A working paper for the American Bible Society, Multimedia Translations Project
Not for citation without permission.
Chapter 20 contains John's first and more complex report of the appearance of the risen Jesus to his followers.(1) The account interweaves stories of the visit to the tomb, two disciples finding the grave clothes of Jesus, Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Jesus, and Jesus' appearances to the disciples in a closed room. While elements of these stories are common to other gospels, most details and the overall construction are unique to John.(2) Common elements include: women coming to the tomb early Easter morning, seeing Jesus' grave clothes, Jesus' appearance to the women/woman, Jesus appearing to and commissioning the male disciples. Unique to John are these elements: Mary coming alone to the tomb and (eventually) talking with Jesus, two male disciples coming to the tomb, mistakenly thinking Jesus was someone else, the image of the disciples hiding behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jews, the second appearance to a doubting Thomas who must see to believe, the confession of Jesus as Lord and God. Other elements, like the commissioning, the imparting of the Holy Spirit, and the conferring of powers of absolution, occur in other stories, but in dramatically different contexts.
This paper will discuss several of these elements as clues to the nature of the Johannine community and its relationships with other communities. Specifically, I will argue that these stories locate this community between two more powerful groups: the Jewish community on the one side and the Petrine community on the other. Details of their dialogues and conflicts are evident in these stories.
I. The Nature of the Johannine Community
One striking novelty of John's version of the resurrection appearance story is Jesus' declaration to the disciples: "Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you." While both Matthew (28:20) and Luke (24:47) include commissioning scenes in their resurrection stores, neither casts it as a taking up of the work of Jesus himself. It is a distinctive feature of Johannine thought that the community stands in the place of Jesus, reduplicating his work. Jesus has given them the words of God, so that like Jesus they are no longer of the world, but also like Jesus they are sent into the world (John 17:14-18).
Several scholars, most notably Raymond Brown, have shown that this analogical relationship between Jesus and the Johannine community resulted in John writing the Jesus story in such a way that it is also a story of the community.(3) Thus the Gospel of John is at once a biography of Jesus and a history of the community. Careful study reveals a long and complex history, which I can only summarize here. I will not address important issues of tensions withing the community or the degree to which later changes represented contradictions of earlier positions.(4) Nor will I discuss the important difference between various historical reconstructions.(5) For our purpose, providing a context to understand chapter 20, a synthetic overview is sufficient. I will discuss two points: the mixed nature of John's community and its evolving understanding of Jesus.
Who made up the Johannine community? If we look to the Gospel itself for evidence, it seems to have begun among followers of John the Baptist who became convinced that Jesus, not John, was the expected messiah (1:19-42) and then expanded to include other Jews who were expecting a traditional redeemer figure (a prophet like Moses, a son of God, a Davidic king; 1:43- 51). While they piqued the interest of the religious leaders, and perhaps partly persuaded some, they failed to convince the majority of the leadership--and even many of the followers of John had reservations (chs. 2-3). They had significant success among the Samaritans, however (ch 4). Samaritans occupied an ambiguous position in Jewish thought: in some ways they were considered as Jews, but in other ways they were considered as gentiles.(6) Because they accepted only the Pentateuch as scripture, they had distinctive religious ideas, some of which influenced how the Johannine community understood Jesus. The struggle to assimilate this group and its new ideas is reflected in the stories about Jesus' relationship to God and the Law in chapters 5-12, when the community turns in a new direction, the incorporation of gentiles (12:20-23). The rest of the Gospel works out an understanding of Jesus' death and resurrection in light of this views of this mixed community. Again, we can trace the course of this reflection in the gospel story itself.
The rather startling endpoint of their meditation on the meaning of Jesus can be seen most vividly in the audacious response of Thomas to the invitation to examine the risen body of Jesus: "My Lord and my God" (20:28). This is exactly where the Gospel started ("In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God"-- 1:1), but it is not where the story of Jesus began. Jesus is first presented in the story in the context of John the Baptist, who calls him the Lamb of God (1:29, 36) and the son of God (1:34), which is consciously interpreted as the king of Israel (1:49). That the king was God's son is an ancient idea (see Psalm 2) and had come to form part of ordinary messianic expectation. As the community moved beyond the followers of John to include other Jews, a different but still-common paradigm was applied to Jesus, that of the Prophet like Moses.(7) Moses' ancient promise that God would raise up "a prophet like me" (Deut 18:15) was combined with other ideas about a final prophet who would turn Israel back to God before the end times. To understand Jesus in this way was common among various strands of early Christianity.
