Already in antiquity it was recognized that the Gospel According to John is different from the other three canonical gospels. The narratives in According to Matthew, According to Mark and According to Luke tell a single congruent story, while containing elements peculiar to each In them, the life and ministry of Jesus consist, basically, of a short period spent in Galilee of the Gentiles during which Jesus distinguishes himself by his miracles and his controversies with Pharisees. During a trip to the North, at Caesarea Philippi close to the fountains of the Jordan River, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah, Mk. 8: 29), and this confession causes Jesus to demand complete silence about his identity. In the past, evil spirits that Jesus expelled from possessed people cried out that Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus gave them, also, strict orders to keep silent and not reveal his identity.
Peter’s confession marks the turning point of his ministry in the lands of the gentiles, and brings about his decision to go to Jerusalem. Upon arriving to the city, immediately he finds himself opposed by the Sadducees who control the temple and have influence with the roman procurator Pontius Pilate. Five days after coming to Jerusalem, Jesus hangs from a cross on a small hill outside the city. In the Gospel According to Mark, the roman centurion charged with carrying out the crucifixion seeing Jesus expire says, “Truly this man was a son of God” (Mk. 15: 39). According to Matthew and According to Luke add to According to Mark narratives of the birth of Jesus and of the resurrection and post resurrection appearances. (In the best manuscripts According to Mark ends in 16:8). Because of this, these three gospels are called synoptic. They see together.
The Gospel According to John was conceived in a different womb. In general terms it can be distinguished by two peculiarities. In the first place, the ministry of Jesus includes Jerusalem from its beginning and Jesus’ last stay in the city lasted six months, from the feast of Tabernacles (sept./oct.) till Passover (april/may). In the second, rather than imposing silence on those publicly identifying him, Jesus himself insists that he must be identified correctly, not as a Son of God but as God. This without a doubt places the Gospel According to John in a category by itself. Its peculiar claim is different from that of any other New Testament book, and made the Church Fathers consider it a “spiritual” work.
The two early Christian hymns included in the New Testament also proclaim that Jesus is the human manifestation of a pre-existent divine being. Philippians 2: 6 – 11, however, makes clear that this divine being was “in the form” of God, not God, and that he had no desire for “equality with God.” Colossians 1: 15 – 20, for its part, describes this being as “the first-born of all creatures”, thereby negating his being God.
Over many years I have developed a very special relation with the Gospel According to John. In spite of my having been studying it for so long, each time I read it I find new things that merit my attention. It appears that its deposits of meaning are inexhaustible and worthy of being extracted. No doubt all the books in the Bible have rich reservoirs of meaning, but for me not one has more than the Gospel According to John.
Why this is so becomes clearer once we see that this Gospel does not open its symbolic universe little by little as one reads from the beginning. No. Here at the very beginning one is supposed to have, already, full understanding of the universe in which the Gospel has meaning. From beginning to end the book presupposes that the reader knows how its language works. Indeed, its language is one of its most notable characteristics. In purely linguistic terms, its Greek is simple, poor, pedestrian. It is language accessible to beginners: a few weeks into the study of koine Greek, students are asked to do exercises with phrases from this Gospel. But those who do not become aware soon that this beginner’s Greek carries within it many levels of meaning are not paying attention to what they are reading.
This language produces echoes as it bounces on the walls. It tells us that the Christians who wrote and read this Gospel were an enclosed community somewhat distinct from the main currents of the early Christian movement, and as a result had developed their own manner of speaking which, undoubtedly, resonated clearly among them. To read According to John requires being aware that, as Louis J. Martyn explained brilliantly some years ago, it contains simultaneously two stories. Obviously we are reading about the life of Jesus, but at the same time we are reading about the experience of a community of Christians who are going through difficult times and are having heated debates both with members of a synagogue from which they have been expelled and with other Christians who do not share their view of Jesus. In other words, these Christians told the story of Jesus to understand what they were experiencing. By means of the story of Jesus they were interpreting their own experiences and identifying themselves.
