Continuity — The Artist Formally Known as John

Where the synoptics purport to be a kind of biography, the fourth gospel is foremost a work of art. Like most great works of art, its aim is not a representational one. Art, though often achieving a remarkable resemblance with what it seeks to represent, is not primarily about representation; it is about hyperbole, about using symbols and metaphors to evoke psychical and/or emotional responses in an audient. The Gospel of John is the most poetic and symbolical gospel, having by far the highest christology. Here, Jesus goes full superhero. He is not just some guy who heals and impresses folks with his prophetic acumen, he is the very Son, sent by the Father, who is simultaneously in mystical union with this Father. For a clear example of this hyper-exaltation, consider that whereas Mark’s gospel pictures Jesus as having received his messianic vocation at his baptism, and the Pauline epistles think it came at the moment of resurrection (Philippians 2), and Matthew’s gospel pictures it happening at his conception. John’s gospel raises the bar. Its author pictures Jesus as the Logos, that is, as a manifestation of the pre-existing, eternal logic of God. In John, Jesus is timeless and universal. The use of this term, Logos, in the book's opening hymn recalls Philo of Alexandria’s early (he was a contemporary of Jesus) attempts to systematize the Hebrew faith into a Hellenized form. But logos is in fact a Greek concept which informed Philo's philosophical understanding of God and transcendence. What Philo postulated as an attribute of God, John fleshed out and made axiomatic. John creates a poetic incarnation of this facet of God, intending to convince the early Christian communities in the eastern provinces of the empire of the divinity of Jesus. John thereby emphasizes Jesus’ “son-of-god”-ship more than the other evangelists. While the other gospels certainly use this term, Son of God,  for Jesus, John’s gospel elaborates on this concept, and even goes as far as to subtly equate the Son with the Father. To see the son is to see the father. To accept the son is to accept the father. This identity is one of the central motifs in the book. 

While in Mark and the synoptics Jesus refuses to perform signs, the structure of John centers on the performance of these signs. These signs serve to reveal Jesus’ true identity as God himself. Through these signs, Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of certain Jewish ideals or festivals. The previous gospels also emphasize that Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism, but John ratchets it up a few notches.

The vast majority of John is NOT paralleled in the synoptic gospels. There are no exorcisms in John. There are also no parables in John. Parables, of great importance to the synoptics as representing Jesus’ idiomatic didactic style, are completely absent in John. But perhaps the most striking dissimilarity between John and the synoptic gospels is the fact that in John’s gospel Jesus dies on the day of preparation for the Passover festival, that is, on the day that the lambs are slaughtered. In the synoptics, the last supper IS the Passover meal. This is an irreconcilable contradiction.

Despite apologist claims to the contrary, the gospel never actually claims to be authored by the beloved disciple. The author claims to have the eyewitness testimony of the beloved disciple (John 19:35), which is quite a different thing.

Who was his audience?

The primacy which this gospel had in the eastern provinces suggests that it came either from Asia Minor or possibly Alexandria. Valentinus and his disciples knew this gospel in 160 or 170 or so (see Irenaeus).
Three times in John characters are thrown “out of the synagogue.” This repetitive motif might reflect the friction around the turn of the first century, when the authorities in the synagogues distinguish themselves from the “Nazarenes,” who were attending the synagogues up until this point (as Jews or as god-fearers? —the New Testament suggests the latter ...) One of the prayers read at synagogue services was even changed at this point to reject these Nazarenes.

For the apostates, let there be no hope. Let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our day. Let the Nazarenes and the heretics be destroyed in a moment … "

It distinguishes between the Nazarenes and the heretics, perhaps indicating that the Christians were never regarded as part of the “in-crowd” in the first place, which again suggests their god-fearer status. It calls them “arrogant.” Commentators have suggested that these stories about getting thrown out of the synagogue are references to an emerging rabbinical antagonism.

John’s teachings about Jesus are laid out in long philosophical discourses. The synoptic emphasis on the “kingdom of God” is missing from John, though, as in Luke, the “spirit” plays a role. But in John, this role is magnified. One distinctive feature of John‘s gospel is the emphasis on loving one another. The synoptics touch on this love when they refer to the Law (love the Lord your god, etc), but an emphasis on love, (in the sense of caritas or agape) however, is not characteristic of Matthew or Luke. (It is in Paul - 1st Cor 13, however.)

