International Catholic University


The Gospel of John

James C. Turro


Lecture 1: Introduction, St. John 1:19-20

Welcome to the study of John's Gospel. I'm Father Turro. I am stationed at Seton Hall Seminary in New Jersey. I also teach in Connecticut at the Cromwell Seminary, Holy Apostles. The thing that I most of all would like to get across is that I am enthusiastic about the study of Scripture. I hope that that is contagious, that you will catch fire as a result of what we have to consider here.

John's gospel is quite an assignment. It's a very profound and vast study, and there is no thought of within the compass of a single course of doing full justice to it. We are going to do bits and pieces of it and hope all the while that enough of the character, the essence, of the gospel comes through from the limited treatment that we will be able to afford to give it. The New Testament comes into existence as it seems in answer to the needs of the people back at the time when it began to be written.

At first the Christians were very much taken by the fact of the Resurrection. They were bedazzled by it. When you stop to think about it, why shouldn't they have been? They knew this person, saw him dead, limp on the cross, then subsequently saw him alive again. Quite alive. This was not a phantasm, not a ghost, nothing insubstantial. It was really the same person who had died on the cross, now alive again. You can understand how this would become a kind of an obsession for these people. This was all they could think about, all they could talk about back in those early years of Christianity.

As the New Testament comes into existence it answers the need of these people. It corresponds to their enthusiasms. At the beginning they are so taken with the Resurrection, you find that the first part of the New Testament deals precisely with that, with the Resurrection. And the first part of the New Testament consists of the Epistles. This comes as a surprise to many because we are usually in the habit of working our way through the New Testament starting with Matthew going on to Mark, Luke and John and eventually getting to the Epistles. But just the reverse in chronology, the Epistles were first produced and then only subsequently the gospels.

The earliest bit of New Testament material we have dates from the year 51 A.D. The gospels don't come into existence until a later decade. But the thing that I want to put across now is that these Epistles concentrate on that fact that looms so large in the consciousness of the old Christians, the fact of the Resurrection. The Epistles speak to us not only about the fact but about the implications, the consequences of that fact, and the people were happy enough to find material that discussed all these tangents, these aspects of the Resurrection.

But with the passage of time an interesting thing happens. The people are still very much taken by the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead and is alive again. But now they are consumed with a desire to grasp more and more of the details of the story of Jesus. Where was it that Jesus cured Peter's mother-in-law? Well that was in Capernaum at Peter's house. Who was it that came and emptied a small box of perfume over Jesus? These incidental features become fascinating for the people and so the gospels were conceived, among other reasons, to satisfy the curiosity of the people of those times, their desire to know more and more, even small seemingly insignificant facets of the story of Christ.

The gospels come into existence with that thrust. Of all the gospels the one that we haven't had, John's gospel, is arguably the most beloved, the gospel that Christians respond to more readily. People say that that's because they find it to be so spiritual. All the gospels have a spiritual dimension to them, but this gospel perhaps has more. The writer of this gospel is not satisfied just to indicate the significance of a particular thing that happens in the story of Jesus: he underscores that significance more than it would seem the other gospels do. But for whatever reason it is perhaps the best known and the most loved of all the gospels.

It certainly is in its construction the simplest and yet in some respects the most profound book of the New Testament. It mixes history and interpretation, biography and theology. All are blended together to project on the consciousness of the reader the Jesus of history in the light of Christian experience. It is perhaps for that reason eminently useful and enriching. Useful: by that I mean to suggest that it can be a very great help to someone who is going to be teaching Christian doctrine. Caught up in the catechetical program of some parish you will find this gospel to be a mine of information. But enriching because just a quiet reading of it does so much for the individual person, for the individual soul.

It is an outstanding gospel. A good long while ago the Christian community worked out symbols for the various gospels. For instance the lion is the symbol for Mark's gospel. The eagle is the symbol for John's gospel, for clear enough reason. The eagle soars, and when one soars above a landscape one gets a very good comprehensive impression, view of that whole landscape. It was much like someone who has lived on the island of Manhattan one's whole life but then later on in life for the first time flies over it on a flight to Chicago. And for the first time that person who is so familiar with this venue now gets an impression of its outline, of its silhouette. You know if you soar as an eagle soars that's what you see down below.

