Alpha Christianity
The Gospel of John

Papyrus 52 (Fragment of John 18:31f)

By the Trajectory arguments, John in its canonical form is the last of the Four Gospels. It presents a highly abstracted Jesus, who is assimilated to the cosmic principle Logos, and also a theologically consistent Jesus, who continually preaches his virtual identity with God. A corollary of this proposition is that salvation is only through Jesus, in effect excluding those Alpha Christians who still believed in a Jewish-style repentance and forgiveness, in which the individual is dealing direct with God, and not going through Jesus as an intermediary. John shows a close knowledge of Jerusalem, but as Bacon has shown, it is a tourist knowledge of late 1c Jerusalem, such as might have been acquired by any pious person visiting what then remained of sacred sites. The John narrative, except that it describes repeated visits of Jesus to Jerusalem, is not notably Jerusalemite. It stands outside Judaism, and is often in opposition to Jews. That Jesus was himself a Jew does not come through strongly in John, where Jesus is more like a being from another planet.

This position was likely to create animosity among the Jewish community, among whose synagogues many Christian coverts were still worshipping. It is not impossible (see Birkat ha-Minim in the list of Topics, below) that this was one of the claims which provoked a hostile response from the Jewish leadership.

Problems

Among those most commonly pointed out (in such places as the beginning of von Wahlde Earliest), and requiring to be somehow accounted for, are:

An individual commentator may be forgiven for not excogitating a complete reconstruction of John (as did Bacon, Bultmann, and more recently Fortna and von Wahlde), but in the light of the above, no conscientious reader or expositor of John should proceed as though John were an integral composition, whose message may be obtained by summing up its parts. John is not integral, and its message in one stage may well differ from its message at another stage. To correct the shortcomings or indiscretions of earlier material is precisely the standard reason why later material is added to any authority document, from the Gospel of Mark to the Constitution of the United States, inclusive.

Reconstructions

John is notable as the one Gospel which has been acknowledged by several critical scholars as being stratified; the exiguous last chapter (Jn 21, where Peter is introduced as the leader of the party who first behold the risen Christ in Galilee, and is given special authority for the care of the future church; compare Mt 16:18) is perhaps, among many, the most obvious example of later material. Jn 21 has obvious affinities with the Gospel of Peter, which in its present fragmentary form unfortunately ends at just the point of maximum interest for comparison with John. (Is it a coincidence that Mark is lost just at the point of maximum interest for the Appearance stories in all the later Gospels?).

It is beyond our purpose to comment in detail on the various stratifications of John, but here are some summary descriptions:

It is notable that the usual number of strata which have been posited for John is three, the conclusion to which the above suggestions would also lead. The only remaining question is one of detail: What is contained in those three strata? And to what date are they to be assigned? It seems to us that answers so far given to these questions are still open to improvement.

Doctrine

The Gamma aspect of John is manifest, as is also its opposition to certain ideas now usually considered Gnostic. The exact place, or places, of John in the evidently rich spectrum of late 1c ideas about Jesus is still to be determined. One largely unexplored aspect is the degree of overlap or conflict with the Mandaean texts, which agree with John in employing a central Light motif. The larger narrative role of John the Baptist (along with his reduced theological role, in obedience to the John the Baptist Trajectory) is of great interest in this connection.

Date and Locale

The earliest papyrus fragment of any NT text is a bit of John preserved in the Egyptian papyrus P52 (above, with lines from Jn 18:31-33 on the front and from 18:37-38 on the back; this is part of the Trial of Jesus before Pilate, and so is probably a codex page and not a separate amulet). P52 has been dated on paleographic grounds to sometime in the first half of the 2nd century. It demonstrates early Egyptian interest in John, but does not help us with the question of date. More than one scholar puts John in the early or middle 90s, and our researches so far support that opinion (though placing at least one of the strata in the 80's). Claims that John is at least in part older than any other Gospel have been made for the last hundred years. Most of them founder on the Trajectory arguments, by which John is the latest in the sequence of Gospels. The narrative and doctrinal consistency of John has been taken as a sign of genuineness and thus of early date, but it may be observed that the later Gospels continually attempt to smooth and rationalize Mark's narrative and to update his theology, so smoothness itself is not evidence, and the perceived smoothness of John is somewhat compromised by what seem to be signs of addition and perhaps also rearrangement in the text. At least in its final form, John must postdate Luke, on which it extensively relies, and some of whose innovations are the basis for further transformation in John. John also knows Mark, but the influence of Matthew, though it exists, is of very small extent. This may reflect a geographical or doctrinal positioning, with a strong sequence Mk > Lk > Jn, and a very weak secondary awareness of Mt in Jn.

Locale. There are arguments for Syria, but the usual suggestion is Ephesus, where there are several Johns to pick from as the author of the text, not excluding John of Patmos. This needs to be evaluated against the claims of Ephesus as a Johannine center, and the supposed Jerusalem affiliations of the Mandaeans before their departure for Parthia. The "Beloved Disciple" is in effect a coy claim of John to stem from an original eyewitness (the claim of Luke, via the Acts "we" passages, to have accompanied Paul is equally coy). The idea that John Zebedee survived the Herod Agrippa persecution of c44 is contradicted by a rival Syrian tradition, explored by Bacon, that both Zebedees died early. As usual with ancient authority texts, authorship is a question best left until last, and sometimes never. It will be better taken up when we have some idea about the number of authors of John, and their doctrinal agendas.

Agenda Considerations. The stronger role of Peter as the acknowledged shepherd of the Christian sheep in Jn 21 (compared to his reduced role in the rest of John) has been noted in the literature. This is a revaluation. Its purpose may have been to move in a more orthodox direction, in which Peter has that function, and so qualify for inclusion in the canon of approved texts which was already beginning to be formed at the end of the 1st century. If so, then Jn 21 is probably later than the passages responding to the Birkat ha-Minim, which in turn are probably later than the material into which they are inserted, and we arrive without great effort of ratiocination at a minimum of three, not two, layers in the formation of John.

Associated Texts

For the Johannine Epistles, at least the first of which seems to be closely related to the Gospel, see those pages:

The association with Revelation is now regarded as weak and inconsequential; see that page. The appearance, and indeed the comeuppance, of Thomas in Jn 20 (the original ending of the text) is curious. It seems that Thomas in that passage insists on the corporeality of the risen Christ, and is indulged, but is rebuked by the Johannine Jesus (it would be better to have believed without actually seeing). It remains to be seen how this Johannine Thomas (to some extent, a disapproved figure) relates to the Thomas of the Gospel of Thomas, or the quite separate Acts of Thomas.

Topics

The following are topics which frequently arise in discussions of John, and are best treated individually:

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25 Nov 2011 / Contact The Project / Exit to Alpha Page