Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Theology of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist

In order to be able to write an article about the theology of John the Evangelist, I should read at least a small part of the very huge theological literature written about this marvelous man, traditionally also known as the beloved apprentice, the theologian of love or, more popular, Saint John the Theologian. In the following I must confess I have not read so much about this saint. Except the fourth Gospel, the three epistles and the Apocalypse, I can count some introductions to these biblical books, some general commentaries to the New Testament, some encyclopedic articles and a few other articles on the topic. I may add here the Life of Saint John the Evangelist, as it appears in the collections of the lives of the saints, according to the Orthodox tradition. That means this article cannot pretend to be more than a simple essay.
There is a special thing to mention about the name of the saint. At least the Eastern Church has not so many saints bearing the title of “The theologian”. In fact, there are only three examples: John, traditionally the author of the biblical books already named above, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390), retired archbishop of Constantinople during the second ecumenical Council (381) and author of the well-known “Five theological speeches” against the arianists, and Symeon “The New Theologian” (949–1022), a monk from Stoudion, the famous elite monastery in Constantinople. There is to be noted that the former one was first named as “new theologian” only in mockery for his style of writing and his mysticism, which was not quite well seen at his time.
Another Theologian: St. Gregory of Nazianzus

What is common to these three Theologians of the Church is their special connection to the Person and activity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. John wrote exceptionally about the God of love, Who has incarnated himself and came in the world in order to save his beloved human beings from death and corruption. Gregory came in Constantinople as a more symbolical bishop of the Nicaean community, which resumed at that time to a single-group meeting in the Chapel of the Anastasis, all the others Christians of the capital city (arianists) denying Jesus Christ as God and co-substantial with the Father. Traditionally, Gregory spoke about Jesus Christ in such a way, that at the end of his office (which lasted about only 3 years!) it remained in Constantinople only one arianist community, the others accepting the truth of the Orthodox faith, which prevailed after the second ecumenical Council. Symeon wrote some treatises about the divine light and, against the rationalist trend of his age, he promoted a Jesus of the hearts, instead of speaking in the philosophical way about the divine Word of Life.
the new Theologian, St. Symeon
Let’s remain focused on John, “one of the disciples, whom Jesus loved” (John 13,23). Today there are also a lot of doubts about the fact that this disciple is one and the same person with the author of the Gospel traditionally put onto his name. The fact that the original Greek manuscripts attested the gospel as “according to John”, but saying nothing about his quality (disciple, apostle, presbyter, etc…), made some modern commentators to doubt that this is John the Apostle, son of Zebedee. The number of the arguments for this doubt grows every year, but I don’t intend to make from that the theme of my essay. The doubts are even bigger in what concerns the epistles, but his paternity on the Apocalypse is almost generally denied in the Western Churches, mostly in the scholar circles. In this situation it would be hard to remain with something from the disciple who assisted, as the only one remaining, to the Crucifixion of his Master (John 19,26: he is once more named as “the disciple standing by, whom he loved”) and probably to the burial, also one of the first to known, together with Peter, about the empty Tomb (John 20, 2: here he is “the other disciple, whom Jesus loved”; John 20,8). But I don’t share this opinion, because of some reasons which may appear subjective.

