Against sacraments: On the Gospel of John

Normally one reads the Gospels as all filling out details of the same basic story. This traditional attitude even affects critical scholars, who have focused on questions about the synoptic gospels’ shared source and their incorporation of their own particular sources into its basic framework. When they come to John, they assume that he has some other source — hence “further information” about Jesus. But as class prompted me to read Mark and John in rapid succession (along with the basic context surrounding the temptation in the desert in the other two gospels), another theory forced itself on me: what if the Gospel of John is a polemic against the picture of Jesus we get in the synoptic gospels? And more specifically, what if the Gospel of John has a polemic against the sacramental rites that the synoptic gospels helped to legitimate?

Here are some data points:

  • The segment on John the Baptist simply skips over John’s baptism of Jesus. John sees the Spirit descend like a dove, but the text does not mention anything about the baptism that is the occasion for this vision in the other gospels (1:29-34).
  • The author also makes a point of highlighting the fact that only Jesus’s disciples baptize people, not Jesus himself (4:2).
  • John’s account of the Last Supper does not make any mention of the institution of the sacrament of communion, but instead has the rite of washing each other’s feet — and when Peter suggests getting his whole body washed (which sounds a lot like baptism to me!), Jesus tells him that his desire for such a thing shows he’s misunderstood Jesus (13:10-11).
  • The only person who is recorded as consuming bread and wine at the Last Supper is Judas. To emphasize this point, Jesus tells the beloved disciple that consuming bread and wine will be the sign of the betrayer and directly hands it to Judas — and then the instant he eats it, Satan takes possession of him (13:26-27).
  • If we return to the great discourse on consuming Jesus’s flesh and blood in ch. 6, Jesus seems to be establishing it as a kind of shibboleth for his disciples, similar to how parables work in the other gospels — and the text repeatedly highlights Judas’s presence among the disciples precisely in this context (6:64, 6:70-71). The fact that Judas goes on to take “literal” communion seems to indicate that the true disciples would understand this discourse in a different way — not, as the later tradition would have it, as a legitimation of the rite of communion.

If we pair this polemic against sacraments with the fact that John moves the cleansing of the Temple forward substantially, we could probably conclude that the evangelist is worried that the use of sacramental rites represents a relapse into Judaism. And this is problematic because the Jews know nothing about the true God, but are instead children of the devil (passim).

In short, I’m pretty sure John is actually a Gnostic gospel and that it does violence to the text to include it as a legitimation of orthodoxy.

38 thoughts on “Against sacraments: On the Gospel of John

  1. A different interpretation of that same line of thought: John’s gospel presents the most transcendent Jesus, putting him in the stratosphere, but it doesn’t simply leave him there. He dies and goes to be with the Father, and leaves instead the “helper” who is only found within and among the community (14:7). What is seemingly the most transcendent (or “gnostic”) gospel ends up embracing pure materialism (the community, which is the Paraclete) with no recourse to the transcendent world except through the material world. Like Nietzsche said of moral values: the more transcendent and ideal they are, the easier they are to put so high that they can’t be reached. And the easier it is to simply leave them there and focus on the world in their absence.

  2. Could you say a little more about how you are relating John to extant gnostic literature (or is it purely a conceptual move)?
    A standard argument is that John 3:16 makes no sense in gnostic cosmology but I don’t know how much of that is related to reading the God *so* loved world as God loved the world *a lot* as opposed to God loved the world *in this way*. The bronze serpent imagery seems tremendously dense in what it could all be alluding to (beyond just the intertextual reference). There is a sacramental tone to this but perhaps one that is different than orthodoxy (the shedding of flesh/skin and of ascending). Just spit-balling here.

  3. That was obviously a huge conceptual leap. I mean that it’s Gnostic in the more “extreme” sense than most of the extant literature — basically, it’s very like what people thought Gnosticism was before we discovered the treasure trove of texts.

  4. Great stuff.
    (1) I’m not sure it’s fair to read John against the other gospels in so far as I don’t actually see the category of synoptic making much sense to me (perhaps my own mark against the tradition). I’m not convinced that the theological framework of Mk, Mt, and Lk are any closer together than any one of those compared with John.

    (2) I’m willing to entertain the idea that John was written purposefully in contrast with the Mk, Mt, and Lk. To some extent I think that the gospels themselves can be read as polemics against particular interpretations of Paul.

