"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

John's Jesus -- Making Jesus God, Jews as Enemies, 'Rigid' Church People

Bear with me while I finish posting my notes from Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill. Only one more post after this one. 

The author points out that most Jews seemed to be expecting only one Messiah, however the term "Son of God" was often used of both angels and prophets, "indeed of anyone who could be considered God's mouthpiece."  "Son of God" and "Savior" also were used within the Roman world for "whichever Caesar happened to be occupying the imperial throne."  (pg. 255)

The question then becomes is Jesus the unique "son of God" or as some English versions of the Bible put it "the only begotten son" which I've read in the past was the King James-era method of declaring someone as a unique person not necessary begotten of a person in a human birth way.  Oh, I found this which explains it a bit more clearly perhaps.

The phrase "only begotten" translates the Greek word monogenes. This word is variously translated into English as "only," "one and only," and "only begotten." ...

So what does monogenes mean? According to the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BAGD, 3rd Edition), monogenes has two primary definitions. The first definition is "pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship." This is the meaning attached to its use in Hebrews 11:17 when the writer refers to Isaac as Abraham's "only begotten son." Abraham had more than one son, but Isaac was the only son he had by Sarah and the only son of the covenant.

The second definition is "pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind." This is the meaning that is implied in John 3:16. In fact, John is the only New Testament writer who uses this word in reference to Jesus (see John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). John was primarily concerned with demonstrating that Jesus was the Son of God (John 20:31), and he uses this word to highlight Jesus as uniquely God's Son—sharing the same divine nature as God—as opposed to believers who are God's sons and daughters through faith.      (Source)

While the author makes concession in the book's end notes that there is a case for Paul making Jesus God, the author's view is the opposite.  He said neither Paul nor Mark, Luke nor Matthew thought of Jesus as God. But the writer of the fourth gospel - credited to John - did.  (pg. 257)

Do you agree that John was the only one? 

About the Gospel of John the author writes, "the delightful parables of the Synoptics are nowhere to be found, replaced by dignified but boring speeches that sometimes run to several pages" and "overwhelm us with airless solemnity that leaves us begging for the sinewy, down-to-earth Jesus of the Synoptics.  John's Jesus is always in control." (pg. 271-272)

Bah!  I take it this author likes action better than words!  Perhaps he should be in movies instead of writing books! :-)

It is John's Jesus of "the ancient creeds, of tasteless religious art, of German passion plays and Hollywood movies.  He is the immobile icon loved by ecclesiasts and theologians. It is if John's symbolic reverence has made an icon too awesome to be touched by the soiled and unconsecrated hands of ordinary humans....The weight of human and fleshly, the sweaty and smudged is finally overcome in John by the weightless illumination of the divine."  (pg. 272)

The author states that this process of icon-making is what later lead Mary from being a simple Galilean woman to rising to Mother of God, perpetual virgin status of the Church.

"Many who are comfortable with the Synoptic tradition and even with Paul feel that here at the threshold of John's Gospel they must part company with the New Testament. They may be believers or half-believers, Jews, humanitarians, agnostics -- all of whom may cheer the insights and advances of Paul and the Synoptic evangelists but find themselves abashed and compassless once they come into the field of John's unearthly glow.  The author continues that it's not the deification of the God-man that makes them uncomfortable, but "a spirit of touchy exclusivity" that repeatedly surfaces throughout Western history with "devastating results."  For in John, the author claims, the Jews are often enemies, often "designated with contempt, the lost people who 'have no king but Caesar.'"  This gospel "is still capable of leaving Jewish readers purple with rage and Christians red with embarrassment."  (pg. 273-275)

For about two minutes I wondered if something was wrong with me for never being one of those Christians who found John's gospels embarrassing, but as I kept reading I found out why. 

Cahill points out that the Johannine church developed separately almost like an island cut off from the mainland (which - the "mainland" - grew slowly into "the Great Church of succeeding centuries.")  John's church didn't rely on a central administration of bishops and deacons, but "was wholly dependent on individual, prophetic inspiration - from 'the Spirit' -- and it rejected the notion that anyone but Jesus could be pastor, that is, their shepherd. ... For all its problems, the high Christology of the Johannine community gave its theology a profundity and piercing clarity that other churches lacked; and its Spirit-based social ambience encouraged equal participation by all, especially women, in its common enterprises of charity and prayer."  (pg. 276-277)

"Its insistence on there being but one way of thinking makes uneasy anyone who has ever had an unorthodox thought. It comes as no surprise that John is often the favorite evangelist of the uptight and unrelenting; and his rigidity can call to mind contemporary churchpeople of several unfortunate varieties.  The difficulties of John's Gospel are extreme enough that to this day Christian churches use its passages sparingly in their lectionaries, whereas the other gospels are proclaimed in full."  (pg. 277)