Perhaps it was the influx of Samaritans that altered the direction of the community's thinking about Jesus. Since the Samaritans rejected the Davidic monarchy and the prophetic writings, they emphasized the promise of Moses, but saw the new prophet not as simply turning Israel back to God but as the savior of the world (see John 4:42). And because they had no expectation of a new Davidic king, the idea that Jesus was son of God would acquire new meaning. And it is here that the great creativity of the Johannine community emerges.
It was apparently meditation on the meaning of Jesus' miracles, now understood as signs, that led them to posit daring new interpretations of Jesus. For they saw in the signs the work of God, not just in the ordinary sense of that expression, but in actuality. Jesus' works were the works of God not just by analogy but by homology (5:17). Jesus was God at work in the world, doing the things God does all the time: healing the sick, making wine from water, multiplying bread. Jesus had made God known, that was the essence of his mission (17:3). It is a long and complex development, resulting in an extremely exalted view of Jesus: "My Lord and my God." This view was so radical that it caused tension between this and other Christianity communities.
II. John's Community in Dialogue with Other Christian Communities
The competition between communities can be seen in the story of the two disciples racing to the tomb in response to Mary's report about Jesus' missing body. It was the other disciple who came first to the tomb and first to faith in the resurrection; Peter followed him (20:3-8). This same pairing of Peter and the unnamed "other disciple," who is also called "the one whom Jesus loved" (13:23) occurs three other times in the Gospel. At the last supper Peter must signal the other disciple to ask Jesus a question because the other disciple is reclining next to Jesus (13:23). At the trial of Jesus the other disciple goes into the high priest's house with Jesus while Peter remains outside in the court yard (18:15-16). The other disciple stands at the cross with Jesus and becomes guardian of his mother, while Peter is absent--having denied being Jesus' disciple (19:26-27; 18:27). Each instance shows the superiority of the other disciple and thus the superiority of the other disciple's community to the community of Peter.
The nature of the competition between the communities probably stems from at least two sources, the primary one being the evolving interpretation of Jesus. Nothing comparable to the Johannine view of Jesus as the preexistent divine Logos can be found in other traditions at this date. This view derived not from historical reflection on Jesus, but from Spirit-inspired meditation (14:26), and would likely be mistrusted by the more conservative branches of the church.(8) While it is likely that these other communities would regard Johannine Christians as too speculative, it is also clear that the Johannine Christians regarded those typified by Peter as too cautious, too tentative, and as possessing inadequate faith. Such is the implication of all the scenes where Peter and the other disciple appear together--including the resurrection story in John 20 where the other disciple is the first to find faith.
Related to the differing interpretations of Jesus are the views of authority in the two communities. Within the Johannine community authority was spirit-based (14:26; 15:26; 16:13- 14). Even the apostolic tradition of forgiving sins is tied to the possession of the spirit in John's unique story (20:22-23; contrast Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 where such powers are related to church discipline). Other Christian communities in the late first century were developing models of authority built on church office, especially the office of bishop. John's grand vision of the unity of the believing community rests on love and obedience to Jesus (13:34-35; 17:20-21). This proved unrealistic, as the great schism reflected in the letter called First John shows (1 John 2:19).
All the more surprising then is the role attributed to Peter in the second set of appearance stories in chapter twenty one. Chapter 21 of John is universally regarded as a later addition to the gospel, primarily because the chapter contains an allusion to the death of the disciple who composed the gospel and a conscious addition of the viewpoint of the disciples of that disciple with the declaration, "we know that his testimony is true" (21:23-24). The crucial element of the appearance story centers on Peter's need for forgiveness; three times he is probed by Jesus for his love and three times he confesses, even as he had three times denied. What is surprising in this scene is that after each confession Peter is commissioned to leadership: he is to feed the lambs, tend the sheep, feed the sheep (21:15, 16, 17). This apparently represents a stage of some rapprochement between John's community and that represented by Peter--or at least a recognition of the validity of Petrine leadership. Yet even here we note that the exercise of leadership is premised on love.