    (3) Having said (2), I tend to think that four different communities developed different theologies of Jesus. They pick and choose what they want to borrow from other sources, they make up new stuff, and they differ on how they theologize the stories handed down from the disciples. I think it’d be difficult to convince me, although I’m happy to entertain the idea, that any particular gospel was written with the specific intention of staging a polemics against another gospel.

    (4) I don’t see the Gnosticism in John…at least not enough to say that it is a gnostic gospel. The eschatology is very “here and now.” I don’t see the overly spiritualized anthropology that many people see in John. The body isn’t downplayed at all in so far as it is the vehicle for poieo. The soteriology is based on what one produces–what material fruit are generated by one’s actions. There doesn’t seem to be any hidden truths or knowledge claims. Certainly specific Jewish groups are heavily criticized, but I’m not sure that the text equivocates on Jews being children of darkness.

    (5) I do think sacramental rites are affirmed in John but the theology behind these rites is quite distinct from what one found in mainstream sects of 1st c. Judaism and Christianity.

    (6) My approach to the gospels is largely rhetorical-narrative so I realize that we’ll come up with different views due our use of different methodologies. I do think that what you’re saying is worth pursuing further, that it could be a very interesting way of reading the fourth gospel. I guess, since the post is short, I don’t have enough to go on to actually affirm this gospel as a gnostic one. (remembers me of a conversation last week’s faculty meeting: “since it sparks such disagreement, you should probably write a paper about this.” Not sure if that means you or I should write the paper. =) )

  5. Perhaps one could view the “polemical” reading as a hypothetical, meant to sharpen one’s eye for the distinctiveness of each text. After all, we know for a fact that there were debates in the early church in which certain people wished to exclude and replace the views of certain other people — and it seems more plausible to me to view the Gospel of John as contradicting the other three (which do, in my view, have more commonalities among themselves than any of them does with John) than to view it as incorporating “Gnostic elements” as a way of passive-aggressively combatting Gnosticism.

  6. I think if you drop the name “gnostic” and focus instead on the intentional spiritualizing of Jesus and de-emphasis of his human personhood, that might solve some of these rebuttals. Nice paper, by the way, on resurrection. I just like thinking of John as a radical materialist who makes a super-transcendent Christ as a way of dialectically bringing people back to the mundane details of the human movement left in his wake. The human-all-too-human Jesus in Mark simply tempts people to idolization, but John’s Jesus is already the idol, so when he dies…

  7. Further historical context, to assure everyone I’m not uncritically adapting the old-fashioned concept of Gnosticism: I think John is actually further from something we would recognize as proto-orthodoxy than are the Valentinian texts, which generally make room for traditional religion as an acceptable option for the “common folk.” John seems more openly hostile toward traditional religion, including the emergent sacramental rites of Christian sects.

  8. I suppose I’d say that the Johannine community complied the gospel over decades in order to handle internal conflicts rather than as a reaction to either the synoptics or to Gnosticism. I’m just not convinced that the primary motivation was to combat something external to the community.

    But, if I had to pick otherwise, I would agree with you that it was written in response to the synoptics rather than as passive-aggressive refutation of Gnosticism.

  9. If you read Mark ch. 1, Matthew 3-4, Luke 3-4, and then John ch. 1 in rapid succession, it becomes difficult to believe that John “just so happened” to develop the tradition in a different way. The omission of the baptism of Jesus and the temptation in the desert seems very pointed once you see how well the rest of the context fits with the other three. I don’t want to make overly strong claims that John was reading the other three gospels and proclaiming them bullshit — we can insert some hand-wavy appeal to “oral traditions” if that helps — but I think it’s at least plausible that such pointed omissions and revisions have polemical intent. (I was initially inspired by my reading of Deuteronomy this semester, which makes similarly pointed omissions and revisions — for instance, God hand-writes the second tablets as well, and it never mentions the disobedient act that supposedly excluded Moses from the Promised Land and instead emphasizes Moses’s intercession for the people. It’s hard not to view that as a purposeful revision of the existing tradition.)

  10. Even with the spiritualizing Christology, I don’t see a spiritualized anthropology in the fourth gospel. On the latter note, it seems very materialistic/down to earth.

    Adam, I didn’t take you as being uncritical. I assume you know you’re talking about.

