The Gospel of John and the Hellenization of Jesus
In John we find the culmination of Greek philosophy that has created the Jesus that we are the most familiar with today. A fully-formed Hellenized Jesus has emerged to become an equal with God. The Gospel of John (ca. 120 CE) is complex and mystical. It’s purpose is to propagandize the message that Jesus is God Himself, creator of the universe, and so powerful that "whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (3:16).
The anonymous author of John makes liberal use of allegory and double-entendre to illustrate this theme. The literary style of the author matches the mysticism of his subject perfectly:
The writer [of John] achieves a rather constant variation through the use of synonymous words and phrases, restatement of phrases and clauses, changes in word order of repeated statements, and the repetition and restatement of certain thoughts on the same subject, even to the point of outright contradiction.(1)
For John, nothing is at it seems and Jesus symbolizes the catalyst for eternal life and the path with which to achieve everlasting life in the divine realm where Jesus has descended from. Even the casual reader of the four gospels can easily discern the jump between the Synoptic tradition with Mark through Matthew and the apocryphal John.
We see in John a desire to use Greek pagan concepts and philosophies as a tool for communicating Jesus as the Logos to a Christianized Gentile audience. John’s Logos would not be understood by Jews and his book would only be familiar to someone practiced in the pagan mystery cults that flourished in the Hellenistic world. Heraclitus of Ephesus used the word Logos around 500 BCE to describe his concept of the regularity with which the universe seemed to operate. The universe was a divine machine and Heraclitus credited the Logos (literally the reason) as the ultimate rationale which secretly operated the universe and the heavens above.
The Logos was often ill-defined, but was responsible for keeping the ratio of all things in proportion, much like the balance of Eastern yin (dark) and yang (light). The cult of Hermes made use of this to describe their Hermetic corpus written about in the Poimandres:
The [Poimandres] writer fell into a deep and heavy trance, in which there appeared to him a being who introduced himself as Poimandres (Shepherd of Men), "the Mind of Authority." Poimandres then shows the mystic a vision, in which he sees a great light and a great darkness, respectively reality and matter. From the light comes "a Holy Logos," …the "shining Son of God," who proceeds from Mind itself…(2)
By the beginning of the Common Era, the Logos was a deeply felt and intricate part of Greek thought despite its mystical and sometimes confusing machinations. It was well established that the Logos was a divinely felt presence of God, but no philosopher could find a more practical implementation for how the Logos actually mattered to humans and their lives. The man who would provide this meaning and give personified substance to the Logos at the beginning of the Common Era was Philo.
Philo of Alexandria (30 BCE – 45 CE) introduced the concept of the Logos as an allegorical force of Yahweh. He was a Jew of the dispersion, and observed the mitzvot, yet like a lot of cosmopolitan Alexandrians of the time, worshipped the Greek gods too. Philo believed that the two worlds were not irreconciliable and the Logos was his attempt at melding Yahwism with the Greek vision of God. The Greeks, armed with the powerful philosophy of Plato, and later Aristotle, believed that God was inherently "unknowable." He was beyond human understanding and all attempts to describe God would end in failure. However, a glimpse of God could be attained through rational thinking and deep meditation. If one could achieve the Hermetic level of mystical awareness as chronicled in the Poimandres, one will be able to experience God.
Yahweh, however, was much different in that he was easily accessible and constantly busied himself with the details of everyday Jewish life. Yahweh could be experienced and explained in traditional human terms: fear, envy, hope, and of course, revenge. When the Israelites needed a victory on the battlefield against their enemies, Yahweh, the "god of war," was there to assist them and even to plan battle tactics with them.(3) He promised unending war with the Amalekites that would last "from generation to generation" and that he would be with them always in their battles.(4) Yahweh was the opposite of the philosophic construct of the Greek Unknowable; he was nearby and could be reached easily just by calling out to him.
Philo’s work bridged this gap, postulating an ousia of God, or a singular essence, which is the unknowable, and an energeiai (energy) which was the very thoughts of God. God’s energy could interact and touch the lives of mortals despite the remote ousia which was inaccessible to man. Philo believed that humans interact with God by experiencing the energy of where he had been; God’s shadow could come into a mortal’s life even if only briefly. The Logos was a mediator for God; making it possible to realize the energy of God, and thus, by extension, the impossible ousia of God Himself.
