, Jesus as “the Word” is an association in continuity with the Judaism of the Second Temple period and not some sort of Greek-inspired clean break. Many scholars now regard it as a mistake to emphasize the Greek influence in the Gospel of John at the expense of the Jewish.
After the Prologue, John’s Gospel continues: some in the world acknowledged the witness provided by John the Baptist about Jesus, earning thereby the right to be called “Children of God.” And we quickly learn that Jesus brought something new: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Generally scholars underline the importance of the link being made here between Jesus and Moses. It is probably best to read this link as indicating that the arrival of Jesus is one in keeping with a more widespread push for Torah covenantal renewal within ancient Judaism. As you might expect, it is hotly debated whether or not the Gospel of John is presenting us with a picture of supersession: does Jesus’ teaching supplant Moses’ in some way? The question is fraught because it can easily play into standard anti-Semitic stereotypes (such as the claim that ancient Judaism was legalistic and obsessed with purity). Without settling the question of supersession, what seems worth underscoring is the continuity this Gospel has with at least some aspects of ancient Jewish thought and community in this period. Again, to push the Gospel of John into some other context seems premature at best, distorting at worst.
John’s Gospel is presenting Jesus to us in a particular way for a specific reason. If “not one has ever seen God,” not even Moses receiving the law as reported in the Pentateuch (and maintained in ancient Jewish popular culture), then this Gospel’s suggestion that “the Word” was with God seems to be, at the very least, shifting Moses’ place in the spiritual imagination of Second Temple Judaism. “The Word” is “in closest relationship with the Father,” he “is himself God.” Both John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ earliest disciples confess that Jesus was the one whom “Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote.”
In his Institutes of Christian Religion, Jean Calvin understood the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament in terms of salvation and morality. Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection atoned for man’s sinfulness, removing the curse imposed by the law, yet the law remained as an exemplar of God’s will and a bridle to the ungodly. Today’s scholars are interested in this question too, but they take a very different approach. They certainly don’t use present-day Christian norms as the stick by which to measure the aims and intentions of first-century Judaism. And this means rejecting any equivalence of the Torah with its portrayal by later Christian interpretation as legalistic and obsessed with purity codes.
Biblical scholars today tend to move in the other direction. They attempt to make sense of Christianity as a movement which emerged in significant continuity with the Judaism of that period. Indeed, so much so that even writing that sentence seems like stating the obvious. Historical scholars try and sketch the background of the Gospel of John as that of Second Temple Judaism, that period between the construction of the temple at Jerusalem upon the Israelite return from exile c. 473 BC and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD. Literary scholars tend to compare the Gospels to ancient literary conventions, to the extent that we can know them. By filling in the historical and literary background in this way, both sets of scholars attempt situate John’s Gospel in the contexts which cast the greatest light upon it.
So far I’ve simply been talking about the opening chapters of John’s Gospel. And already we can see that if we connect this New Testament text to the period of its generation we can make some striking links. Although the Prologue has often been connected to Greek philosophy, given the philosophical significance attributed to Logos in Greco-Roman antiquity, we now know that it is better to read John’s Gospel in the directly relevant setting of the Judaism of the Second Temple period. This doesn’t mean ignoring the Greek and Roman context, obviously. These are not two mutually exclusive lenses through which to read the Gospels. But we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran community, and the Jewish Scriptures, that a significant pattern existed for referring to divine wisdom as a close companion of God. Likewise, we know from those same sources that the prophets of God were connected to attempts to renew the covenantal relationship established by the Torah. That covenant relationship began with the pronouncement of liberation from slavery in Egypt (i.e. the Book of Exodus) to the promised land directly under God’s rule. To these two themes—divine wisdom personified, covenantal renewal—we can also add the figure of the “Son of Man,” from the Book of Daniel. In John’s Gospel Jesus connects this figure to himself. As the “Son of Man” brings judgment and restores Israel, so too will Jesus.
There is much more to be said. About the historical and literary contexts, about the Gospel of John itself. During Holy Week I turned to John’s Gospel because I enjoy its lyrical quality, its poetic rhythms, and its rich symbolism. But these days my eyes were also watching for a political message. Why would a community in captivity find the message of Jesus appealing? Why would that community then find ways of remembering that message and passing it on as a Gospel, as good news? Recall that the Gospels were probably oral texts recited in village communities before being written down, and that these communities knew firsthand the force of violent political oppression. Divinity, community renewal, prophetic judgment: this was a powerfully connected message with longstanding resonance in ancient Israel. It certainly reverberated with the Judeans and Galileans living under the Roman empire in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, just as it had helped shape the imagination and form of the ancient Jewish scriptures in Babylonian and Persian exile. In the earliest chapters of the Gospel of John Jesus is placed in the direct presence of God, Jesus is situated at the heart of the prophetic tradition, and Jesus explicitly seeks to renew the Mosaic covenant. The radical message of the gospel is stated by the apostle Paul in another context, in a letter to the Corinthian church: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”