    Re: eucharist. Disciples are to abide in J. One abides in J by eating him. The branches get their nutrition from the vine. Vines stay alive as long as they produce fruit. In order to produce fruit, one needs nutrition from J. If one ceases to produce fruit, one is cut off. Hence, one continually needs to be nourished by J…eat his body/blood. This seems like a more robust theology of eucharist than we see in, e.g., Mk. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean by sacramental rite. If we are referring to what various sects do on Sunday mornings (or quarterly on Sunday nights, etc.), then I’d say that very few masses/worship services have a Eucharistic rite that resembles what any of the canonical gospels describe. E.g., in Luke, the eucharist is actually about sharing meals with others…nothing about a little wafer and wine. But, again, I think I may not be following what you mean.

  11. But the theologies in each of those are quite different from one another. I don’t see it as a 3 vs. 1 thing. I assume that the kinds of baptism theologies in the synoptics just weren’t of importance to the writers of John. This might be a methodological difference: I need something internal to the text itself to make me think its reactionary to something external. I don’t see how we can know the authors’ intent based on what is included/omitted in comparison with other gospels.

    Alas, I’ll grant that it is plausible, and I probably am reading as making stronger claims than you actually are.

  12. I sat in a class on John last year and found the theory that John was written by a community and changed over time to be fascinating, and one I had somehow missed for a long time. The theory is not accepted by everyone, but I found it to be compelling, and what you’re discussing here reifies some of this perspective: what’s really at stake with a wikigospel as opposed to the synoptic one? What I think emerges is a sense of community and the importance of that community becomes the focus, and what the stories mean within that community, rather than from the outside.

  13. I don’t see how reading them in rapid succession works, even for what you’re claiming. John’s gospel seems to have multiple authors and is likely a composition of writings that span decades. John 1 may (or may not have) been written prior to, e.g., Mt 3-4. But, even it was written later, it becomes part of a larger work so that whatever its theology was in year A changes (maybe/maybe not) to a different theology once its redacted into a larger work in year B.

  14. I don’t understand how speculative accounts of how the gospel was written trump the evidence of the texts that we have in front of us. But then, maybe that’s why I didn’t go into biblical studies.

  15. Chris,
    That seems right. The view that John is a compilation and has multiple authors (and are different from the authors of each of the epistles and also different from the author of Revelation) does seem to be gaining a lot of traction. My guess is that many who attend the SBL would affirm this view, but I’m just speculating.

    I need to go back to writing so I’ll be out of the conversation for a while. Cheers.

  16. The arguments that support this theory of John are based on internal considerations of the rhetoric, grammar, form, and narrative of the text.

  17. I’m probably pushing this harder than necessary, but at the very least the unanimity of the synoptics on the sequence of events in the sections mentioned indicate widespread acquaintance with a “tradition” according to which they happened in broadly that way (get baptized, manifestation of the spirit as a dove, temptation in the desert, recruiting first disciples).

  18. I’m a Bhuddhist, not a Christian! And I even spell Bhuddhism wrong. But let me see if I get the theological issue. The basic message of the “historical” Jesus Christ (…if there was one?…) according to an eclectic reading of the synoptic gospels would be that JC was strongly opposed to the sacrificial rituals practiced by the Jewish high priest of the Temple in Jerusalem (…who was a Roman appointee who bought his office etc….) and to the sacrificial cult of the deified emperor promoted by Octavius Augustus & his Roman lackeys. What brings JC into militant conflict with the Temple & the Romans & finally leads to his crucifixion for blasphemy & sedition is precisely this opposition to the “sacraments” (sacrificial rituals, usually animal sacrifice) of both Jerusalem & Rome, which sanctify the political and religious authority of the Jewish Church & Roman State. Jesus Christ insisted that sacrificial rituals for purification & justification of sins (…and for exorcism & healing of leprosy, for example, which are conspicuous elements of the gospels…) could be practiced by simple, humble people like himself & didn’t require elaborate sacramental apparatus like those employed by the Jewish priests & the Roman emperors. What’s called “The Last Supper” exemplifies that message: The Jewish Passover ceremony (Pesach) is divested of its ritual apparatus & celebrated simply as a simple meal (bread & wine) among a small group of communicants; although JC probably did take the opportunity to introduce a simple ritual into the meal (…Take, eat, this is my flesh…). The Eucharist ceremony was subsequently invented by the pseudonymous “St. Paul” (…who wasn’t even really “St. Paul”!…) of the “Epistle to the Hebrews,” which grafts “The Last Supper” back into Jewish sacificial ritual & make it the sacrament of the Early Christian Church & later Holy Roman Catholicism.

