St Johns gospel is often described as the mystical or most theological of the gospels, and from the early third century it has been called the spiritual gospel. The evangelist has been called John the Theologian and is represented in art as the eagle because his gaze into the mystery of God reminds one of the eagle that flies directly into the sunlight.
Over the years commentators have used many different methods in the interpretation of St Johns gospel and now some of them point, with a degree of justification, to a conflict of methods in Johannine studies. This present commentary takes into account the results of various methods of interpretation, but sets them in the context of a literary approach , following the dynamic of the gospels narrative structure and plot. It sees the gospel in the context of the New Testament and the bible as a whole.
While it draws on the insights of different methods this book has three overall guiding principles. Firstly, the text as it now stands (with its well known variants), and not sources, hypothetical rearrangements or earlier versions of the text, is the canonical gospel and, like any literary work, it has its own structure and inherent dynamism, even if at times they have been somewhat imposed on traditional material. Secondly, the gospel is part of the canon of scripture and has its place within the greater understanding and interpretation of the whole. Thirdly, the story of Jesus is more than any one gospel, or any number of gospels or other writings, could adequately express. The final words of the gospel of John declare: If all were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not hold all the books that would have to be written.
This commentary on Johns gospel is offered as a textbook for students of theology and as a guide for serious readers in the hope that it will deepen their spiritual and theological insight, and bring them to a level of academic competence. It is also aimed at those many preachers who wish to underpin their preaching with serious reading and to the many people who practise lectio divina and other forms of spiritual reading. No prior technical knowledge of biblical scholarship is assumed. Technical terms are explained in the book, and important Greek and Hebrew words and expressions translated.
Michael Mullins is a priest of the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore. He was director of Studies at Pontifical Irish College in Rome before becoming Professor of Scripture in St John’s college in Waterford in 1975 where he served also as Dean and President until 1998. From 1998 until 2009 he was Lecturer and Associate Professor in Sacred Scripture at Maynooth and is a visiting lecturer in the National Centre for Liturgy since 1978. He is author of Called to be Saints: christian Living in First Century Rome (Veritas, 1991), The Gospel of John (Columba Press 2003), The Gospel of Mark (Columba Press 2005), The Gospel of Matthew (Columba Press 2007), The Gospel of Luke (Columba Press 2010)
The story of Jesus
Tell me a story the child says at bedtime and the parent repeats again the favourite tale, careful to observe every last detail lest the child interrupt to adjust the current telling to ensure a repetition of the original impact. The fresh memory and stimulated imagination reach out like hands to grasp again the magic moment created by the story. The world is interpreted by the teller and the child experiences the telling from within the horizons of childhood. As the stories multiply and the horizons of experience expand an adult emerges with an individual identity and unique set of experiences. This individuality and unique grasp of the world will henceforth influence the interpretation of every story heard and inform every story told.
Story is perhaps the best and most effective form of communication. The reawakening of awareness in the power and impact of story has brought a whole new dimension to the interpretation of the gospels. After a period of oral transmission of the stories about the life, death, work and teaching of Jesus, the written gospels present the traditional material in an overall story or narrative. This change from oral to written medium had far reaching consequences for the story being transmitted.
When a story is written it takes on a life of its own and replaces the immediate dialogue between teller and hearer with the personally more distant bond of author and reader. The reader has to approach the work on its own terms without immediate access to the mind of the author. Unlike the child listening to the story, the reader cannot interrupt the reading with: But what about ...? or You said last time that ...! The author may partially bridge this gap by creating a narrator within the text to tell the story or comment on it as it unfolds.(1) Reading becomes a dialogue between the reader and the work. The ideal reader would be alert to all the aspects of the writing - its language, imagery and allusions and the horizons of author and reader would coincide within the work. However, the ideal reader probably never existed. The nearest to an ideal reader would most probably be the reader implied in the text who would very likely be a contemporary who shared, at least in some measure, the horizons of the author.
