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SIDIC Periodical XXXIV-XXXV - 2001-2002/1.3
The Gospel of John. Conflicts and Controversies (Pages 2-7)

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Jesus in Conflict: History and Theology in John 5-12
Beutler, Johannes


During the past decades it has become evident that the Gospel of John took its shape at a time and in a surrounding where the Johannine Christian Community and the Synagogue had separated over issues of belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God, equal to the Father, probably somewhere in the Jewish diaspora in the last decade of the first century A. D. The conflict between the two religious groups becomes manifest particularly in the Great Controversies between Jesus and “the Jews” in chapters 5-12 of the Gospel of John.

The Role of Jewish Institutions

Since the Gospel of John seems to originate in a time when the Christian community and the Synagogue part ways, the right understanding of central Jewish institutions and theological motifs is of primary importance for the evangelist. From the many subjects treated or hinted at, I shall chose just three to illustrate this conflict over the interpretation of “true Judaism”.

a) The Sabbath and Jewish Feasts – The Fourth Gospel, like the first three, depicts Jesus in conflict over the right interpretation of the Sabbath. Two miracles of Jesus related in Jn 5-10 take place on a Sabbath. In both cases, this fact is introduced in retrospective, giving the impression that the motif as such is secondary to the original story (5:9b; 9:14). In chapter 5 a debate about the Sabbath shows the lines of conflict. Jesus claims his right to heal the cripple by referring to two activities which, according to Jewish tradition, are practised by God even on the Sabbath: giving life and judging (5:19-30). If and insofar as Jesus acts on behalf of God – giving life and judging on a Sabbath – he is only doing what Judaism itself allows as legitimate Sabbath activities. Of course, the conflict shifts here from questioning whether Jesus was entitled to work (miracles) on a Sabbath to the much more decisive query of who Jesus is. If he is the Son who does precisely what he sees his Father doing (we find here the image of the son learning his work from his father), there can be no harm in his Sabbath activity if God himself can do certain works on a Sabbath. The question remains: Who is Jesus?

A similar argument is used when the question of Jesus healing the cripple is taken up in chapter 7. Here, in vv. 19-24, Jesus defends himself by pointing to legitimate Jewish praxis of circumcision even on a Sabbath. The argument follows the structure of qal wa chomer: if it is legitimate to circumcise the member of a male on a Sabbath, how much more it should be allowed to restore to health a whole person.

More central than Sabbath conflicts to the section under study are Jewish holidays. The healing of the lame man in chapter 5 takes place on an unnamed feast (5:1). Much ink has been spilled in an effort to determine the identity of this holiday. No completely satisfactory solution has been offered so far. I still find attractive Donation Mollat’s proposal in the Jerusalem Bible that this feast is Pentecost/Shabuot. The two reasons for this hypothesis are: 1. Pentecost is a Jewish holiday linked with the idea of the covenant in Second Temple times. This could explain why not only Sabbath legislation, but the role of Moses as such and the fidelity to his Law are so prominent in the debate following the healing of the cripple (5:19-30, 31-47, particularly the final verses 45-47). As I have tried to show elsewhere, the Great Commandment of Dt 6:4ff stands also behind 5:42-44 where we find a reference to the commandment of loving God and to his unicity.(1)2. A cycle of the major Jewish holidays appears to structure all of Jesus’ activity throughout the Gospel of John. The cycle starts with a first Passover mentioned in 2:13, before Jesus’ first pilgrimage to Jerusalem and his encounter with Nicodemus. Then comes the unnamed feast of 5:1 with another pilgrimage of Jesus to Jerusalem. (In the sequence of the three holidays for which Ex 23:16; 34:22 prescribes the pilgrimage to Jerusalem this would be the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost.) We next find Jesus in Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles (7:2) followed by Dedication (10:22). According to 11:55 Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for a last time ending his earthly career in the Holy City on this Jewish high holiday.