    Now, Adam & maybe Mark want to argue that the Johannine Gospel opposes this grafting of “The Last Supper” back into the Jewish sacrificial ritual & instead cleaves to what some (…myself included…) regard as Jesus Christ’s original message, which opposes “sacraments” sanctioned by the Church & State & substitutes simple ceremonies & rituals celebrated by spiritual seekers & religious communicants without official sanction as the true meaning of “Christian” sacramentalism.But that argument would simply continue the opposition to “Pauline” doctrine often espoused by opponents of the Holy Roman & Apostolic Catholic Church (…including its many schismatics & heretics!…); and would place opposition to the “Pauline” & Apostolic doctrine not only as stemming from a “Johannine” community which opposed other Early Christian groups; but more broadly, as coming from a “Gnostic” strain in Early Christianity which not only opposed “St. Paul” & the Apostolic Fathers (…insofar as they wanted to institutionalize the sacraments…); but perhaps also opposed the Athaniasian & Nicean apotheosis of Jesus Christ as the one-&-only perfectly divine son of God, in favor of teachings which acknowledged multiple & disparate revelations as sources of spiritual teaching & religious authority etc. The problem with that argument, as I understand it, would be that it promotes a drastic splintering & schismatism (sp.?) in Early Chruch theology & a desecration of the sacraments like that clearly evident in contemporary (…Post-Death of God, Post-Nietzschean, Post-Heideggerian etc….) Christianity, which, in the end, appears to lead to “The Death of Christianity” itself…

    My question would be: Aren’t “the synoptic Gospels” (…or at least those of Matthew & Luke…) actually now thought to have been compiled from a “Q” source, which scrupulously records the preserved sayings of “the historical Jesus”? And which would give at least some scriptural authority for Jesus Christ’s authorization of certain simple sacraments? (…baptism as practiced by John the Baptist, say, & a sacramental communion meal as practiced at The Last Supper…) as the basis for something like a sacramental “Christian” religion? Or would you current schismatics & heretics etc. also desecrate the scriptural authority of those few vestiges of sacrificial ritual espoused & practiced by Our Founder, Jesus the Christ, which survive in what passes for contemporary Christianity?

  19. I don’t care about current church practices or how well they fit with the wishes of the “historical Jesus.” I’m saying that one can read the Gospel of John as opposing even the simple rituals as too great a concession to Judaism and that this position coheres with other elements in the text that seem broadly “Gnostic” — and so the traditional use of the Gospel of John as the greatest possible support of sacramental theology strikes me as doing violence to the text.

  20. Eric, I agree that Johannine literature (and pretty much all canonical texts) is (are) anti-imperial.

    Adam, I agree with the last two comments. Although I think that John does offer a sacramental theology, I think that it is far from anything the current churches practice. When sacramental theologians use John to legitimate certain liturgical practices, I’m usually dumbfounded as to how they draw those conclusions from the fourth gospel. I also make no claims about a historical Jesus (we don’t have access to that guy…we have a character named Jesus that appears in multiple texts). As for Q, there are some biblical scholars (at least in the historical-critical contingent of the SBL: e.g, Sanders, Meier, Crossan) who do think that multiple attestation in Q and canonical sources implies that certain words/phrases were truly spoken from the lips of some historical Jesus. I, like you, find this specious.

