Moving away from the politics of resetting the Anglican Communion and back to reflections on John's Gospel, as I continue to re-read John Ashton's brilliant book Understanding the Fourth Gospel, I am minded to continue to work on "who" Jesus is. That is, to keep reflecting on who Jesus is according to the gospels - all four gospels - which at some points are formally contradictory but always, for orthodox Christians, complementary and comprehensive in their revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Incidentally, thinking about the current ripples of controversy in the Anglican Communion, one way to approach John's Gospel is to think of it as "resetting" the story of Jesus!
In thinking about the differences between John's Gospel and the Synoptics, it is always worth remembering that noticing their differences in not some modern theological problem invented by liberal German scholars in the nineteenth century.
Eusebius, writing his Ecclesiastical History (6:14) in the fourth century says this:
"But that John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the Gospels, was urged on by his disciples, and, divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel."
One of the great questions about this spiritual Gospel is, How does John arrive at such a different Jesus from the portrayals in Matthew, Mark, and Luke?
To a degree, explanation can be given that John draws on a more "Jerusalem" than "Galilee" oriented knowledge of Jesus' itinerant history (so, e.g., we can account for John's three visits by Jesus to Jerusalem, rather than the Synoptics' single visit (apart from Luke's account of the child Jesus visiting Jerusalem when he was twelve) because John (or his key source or sources) knows lots more about Jesus-in-Jerusalem than Matthew, Mark or Luke.)
But such explanation does not deal with, say, John 1, in which the calling of the first disciples is quite different to the Synoptic accounts (no fishing or fish or fishing metaphors are involved!).
Bultmann, in Ashton's view the most intelligent ever commentator on the Fourth Gospel, is somewhat famous for proposing that a "Gnostic Redeemer myth" influenced John to draw up his portrayal of his "different" Jesus. Scholars, including Ashton, have moved beyond Bultmann's myth (while continuing to acknowledge the brilliance of Bultmann's many insights), but that still leaves the question in need of an answer. How does John's portrayal of Jesus end up being so different to that of the Synoptics?
It is a question that, in my view, Ashton himself does not quite answer, because he is uncertain whether the significant difference in John's Gospel was something which entered into the sources John used or was John's own contribution. And, if the latter, then a related question is the extent to which the "Johannine community" - its unique character, its particular experience of being driven out of Jewish synagogues, its location or locations (was it once in Samaria? Did it, per historical tradition, end up in Ephesus?) - shaped John's understanding of Jesus-in-relation-to-this-community?
When, for example, John's Jesus emphasises "love one another", without any hint of "love your neighbour/love your enemy", familiar from the Synoptics, this Jesus lays down a commandment of special interest to the beleagured Johannine community: i.e. be united, resist persecution together, stay strong through tight internal bonds of love.
In other words, the situation of the Johannine community is such that it cannot afford the "luxury" of teaching "love your enemies" because its enemies are not just horrid people (like, say, Romans in relationship to Jews and Christians) but potential destroyers of the Johannine community.
Reading through Ashton's book again, the following has struck me as, arguably, very important for answering the question I pose above (aside from the Johannine community's experience shaping John's portrayal of Jesus):
1. A lot can be explained by recognising that John works from the Synoptics but develops them through the power of his own formidable insight into the true meaning of Jesus Christ as presented in those gospels (or at least two of them, Mark and Luke).
2. More should be explained by scholars in terms of John's identification as he writes with the risen Christ - his experience of the indwelling presence of Christ in his own life - and his assurance that the Paraclete continues to teach him about the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth's words and deeds.
1. The Synoptics as launchpad for John
Read any set of papers, articles, books about John and the Synoptics and they go something like this: There is no association between the two, apart from a generally agreed "gospel" outline and some reminiscences of the Synoptics in John. Here is a list of all the differences between John and the Synoptics ... Or, although it looks like there is no connection between the two, on careful analysis, there are profound connections ... and thus John almost certainly knew Mark's Gospel, probably Luke's as well.
My reflection on reading Ashton goes in a different way. Something like this. What if John did know the Synoptics (say, both Mark and Luke)? Then, what if he deliberately eschews following them closely? (Perhaps he knows Matthew as well - why write a fourth gospel of a similar kind?).
Rather, he fairly consistently works in another direction to them (except for following their broad outline: Jesus ministers, is betrayed, tried, crucified and resurrected in Jerusalem; and for picking up some of their miracles to become his "signs"), reworking the story of Jesus to incorporate the following insights.