The opening prologue in the Gospel of John contains many of the recurring themes that appear later throughout the gospel. Jesus is the Logos, the “word” of god, the logic of god, the self-expression of god, the wisdom of god, the utterance of god, an emanation from god. Though not so much thematically, the prologue recalls the framing of the creation story in Genesis (“In the beginning…” . . . in Genesis, god creates by uttering words). This Jesus can thus be identified with the utterance of god that was active in the creation of the world. To the Jew . . . God’s utterance IS the Torah. Thus, this is amazingly high christology compared to that of Mark‘s gospel. This prologue reflects a Hellenistic background to the gospel. The use of the Logos metaphor would have been familiar to anyone who was educated and familiar with stoic philosophy. (e.g. the god-fearers, who seem to be stoics in need of the Jewish god—again, the great mystery of Christian origins) Logos is the organizing principle of the universe. Logos is reason - rationality. Already in this prologue the themes of “life”, “light” are being unpacked. Jesus is an emissary sent from god, coexisting with him. Are these Gnostic allusions? I think so.

The interaction between John the Baptizer and Jesus is unique in John as well. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” he has the Baptizer say. This introduces the concept of Jesus as redeemer for human sin. We saw previously this idea in the Pauline corpus. In John, this is a key interpretation. It corresponds with John’s interpretation of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Passover festival (at least in his chronology of the last supper incident- thematically, or traditionally, the celebration of Passover is not about redemption. That is more the purview of the Atonement feast - which is perhaps why the scapegoat theme is also introduced - that is, as a way to bridge the gap between Atonement and Passover). The lamb did, after all, denoted the emancipation of the Jews from captivity . . .  and so a hybridization of these two festival would make sense to one who sought such a bridge. More later. This merger also extends to the concept of the Eucharist in a way . . . For the lamb gets eaten as part of the ritual.

In the first chapter of john, you can find pretty much every single title of Jesus given in individual gospels: Son of god, son of man, the light, the messiah, the Logos. There is NO messianic secret in John. Far from it, John boasts his divine status. The structure of the gospel revolves around the “signs” which prove his divinity, and which he performs openly. Jesus just loves showing off his superpowers in GºJohn.

The festival of Tabernacles (tents —booths) takes place in the fall. This festival features drawing of water on each of the seven days during the feast. Also, there is a use of Lamps and of light interfused into the celebration. On one of Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem during this festival, on the last day, Jesus proclaims, “let anyone who is thirsty come to me.” He’s not just the light, he the water of life too. These are proto-gnostic terms as well, which is not hard to see.

At (8:39) . . . . Jesus is accused of having a demon. He replies:

I do not have a demon, but I honor my father and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory. There is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly I tell you that whoever keeps my word will never see death.# The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say, ‘whoever keeps my word will never taste death; are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be? If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my father who glorifies me. He of who you say, ‘He is our god,’ though you do not know him. But I know him. If I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep His word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he might see my day. He saw it and was glad.’ Then the Judeans said to him, ‘you are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am!’ … "

“I Am” was the name of God as told to Moses by the burning bush on Mt Sinai. Jesus’ little paroxysm is a poetic alliteration on this same theme. This is the christological high water mark in the Gospel of John.  If the prologue wasn't enough to convince the reader of Jesus' divine element, here’s an explicit self-proclamation of Jesus as God Himself! The entire gospel seems like a succession of Jesus’ christological proclamations. After one of these, the Judean took up stones to stone him. Why didn’t they? What stops them?  I mean . . . . If talking this way is what made them crucify him, . . . Why couldn't  they just stone him like they stoned any other blasphemer? Right then and there, like they did for Stephen. Is there a hole in the plot here?

His last discourse at the last supper: “Truly I tell you that whoever receives one who I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives He who sent me.” He seems to like to remind them of his emissary status. This last discourse establishes a chain of command from God through Jesus through the disciples. They are now heirs to Jesus’ majesty by proxy. (does it not follow that the disciples are also equivalent to God in the same way viz the audience of gospel? It's an interesting question)
In the GºJohn, Jesus keeps repeating this self-identification with the father—ad nauseum … (Something’s wrong with this guy, anyone would say) But then . . . suddenly . . . some humility to lessen the smugness a bit: 'Those who believe will do greater things than me.'