  21. The Q material was compiled, I’m told, “around 50 C.E.,” less than twenty years after JC’s death. The other gospels were much later. St. Paul’s Epistle’s don’t make much mention of the life & times of “the historical Jesus,” except his crucifixion & resurrection. And “The Last Supper,” all of which are given a Pauline interpretation & become accepted Church doctrine & the basis of the sacraments. If you wanted to challenge the sacraments on the basis of what “the wishes of ‘the historical Jesus'” were, I’d guess you’d go to that source. But I see that your interest is in a specific argument you are making about a specific Gospel. I understand there’s a controversy about which author or authors (…the Johannine community? or just some John…) wrote that specific gospel & for what specific purpose (…to oppose the Early Church?…). I acknowledge the importance of the controversy. But I guess I just don’t care about that, either! (…Although I’m always willing to hear about it…) Except as part of a broader argument about how the message of “the historical Jesus” gets misinterpreted & bowdlerized over Church history. And how Church history is underwritten by a persistent counter-history which always emphasizes the Gnostics, the Zoroastrians, the Essenes, the Zealots, the Maccabees, the Manicheans, the Cathars & etc. & then predicates an interpretation of “the historical Jesus’ message” based upon that counter-history. (…”Zealot,” by Reza Aslan. “The Journey of the Magi,” by Somebody Robertson. “Abraham’s Curse,” by Bruce Chilton etc. All of which I’m reading, simultaneously…). You’re certainly welcome to your scholarly interests! It’s your blog! I just thought maybe I’d interject some vaguely scholarly questions that connect to the contemporary predicament of the Church & the general “Gnostic” (…Satanist, anti-Christian, Nietzschean, whatever…) condition of contemporary (“Post”?-) Christian America. And maybe pick up some tips on Biblical scholarship, along the way. But I admit my background in theology & exegesis is limited to what I’ve picked up from my own readings. So if you have better sources, help me out, here! Personally, I think Jesus Christ had a message that was different than either the “orthodox” or “gnostic” reading (…and probably simpler, too!…). And that message was based upon the challenge to the orthodoxy of sacrifice promoted by the Jewish temple and the Roman imperial cult, for which he was crucified. And if you wanted to say that making Holy Roman & Apostolic Catholic Church sacraments out of Jesus Christ’s anti-sacramental teaching was a greater blasphemy than anything performed by Jesus Christ himself. And that the Gospel of John embodies something like that dissenting position, I’d be sympathetic. I might not agree, but I’d certainly listen. But for a final provocational remark: How can we talk about what a specific gospel interpretation of Jesus Christ’s message on the sacraments was? Without talking about Jesus Christ’s message? Isn’t that just like the contemporary American Church? (…Calvary, say, or another Big Box Church…) Which professes Christianity… Without the slightest interest in “the historical Jesus Christ”!
    Or the Imitation thereof…

    Always glad to provoke! And always welcome responses, hostile or not…

  22. Great thread to read…

    The lack of a sacramental theology in John (or perhaps, rather, a sacramental theology that involves certain rituals) is a reading I see there too, all I wanted to add is that it reminds me of what little I understand is one traditional reading of the text in the Quaker tradition, which turns away from external rituals/sacraments towards something other. John plays a central role the Quaker tradition.

  23. Eric,

    Q is a completely speculative document whose contents are inferred from the existing texts of the canonical gospels. We don’t know for sure such a document ever existed, much less when it was “composed.” Making strong claims about its authority and its direct connection to the historical Jesus will undermine your credibility in most discussions of biblical studies.

    I’m reading John as part of a historical study that does not have to do with Jesus and the church, but rather with the evolving figure of the devil. In that context, a Gnostic-ish Jesus who strongly associates the Jews with the devil is a very compelling data point. Ultimately, I want to be able to say something about the genesis of modernity on the basis of this project — the church, especially the contemporary church, does not matter to me. I don’t have enough investment in it to take the trouble of figuring out precisely where it went wrong. Suffice it to say, it went wrong.

  24. It seems significant that in John 12.27, there is an explicit distancing from the synoptic account of Gethsemane. In John, though still ‘troubled’, Jesus refuses to ask the Father to save him from the hour. Granted this does not take place in Gethsemane, but it seems to forestall any ‘agony in the garden’ scene found in the other three gospels. And when John does recount the garden arrest scene, Jesus is in serene and complete control and states ‘Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’. Not sure if there is a clear link with anti-sacramentalism, but it is appears important to John that (a) the incarnation of the Word should not imply an iota of doubt, struggle or temptation in Jesus – he is pure light versus dark from the start, and his body is a vehicle for this; (b) Jesus’ death replaces that of the Passover lamb, partly because his is an absolutely freely chosen death, in which the ‘matter’ of the sacrifice is purely at the disposal of the Word. If that is so, then all John’s ‘materialism’ could still be compatible with a subordination and instrumentalisation of matter, which in turn could lead to rejection of sacramental practices deemed to be fixated on the material itself.

  25. Adam, I do find your reading of John very interesting & wish I’d had time to to re-read the Gospel before replying. When you say that you find “Gnostic/gnostic” elements in the text, do you mean that what we see in John is a very Manichean,” dualistic reading of the Christ “text”? (…Granting, arguendo, that what we know of JC is just texts. But some texts are still better than others!…) Which “Gnostic” reading cannot accept that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice (crucifixion) is really, as Stephen Shakespeare argues, something self-chosen & ordained for all time (per the Pauline interpretation). But, instead, must bring in a completely “empowered” figure of evil (…Judas, if not Satan himself..) to explain the betrayal of Jesus & the disciples & their sacramental mission. Which then might also lead to a wholesale condemnation of sacramentalism & sacrifice (whether Jesus’ or that of the Temple priests & Roman tetrarchs) as simply worldly invocations of a strictly worldly power. But do you really think that the Johannine Gospel is completely anti-sacramental? When no less an eminence in the Jesus field than Reza Aslan argues that “the gospel of John is little more than Pauline theology in narrative form” (Zealot, 215)? Actually, I might be tempted to agree with you, but I’d want the counter-argument, too…