Through the work itself the real or actual reader may construct a picture of the implied author and the implied reader. As the literary work itself takes on a life of its own and becomes independent of, and outlives, the author and the authors intended/implied readers, real readers never envisioned by the author take their place.(2) Their horizons may be very different from those of the author and the implied or intended readers. John B. Witherington comments on this problem of horizons:
If we are to bridge the two horizons, we must realize that we live with a post-Enlightenment world view of history and the cosmos dominating our thinking, which is very different from the worldview reflected in these gospelsThe fourth gospel must be evaluated on the basis of its own terms of reference, not on ours.(3)
Writing a story, be it fictional or historical, demands planning if meaning is to be conveyed and convincing. Two essential elements in such planning are plot and character. The author of fiction has unlimited scope to invent on both counts, the only constraints being credibility within the chosen genre. Writing history, however, the author is constrained by the known historical events, characters and outcome, and writes within the conventional boundaries of historical writing at the time of composition.
The plot of a story is the ordered sequence of events, showing causality from one event to another, in an overall unified structure, moving towards a goal or end point and achieving emotional, psychological, moral, religious or artistic effects in the process.(4) The plot is supported by action, characterisation and thought. In St Johns gospel the plot is driven by conflict between belief and unbelief as responses to Jesus. The reader is being simultaneously led to identify with the desired goal of understanding and belief.(5) The plot of the gospel is summarised in the prologue: He came unto his own and his own did not receive him, but to those who did receive him he gave power to become children of God.(6) The integration of theme or theological viewpoint into the plot can slow the pace, as in the discourses, but it also intensifies the conflict, focuses further on the characters and exposes a deeper meaning in the events, seeing them from the vantage point of revelation.
The characters in a story are the creation of the author, who therefore is omniscient in their regard. Since characterisation enables the omniscient author to expose the character to the reader more profoundly and thoroughly than a person is exposed in real life, the readers of the gospel will have a better vantage point for observing and understanding Jesus than his followers and opponents had during his ministry.
Characters can be of two kinds. There are round or autonomous characters with traits and personalities, whose strengths and weaknesses, thoughts and emotions, are like mini-plots in themselves. They are complex in temperament and motivation, in ways unpredictable and capable of surprising the reader with unexpected actions or patterns of behaviour. There are also flat characters whose function is not to be interesting in themselves but to fulfil a role in the narrative. They are personifications of a single trait, or functionaries carrying out a task. These characters do not change, develop or suffer crisis.(7)
The characters in St Johns gospel display interesting elements of both types of characterisation. Jesus himself, unlike the main character in a novel or play, or indeed unlike the Jesus portrayed in the synoptics, arrives on the scene fully developed. He does not learn, change, grow, or suffer crisis.(8) The events, discourses and disputes throughout the gospel serve to bring out what was true of him from the beginning. In this Jesus is closer to the static, ethical, Greek hero, whose inherent pietas, courage or wisdom brings him through all crises, than to the Old Testament heroes who were portrayed as characters developing, learning and changing in response to Gods call.
Most of the characters in Johns gospel appear for such a short time that roundness of character is not always possible. For the most part also, they do not interact with one another but fulfil a role in highlighting responses to Jesus.(9) Their characters are determined by these responses. However, they can have a very important representative value rather out of proportion to the brevity of their appearances.
Some of the characters are more or less autonomous, showing initiative, growth, learning and faith development. The Samaritan woman, for example, (who functions both as an individual and representative character) undergoes change and faith development, issuing in mission activity. The Beloved Disciple, (who also functions as an individual and representative character), comes to see and believe. The blind man, healed at the Pool of Siloam, develops in faith and strength of character through the crisis of harassment and exclusion. Others like Thomas and Pilate represent a trait, that of the doubting disciple who comes to faith, and the scheming official evading responsibility. Others like the Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple are typecast for a role or function, but they also display strong personal qualities. They are the two witnesses to Jesus who manifest understanding and a deep faith, prior to a sign that evoked faith in the other disciples - the Mother of Jesus at Cana and the Beloved Disciple at the tomb. There are also communal characters constructed from the hostile authorities, usually the Jews (10) and the Pharisees. Sometimes the (chief) priests are included (as in the trial before Pilate). These function mainly as a characterisation of the opposition to Jesus. The crowd functions similarly as a characterisation of the forces of opposition, support and division. They come in response to signs, and are central to discussions and disputes about Jesus origins, identity and signs, being mentioned eighteen times during the various feasts in chapters six, seven and twelve. They are a foil and a discussion partner for Jesus, at times articulating what is going on in the background like the chorus in a Greek play. The Pharisees disdain them as the ignorant crowd who know nothing of the law.
