By Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service
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?”
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.