Am I one of those "unfortunate varieties" of church people because I happen to like John?  Maybe.  I am a bit rigid about certain doctrines!  I feel there are some matters too important to be wishy-washy about.   While many I know like John's gospel (not sure if he is their favorite evangelist since we all have different tastes), I must tell you that they don't seem to hate Jews or blame them for crucifying Christ.  I read a book a couple years ago by a Jewish American guy who appealed to his fellow Jews to understand that - although liberal Jews and conservative Christians may not agree on politics in the United States - we conservative Christians were great friends of the Jews in many matters.  He explained that while European Christians of the past were often anti-Jew and blamed Jews for killing Jesus, North Americans were strongly influenced by London-born John Nelson Darby who was very pro-Jewish. Darby made missionary voyages to North America in the 1800s and his beliefs became more popular here.  Therefore, instead of us seeing Jews as Christ killers, we see Jews as the ones who brought us Christ and the Bible we hold dear.  Our Savior was a Jew!  "Our" Paul! "Our" Isaiah!  "Our" David!" How can we hate the Jews?  In fact I grew up hearing that the Jews didn't kill Jesus. In reality, we all did if we believe he died for our sins for all of us are sinners.  I think this is why many of us were puzzled when Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ came out and Jews were fearful that we would blame them for killing Jesus. Huh? That thought never crossed my mind!

So although "my people" may like John, I wanted to clarify that we are among the Jews' best friends.  This is actually a point that annoys me quite a bit because my people often equate today's Zionist State of Israel with the Jews and thus conservative Christians are one of the most staunch supporters of Israel today despite the country's many war crimes and mistreatment of people.  My Syrian friends know this and is one reason they were quite surprised that Andrew and I were nice people. They figured we all were monsters, apparently. 

Lastly, the author admits to some of John's literature as being "the most beautiful of the New Testament."

On this point, I totally agree with Thomas Cahill.  What from John's Gospel or letters do you find most beautiful?  What do you greatly dislike?  Any favorite stories from John?

Any thoughts on any of this? Please share.


sanil said...

I don't think John was the first to think of Jesus as God...but I do think he was the first to state it outright and believe it as central to the faith. I think before this (and even during this time), it was unclear who/what Jesus was, and different schools of thought on that. Sorting through those questions was a big part of the reason for the creeds. I think Paul's writing at least hints that he believed Jesus was divine, but not necessarily that he had any idea what that meant and would have actually equated Jesus with God.

I think what the author is criticizing isn't words over action, but a hollow-seeming, God-like Jesus who seems to be handing down divine instruction from a pedestal rather than conversing and teaching and generally living as a human.

I don't know if this describes you or not, but I have noticed something interesting about John. Several people I know who are very knowledgeable about the Bible and have read the Gospels several times don't know and sometimes won't believe that this Gospel comes across as anti-semitic. They will insist that it only refers to some Jews or to the Jewish leaders as bad people. I know I have seen at least one translation that actually translates it this way, covering up the fact that in the original it actually always (or at least, almost always) refers to "the Jews" in a very negative way. Jewish characters cast in a good light are not referred to as Jews. Since we tend to mix the Gospels together in our minds, few people, even those who know the Bible well, realize that John writes this way, and will instead assume that he is referring to the leaders, the same way the other Gospels do.

I don't think it's a bad thing that you like John. It's actually my favorite, too, so his suggestion there doesn't really make sense. I think you could equally say on the other side that the type of people who don't like John are the wishy-washy, politically correct types who would rather lie politely than tell a truth that might offend. I don't think either position is actually true, though. I definitely don't think you're in the "uptight and unrelenting" category! :D

I was at one point going to write my thesis on John, when I was doing a degree that required me to write one. My argument was that John refers to "the Jews" in a negative light not because he disliked them or actually blamed them, but because the Christian community at that time was split over the growing distinction between Judaism and Christianity. This also makes sense with his straightforward assertion that Jesus is God - I think that before this was stated so clearly, many might have followed Jesus as a human teacher, who was a Jew and taught Judaism. If Christians weren't allowed to enter Temples and follow the religion he taught, should they convert to Judaism and abandon Jesus? So John insists that no, Jesus is God, following him is more important than worshiping at the Temple, and it would be a mistake to choose Judaism at the expense of Christ. He might have avoided referring to Jesus and his followers as Jews to de-emphasize this aspect of Jesus' ministry so that people wouldn't be confused and think that his message could only apply to Jews.

Susanne said...

Sanil, thank you for a lovely comment. I enjoyed it so much!