The story of Jesus at one level fits the category of historical story, in so far as it tells of a historical person, in concrete historical circumstances, surrounded by historical characters, the outcome of whose life left an enormous mark in human history. At another level it is a story that history cannot confirm or assess. His coming from the Father, his inner life and consciousness, his promise of salvation and the second coming, and his resurrection and glorification are matters beyond the competence of the historian. Yet they are a major part, in fact the major part, of his story. No document that says it is written "in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ" has purely historical aims, and the document should not be assessed as if it did.(11) Putting the historical and ahistorical/transcendental together in one story so that the reader can understand is, in the words of B. Witherington:
an exercise in hermeneutics, the science of the interpretation and application of a foundational narrative, the taking of the story of Jesus and putting it into a language and form of narrative that will convey the significance and meaning of the Christ event. . . (12)
All aspects of plot, characterisation and thematic development pass through the mind of the writers (authors and editors) as the story or stories of Jesus are committed to the pages of a gospel narrative. The acceptance of the gospel into the canon of scripture is the churchs declaration that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was at work in its composition. Our belief in the presence of the same Holy Spirit in the church leads us to believe in the inspired reception of the text in the official teaching of the church (the magisterium) and the faith of the people (the sensus fidelium).
The story of Jesus in St Johns gospel is really three stories imposed one on the other. As the story of Jesus is told, the Old Testament story of God and the chosen people is retold in allusion, quotation and festal celebration, and at the same time the story of the Johannine Christians shapes, and shines through, the story of Jesus as it is told from their perspective and experience. Two other dimensions frame the story - the pre-existence of the Word with God and the future glory in the Fathers house.
The gospels bear more than ample witness to the fact that the disciples, and others, did not understand Jesus. It is not surprising, therefore, and at the same time very fortunate, that we are spared the on-the-spot reporting of Jesus words and deeds by his confused associates. The working of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, on minds and hearts in the believing community brought about in time the understanding now enshrined in the inspired books of the canon. The Paraclete inspired the community in its remembering of what Jesus said and did, and thereby led the community/church into understanding. This understanding has been articulated in the language and imagery of the authors and implied readers of the gospels, and written according to the literary standards of the time and place. We, the actual or real readers today, are at a great remove in time, place, language and culture from the horizons of the authors and original readers and have to come to an awareness, not only of the authors world but the world of the implied or intended readers for whom the authors wrote.
John Ashton begins his book Understanding the Fourth Gospel with the comment:
There are many ways of approaching the fourth gospel. One may turn to it for enlightenment, for inspiration, for encouragement or consolation, for theological proofs for evidence about early Jewish Christianity, for insight into the mind of Jesus, and much more besides. One may approach the work as an historian, a theologian, a simple Christian, or an enquiring unbeliever. What the gospel reveals of itself will be coloured, even controlled, by the interest one brings to it. There is no disinterested reading. Nor by the same token is there any disinterested writing... (13)
Every reader comes already programmed by life, experience, education, and faith to interpret the gospel. The story of Jesus, according to John, is read by me, the listening reader, two millennia after its composition. I read, hear and retell it. It is Johns story, the early Christians story, but now it is my story and my retelling, and the readers of my words will make it their story. But how do I read the story? What hermeneutical grid is functioning in me as I read? What factors determine my approach?
I read St Johns gospel as a practising Catholic, a priest and teacher of scripture for more than three decades. I read it in the context of faith seeking understanding, a faith which has been nourished in the liturgy and prayer and enriched by art, music, ritual, processions and pilgrimages. My faith has been fed by a believing community of family, friends, teachers, colleagues and students. It comes as a gift, a pearl of great price. It is fed by the liturgy of the church and I believe it is guaranteed from error by the guidance of the Holy Spirit working through the magisterium of the church and the faith of the people. It has been enriched by the prayers and wisdom of the communities in which I have lived, and enhanced by the reading of the mystics and theologians. For me personally it has been further enriched and enhanced by the writings and personal contact with members and clergy of the other Christian traditions. It has been particularly energised and informed in recent times by reading the works of many feminist biblical scholars who have brought new insights and challenges since my time as a student. Above all it has been honed on the anvil of teaching and learning from students seeking truth and life in the scriptures. I come to the gospel then with all the fascination of one whose life has been an absorbing of the polyphony of faith expression. Within, and supported by, this faith context I bring academic training, reading and teaching experience to the understanding of the text. I question and analyse the text, not to deconstruct it, much less to deconstruct Jesus himself, but to enrich the overall impression, the form or Gestalt, with awareness of the rich diet of components that make up the gospel. Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of the faculty that allows one to see with the eye of faith:
The fascination does not originate from the religious sense that subjectively exists in every person... The fascination is with Jesus Christ - if one sees Christ as he presents himself with his uniqueness that cannot be compared to anything else in world history. The Fathers of the Church call this faculty to see the eye of faith. (14)
These are the co-ordinates on the grid of my hermeneutic as I set about commenting on the gospel according to John through the eye of faith. Thats me, the reader. But who is John?