The only interruption of this cycle is the feast of Passover mentioned in 6:4. It seems that Jesus does not go up to Jerusalem on this occasion. Possibly the whole of chapter 6 goes back to a later phase of redaction of the Fourth Gospel when separation from the Synagogue had already progressed considerably. Jesus refers to himself as the Bread of Life, given to his community of believers also in the form of the eucharist; hence, the Christian Passover might already have replaced the celebration of the Jewish antecedent and model. If this can presumed, the whole of Jesus’ public activity is seen as embedded into one cycle of the major Jewish holidays. In the perspective of the narrator, the deeper sense would be that Jesus “fulfils” Jewish liturgy and brings it to completion. This would be consistent with the Fourth Evangelist’s depiction that Jesus also “fulfils” the Holy Space of Israel, himself in his body being the place of the presence of God. This is clearly the meaning of the Cleansing of the Temple in 2:13-25. Jesus would then be represented as the one who simultaneously fulfils the Holy Places and the Holy Time of Israel – a tremendous claim over which an extremely emotional controversy quite naturally arose.

b) True Kingship – Another field of controversy between the Johannine Christian community and the Synagogue is leadership. According to C. H. Dodd the healing of the man born blind (ch. 9) and the Shepherd Discourse (ch. 10) are closely linked.(2) This was also the opinion of a Society for New Testament Studies seminar group on “The Shepherd Discourse of John 10 and Its Context”.(3) Chapter 9 ends with a strong attack on the Jewish leaders who refused to recognize Jesus’ healing of the blind man through the power of God. The verses about the wicked and the good shepherd in 10:1-6 have often been considered disconnected or “out of context”. This is improbable since, after the paroimia on the wicked and the good shepherd, the evangelist says: “This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them” (10:6). It is not necessary to guess who “they” may have been, because this appears clearly from the context. The group of persons presupposed is the one mentioned at the end of chapter nine,(4) i. e. the Pharisees of 9:40 as the representatives of the Jewish people and the opponents of Jesus in Jerusalem. Starting from here, it seems wise to see in the Shepherd Discourse of John a controversy about right leadership within the People of God. This was also the opinion of the participants of the seminar group referred to above.
As a member of this seminar group I tried to show on that occasion that the Johannine Discourse is strongly influenced by texts of prophets from the exilic period – with Jer 23 and Ez 34 reflected most significantly. In both texts the prophet addresses himself to the Jewish people and its leaders. They receive harsh criticism for having neglected the flock entrusted to them and having thought exclusively of their own benefit (cf. Jer 23:1f; Ez 34:2f.). The positive outlook of these texts is twofold: on the one hand, it is the LORD himself who will take care of his flock (Ez 34:11f.). On the other hand, the rescue will come from a shepherd sent by God who will take care of God’s flock in the time to come. This model is found as well in Jeremiah (23:5f.) as in Ezekiel (34:23ff.) Thus, a David redivivus will take care of the flock of the LORD in the time to come. The covenant formula used in this context as well as the explicit reference show that the framework of this new era will be a renewed covenant as described in Ez 36:22ff.

It can be shown (as I have tried to do) that the Shepherd Discourse of Jn 10 goes back to such texts of the Tanach. Even details of the Johannine texts can be explained by reference to the biblical antecedent. I think of the announcement in Jn 10:16 that there will be in the future only one shepherd. This goes back literally to Ez 37:24, a prophetic text taking up the pastoral imagery of Ez 34. The image of wolves ravaging the flock of Israel in Ez 22:27 recurs in Jn 10:12.

That John used prophetic imagery explicitly and consciously is all the more probable since it can be shown that this imagery remained alive in the centuries between the exile and the time of Jesus. You may think of chapters 9-14 of the Book of Zechariah, in particular texts mentioning “sheep without a shepherd” (Zec 10:2; cf. Nm 27:17; 1 Kgs 22:17; Jdt 11:19), taken up in the Synoptic tradition of the New Testament (Mk 6:34 par.). The same imagery of bad shepherds and a neglected flock occurs in the Visions of Enoch (En 83-90). We find it again in an Apocryphon of Ezekiel (186) dated some time between 63 B. C. E. and 50 C. E., and in the Fourth Book of Esdras (5[3]:18), dating from about the time of the composition of the Fourth Gospel. A number of Biblical and postbiblical texts speak of God as shepherd of his people in the time to come.(5) Of particular interest is the figure and the role of the mebaqqer in the Damascus Document (from 13:7), taking up linguistically God’s “pasturing” his flock.

