The Recalcitrant Messiah: A New Look at John’s Gospel

Never Disturb a Messiah Before His First Cup of Coffee: Proto-gnostic Influences upon the Nature and Character of the Johannine Jesus


During the 1960s, John’s gospel enjoyed a surge of popularity. Already well established as the Love Gospel, its portrait of Jesus appealed to a generation engaged in the spiritual (and often chemical) reawakening of society. The Gospel According to John assured us of God’s compassion, telling us “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life (Jn. 3:16). He is a protector who calls himself “The good shepherd” (Jn. 10:11), as well as a conscientious host who goes to prepare our “dwelling places” in his father’s house (Jn. 14:2). It is a Jesus who is one part older brother, one part New Age guru, and one part Marcus Welby M.D. Even his role as lover is not neglected: aside from short references in the synoptics, it is the Johannine tradition (both in gospel and revelation) which is most articulate about the bride and bridegroom when speaking of the relationship between Jesus and his believers.

But despite this, there is a curious flip side to the Johannine messiah which runs directly counter to his image of love and compassion. Bible scholar Robert Fortna comments with no little puzzlement upon Jesus’ decision to wait two days before going to Judea and raising Lazarus from his severe and incapacitating case of death.

Verse 6 seems pointless on any factual level…After the reminder in the preceding verse that Jesus loved Lazarus, this deliberate delay can only appear arbitrary. Perhaps it is designed in part to deepen the miracle story’s dramatic tension (The Fourth Gospel and its Predecessor).

To explain it, Fortna conjectures that the delay is a Johannine addition necessitated by the contradiction of Lazarus being “four days buried” upon Jesus’ arrival, whereas the journey itself takes only forty-eight hours. Such an exegesis comes about largely through treating the incident as though it were an anomaly. The truth is that, in an ironic twist to the gospel’s reported portrait of a tender and compassionate Saviour, this type of incident is the rule rather than the exception. Upon closer investigation, The Jesus who appears in the Love Gospel is in reality stubborn, recalcitrant, and impatient.

The Johannine Nature of Jesus

The refractory nature of the Johannine Jesus is made apparent in the very first miracle performed in Cana. Upon being told by his mother that the wedding feast is running out of wine, his response is, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (Jn. 2:4). Mary, in the tradition of all mothers throughout history, ignores her son’s protests, and encourages him to perform for the guests — thereby ensuring that his career as a miracle worker gets off the ground. Likewise, at the end of the gospel, when Peter asks a rather innocuous question concerning the “beloved disciple,” he is told, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (Jn. 21:22). These two remarks, like plaster-cast ravens holding the works of Edgar Allen Poe, form remarkably appropriate bookends to the gospel.

Yes, I made the whip myself. Thanks for asking.

Immediately following the wedding feast, the writer of the fourth gospel whisks Jesus off to cleanse the temple (Jn. 2:13-17). While this incident is common to every gospel, the synoptics reserve if for a later date when the dark clouds of his crucifixion are rushing over the horizon. Only in the Johannine account does this violent exhibition make its appearance as his second official act. And only here are we given the added detail that the whip he used was constructed by his own hand (Jn. 2:15). At this point, the Johannine comment “Zeal for your house will consume me” is perhaps redundant (Jn. 2:17).

Still within the second chapter, Jesus gains many believers during the Passover festival in Jerusalem (Jn. 2:23). While this would appear to be a cause for celebration, and while at other times he will revile people for not believing, in this case “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (Jn. 2:24-25). This is a comment as ambiguous as it is cynical.

Another inappropriate and, by most standards rude comment is made to a royal official who is distraught over his son’s illness. In this instance Jesus impatiently complains that “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (Jn. 4:48), even though the man’s concern would apparently have less to do with religion than with the life of his son. Compare this to the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke. Luke’s Jesus departs on his mission of mercy without a word of complain (Lk. 7:6), and Matthew’s Jesus even takes a moment to console him, saying “I will come and heal him” (Mt. 8:7). Yet in these accounts, the invalid of which Jesus speaks is not even the man’s son, but merely a servant — albeit one whom Luke says was “valued highly” (Lk. 7:2). The synoptics do report an incident in which Jesus lashes out in anger when a boy possessed of a demon is brought to him, but unlike the case of the royal official’s son, this anger is not occasioned by the request for healing, but by his disciples’ failure to accomplish the cure on their own.

