Bible: The New Testament

The Gospel According to John (John)

All the Gospel narratives diverge dramatically after the point at which Mark ends: the discovery of the empty tomb and the astonishment of the women. In Matthew, the women run to tell the disciples and are met by the risen Jesus on the way. In Luke, the women tell of their discovery of an empty tomb, but no one believes them until the resurrected Jesus makes a series of appearances before the other disciples. Here, in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene tells Peter and another disciple of the empty tomb, and, though she first mistakes him for a gardener, Jesus appears to her and discloses his identity. After his appearance to Mary, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples as a group, and John dramatizes the spiritual presence of Christ when Jesus breathes on his disciples. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “breath” is the same as that for “spirit.”

The Gospel of John is perhaps the most difficult of the Gospels to understand, not because John is more complex than the others—Luke is perhaps the most technically difficult of the Gospels—but because it is so different from the other Gospels. Reading John in the context of the other Gospels can be a jarring experience, because the theological significance of the picture that John paints of Jesus’s life is in many respects specific to John himself. Even John’s solemn and poetic presentation is quite different from that of the other Gospels. The Gospel is also resistant to ecumenicalism, or attempts to reconcile varying religions; in the Gospel of John, Jesus declares, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:16).

Yet the Gospel of John also contains some of the most beautiful parts of the New Testament, such as Jesus’s statement, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). Scholars believe that this story was circulating orally, and that church leaders were reluctant to add it into any of the synoptic Gospels because in official church doctrine, forgiveness for adultery was impossible. Instead of focusing on an official church, John’s Gospel focuses on individual believers and their relationships to Jesus.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of John is its development of Christology, a discourse on the nature and origin of Jesus. Unlike Matthew and Luke, John is not interested in the details of Jesus’s birth. Both Matthew and Luke stress that Jesus is born of a human mother who has somehow been visited by the Holy Spirit. John skips entirely the question of Jesus’s conception. In fact, taken by itself, John offers no indication of any supernatural birth. Instead, John pictures Jesus as the Son of God in a sense that might be described as metaphorical. Jesus may well be a real human who possesses flesh and blood, but he is also the incarnation of the Divine Word. Indeed, just as Jesus himself is the Son of God, John speaks of Jesus giving his followers “power to become children of God”—descent from God is an attitude of faith and a gift of grace (1:12).