    It still seems to me, though, that to settle this issue, we’d also want to know (…to whatever extent possible…) what “the historical Jesus” really said. And then we’d want to know how what “the historical Jesus” really said was interpreted by various apostolic communities who were extent during the first century C.E This would then raise the question whether certain interpretive communities (The Essenes, the Qumran community, the Johannine community of Mr. Westmoreland etc.) could be considered as offering specific interpretations based upon their own “orthodox” views. And that would lead to the quesrtion of what views were orthodox & how they got to be orthodox by marginaling or censoring others. In the big picture, then, maybe your “Satanist” subculture could be seen as a dissident counter-culture within orthodox Christianity, which thrives in part by the mystique of its opposition to the “orthodox” teachings. That’s why maybe you’d want to know what “The Church” …(…which you have such a negative view of…!) was up to, which either contributed (…or not?…) to the empowerment of a “Satanist” subculture. Which, as far as I can see, isn’t a subculture, anymore. But the dominant culture!…

    There is also, of course, an “orthodox” Christian Church interpretation of the Gospels that associates “the Jews” with “the Devil” & advocates a Gnostic-style “cosmic war of light vs. darkness” against them. Which certainly contributes to the sordid history of Chritian anti-Semiticism described, for example, by Richard Rubenstein in “After Auschwitz”. To combat (…bad metaphor…!) that reading, it would be helpful to prove that “the Jews” (…the Jewish temple priests, the Pharisees & Sadduccees etc….)really had nothing to do with the crucifixion, and that it was all a Roman gig. Unfortunately, there’s pretty strong “historical” (…not just “textual”!…) evidence that the Jewish temple priests & the Roman tetrarchs both contributed to Jesus Christ’s trial and crucifixion as a “false messiah” & political subversive. There are also, of course, attempts by Christian apologists (…Paul? among others…) to whitewash the role of the Romans & blame it all on the Jews, which are best refuted by close reading of texts supported by “historical” evidence I do’;t guess saying “Satan did it!” will satisfy anybody except the most fanatical fundamentalists & their counter-types, the contemporary Satanists, who flaunt their “Satanist” aparphenalia at the shopping malls & rock concerts…

    Despite all that, I still think it’s regrettable that so many folks like you have such a dismissive & abysmally negative view of “The Church,” of “Christianity,” and of “the historical Jesus.” Because when you compare the evil set forth upon the earth by the Holy Roman & Apostolic Catholic Church (the Crusades & Inquisition etc.), in the process of promoting its false interpratation of Jesus Christ’s socially activist, salvational message; with the evils & horrors perpetrated by the anti-Christian (Satatnist) reaction against the Christian Church (…Renaissance Satanism, Nietzsche and Marx, communism & fascism, etc…) over the past five centuries or so, it’s difficult to decide who’s the more evil. The Christian Church & its betrayal of Jesus Christ’s message? Or the Satanists & Anti-Christs (Stalin, Lenin, Hitler etc.)? Who don’t even pretend to believe in Jesus Christ’s message of peace and love, anymore…

  26. I’m pretty sure I said the opposite of what Eric attributes to me above. It is precisely the more ‘gnostic’ aspect of John which insists that Jesus’ death is a freely chosen one, in which the material world is entirely subordinate.

  27. Let’s say I grant that elements of the text appear to be gnostic. It seems to me that these elements would be found only in the Christology and maybe cosmology of the text. I’m not sure I see gnostic elements in the anthropology, soteriology, or eschatology. Maybe Adam’s devil project, which sounds awesome btw, is focused on the former and so this is at least one reason why the gnostic elements are being emphasized in the post/thread. Do you all see the gnostic strands playing out in the latter?

    (As an aside, I wonder what would turn out if we did a heretical Joachim/Hegel reading of the devil on the side of the aforementioned latter.)

  28. Mark, I guess I’m not sure how there can be a ‘gnostic’ Christology and cosmology without that also impacting the soteriology, etc.

    More specifically in relation to what you said above: ‘The eschatology is very “here and now.” I don’t see the overly spiritualized anthropology that many people see in John. The body isn’t downplayed at all in so far as it is the vehicle for poieo. The soteriology is based on what one produces–what material fruit are generated by one’s actions. There doesn’t seem to be any hidden truths or knowledge claims.’ – I think you could argue the point on each of these areas.

