My least favorite book of the Bible
I have heard N.T. Wright say that to him the Gospel of John is a little bit like his wife: he loves her very much but he wouldn’t claim to understand her. I suppose it is the fact that he has been my guide into the strange and wonderful land of biblical scholarship that I absolutely agree with him in his sentiments about John. I think I actually understand my wife better than the book of John, for whatever that’s worth.
Of course there are things that throw me curve-balls in every book in the Bible. Yeah, probably every single book in the Bible confuses me or frustrates me or generally rubs me the wrong way at some point. And yet I absolutely love the Bible. It is so not-even-close-to the book I would ever write if I were going to write a holy text. But of all the books in the Bible, John is the most bothersome.
I remember my first summer as a counselor at a Christian summer camp. Our bible studies for the summer were based on the ‘I am’ statements in the book of John, which we would repeat weekly with every new batch of kids. I was talking with one of the other counselors who said to me, “The gospel of John has always been my favorite book in the Bible.” I turned to her and said, “Really? That’s weird because it has always been my least favorite book.” I learned that my response is maybe not the best thing to say to someone that loves the book of John.
But there is just a lot that bothers me in John. I have always been bothered at how arrogant John’s Jesus sounds. He seems absolutely callous toward anyone that isn’t sure he’s the Messiah. And then there’s the fact that John seems aware of the synoptic gospels (especially Luke) but he makes no effort to tell you how to integrate his story with theirs. To take an example of chronology, the so-called cleansing of the temple comes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry instead of at the end. Did John simply move the story to the beginning for theological purposes (as most commentators seem to think he did)? Why doesn’t he give us some clue that that’s what he was up to? Were there two cleansings (or three as one of my classmates actually believes)? Why doesn’t John give us some suggestions that there’s another one he’s not telling us about?
If you’ve read even the most basic introduction to the New Testament you will know that I’m not bringing up anything that thousands of others haven’t said more cogently than I. But my point is that the gospel of John is so over-the-top different than what I think it ought to be that I’m not even sure quite what John wants us to do with it. Does John want us to know that he’s playing loose and fast with history in order to write a ‘theological’ gospel? Or is he trying to ‘correct’ the synoptics in some points, assuming his readers will take his book as a very serious work of history? Or is there some entirely different paradigm through which to best read the book?
It’s been said that if you want to understand the theology of the early church, all you have to do is read John. So my frustrations with John are just like another brick in the wall standing in my way of coming to terms with the doctrine of the Trinity. After all, that’s where the main battles were fought in the 4th and 5th centuries when guys like Athanasius and Basil were hammering this stuff out.
At least John has the simplest vocabulary in the New Testament, so even though I may not understand him I can at least not understand him in Greek pretty easily.