Catholic / Gnostic / Gospel / Johannes / Meditation / MonasteryRetreat / Papst Benedikt / Spiritual

The Gospel of John and the Gnostic myth of redemption


The Shadow

Last weekend I checked in for a three-day time-out at my local monastery to prepare for Christmas. The countdown to Christmas is on and for many, the Advent season is one of the most beautiful in the year. But! Have we ever realized, that this story with Mary and Joseph and birth of the Messiah was Matthew actually worth one single verse? Pope Benedict, in a speech in Freiburg during his 2011 apostolic journey to Germany, recommended a “profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness” (Entweltlichung) so that the Church becomes a more credible witness and regains her spiritual role. To me ‘Entweltlichung‘ sums up the central theme of the three-day retreat and its topic, the Gospel of John nicely.

What has the Gospel of John to do with Christmas? Rudolf Bultmann claims in his Theology of the new testament a closer similarity with the Gnostic myth of redemption. There is no nativity scene in the Gospel, no shepherds or three Kings/Magi can be found. John packs the birth of Jesus in a single verse, which has become famous (John 1:14): And the Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have looked at his glory, a glory as a native of the Father, full of grace and truth”. Mentioned only briefly, it comes with infinite knowledge and reflection.

Psychology was a major vehicle for revisiting Gnostic thoughts in the last century. Carl Gustav Jung, especially in his early years drawn to mysticism, wrote extensively on ancient Gnostic thinkers and mythology in works like Seven Sermons to the Dead (1916). As I wrote earlier about the psychoanalytic interpretation of the Gospel of John: the usage of the Gnostic „trademark “Logos”, was immediately interpreted by C.G. Jung as “Nous” or Sophie. In his book “Answer to Job”. Jung describes Sophie (Wisdom) as the wife of Yahweh, a good “co-author” of this demiurge, the creator of the material world.  Indeed the Greek word “Logos” has a strong philosophical background and is a term for a principle of order and knowledge, “reason”, “proportion”.  However, as we will see, the author of the Gospel develops a new Christian counter-cosmology – and “Cosmos” is the word for order (opposite term of “Chaos“).

Anyway, during the monastery retreat, we wanted to understand the Christmas story presented by the Gospel of John. Let’s take a closer look at what this really means to us. Note:  for the reader in a hurry a short presentation is included later in this article.

Christian Cosmology

IMG_2622

Orion and Light

The author has dealt much more than the other three evangelists with a doctrine that young Christianity fought as a heresy: the so-called gnosis (Greek: knowledge). It may be said that if this doctrine had prevailed, Christianity would have quickly disappeared. The author of the Gospel of John began to grapple with Gnostic cosmology – to develop his own.
From a Gnostic point of view, the cosmos was divided into a realm of the material and a heavenly world of light. The soul of man was a splinter of light trapped on earth in the body of the human. The world as the power of darkness watched over the soul in the prison of matter forgetting its heavenly home.
Knowledge – gnosis – was the way to salvation, the remembrance of one’s own origin from the light. Jesus was seen in this context as a teacher of light – as one who reminds people of their true spirituality: “The real world is not just a stranger to man, but a prison, a dark, stinking cave into which he is thrown. ” Man is filled with “loneliness”, “terrible fear” of the noise and cunning of the world and its demonic powers. All life executions appear as “poisoned, demonically infected”. The God of Gnosticism was hostile to life and the world, unable to love and suffer, and above all, unwilling to maim with creation. God is radically non-world, and man can only despise his life, the world, and the people’s activities as outward appearances. The world is evil because the world it was created by evil powers. Another clear distinction is, while a Gnostic will speak of Satan as the God of this world,  an apocalyptist will speak of Satan as the god of the present age. To Christians the world is not imperfectly created by a Demiurge, but comes from God. This creation is good – but with the freedom of man to worsen it.

