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The beloved gospel? Of the four gospels, John is decidedly the odd man out--as is his version of Jesus.


IN AN ENTIRELY UNSCIENTIFIC POLL I'VE BEEN CONDUCTING for the last 20 years, I've noticed a sea change in the way Catholics relate to Jesus. Whenever I teach around the country from the New Testament, I ask for a show of hands concerning which gospel is most popular in the crowd. In an average audience of 100 Catholics, one person or fewer will prefer Mark's version of the Jesus story--depending on whether I'm voting. I may get 15 takers for Matthew and 15 or 20 for Luke. But in every crowd, the overwhelming majority these days goes for John.

This floors me. If my poll were more scientific, there are questions I could and should be asking, chief among them: Why?

THERE WAS A TIME, SHORTLY AFTER THE SECOND VATICAN Council, when the majority of the room would go for Luke and Matthew. You could practically divide these factions into Avery Dulles' Models of Church quite neatly: "Servants" and "Institution-huggers" respectively. The Lucan crowd, which formerly enjoyed a slim advantage, was passionate about justice for the poor, equality for women, and inclusion of the outsider. The Mattheans, for their part, held fast to the importance of moral teaching, clearly defined ecclesial roles, and ultimate authority.

Mark has always been a hard sell to all but scholars: His short-but-sweet layout of the Jesus story is valued for its primacy as the earliest written gospel. Yet in its race from Point A to B, Mark presents all the romance of a creed.

John's gospel is another matter entirely, and it always has been. Its popular ascendancy in the last generation is a mystery to me, in part because this gospel itself is a mystery of enormous proportions.

Homilists approach John with dread if not fear for its nagging inscrutability. If Mark was the first evangelist to write around A.D. 70, Matthew and Luke wrote their own versions (rooted deeply in Mark's blueprint and borrowing heavily from his work) in the following two decades. These three gospels are so fundamentally close that scholars call them synoptic, which means "the same."

The synoptic gospels are nearer to the historical events they describe and so received pride of place in the writings of the church fathers, not to mention our Sunday lectionary. The church calendar follows a three-year cycle (A, B, and C), in which we read from Matthew, Mark, and Luke respectively. Meanwhile John is not ignored: The fourth gospel is featured on special feasts and in the Easter season. It's also used unglamorously as "filler" in Mark's year, since his shorter text just can't go the distance.

WHAT MAKES JOHN AN OUTLAW GOSPEL IS NOT SIMPLY that it was written late (near the end of the first century) nor that its content is largely unshared by the others (90 percent of John's text is unique to this evangelist). What it comes down to, frankly, is Jesus.

John's Jesus is different. He talks and behaves in ways so at variance with the synoptic tradition that one might be tempted to say: "Who are you, and what have you done with my Jesus?"

In John the Jewishness of Jesus seems drained out of him. Jesus, and the narrator of his story especially, sound rather anti-Semitic in our century--which clues us in that things have changed between the first generation of believers and John's community. The mood of this gospel is hotter in terms of the debate between Jesus and his co-religionists--and yet colder, too, in a cerebral, philosophical sense. Jesus seems more human in the synoptics and more divine in John's portrait.

From the august opening of the fourth gospel, we're invited into a theological and metaphysical bath of ideas: "In the beginning was the Word ..."

Jesus remains lordly and dispassionate from the first hour of his ministry through the passion narrative. He suffers no anguish in the garden, no fear or second thoughts. Jesus exits the Last Supper (in which no supper is served--Jesus never eats in this gospel) and goes straight to his betrayal. The way John tells it, Jesus has been on a militant march to his triumphant death since trashing the temple in chapter two. Death's brutal deliverance is "the hour" he's been talking about all along. Jesus welcomes this hour civilly, greeting the mob that comes to seize him like a polite host: "Whom are you looking for?"

Judas never kisses Jesus in John's account of the betrayal: We get the sense he wouldn't dare. Nor can anyone lay a hand on Jesus until he permits it. The soldiers fall to the ground every time he announces his divine identity: "I AM."

When Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant, Jesus rebukes his disciple but doesn't reach out a compassionate hand to heal the injured man as he does in Luke. Healing is a byproduct, not a goal in John's message: Jesus heals a mere three times--four, if you count Lazarus--and always as a "sign," to prove a point about divine authority.

Jesus fares badly before the Jewish leaders Annas and Caiaphas who orchestrate his capture as coolly as he allows it. By contrast, the Roman Pilate treats Jesus like an equal, interviewing him thoroughly and pronouncing him innocent.

Yet Pilate is depicted as fearful of the power of the Jews to denounce him, exonerating Rome and laying the blame on Jewish authorities. The historical Pilate was ruthless, fearless, and reckless. He would not have hesitated to do as he pleased without a thought for the consequences. The honorific inscription "King of the Jews" that he bestows on Jesus at the cross suits John's agenda more than Pilate's personality.

According to John no one helps Jesus carry his cross, weeps for him, or comforts him along the way to Golgotha. And of the seven last sayings from the cross that accumulate in the gospel accounts, three are unique to John. They are not words of misery, the "Why have you forsaken me?" witnessed by Mark and Matthew, nor are they the merciful sayings offered in Luke. Instead, John's Jesus puts his affairs in order in an almost clinical way.

Jesus delivers his mother, whose name is never used in this gospel, into a pact of mutual custody with a faithful disciple. Since his mother is the premiere disciple as early as the Cana story, this is appropriate. Jesus offers a second saying, "I thirst," matter-of-factly. Although this must certainly be true, the narrator suggests Jesus is more interested in fulfilling the words of Psalm 69:22 than alleviating his need. His final statement, "It is finished," does not refer to his life but to the divine agenda.

John's final details are also unique to his account. Jesus is the only one of the men crucified that day whose bones remain unbroken, although he is pierced to ensure his death. Both these items add to the list of fulfilled scriptures that John is intent on compiling. Two men prepare the body of Jesus for burial--effectively eliminating the errand of the women on Sunday morning.

WEN YOU ADD UP THE ELEMENTS OF JOHN'S CONSISENTLY contrary perspective, the impression is one of profound resistance to an otherwise held consensus. John's community clearly doesn't embrace the commonly accepted gospel with its softhearted Messiah and his delicate social conscience. Above all it rejects the vulnerability of Jesus, preferring a kingly show of strength from its Savior.

It could be that John's community was ultimately rejecting the leadership circulating the widely held portrait.

So what does it mean that a greater portion of active Catholics these days find in John a more appealing message?

By ALICE CAMILLE, author of Invitation to the New Testament and other titles available at
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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