Having now lectured one man for not believing “unless you see signs and wonders,” Jesus is later annoyed at a crowd for the opposite reason. “[Y]ou are looking for me,” he says, “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (Jn. 6:26). Only John adds this condemnatory postscript to the feeding of the five thousand. In Matthew and Mark he simply heals the sick who are brought to him. We may conjecture that the phrase “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” crossed the minds of his disciples on more than one occasion.

This is not to say that the other gospels never showed an angry Jesus, but the reasons for his anger were generally quite apparent and understandable. In the other miraculous loaves-and-fishes story in which he feeds four thousand rather than five, the synoptics record Jesus’ irritation at being asked to perform signs. Mark’s Jesus asks peevishly, “Why does this generation ask for a sign?” (Mk. 8:12), Matthew’s Jesus delivers an implicit condemnation, “An evil and idolatrous generation asks for a sign” (Mk. 12:39), and Luke’s Jesus takes the gloves off as he snaps, “this generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign” (Lk. 11:29). In each case, however, it is clear that the crowd had approached for the specific purpose of requesting a sign. Under the circumstances,  a little display of temper is understandable.

But if reasons can be found for most of Jesus’ actions in the other gospels, they remain frustratingly opaque in the fourth. In one particularly puzzling incident, Jesus plainly tells his brothers that he is not going to the Festival of Booths in Jerusalem (Jn. 7:8). Despite this, however, “after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret” (Jn. 7:10). If this is confusing, it is merely a highlight to the motif of confusion which runs through the Johannine narrative. Admittedly, in every gospel his teachings are frequently misunderstood by those to whom he is speaking; in this gospel, however, he seems to go out of his way to make sure of it. For instance, all three synoptics record Jesus saying, “Take eat; this is my body” at the last supper, but the fact that he is passing around pieces of bread while saying it pretty much precludes anyone thinking that he is speaking literally. In John’s gospel, however, the symbolic act is removed. Instead we are given a much earlier discourse in which he dwells so cannibalistically on the concept that many of his own disciples turn away from him (Jn. 6:46-66), and rather than easing their minds by indicating the figurative nature of his words, he lets them go.

Water of eternal life! Step right up and get your water of eternal life! Never thirst again!

It is not merely a matter of what Jesus says, but his tone of voice that helps create the unusual character of this gospel. Gone are the friendly parables so common in the synoptics; in their place are long orations and obtuse discourses. Even his volume is more aggressive. Not content with crying out in a loud voice to raise Lazarus from the dead (a situation in which one can imagine that a good loud shout or two may be in order), nor while hanging from the cross (another understandable reaction), the Johannine Christ appears to deliver all his pronouncements at a pitch more suitable for cursing out an umpire than revealing God’s love. When we are told that “Jesus stood and cried, saying, ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink,'” (Jn. 7:37) we don’t so much hear words of compassion as the barking call of a merchant selling his wares.

This change from compassion to aggression is perhaps the most important feature of the Johannine account. There is a profound lack of human interaction and compassion between Jesus and the people around him. And while such a statement may be open to the criticism of subjectivity, a more quantitative approach can be employed by examining those times each gospel writer specifically notes Jesus’ compassion. Matthew states that Jesus has compassion for the crowds (9:36, 14:14, 15:32) and two blind men (20:34). Mark tells us that Jesus feels compassion for a leper (1:41), a man of the tombs (5:19), and crowds (6:34, 8:2). Luke mentions his compassion for a woman whose son has died (7:13). In contrast, nowhere in John’s gospel is Jesus moved by compassion, except possibly when he weeps before Lazarus’s tomb (Jn. 11:35) — itself strange since he is just about to resurrect his friend, and the Jews (who in this gospel are always wrong) comment, “See how he loved him” (Jn. 12:6) leading us to believe that something other than compassion may have been involved.

