Christology in crisis: Johannine Judaism outside the synagogue

In the previous post I began to make the case that the experience of expulsion from the synagogue (ἀποσυνάγωγος—John 9:22, 12:42, 14:2) sparked the development of the logos christology found in John 1. I suggested that in order to cope with the dissonance caused by their estrangement from mainstream Judaism, Johannine Jewish Christians came to understand themselves—and not their non-Christian countrymen—as the exclusive possessors of God’s word and thus as the true sons of God (John 1:17-18). These Jewish-Christians believed that in Christ God’s word had visited Israel as a light of division in order to catalyze this process of separation (cf. John 12:35-36, 46).1 Consequently, the synagogues were not amputating heretics from the body of Israel as it may have seemed; rather, God was exposing and disowning fraudulent sons of Abraham through a mechanism of social schism that he himself designed. As Jews went out from the synagogues on account of the Word, so too did God’s favor go with them: “Whoever belongs to God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:47).

So, by identifying Christ with God’s light-word, a sharp distinction could be drawn between those Jews who accepted Christ and those who did not—between those Jews who received God’s word and those who renounced it (John 1:9-13). In this way logos christology served primarily sectarian purposes—it worked to distinguish two rival communities out of one religious tradition, to break and rebuild fellowship (1 John 1:1-3, 2:19-23).

Separatist Jesus

In furthering this argument then, it possible to articulate how God’s incarnate word, the dividing-light, accomplished this separation of the sons of light from the sons of darkness in Johannine conception.

From the historical vantage that I discussed last time, Christ’s controversial rhetoric and deeds had spawned discord in Israel. John’s Gospel takes hold of this historical memory and heightens it in carefully crafted dispute episodes scattered throughout the text. It comes as little surprise though that the only significant point of tension in these thoroughly Johannine discourses concerns whether or not Jesus is God’s revealer and spokesman. John has telescoped various Synoptic-type disagreements concerning Torah, Temple, resurrection, etc. into a kind of extended Beelzebub controversy—Who does Jesus work and speak for: God or the Devil? (cf. John 7:20, 8:48, 10:20).

John’s Gospel then, itself a schismatic thorn in Israel’s side, brings its Jewish readers to the point of κρίσις, to the point at which a decision is required. Will the reader openly confess Jesus as God’s son and face expulsion from the congregation of Israel? Or will he prove to be a lover of darkness and a son of Satan by rejecting Jesus’ revelatory significance?

For John and his ostracized community the time of judgement had come2—there could no longer be any middle ground between the church and the synagogue. No longer could Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews coexist. Logos christology was the emblem and engine of this inflexibility—the synagogues had officially and definitively spurned God’s word and thus rejected God himself: “No one who denies the son has the father. Whoever confesses the son has the father also” (1 John 2:23. cf. John 5:23).

Law made flesh

Johannine logos christology proved to be an effective tool for escalating, justifying, and explaining this schismatic event. By identifying Christ as the definitive, invaluable, and uncompromising revelation of God, the Johannine sect persuaded some Jews to take a leap of faith beyond the synagogue. For those Jews who did leave their religious communities in this way, there was an immediate problem, however: they were now alienated from the public reading of the Law of Moses, God’s written word to Israel. It was in the synagogue, and often only in the synagogue, after all, that Jews were catechized in their Law.

Yet this too was an issue that the Johannine community and their distinctive christology could resolve. While it may have seemed as though these antisocial Johannine Jews had left Moses and his Law behind, in truth the Law had departed from the synagogue with them. By insisting that Moses’ Law was, in fact, defective unless read in accordance with Jesus the dying and rising Messiah (cf. John 1:17-18, 5:39-47, 7:19, 2 Cor 3:14), these Jews came to distinguish the Law interpreted through Christ from “your Law,” that is, the Law heard by their neighbors in the synagogues (John 10:34).

It was this distinction between these two interpretations of the Book of Moses—the one read with Christ, the other without him—that generated much of the christology unique to John’s Gospel. As the definitive interpreter and, indeed, interpretation of the Law, the Johannine Jesus came to function as the book of the Law for those driven out from the synagogues. Thus the imagery Jews usually attributed to the Law is in John appropriated by Christ. So like the Law, the Johannine Jesus—God’s word and wisdom—is the way (Psalm 119:29-30, 2 Baruch 38:2, 4 Maccabees 2:23), the truth (Psalm 119:142, Nehemiah 9:3), and the life (Deuteronomy 4:40, Psalm 19:7, Baruch 4:1, Psalms of Solomon 14:2-3, Sirach 17:9). He is light (Wisdom 18:4, Psalm 119:105, Proverbs 6:23, Sirach 24:27) and food & drink (Deuteronomy 8:3, Sirach 24:21, Psalm 119:103, Proverbs 9:5).3