The gospel itself does not identify its author. Irenaeus, writing probably about 180 AD and, following a tradition handed on by Polycarp, lent very serious credibility to the idea that John, Son of Zebedee, was author of the gospel. (15) It cannot be ruled out that the tradition about authorship on which Irenaeus relied was reliable, and though there is ample evidence of reluctance on the part of the author to reveal that identity, it may well have been known to others who spoke of it. Irenaeus had a serious motive for wanting to copperfasten the tradition of apostolic authorship of the gospel. It had been taken over by the gnostics and used by them to confirm their teaching about the myth of a redeemer who descended to impart to the unredeemed the knowledge (gnósis) which would rescue them from ignorance and earthly entrapment. The first commentaries on Johns gospel come from this gnostic background. Their positive attitude towards the gospel created in turn an attitude of suspicion on the part of the church. Irenaeus wished to rescue the gospel from both attitudes and did so by insisting on its apostolic origin and identifying the author as John, Son of Zebedee, one of the twelve. This remained the mainstream tradition for centuries and is widely testified in art and literature. But it poses a number of difficulties, not least of which are the facts that the gospel does not identify directly or indirectly the identity of its author and in addition it has all the signs of a document representing a tradition which evolved over a long period of time. Furthermore, scholars point out that there may be confusion with John the Presbyter, author of the letters, and John, author of the Apocalypse.
Though the gospel shows signs of a long period of formation, there is a dominant figure behind it, a person close to Jesus who first formed the tradition and gave it direction. Though the identity of that person is concealed in the gospel, the authenticity of the testimony is assured by the closeness of the chief witness to Jesus. This is stressed at the end of the gospel: This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.(16) This reference points to the witness of the disciple whom Jesus loved. This Beloved Disciple is the one who reclined beside Jesus at the Last Supper and who conveyed Peters question to him, seeking the identity of the betrayer.(17) He stood at the foot of the cross and Jesus commended his mother to his care, designating him as her son in his place.(18) The indications are that it was he who witnessed the blood and water flowing from Jesus side.(19) He ran to the tomb with Peter and, observing the empty tomb and the position of the grave-cloths, he saw and he believed.(20) He identified the Risen Jesus on the shore of the Lake of Galilee and because rumours that he would not die before the return of the Lord had circulated in the community, Peter put the question concerning his death to Jesus on the shore of the Lake.(21)
The disciple whom Jesus loved is identified with the other disciple when the gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene came running to Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved with news of the empty tomb.(22) Here the Beloved Disciple is designated the other disciple. This designation is then used twice in the description of Peter and himself running to the tomb. The indications therefore are that the other disciple who arranged the admittance of Peter to the High Priests courtyard, and even though some dispute the identification, the other disciple who accompanied Andrew on the first visit to Jesus, may well be the same person.(23) The other disciple therefore seems to be a well established and/or carefully contrived designation from the oldest stratum of the gospel which carefully concealed the identity of the chief witness to the tradition. He was later identified in the gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved.(24) His personal contact with Jesus stands behind the witness of the gospel. The subsequent writers/editors were disciples of his and rooted in his tradition. They in turn shaped and moulded the tradition into the developed style and theology of the gospel.