That would have been one reason why the people back centuries ago thought of the eagle as best symbolizing this gospel, because it gives it that sense of the shape of the phenomenon that is Christ, a sense of the shape of His teaching as well. But there probably was another reason why they chose the eagle to symbolize this gospel. In those days rightly or wrongly I'm unable to say, people had the idea that the eagle was the only animal that could look directly into the sun and not flinch. That struck somebody as how very appropriate for this gospel, because this gospel does something like that. It looks directly into the sun, the Divinity of Jesus, and does not back off, does not blink. Just think of the way the gospel begins with a resounding affirmation of the Divinity of Jesus.

In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God and the Word was God.
And then all throughout the gospel the same theme comes back for consideration over and again, the Divinity of Jesus. It concludes pretty much on that note. Toward the end of the gospel we hear Thomas saying to Jesus, the risen Jesus, my Lord and my God. So it does make much of the Divinity of Jesus. It is for that reason that he has had that particular accent.

To be sure all of the gospels note the fact that Jesus is to them the Divinity, no question about that. But the added emphasis that is put on that fact here in this gospel is thought to be explained in part in this way as the community, the Christian community, out of which this gospel originated, was probably a community in the city of Jerusalem. Now bear in mind that at this early period all the Christians were Jews. Top that for a remarkable statement, the ultimate oxymoron. But that was the fact. All the Christians in that first generation were Jews, including this particular community here in Jerusalem, the Johannine community, very much influenced by John.

Within that community a difference of approach made itself felt. Some people in that community while in no way doubting the Divinity of Jesus were just being quiet about it for fear that this would have terrible consequences for them. After all they were living as all other Jews lived. They followed the same spiritual and devotional life that the other Jews did: they continued to go to the temple, they continued to go to the Synagogues on Saturday. This segment of that Johannine community was in fear of being castigated in some way if they spoke too loudly about the Divinity of Jesus.

On the other hand the other part of this same community was for just speaking out the truth come hell or high water, taking whatever consequences that might follow from that. It is from that segment that this gospel originates with this particular orientation strong in its assertion of the Divinity of Christ. Some people speak of this as the different gospel. There are any number of instances in the life of Christ that don't come up for consideration in this gospel at all -- for instance Jesus' birth, His birth here on earth, whereas Matthew and Luke have so much to say about Jesus born in Bethlehem and the shepherds coming and all the rest, and the early years of Jesus on earth. Not this gospel, reason being that it is so fixed on the fact that Jesus is God. He is God and as God is from forever. In the beginning was the Word; the Word was God. So if we're going to talk about this beginning of Jesus that is the way you have to speak about it in the minds of these people. But in any case, for whatever reason, they included very little about Jesus' early years.

But then other things as well get short shrift in this gospel. The Baptism of Jesus is just mentioned. John the Baptist baptized Jesus, but it isn't described, recounted in the way that it is in the other gospels. This gospel also has nothing about the temptations that Jesus experienced. It says very little about the Last Supper. What are we to make of all this? Well, nothing of any great significance. We mustn't foolishly suppose that the reason this gospel doesn't make any mention of these things is because the author of the gospel was unaware of this information. But there were other ideas, other notions, other facets of Jesus that they also felt had to be emphasized, had to be brought to the surface, and there is only so much that you can discuss within the compass of a particular gospel. Remember a great physical controlling feature about the length of the gospels were the scrolls on which the gospel was written. It just couldn't run on indefinitely; the Evangelist had to make a selection, choosing this and omitting that. And that's what the author of this gospel did, just as the authors of the other gospels did; they proceeded along the very same lines. They chose those instances in the story of Jesus and those teachings of Jesus that would hit home with the congregation that the particular gospel writer was aiming at.

The controlling feature of what gets into a gospel and does not get into it was just that: the needs of a particular Christian congregation which were understood by the gospel writer and accommodated accordingly by bringing forward for that congregation aspects of the story of Jesus these people would find helpful. That's the way to deal with the diversity that you find in the gospels. Actually it is a diversity created by the needs of the congregations for which the gospels were destined, but also by a different viewpoint. A different angle of vision was assumed by the different gospel writers. One could in a particular room describe the room from one end, and the description would be valid for that part of the room that was being considered, but somebody else might take it as positioned at another place in the room, a side of the room that the original person didn't have in view at all. If you saw the two separate descriptions you could think, Is this the same room? And indeed it is, but viewed from a different angle. That's the way to come to grips with the variety that you find, the diversity among the gospels.

