John, The Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith: Part 3-John and his Community-and the Jews.

[Part 2 is here. Part 4 is here.]

You can find the whole series here.

In Paul, and later in the Synoptics, the central act is that Jesus died for us, and God brought him back in resurrection. John keeps much of this certainly, but he draws us back to the Prologue (John 1) in statements like “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son.” That is, God sent Jesus into the world, from a preexistent state. It’s not a reference to the end of Jesus’ life, atonement/resurrection, it’s a reference to its beginninglessness, it’s a passage about Christmas—Word became flesh. God’s Son came down, and brought God’s life with him (life in himself)—the life that he can give (here and now!) is God’s own life—eternal life. That seems to be John’s message, and it’s a message that Joseph Smith extracted and sacralized-sacramentalized. In John’s Gospel, Jesus offers people eternal life while he’s in conversation with them and with the disciples. John never uses the term “apostle”–he’s virtually anti-clerical–this tells us something of his presentism perhaps and the ecclesial nature of his community. The Book of Mormon carries the terminology of John when Jesus chooses Twelve and in many other places.

The other Gospels essentially end with this message: the Centurion at the end of Mark “this was God’s Son!” and Jesus to the High Priest: “You’ll see the Son of Man coming in clouds of glory.” All that happens in John 1, in effect. John begins where the others end. Hence, I doubt John the Evangelist would have had much of a positive view of the other Gospels. They don’t get the salvific point if you will. John spends the rest of his Gospel rethinking the ministry in new terms. In the Synoptics, Jesus is a faithful practicing Jew. In Luke, his story begins in the temple, and it ends in the temple (it’s in Acts that Luke takes Jesus from the temple to Rome and the Gentile world). In John, he has already separated the message from the establishment. That part was almost certainly not historical, and this is affirmed in Mark and Acts. It may be that some of the disciples came to Jesus with this sort of attitude, it might be a connection to the Baptist, it’s impossible to know.[3] The Preexistent Jesus of John allows a wholly different picture of Jesus at the end of his life. In Mark, everyone is a failure. There is almost surely a preaching explanation for this method of telling the story of Jesus, but I’ll come back to that later. In John, it’s almost as though the major event is not the suffering, persecution, and death–resurrection of Jesus, that almost goes along for the ride. The Jesus of John has no weak doubting interlude in Gethsemane. The cross itself is triumphant, not dread and discouragement. He constantly refers to it as the lifting up of the son of man. Jesus is already on the way to God on the cross. Jesus in John acts as God on the cross. There is no cry of despair as in Mark. The Book of Mormon early on draws out some of the events of Gethsemane (Mos. 3:7-10), but it still regards the cross as victory, with resurrection the most important event of human history (Hel. 14:17-18). It’s a combination of the Gospels in effect.

You can see opposing poles in John and Paul in salvific emphasis. For Paul the salvation of God is in the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul makes his position clear in his letter to the church in Rome, he says “Jesus our Lord who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). For Paul, this was the moment when God made salvation happen. For John, it’s ALREADY true that God has done something earth-shattering in the birth of Jesus, Word Made Flesh. It’s the condescension of God, God became human. If Paul had said God gave his Only Begotten Son, it’s absolutely clear that he would mean, gave him in death. For John the gift is the birth, far more than it is in Matthew and Luke, even though John has no infancy story. John’s Gospel allowed for, and made room for, less emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ. And by the second century AD, there are Christian groups that put no emphasis at all on the death and resurrection. The presence of Christ was more important than his acts. But it’s John’s Gospel that’s at the back of “Good” Friday.

That brings up the third epoch.[3a] It’s the one we know about definitively, because we have it in hand, or at least we have written traditions in hand.

John’s work shows that his community was in conflict with the synagogue. And he selects material from the oral tradition in the community that shows why. Placing Jesus ahead of Moses by consistent direct comparisons was bound to make the elders uncomfortable with John’s people and they may have been the first Christian group (they already seem to be separatists from other Christians in some ways) to divorce the synagogue. The great majority of Christians followed suit by the end of the second century. John’s Gospel contains a very strange story about the synagogue: they ask Jesus if it isn’t true that he’s a Samaritan (John 8). Unless John intends that the elders want to purposely insult Jesus, this is the most unlikely statement to ever escape the lips of a Jew, at least if you believe Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And then there is the narrative of Thomas and his expression upon seeing the post-resurrection Jesus: my Lord and my God. Jewish authorities may have seen this attitude as implying that Christians had another God. Nothing is more Jewish than monotheism at this point (the Lord our God is one!) and the Gospel implies this struggle with Judaism in the Johannine community. Here there are unmistakable parallels with Mormons and Protestants. The earliest Mormons still seem connected to their Protestant roots in many ways, even in worshipping. It takes time for separation and it’s a force that is most easily seen as a split whose source is in both parties.

