The Orthodox Faith – The Bible – The New Testament (3e)

St. John’s Gospel is the last Gospel to be written, towards the end of the 1st century. It was written to bring out the deeper theological meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds. It is the result of many years of thinking and preaching. The fourth Gospel has the clearest statement of Christ’s divinity, that is: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Jn 1:1) 

This section tells about the Word of God and tells us that Jesus Christ is the Word of God and so is God. John 20:26-28 is the clearest confession of Christ’s divinity in the New Testament.

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Because of the theological profundity of this Gospel, St. John is called “The Theologian”, one of the only saints with this title. The other two are St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Simeon the New Theologian.

St. John is given this title because of the theological depths of his Gospel. For example, the Prologue in chapter 1 of the Gospel says this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (Jn 1:1-5)

Here, speaking of Jesus Christ, he calls him “the Word”. God’s word in the Old Testament was very important. For example, in Psalm 33 it says: By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.: (Ps 33:6) In other words, God created thorough His Word. Or in Psalm 119:49-50: 

“Remember thy word to thy servant, in which thou hast made me hope. his is my comfort in my affliction that thy promise gives me life.”

In general in the Old Testament the Word of God is almost a kind of mediator between God and man.

On the other hand, the concept of “word” is very important. The English word “word” is the translation of the Greek word Logos. Logos can simply mean “word” in the common meaning, but in Greek philosophy it is more than that. “Logos” can mean reason, order, principle and many other things.  In Greek thought the word is also seen as a  kind of mediator between God and man. St. John, by bringing the Hebrew and Greek meaning of Logos together has created a profound unity between Greek philosophical concepts and Biblical revelation. He shows these two meanings come together in Christ who is “Logos” in the Greek and the Hebrew sense. He is giving a profound basis for further theology.

One thing that differentiates the Fourth Gospel from the other three is that in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Christ speaks in short, pithy sayings such as “love your neighbor”, “turn the other cheek” and so on. He also speaks in parables such as the “Good Samaritan” and “the Prodigal Son”. 

But we see very little of this in St. John’s Gospel. In this Gospel Christ delivers long theological speeches. Because of this some critics say that St. John’s Gospel is not historically accurate. However, there are some things to consider. In the first three (synoptic) Gospels, Christ is preaching for the most part, in Galilee. Galilee was ethnically mixed with Jews, Greeks and others living together. The overall level of education was somewhat lower in Galilee. Christ frequently spoke to simple, uneducated people. For this reason, Christ did not give long, theological discourses, but in simple language, capable of being understood by the uneducated but with profound meaning for all. Much of St. John’s Gospel is set in Judea, often in Jerusalem. Judea was more solidly Jewish with many highly educated Jewish leaders. Also, in much of the Fourth Gospel Christ is giving directions to the apostles who were able to understand Jesus in a more sophisticated way. 

But there is something else to take into consideration. By the time St. John wrote his Gospel he had spent close to sixty years meditating on Christ’s words and deeds, preaching these words and deeds before various audiences. And so Christ’s words became intermixed with St. John’s words. Sometimes we don’t know where Christ’s words end and St. John’s words begin. This should not surprise us. For example, priests preach about the Gospel frequently. They quote Christ’s words and sometimes paraphrase or summarize Christ’s words in various contexts. Hopefully priests are not contradicting or ignoring Christ’s words, but rather preaching in various situations. 

There is yet one other thing we have to take into account. St. John may not literally put pen to paper in the writing of this Gospel. It is very possible that St. John’s words were written by one or many of his disciples. In many icons of St. John, we see him speaking and his disciple Prochorus writing things down. Modern scholars propose that there was a school of St. John’s disciples for putting his words on paper. 

We are temped to think that many of Christ’s words were distorted through this process. But, we ae thinking in a modern manner. Scholars have shown that in our modern situations, with words available in print or through electronic media, our ability to memorize things has slowed down. However, in pre-literate cultures where much transmission of knowledge was verbal, memory as more fully developed. Studies have shown that story tellers in non-literate cultures can memorize and repeat very long stories, histories, plays and so on. Fut5hermore, in Judaism in the early centuries, disciples of a rabbi were required to memorize and accurately repeat the rabbi’s teachings. Jesus’ disciples, although they did not have much formal education, probably cold accurately repeat long narratives of Christ’s words and deeds.

Finally, for Orthodox we do not need to be overly concerned about detailed questions about authority or dating of the Bible. The Bible is the book of the Church, which guarantees the truth of the Bible. Details may vary, but the Bible is God’s word for humanity.

Fr. John

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