1760 the Coptic text  “Pistis Sophia” (Faith-Wisdom, or Faith of Wisdom), an allegorical account of the conception of the world of the Gnostics, was purchased by the British Museum and 1851 translated into Latin and Greek. G.R.S. Mead, the great popularizer of forgotten heresies, who made “The Gnostic John the Baptist (John the Baptist the Gnostic)” known as hidden gospels, described Pistis Sophia as a Gnostic gospel. The Pistis Sophia, mentioned Stephan A. Hoeller and Phillip Jenkins “Le Jésus des sectes”,  begins with an allegory of the death and resurrection of Christ, which at the same time describes the ascension and descent of the soul – the promise of a two-way street for us.

Gnostic cosmology as presented in the “Pistis Sophia, is enumerating 32 carnal desires that must be overcome in order to attain salvation. Seven deadly sins, also known as cardinal sins, must be overcome in order to attain salvation, according to Christian teachings. This is the Gospel, the good message, which has freed people like the Apostle Paul to leave everything behind, to re-think God, and to bring these thoughts into the world.

The key to the Gospel of John, in any way we approach it, is provided by the 17-verse hymnodic prologue.  Those poetic words are a kind of hostile takeover of the Gnostic doctrine and manifest the birth of a Christian cosmology. The dualistic worldview – light beings here, stinking matter there – is opposed to a thoroughly positive cosmology of creation: “In the Word was life, and life was the light of man.” For John, language becomes a mystical gateway between the world of God and that of man. His view seems similar to another critic of Gnosticism, Plotin, who in his notion of the means by which man is to become divine. The Gospel of John makes the natural appeal to Christ as the only son of God, while also rejecting the notion of a completely unknowable first god of the Gnostics.

Redemption myth

Between completorium, -solitude-, some wine and laudes matutinae.. Light cannot be seen without darkness.

Between completorium and laudes matutinae… Light cannot be seen without darkness.

The conceptual world in which John moves is completely different from that of the Synoptic Gospels. It is almost always characterized by dualistic opposites: “light and darkness”, “lies and truth,” “above and below,” “father and son,” the “God-distant” cosmos, and the “Messenger and Revealer of God”. What is peculiar are the concepts that describe salvation: “life-water”, “bread of life”, “light of the world”: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the same was in the beginning with God, all things became by the Word, and without the Word nothing became that which has become.” Words full of poetic, enigmatic beauty.

Essentially, the gospel follows the Gnostic redemption myth with one decisive exception – the Redeemer himself became man: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, a glory as the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth “.

To Gnosticism however, Jesus’ suffering was understood only as appearance, for that inner spark of light is well-caught, but essentially untouchable. Light does not suffer; it only shines. Thus, in the Gnostic view, the cross of Christ was only in the realm of matter. Christianity would have become a completely different religion if the Gnostic’s had prevailed. That God really became man, that he really suffers in and at his creation, that he does not abandon it, but accompanies it as a place of blessing and his dawning reign of God – all this was (and is today) at stake in this conflict.

John counters Gnosticism sharply with this unique feature – a unique selling proposition in the market of religious beliefs: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

  • Instead: The word was trapped in the flesh and lived only for appearance among us.
  • Instead: In a heresy,  that later became the basis of ideologies disguised as religion, which degrades Jesus only as prophet and human being.

This is not just theological theory – this approach uniquely shapes concepts and language of John. Furthermore, this Gospel clearly and early defines Christianity, for which the ‘Jesus Wars‘ needed seven Councils, from the First of Nicaea (325) to the Second Council of Nicaea (787) and few centuries to settle.

Gospel of John – Ego Emi

Language unfolds in John like a fan: a word denotes a thing and something else; Concepts suddenly shine with meaning and ambiguity. Words matter in politics. Words do matter, of course, also in religious texts. The author of the Gospel of John was even better in Greek than the author of the Gospel of Luke and in his playful use of Greek, one can find also humor. Many crucial words in the author of the Gospel of John uses have in the Greek a double meaning. On the other hand, the messianic claim is made crystal clear with the unprecedented power of ego Emi (I Am) and delivers, at the same time, a poetic density unique in the New Testament.

