To the surprise of many, According to John exhibits elements characteristic of docetism. This doctrine says that the disciples saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion because the Logos who became incarnate was a divine being and therefore did not suffer death. In other words, it was not the mission of the Logos to die as an expiatory sacrifice, but to reveal to human beings the way of salvation. His saving mission did not require death and resurrection. In this gospel Jesus is presented as a divine being, and his teaching emphasizes how to obtain eternal life. Instead of using parables of the kingdom and performing exorcisms which work in an apocalyptic worldview, Jesus brings out the spiritual realities using a dualistic language with philosophical reverberations. From the very beginning of the narrative, without making a reference to his birth, it is proclaimed that the protagonist has been with God since “the beginning” and is, in fact, God.
These connections with docetism, however, are amply contradicted because in this gospel the death of Jesus on the cross plays an important role, and “the prince of this world,” a central figure in apocalypticism, has a hand in his death. Most importantly in this regard is the presentation of the Risen Lord living in the body of the crucified Jesus (20: 27). By contrast, the Gospel of Thomas and “Q” contain only teachings of Jesus with very little circumstantial information and do not include his passion and death or references to his resurrection (“Q” is the source with sayings of Jesus used by the authors of According to Matthew and According to Luke).
According to John has an account of the capture, trial and crucifixion of Jesus, leaving no doubt that he died. Because of the way this gospel narrates the trial and crucifixion it cannot be considered docetic. However, there are notable differences with the Synoptic narratives. There is no account of hours of anguish at the Garden of Gethsemane. In the face of the mob that is searching for him, Jesus is in control of the situation, and when he identifies himself saying “I am,” those who had come to take him prisoner fall flat on their backs to the ground (18: 6). Judas does not betray him with a kiss. His divinity is never in doubt, and death seems not to be the enemy that needs to be defeated.
In the judgment before Pilate, when Pilate aims to put him in his place by reminding him that he has power of life and death over him, Jesus corrects him, saying that in reality his power as a Roman procurator is derived from the power that comes from God, that is from him (19: 11). On the cross Jesus does not cite Psalm 22 as the key with which to interpret his death, as in According to Mark. The psalm brings out that the one who feels abandoned by a god who does not do justice ends up proclaiming that God does indeed do justice and has carried out the promised salvation (Ps. 22: 27 – 31). In According to John Jesus on the cross proclaims “It is finished [done]” (19: 30). What was expected of him has been accomplished before his death. That is, his death is not the means of his triumph, but the final point of his “work.” It is the “sign” that must be seen by all and his return to the Father.
In According to Mark, in the trial before Caiaphas several witnesses bring forth contradictory accusations which fail to justify Jesus’ condemnation (Mk. 14: 58 – 60). This causes Caiaphas, somewhat annoyed, to ask him a pointed question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mk.14: 61). To this question Jesus gives a straight answer: “I am” (Mk. 14: 62). With this Caiaphas has obtained what he wanted: Jesus is guilty of blasphemy (Mk. 14: 64).
In According to John the High Priest asks Jesus “about his disciples and his teaching” (18: 19). Jesus avoids the question pointing out that this should be asked of those who heard him at the temple, the synagogue and other public places. Frustrated and without a definite charge against Jesus, the High Priest sends him to be judged by Pilate. The Roman procurator asks those who bring Jesus to him the obvious question: “What accusation do you bring against this man?” (18: 29). Incapable of identifying an accusation, “the Jews” admit that they do not have a definite charge by saying that Pilate may be sure that they are not bringing to him an innocent man (18: 30).
This stratagem serves to establish that “the Jews” are seeking a death sentence from Pilate against a man who is not, as they say, an evildoer. When Pilate tells them to judge him according to “your own law,” they say: “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death” (18: 32). The narrator then explains that in fact this was necessary to fulfill the prophecy that he would die “lifted up” (12: 32), that is, crucified. Under Jewish law he would have died stoned, like Stephen.