Some people didn't rest easy with that in the early years of Christianity. You had a man by the name of Tatian who thought: Why read these four accounts? Why not conflate them into one account? And he proceeded to do just that. Everything that is found in all four gospels would turn up in this now compressed version that he came up with. All four gospels recount the multiplication of loaves and fishes. And in this book that Tatian wrote he would have just one account, just one instance, of the multiplication of loaves and fishes. But it happens that the gospel of John mentions the detail that the other three gospels don't mention, namely that the loaves that were multiplied were barley loaves, and so Tatian includes that in his account. In the end he comes up with a new work based on all four gospels containing all the information found in all four taken together. He called that the Diatessaron which is Greek for one through four, one work composed of four.

It is still available and is a perfectly legitimate book. But I think the concern or the point of view that brought it into existence is not as enlightened as one that I'm offering you, namely that there is an absolute advantage in having four presentations of the story of Jesus as you have in the four gospels rather than to have just a single one. You are seeing different profiles of Christ which, if taken together, give us more of Christ than we would otherwise have.

Sometimes this fourth gospel is also called the gospel of special knowledge. And what people intended to say by that is that you find in this gospel incidents, accounts that are not to be found in any of the other gospels. So, for example, this is the only gospel that speaks to us about the miracle at Cana. This is the only gospel that tells us about Nicodemus' visit, which is actually very precious. There is much to be learned from that consultation. And then Jesus' dialog with the Samaritan woman: that too, is precious to us but found only in this gospel. The raising of Lazarus is another instance. And the washing of the feet of the disciples is recounted only here.

I have told you all this to familiarize you in a general way with this gospel that we have in hand and that we are going to analyze in greater detail. One further thing before letting go of this comprehensive view of the gospel: the author of this gospel had an eye for detail. And that is fascinating and pleasant for us in the long run. There are people like that: they experience a scene or a happening in that way. All the little facets of it are clear in their minds; you know what the weather was like at that moment and what time of day it was. Who was around to see this? And on and on. The author of this gospel seems to be that kind of person. Details are given even when they don't have any special significance, even when they don't have a part to play in the way you construe the incident.

Let me give you some examples. I've already mentioned that in John's account of the multiplication of loaves and fishes he mentions that the loaves that were multiplied were barley loaves. Now that's not really essential for us to know. The miracle is in the multiplication whether the loaves were whole wheat, rye, seven grain, or whatever kind of bread. That's incidental; that's a detail. The big fact is that they were multiplied. And yet he puts it in. Why? Because that was the fact: they were mostly barley loaves. Our appreciation of the incident is enriched somewhat by the fact that we know from other sources that this was the bread of the poor. The poor could only afford barley; only the wealthier people could have afforded grain for normal bread. So this is then indicating to us that most of the people in attendance on that occasion were poor, since this was their diet, barley bread.

Another instance of details that are offered us is in the account of the calming of the storm at sea. Again, all four gospels bring that to our attention, but this is the only one that tells us that the disciples had rowed about three or four miles out onto this lake of Gennesaret when the storm came up. That makes it clear in our minds that it was probably right about the middle of the lake, because to this day you can measure the lake: it's eight miles across and twelve miles long. But it's not a vital bit of information. The miracle was in the calming of the storm, whether that took place when the disciples were fifty yards out on the lake or four miles out on the lake. But here it is given as a feature of this happening.

Another example of the detail that catches this man's eye, we are told that there were six stone water jars at Cana, water that Jesus changes into wine. Once again the number six and the construction, the material of the jugs is unimportant to us whether it was clay or stone the miracle is in the changing of water into wine and whether it was a glass full of water that was changed into wine or six stone water jars of water that was changed into wine is of small consequence, of no consequence even.

Another instance of this: when two disciples of John the Baptist leave the band of disciples that had grown up around John the Baptist and went to be with Jesus, this is recounted in the first chapter of the gospel. They go to meet with Jesus, and they converse with him, and at the conclusion we are told it was about four in the afternoon. Once again, it's a detail that's not at all essential but it's there and very likely there because indeed it was four in the afternoon when that conversation was held.

Then there is one with a detail that I enjoy reading because it brings to mind a beautiful and very pleasant happening. It is in the account of the anointing of Jesus' feet by Mary, who comes in with a box of perfume. It's here in chapter 12 verse 3,

And Mary took a pound of liquid spikenard perfume, very costly, and poured it on Jesus' feet, and then wiped his feet with her hair, and the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (Goodspeed Bible)
So there is that little detail of the perfume was so strong that it suffused itself throughout the whole house. Of course that may lead people to wonder how it must have been an awfully powerful perfume to do that. But when you consider that houses in those days were not as capacious as they are today, that a house would just have been a single room with very modest dimensions you could see how this would happen, how a strong fragrance would perneate the whole atmosphere.