One hypothesis that explains this shift in direction relates it to the devastating split in the community that lies in the background of the work known as First John.(9) Reliance on the spirit is notoriously schismatic for there is little possibility of resolving conflicts between leaders who each claim the inspiration of the spirit. An early second-century writing, the Didache, shows the difficulty of those who would regulate the spirit-inspired leaders. Other writing of the period show a definite movement toward authoritative structures (see 1 Timothy 6 and 1 Peter 5). The stories in John 21 seem to show a similar movement in the Johannine community as they shift toward accepting Petrine leadership. In the process, they will influence the view of Jesus within the Petrine churches so that the view of Jesus as preexistent Logos will become the standard Christian view.
John's gospel thus shows us one type of emerging Christian community in dialogue with other Christians and eventually merging with them. This merger involved changes on both sides. The distinctive views of Jesus developed in this community persisted, but their charismatic view of authority did not. These same two issues--authority and view of Jesus--seem also to be at the heart of John's relationships with the Jewish community.
III. John's Community in Dialogue with Jewish Communities
The tensions between the Johannine community and the Jewish community sprang from social and political, as well as ideological, roots--all interconnected. The social basis of conflict can be found in the inclusion first of Samaritans and eventually of gentiles. These groups were defective, in the Jewish view, and could represent a polluting influence in the community. They also held deviant ideas, a point that was heightened by their membership in the Johannine community. These dangers of pollution and ideological deviance were felt ever more acutely in the tenuous political situation of Jews in the late first century.
While we lack good sources to trace the Jewish responses to the disastrous war with Rome that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, we do know that many thoughtful leaders attempted to rebuild the people around a common view of the Law.(10) Thus questions of membership in the community and the central allegiance of community members were pivotal. Ranges of opinion that could be tolerated in a more secure time, now would be challenged and perhaps even suppressed. One mechanism for suppression seems to have been a modification of the synagogue liturgy.
The issue is far from certain, but most scholars conclude that sometime around 90 one of the opening prayers used in the synagogues (called the Twelfth Benediction) was augmented to read:
Let there be no hope for renegades, And wipe out the kingdom of pride speedily in our days, and may all Nazarenes and heretics perish instantly, May their names be erased from the Book of Life and not be inscribed with those of the righteous. Blessed be Thou, O God, Who humblest the proud.(11)
Whether directed against Christians or not we see here a concern to purify the synagogue by making those who deviate from the majority position uncomfortable. It is more an effort to cause them to leave of their own will than to remove them forcibly.
When we look at the Gospel of John for evidence of the community's relationship with Jewish communities we find an extreme hostility, grounded in fear. The appearance story in John 20 comments "the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews" (20:19). More specifically, John's community seems to have known two fears: the fear of banishment and the fear of persecution. Whether the fear of banishment is based on the Twelfth Benediction or on some more local experience, the author can baldly declare: "they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue" (9:22; see also 12:42). This sounds like a more active opposition, but that may be just the way it seemed to John.
The fear of persecution is related in John's rhetoric to this fear of banishment. He shows Jesus in his farewell speech to the disciples warning them:
They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God (16:2).
Again our historical information is very scanty. We do have a few references to Jews instigating the deaths of Christians.(12) But these are isolated incidents.
Raymond Brown points out a later Christian accusation against Jews found in the mid- second century Dialogue with Trypho by Justin Martyr. Justin accuses his Jewish opponent of hating and murdering Christians "as often as you get authority" (133:6; see Brown, Community, 43). The likely scenario is that the Romans are executing Christians based on denunciations by Jews. Again the situation is far from clear and far from simple. Perhaps it is the very withdrawal from the synagogues that makes Christians vulnerable to Roman coercion, since only the Jews had received special privileges that exempted them from praying to the emperor and participating in civic worship.
Whatever the precise historical situation, we can be clear that John's community held a deep antipathy toward the Jewish community, so that the term "the Jews" has become a term of contempt.(13) This contempt is a major issue that must be squarely faced by any modern use of this Gospel.