Insight #1: Take, for instance, the Healing of the Paralyzed Man, Mark 2:1-12. Here, Jesus identifies himself (in the name of "the Son of Man", v. 10, a self-description often used by John's Jesus) with God - with the one who has authority to forgive sins. Mark does not make a lot of this, save for it being part of his cumulative case that Jesus is "the Son of God", a theme also found in John's Gospel). John, arguably, works on and develops the insight possible here, that Jesus thinks of himself in terms of identify with God, and this is worked out in many dialogues through the Fourth Gospel, as Jesus speaks about the unity of himself as "son" with the "Father." By working from a Synoptic "miracle" in this way, John is able to integrate his account of miracles as "signs" - events which signifies things about the meaning of Jesus Christ in relation to God and to the world.
Insight #2: Even without Insight #1, John could have started with the (so-called) Johannine thunderbolt of Luke 11:21-22 (//Matthew 11:25-27) which speaks of the intimate relationship of Father and Son and the sharing in privilege and power of the Father which the Son enjoys - developed at length in John's Gospel.
Insight #3: John has a lot to say about divine agency in his gospel. God is the one who sends Jesus to the world, Jesus is the one who has been sent into the world. For example, John 3:17 says, "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." But agency is found in the Synoptics, for example, in Mark 9:37 (//Matthew 10:40; Luke 10:16):
"Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
Notably, here, Jesus is sent by God, but the reference is in the context of relationship: the welcomer of a child welcomes Jesus and the welcomer (in this way) of Jesus welcomes God, "the one who sent me." This chain of relationship features in John's Gospel as discourses set out the nature of relationship between believers and the Son and through the Son to the Father, with the climax of such talk taking place in John 17 as Jesus prays that the disciples may be one as he and the Father are one.
This is not a big Ashton-like book - just a modest length blogpost, so cutting to the summation of my point: an awful lot of John's Gospel (in comparison to the Synoptics) is explainable without recourse to other documents than the Synoptics (at least Mark and Luke), providing we allow for the spiritual and theological genius of John the author. (The point stands, whether we identify John as one of the sons of Zebedee or another John).
Postcript to this section: I am not at all dismissing possibilities and probabilities of other influences on the shape and content of the Fourth Gospel: that John has access to traditions the Synoptics know not; that John (if, perchance, a son of Jerusalem rather than a son of Galilee/Zebedee) has a background in close relationship to Jesus through visits of Jesus to Jerusalem which the Synoptics either do not know or choose to omit); and so forth. But even when these other streams of influence are allowed for, they do not cumulatively explain the distinct differences between the Synoptics and John's Gospel, differences which attest to a singular vision of Jesus Christ being cast in the form of a gospel.
2. John's identification with Christ and the Paraclete
Why would John have confidence, even daring to re-present the story of Jesus' words and deeds in the way he has done? What would give him the sense of authority which his gospel carries that this very different presentation of Jesus deserved the accolade of truth and the mantle of reliability in respect of its insights?
An obvious set of texts to cite (and scholarship does) are those concerning the Paraclete/Advocate/Counsellor/Helper: (here I substitute Ashton's preferred "Paraclete" for the NRSV's Advocate):
"But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you." (14:26)
"When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf." (15:26)
"I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." (16:12-13)
Here, through Jesus' words, John articulates the conviction that the role of the Holy Spirit, as the special Paraclete (we might think here of a guide for the church, to walk with it on its journey through life), is both to remind the church of what Jesus taught and to develop the church's understanding of the full meaning of Jesus' words and deeds.
John's Gospel, then, is an attempt to give expression to that full meaning of Jesus' words and deeds (as, indeed, we could also say of Paul's Epistles and the Epistle to the Hebrews as they do this but differently to John).
But, is there something more happening in this mode of conviction about the full meaning of Jesus Christ? Reading Ashton (along with some other reflections I have been doing this year) prompts me to also ask whether John composes his gospel as one who understands that he is indwelt by Christ through the Spirit and himself dwells in Christ - think John 6 and the Bread of Life discourse, as well as the testamentary material through John 13-17? Does he write not only "about" Christ but also "as" Christ? Is the Paraclete not only teaching John but speaking directly through John to the church?
Does the authority of John's Gospel lie, not in some feat of historiography, where we develop arguments to assure readers that the Synoptics and John are wholly complementary or consistent and not one whit contradictory, but in a shared confidence (our confidence together as the church, our confidence as readers united with John the author) that the Jesus of the Synoptics, the Holy Spirit of Acts work in union with John to compose the Gospel that bears his name?
In short, is John's Gospel the consequence of a fusion between John and Jesus, a binding of the mind of John with the mind of Christ through the agency of the Paraclete?
In John's Gospel, we have a guide to all the truth about Jesus Christ, a way into the way of Jesus Christ and a lifegiving message inviting us into life in Christ.