His relationship with the disciples can only be described as anaemic. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is a warmly human act found in the first three gospels, but is typically absent in the fourth. While the calling of the twelve receives special attention in the synoptics, the Johannine writer mentions it in passing well after the fact, and then only to set up a dig at Judas (Jn. 6:70). The intimate little group formed of Jesus, Peter, James, and John is nowhere to be found in John’s gospel, although they ride together like musketeers in Matthew, Mark and Luke. When the Pharisees attack his disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath in Matthew and Luke, and not washing their hands before eating in Matthew and Mark, Jesus defends them — as he also does when John the Baptist’s disciples complain in all three synoptics that Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. (Interestingly, John’s gospel records Jesus’ reply when he defended his disciples against the fasting charge, but subtracts the setting.) Jesus defends the “Sons of Thunder” when their impulsiveness angers the rest of the disciples in Matthew and Mark, and in Matthew he specifically refers to his disciples as “my mother and my brothers” (12:49). In all three synoptics, he gives them the power over unclean spirits — a nice little touch once again lacking in the John.

In the first three gospels Jesus appears as a real, living human — despite a propensity to raise the dead and stroll across lakes. The most poignant scene occurs during his vigil in the garden at Gethsemane, and is portrayed with pathos and anguish. In all four gospels Jesus goes to the garden with his disciples, but John’s account leaps immediately to the arrest. The synoptics, however, lead us through the intimate and touching events leading up to it. In Matthew and Mark he leaves the others behind as he withdraws further with Peter, James, and John — apparently choosing to spend his final free moments in close contact with his three closest friends. He prays meaningfully for a last-minute reprieve, saying “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Despite his own wishes, however, he displays his obedience by adding, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mk. 26:39). Upon returning, he discovers his friends fast asleep, and although disappointed and upset, he nevertheless displays an understanding of their frailties, even when, in Matthew and Mark, he finds them sleeping twice more.

Only a faint echo of the Gethsemane scene finds its way into the fourth gospel, and it does so somewhat earlier in the narrative, and with a far different flavour. “Now my soul is troubled,” says the Johannine Jesus while preaching in Jerusalem, “and what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour?'” While this vaguely recalls the prayer of torment recorded in the first three gospels, even this trace of humanity is immediately turned into a bloodless piece of heroic rhetoric as he answers himself with a resounding “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (Jn. 12:27-28).

Equally bloodless is the arrest. Gone is the moving, and trenchant kiss of betrayal. In it’s place we are given a band of soldiers so intimidated by Jesus that it seems incredible they could stay on their feet long enough to do their job: “As soon as he said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground” (Jn. 18:6).

The Gnostic Connection

To understand the motive for the Johannine portrayal of Jesus, it is important to first fully grasp the central figure. In John’s gospel Jesus can be summed up as follows.

And don't forget to water the plants.

He shows little compassion, or even understanding, of human frailties. Although he is executed, he approaches the event as Lancelot does a joust. Even during his crucifixion, he remains steadily clear-headed, taking care of business as he arranges for his mother to take in “the beloved disciple.” (Had the event occurred in modern times, we suspect he would also have reminded Mary to send in the next insurance payment.) Rather than speaking in parables, which can both hide and reveal meaning, he seems purposely to court simple misunderstanding. He is loud, changeable, secretive, and apparently without compassion. Furthermore, like a Greek or Celtic hero, his very presence can bring dismay to his enemies.

Of course we understand that just as there are differences between the sources and traditions used in the compilation of the synoptic gospels, so there are bound to be differences between those  sources and John’s. But there are elements which can be interpreted as pointing to something other than a simple matter of differing source material. The Johannine writer is obviously aware of Jesus’ prayer for deliverance — the phrase “Father, save me from this hour” is far too similar to “Father,…let this cup pass from me” to be a matter of coincidence. Significantly, the added rhetoric in John serves the purpose, intentionally or not, of changing the unheroic incident reported in the synoptics into one of bravery and commitment. There are two questions of importance that this brings to mind: why would the writer wish to so alter the characteristics of this incident, and if it the incident was so disturbing, why include it at all?