However, at a time when the emphasis is on the text as it now stands, and literary critics speak of the death of the author, the personal identity of the real author of the gospel does not seem quite so important. This other disciple whose name has been withheld, but who had been subsequently identified as the disciple whom Jesus loved, stands behind the gospel as a link with Jesus and the ministry. He mayor may not have been John, Son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve. The text does not tell us. The community / communities formed or influenced by him maintained his tradition and produced the author(s) who moulded it into its present form. The canon of scripture includes it in its list of inspired books, so on the authority of the church we can say that ultimately the author is God, who inspired the tradition in its formation, development, transmission, and commitment to writing. In this commentary, for practical reasons, I will follow the convention of speaking of John as the author.(25)
Stories are told in communities where they help to create and sustain identity and underpin religious and cultural development. Radical change in circumstances gives new life and new direction to old stories. The story of God and the chosen people sustained the life of the Jews for centuries but the terrible events of the year 70 AD changed their lives an9 forced them into a radical rethinking of the foundations of their faith. This radical reappraisal resulted in division and a parting of the ways between Jew and Christian as each worked out a new self-definition. The ensuing tension between them is reflected in St Johns gospel in the telling of the story of Jesus. It is obvious in the accounts of the disputes with the Jews and especially with the Pharisees. It is obvious also in the references to fear of being expelled from the synagogue and in the insistence on the superiority of Jesus over the pivotal figures of Moses and Abraham. The post 70 tensions have coloured both the content of the debates and the portrayal of the opposition.
To understand the magnitude of the events of 70 AD, the reappraisal they occasioned, the tensions they provoked, and the new insight they brought to the story of Jesus, a historical note is required.
1. It can be difficult at times to differentiate between the author and the narrator.
2. Literary critics refer to the death of the author.
3. Ben Witherington III, Johns Wisdom. A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, Westminster, John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1995, 73f.
4. Aristotles Poetics 1450b-1451b, speaks of order, amplitude, unity and probable and necessary connection.
5. This is highlighted by the fact that 98 of the 239 references to belief in the NT are in Johns gospel.
6. Jn 1:11f.
7. Characters carrying the main action, reactions and responses are referred to as protagonists. Intermediary characters who serve as plot functionaries, often with a symbolic or representative role, are referred to as ficelles.
8. The authors of the gospel stories, in the oral and written traditions, do not concern themselves with details of Jesus personal appearance such as his height, colour of hair and eyes, or mannerisms in speech and general behaviour.
9. The man born blind in chapter nine is a notable exception. His main exchanges are with the authorities, but concerning Jesus and his healing.
10. There are a number of shades of meaning in the use of the term the Jews. At times the term refers to the inhabitants of Jerusalem or Judaea. At times it appears in phrases like festival of the Jews. It can be an ethnic designation emphasising their difference from Samaritans or Greeks/Gentiles, as in the encounter with the woman at the well. In the account of the raising of Lazarus the Jews appear as the friends of Mary and Martha coming to console them in their bereavement. For the most part, however, the term is a characterisation of the forces hostile to Jesus within the Jewish people, especially among the authorities, but it must be remembered that Jesus himself, his family, friends, disciples and followers were also Jews. The term reflects the division between Jews (especially Pharisaic Jews) and Christian Jews and Gentiles during the post-70 division as both groups worked out a new self-definition. Sadly the term has been misunderstood and misused in a fiercely anti-Semitic way with disastrous consequences. Properly understood within its Jewish context in the Bible the tensions between Jesus and the Jews in Johns gospel should resemble the verbal battles between prophets like Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea and the religious and civil officials (and the people) of their time.
11. Ben Witherington III, op.cit., 73f. 12.
13. J. Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 3.
14. H. U. von Balthasar, op.cit., 64.
15. Irenaeus lived from about 130 to 200 AD. Polycarp of Smyrna died in old age about 155-6 AD and was reputed to have known John.
16. Jn 21:24.
17. Jn 13:23-25.
18. Jn 19:25-27.
19. Jn 19:35. The masculine form is used both in the participle and possessive pronoun in the sentence. The Beloved Disciple is the only male mentioned in the group around the cross. Also the insertion into the narrative is very similar to that in 21:24 which refers to the Beloved Disciple.
20. Jn 20:2-10.
21. Jn 21:7, 20.
22. Jn 20:2.
23. If so, it would lend credibility to the identification of this disciple with John, Son of Zebedee.
24. One can only speculate why the name was concealed. Was it humility on the part of the originating figure in the tradition/community or was it to preserve the ideal and representative character of the disciple?
25. Where it is necessary to avoid confusion I will use the term John the Baptist to distinguish the baptist and the evangelist, though the term baptist/baptiser is not used in the fourth gospel.