One non-Christian Jewish text is particularly instructive in this regard. In the wake of the second Temple’s destruction, the author of 2 Baruch (or Apocalypse of Baruch) writes the following:

The shepherds of Israel have perished, and the lamps which gave light are extinguished, and the fountains have withheld their stream whence we used to drink. And we are left in the darkness, and amid the trees of the forest, and the thirst of the wilderness… Shepherds and lamps and fountains come from the Law: And though we depart, yet the Law abides. If therefore you have respect for the Law, and are intent upon wisdom, a lamp will not be wanting, and a shepherd will not fail, and a fountain will not dry up.

2 Baruch 77:13-16

Here we find three roles—images more familiarly applied to the Johannine Jesus in the form of “I am” sayings—applied to Moses’ Law. For the writer of 2 Baruch, obedience to the Law, not devotion to the Messiah, will provide Israel with light (John 8:12, 9:5), water (John 4:14, 7:37), and the guidance of shepherds (John 10:14-16).

The implication for our understanding of christology in the Fourth Gospel is this: the Johannine Christ, a literary specter of sorts, was fashioned so as to meet the most pressing needs of John’s community—needs relating to the creation and maintenance of a post-synagogal Jewish sect. As such, the Johannine Christ was conjured so as to complete two specific tasks: 1) to trigger a crisis requiring dichotomous decision and 2) to become as the Law for those made orphans by the synagogues. John’s identification of Christ with God’s word, and thus also with Moses’ Law, satisfied these needs and thus allowed his Jewish community to survive and perhaps thrive outside the synagogue.

Appendix: A Lawless Judaism?

What did it mean in concrete terms for Christ to substantiate the Jewish Law in John’s churches? How were these Jews now to live?

Surprisingly, the Jesus of Johannine imagination has no interest in the Law as a practical system. He offers no rabbinical interpretation of this or that commandment and he gives no halakhic instruction.4

For John’s Jesus, and thus for John’s community, rather, the Law is authoritative and relevant inasmuch as it typologically prefigures the Messianic event—the mythic cycle by which God’s life-giving spirit entered the world through the broken body of his son. The Johannine Jesus—whose crucified corpse issues forth blood and spirit—is the brazen serpent fastened to a pole, the wilderness-rock gushing with water, the bread rained down from heaven, the shining pillar of fire, and the slaughtered Passover lamb. He is the seed that Abraham saw and the prophet that Moses promised. He is, in short, the Law’s content and the Law’s meaning.

This framing of Christ and the Law is suggestive but not conclusive for our purposes. It could be that the Johannine Jewish community was both post-synagogal and post-halakhic, no longer valuing the Law as a set of ethical and cultic regulations, but only as a legendarium for christological apology against Jewish critics. It was through their creative christological interpretation of the Law that these Jews observed the Law.

1—While Jesus’ prophetic tour was indeed inflammatory, the dismissal of Christians from the synagogues, and thus from Israel itself, was a later development. The Johannine Jesus speaks against “the Jews” from this later perspective.

2—See John 3:18. Since the Fourth Gospel was written with immediate sociological and psychological interests in mind, it could be that the Johannine community has made the synagogue-schism into a kind of eschatological event. Manifested in this social-religious disjunction, Christ and his spirit have already come and judged the world for all to see (John 9:39, 16:8-9).

3—The prophetic word is also eaten (Ezekiel 3:1-3, Jeremiah 15:16, Revelation 10:9-10).

4—Love for one’s brothers, that is, love for the Christian community, constitutes the sum total of Jesus’ ethical teaching in John (cf. Leviticus 19:17-18).

5 thoughts on “Christology in crisis: Johannine Judaism outside the synagogue

  1. Isn’t it possible that gentile Christians had at first a different view than the Jewish Christians, perhaps because some elements of Jesus’ teachings do not agree with Judaism? A reason why that might be so is that this gospel appears to be widely used among the early Crhistians in Syria (who probably were not Jews).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gentile Christians did introduce some novelty into discussions of christology early on and they eventually became the dominant voice. But I view the Gospel of John as the product of mostly Jewish thinkers with mostly Jewish concerns. It just so happens that John’s Jewish Gospel was particularly useful to Gentile Christians who wanted to distinguish their faith from Judaism.

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      1. You may be right that the writers could have been Jewish. This version of Christianity probably was open to gentiles. Gentiles were probably involved early on. The acts of the apostles discuss the church in Antioch in 42 AD. It might well be that the Pauline theology was intended as a compromise or synthesis between the two versions to promote unity in the early church, and perhaps that is why Pauline Christianity won out.


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