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john 3:16
John 3:16 Guy, a.k.a. Rollen Stewart

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THE GOSPEL of JOHN

If we’re trying to make historical sense of the Bible — and many, many people persist in the effort — the differences between the three “synoptic” gospels and the Gospel of John is a problem best not pondered too much. “John’s testimony is so different from that of the synoptic gospels,” wrote Tim Callahan in Secret Origins of the Bible, “that if his is accepted, theirs must be discarded.” But once you accept the folkloric nature of the Gospels, you can discard all of them as any kind of historical record and just enjoy the variations as evidence of oral handling and glean the occasional meaningful message from it. Liberal Christians do exactly that.

I’ve already confessed a certain affection for Luke. Part of it is familiarity, certainly, but it also includes a really attractive mythic narrative. But the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, the crazy aunt in the Christian attic, is the one that really grabs me by the bollocks:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

That’s the way to start a book about a god, not with a rambling genealogy or by banging on about vague prophecies! Religious moderates are often embarrassed by the weirdness of John, while Born-Agains, anti-Semites and rainbow-wigged endzone dwellers find their raisons d’etre in it. Yes, John has inspired more than its share of grief and ongoing lunacy. But considered as literature, as folklore, I find myself thoroughly grabbed by its metaphors (2:19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up) and its brutal, vivid directness:

6:53 Jesus said to them, I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.

No wonder “from that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him”! And in verse 6:66, no less! If you want passing, veiled references, go back to the synoptics. John makes the gristle of Christ squeak between your teeth.

My favorite gospel story, and the favorite of religious moderates everywhere, is John 8:4-11:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say? They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

They are asking this of the man who affirmed every “jot and tittle” of the Law of Moses, remember, including Lev 20:10. John describes the scene with this wonderful small detail:

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger, as if he had not heard them.

We’re in the midst of one of the greatest Bible moments here, a wholly uncharacteristic one. It’s more of a Buddha moment, really, and a marvelous piece of scene setting. It’s not the only one in John—“Jesus wept” (11:35) is another. In most of the gospels Christ is drawn with the wooden two-dimensionality of a grade school nativity play. But here, in John, he pops to life.

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. And again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

Jesus straightened up and asked her, Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?

No-one, sir, she said.

Then neither do I condemn you, Jesus declared. Go now and leave your life of sin.

The pace, the detail, the dialogue—none of it would be out of place in a modern novel. And unlike most of the Bible, there’s some genuine, original wisdom in it.

Gospel Hero No. 1: Judas

I’ll close by acknowledging two genuine heroes in John. In both cases, their heroism is interestingly set against the intransigence or cynicism of Jesus. The first is Judas in John 12:3-8:

Mary took a pint of pure spikenard ointment, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.

He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

Why hello there, John. Editorialize much? Methinks he protests too much about Judas’ motives. Even if the dialogue is pure fiction, a graduate lit seminar would credit the character of Judas here and distrust the petty narrative voice. Judas didn’t say the money should have stayed in “the money bag.” He specifically suggested the 300 dinarii—a year’s wages for a laborer—should have been spent, but on the poor instead of on a luxury. And the character of Jesus responds with unworthy cynicism:

Leave her alone, Jesus replied. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.

Webber and Rice side with me on this interpretation in Superstar. Judas is the conscience and hero of the film:

Christ redeems himself (now there’s a turn of phrase) in 13:34 with a brand-new commandment, and a cracking good one:

A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.

Gospel Hero No. 2: Thomas

I’ll close with my other gospel hero, Thomas, who thought to ask for a bit of simple evidence before believing:

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, We have seen the Lord! But he said to them, Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you! Then he said to Thomas, Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.

The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601) by Caravaggio
caravaggio thomas

Thomas said to him, My Lord and my God!

Then Jesus told him, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

Oh really. I haven’t seen Joseph Smith’s golden tablets either. Shall I believe in them? Why not? How about the Mohammedan revelations? David Koresh, Jom Jones? This is the elephant in the church: When you say “Have faith,” which unevidenced claim shall I believe? The one I was born into? The one that gets to me first? The one with the loudest proponents or the worst threats? Perhaps the one with the least evidence? The story of Thomas would have been perfect if it ended 23 words earlier.

You can’t really blame Jesus for missing the point of the Thomas story. He was dead on his feet, after all. I’ll stick with Thomas, a biblical hero well worth introducing to my kids.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: John 3:16 Guy, a.k.a. Rollen Stewart, is currently serving three consecutive
life sentences for kidnapping and for threatening to shoot down planes in preparation
for the Rapture. No reflection on other fans of the Gospel of John or others with rainbow
hair, of course. But it IS a reflection on believers in the Rapture.]

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.