There are only seven miracles – signs listed in John, but each tells us very special things we need to know about Jesus:

  • Changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11);
  • Healing the royal official’s son (Jn 4:46-54);
  • Healing the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1-15);
  • Feeding the 5,000 (Jn 6:5-14);
  • Walking on water (Jn 6:16-21);
  • Healing the man born blind (Jn 9:1-7);
  • Raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-45).

The seven “I am” words of Jesus are words full of theological force in which Jesus identifies his person with the abstract symbols of the seven signs (miracles):

  • I am the bread of life
  • I am the light of the world
  • I am the gate of the sheep
  • I am the good shepherd
  • I am the resurrection and the life
  • I am the truth and the life
  • I am the true vine stock

In such passages, it becomes clear time and again that the whole world, life, every detail and every life is something like an abstraction and a symbol of higher things. The outside of the world reflects the sky; you just have to look or listen, because all that is hidden in the language, in the word that is of divine origin to John and whose reflection fills every human word with spirit. Crucial is: salvation and knowledge of God are not special matters for initiated Pneumatics, but the Incarnation of Jesus shows a two-way street for all the people on.

Theological features

The Gospel of John is the most demanding of the Gospels. The language of Jesus is also very different in the Gospel of John than in the synoptic tradition. The author dealt with a doctrine dangerous to Christianity: the Gnostics. The Gospel of John differs considerably from the Synoptic Gospels, localities and temporal, as well as linguistic and content wise. The gospel is characterized by speeches of Jesus; Jesus’ acts serve either as a reason for his speeches or are incorporated into larger scenes with dialogues and speeches. The text shows clear traces of a prolonged growth process. For instance, it is widely undisputed, that John Chapter 21 is the addendum of an editorial board. The gospel is framed by the prologue and the remark about the purpose of the gospel.

Most of what Jesus in this Gospel says, can be found neither in the Gospel of Mark nor in Luke nor in Matthew. It is likely that the author of John’s Gospel knew the Gospel of Mark and Luke, but used his “sources” completely free. The theological profile identifies him as an author who considers the efficacy of Jesus at a considerable interval and with a high level of reflection. He could hardly belong to the generation of the disciples, since the author intensively uses traditions whose origins are to be found in Hellenistic Judaism. He himself may have been Jewish Christian.

The Christology of John’s Gospel shows similarities to pagan or Jewish gnosis and the writings of the Qumran community. The Gnosis (Greek: “knowledge”) was a religious-dualistic stream, which took Christianity, especially in the 2nd century. Gnosis described a world (as a result of a primeval case), people (who are connected to God through a spark of divine spirit), and salvation (through radical rejection of the here and the belief in the inalienable divinity of man). One may suspect the spiritual ground of John’s gospel in the imaginative world of Jewish gnosis and the ideas of the Qumran community (a Jewish sect in the second century BC to AD 68). Until the discovery of the Library of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Irenaeus’ [Against Heresies] was the best-surviving description of the Gnostics. The discovery of their Dead Sea Scrolls in the remote Judean Desert cave was not only the greatest archaeological event of the twentieth century but gave rise to new interpretations of the Gospels. The legacy of the Qumran community was found in abundance in those Qumran scrolls. Apparently, John used the language of Gnosticism to show that Jesus was the true religion of all Gentiles.

Background and Structure

The tradition of the Church has for while proclaimed John, the son of Zebedee and “gentleman of the gentleman, who was also at his [Jesus’] breast,” the author of the Gospel. (For example, Irenaeus 115-202, Bishop of Lyons) There are, however, numerous arguments against this, such as the Gnostic language of the Gospel and some interconnections with the Gospel of Mark. The author of the Gospel of John remains unknown to us. Possible discussed variants for the origin of the Johannes are Asia Minor (especially Ephesus) and Syria. From this area, also the authors of the letters of John and the New Testament apocalypse may have originated. The presupposed discussion about the Christological confession, the literary character of John and the oldest manuscript tradition suggest a genesis of the final version of John at the beginning of the 2nd century (c.100-110).
The origin of the Johannes community may be found in the Jewish Christian milieu but in its final form, John is certainly destined for a Gentile Christian community. At the time of writing the gospel is the new, changed conflict situation. At the time of writing the gospel is the new, changed conflict situation. Apparently, in the church, Christians have appeared who denied the salvific meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Docetists).