The Gospel

The author of the fourth Gospel wrote the well-known Prologue, the one starting with the words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things were made by him; and without him was nothing made that was made.”, an incredible parallel to the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…” (Gen. 1,1). Matter fact, the author of the Gospel rewrites the Genesis or, better said, he completes the text in the way the Jewish Rabbis used to write commentaries known as Midrashim and Targumim. The fourth Gospel intends to say, since the beginning, that Jesus Christ is not only the expected Messiah, but the Word of God, co-substantial with God and a-temporal, a-spatial as His Father, the Almighty. The Word of God is the One in whom there is “life”, and this life is “the light of men” (1, 4), which “shines in darkness”, impossible to be drowned into the darkness (1,5) and the one who “lighteth every man that came into the world” (1,9). This complex description of the divine Logos beyond the all created, but not stranger from them, reveals a profound theologian who knew deeply what meant for him and for the all humankind the knowledge of God, knowledge beyond reason. I wonder who could understand so good the deepness of God - who reveals himself in the world in the light inside every human being – if not the “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, whom Jesus might have shared such a mysterious teaching about a crazy God who decided to die for his humans? The author of the Gospel is one of the – probably not so many, at least at the beginning – ones who received him, and to whom the divine Word “gave them the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1,12-13).
According to the “hypothetical John the Evangelist” - whoever he might have been, but at least the author of this fantastic theological treatise also known as “the Prologue of John” -, the ones who believe in the mission of the divine Word who “was made flesh, and dwelt among us […] full of grace and truth” (John 1,14) – which God may dwell among his creature, if not the Love itself? –, these crazy believers in the Crucified God are not anymore born as natural, but as supernatural beings, destined to become sons of God.
The God of John the Evangelist offers his flesh to be eaten and his blood to be drunk, in fact even crazier, he says to the anyway conservative auditorium that “except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6,53), speaking about the future Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the miraculous possibility in how even we today, 2000 years later, may share the divinity in such a deep way.
The God of John the Evangelist weeps when his human beings are dying, even if he knows the fact that the Resurrection will come soon. He knows what does it mean to hear about a friend who died (John11,35: “And Jesus wept”), image which is wonderfully completed with Jesus’ attitude in front of the death of a son (Luke 7,11-17) or a daughter (Matthew 9, 18–26, Mark 5,21–43 and Luke 8,40–56).
Jesus of John the Evangelist is the one who accepts - from love - the deep penitence of the sinful woman who anointed the feet of the Master (John 12,3), without even knowing (she) that she prophesized the sudden death of the Divine Logos.
John mentions once so many times about the Jesus as the incarnation of the divine Love. After the Resurrection, Jesus asks three times his disciple Peter if he loves him, to whom Peter answers positively.  After being urged to follow his master, Peter “turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper…” and asked him, what would be happen with this one. Jesus gave him an unclear answer: “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me!” (John 21,20-22). In the end, the author of the Gospel reveals himself as the very mysterious disciple: “This is the disciple who testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true…” (John 21,24)
The Epistles

The three Epistles of John are written in the same manner as the Gospel and have the same theme, namely to present Jesus Christ as God and the incarnated Love in the world, the one who remains among us, if we respect the commandment of loving each other. The Prologue of the first Epistle astonishes by its similarity with the one of the Gospel: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; for the life was manifested, and we have seen it…” (1 John 1,1-2). The same opposition between the light and the darkness as in the Gospel is presented here even stronger: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” and “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (verses 5 and 7). The importance of the Eucharistic communion is stated here as in the Gospel. Once more, as the Gospel shows that the World didn’t know him (John 1,10), the same idea is followed in the first epistle (1 John 3,1). There are some other similar ideas, such as the opposite to God as the sons of the devil and the followers of the antichrist (Gospel 8, 37-45 : 1st Epistle 2,16-18; 2nd Epistle 1,7; 3rd Epistle 1,11), the importance of love among the brothers (Gospel, 1st Epistle 3,14), after the Commandment of Love (Gospel 13, 34-35 and 15,12-13: 1st Epistle 3,16,23; 2nd Epistle 1,6), the urge to remain into the Lord, as the single way that Lord remains into us (Gospel 15,4: 1st Epistle 3,24). In spite of knowing God as Love and Light, who died for us and who remains in us, if we ask for that (Gospel 15,7 : 1st Epistle 4,10), John states that no one have seen God (Gospel 1,18: 1st Epistle 4,12).

