Johannine Theology: The Ultimate Fruit of Pauline Christianity

 

The Johannine image of the divine Jesus is not found in the other three Gospels. None of the latter describes Jesus as an incarnate of the Word, portrays him as the primordial light, suggests that he always existed, states that Jesus and the father are in each other, makes them one and the same, or calls Jesus God. None of this is found in the Synoptics. The Johannine deification of Jesus would have appalled any Jew as indisputable blasphemy, and would have been seen so even by Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Although these authors took Jesus’ special sonship of God to reflect an intimate relationship with God that may imply some form of divinity, John’s divine Jesus remains alien to them. The Gospel of John is so different from the other Gospels that had it failed to make it into the canon, the Jesus that Christianity has been promoting would have been completely different. But despite its major differences from the Synoptics, John’s Gospel succeeded in making its unique theology central to Christian belief.

It is generally accepted that John wrote his Gospel to assert the divinity of Jesus — a highly contentious view in early Christianity. But the Gospel of John was written as late as the 2nd century CE, so it must have been influenced by earlier oral and written traditions. When we talk about “Johannine” theology we should not imply teachings that started by the author of the Gospel of John. This description only underlines certain theological views that this particular and relatively late Gospel propagated.

The earlier of the Gospels, Mark, was written around 70 CE — at least a decade or two after Paul’s letters. Matthew and Luke are usually dated to around 80-90 and 70-100 CE, respectively. The Gospel of John is the latest of the four. It was written over half a century after Paul’s letters. John represents the extreme to which the Pauline theological seed of the deification of Jesus was taken. This Gospel captures the outcome of decades of theological development of Paul’s representation of Jesus as divine by various people. John offers details of the divine Jesus that are not even hinted at in Paul’s writings. It is an advanced piece of highly creative theology.

We do not have a detailed, step-by-step history of the development of the Johannine theology from Paul’s writings, as we do not have earlier documents that can help us trace that. But we know that over the decades after Jesus a number of images of this man were being developed by different theologians. The substantial differences between the Synoptics and John show that there were very different strands of oral and written traditions available to those authors to pick from. We also know that almost nothing of this goes back to Jesus himself.

The competition to draw Jesus’ image has continued unabated for centuries, and from that relatively late period we have a plethora of written sources. The early history of Christianity and the Church is a history of conflicts between competing concepts, doctrines, and theologies.

The development of the Johannine theology should be credited to Gentile converts to Christianity. The Christian divine son of God was clearly influenced by the same concept that was part of the Hellenistic culture. Those who were born Christians, so were not influenced by Judaism even if their parents were originally Jews, could also have contributed to this theology.

          

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