The prologue

The author opens his gospel with a hymn to the pre-existent logos (Jesus / logos = word). In the final verse of the hymn (1: 14-18), the Logos is identified with the Son of God. In him, the Logos became flesh and worked on earth (1:14 paradoxical linking of “flesh” as a synonym for the earthly weakness of man and “glory”). Only the logo has direct access to God. People are dependent on his revelation and interpretation of God (1:18).

The Baptist, the first disciples

The main interest here lies in the relationship determination Jesus-Baptist. The Baptist expressly emphasizes that he is not the Messiah (1:20), but the subordinate forerunner of the coming. The first two disciples of Jesus come from within the circle of the Baptist. Three more discipleship calls follow.

The revelation of Jesus before “the world”

In the first half of his Gospel, John records the public activity of Jesus. This begins with the wine miracle at the wedding in Cana (2,1-12). The purification of the temple (2: 13-25) is at the beginning of John’s activity in John. In the end, the miracle is called a “sign” (semeion). This term plays a very important role understanding Jesus’ deeds in the Gospel of John.

In the discourse of Jesus, which grows out of the conversation with Nicodemus (3: 1-21), essential underpinnings of John’s theology are unfolded. In the mission of the Son, God’s love turns to the world. The attitude of the people to the son (faith/unbelief) decides here and now about their fate (present eschatology).

God must be worshiped “in spirit and in truth” (4:24). God as the Father has given Jesus, as the Son, the authority to bring life to life (5:21).

In chapter 6 the sovereignty of Jesus is strongly emphasized (6,6) and the final attempt to make him king is not found among the Synoptic. Ultimately, however, the feeding miracle serves as the occasion for the opening speech on the bread of life. In the words of Jesus, a dispute is kindled among the disciples. But just among the faithful, Judas is the traitor.

Jesus announces his return to the Father in enigmatic words (7:33) and speaks of the gift of the Holy Ghost (7: 37f.).

In two short words of revelation, Jesus speaks of the veracity of his testimony. He is the light of the world (8:12). Afterwards, a sharp controversy between Jesus and Jews (!) evolves. Who believe in him is ignited (8: 31-59). Since they have not really accepted the deliverance of the Son, they are called sons of the devil (8:44). Jesus is greater than Abraham because he gives eternal life and was rather than this (pre-existence).

Jesus expressly opposes the traditional idea of sin (9,3). In the talk of the Good Shepherd, Jesus turns against the Pharisees and compares them to thieves, robbers, and hirelings. Jesus, on the other hand, gives his life for the sheep. At the temple there is a renewed confrontation with the Jews. In this context, the core the Gospel of John appears: “I and the Father are one.” (10:30).

The resurrection of Lazarus leads to the death of the High Council (11: 1-57). The resurrection is a sign of the mission of Jesus from God (11:42). In conversation with Marta, Jesus deals with the traditional hope of resurrection. Jesus is the resurrection and the life (11:25).

After the anointing in Bethany (12: 1-11), Jesus enters Jerusalem (12: 12-50) and the hour of glory has come. “Exaltation” and “glorification” are the concepts for the crucifixion of Jesus, which is interpreted as the victory of Jesus. After the verdict on the unbelief of the Jews (fulfillment of Isa. 6:10), Jesus, at the end of his public activity, calls for the decision of the saving faith once more.

The revelation of Jesus before “his own”

The scene of the last meal has been extended by the author of John for a long farewell speech of Jesus. For this the Lord’s Supper is missing.

In the centre of the first discourse (13.31-14.31) is the I-am-word in 14.6 (Jesus is way, truth and life). His departure is to be understood positively by the disciples.

