What Can Be Done about the Gospel of John?

I’ve been struggling with the Gospel of John for quite a while. It’s a Gospel filled with beauty and poetry – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being – and it’s a Gospel filled with anti-Jewish polemic and troubling replacement theology. My struggle recently led to some reading and research, for The Gospel according to John exists, misunderstood or not. It cannot be erased. It must be faced.

Episcopal theologian Cynthia Kittredge writes:

“The separation of the Johannine community from its local synagogue was part of the larger development, taking place at the end of the first century and continuing over the next, in which Jesus-believing Jews came to see their movement as one distinct from Jewish identity and not part of it. In this dividing of the ways the Jewish sectarian group gradually became a separate system of belief, Christianity”(Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2007, 53).

Johannine scholar Raymond Brown writes about the development of the Johannine community and the process of rejecting the community’s Jewish roots:

“In the early period the Johannine community consisted of Jews whose belief in Jesus involved a relatively low christology. Later there appeared a higher christology which brought the Johannine community into sharp conflict with Jews who regarded this as blasphemy, and this friction pushed the Johannine group to even bolder assertions.” (Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, New York: Paulist Press, 1979, 25).

Assertions such as those found in John 8: the Jews are not children of Abraham; they are children of the devil; they are not from God.

Jewish New Testament scholar Adele Reinhartz hypothesizes that belief in Jesus as savior would not necessarily be a problem in the first-century Jewish community that would not have rejected belief in a messiah, although not necessarily this particular messiah. Thus the Bethany family, Mary Martha and Lazarus, could comfortably live within the Jewish community and still profess faith in Jesus as Christ and Son of God. “Beliefs in Jesus as the Messiah as such would not have excluded them. Only efforts to persuade Jews to reconstruct their own macro-metaphor in order to place messianism, and belief in Jesus, at the core would have done so” (Befriending the Beloved Disciple, New York: Continuum, 2001, 154).

The problem is one of identity. For the Jewish community, the core of their identity was in obedience to the commandments: observation of the feasts and festivals, the Sabbath, circumcision. Messianism would be only a tangential aspect of identity. For the Johannine writer, the core of the community identity lay in professing Jesus as Christ and Son of God. Reinhartz continues, “In placing messianism and christology at the core of his macro-metaphor, the Beloved Disciple was on a collision course with Judaism” (156).

As Raymond Brown explains in The Community of the Beloved Disciple: “The evidence in Acts 5:33-42 indicates that the Jewish authorities grudgingly extended tolerance to fellow Jews who proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah risen from the dead, provided they did not attack the Temple…But John 5:18 shows that they were not willing to tolerate a Christian claim that presented Jesus as God’s equal” (46-47). It is precisely the high christology of the Johannine Christians that caused the separation and polemic of the Fourth Gospel.

In the pluralistic world of first and second century Palestine and the Diaspora, co-existence between Jewish believers and non-believers in Christ as Messiah was possible, but once christology became the focus of identity – “the new covenant” — observance of the law would fall away and no longer be necessary for salvation, especially once gentiles were recruited into the group. Two major issues stand between the Jewish community and the Johannine community: christology and exclusivity. The exclusive road to salvation through Jesus Christ in John’s Gospel is dangerous: observance of the law moved from a neutral “unnecessary” practice to a practice that was “evil” and “of the devil.”

Cynthia Kittredge’s summation of the problem of the Gospel according to John for the present-day Christian reader of John is similar to that of many contemporary scholars and laypeople: “Appreciation of the historical situation helps us to understand the presence and intensity of the polemics, but understanding does not change or excuse them. To change them requires reading differently, seeking different choices than the text itself provides, to help us find respectful ways to be in dialogue with faithful Jews” (54).

Kittredge’s suggestion for living with the Gospel of John, satisfying our desire for an ethical reading, and loving our neighbors – all of our neighbors — is to take seriously the affirmation in John’s prologue: all things came into being through God. God is committed to all that God has made.

I believe replacing the long-held exclusive anti-Judaism found in the Fourth Gospel with a creation-based inclusive mandate to love all that God has made is easier said than done. But it seems to be the best that theology has to offer. It remains to open-hearted interfaith dialogue and encounter to begin to heal the wounds caused by the tragic dualism between believers and non-believers in the Gospel of John. A text that offers such beauty to believers and such pain to our Jewish brothers and sisters, whom we love, whom God has made.

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5 thoughts on “What Can Be Done about the Gospel of John?

  1. What can be done, you ask. One step is to step away from the NT and read closely some of TNK. The epistle to the Hebrews takes the words of the conversation between the father and the son almost entirely from the psalms. The psalms provide a beginning of an antidote. The chosen people, also called ‘son’ are there for a reason, as an example, and as a focus – a positive focus. Yes Jesus at great cost does all the actions described in the 11 participles in Psalm 146:6-9, but Israel is still called in v 10. Also – no community can grow if it is based only on anti-Semitism. We have seen the judgment of Christendom – so can we instead imitate these 11 ongoing actions of God in Psalm 146 also.

  2. The Letter of the Hebrews has a lot in common with the Gospel of John: the beauty of its language and imagery and its replacement or supercessionist theology. It’s often viewed as the New Testament’s most anti-Jewish text. The author of Hebrews cites Hebrew Scripture almost always to demonstrate the superiority of Christ and argues that the new covenant renders the first one obsolete. Once again, a high christology is used to supercede non-messianic and covenantal Judaism with its emphasis on observance of the law. Recent scholars have made efforts to address the problem of anti-Judaism in Hebrews and to offer alternative understandings, just as the scholars I referenced have done with the Gospel of John. The anti-Judaism of John and Hebrews is not the same as anti-Semitism of course, but unfortunately these texts have been used for anti-Semitic purposes. God’s chosen people of the psalms are more than a positive focus and foundation for Christianity. They still exist as the Jewish people. You can never go wrong turning to the psalms! The lines of Psalm 146 that you reference emphasize creation – God who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them will reign forever. This creation theology — God loves all that God has made – must go hand in hand with christology.

    1. I recall an aclirte I read many years ago in Parabola commenting on much the same point. The writer even said that this was the only account of anyone ever topping Jesus in an argument he’s forced to change perspective and see that, if he’s going to put his money where his mouth is, so to speak, his teaching and his healing are for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.

  3. Re Hebrews and anti-Semitism. At Hebrews 2006 in St Andrews, while we had knock down battles between the theologians and the Biblical Studies folks, there was no indication in any of the lectures that I attended, including some by Jews, that the text is in any way contra-Judaism. The positive aspects of perseverance for example in chapter 11 all come from TNK. Yes there are some aspects of a new covenant but supercessionist is too strong an implication. Do we really think that animal sacrifice is effective? Is a hierarchic priesthood practicing animal sacrifice effective?

    Like you I struggle with this problem of interpretation especially with the word ‘better’. An unfortunate word that is not the comparative of ‘good’ (le meillure est l’enemie du bon) but rather I think more closely related to power, dominion, and strength, those gifts that are given to the human in Gen 1 and promised again in Psalm 8.

  4. Calm rational discussion (or knock down battles) among theologians and Biblical Studies folks are one thing. The appalling uses to which texts have been put is another. The beautiful and frustrating thing about biblical texts is that you can find evidence for one thing and then find evidence for the opposite thing. Let’s just keep on affirming God’s love…I don’t think that there are many who will defend cultural anachronisms like animal sacrifice…and let’s keep on affirming the faith of TNK and NT alike.

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