A light in the dark: Dualistic ideology within and without Johannine community

Last time I attempted to articulate the rhetorical function of logos christology as it pertained to the Johannine community. I argued that the identification of Jesus with God’s word represented and at the same time provoked a radical break between John’s own dissident form of Judaism and the mainstream Judaism of the synagogues. Once the Johannine community had been exorcised from the synagogue (cf. John 9:22), the cognitive dissonance generated in crisis crystallized into a distinctive logos christology.1 With this unique christological formulation in hand, John’s community—seeking legitimacy as Israel’s only true religion—continued to define itself more and more sharply in relation to its chief opponent, namely, synagogal Judaism. This bitter rivalry culminated in the final redaction of John’s Gospel.

Inasmuch as Christ constituted God’s singular revelatory word in Johannine conception then, Jesus’ inflammatory prophetic career acted as a lamp shining in the darkness of Israel, illuminating true divine sons and exposing false divine sons (cf. John 1:1-5, 3:18-20).2 Those Jews who received Jesus as prophet could rightly be called God’s heirs, but those who rejected him as such were imposters, offspring of Satan (cf. John 8:43-45). The repudiation of God’s word, as it were, was tantamount to the repudiation of God himself. There could be no middle ground.

By catalyzing this socio-religious separation of those inside the synagogue from those outside it, this climactic word from God—manifested initially in Jesus’ speech (e.g. John 14:24) and then later in Jesus’ person (e.g. 1 John 1:1-3)—amounted to a word of divine judgement. The looming eschatological partitioning of righteous Israelites from wicked Israelites was taking place in broad daylight as Jesus and his Johannine followers spread their message, or rather, God’s message—a message, coincidentally, concerning Jesus’ ultimate apocalyptical value.3

The point may be best illustrated by Jesus’ final public words in the Gospel of John.

I have come as a light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness… The one who rejects me and does not accept my words has a judge; the word I have spoken will judge him at the last day. For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak.

John 12:46-49

Christ in Johannine conception is thus the faithful carrier of his patron’s message. As the emissary of God’s unfiltered word he shines like the radiance of heaven, splitting the world into believer and unbeliever, righteous and wicked, light and dark (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-15). Though this prophet of God’s word has yet to become the incarnation of God’s word in the Gospel of John proper,4 Jesus and the divine utterance are here functionally equivalent: “[I] told you the truth that I heard from God… Whoever belongs to God hears the words of God. The reason you do not listen [to me] is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:40-47).

Light and darkness in other sects

Two Jewish texts conscript similar dualistic language in service of similar rhetorical goals and can therefore corroborate this reconstruction of Johannine christology. These writings—the Wisdom of Solomon and the Dead Sea Community Rule (1QS)—use the imagery of light and dark to draw sharp distinctions between the ingroup (God’s beloved) and the outgroup (God’s enemies). In this way all three of these ancient Jewish documents build upon God’s primeval division of light from dark in order to bolster the boundaries of their respective sectarian communities. In a word, this rhetoric functions to thwart the assimilation of the ingroup into the outgroup—a perpetual danger for small and marginalized communities.

Wisdom: Darkening of the pagan mind

The Book of Wisdom is in part addressed to the kings and judges of the earth (6:1-11). The author (i.e. the Preacher) seeks to persuade rulers of Judaism’s intellectual and moral superiority over and against the various cults and philosophies on offer in the Greco-Roman world.

As with all apologetics, however, Wisdom is primarily addressed to Jews inculcated by the dominant Hellenistic culture of the day. The Preacher writes his apology for Judaism so as to prevent his kinsmen from acculturating completely into the trappings of Hellenism and its pervasive idolatry. By presenting the law of Moses as the pinnacle of wisdom and justice, the Preacher works to arouse ancestral pride in the hearts of his countrymen and thus dissuade them from an appealing apostasy.

In making his case for the supremacy of Israel’s religion then, the Preacher derives various principles from the Exodus story. The instruction gleaned from Egypt’s penultimate plague—the plague of darkness—is most relevant to our discussion. For the Preacher, the plague of “long night” (17:2) comes to represent the moral and mental degradation associated with idolatry and the rejection of Israel’s monolatrous worship.

  • The heathen Egyptians—believing themselves to be the lords of a captive nation—became the prisoners of darkness and terror (17:2ff). Having abandoned reason in favor of magic and pagan wisdom, they were tormented in the dark by phantoms formed by their own ignorance (17:7-15). Thinking that their “secret sins” were safely hidden from justice, a “dark curtain” avenged the Hebrews (17:3-4, cf. 15:18-16:1, John 3:19-20). Such a punishment was not merely a reflection of the darkened soul but an image of the darkness that awaits all who foolishly disregard Israel’s law (17:20-21).
  • The righteous Hebrews on the other hand, enjoyed “a very great light” while “over [the Egyptians] alone heavy night was spread” (17:20-18:1). In the midst of Israel’s “unknown journey” the holy children were illumined by a flaming pillar and a “harmless sun” so that they could at last receive the “imperishable light of the law,” the unadulterated source of divine wisdom (18:3-4).