All this, then, said in general about the gospel. Now we have to get down to specifics. As I said earlier on, there is no thought of going through the entire gospel, twenty-one chapters, because we would end up being very superficial, making some brief comments about Chapter One, and then Chapter Two, and Chapter Three, and so on. That's hardly worth while. I think it would be a wiser approach if we limited our study to a small section, but do it in depth. So rather than run through the entire gospel, to set aside the opening chapters and deal with them. And that's the way I'm going to proceed.

I'm not going to start, though, with the opening verses, which are part of the prologue of this gospel. This prologue is really a masterpiece of literary composition. It is so profound in the message that it conveys and yet so plain spoken. The words are ordinary words that a child in grammar school could grasp, and yet it is putting across mind-boggling concepts about Jesus. The famous Scripture scholar, Rudolph Bultmann, made this comment, which is very much on the mark about this prologue. He said, this prologue is like a table of contents for the rest of the gospel, and it is that. What is hinted at or briefly stated in this part of the gospel subsequently will turn up and get an expanded treatment. I'd rather speak of it as more as the overture to an act of an opera, where you are made to hear the themes that subsequently will surface in the next act. In light of Bultmann's saying that this presents us in advance with what we are going to encounter later on, he feels that it really registers on the reader when read after the gospel. Then you can come back here and catch these very concise phrases and see the depths of meaning that each of them has.

I thought I would start just after this prologue and start with the account of the story of Jesus as it's given here. So I'm going to proceed in this fashion, I'll take a segment of the gospel, read that through, and then go back and comment on the ideas and vocabulary that call for some clarification.

The first of these passages is the opening of the story of Jesus that the gospel is going to present. It starts on the same note that all the other gospels start their account of Jesus' life and work. It starts with the testimony of John the Baptist. Think of John the Baptist as a Master of Ceremonies who comes on front and center to introduce the main act. It might sound blasphemous to put it that way, but it gives you some idea of how the gospels start -- always with the ministry of John the Baptist, which ministry is predominantly this to introduce Christ.

Note, too, that at this point in the gospel the author is speaking of successive days. Now that's very helpful for the reader; because of it the clarity of the account is heightened. If, for example, you are trying to recall a vacation that you had not long ago, you say, On Monday we were at such and such a place, and then Tuesday we moved on to this next place, and so on. It's clearer in your mind if you see it in terms of the days that are involved. To arrange the account in this way, in terms of successive days, does this as well. It gives you a sense of something progressing, something growing. The first day you're at this point, the second day is somewhat enlarged, this happening, and then a third day, and so on. That's how the author has arranged this opening part of the gospel.

Read John 1:19-28.

First I want to highlight the phrase "the testimony that John gave". You must not imagine that this is a casual wayside little chat that John was having with these people. This is a very formal happening. It's a court trial that's going on. There are prosecutors who officially came up and interrogated John the Baptist. It's not that they happened to bump into them and get talking and say, by the way this, this and this. No, they are sent up for the specific reason of questioning John the Baptist about his intents and purposes. This is not just a casual conversation. Notice what is happening in the course of this interrogation: John the Baptist is testifying to Jesus. All four gospels start on that note. John comes along and testifies to Jesus, and here he is doing that in a very official circumstance; he's under pressure to give answers that have to be brought back to headquarters.

Some scholars prefer to think of this gospel as the great trial. When Jesus comes into focus here it is he who will be testifying -- testifying first of all to God's will, testifying to right and wrong. That's the character of this gospel. The opposition to Jesus will form up, official opposition. You know what brings about the death of Jesus is a formal trial before Pilate, before the high priest. So that's the way this particular segment of the gospel starts off: this is the testimony that John gave when the Jews sent priests and Levites to him from Jerusalem.

This next thing that I have to comment on will seem odd, but it is a fact. In this gospel the term the Jews does not designate a whole population, a whole ethnic or religious group, as it does with us. When we speak of the Jews we're just speaking of a religious grouping, a religious entity, the Jews, the Catholics, the Lutherans. Or sometimes we use it in an ethnic sense so the Jews, the Germans, the English. That's not the way it's used here. It actually is used in this gospel for the most part to designate those elements of the population that were antagonistic to Christ. When the author of this gospel has to refer to that whole grouping that we would call the Jews, he speaks of Israel or the Israelites. He reserves that word, the Jews, to those persons in the community who were inimical to Christ.