With these introductory remarks I am anticipating what I hope will become clear in my future columns. I am announcing my intention to write a series of columns on the Gospel According to John. My purpose is not to expound on the details of the life of Jesus, seeking to gain a better understanding of him or hoping to help in establishing a more intense devotional relation with him (while recognizing this may very well be welcome by-products of the study) . My objective is to read the Gospel According to John as a theological work of extraordinary depth, without worrying whether what is said in it is more or less historically accurate than the way in which the same episode is told in the synoptics. That is, I aim to put aside historical reconstruction to put on relief a theological vision that has been an invaluable blessing and, at times, a cause of unfortunate episodes in the history of Christianity.
For Oriental Orthodox Christianity the Gospel According to John is the canon within the canon. Jesus’ bringing eternal life (something human beings have never had but dearly desire) makes possible the “divinization” of Christians. The image of Jesus as the God incarnate who brings eternal life to earth is central to Orthodox theology. The devotional icon of this Christianity is not the crucifix. It is the Mother of God with the incarnate God in her bosom. It was in the incarnation that redemption became actualized for those who believe in Him. This is the theme of the whole Gospel According to John, and I am identifying this at the beginning because if one does not know what it is about it is impossible to interpret it.
This Gospel teaches only one doctrine. When it was first proclaimed this doctrine was revolutionary, radical to the extreme, and for proclaiming it the Johannine Christians were persecuted by other Christians and Jews. The doctrine of this Gospel is that Jesus is God, a doctrine that has never lacked those who flatly reject it.
A western Christian who was also misunderstood while alive and who also made this doctrine central to Christianity was the extraordinary Dane of the XIX century, Soren Kierkegaard. He understood well the theme of According to John insisting that what is required is not to accept as God the Risen Christ who has triumphed over death, or the Christ who twenty centuries of Christian theological elaborations proclaims as God, or the one who twenty centuries of western culture presents as the hero of its success. We are not required to recognize as God the Jesus of the miracles, feeding the thousands with a few pieces of bread and fish, walking on water, resurrecting the dead. We are required to recognize as God the Jesus who was the son of Mary and Joseph, a poor carpenter’s apprentice who did not look different from any other poor journeyman in Nazareth. Nothing signaled him as distinct, special, worthy of admiration. The Jesus who looks just like the milkman and the baker of the corner; this Jesus is God. Christians must become contemporaries of Jesus and, paradoxically, recognize as God this undistinguished man who looks just like every one else.
While the Gospel According to Mark (According to Matthew and According to Luke follow its outline) focuses on the passion that culminates in a crucifixion, According to John idealizes the crucifixion. Its narrative climax is not Jesus’ prediction of the crucifixion after the confession of Peter (Mk, 8: 31-31a). The climax confronts the reader in its first verse, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” A few verses later the reader learns that the Logos became flesh. We are immediately given two very technical words: logos and flesh.
By joining these two words the author has superimposed two things which in the rest of the gospel are considered to belong to two quite different worlds. To already use Johannine language, logos belongs “above”, while flesh belongs “below”. This apparent mismatch, however, takes place in every day human life.
Logos, it must be noticed, is a philosophical term of the first order. It refers to the capacity to think, to entertain ideas, to express these ideas in words, to construct discourses with reasonable arguments using words. It is what makes human beings, though members of the animal kingdom, different from all other animals.
Philosophers of Jesus’ time discussed among themselves if there were other animals with logos. No doubt some animals distinguish themselves by their intelligence, by their capacity to organize themselves in order to complete a task together. Some animals have their own language and can communicate among themselves. Do they have logos?
Logos bridges one of the most formidable philosophical chasms: the line that separates that which is subjective from that which is objective. That is, logos makes possible to have an idea in one’s mind for which one has not yet found the adequate word. Philosophers distinguished expressed logos from unexpressed logos. The difference is not that in the second case we have failed to speak a word aloud for others to hear. Rather, the difference is that we have not yet found the word which captures the thought we hold in our mind in total subjectivity.
We search for the right word, considering this one, then that one, and then this other one and we reject them all because they fail to pass the test of adequacy to express the thought we have, but do not know how to express. Logos is what abides as much in subjectivity as it abides in objectivity, and therefore is one of the richest words in the language. With this word the Johannine community named the God who had not yet become expressed as incarnate.
Even more astonishing is that after presenting to the reader the living God as the unexpressed Logos in its prologue, the gospel never again refers to Jesus as the Logos. This is the first disconcerting feature with which the Gospel According to John confronts its readers.