In the hands of Wisdom’s skilled Preacher plague becomes parable and parable becomes the means by which Jewish identity is protected from the pagan zeitgeist. The Jew who turns away from the Law and towards the wisdom of pagans is like the Egyptian stumbling in the darkness, alienated from the truth and thus blinded by fear.

The Gospel of John, of course, speaks of insiders and outsiders in like manner. Just as those Egyptian heathens wrongly “supposed” that they held God’s people in their clutches (Wisdom 17:2—καταδυναστεύω), so too does the darkness incarnated by “the Jews” who spurn Jesus fail to “grasp” the light emanating from the Johannine witness (John 1:5—καταλαμβάνω). In both texts those who walk in the light of the community go soundly while those who reject the light of the community wallow in darkness (John 11:9-10).

Community Rule: Suffering under the angel of darkness

Sometime during the Hellenistic period a group of disgruntled Jews left Jerusalem and Israel’s civil society in order to establish a holy community in the desert by the Dead Sea. Such Jews had come to believe that popular interpretations of the Law, particularly in regards to temple procedure, were intolerable to God. On this account, God had rejected the nation and its leaders but had made his face to shine upon this group of puritans and their prophet, the Teacher of Righteousness.

In the passage that follows a member of this remnant community describes the fundamental struggle playing out in his world.

[God] has appointed for [man] two spirits in which to walk until the time of his visitation: the spirits of truth and injustice. Those born of truth spring from a fountain of light, but those born of injustice spring from a source of darkness. All the children of righteousness are ruled by the Prince of Light and walk in the ways of light, but all the children of injustice are ruled by the Angel of Darkness and walk in the ways of darkness. The Angel of Darkness leads all the children of righteousness astray, and until his end, all their sin, iniquities, wickedness, and all their unlawful deeds are caused by his dominion in accordance with the mysteries of God. Every one of their chastisements, and every one of the seasons of their distress, shall be brought about by the rule of his persecution; for all his spirits seek the overthrow of the sons of light… [God] loves [the Prince of Light] everlastingly and delights in its works forever; but the counsel of the [Angel of Darkness] he loathes and forever hates its ways.

Community Rule (1QS) III.18-IV.1, translated by Geza Vermes

Besides the many echoes of Johannine terminology, of special importance to our discussion is the claim that the Angel of Darkness, through the mediation of his children, the sons of darkness, attempts to “lead astray” the children of light, the people of the Dead Sea community. The writer is here at pains to paint any and all doctrinal and social opposition as the expected product of devilish manipulation (cf. john 15:19, 1 John 2:15-16).

The message for the community is thus clear: just as light cannot mix with darkness, so should the sons of light resist outside influence as they await the overthrow of their enemies, namely, the current Jewish leadership. The saints who have abandoned the darkness of the world, exorcising themselves from Israel and its temple cult, must now “love all that [God] has chosen and hate all that [God] has rejected…. love all the sons of light, each according to his lot in God’s design, and hate all the sons of darkness, each according to his guilt in God’s vengeance” (1QS I.1-3). They must walk in the light and not in the darkness—devoting themselves unconditionally to each other and to their teacher (cf. John 15:9-14). Apart from the vine, the life-giving community, there can be only death and condemnation.

Christology of survival

These examples provide helpful background for understanding the dualistic ideology that is essential to the Johannine perspective. John’s community, like the communities represented in Wisdom of Solomon and the Community Rule, portrayed their struggle for both physical and theological survival as a battle between light and dark, good and evil. In order to prevent their companions from defecting and adopting the prevailing worldview, these writers demonized the outside world in darkness and canonized their own doctrines in light.

To summarize our findings: The Jews who accepted Jesus and his words suffered serious socio-religious consequences. Expelled from their houses of worship and thus from the whole Jewish social order, these Johannine Jews came to understand the activity of the divine word delivered through Jesus in terms of light and darkness. God’s word, first spoken by Christ and then encapsulated in Christ, functioned as a light that publicly divided the Jewish people into two and only two camps: the children of God and the children of the Devil, those outside the synagogues and those still within them. In this way a new sectarian community was born, and with it, a christological construction that could resist intense external pressures that sought to delegitimize Jewish Johannine faith and extinguish its light.

1—John’s logos ideology is distinctive in comparison to other personified-logos literary forms like Isaiah 55:10-11, Revelation 19:11-16, and Wisdom 18:15-16. The judgement engendered by God’s word in Johannine literature causes social disintegration and reconstitution, not political catastrophe. Christ cuts the synagogue in two but leaves synagogal Judaism intact until the resurrection of the dead.

2—The Johannine community’s close association of word with light is key to my reading. Jesus’ prophetic word is like light in that it functions to divide the light (good Jews) and dark (evil Jews) (cf. Genesis 1:1-5). In this way John’s community eventually identifies Jesus as both God’s word and God’s light. The bearer of God’s word and the bearer of God’s light became God’s word and became God’s light.

3—The Johannine gospel message is this: Jesus is God’s son, the sole mediator of God’s word and God’s life.

4—As Paul Anderson and others argue convincingly, the Logos formula in John 1 (along with chapters 6, 15-17, & 21) represent a later layer of Johannine literary output.

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