The question is raised sometimes about the anti-Semitic cast of this gospel. Sometimes this is pointed out that the Jews appear in a bad light throughout. But remember that it's not an indictment of the whole group but a reference of those elements in the population that were opposed to Jesus. Another thing to realize is that this gospel originates from a Jewish background. Is it possible for a Jew to be anti-Semitic? Usually one thinks of that in terms of outsiders venting their displeasure or prejudice on the Jews. That's being anti-Semitic, but this is from within the family, so to speak. Think of the prophets: they are very strong in condemnation of their contemporaries, who were Jews, but the prophets themselves were Jews, and so no one is tempted to think of them as anti-Semitic.

We are told that these men who came up from Jerusalem were sent to ask who he was. Again, to come back to the idea of the official character of all this and how serious this was in the minds of the authorities, we think of that because they come up from Jerusalem. Jerusalem was pretty much the hub of life in those days. It was the center. You take things seriously that originate in Jerusalem; it's not a backwater place, it's the capital. So these people are from Jerusalem. Secondly they are priests and Levites. These were important people in the community, so it's not just a casual individual that's doing this questioning. It's very official, solemn.

Priests and Levites. There's a note of irony in this as well: John the Baptist was from a priestly clan. We know that because his Father is identified as a priest in Luke's gospel. His Father, Zachariah, is functioning as a priest in the temple when word comes to him about the impending birth of his son. John grows up, and he is a priest, because that's what constitutes a man as a priest, birth from a father who is a priest. Our concept of priest of course is quite different; in these days one gets ordained a priest. But among the Jews to this day an individual is a priest because that individual's father before him was a priest.

As an aside I might mention that priests still exist among the Jews, though they don't function, for the best of reasons. But the consciousness of a family being a priestly family has survived to this day because of the surname. Anyone bearing the Jewish surname of Cohen would be a priest because that's the Hebrew word for a priest. The reason why in synagogues Cohens do not have any function is because it is the duty of a priest to offer sacrifice, and sacrifice could be offered only at the temple. The temple has been destroyed, hence priests are without a job.

The next thing I'll comment on is the word Jerusalem. As it appears here in the text it looks like Herosolema -- that's the way one would pronounce it in Greek. That is a later form of the name of Jerusalem than originally people would have used. Originally people would have made an effort in the Greek-speaking world to pronounce the word the way the Jews pronounced it, which is Yoshaleim, but this has more of a Greek sound to it. In any case, the conclusion that some scholars draw is that then this gospel was written at a later point in time. The Christians had been making reference to the city of Jerusalem and calling it as best they could by its Hebrew name. But with time they make the name a little more comfortable for themselves, the pronunciation of it, by making it sound Greek. That is one reason why you might think that this gospel does not go back that far in time.

The next thing that I want to bring to your attention in this passage that we have under examination is in this verse:

He admitted -- he made no attempt to deny it -- he admitted that he was not the Christ. (John 1:20, Goodspeed Bible)
This is saying it very strongly indeed; it's at least three or four times that he is saying no. They've asked him, are you the Messiah, and he could have just said No I am not. Instead, we are told, number 1, he admitted he wasn't that. Number 2, he made no attempt to deny it. Number 3, he admitted, I am not the Christ. Three times: now what are we to make of that? You could say, just a clumsy way of speaking -- he repeated himself. But more than likely he's done it on purpose. He has reinforced his denial by threefold expression of it. He's not satisfied to say just once: he says it three times over so that you're perfectly clear that he is not the Messiah. He does not think of himself as such. He admitted, I am not the Messiah.

This is in verse 20, I am not the Messiah. A curious thing happens in the text, in the Greek text. (As you know the gospel was written originally in Greek.) It puts in the word for I. Normally in Greek it would not have the word I for the reason that the verb indicates I. The verb for I am is ~enee. The word for I is ego and the word for no, not is ~uk. So normally if someone were to ask you are you so, you would say in Greek ~uk ~enee, I am not, without using the special pronoun I. But here it's used and for a good reason. When that is done in Greek it's a way of saying, no I'm not but someone here is. It's almost as if someone were to rush into the room and say, who of you parked by the fire hydrant? And I would say, I'm not the one, but I would be implying that someone else in the room is the guilty party.

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