Many people are interested in the historical Jesus, and when focus is placed on the historical Jesus, on what Jesus really said, the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very important. The gospel of John, however, is almost irrelevant. So, why bother with the Gospel of John.
Let’s start with a broader perspective. When considering the origins of Christianity in the first century and a half of the Common Era, the idea used to be that of a tree. Christianity started as a sure and strong trunk, but soon its branches spread wildly into all heretical directions. These branches over time needed to be trimmed to keep the tree of the faith strong and straight. Depending on our history with and relationship to the faith, branches for some are tree trunks for others.
Until the early 20th century, the image of the birth of Christianity as a tree and branches held. Orthodox Christianity was the trunk of the tree, and heresies were like wild branches.
About the mid-twentieth century the tree metaphor began to collapse. In place of the tree the image today is more like the Big Bang. There is no doubt a point of origin for Christianity, but within a decade or two the Christian movement scatters out in many different directions simultaneously. There is no true Christianity but rather trajectories of Christianity that spread out from the start. There is no true “original” Christianity; there are only movements that succeeded and movements that failed.
Introducing the image of the Big Bang in place of the Big Tree is an elaborate way to begin thinking about the Gospel of John, but this background can be helpful. The Gospel of John emerged as an alternative community that eventually became accepted into the orthodox stream of Christian. When the Gospel of John started, though, it was on its own tragectory.
The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) see Jesus as the power of God for salvation. They commonly see Jesus as God’s “dynamis” or power. The Gospel of John, however, emphasizes Jesus as incarnate wisdom by using the image of the logos or word (John 1:14). Jesus is the word. This unique feature in John can be understood as a unique trajectory in early Christianity. It has a parallel in the letters of Paul, where Paul says that Christ is the wisdom of God (1:24).
This is one feature of John within a picture of three significant streams or trajectories found in the Gospel. These three are somewhat distinct from each other, but they got combined together in the community of John in such a way that the Gospel became acceptable to the main, orthodox expression of Christianity in the second century of the common era. Let’s look at these three unique aspect of John:
1.John as the community that speaks in the Spirit.
2.John as the community of signs.
3.John as the community of the Word made flesh.
Each “John” above comes from the hand of a different redactor (or editor) who represents a layer in the Gospel of John and, by extension, in the Christian tradition. The first layer is that of community members who speak in the Spirit and as such believe they hold the Spirit of Jesus. They speak as if they were Jesus.
We have to imagine that the originating community of John saw Jesus as one who could speak with the authority of the Spirit such that there was no distinction between what Jesus said and what, in effect, God said. We can see this, for example, in saying such as, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:11), and “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” (15:9). Jesus in John does not represent God but expresses God; that is, the relationship is so close that Jesus speaks with the same authority. “I and the Father are one” (10:1). And, “Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father” (5:24).
What is even more astounding is that community members who believed in Jesus received the same authority. In John, the gift of Jesus to the community is the Spirit (the paraclete or Advocate at 14:26). With the power of this Spirit, the Advocate, community leaders also spoke as those who possessed the word of God. The leaders, like Jesus, are those born “from above” (3:3) and share with Jesus the Holy (living) Spirit. They can speak as Jesus: “The Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and will call to mind all that I have told you” (14:26). Note how what they say - what they “call to mind” - will be what Jesus said. The sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John are not the sayings of the historical Jesus but the sayings of community leaders who spoke as if they were Jesus.
Of course, it sounds a bit arrogant to our ears if someone were to claim that he or she speaks on behalf of Jesus or of God or in the same Spirit of God. To say that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” when speaking in the Spirit of Jesus sounds presumptuous, even blasphemous. After all, our natural question is “who made you God?” The first community of John knows this criticism very well, so often we read sentences like, “The teaching I give you is not my own” (7:16) or “I am not the source of the words I speak” (14:10) or “The word you hear is not mine” (14:24). They understood that being in the Spirit of the Living Jesus, as they understood it, and speaking as one from above was not the same thing as simply stating an opinion. The early leaders “from above” spoke in trance-like states in a way similar to prophetic utterance. It was out of these trance-like states that the discourses in John emerged as the discourses of Jesus.
That is the layer in the Gospel, but naturally as time goes by the church at large did not especially appreciate this form of wisdom-centred, born from above, theology. It created two problems. First, any person fill with the spirit in this way was equal to Jesus. That’s not good if you want organized authority in an institution. It is simply not possible to have a bunch of Jesuses running around claiming to speak on behalf of God. There can only be one Jesus.
The Second problem is that a Jesus born from above is a Jesus “not of this world” (18:36); he is effectively too spiritual. As the church developed, the dominant form of its expression fundamentally rejected a Jesus who was not also a Jesus in the flesh. In the first level of John, Jesus does not die for sins: rather he is lifted up as the sign of healing from the sins of the world (3:14). So, the spiritual Jesus needed to be corrected, which happened as we will see in the third layer of John.
The second layer consists of integrating the “book of signs” (the account of the miracles of Jesus) into the “sayings of the Living Jesus.” The miracles work to prove that Jesus alone has a specific relationship to God that communities members do not have. While communities members may have a share in the Spirit of Jesus, only the real Jesus has the unique capacity to be the sign of God. He can raise the dead because he is the life (11:25); he can multiply the loaves because he is the bread (6:35); he can turn water into wine (2:9) because he is the true vine (15:1). The second rendition of John makes sure that only Jesus is Jesus. It does so by integrating the signs of Jesus into the composed sayings of Jesus.
Then, a third trajectory is added: Jesus is the flesh and the blood. This is both an incarnational push by later editors that attempts to align the Gospel of John with emerging orthodoxy. Jesus might be from another world, but the third layer of John makes sure he suffers in this one. This is the Jesus who is introduced in the Gospel as the word becoming flesh (1:14), whose flesh we must eat and whose blood we must drink (6:53); and who after the resurrection - to prove he is physical - is hungry for breakfast (21:12)! At this third layer, John has to be bent toward orthodoxy, making this Gospel is canonical material like Mark and not uncanonical like Thomas.
What are we to make of this story of John? It is a community that starts out as the voice of the living Jesus, but then becomes a witness to the authority of the church. Why bother with it?
One observation to take away is how this community initially is very dynamic. It believes that anyone who enters the Spirit can experience eternal life now. Though wrapped up in Christian language, this first message is about life. It is about entering the Spirit and becoming fully alive. That is not a bad message for our time: life is about the art of being fully alive. That’s the beauty of the Gospel of John.
Yet life is dynamic and unpredictable. This realization sometimes leads to a desire for control. Certainly, the church could not allow for too many spiritual people; it needed control and consistency. It is true that in life we need to balance dynamics with form. Yet, with John the church might have gotten carried away. John ends up not witnessing to the dynamics of early Christianity but to the authority of emerging orthodoxy. John bears witness to the Church not letting this Gospel remain as it was to give witness to the “living spirit.” It is this last point that might be most significant. The Church today no doubt needs to affirm its ability to change, which is effectively what “spirit” really means.