CNS Bible Blog: The enigmatic Gospel of John

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The Gospel of John holds a special and rather exalted place in Christian tradition. Our theology and spirituality draw heavily on its lapidary but enigmatic verses.

We immediately recognize “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” as descriptive of Jesus. The dramatic insistence in 1:14 that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us is the foundation of our theology of the Incarnation.

Scott Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

But it was not always so. This Gospel was not universally accepted in the earliest church. It was viewed with suspicion because of its enthusiastic use by Gnostic groups — overly spiritualized groups who denigrated the flesh, creation, and involvement with the world.

The Gospel shares some of the dualism of Gnosticism — a sharp contrast between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and falsehood. In an ironical turn that John would truly appreciate, by the fourth century this Gospel was considered the epitome of orthodoxy and was a rich source for many of our Christological doctrines.

But there are problems. Since the Gospel of John is a faith document, we have to confront three problematic areas if it is to continue to speak to people in the 21st century: 1) its anti-Judaic bias; 2) its relevance for the poor and marginalized; and 3) its exclusivism in a world that is increasingly pluralistic.

John was written at the end of the tumultuous first century A.D. — around 90 or so — and in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. There is harsh anti-Judaic polemic throughout the Gospel, and the term “the Jews” was used repeatedly to refer to those opposed to Jesus. Chapter 8 contains the infamous passage in which Jesus seemingly calls the Jewish people offspring of the devil. This had tragic consequences for it fueled theological and popular anti-Semitism for centuries to come.

A page from the ninth-century Lorsch Bible, showing a decorative painting of St. John the Evangelist. (CNS photo courtesy of the Vatican Library)

A page from the ninth-century Lorsch Bible, showing a decorative painting of St. John the Evangelist. (CNS photo courtesy of the Vatican Library)

We must remember that the author of the Gospel and those of his community were also Jews. John has often been accused of having an excessive concern with coming to faith — “getting saved” — and precious little to do with social justice, the poor and engagement with the problems of our world. It is true that John is extremely reticent on specifics. But as we will see, his one commandment — to love one another — is deceptively simple on the surface but comprehensive and demanding when it is unpacked and applied.

John is rather sectarian in his outlook — there are very sharp and clear boundaries between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” In his three letters, John’s harshest words are for those who were formerly members of his community. He reserves the epithet “Antichrist” for them.

He is uncompromising in his view of salvation — in 3:16 there is the well-known and beautiful statement about the extent of God’s love for the world and his sending of the son. But if we read a bit further, there is harsh judgment and condemnation for those who refuse to receive him. In fact, John has a simple explanation for those who will not come to faith in Jesus: quite simply, they are evil and never belonged to God in the first place. John was adamant that his particular interpretation of Jesus Christ was the only valid one.

We must remember that the fourth Gospel is a mixture of the beautiful and sublime with the very human and the negative. John’s community felt itself threatened and under siege. Inspiration is always mediated through human consciousness and historical circumstances. Interpretation of the text should always be done with an open mind and a compassionate and generous heart.

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