The narration of the trial of Jesus in According to John is built on four questions asked by Pilate. They are organically structured on the theology of this gospel. The first question is: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (18: 33). Jesus avoids this question by asking Pilate how he came to think that. Twice in this gospel Jesus has been seen as a king. Only According to John says that after the feeding of the five thousand there arose a desire among some in the crowd to crown him king (6: 15). Jesus, aware of what is going on, succeeds in getting away to the mountain to pray alone. Later, when Jesus is arriving at Jerusalem, a multitude comes out of the city with palm branches and enters the city with him proclaiming “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel” (12: 13, citing Zach. 9: 9). This time the reaction of Jesus is to seat himself on a young ass, thus making clear that, in fact, he is not a king.
In this connection it is necessary to note that in According to John Jesus is not identified as the son of David. Popular opinion has it that he is a native of Nazareth. Since it is expected that the Messiah is to be a descendent of David born in Bethlehem, Jesus does not meet these requirements. As far as the narrator of According to John is concern, those who disqualify him on account of his Galilean origin and his non-Davidic lineage are correct (7: 41 – 42).
Pilate answers Jesus’ question with another question, his second one: “Am I a Jew?” (18: 35). This question seems out of place. Everyone knows that Pontius Pilate is a Roman installed as procurator of Judea by Emperor Tiberius. Whether Pilate is or is not a Jew seems to have nothing to do with whether or not Jesus is the King of the Jews. Must one be a Jew to identify the King of the Jews?
Of course, the original question “Are you the King of the Jews?” must be understood in context. The “Jews” affirm that they are bringing an evildoer to be sentenced to death. If Jesus admits to being the King of the Jews he will be accused of sedition. But in the context of According to John such admission is not possible. Jesus explains himself saying, “My kingdom is not of this world” (18: 36). As already noticed, he does not meet the Jewish expectation of a Messiah who is a Son of David. His presence in this world has nothing to do with the kings and the kingdoms of this world. Jesus came “to bear witness to the truth” (18: 37). Political power and truth are realities of different universes. In the political world justice and truth are often the first victims. Those who belong to the world “below,” the realm of the flesh, fail to distinguish between the “above” and the “below” (8: 23). No, Pilate is not a Jew, but this is not due to his belonging to a different genetic line, or to another political reality. He is not “a Jew” because he is not boxed by a religious ideology that defines things according to unquestionable preconceptions. He is not “a Jew” because he is interested in establishing a valid charge against the prisoner. On the other hand, he is “a Jew” because he cannot understand spiritual realities, seeing things only from the perspective of the world “below.”
Not knowing where he fits, Pilate makes his third question: “What is truth?” (18: 38). This question is more ironic than the previous one, but also quite revealing. How can anyone pose this question to the one who is the Truth? Pilate, obviously, does not see things as they are. He is trying to establish a legitimate accusation against a prisoner brought to him as an evildoer, but is he willing to face the Truth concerning the accused? Until now Pilate has been conducting himself correctly. His motives are honorable; but is he willing to be born “from above” in order to see? Still, from the perspective of the world “below,” Pilate insists three times that he does not find a crime in him (18: 38; 19: 4, 6).
Fearing they will not achieve their goal, “the Jews,” who had rejected the offer to judge him by their “own law,” now declare that “we have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God” (19: 7). The accusation now is not that he is a seditious person but that he is a blasphemer. Pilate’s reaction to this information is surprising. The accusation that Jesus wishes to be the King of the Jews has been set aside because Jesus denies an earthly kingdom. Pilate, as a good politician, does not see a connection between a king of another world and a witness to the truth. Considering the possibility that Jesus may be the Son of God, something that Jesus has claimed publicly throughout his life, Pilate becomes afraid. He who moments earlier threatened the prisoner with life and death power over him is now afraid of the power that resides in the person of the prisoner.
Fear makes Pilate ask his fourth question: “Where are you from?” (19: 9). Finally Pilate has asked the decisive question. This is the question that every reader of According to John must answer. This is the question that drives the plot of this whole gospel. The correct answer to this question is the central Truth of According to John. Life and death depend on the answer given to this question.
