Almost any poll of regular church goers will reveal that their favorite book in the New Testament is the Gospel of John. It is the book that is most often used at Christian funerals. It includes such well known and oft-quoted texts as: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” It boasts the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept,” which serves the needs of many cross word puzzle creators. Its prologue was used for centuries in Catholic liturgies as “the last gospel” at the mass. It includes characters like Doubting Thomas, whose very name has entered our public discourse.
Yet, I suspect that if these devotees of John’s Gospel were introduced to the world of Johannine scholarship, they would be both shocked and angered by contemporary insights into this treasured book. It is to place much of this scholarship into the public arena that I have written the book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”
Among the conclusions that I have reached in my intensive five-year-long study of John’s Gospel are these:
1) There is no way that the Fourth Gospel was written by John Zebedee or by any of the disciples of Jesus. The author of this book is not a single individual, but is at least three different writers/editors, who did their layered work over a period of 25 to 30 years.
2) There is probably not a single word attributed to Jesus in this book that the Jesus of history actually spoke. This includes all the “I Am” sayings and all of the “Farewell Discourses.”
3) Not one of the signs (the Fourth Gospel’s word for miracles) recorded in this book was, in all probability, something that actually happened. This means that Jesus never changed water into wine, fed a multitude with five loaves and two fish or raised Lazarus from the dead.
4) Many of the characters who appear in the pages of the Fourth Gospel are literary creations of its author and were never intended to be understood as real people, who actually lived in history. This includes Nathaniel, who is introduced with great fanfare in chapter one and is treated in John’s Gospel as one of “the Twelve,” as well as the enigmatic character called by the Fourth Gospel “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” who is introduced in Chapter 13 and who stars in this narrative from then on up to and including the resurrection event. Between those two “bookend” characters, we run into such well-known figures as Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman by the well, the man crippled for 38 years and the man born blind, none of whom has ever been mentioned before in any written Christian source and each of whom in all probability is nothing more than the literary creation of the author.
5) John’s Gospel seems to ridicule anyone who might read this book as a work of literal history. For example, Jesus says to Nicodemus: “You must be born again.” Nicodemus, the literalist, says: “Born again? I am a grown man! How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus says to the Samaritan woman: “If you know the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would give you living water.” The Samaritan woman, a literalist, responds: “Man, you don’t even have a bucket!”
6) The Gospel also exaggerates its details, once more I believe, to counter any attempt to read it literally. For example, Jesus does not just turn water into wine, he turns it into 150 gallons of wine! Jesus does not just give sight to a blind man, he gives sight to a man born blind! Jesus does not just raise a person from the dead, he raises one who has been dead and even buried for four days, one who is still bound in grave clothes and one who, according to the King James translation “already stinketh” with the odor of decaying flesh!
Finally this book will challenge the way the Fourth Gospel has been used in Christian history as the guarantor of what came to be called Christian orthodoxy or creedal Christianity. The Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. leaned on the Fourth Gospel as literal history in order to formulate the creeds and ultimately to undergird such doctrines as the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. The texts used to support that creedal development, my studies have led me to affirm, have nothing to do with an external God entering humanity in the person of Jesus, but are rather attempts to describe the experience of the human breaking the boundaries of consciousness and entering into the transformation available inside a sense of a mystical oneness with God. If that is so, then the Fourth Gospel has the potential to become the primary biblical source upon the basis of which Christianity can be changed dramatically to speak with radical freshness to the 21st century.
Christianity is not about the divine becoming human so much as it is about the human becoming divine. That is a paradigm shift of the first order.
These are the conclusions to which my study of John’s Gospel has led me, and they are the conclusions that I explore and document in this book “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”