Then comes the paraclete bit. In the gospel of John, Jesus descends from the father, then ascends to him but pledges to send the paraclete (helper, comforter, spirit) on his behalf (to help with what? - it seems like the mission would be the message, to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan ... no?) — Chap 17 verse 18 . . .
As you have sent me to the world, so I have sent them . . . . This is preemptively adding credibility to the apostles (the "sent-out" ones).

Next comes the arrest and execution of Jesus.
Like we already saw, Jesus dies on the day of preparation.

Question: if Jesus is the Passover lamb, which is the implication in John, what does painting the door lintel with his blood protect Israel from? If the answer is “sin” then there are mixed metaphors at work, as I hinted at earlier. The lamb doesn’t die (in other words) to make up for the sins of the people. The lamb dies to limit the angel of death’s killing spree to the Egyptians. This is a little confusing. Why mix these metaphors without explanation? Might it be just the result of misunderstood Judaism on the part of god-fearers?

The pattern that the fourth evangelist uses throughout his gospel is this: Jesus does a sign, and then he discourses on the significance of it. The elders get pissed because he’s healing on the Sabbath (this was already allowed by Torah . . . thus this charge of unlawfulness from the authorities is highly unlikely to have been historically based). The Judean authorities were seeking to kill him, so the author of this gospel asserts, for healing people on the Sabbath and for calling god his own father. This, I think, is ridiculous, reflecting an inadequate hyper-legalistic understanding of the Pharisees, who were used to this kind of thing and had never (not in any surviving contemporaneous record we have at least) sought the execution of a man for these things. One could imagine that they thought he was making himself equal to god, I guess, but the way it is expressed so casually and without any exposition, it seems an unlikely reaction, especially in light of Jesus saying, “I can do nothing on my own.”

I'll end for now by pointing out that there is no mention of James in the Gospel According to John.


  1. Help me understand where you're going with this series.

    Let's divide early Christians into three potential categories —
    1.  Jews
    2.  God-fearers (or at least God-fearers recently booted)
    3.  Appropriators

    I get the sense from your writings that the gap between (1) and (2) is the important one.  And to be sure, in some contexts it is — if you believe in all the faith-claims of Christianity, you need certain NT writers and certain personages described in those texts to be Jews.

    But when you get into the question of mythicism and Jesus's existence, the subject matter of your blog, I'm not sure that the distinction between (1) and (2) is the important one.  Plenty of mainstream critical scholars who think Jesus existed don't depend for that belief in the slightest upon whether this or that NT writer was a Jew or God-fearer.  The reason of course is that when such critical scholars speak of “Jew” here they are speaking of Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews who have obtained their literacy in the Hellenistic education system and whose Scripture is the Septuagint.  Is there any reason to think (for example) that such a Jew would do Old Testament exegesis “better” than a God-fearer (with whom, of course, he shares the Greek language, Greek education, the Septuagint, and even a kind of synagogue access)? Would a Greek-speaking Diaspora Jew really be a better or worse witness to a historical Jesus than a God-fearer in the same synagogue (they're getting the same rumors, the same letters from Jerusalem and seeing the same immigrants from there)?

    But the distinction between (2) and (3), I think is an important one. One reason is that the reliability of an author's witness to a historical Jesus does go down if that author is part of a non-Jewish movement that is just appropriating Scripture for this or that purpose. Another reason is that (2) versus (3) is one of the fault lines within mythicism, roughly delineating two lines — what we seem to call the Doherty-Carrier theory (and its antecedents) who keep around a "genuine" Paul and seem to think most of the important parts of the NT (for their theory) were written by Jews or at least people sort-of-attached to Judaism versus the "radicals" who whatever the origin of the tradition find most of the text as we have it written by people pretty remote from Judaism:  Greek Philosophers, Marcion, Seneca, Caesar-conspiracy, and so on, as well as the people reacting to these, the “proto-orthodox” who were doing their own form of appropriating.

    1. Hi Bertie;

      This series is basically just a response to the Boyd/Eddy claim that the New Testament authors were "thoroughly Jewish."
      It's not intended as a case for mythicism, except inasmuch as it rebuts a specific historicist argument. Its function is pretty much laid out in the first essay. Subsequent ones are just a book by book analysis defending my rejection of their premise. It turns out to be an embarrassment of riches.

