December 27 is the feast day of the beloved disciple, St. John the Evangelist. St. John was one of the 12 apostles. He and his brother James had been followers of St. John the Baptist. They were fisherman who worked with their father Zebedee. Sts. Peter, James, and John have a special place in the Gospels. They are called away by Jesus to hear and witness things in which the other disciples are not included. St. John is presented in the Gospels as a young man and a very close friend of Jesus – the disciple whom he loved. As Jesus was dying on the cross and all of the other male disciples had fled, St. John was there with Mary the mother of Jesus and some other women. Jesus, in his dying words, entrusts His mother to St. John.
Tradition names St. John as the author of the fourth Gospel, the Book of Revelation and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd letters of John. Some scripture scholars in the last quarter of the 20th century have challenged this traditional notion of St. John as the common author of these works. Some scholars refer to the “Johannine school “- a group or a community of students of St. John – as the source of these works.
The Gospel According to John is unique. It bears very little resemblance to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three Gospels are called the Synoptic Gospels because you can line them up side by side in three columns and see that they are parallel documents, with elements from the same source and a great similarity of phrasing and story content. The Gospel According to John sees signs and wonders in the life of Jesus and has layer upon layer of symbolism and meaning. Yes, the basic story line is the same, but there are soaring heights of poetry in sections such as the Prologue – introduction – and the prayers of Jesus after the Last Supper.
Fr. Raymond Brown – one of the great scripture scholars of the 20th century – sees a weaving of the history of the Johannine community of believers within the Gospel. The conflicts and tensions of the early church are mirrored in those of the characters in the Gospel story. This is especially true of the conflict between Jews over the message and meaning of Jesus. As a book written by Jews for Jews, the Fourth Gospel has many very negative things to say about Jews. As family fights go, this one was no exception in its bitterness. Eventually, Jewish authorities saw quite correctly that the followers of Jesus, who proclaimed his resurrection from the dead, had stepped beyond the boundaries of the Jewish religion that they were attempting to preserve after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the obliteration of Jewish life in Palestine.
The Second Vatican Council, in its decree on Non-Christian religions – Nostra Aetate, In Our Age – makes it clear that using this and other material to justify attacks on Jews or anti-Jewish hatred is historically incorrect and cannot be justified morally. After the destruction of the Temple and Israel in 70 AD, Rabbinic Judaism came to the fore and those groups that would later be called Christian began to develop a separate identity.
The other theme in the Fourth Gospel is the focus on the Incarnation – that Jesus is both human and divine. There was a very strong movement among some early followers of the Jesus movement who looked on him as a god masquerading as a human. Spirit would never truly be one with something so abject and base as matter in their way of thinking. Some of these early followers saw creation as a cosmic mistake by an errant creator figure. In broad terms, we can call this movement Gnosticism, based on the Greek word for knowledge. This true and secret knowledge came to the elect and enlightened them to the fact that they were spirits trapped in bodies. Granted, this is an over simplification of a very complex topic, but it is important to note that the Fourth Gospel uses many of the themes of light and darkness, of the mystical living word of God in Jesus, to convey a message and understanding of the meaning of Christ which enobled creation and our very humanity.
The letters of John, 1, 2, and 3 are exhortations to the followers of Jesus to live in love, peace, and mutual respect. Again, the theme of the human and divine reality of Jesus comes through loud and clear. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”(I John 1)
Scholars differ on whether the Apocalypse (Revelation) of John was produced by the author or authors of the Fourth Gospel. We can spend years reviewing the direct and hidden meaning of the Book of Revelation but that will have to be the topic of several other posts.
It is hard to directly link the beloved disciple of the Gospels, the man to whom Jesus entrusted his mother, to the writings which bear his name. However, the voice of tradition cannot be discounted either in the case of such a favored and remarkable young man.