Thus, the imagery of the Good Shepherd in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel is well prepared in biblical and early Jewish tradition. According to this perspective, our interpretation of Jesus’ discourse in this chapter as polemics against the rulers of Israel is highly probable. What must be taken into account, however, is the fact that the controversy in Jn 10 did not take place between the historical Jesus and his opponents in Jerusalem but between the Johannine community with its Messiah Jesus and its counterpart in the local synagogue.

c) Scripture – A third Jewish institution prominent in John is Scripture. By “Scripture” the Fourth Evangelist understands almost exclusively the writings of the Tanach. Sometimes he speaks of Moses, sometimes of the “Law”, even in a wider sense of Holy Scripture. The dominant use of Scripture in the Gospel’s central chapters is Christological, which appears in several different ways.

In a very lose way reference to the Law can be perceived in questions concerning Jesus’ claim to be the envoy of God. Thus, Nicodemus takes the courage to ask in the Sanhedrin: “Does our Law permit us to pass judgment on someone without first giving him a hearing and learning the facts?” (Jn 7:51). To authenticate his claims Jesus refers to the principle of the Tanach that “the testimony of two witnesses is valid” (Jn 8:17; cf. Dn 17:6; 19:15; Nm 35:30). In continuity with the Synoptic Gospels, John is familiar with a messianic use of texts from the Psalms and the prophets regarding the Coming One, welcomed by his people and riding on an ass (Ps 118:25f in Jn 12:13; Zec 9:9 in 12:15).

In sections more strongly influenced by his own theology, John refers to scriptural passages in a christological and soteriological sense beyond early Christian tradition. A debated passage is the one in which Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles invites all mankind to come to him and drink (with a possible allusion to the rite of drawing water from the well of Shiloah during Tabernacles). Jesus then affirms (probably about himself, less probably about the believer who comes and drinks from him): “As Scripture says: Streams of living water shall flow from within him” (Jn 7:38). There has been much guesswork about this scriptural reference. The most probable solution seems to be the one given recently by M.J.J. Menken. He sees in the passage reference to the scriptural motif of the water flowing from the rock upon command of Moses (Ps 78:15s, 20; cf. Ex 17:6). In eschatological times, Jesus will be the rock in the desert which will give living water to the thirsty people. Menken also provides the more probable explanations of the scriptural quotations in Jn 6, the Bread of Life Discourse.(6) Another example of christological use of individual scriptural passages is the reference to Ps 82:6 in Jn 10:34: “Is it not written in your law: I said: You are gods?” Again, the technique of qal wa chomer is used: If Scripture calls all sons of Israel gods, what harm is there if Jesus claims to be the Son of God?

The most characteristic Johannine use of Scripture appears in such texts as Jn 5:39, where Jesus draws on the Scriptures of Israel to witness to his claims: “You study the Scriptures (or: Study the Scriptures) diligently, supposing that in having them you have eternal life; their testimony points to me.” A few verses later in the same passage Jesus affirms that Moses has spoken about him (cf. above re. 5:45-47). Here we come to the core of the argument: John is convinced that not only this or that passage of Scripture points to Jesus, but Scripture as such. We are confronted here with a conception according to which the reader of “Scripture” has to decide whether he or she is ready to understand the Holy Writ of Israel as a document pointing to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God or to deny such an interpretation.

It is in line with this basic option that the “Jesus” of John can speak to the Jews about the Scripture as “your” Scripture (Jn 8:17) or “your” Law (Jn 10:34). Logically, this does not mean that the Scripture in question is no longer the one used and recognized by the Christians. But it means, that they are the Scriptures which originate in Judaism and remain the oldest and highest written authority of the Jewish People. According to the evangelist, they are “fulfilled” in Christ without losing in any way their original sense.

It should be mentioned, however, that expressions about the “fulfilment” of Scripture are used in John’s Gospel only in the context of the passion narrative, beginning in Jn 12:38,39f. Apparently, in this context John depends upon early Christian tradition more strongly than in his christological passages. The problem of early Christianity was how God could permit his Son, the Messiah, to suffer and be crucified. The reason given was that he himself wanted this death on behalf of sinful mankind, and the proof for this interpretation is its announcement in Scripture.

