Saturday, January 15, 2022

Reading the Gospel of John

Periodically I undertake to read a whole book of the Bible.  Not the whole Bible, mind you, just a book.  I have never been able to do those projects of reading the whole Bible in a year; I am weak and a sinner, for sure.  I’ve tried, but get stuck in Leviticus, like most of the world.

Reading a whole book of the Bible, rather than in snippets the way scripture is delivered to us in church on Sunday, gives a better sense of the message and flavor of that book.  Last year I read 1 Samuel, because it seemed to pertain to political leadership, although it ended up just to be a tragedy. In 2020 I read Ruth, because we suddenly needed a topic for a retreat.  As books of the Bible go, Ruth is a great read - it’s a romance, without an awful lot of accusatory prophecy, and has very little smiting or battles with Jebusites.  

Now seems as good a time as any for me to undertake a reading of the Gospel of John.  It’s my least favorite of the four canonical gospels.  More than the synoptic gospels, the language in John is often a puzzle to me, and I find it also to be strongly anti-Jewish.  I don’t relate as well to the portrayal of Jesus as I do for the other three gospels. We’ll see how far I get.

Here are my observations for Chapter 1.

The Gospel of John, Chapter 1

The gospel begins with the famous poem “in the beginning was the Word”.  

ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

(No, I can’t really read Greek, but I think it looks lovely.)

We are immediately confronted with the concept of the “Logos”, the “Word”.  Book lovers should love this - word!  This Logos (a very full word) was there at the start of all creation, and is synonymous with God, the gospel writer tells us.  

The major metaphors so far:  Word, light, children of God, born.  The major concepts so far: life, testifying, grace, truth, and belief.  Verse 5 is a verse of unadulterated hope, and one of my favorites:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  

The weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.  

The start of the gospel is a reiteration of the creation story, in a very John-ish sort of way.  The writer uses simple, short words, but each of those words is so loaded that the sentences carry huge meaning, or alternately, the meaning is obscured.

But already in verse 10-13, antagonism and division is introduced.  The world is split into two: those who accept the Word and those who don’t. It’s a very black-and-white view of things, which perhaps reflects that the writer was part of a community feeling threatened. At Christmas-time when we read these initial verses of John, we usually skip over these verses and go straight to the “full of grace and truth” in verse 14.

In verses 19-42, John the Baptizer appears on the scene, confronted by questioners sent by “the Jews.”  John the B says he is not the Messiah.  

More metaphor:  John the B. notices Jesus, calling him “the Lamb of God” and “the Son of God.”  

John the B. is responsible for introducing the disciples to Jesus.  Then Jesus heads for Galilee, collecting more disciples along the way.   

Chapter 2 Commentary


the queen said...

If you enjoyed the poetry of The Gospel of John, you might also enjoy The Secret Book of John / the Apocryphon of John.
It is more of the same, only more she-centric. It becomes evident why it wasn't included in the Big Holy Book. Too Deep.

Bibliomama said...

I like reading your interpretation of it. I didn't realize that part of O Holy Night was from the Gospel of John (apparently I was a bad Catholic, this will surprise no one). I've done some Bible study, but I've often thought it would be interesting to just try reading it on my own - much the way I've enjoyed reading classics without having to study or write papers on them.

Bibliomama said...

Hm, sorry, as I was pressing publish it occurred to me that putting it that way might be insulting to someone of genuine faith studying the Bible. I'm sorry if so, I didn't mean it that way.

Common Household Mom said...

@Bibliomama, I don't think O Holy Night was specifically based on the Gospel of John. I just made that leap from that one verse to that one line of the hymn. And I don't find anything insulting in what you said. It's quite acceptable to read the Bible just as reading. There's some beautiful stuff in there, and it's worthwhile to read as literature, in my opinion.