John gives a lot of other hints of this presentist tension (and he is the best at this— there are a lot of people he doesn’t care for much—Luke is the worst, he’s too smooth). Jesus (chap. 5) is accused of testifying of himself. Jesus gives a list of his witnesses: God, his miracles, John the Baptist, the scriptures, and you can feel that this is a defense that was probably injected into the Gospel from experiences by the community in the Jewish discussion/conflict. The blind man who is healed in chapter 9, he’s called to testify before the elders. He’s cheeky about it. They ask him how Jesus (they never actually use his name) did this, they call in the man’s parents to get their opinion. At the end of the ministry, John is rather down on the synagogue, suggesting that a lot of Jews believed the message, but they feared for their position in the Jewish community if they testified of Jesus—and John is clearly critical of them. This is almost surely a comment from a much later period than the first epoch. Post-resurrection Christian/Jews were fairly comfortable with Jerusalem worship patterns. Their belief in Jesus found a neat place in their Jewishness, a place that was largely tolerated with little difficulty by other Jews, until a batch of Christian Jews disparaged temple Judaism.[4]

This brings up the point of expelling a group from the community. Once you cut off a group from the believers, you essentially lose the opportunity to interact with them. There is an important barrier, they aren’t welcome and can’t worship with you anymore except possibly in some very passive handicapped way. You lose responsibility for them in an institutional sense, and they often feel no more loyalty to the institution, even describing the result as freedom, and it may reinforce the differences that led to the divorce. You sense this in John. They were right about Jesus, the Jews (John always says “the” Jews, implying an already existent separation at his writing) were wrong.

Next time: the footnotes get longer, and consequently, there is a toe note.


[3] In the written tradition there are a couple of other episodes that make John contrast with the traditions of the Synoptics. The first is in chapter 4. Jesus has Jewish disciples. But somehow he ends up over in Samaria. This is very weird. He speaks to the woman at the well, and she helps convert her whole village to the belief that Jesus is the Savior. This is unusual and maybe even impossible at the time of the ministry. But there is evidence in Acts that exactly this thing happens, not with Jesus, but with the Hellenized Jewish believers in Jerusalem. They are cast out because of their belief that the temple is not an important hurdle in Christian faith (Acts 6). They end up in Samaria, and they preach Christ there, evidently from a sympathetic view to the Samaritan dislike of the Davidic temple and its salvific exclusivity. The success of Phillip and the Hellenists is mighty puzzling to the Jerusalem church and they finally send Peter and John up to investigate the phenomenon of non-Jewish Christians, Samaritans withal, and evidently it’s a complete shock. The story suggests that John’s trope of Samaritan preaching is possibly a parabolic insertion that supports the beliefs of the Johannine community (a group that was not sympathetic to a continued Jewish association and perhaps sent their own mission to Samaria). Now it’s quite possible that Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman and talked to her. John can then be seen to build on this, seeing a way to teach people about Christ’s words as he sees them applying in his own present. And there is another aspect of John’s Gospel that suggests its easy digestion in Samaria. It’s all about Moses, never about David as it is in Matthew for example. Right from the Prologue (John 1) you have this connection/comparison with Moses, that Moses testifies to Jesus, that Jesus has seen God, lived with God. This brings up something else that is important and you see it in Paul. Wherever the Christian mission went, the people being taught shaped which part of the message drew emphasis. You can see this in Mark, a Gospel to gentiles in Rome perhaps. Mark narrates a story with Jesus where a woman divorces her husband. Jesus never would have brought this up. It didn’t exist in the culture. A woman couldn’t initiate divorce. This is an insertion that is shaped by the audience, not history. Paul has similar though more up front examples. He says, this is what the Lord says (and sort of soto voice—but he never encountered something like this) but I say thus and so . . .

[3a] You can argue for a fourth epoch, I sort of blended it into the third (see the first post). For example, Mark probably ended with 16:8. And it circulated like that. The women: despite what the angels said, they went away, they were afraid, and they said nothing to anybody. Copyists felt this was horrible. So you pick up three different addenda. One became more standard and it’s the one in Mark 16:9ff. In terms of John, the story of the adulterous woman (John 7,8) was not present in early texts, but now it’s canonical, and we use it all the time (see for example, Metzger, Commentary on Greek NT (Stuttgart, 2001), 187). We’ve done the same thing with Joseph Smith’s preaching. There are fun “canonical” parts of sermons that were not spoken by Joseph.

[4] It seems that the Johannine community may have fractured over an issue like this, and at least we know they did fracture, given the letters of John (1, 2, 3 John). We don’t get much sympathy for the silent Christians in the story in 1 John, probably a presentist import, and they don’t get a textual rejoinder, but you can imagine them saying among themselves, if these insistent radicals would just shut up, we might make headway and not offend everyone in sight, a trope that seems to apply to the early church in Jerusalem, ca. 36. All this takes place before the Gospel is written.

In the other Gospels you get some hints about their tradition trajectory. Matthew is the easiest: wherever he’s writing, Pharisees are still very important, and he’s also very interested in Gentiles and at the end, in their conversion perhaps (“go and make disciples of all nations”). He’s writing for a mixed Jewish–Gentile community. Theorists of hermeneutics are all over the map here, but you can find some central tendency I think.


  1. Loving this series, WVS!

  2. Thanks for a good Sunday morning cobweb clearing. I think that there are several lessons and parallels with communities in the church today.

    As I see many liberal Mormons at least exploring the Community of Christ in their area, I can almost see shades of different missions to Samaria, for different reasons. Thanks for a good place to start a contemplative Sunday.

  3. Thanks, Jason, Poetry.

  4. I’m loving thes posts. I feel like I’m reading the bible for the first time. Thanks for sharing.

  5. You’re welcome ShawnH. Thanks.

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