The author pointed out that when John wrote - the latest of the four gospels although he said some of the information shows it could be both the earliest *and* latest [possibly because John was an eyewitness to Christ's life] - the Jews had thrown the Christians out of the synagogues. Essentially they (Jesus followers) had broken off from Judaism at this point when initially it was just Jews following Jesus and still meeting with other Jews still waiting their Messiah.

This author suggests John was bitter/sad about this break and his gospel reflects some of this hurt.

You are right that maybe I read all 4 gospels and mix material from each instead of reading them independently to see what that particular author is saying about Jesus, the Jews and so forth.

I really appreciate all that you brought to mind by what you wrote. Thank you so much for taking time to do that! :)

Carmen said...

I took a summer class in college, strictly on John. I loved the class and my binder was full of notes. I wish I knew where it was. haha.

Interesting the author's POV. I can see a bit what he's saying about the style and feel to the book. Among Pentecostals, John is book that really paints a picture the Holy Spirit's beginning here on Earth.

I found this:

The gospel of John, which presents Jesus Christ in His deity, is sometimes called the "I AM" book. Over and over again in the book of John, Jesus said, "I AM." To the learned Jew this phrase "I AM" was very significant. It was a claim by Jesus that He is God. Why? In the Old Testament when God called Moses to lead the nation of Israel out of Egypt, He told Moses to tell the nation that "I AM" has sent you (Exodus 3:13-15). "I AM" is the covenant God of Israel, Jehovah! Therefore, the great "I AM" is the designation for God to the nation of Israel and Jesus' statement "I AM" is a clear indication that He was saying, "I AM God."

Does the author address that? Jesus actually claiming that He was God. Is the author saying Jesus WASN'T the unique son of God? Is he saying Jesus didn't say those things?

Weird. I've always been told that each of the men that wrote the 4 Gospels had different perspectives based on who they were. think of Luke and His profession as a Physician and his attention to certain details.


Oh and you and I agree regarding the Jewish debate. I would never hold a grudge or express disgust or hatred towards the Jews because they "killed Jesus". Jesus laid down His own life, knowing that in order for us to have open communion with God and make the ultimate sacrifice for our sin, He needed to die.

Who crucified Jesus matters not. He's alive again and I am free!

Carmen said...

ACK I wrote a huge long comment and then got an error message that it was too long. When I hit back, it was GONE!

I'll have to come back later and try again. Darn!

Carmen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carmen said...

I got the error message. My comment wasn't there. I rewrote a comment and then poof, my long post was there. haha. Gotta love technology.

Susanne said...

Carmen, I'm glad your comment wasn't lost after all. Blogger is so weird sometimes. I get that same ERROR message and often it posts anyway. To be on the safe side, I sometimes write comments in Gmail drafts so they won't be so readily lost!

Anyway, I'm glad you added your thoughts on John. I was especially interested in what you said about it being a book re: the Holy Spirit's beginning for Pentecostals. Yes, I've heard that John is the "I Am" book as well. I like that you brought this up in your comment.

The author is basically saying that it was John who made Jesus into God by recording what he [John] did about Jesus which was quite unlike what the others (Matthew, Mark,Luke and even Paul) recorded. I didn't agree with everything he concluded, but I wrote my notes on the book for the sake of considering other points of view.

Really glad you shared your perspective - thanks much!

Carmen said...

But if the I Am statements are actually the words of Christ, I guess I don't understand how it was John that made Jesus into God when "I Am" statements are very important in Jewish culture.

God is the great I Am and here Jesus is making these I am statements too.


Susanne said...

Carmen, I think each evangelist recorded stories of Christ from either eyewitness accounts or traditions passed down orally. The author of this book shows how John is unlike the other three in that he included these very "Jesus is God" statements that the other three chose not to talk about. This is why he claims JOHN was the one who made Jesus into God. Maybe the author doesn't believe those are Jesus' exact words..I really don't know.

But he means, I think, that John of the five (gospels plus Paul) was the most in-your-face-Jesus-IS-God in his telling of the story of Jesus.

He included sayings of Jesus no one else did. He even starts his book going all the way back to creation instead of a virgin birth. Does that make sense?

Carmen said...

I "guess" it does. LOL

Either you believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God or it's not. Does he fall into the latter.

I guess I don't think John made it up because I feel the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

There are many things in the Bible that are given to us once, aren't there? I'm assuming this is being questioned because there are those that believe Jesus is the Messiah and those that don't.

If it is a Christian questioning John, I take issue with it. If it is a non-believer, than it makes more sense.

Susanne said...

I think he considers himself a Christian, but I'd say he doesn't believe the Bible is inerrant. It's interesting to read his viewpoint.

I don't think the Messiah role of Jesus is questioned as much as whether or not he is God. Jews believe he is neither. Muslims believe he is the Messiah. Some (most?) Christians believe he is both.

Enjoyed your feedback - thank you!