Because of Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, Moses, when descending Mount Sinai with Yahweh’s Torah is depicted as experiencing Yahweh’s energy and we are told that the people who saw Moses were ‘blinded’ by the energy of God’s presence which still emanated from Moses’ face. In the New Testament, Philo’s Logos ushers in a new way of thinking about Jesus, leaving behind the Messianic messenger of the Q source and the early Synoptics.
Philo never explained clearly what his Logos was, but it often took on the form of the essence or divine nature of God. Philo’s Word was extremely popular among Jews and non-Jews alike, successfully splitting God into multiple personifications that pagan worshippers would later refine further from Bi- to Trinitarian concepts that we are familiar with today. We first see the application of the philosophy of the Logos in the prologue of the Gospel of John which begins by proclaiming Philo’s triumph:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. The same was in the beginning with God … and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father [God]." (John 1:1-14)
John is distinct from the Synoptic Tradition because of the nature of the transformation of Jesus. The shift takes us from the Judaic idea of a chosen people’s messiah, to a Wisdom, a sophia, that pervades all things and all people. The Word that has existed from the beginning, and while the Word came and dwelt among men, "they knew him not." (1:12) John has promulgated the Logos in a radically new way. Suddenly, man is not only capable, but deserved from the beginning of time, to accept the Logos, the Word, the Christ, as a gnosis, an available knowledge of the Elect. This gnosis tills man’s evil nature and produces fertile ground so that the perfect God and the flawed Man can meet and establish a fellowship. Like other Greek philosophical constructs: beauty, wisdom, and truth, Jesus, as the Logos, becomes God.
The Hellenization of Jesus is complete in John. Jesus’ eschatalogical, or end of the world, message is removed and Jesus instead comforts those who have vigilently awaited his second coming:
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.(5)
John’s Jesus relieves the tension that filled the early Christians; the long overdue wait and the tardiness of the apocalypse which never came has been explained at last. By the beginning of the second century, when it was realized that Jesus was not coming as promised, John comforts his fellow Christians and allows them the luxury to carry on in life as normal. John’s Jesus is preparing their proper place and it is on his timetable, not theirs, and in due course he will let them know when it is ready. Nearly two thousand years later, we are still waiting for John’s mansions to materialize.
It is possible that the author of John was heavily influenced by the Essenes, a mystical ascetic Jewish sect who sequestered themselves from civilization and waited for the Parousia, the apoclyptic end of the world. There are similarities between Essenic writings such as the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and John such as the belief that men must repent spiritually and then be baptised to become purified in that spirit. This concept is alien to Messianic Judaism, but baptism was practiced by the Essenes who, in turn, learned it from the Greek Pythagorean mystery-cult.(6) Other similiarities include the numerous allegories between the "light" and the "dark." We are told that the "light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" in John 1:5 and later:
While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light. These things spake Jesus, and departed, and did hide himself from them.(7)
The Essenes wrote extensively about the Children of Light who were constantly engaged in a battle against their nemesis, the Wicked Priest who was of darkness. The contrasts of those who walk in the light and those lost in the dark are played heavily in John. Dialogues are set up between dupes who are of the dark (the world), and Jesus of the light (heaven). There is no hope for these children of darkness who are doomed to take Jesus’ rhetoric literally. The woman at the well in Samaria is told that "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again. But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life" (4:13-14). She does not understand Jesus’ meaning, but John’s intended readers who are already well-versed in Philo’s allegory are well aware of the spiritual water that Jesus is referring to.
Nicodemus also misunderstands Jesus’ mysterious teachings that one must be "born from above" or again to enter the kingdom of God. Taking Jesus quite literally, Nicodemus asks, "How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?" (3:4). The allegorist-minded reader can smile along with John and rest assured that as one "chosen" they can understand the message of Jesus although Nicodemus does not.(8) Further, Nicodemus plays the fool in order to strengthen and legitimize the underlying spiritual journey of being born anew. The Johannine Christians were particular in isolating themselves from the Children of Darkness, i.e., anyone who was not "born from above."
