“Dirty little secret”: Our Johannine church

P03-24-14_15.53We are in late Lent. The weekday Gospel readings are now all John, all the time.

And why not? We are bearing down on Holy Week, and John’s Jesus lives in a “Wanted” poster. They’re always trying to kill him, but can’t quite grab him; they seek to arrest him, but the hour hasn’t arrived. And so on. The liturgical point is that the hour will come.

I have a confession. I don’t much like John’s Jesus.

He has beautiful moments: “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Or: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (15:12). Or: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (15:5). Or: “I pray…so that they may all be one” (17:20-21).

Or this one above all: “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ She thought it was the gardener and said to him, ‘Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” (20:15-16).

But overall, John’s Jesus can be…well…tedious and arrogant. He expounds on his oneness with God. He demands that everybody and their grandma acknowledge it. He is disappointingly prone to context-free utterances about his exalted mission. At face value, he seems the type to stride into some random diner in some random part of town, shouting “Do you not know that I am he?!” when you just want to eat your pie and pay your bill. No wonder everybody had enough.

More charitably, John’s Gospel (the last of the four canonical Gospels to be finished, and the one with the highest “Christology,” or concept of Jesus’ identity) is a ceaseless, wide-eyed meditation not on what Jesus said, not on what Jesus did, but on what the phenomenon of Jesus meant. Other characters and events serve, more so than in the Synoptics, as minimalist props to advance a kind of cosmic monologue.

But, gripes and authorial intent aside, I find this Gospel invaluable. I have studied it formally. For me, to learn how it was written was to learn what the church really is, and what it has always been.


Ten years ago, as a junior at Loyola University Chicago, I took a course in the “Johannine literature” (i.e., the Gospel and letters of John). Our main text was the professor’s translation of the Gospel. He had typed it in three fonts that kept alternating: plain, italic, bold.

The professor was excited to explain that the Gospel was written in three distinct editions by the same community, the community of the Beloved Disciple (“the disciple Jesus loved” is an enigmatic background figure in John), over about forty years. “I’m the one who discovered the three editions,” he said brightly. It was a point of geeky pride for which I forgave him.

As I recall, he argued that the first edition (plain font) dated to about 70 CE, the same as Mark. Second edition interpolations (italic) came in between 90 and 100, after Jewish authorities had formally expelled Christians from the synagogues. Here was where you got John’s constant, seething deadlock between Jesus and theiudaioi, usually translated “the Jews,” but likely indicating “the Jewish leaders.” The community was using the Jesus story to process their own rejection by contemporary iudaioi.

The third and final layer (bold) was inserted around 110. The community was drastically rethinking itself. The Beloved Disciple, who was supposed to remain until Jesus came back, had died. The Beloved Disciple’s community had also lived well apart from the mainstream of the church, and was now reconciling itself to the larger body.

Third edition material is obvious in John 21. Here, the writer has a sudden need to dismiss rumors that the Beloved Disciple would not die (21:23). And Peter, who is a preeminent figure in the Synoptics and in the church generally but less so in John, abruptly takes center stage (“do you love me more than these?…feed my sheep,” 21:15-17).

The class was breathtaking. It was like watching a magician. The idea that you could sense subtle shifts in language and references, and use them to separate verses like slices of carpaccio, captivated me as much then as now.

But more important was what the process revealed: a struggling community. It struggled with itself. It struggled with hopes (“that disciple would not die”) that never came to pass. It struggled with other communities. It got hurt by them. It sniffed that it didn’t need anybody else. Finally, it joined a larger world. The whole time, it sharpened its lofty insight about who Jesus was: “the Father and I are one” (10:30).

In short, the community did in miniature what the whole church has done for two thousand years. As Garry Wills once put it, the “dirty little secret” of the church is that it changes and always has.

I think of John whenever somebody piously insists that “the church has always and everywhere taught” X or Y. We have never always and everywhere taught anything. We have always fallen into unforeseen circumstances. We have always tussled with them, and then adapted. We have always been on stumbling pilgrimage toward the Omega whose hour we know not.

As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be.

3 thoughts on ““Dirty little secret”: Our Johannine church

  1. This is a great example of how a historical understanding of the Bible’s composition can add richness to theological reflection, instead of causing those who study to stumble as it does for many of us. Thank you.

    • You know…my first college-level Scripture class did cause me to stumble. I am on record telling one of my former housemates that Intro to Hebrew Scriptures “rearranged the Old Testament furniture in my head.” I only have this remark second-hand now; I don’t remember actually saying it. But the phrase accurately reflects my unsettled feelings. Over time, though (and I gave myself a lot of time: while Loyola didn’t do concentrations for undergrad theology majors, I effectively completed a concentration in biblical studies), I realized that once you grasp that these were totally different cultures, in totally different times, laying down their texts like layers of sediment in totally different languages, you are left with a bolt of lightning: “These people were far more like us, and far more different from us, than anybody ever dares to tell us. What if we can dig up really old things we’ve forgotten? What if we can discover new things we can’t yet imagine? That makes the church an exciting place to think about. That makes it an exciting place to be.” Despite some rough patches, I’ve more or less stuck with that program ever since.

  2. Pingback: Friday Round-Up: 4/18/14 | Catholic Majority

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