In the second section (15:1-16:4a) the love commandment (13:34f.) and the consolation for situations of persecution take the center stage. The third part of the speech (16: 4b-24) announces again the mission of the Paraclete, who will convict the world (16:8). But he will lead the disciples “into the whole truth” (16:13). In the end, the theme of the mourning of the disciples about the departure of Jesus is again the theme, which will turn into joy (16:22)

The “high priestly prayer” of Jesus (17:1-26) completes the meal. Jesus gives account to the Father, asking for the sanctification of the disciples in the world and all believers.

The exaltation and glorification of the Revealer

Even the arrest scene shows that the author of John emphasizes even in the Passion the sovereignty of Jesus story to the utmost. The trial before Pilate describes masterfully the tearing of the earthly judge between the parties.
The solemn testimony in 19:35 emphasizes the salvific meaning of the crucifixion, and the appearances of the risen Christ are ultimately aimed at the word of Jesus in 20:29, for the disciples, must believe without seeing.

The End(s)

The editors of John added a supplementary chapter after the original conclusion of the Gospel (20: 30f.). It seems to be primarily concerned with clarifying the relationship between Peter and the favorite disciple. The favorite disciple recognizes Jesus (21: 7a), he remains until the coming of Jesus (21:22). In the end, the editors emphasize the truth of the testimony of the favorite disciple (21:24).

Conclusion

It seems today, this truth of the testimony sounds muted. Sermons aim to win an argument, instead of presenting transcendence they “negotiate” the meaning of the Word of God (or temporal demands) with the “powerful” and the “proud.” The (not entirely wrong) theory of the “marketplace of religion” emphasizes religious groups acting like businesses and political parties “innovating” their theologies and practices in response to consumer or voter demand. As in temporal realm, because of this Christian symbols became almost an empty or are actively supressed. The newly proposed, so-called missionary character of the Church, tastes very much like unreflected globalism or worse, even to give in to stale one-world ideologies and virulent expansive competition.

In this it seems, the general attitude of the Catholic Church runs contrary to what Benedict XVI said during his famous “Entweltlichung”  speech  to ecclesiastical and civic leaders in Germany:  [The Church] “must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from her tendency towards worldliness and once again to become open towards God.” So do we. The Gospel of John invites to a journey within transcendence: Through a Jungian perspective, this is individuation. “Every conscious process of becoming as individuation, but also every science, leads to a higher level, to transcendence, to the self, to the image of God“. In this awareness, I experience myself as both limited and eternal, as one and the other. By being unique in my personal combination, that is ultimately limited, I have the opportunity to become aware of the limitless”. (C. G. Jung).

Merry Christmas 2017

Sources:

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the new testament

[2 ] Phillip Jenkins, “Jesus Wars”  How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years 

[3 ] C. G. Jung – Studienausgabe in 20 Bänden. Bd. 8: Antwort auf Hiob. Bd. 9: Psychologie u. Religion, Verlag: Zürich, Ex Libris, 1972

[4 ] C. G. Jung – Zur Psychologie westlicher und östlicher Religion: Gesammelte Werke 11 1995 Patmos Verlag

[5 ]Blank, Josef – Geistliche Schriftlesung Band 4/1a: Das Evangelium nach Johannes 1. Teil Verlag: Patmos, Düsseldorf (1981)
[6 ]Blank, Josef – Geistliche Schriftlesung Band 4/1b: Das Evangelium nach Johannes 2. Teil Verlag: Patmos, Düsseldorf (1981)

[7 ] Stephan A. Hoeller  Der gnostische Jung und die sieben Reden an die Toten, Schatzkammer Verlag (1981)

[8 ] “Le Jésus des sectes” : Comment le Christ ésotérique devint le Christ des universitaires par Philip Jenkins, CESNUR (Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni), founded in Italy 1988

[9 ] Gnosticism and Early Christianity (Englisch) Gebundene Ausgabe, Robert M. Grant 1967

 

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