The Apocalypse

In what it concerns the Apocalypse, the purpose of such a book is clearly different to the one in the Gospel and the Epistles. The difference of style, ideas and even lexica is quite normal. A prophetical book would use images and situations in quite a new manner, so if we may try to make a parallel to the Gospel, then we will see more differences than similarities. One of the important “signs” that John of the Apocalypse may be another John, is the fact that he calls himself not as “apostle”, “disciple”, “evangelist”, but “I, John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation….” (Apoc. 1,9). In contrast I would like to attest the - ideational if not lexical - parallel between the prologue of the first Epistle, cited above, and the one of the Apocalypse “…[John], who confessed the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw” (Apoc. 1,2).The Son of Man, allusion to the prophetic book of Daniel, is always encircled in such a light, almost impossible to be seen (Apoc. 1, 14 and 16), as in the Gospel and even more in the first Epostle. The whole book of Revelation is presented as a battle between the ones (not so many) who confess the Lord and fight on his side against the forces of evil, antichrist, the beast/dragon and the devil himself, thing which is also quite familiar in the Gospel but especially in the Epistles.
A modern German specialist in the New Testament Studies notes in his Einleitung in das Neue Testament (5th Ed., Vandehoek, Göttingen, 2005, 617 pp) that the author of the Apocalypse has two main sources, namely the books of the Old Testament (esp. the Prophets and the Psalms) and the Liturgy, because John makes a lot of allusions to Sunday, Altar, rituals, Eucharist, texts composed in antiphonic hymns,doxologies, treishagions, “axios”-acclamations, prayers of thanking. But even more important as the sources used by the author, is the fact that all is about the Kingdom of God about to come, a concept which is also present in John’s Gospel, twice in connection with the mission of John the Baptist (3,3; 3,5) and once in connection to the Passions of Jesus ( 18,36). The so often invoked image of the Lamb in the Apocalypse is present in the confession of the same Baptist about Jesus (1,36), with the special mention that the Gospel uses for this image the word “amnos”, a synonym of “arneion”, as it appears in the Apocalypse, used also as a sign of the different paternity of the two works. Anyway the Lamb as the one, who offers himself for the sake of the world, is a common image of the Gospel and the prophetic book. The idea of the brotherly love, omnipresent in the Gospel and in the Epistle, marks a parallel to the idea of the brotherly communion in the Church, in the Apocalypse (2,20; 7,3; 19,2.5; 22,3).
One more thing I would like to note about the Apocalypse. If the Gospel is intended to mark a parallel to the Genesis, the Revelation ends in the same manner, presenting the New Jerusalem as the new Paradise of the Lord, from which we cannot miss the special elements: the wonderful river (Apoc. 22,1 cf. Gen. 2,10), the trees (among them, the Tree of Life, Apoc. 21,23 and 22,2, cf. Gen. 2,9), the precious stones (Apoc. 21,13.19-21 cf. Gen 2,11), men as kings (Apoc. 21,24 cf. Gen. 2,8.19), the presence of God (Apoc. 21,24, cf. Gen 3,8), cherubs (21,12 cf. Gen. 3,24), peace and innocence (Apoc. 21,1-6, cf. Gen. 2,13) etc.
Da Vinci: The Last Supper

Theology of divine Love

The theological ideas in the book of Apocalypse would need another article. I would say, as the modern Western commentators, that there are so many differences between this book and the Gospel, but also similarities. It depends which position would take anyone of us. I would prefer the traditional one, according to which, the two books are johannine in the same manner. I would see positively the differences between them, as complimentary and caused by their different intention and type of communication. Without intending to say that I am right, I would better say that these books make an original and round image of John the Apostle, a man interested about what does it mean the divine love, how can we, the mortals, attend the divine love and that light which is usually situated beyond our power of knowledge. An apostle interested about how the World was created and how it would end, who had a round image of the kosmos being restored in the end in an even more glorious way as in the beginning. An apostle interested about how it was possible that the divine Word became flesh, suffered and died for us, but also resurrected and reigns in his Kingdom, waiting for us to follow him. The Apostle has observed this way of waiting as active: God shares himself in his flesh and blood, in order to make to us the spring of the living water accessible. The same God loves us and waits from us the same love not only directed to him, but to all the living creatures. Shortly, this man cannot be another than the Apostle of Love, John, the son of the Thunder.

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