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Library: Modern Documents: James Still: John Context

Contextual Problems with the Gospel of John

James Still

The Johannine material (Gospel of John) is a radical departure from the synoptics of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John's psuedepigraphical author relied solely on the Greek Septuagint, did not have a Semitic-language background, and Colwell (Greek of the Fourth Gospel) echoes what other scholars agree with, that being that the text of John "shows language and vocabulary paralleled in pagan usage of the first century A.D." Additionally, I should like to explore the contextual differences between the Gospel of John as king-maker who turns Jesus into a sacrificial soter man-god, Philo's Logos, and a Creator (of the universe), versus the synoptic tradition of Jesus as eschatological Messiah and messenger who heralds the kingdom of God.

I refer to Sanders [1993] for a contemporary review of the literature that concentrates on how "John and the synoptics are again very different." I'll outline them:

  1. The synoptics tell that Jesus performed exorcisms, but John does not.
  2. The synoptic Jesus refuses to give signs of his authority (Mark 8:11f) but John's Jesus is prominent in lavishing a series of signs in order to prove his authority. (2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:48, 54; 6:2, 14; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:8, 37; 20:30)
  3. The synoptic Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is but never comments on the topic himself. (Mark 8:27; 11:27-33) The Johannine Jesus departs from this greatly by having Jesus speak of his authority, identity, relationship with God and his disciples and so on. Nothing is privately discussed (per the synoptics) and this is all publically open.
  4. The synoptic Jesus is primarily concerned with the Kingdom of God and uses the Parousaic end-of-the-world (eschatological) message as a basis for much of his ministry. The Johannine Jesus is primarily concerned with his own role as a "soter" or sacrifice to God. Only in 3:5 does Jesus mention the Kingdom of God, but only conditionally, dependant upon being "born from above."
  5. Most striking is the style. Unlike the synoptics, in John there are no stories, no actions, that illustrate how God deals with his people. "Just as there are no synoptic-like similes or parables in John, there are no symbolic metaphors in the synoptics.

The synoptics often describe discourse in simile form: the Spirit of God descends "like" a dove (Matt. 3:16); the Kingdom of God is "like" a mustard seed (Mark 4:31); the Kingdom of God is "like" leaven (Luke 13:21). John however makes liberal use of categorical statements such as "I am" (the true vine [15:1]) or "I am from above; ye are of this world." (8:23). John for the first time, makes his Jesus state definitively those things that early Christians thought that he was, but that he himself did not say that he was.

The Johannine Jesus is ripped from the synoptic and Judaic traditions and made into a Orphic mystery. In the manner of the soter-gods (Dionysus and Osiris) Jesus is made into the role of a mystery soter god and declares that he is "the Bread of God."

For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. (John 6:33-35)

This non-Jewish concept is an abomination to the very Jews who Jesus lived among, taught, and himself believed accordingly. The Johannine Jesus is made to declare: "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. (6:56) This distinctly pagan element that John grafts onto the Jesus-story gets to the core of the god-man pagan mystery-cults of the Gentile world. John's Jesus's own disciples told him that the pagan soter motif was "a hard saying; who can hear it?" (6:60) Of course to the psuedopigraphical author of John, the Jews were incapable of understanding the mysteries that he wrote about anyway. Their fate was predestined to turn away from his pagan construct and retain their own Jewish ways.

These, and other Johannine elements attached to a paganized Jesus were so close to the cult of Dionysus that Justin found himself apologizing for their similiaries. Additionally, the cult of Dionysus and pre-200 CE Christianity were often confused with each other so that people accused the Christians of infanticide, sexual orgies, and omophagia, (eating of human flesh as a transubtantiation of the god), practices which were widely known as Dionysaic. Justin found himself defending Christianity against these charges declaring "Do you also...believe that we eat human flesh and that after our banquets we extinguish the lights and indulge in unbridled sensuality?" (Trypho 10) Tertullian likewise wrote, "We are accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it...[and] after the feast, we practice incest...." (Apology 39)

Of course we know a great deal of early Christian Eucharist practice from many sources, most revealing Cyril (315-386) of Jerusalem and his Lectures. These Christian practices entitled "mystagogical" (after the pagan mysteries) describe the process whereby initiates are to become "wedded to Christ" (as Orphic initiates were to Dionysus) and led into a grand processional to the chapel for esoteric study and final initiation.

Eighteen of Cyril's lectures are a catechism concerning the fundamentals of Christian faith warning adherents to beware of the Devil and his machinations, told of the world's end, and the secrets of heaven, hell, and the resurrection. Perhaps most revealing due to its striking connection to the pagan soter mysteries, Cryil describes an eventual Eucharist ceremony where the initiate accepts a eucharist as a substitute for the literal body of the Christ: "Thus we come to bear Christ in us, because His Body and Blood are distributed through our members; thus it is that, according to the blessed Peter, we become partakers of the divine nature." (22,3)

Additionally, as expressed by Lohfink (former Catholic Theological professor at University of Tubingen, now at Munich) [1987] we are in a serious exegetical predicament as to the nature of the "kingdom of God" due to the Gospel of John's success in "transforming the concept into the ideas of God's righteousness." Almost from the beginning the synoptic kingdom of God that Jesus spent so much time preaching others to aspire to, was quickly misunderstood and lost (specifically what was originally meant by zoe, dikaiosune, theou, and basileia theou) John successfully places Jesus in the role of the savior through whom all must pass in order to achieve the kingdom of God. Clearly, Jesus did not teach this himself in the synoptics.

Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was a present-tense manifestation (or a gift) which was readily available to those who repent and follow the Law. "Blessed are the eyes which see what you see. For I tell you: Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and have not seen it..." (Luke 10:23ff) and when tempted by a lawyer who asks "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus replies:

What is written in the law? how readest thou? And [the lawyer] answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Luke 10:26ff)

Later Jesus emphasizes the present-tense gift of the kingdom of God by telling his disciples that "the kingdom of God is already at your disposal." (17:21) Lohfink says that "Jesus' message is simply misunderstood if it is formulated in such a way that God gives his kingdom, but not entirely; that he allows it to break forth, but only part way; that he reveals it, but only proleptically."

None of these Judaic elements survive in the Hellenic Gospel of John. Jesus' words are ignored and the pagan soter mysteries are preferred instead. The two cannot be reconciled against each other: either Jesus was originally correct in the synoptic tradition in saying that rigid adherence to the law would bring the worshipper to God or John's mysteries that place Jesus in the central role of eternal life-giver are correct. Either Jesus was a Jewish Messiah (eschatological messenger) per the synoptics, or he was a Johannine Logos and Creator of the world.

We have a long way to go in explaining these contextual discrepancies before we can say with any certainty that the Johannine soter is reconcilable with Jesus, the Palestianian Jew of the synoptics.