      I intend the blog to be more of a "who's-who" type thing. These essays I am putting in just to flesh out the blog a bit more. As far as this series goes, I have just one more essay on Hebrews (I may touch on Revelation, though) ...

      But . . . I'm glad you asked . . . because, if I am reading your comment correctly, I think I may be in total agreement with you.

      #'s 2 and 3 is were the important distinction lies, I think.
      And I rather like your description of the current rift within contemporary mythicism between those who accept some rudimentary Jewish root and those who see it as a pagan ...

      My own view is that the first appropriators (to use your term) were god fearers—not diaspora Jews. I don't think that the use of the LXX would necessarily distort or taint the Judaism of diaspora Jews. That it was misunderstood to the extent that it seems to have been by those who authored the subsequent texts (along with the fact that all of it references the LXX rather than either the Masoretic or the DSS versions, as would be expected to some degree if it were "Judean" in origin) is evidence (to my eyes) of their gentile provenance.

      I think that Carrier/Doherty are essentially correct in seeing Early Christianity as a syncretic "appropriation." But the mystery cults grew from the top down, so to speak. That is to say, the Mithraists were not Persians who decided to migrate; they were Hellenists who wanted to wax Persian. This is where Doherty/Carrier lose me a bit. They're putting the cart before the horse. I don't know if you agree, but I think their error is in thinking that any of the texts are "authentically" Pauline or Jewish or whatever.
      I've yet to see a refutation of the Dutch Radical take on the Pauline epistles that doesn't involve special pleading in some way. If they're right, then it means we have no contemporaneous literature whatsoever.

      On the other hand, on the other side of the rift are the . . . conspiracists ... let's call them, who don't seem to see the extent of the Judaizing going on—explicitly—at every turn.

      I guess I am closer to the former category, with the aforementioned caveats. But, really, I'm only a "mythicist" insofar as I consider the general theory to be as likely or better than any historicist case I have yet encountered.

      I've been reading a lot on Marcion lately (Moll, BeDuhn, Lieu), and I think it is bound to affect the way I see the canon.

      It's been little more than a month since I started this blog. It's cool to know someone is reading.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  2. Not the only one reading Im sure!
    This entire series has been beautifully researched, crafte and laid out. I applaud you sir/madam.
    Been fascinated by and drawn to the J Man for 20 years since i 'rediscovered' him in India of all places. Its been a long deep Journey of discovery and one might say Uncovery since then.
    Latterly ive been more and more drawn toward the Mythicist viewpoint - first through Doherty and then the other Usual Suspects, though notably Richard 'The Ego' ; ) Carrier and Jovial Bob Price. Recently Rafael has caught my attention.

    This series you penned as served to take me deeper into the interactive connectivity within the 4 canonical Gospels. Most lucid and convincing exposition ive encountered thus far. For that I am grateful.

    That all being said the writings and exposition I feel MOST closely drawn to and that rings truest for myself is of esoteric nature and penned by Maurice Nicoll - most notably in 'The New Man' and 'The Mark'.
    The New Man blew me away when i first read it. Suddenly everything seemed to just click into place.

    Much of the Theist vs Atheist vs Mythicist vs Fundamentalist dog fighting that we have to endure and often plough through on the web i see as ego driven, subjective, 'My God(or No God) is Bigger Than Your God(No God)' ranting and railing.
    Non of it - that ive stumbled across this far - involves dialogue, its just regurgitation of whatever their pet belief is(often ad nauseum) and a concreted refusal to even listen to yet alone HEAR what the other has to say, other than seeking something the other spouts to be fashioned as a weapon to beat them about the head with.

    Hence the reason Ive enjoyed this series of yours...and your style of putting it across. I get the clear impression that whilst you have formulated an opinion, that opinion is not dogmatic and that you are constantly open to finding something that may move you to another level of your search.

    As the Old Indian Dude who re introduced me to The J Man back in India in 98 once said..."Don't go out seeking God. Seek the Truth...and then God might reveal Himself to you"
    Of course the Truth might equally reveal No God.

    May the Truth guide your Path always...and dont forget to enjoy the Journey!


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