The second of these is perhaps the easier for which to posit an answer.

Along with other evidence, the highly evolved theological discourses show that the fourth gospel was written later than the rest. While estimates range over several years, it would not be fatally inaccurate to assume a date of 90 A.D. it would seem reasonable to believe that by this late date the other three gospels (as well as their predecessors and progeny) would have been known to people over a fairly large area, including the Johannine communities. Indeed, John 12:27-28 could be used as evidence to support this. If that was the case, then certain stories and tales would already be known. It is possible, then, that Jesus’ words at Gethsemane (“Father, let this cup pass from me”) were too widespread to ignore, and yet too “damaging” in some way to incorporate without change.

This, of course, leads us to explore the nature of the message behind the Johannine gospel, and why its writer may consider Jesus’ simple plea for deliverance to be contrary to it.

Positing the spread of the synoptic gospels and their peripherals, we may assume that the Johannine community’s need for a new gospel was not solely for reasons of information. And the fact that so little of these other sources find their way into the Johannine account could indicate that this gospel was written to smooth over a clash of beliefs between the Johannine believers and the synoptic traditions. The nature of the Johannine beliefs can therefore be deducted from this. For this purpose, the character of Jesus in this gospel is quite revealing.

As noted, the Johannine Christ is less human than superhuman. Unlike the man we find in the synoptics, who comforts, suffers, and is hurt by betrayal, this Christ rises above the entire human condition. As a “type” he displays a perfection based more on physical and emotional values than moral ones. But such a type has never played any but a subordinate role in Jewish tradition. Samson and Solomon evince characteristics of physical and metal superiority respectively, but it is the honest, sweat-covered figures of Abraham and Moses who trudge predominantly through the Jewish religious landscape. This Johannine image of a perfection based upon personal rather than abstract virtues (stamina and emotional control, as opposed to love and compassion) is, however, typical in the Gnostic writings of some 60 years later. Much about the Johannine Christ fits comfortably with this development, and may well indicate an earlier move in this direction.

Evidence Showing Contact Between the Johannine Communities and Proto-Gnosticism

In Gnosticism and Early Christianity, R. M. Grant hypothesizes that Gnosticism is a means by which an apocalyptic belief system copes with the disappointment of an unfulfilled apocalyptic vision. It is his belief that Gnosticism would have gained its start from the fall of Jerusalem

Out of such shaking, we should claim, came the impetus toward Gnostic ways of thinking, doubtless not for the first time with the fall of Jerusalem but reinforced by this catastrophe.

As evidence, he points to Paul, claiming that the apostle’s early writing is distinctly apocalyptic, but as time passes, and the apocalypse fails to materialize, it begins to show distinctly “proto-Gnostic ideas.”

A large part of the Gnostic belief system involves a material world which is so naturally corrupt that it cannot manifest any form of perfection. A heresy arose which claimed that Jesus had not really appeared in the flesh, citing the innate corruption of matter as evidence of the impossibility. The Johannine gospel strongly emphasizes the material nature of his incarnation: “And the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14), “[U]nless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man” (Jn. 6:53), “Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (Jn. 20:27). The Johannine letters further support this, and even speak of “deceivers who have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (2 Jn. 1:7).

Obviously, the Gnostic heresy was already showing its head.

Ironically, however, the idealized, barely human figure presented in the Johannine tradition also suggests that some aspects of it had already taken hold.

In the Johannine Jesus, we see an ideal who, to some degree, has removed himself from the world. This foreshadows the later Gnostic belief that “he who attains to this gnosis and gathers himself from the cosmos … is no longer detained here” (Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion). And in 1st and 2nd John we are told of a group who has left the Johannine community, apparently as heretics who do not believe in a material incarnation (1 Jn. 1:18-19, 2 Jn. 1:7). So strongly does the writer of these epistles feel about this that he even uses the term “anti-Christ” to describe the splinter group. To conjecture that this splinter group later grew into the Gnosticism of a later generation would not seem unsupportable.