The Centre of the Debate

After viewing the historical setting of the Fourth Gospel and its controversies with the Jewish community and after studying some areas of the debate, some conclusions can already be drawn. It is clear that the controversy between the “Jesus” of the Fourth Gospel and his opponents does not touch any secondary matter, but is centred around Jesus’ claims as such: being the decisive envoy of God, the Messiah and the Son of God, equal to him in dignity and salvific significance. This result is developed and reflected in our final section.
a) Jesus the only way of salvation? – If the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is presented to us as the “fulfilment” of the most important institutions of Israel like the Law, the teaching of Moses, the Sabbath, Jewish feasts and Jewish Holy Places, the term “substitution” offers itself as a category of understanding. In fact, in actual debate this term has become central. Do we have to accept that according to the fourth evangelist all the important Jewish institutions become meaningless unless “fulfilled” in Jesus from Nazareth as the Christ? The final consequence would be that Judaism as such would lose its meaning and become obsolete as a way of salvation.

To better understand the question it is necessary to look at the circumstances under which the Fourth Gospel originated. It supposes human persons who are confronted with the Christian claim to lead to salvation, even exclusively. The gospel of Christ and his importance for salvation is preached to Jews and gentiles. Both have to take their decision, which will be relevant for their salvation. One group of persons seems to be of particular importance to John the Evangelist: the group of Jews who came to know Christ and who stood in the situation of decision whether to adhere to him or not. The decision was all the more difficult since social sanctions threatened those who decided to adhere to the new Christian faith. It is significant that the most “anti-Jewish” section of the Gospel of John – regarding Jews being children not of Abraham but of the devil – is directed not towards Jews as such, but to such Jews who had taken the first step to become Christians. The paragraph in question is introduced with the following words: “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him” (John 8:31). This circumstance is often overlooked. The most polemical controversy in the Fourth Gospel is correspondingly not an invective against the Jews as such, but an internal Christian debate about the necessity to remain faithful to a decision once taken.

The social sanctions to be envisaged seem to play a more significant role for the “pragmatics” of the Fourth Gospel than commonly accepted. Nicodemus comes by night to Jesus (3:2), probably because he is afraid to approach him in daytime. Later he has the courage to take a position in favour of Jesus in the Sanhedrin (7:50) and finally claims the body of Jesus from the Roman Procurator (19:39), apparently serving as a model of fearless confession of Christ. Such an attitude is also required in texts like Jn 12:42f. The man born blind and healed by Jesus serves as another example of fearless faith in Christ and confession of Christ even in face of possible expulsion from the synagogue.

It appears from this that the purpose of the Gospel of John seems to be not only to lead to faith in Jesus as the Christ but also to encourage Christians to be faithful to their decision for Christ even when facing the most serious social consequences, even death. (Think of Thomas saying shortly before the death of Christ: “Let us also go, that we may die with him”, 11:6).

Seen from this perspective, the polemics against Judaism in the Fourth Gospel appear less speculative. What is intended is not a judgment upon Judaism as such but upon a Judaism claimed by candidates of Christianity as their way of salvation, in order to retain the advantage of their social status. Hence it is advisable to be cautious regarding conclusions about the fourth evangelist’s opinion and his gospel about Judaism as such. That the evangelist maintains a fundamentally positive outlook upon Judaism appears from passages in which he speaks positively of Israel or of “Israelites” (1:31, 47, 49; 3:10; 12:13), as has often been observed.

b) The universal salvific will of God – Like other books of the New Testament, the Gospel of John reflects very little about ways of salvation outside explicit belief in Jesus Christ. We find as a general conviction the belief that God wants the salvation of all humankind. In the Gospel of John we can observe right from the beginning a perspective of a salvation brought to all creatures. Differing from dualistic ideas favoured by circles near to the Fourth Gospel, the fourth evangelist believes in a world which as such and as a whole goes back to God’s creative Word, which he sees embodied in Jesus Christ: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made” (1:3). This creative word of God becomes flesh, and incarnation remains the basis for salvation for all who are called to be children of God, although explicit faith in Christ is claimed (1:12-14).

The Samaritan woman leads her fellow citizens to belief in Christ, and they exclaim after the encounter with him: “This is indeed the Saviour of the world” (4:42). The statement in Jn 12:19 that “the world has gone after him”, seems to be one of the cases of Johannine irony in which the reader knows that what seems to be a critical remark is true.

More than once Jesus expresses his conviction that he is sent for the salvation of all. Repeatedly he calls himself “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5; 12:46). In his final words about his mission he says: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (12:32). The vocabulary and theology of this section (12:20-36) seem to have been taken from the Fourth Song of the Servant (Is 52,13-53,12).(7) Jesus, exalted and glorified, will effect the salvation of his people and draw all to himself, so that also “those who had not seen will see and those who had not heard will hear” (Is 52:15 LXX). This means the Gentiles together with the chosen people.