    Yes, eternal life begins now, but that is because there is an exposure of the powerlessness of the ruler of the current world to entrap the believer. The believer stays in the world, unprotected in the flesh, but wholly secure in the spirit. The destiny/true home of the believer is firmly in the beyond.

    The body as a vehicle for poieo – yes, but that is compatible with (or even just another way of asserting) the instrumentalisation of the body. Salvation through bearing fruit – yes, but what kind of fruit are these? They hardly seem to prioritise the care of the stranger found in Luke for example. No hidden knowledge: yes, but long discourses directed only to an inner circle.

    I get that the gospel is not docetic. But there’s more than one way to skin a gnostic cat.

  29. John is the only one of the canonical gospels that relates the story of the doubting Thomas, and it does not appear in Acts either. Some have taken this as suggesting that the Johannine community stood in opposition to the Thomasine community that used The Gospel of Thomas, with John portraying Thomas as a doubter rather than a person focused on attaining experience, as the Thomasine tradition portrayed him. That would put the Johannine community more in the faith camp than the knowledge camp where the Thomasine community certainly stood.

    This doesn’t show that John was not a Gnostic gospel but if it was, it’s belief system was quite different from that of Thomas, which was arguably gnostic with a small “g” to distinguish the gnosticism of perennial wisdom from Hellenistic Gnosticism as a historical phenomenon. I think there was much more of both a gnostic and a Gnostic influence in the early communities than most think now, since the victors wrote the history. See Pagels, The Gnostic Paul, for instance. If the synoptics are taken to be non-Gnostic, contrasting with the Gnostic gospels, then John is somewhere in the middle of the range of practice-faith-knowledge with Thomas more toward the Gnostic side, but not as far as the other Gnostic Christian and Gnostic texts.

    The other possibility is that the early followers of Jesus, likely including the apostles and close disciples, had different understandings of Jesus, from the more exoteric to the more esoteric. The synoptics picture Jesus differently, but their narratives tend to exoteric interpretation. John’s gospel is more theological, and I would say more theological in the sense of elaborating a Christology of the Logos become flesh, than Gnostic. Some aspects of this theology can be read as gnostic, but only mildly. Conversely, Thomas is full-on gnostic, but not Gnostic in the sense of resembling the Hellenistic Gnosticism of other so-called Gnostic gospels. For example, Thomas is founded on a monistic metaphysics rather than the dualistic one that usually imputed to Hellenistic Gnosticism, possibly as a consequence of a degenerated Mazdian influence.

    So I would agree with Pagels that the early communities that centered around Jesus were diverse in belief, probably owing to the fact that Jesus teaching can be interpreted on many levels. Moreover, Jesus is reported to have testified that he explained the core of the teaching only to close ones, which is the tradition the world over, with a closet teaching for the close disciples and a public teaching for the masses. However, uniformity was gradually imposed on the Community that came to call itself Christian, and that was imposed by law when Christianity became Christendom.

    What happened was the practice camp, which developed the sacraments, was fused with the faith camps of John and Paul as “apostolic” and the gnostic element of Jesus teaching was suppressed as being Hellenistic Gnostic. I think we need to revisit this process and recover Jesus’ gnostic teaching. The Protestant Reformation separated the faith from the practice camps, probably a culmination of the difference between the faith and practice camps. But the gnostic camp has been suppressed by the mainstream of both the practice and faith camps, transmitted mostly in the reports of the mystics.

  30. Here’s a few quotes from the Gospel of John which support my wildly idiosyncratic interpretation that the Gospel of John is really, on the whole, an “orthodox,” Pauline text which supports Early Christian sacramentalism:

    Jesus said to them: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst…'” John 6:35.

    “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes from heaven, that a man may eat iof it and not die… I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh…”
    John 6:49-51

    “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him…” John 7:53-57.

    I’d certainly agree there are Gnostic elements in the Gospel of John, beginning from: “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it not.” (John 1-1-5). But I’d argue those Gnostic elements are really consistent with the pseudoepigraphical St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews and with the Apostolic doctrine of the sacraments (the Eucharist), predicated upon the consubstantiality of Father & Son & the mystery of communion, which are evident in the above passages. After all, before the Council of Nicea (325 CE) there really wasn’t a Christian orthodoxy, only competing versions of the various apochryphal & canonical gopels. And the Gospel of John is just a slightly un-orthodox version of those Early Christian Gospels, which wasn’t even written by “John,” just attributed to him, as per what was then “orthodox” practice.