Back to the Sixties

Not only is there a dramatic turnabout in the Johannine portrait of Jesus compared to that of the first three gospels, but it is a portrait which displays distinct signs of having undergone a change of values. The virtues of heart, compassion, and will to obedience give way to new virtues of self-control, impatience with the frailties of life, and even a kind of will-to-power. Such virtues fit well into the Gnostic scheme. Although there is a paucity of documented evidence that Gnosticism existed before the mid-second century, it is safe to assume that it did not spring up full-grown. It is already suspected that the Gospel of John contains motifs, structures, and dogma reflecting a contemporary proto-gnositcisim. it is only logical to expect the character of Jesus to illustrate these motifs.

The Sixties was a time of spiritual experimentation, introducing such varied movements as Wicca, Satanism, Zen, and Gnosticism to a new generation. While the popularity of John’s Gospel may at first blush seem odd during such a time, its hints at New Age philosophy, its call for a new, somewhat disassociated form of consciousness (which could possibly be aided by various drugs) makes it a natural for those who wanted to tune in and drop out. To that generation, its message of heroism and detachment was far more appealing than the message of self-sacrifice and service found in the rest of the gospels.

Oh great Earth Mother, who has given us Buddha, Zarathustra, and Jesus, hear my prayer and let thy herb grow abundantly.

4 Responses “The Recalcitrant Messiah: A New Look at John’s Gospel” →

  1. vigilantfish

    December 23, 2010

    You are a man of many parts – I’ve followed your link over from WUWT, where the commentary is of quite a different nature. I really enjoyed your analysis of the Gospel of St. John and Gnosticism. It’s always been my least favourite Gospel, and now I better understand why. I was a child in the 1960s, and experienced the consequences of that tumultuous era in the sermons and teachings of the Church. I think the linkage you make between the spiritual experimentation and preference for St. John makes a lot of sense. As many of that generation cast off the church, what they were rejecting was the spirit of humility and self-sacrifice demanded by the other Gospels if one were to follow Christ’s path. Those qualities don’t appeal to the younger generations, either, if what I experience in the classroom is any indication.

    • Nice to see you here, Vigil, and thanks for the comments.

      The entire collection of Johannine writings is interesting, each in its own right, but the Gospel of John is especially distinctive through the comparison with the similar narratives of the Synoptic gospels. And yes, it does make sense that the veneer of humility covering an essence of will and dominance that it displays was particularly suitable to the generation of the ’60s. I agree that the present generation is no more likely to embrace humility and self-sacrifice, but I also doubt that they even have much awareness of what the words mean.

      From your e-mail address and your final sentence I can only deduce that you teach at a particular college in Toronto, and so have my full sympathies. I teach at the other one (yes, there’s more than one college in the city, but we both know there are only two that count). I have to ask: are your students as stunningly illiterate as mine? And are they as surprisingly inept at computers (aside from downloading videos and music or playing games)?

      Perhaps we should have coffee sometime and compare war stories.

      Again — thanks for dropping by.

    • I’m sorry it took so long to respond to this comment. Somehow it got lost in spam, and I can’t imagine why. I was fascinated by the Gospel of John back in the day, and like you had problems, but couldn’t fully articulate them. It wasn’t until years later that I sat down and really analysed it.

      I see your e-mail is Ryerson, so you probably live here in Toronto. (Well, technically I live in St. Catharines at the moment, but we’re moving back almost immediately.) Are you in journalism?

  2. You are a man of many parts – I’ve followed your link over from WUWT, where the commentary is of quite a different nature. I really enjoyed your analysis of the Gospel of St. John and Gnosticism. It’s always been my least favourite Gospel, and now I better understand why. I was a child in the 1960s, and experienced the consequences of that tumultuous era in the sermons and teachings of the Church. I think the linkage you make between the spiritual experimentation and preference for St. John makes a lot of sense. As many of that generation cast off the church, what they were rejecting was the spirit of humility and self-sacrifice demanded by the other Gospels if one were to follow Christ’s path. Those qualities don’t appeal to the younger generations, either, if what I experience in the classroom is any indication.


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