In all this a perspective of salvation for Israel as separated from Christ is not included explicitly. It should, however, follow implicitly from the general principle of God’s universal salvific will for all nations and all humankind.

c) The Jesus of John and Jesus of Nazareth – More than two generations seem to lie between the Jesus of John and Jesus of Nazareth. If mainstream research about the origin and date of the four gospels is accepted, the fourth evangelist writes after the first three and supposes, at least in part, their knowledge. His reinterpretation of the gospel traditions seems to serve the purpose of strengthening Christians in their newly accepted faith in Christ and to lead them to deeper understanding of him. The influence of non-biblical concepts is apparent. The proclamation of the gospel has fully entered the Hellenistic world. Concepts like “truth”, “light” and “life” become central. The essence of Jesus gains importance, not only his mission. Jesus appears more and more cut off from his Jewish roots and opposed to the religion from which he came. This does not stand in contrast with what we have seen previously – that the influence of Judaism and its institutions on the shaping of the Fourth Gospel is still considerable.

It is not possible to compare this perspective of Jesus Christ directly with the historical Jesus. We do not have a single word of Jesus which has been transmitted with absolute certainty in tradition. Between us and the person of Jesus stand the canonical gospels, beginning with the three Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Synoptic gospels themselves betray a dogmatic and kerygmatic interest in Jesus Christ as is evident right from their beginning. Consider the heading of the gospel of Mark, probably the oldest canonical gospel: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).

Nevertheless the Synoptic gospels contain enough traditional material to allow a more or less probable reconstruction of the authentic teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Appearing clearly as the centre of his preaching is Jesus’ announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God, together with a call to repentance (cf. Mk 1:15). More than fifty years of debate about Jesus the Jew have demonstrated that Jesus starts and ends his career as a member of the Jewish community. He remains loyal to Jewish belief, Jewish praxis and even Jewish authorities up to his violent death. It is not possible to oppose him in any way to Judaism as such although he calls Israel to repentance in a way similar to the great prophets of old and to fidelity to the spirit of Torah and not the letter alone. No wonder that this might have caused opposition from the ruling circles in contemporary Judaism, leading finally to a coalition with the Roman government in view of his elimination.

The picture of the relation of Jesus and Judaism portrayed by the fourth evangelist cannot be historical. It is to be criticised also by internal reasons. The texts of the Fourth Gospel speaking of the “Jews” appear in the last resort anti-Jewish, at least when taken in the actual context of the New Testament (where “Jews” always refers to the Jewish people, not to a group).

What we might respect is the fact that the controversy reflected in the Fourth Gospel is at least in part an internal Christian one, as I have tried to show. It is conditioned by the danger that new Christian converts from Judaism might defect again to their old religion because of social sanctions they may have had to face. This fact might explain, at least in part, the extremely polemical tone of the controversies reflected in 5-12.

Does the insistence upon the identity of Jesus as the Christ also have a positive side after all? Ernst Käsemann asked this question at the end of his much debated book Jesu letzter Wille nach Johannes 17 (Tübingen 1966). In a sense his answer was affirmative insofar as the fourth evangelist forced his readers to take seriously the question of the identity of this Jesus of Nazareth. An undogmatic Christianity, according to Käsemann, would finally be no Christianity at all. This perspective might not be too helpful for Jewish readers of the Gospel of John. But it might be at least respected.


* Johannes Beutler, SJ is professor of New Testament exegesis at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. This essay is a slightly shortened version of a lecture given at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, March 9, 2000.
1. Cf., Johannes Beutler, Studien zu den johanneischen Schriften, Stuttgart, 1998, pp. 107-120.
2. Cf., C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, Cambridge, 1953.
3. Together with Robert T. Fortna, I edited the proceedings of this seminar in the SNTS-Monograph Series, n. 67, Cambridge, 1991.
4. The division into chapters goes back to the beginning of the thirteenth century C.E.
5. These texts are listed in my contribution to the collective volume on the Shepherd Discourse of John 10.
6. Cf., M.J.J. Menken, Old Testament Quotations in the Fourth Gospel, Kampen, NL, 1996.
7. I have attempted to show this in Studien, 175-189.


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