The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 2010) breaks the Gospel of John into two parts. Based on the work of earlier scholars (R.T. Fortna, and U.C. von Wahlde), the Jesus Seminar scholars propose that this Gospel was developed from an earlier, “signs” gospel (similar to Q), which was a theological proof that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah. The signs were woven into a narrative which included John the Baptist, Jesus in Galilee, Jesus in Jerusalem, the culimination of Jesus’ signs (the Council’s plan; Jesus in the Temple), the prelude to Jesus’ passion, the passion narrative, Jesus’ resurrection, and the conclusion. Jesus’ miracles include
Water into wine (2:1-11);
An official’s son healed (2:12a:4:46b-54)
A huge catch of fish (2:1-14)
Loves and fish for 5,000 (6:1-14)
Jesus walks on the sea (6:16-21)
Lazarus raised (11:1-45)
A blind man give sight (9:1-8)
A crippled man healed (5:2-9)
The problem with the proof was that the so-called Messiah, God’s own Anointed One, was murdered by the Roman authorities. Eventually, those who persisted in believing that Jesus was the Anointed One either left the synagogues on their own volition, or were thrown out. A savior convicted and executed as a terrorist simply did not make sense. Paul’s arguments to the contrary either did not make the rounds, were equally dismissed as lunacy, or reinterpreted in a way that completely changed what Paul was talking about. (See, e.g., “Reclaiming the Victory: Easter Sunday 2011”; see also The Authentic Letters of Paul, Polebridge Press, 2010.)
What became the Gospel of John was addressed to a Greek and Hebrew-speaking community, who saw themselves “as a beleaguered but divinely vindicated minority . . . within the decade or two following the centralized Jewish decision to expel believers in Jesus from the synagogue, that is, during the last fifteen yearsor so of the first century. . . . The author, like the three other gospel writers, is anonymous and only a century later was identified with John, the son of Zebedee (and he with ‘the disciple Jesus Loved’).” The Complete Gospels p. 207.
The gospel writer wastes no time establishing Jesus, not John the Baptist, as the Anointed One. The Baptist himself witnesses to the first sign: “I have seen the spirit coming down upon him like a dove out of the sky; that’s the one who baptizes with the holy spirit. I have seen this and I announce: This is the son of God.” Within a few paragraphs, Jesus has called his disciples, and claimed even greater signs and wonders to come: “Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You’re going to see a lot more than that.”
The Gospel of John is the work of a mystic. The writer argues for mythos, not logos, from a 1st century cosmology. He understands the universe as heaven above – from where God rules – the earth in the middle, which belongs to God, and the realm of the dead below the earth, where God and God’s light do not exist. He brings his listeners (or readers) from the dawning of earth’s existence, when Wisdom was there and was what God was, to the genuine light that cannot be mastered no matter how great the darkness. “The law was given through Moses,” John writes, “mercy and truth came through Jesus the Anointed One.” That is the whole argument. The rest is proof.
For 21st Century mystics, the Universe is far greater than anything John could have imagined. But John’s metaphor still holds power. John the Baptist assures everyone that he is not the One, not Elijah, and not the Prophet. The Baptist anoints with water those whose hearts are changed; God’s Anointed transforms water into wine. Wine is a gift from God that “gladdens the heart” (Psalm 104); it is the pay-off for honoring the Lord “with the first fruits of all your produce; then . . . your vats will be bursting with wine” (Proverbs 3:9-10); it is a sign of God’s grace: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55); it is a sign of the restoration of justice: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when . . . the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel . . . they shall plant their vineyards and drink their wine . . . and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God” (Amos 9:13-15).
The Gospel of John may be a last-ditch effort to preserve Jesus’ message of salvation as deliverance from injustice in this life, not a free ride to glory in the next life. My colleague in the struggle, John Shuck, is also exploring the Gospel of John with his congregation in Elizabethton, TN. His sermon for January 8 discussed John 1:19-51:
[An] important word for John is world or cosmos. Depending on the context, it can mean earthly existence, life, or more often than not, it is a word for what [Walter] Wink calls the “domination system.” Jesus says, “I am not of this world.” What does he mean? I do not think he is saying that he is from another planet or from another place like heaven, or that he is of another spiritual incarnation or some spooky notion like that. It means that he does not conform to the values of the dominant system.
Lest there be any doubt, when I care about Jesus or about the Gospel of John it is not because I care about heaven or hell or reincarnation or resurrected corpses or supernaturalism or any of that stuff. I think all of that is a distortion of the original impulse of Jesus and of those who caught what he was saying and doing. We have literalized first century symbolism and thus distorted it.
The historical Jesus and the imaginative creation by John’s Gospel is an invitation and an exhortation to respond to the “world” by becoming a human being. I don’t want to be anything less or more than a human being. Being a human being means that we expose the values of “this world” for what they are—death values.
More than being a “human being” on this earth, John’s gospel calls for a transformed life: water into wine; a temple made of distributive justice-compassion, not gold and stone. The writer follows the miracle of water-into-wine with the snapshot of Jesus clearing the Temple of the representatives of injustice – perhaps those who do not acknowledge him as the Messiah he claims to be. “Destroy this temple and I’ll raise it in three days,” he says. Jesus’ disciples later remembered what he had said, and applied it to the story of his death and resurrection.
But “Jesus didn’t trust himself to them, because he understood them all too well. . . he knew what people were really like” (John 2:21-25). The writer spells it out in the first few lines: “Although [genuine light] was in the world, and the world came to be through it, the world did not recognize it. It came to its own place, but its own people were not receptive to it” (John 1:9-11).
In order to reclaim the Gospel of John for post-modern, secular minds, the underlying bitter feud has to be understood between John’s community of exiles from Judaism and the resurgent, synagogue-based Judaism that survived crusades, pograms, ghettos, and holocausts. The Gospel is not anti-Semitic, nor is it the blueprint for Christian exclusionary belief. Like Paul’s letters that laid out his world-changing Christology, it may well be a first-century attempt at crossing the barrier between what is and what can be; between rational, linear argument for change (logos) and mystical, intuitive leaps into transformational possibility (mythos).