Early Christians most likely practiced then-common spiritual journeys that were widespread and written extensively about in Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian literature.(9) Grese writes:
[John 3:3 and 3:13] are concerned with heavenly journeys, and only the meaning "born from above" fits this connection…. Jesus is the only one with access to the heavenly secrets…[which] demonstrated [the Christians] superiority over those who surrounded them.(10)
The early Christians, like all of their religious contemporaries from whom the Christians drew their converts, desired to verify their religion by making a spiritual journey and seeking the divinity on the higher planes of existence where he dwelled. The Logos, dwelling therein from the beginning, could be "felt" by this heavenly trip through the higher planes. Jesus is made to say in John that unless one undertake this journey, they cannot achieve everlasting life. The liturgy of the Eucharist that John prescribes to the converted in being "born again" is necessary "so that the speaker might gaze upon the immortal beginning (Jesus) with the immortal (Holy) spirit … and be born again in thought."(11)
Some modern Christian believers are familar with this concept of being born again through a spirit and regard it as unique to Christianity. The just-quoted text however is from the pagan Mithras Liturgy, a guidebook of sorts that assists in the Eucharist and prepares the sojourner for his heavenly journey. It advises the seeker of the Sun-god (father of Mithras) to pray saying:
[F]irst beginning of my beginning, …spirit of spirit, the first spirit in me, …now if it be your will, …give me over to immortal birth and, following that, to my underlying nature, so that, after the present need which is pressing me exceedingly, I may gaze upon the immortal beginning with the immortal spirit, …that I may be born again in thought."(12)
Many Greek and Roman texts survive which describe similar transformations that are necessary before one may ascend to heaven. In John, we find this merging between this unique Mithraic Eucharist ritual and the Jewish Messiah of Jesus. John’s Jesus acts as the Mithraic communicator in the heavens (where Jesus was born and lives) and has Jesus promise to send the Holy Spirit as the vehicle for such a heavenly bonding (16:7).
The heavenly journey, familiar to the Christianized pagans who were converting en masse and for whom John writes, needed more than the Judaic discipline of strict adherence could provide. They needed assurance that their conversion would not be in vain. End of the world messages and doomsayers were rampant during the time of Jesus and a healthy skepticism benefited the would-be believer. But, as the Samaritan woman and the example of Nicodemus the foolish disciple show, the spiritual journey was not for everyone, only the Elect. These victims of Jesus’ spiritual revelations and allusions are caricatured for the benefit of the Christianized Johannine reader, who is well aware of the role they wish their nonhuman savior to play. That Jesus himself is particularly void of human characteristics, typical of a Jewish messiah is strikingly aparrant:
To his interlocutors in the story, Jesus reveals little other than their ignorance. He leaves them baffled, confused, and angry while he moves on, serenely untroubled, through the highly charged atmosphere that he has created. …Jesus is not quite human. He does not laugh; he does not appear to suffer; he remains impassive through all the confrontations that he provokes with both Jews and Romans, until he accomplishes his goal: the cross. He dies only when he knows all that has been fulfilled, expiring in complete control and saying only, "It is finished."(13)
John was written for the Greek Christian of the beginning of the second century. These recent converts were more educated, wealthy, and despised the Diaspora Jews who resided in their cities and who enjoyed the respect of Rome. John removes the offensive references to Jesus as a Jewish Messiah that are particular to the earlier gospels, in order to present the Logos in more palatable form. In so doing, John creates a simulacrum that is barely human. The earlier Synoptic traditions are emphatic in presenting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, descendent of David, and eschatological messenger of the end of the world where God collects his Chosen People. John removes the unpleasantness of Jewish geneaology as well as all references to Palestinian and Davidic descent.
Jesus is distanced from the Jews who are the children of darkness:
Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.(14)
Jesus is made to condemn the Jews as Satanic by John, while the Christians are now the Essenic ideals of the Children of Light with a special gnosis of revelation in understanding the Logos in its true form. John’s nonhuman "superman" loses several qualities that we are familiar with from the Synoptic tradition. Notably, the birth narrative of Jesus is missing, we are told in the prologue only that "in the beginning" Jesus coexisted with God and that he is "full of grace and truth." John feels that to inform us of the particularly human trait of birth, even if virginal and thus not actuated by lust, would not be fitting of a God who is the Word. Human characteristics that Mark informs us of, such as the need for cleansing through baptism (1:9) or the Temptation (1:13), are conspicuously absent from John. To John’s author, Jesus has no need for cleansing, he is already without sin. Likewise it would be foolish to narrate the temptation in the wilderness, for Satan is obviously no match against God and John’s intended reader would be confused over such an idea. By the time John was first written at the end of the first century, the tales of Jesus grew to such an extent that Jesus was now fully transformed into a Hellenized god.
Fredriksen, Paula. "From Jesus to Christ." London: Yale, 1988.
Larson, Martin A. "The Story of Christian Origins." Washington, D.C.: New Republic, 1977.
Rose, H.J. "Religion in Greece and Rome." New York: Harper, 1959.