Again the situation appears more complex, for not everyone in the community seems to stand in the same place. There is a remarkable anecdote connected with the death of Jesus in John's story, with details that imply that some Johannine Christians were still within the synagogue:
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds (19:38-39; see also 12:42-43).
Here we see the collaboration of two "secret disciples," one belonging to the leadership, in providing for the burial of Jesus. No doubt one of the purposes of John's writing was to separate such people from the Jewish synagogue and make them public disciples. Perhaps one of the purposes of the "expulsion" was to prevent further inroads among such fence-sitters.(14) The very fear of synagogue expulsion shows that those so fearful regarded themselves as members of the Jewish community and thus rightful participants in the synagogue.
We can see in the resurrection stories in John 20 both a fear of (and hostilities toward) the Jewish community and a tension with (and felt-superiority over) other Christian communities. We discover a community that thought of itself as standing in the place of Jesus, like him they are sent into the world to reveal God (in the person of Jesus). Like Jesus, they expect persecution at the hands of those who reject their message. Standing between these two communities, they developed an ever more exalted view of Jesus, until at last they confessed: my Lord and my God.
(1)The appearance story in John 21 is widely thought to be a later tradition, added on the death of the original author. It too provides evidence of John's evolving community relations, as I will comment on below. The classic treatment is Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (New York: Doubleday, 1966-1970) but any commentary will treat the issues. Return to text.
(2)For discussion of the resurrection narratives, their interrelationships and historicity, see Reginald H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (Fortress Press, 1980). Pheme Perkins, Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984). Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1994). Grant R. Osborne, The Resurrection Narratives: A Redactional Study (Baker Book House, 1984). Return
(3)Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979). See also the works of J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (Abingdon Press, 1979) and The Gospel of John in Christian History: Essays for Interpreters (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979). Return
(4)For a judicious review of the issues see D. Moody Smith, Johannine Christianity: Essays on its Setting, Sources and Theology (University of South Carolina Press., 1989). Return
(5)For a summary see the appendix to Brown, Community, 171-82. Return
(6) For details see John Bowman, The Samaritan Problem: Studies in the Relationships of Samaritanism, Judaism and Early Christianity (Pickwick Press, 1975); R. J. Coggins, Samaritans and Jews: The Origins of Samaritanism Re-considered (John Knox, 1975); C. H. H. Scobie, "The Origins and Development of Samaritan Christianity," NTS 1973; Shemaryahu Talmon, "The Samaritans," Scientific American 1977 Return
(7)See the approach to Nathaniel in 1:45; for a review of the paradigm see David P. Moessner, "Paul and the Pattern of the Prophet like Moses in Acts," In SBL 1983 Seminar Papers (Scholars Press, 1983:203-212). Return
(8)When we compare John's formulations about Jesus with those of the other accepted gospels, the gap between them becomes clear. Mark, the gospel most often associated with Peter, locates the recognition of Jesus divine sonship in the baptism (1:11) and in the crucifixion (15:39). While both Matthew and Luke recognize Jesus unique birth without human father, neither suggests any idea of preexistence. Return
(9)For a full discussion see Brown, Community, 93-144; 155-162. Return
(10)See Jacob Neusner, "Judaism in a Time of Crisis: Four Responses to the Destruction of The Second Temple," Judaism 21 1972:312- 27. Return
(11)Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C. - 135 A.D.), (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979:460-61). R. Kimelman, argues that the prayer was not directed against Christians in "Birkat Ha-Minim and the Lack of Evidence for an Anti-Christian Jewish Prayer in Antiquity," In Jewish and Christian Self-Definition (ed. E. P. Sanders. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981:2:226-44). Return
(12)Especially Steven in Acts 7 and James in Acts 12; see also Josephus' report of the death of James the brother of Jesus in Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1 #200. Return
(13)For an overview see Urban C von Wahlde, "The Johannine Jews: A Critical Survey," New Testament Studies 1982:33-60. Return
(14)For further discussion see "A Divided World," In Anthony J. Blasi, A Sociology of Johannine Christianity (Lewiston NY: Mellen Press, 1996135-68). Return
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