    I do think there’s a strong tendency in American academic circles & in American publishing houses to promote wildly-hyped up, sensationalistic interpretations of canonical Christian texts; or to constantly cook up new interpretations of orthodox texts which can be presented at the next academic conference. So we have publications like Reza Aslan’s Zealot (“Jesus was a Zealot!!!”) or William Roberts’ Journey of the Magi (“Jesus was a Zoroastrian!!!!”) and the whole spate of publications around the Gnostic Gospels & the Dead Sea Scrolls, which combine genuine scholarship with sensationalism and hype. But the truth is usually less sensational & melodramtic than what’s presented in these wildly hyped-up accounts, even if the wildly hyped-up theories are more exciting. For example: Roberts promotes the theory that the Dead Sea Scrolls describe Jesus as “The Teacher of Righteousness” & Paul as “The Wicked Priest” and so on. But that theory is easily discredited simply by reading “The Temple Scroll,” which, despite the absence of Moses, is an entirely orthodox version of the Mosaic Pentateuch, complete with the scapegoat ritual (The Day of Atonement) from Leviticus. It’s not Gnostic, not Essene, but instead orthodox Sadducee-ism in support of the Maccabees, which doesn’t make good press, but probably hews closer to the “historical truth.” Whatever that is…

    Briefly, while I’m interested in whatever theories can be made of the Christian texts, I’d need more evidence to support the theory that the Gospel of John is anything other than a basically orthodox, Pauline scripture with certain Gnostic elements. And I actually believe (although I’m not a Christian!) that. overall, the Christian sacraments exerted a spiritualizing, moralizing influence on Western humanity which was more beneficial than detrimental (despite the numerous often enumerated abuses). By comparison, I’d have to say that the Satanist, Anti-Christian backlash against Christian sacramentalism which reaches a culmination in F. Nietzsche’s “The Anti-Christ” has certainly done more harm than good. Because there’s a direct path from Nietzsche’s Satanism & Nazi Anti-Christianity to the Nazi Holocaust & the Nazi death camps. Which has been described by a book I’ve mentioned before: Rabbi Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz. Which, without naming Nietzsche directly, nonetheless clearly describes where the Satanist, Anti-Christian elements of previously Christian Europe have led…

  31. PS: One final comment, after which I’ll shut up. The Greek term to describe the “morsel” or “sop” (Greek psumion) given by Jesus Christ to Judas Iscariot is, I think, specifically worded to suggest a small bit of food dipped in wine given to a baby & not a sacramental communion meal. Still, I agree, the whole idea that Jesus Christ actually puts Satan into Judas’ body invites “Gnostic” or “gnostic” interpretation. In the synpotic gospels, one of Jesus’ major missions is casting demons out of the sick or mentally ill & healing them of whatever evil possess them (what used to be called exorcism or faith healing). It’s interesting that major scholars of Christianity & the Gospels have virtually nothing to say about that. I’d say that by “demonic possession,” the Gospels describe a very important & real thing, which is now called schizophrenia or borderline psychosis or something (crypto-scientific terms for things which science doesn’t understand any better than primitive religion). Contemporary science certainly does no better job of healing it by doping people up or putting them in psych-wards, without admitting that the phenomena described by schizophrenics or psychotics (“the possessed”) like hearing voices or being inhabited by alien personalities are also important & real. It would be very interesting if those who are concerned with Satanism, Gnosticism, & the Anti-Christian strain of Western religion would also have something to say about these extraordinary or paranormal phenomena, but, unfortunately, they ussually submit to the usual censorships & taboos as everybody else. But until we start telling the truth about it, we’re going to have to deal with the fallout & blowback of these phenomena. Like school shootings & binge killings & violent crimes committed by “demonically possessed” or “mentally ill” people, who get no help from either science or religion…

  32. Adam already gently gave me some answers on Twitter.
    I would like to ask more about two things (maybe some clarification not trying to be polemic):
    – how should we see the line in John 3.5 about being ‘born in water’? Is it not a reference to baptism (maybe not in a ‘sacramental’ view)?
    – in the gnostic myth (as explained by Meier, for example) there is a knowledge is something hidden in the words of Jesus, like a secret only a few chosen ones are able to grasp. As far as I understood it, the gospel of John seems to make the opposite claim: Jesus reveals himself, he is clear as light. There is no hidden or secret knowledge to grasp.
    Am I wrong in making this comparison?


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