Going Deeper with John’s Gospel: The Prologue

Gospel of John Frontispiece and Incipit, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bibleand the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.

This year, my congregation is undertaking the project of seeking to understand more deeply the Gospel according to John. This is the first lecture in the series. I will also be posting complementary sermons during this season.

John’s Gospel is an enigmatic text—it stands on its own, apart from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Whereas these other Gospels appear to follow a consistent and agreed upon narrative of the events of Jesus’ life and death, John appears to choose to go another way. Many stories, in fact, that appear in John’s Gospel, appear no-where else in the accounts of the disciples of Jesus. 

For this reason, many scholars of the centuries have proposed a boundary between the so-called Synoptics and John’s account.  Clement of Alexandria captured the general mood when he described John as a “Spiritual Gospel.” And in fact, for much of the history of Christendom, John has enjoyed a secondary status next to the synoptics, viewed by scholars as a supplement to the others but not at the same level of historicity. In other words—Matthew Mark and Luke tell us about the “plain facts” about Jesus, but John tells us about the spiritual meaning of his ministry.

In her excellent commentary on the gospel, Dr. Karoline Lewis describes a number of problems with this division:

  1. First is the fact that many of the “facts” that we think we know about Jesus are found in John’s Gospel.  She observes, for example, that “the supposition that Jesus’ ministry was three years in length is made possible by John.”
  2. The second problem is that this division between Synoptics and John’s Gospel relies upon the assumption that the synoptics are primarily histories, and they are not. The Gospels, she writes, “are no more interested in the historical account of Jesus than John is committed to a spiritual description of Jesus. The Gospels are gospels, the good news of Jesus Christ…they are a witness to the promise of God’s presence among God’s people, now in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.”[1]

And the problems do not end there. Many ancient scholars comparing the writing style and emphasis of the synoptics and John came to the conclusion that John’s Gospel must have been written later than the other three. John seemed to them more spiritually “developed,” which they assumed must have taken more time to evolve within the Christian Community. And so it is likely that many of you may have grown up learning that John’s Gospel may well have been written late into the second century. 

But modern archeology casts doubt on this assumption. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s and 50s, as well as archeological discoveries in Nag Hammadi, Egypt and other Coptic texts, it became apparent that there were far more “gospels” circulating in the world of ancient Judaism—the Gospel of Thomas, of Mary, of Peter and of Judas, to name a few that did not make it into our canon.  It would appear that not just Saducees and Pharisees, but Gnostics, the Qumran Community, the Docetists, and many others were writing and sharing their thoughts on God. Over time, many of these movements were branded as heretical for their views on Jesus. And many of these heretics preached a Jesus who was spiritually distant, mystical, and decidedly unhuman. For some, John’s Gospel seemed to edge close to that heretical view, and therefore the Gospel was viewed with suspicion.

And yet, if we can strip away our own assumptions about what we think is happening in John’s Gospel, perhaps we shall find that the Jesus we encounter here is very human. He breathes. He eats. He mourns. He suffers.  He is the word made flesh, in every way incarnate as we are.

Ultimately, my own well-worn bible, the New Annotated Edition printed in the late 2000s, attests that the scholarly consensus dates the final editing of the gospel to 80-90 CE, with its earliest material likely being written prior to 70 CE. This would make John’s Gospel roughly contemporaneous with the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.

And now let us turn to the Gospel itself. We will begin with the Prologue, a beautiful piece of scripture that contains within it the main theological themes for the Gospel as a whole.

The Prologue to John’s Gospel is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of scripture written in all the gospels. Like so much poetry, it says so very much in an economy of words, and its words evoke a world far beyond itself….

 In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word WAS God.

John 1:1

One cannot help but remember other beginnings when one hears these words: The beginning of creation, when the universe was cast and we were made players within God’s most perfect world. It is a remarkable way to begin the story of Jesus, one that tells us, without telling us in so many words, that this is a story that will have cosmic impact.

On Sunday, we spent some time delving into the power of a good story to capture our hearts and to help remind us of who and whose we are. And so I tonight it is my hope that we can turn from this conversation to another, one that has vexed theologians for centuries, and that is:

What is John the Baptist doing interrupting this gorgeous poetry?

 For right there in the center of this ancient hymn, just as light is shining in the darkness, just as we are promised that the light will not over come it, John arrives.

You remember John—In other Gospels he comes to us as the cousin of Jesus, brimming with a wildness of faith that borders on the fanatical. He is the man on the street corner, bellowing in a megaphone; the hermit in the desert, meditating on a stump. He is the strange holy man, begging for a bite to eat and a soul to save. John in the synoptics, is the Baptist, painted in full color with the volume turned up to eleven.

But not so in John’s Gospel. Here, John is a man sent from God, all right, but we do not learn what he looked like, or where he preached, or how the people responded. John does not tell us who his mother and father are as Luke does, or his relation to Jesus Christ. And John is not defined here as the Baptist, but as the Witness.

In her commentary on the book of John, Karoline Lewis observes that “commentators have regularly explained away John’s presence as a later interpolation that does not belong in such a majestic, hymnic, and poetic narration of Jesus’ origins and identity.”[2] In other words, they have tended to see John as a distraction. And yet Lewis disagrees. For her, John’s presence “points to another main theme of this Gospel—holding together, simultaneously, at every moment, the divine and the human.” John’s role, right here at the beginning of it all, is to be a witness, to show us what it looks like to testify or witness to the light.

The word that we translate as witness is in fact the word martyrian (μαρτυρίαν), and I can’t help but wonder whether knowing this little fact changes its meaning in our minds. For when we think of a witness, I think perhaps we tend to imagine a person who has seen or experienced something swearing under oath that what they have seen or heard is true. But when I think of the word martyr? Well, that is something else. When I think of martyrs, I think of those who were willing to hold fast to what they had seen or heard even unto death.  Who were willing to stake their lives (and who often did) upon what they experienced to be true.

And yet that is PRECISELY what the word means. Martys: to witness. But before we get caught up in the emotional implications of the word martyr, let us first pause and remember that words and their meaning have a tendency to evolve with usage. And this appears to be true for the word Martyr.  Originally, the word was simply a neutral, legal term in Greek. It meant, plainly, “to bear witness,” as one might in a court of law. 

But as Christians began to witness to their faith, and as some began to be arrested, tortured, and even killed on account of their unwillingness to renounce Jesus, what it meant to be a witness began to shift[3]. As the work of testimony took on a life or death element, the willingness to die for ones faith, to value the truth above one’s own safety, “to pick up your cross and carry it” with Christ was elevated within the Christian community from “witnessing to the truth to allegiance to a cause.”[4] The witnesses, the martyrs, began to mean something new in the community, something that perhaps the author of the Gospel did not intend.

What is at stake here is not simply etymology purity, but rather something much more important: what makes a martyr is not their willingness to die, or their devotedness to suffering. Rather, it is the truthfulness of the speaker, their willingness to share what they know. And that is what is meant when John is called the Witness. For he shares what he knows to be true.

And what does he know? His words continue to witness for him:

This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”

John will go on to say other things, and will in fact be martyred, in no small part because he is unwilling to stop preaching what he knows to be true. But for our purposes, what matters most about John is that he models the life to which all Christians since have been called: to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ as we have received it. If we are able to do that, then God will indeed dwell among us, or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “God will have moved into the neighborhood.”

[1] Lewis, Karoline. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Fortress Press: 2014. Page 2,3

[2] Lewis, Karoline. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Fortress Press: 2014. Page 13.

[3] https://newmatthewbible.org/Martyr.pdf

[4] Ibid. pg 4

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