At the beginning of the gospel, Philip tells Nathanael that he has found “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote” (1: 46). Nathanael reacts saying that nothing good can come from Nazareth. Ironically, Nathanael is right and Philip is poorly informed. Without a doubt nothing good comes out of Nazareth, but Jesus is not from Nazareth: he is from “above”. This is what the disciples must come to understand. The gospel begins and ends emphasizing that the most important thing to know about Jesus is to know where he is from. In his arguments with “the Jews” and in his prayer to the Father, Jesus insists that the purpose of his life on earth is to cause humanity to recognize him as the One Sent by the Father who descended from “above” (11: 42; 16: 27, 30; 17: 3).
He who has no patience to face the Truth asks: “What is truth?” The frustration and anxiety of the one asking the question demonstrate that he does not have the capacity to recognize the One before him. Foolishly Pilate presents him to the people proclaiming, “Here is the man” (19: 5), but he is not a man from “below”. Only those “born from above” can recognize the One Sent by the Father.
The narration of the trial of Jesus gives the impression that Pilate has failed in his attempt to find a legitimate cause to declare him guilty of a crime that would justify his crucifixion. Three times he declares to have found no crime in him. Naturally, under the circumstances, Pilate is going to set free the prisoner against whom he has been unable to find a reasonable accusation. Blasphemy is not a chargeable offense under Roman law. At the time of the Punic Wars (264 – 146 B.C.E.), afraid of a Carthaginian victory, the Roman senate opened the doors to Eastern mystery religions and gave them civil rights. They were able to follow their rites and customs. Eventually Judaism also became a legally recognized religion (a religio licita). Blasphemy could only be a legitimate charge under Jewish law.
Realizing that Pilate is not going to satisfy their wishes, “the Jews” opt for a personal attack against Pilate, but their maneuver only serves the theological agenda of the gospel. Threatening Pilate with lése majesté (insulting the king), they proclaim not to consider God their king. Caesar is their king. With this declaration “the Jews” of According to John are placed in a worse light than “the Jews” of According to Matthew who demand that “his blood be on us and our children” (Mt. 17: 25). By confessing that Caesar, rather than God, is their king, “the Jews” who demand the crucifixion of Jesus confess to being apostates from the religion of Moses and the prophets. The irony of the situation could not be missed by the original readers.
The final irony in this story is the scene of “the Jews” asking Pilate to change the title he has placed on the cross of Christ. The title on the cross reads: “Jesus of Nazareth: the King of the Jews” (19: 19). Since Caesar is their king, they want to make sure that nobody thinks they consider the crucified one their king. Pilate denies their request. On political matters Pilate sees clearly through their hypocrisy. To reaffirm in the strongest form possible what he has proclaimed in Hebrew, Greek and Latin (19: 20) Pilate says: “Ho gégrafa, gégrafa,” “What I have written, I have written” (19: 22). In Greek the verb in the perfect tense transcends time. In other words, Pilate tells “the Jews,” You can say what you want, but officially Jesus of Nazareth is your king. The real irony is that having rejected the One Sent by the Father from above, those who wished to have Pilate declare Jesus a criminal are condemned by Pilate to have the man from Nazareth, rather than Caesar, as their king. The one who dies on the cross as the King of the Jews, proclaimed as such in three main languages of the Mediterranean world, has been “lifted up” at the insistence of “the Jews” and thereby draws all human beings to himself (12: 32).
According to John gives singular importance to the crucifixion, but narrates the trial of Jesus with its theological agenda on the surface. From the very beginning it directs the attention of its readers to the outpouring of the Spirit that flows from the entrails of the One who has been lifted up and wounded, thus opening the way for all human beings to access the world “above.” Anxious that not one of his readers should miss his purpose, the narrator finishes his presentation of the trial and crucifixion saying: “He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth – that you also may believe” (19: 35). The whole gospel finds its goal in this scene at the cross. No one has ascended to heaven, except the one who descended (3: 13) and opened the way so that all those who believe in Him may ascend and become one with the Father. His crucifixion is his ascent, his return to where he is from.