CNS Bible Blog: Life and truth in John’s Gospel

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

The prologue to the Gospel of John — Chapter 1, verses 1-18 — consists of a poetic hymn of great beauty and symbolic power. In centuries past the words themselves were thought to contain spiritual power so the prologue was often read over the sick. It also used to be recited by the priest at the end of the liturgy.

The prologue itself has been likened to the overture of an opera — it contains all of the themes that will be developed throughout the Gospel. Make note of some of the special words like “light,” “truth,” and so on and then watch for their repetition in later chapters as their meaning and application are unfolded.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

Let us examine two of those words: “life” and “truth.” Life (zōē) is used 36 times in John, 17 of these with the qualifier “eternal.” This is the life not of world to come but world above. Jesus — the Word of God — is identified with life itself. The logos or Word which is life (zōē) (1:3-4) came into a world alienated from God (1:10-13). He has the power of life within himself (5:26) and anyone who receives eternal life through belief in Jesus passes from death to life (5:24). Jesus can grant it to anyone whom he wishes.

Jesus insists that he has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly (10:10) and that he alone has the power to lay down his life and take it up again. In 11:25, he tells the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life, and that anyone who believes in him will live even if they die, and anyone who lives and believes in him will never die.

A literal or superficial understanding of these words is absurd: many devout people have died. But John’s seemingly mundane words always have a transcendental meaning, and here he is definitely not speaking of biological life and death. The life that Jesus grants — eternal life — is living in the presence and awareness of God. Believers in Jesus experience eternal life even while still living their earthly life. In order to prove his claim to be able to give life to whomever he wishes, he promptly goes to the tomb and restores physical life to Lazarus. But this is not a resurrection, for Lazarus will still have to die again.

Truth is another of those rather vague and illusive Johannine terms. In 1:14, Jesus is described as full of grace and truth. What can that mean? In the encounter with the woman at the well in 4:24, Jesus denies that the worship of God can be tied to any particular place. The time has arrived for all true worshippers of God to worship Him in spirit and truth.

Jesus promises his audience in 8:32 that they will know the truth and the truth will make them free. Human knowledge is not what he had in mind, despite the dismaying tendency of many libraries to inscribe that verse over their doors.

Jesus told a perplexed Pilate that he had come into the world to witness to the truth, and Pilate responded with a rather weary and cynical, “What is truth?” not realizing that truth was quite literally staring him in the face. In fact, Jesus identifies himself in 14:6 as both life and truth and as a visible manifestation of the Father. This means that Jesus lives totally in God and God in him, and he is able to manifest the true God and the truth about God to a world ensnared in ignorance. Only by knowing and experiencing God directly and personally will we be freed from fear and ignorance and live as free children of God.

John is subtle and complicated. We should be wary of throwing Johannine verses around to prove theological points. John’s “truths” are meant to be experienced personally, not analyzed or rationalized.

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CNS Bible Blog: Only seven miracles in Gospel of John

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

There are striking differences between John’s Gospel and the three “synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

The presentation of Jesus is the most prominent of these differences. Mark portrays Jesus as the “man of sorrows” who suffers and dies abandoned and misunderstood by all. From the cross he cries out, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

John’s Jesus, on the other hand, is a man of power and glory, the complete master of his fate in every circumstance. This majestic and omniscient figure moves with confidence and purpose towards the cross and experiences the Passion with something approaching serenity. One scholar aptly described John’s Jesus as “God striding across the face of the earth.”

The synoptic Gospels are filled with the miracles of Jesus, and they are described as dynamis or deeds of power. Each miracle announces the arrival and presence of the kingdom or reign of God. In the fourth Gospel, on the other hand, there are only seven miracles — seven being a sacred number — and they are referred to as semeia or signs. Each miracle is an authenticating sign of the identity of Jesus as the one sent from above into the world.

In Mark, it seems that all of Galilee was teeming with demons — exorcisms play a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus. Exorcisms are conspicuously absent in John. But there is another glaring difference in detail that no amount of intellectual contortions will reconcile. In the synoptic tradition Jesus makes only one journey to Jerusalem as an adult — his first and last. Upon entering Jerusalem he “cleanses” the temple, an act considered so threatening by the authorities that they plot his death. The temple cleansing is the last significant public act of Jesus.

The fourth Gospel has Jesus making at least three journeys to Jerusalem, which is probably more historically accurate. Not only that, the temple “cleansing” takes place at the very beginning of his ministry, his first significant public act and one that initiates tension and controversy with the authorities. The “last straw” for the authorities in John is the raising of Lazarus, which is not even mentioned in the synoptic tradition.

We should not try to reconcile or harmonize John with the other three, for the integrity of each of the four Gospels must be respected. Each of the Gospels has a distinct theology and way of presenting the life and the significance of Jesus.

John is easily misunderstood if read in a literal or superficial manner. Things are never as they seem, for words and symbols have subtle shades of meaning and levels of understanding. Water is never just water; bread is more than bread. Ordinary words are used to convey higher spiritual truths, a reality of which most people are blissfully unaware.

John makes extensive use of irony — a literary device that draws the reader into the perspective of the narrator or author. The character in the story does not grasp the irony and is the hapless “victim,” while the reader — clearly in the know — is drawn deeper into the story. Most of the irony is centered on the origin and identity of Jesus as well as his death.

Chapter 9 — the story of the man born blind — is a good example of deep symbolism, for blindness is used to portray the human inability to perceive spiritual truth. Chapter 6, in which Jesus describes himself as the “bread come down from heaven” and his flesh and blood as a source of spiritual sustenance and life, further illustrates John’s use of metaphor and symbol.

We should be wary of reading John too quickly or thinking that we understand a passage clearly. Each verse must be interpreted in terms of John’s overall theology and spiritual lexicon.

The Catholic vote in the long campaign

It won’t be long before results of the looooong presidential campaign of 2008 are known, but the debate over the Catholic influence on that vote is likely to continue. A quick search of Google news alerts on Catholic vote shows that it’s a subject that seems to fascinate the world.

The Times of Malta, for example, had this story yesterday. The Dallas Morning News said in this article that the election had as much to do with “Church Street” as it did with Wall Street or Main Street. A Los Angeles Times columnist proclaimed the end of the Catholic vote last week, while Medical News Today had this summary of various newspapers’ views on the subject.

We here at CNS also have had a lot to say about the Catholic vote, as evidenced by this story and this one. There will be more tomorrow, next week at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore and beyond.

Most-viewed CNS stories for October

Our most-viewed stories lists are always an interesting look at the issues that are at the top of our readers’ agendas, and October’s list is no exception. Did you miss seeing any of these?

1. New human body disposal process raises alarms (Oct. 24)

2. Muslim convert to Catholicism tells pope Islam is not inherently good (Oct. 29)

3. 1986 economic pastoral revisited as world faces financial meltdown (Oct. 21)

4. U.S. archbishop at Vatican says Democrats becoming ‘party of death’ (Sept. 29)

5. Dinner gives Smith’s great-great-grandson new take on famous relative (Oct. 17)

6. Black Catholics see Obama candidacy as a path to racial equality (Oct. 3)

7. 1929 vs. 2008: Similar forces at work eight decades apart (Oct. 10)

8. Two Jesuit priests in Moscow found brutally murdered in apartment (Oct. 29)

9. No ‘Yahweh’ in songs, prayers at Catholic Masses, Vatican rules (Aug. 12)

10. Pope meets privately with U.S. bishops’ officials (Oct. 23)

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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