Continuing with the Gospel of John, here we look at three famous passages which describe encounters between ordinary people and Jesus.
- A Pharisee called Nicodemus visits Jesus – John 3:1-21
- Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s Well – John 4:1-26
- Jesus visits Martha and Mary, whose brother has died – John 11:17-44
Of these passages we asked the questions:
- In what way does the story feel different from a story from the Synoptic Gospels?
- What do we learn about Jesus? Is he different from the Jesus of the Synoptics? If so, how?
- Do you identify with any of the three characters Jesus speaks with? If so, what does that mean for you?
As we didn’t run this workshop this year I don’t have access to peoples’ answers to the questions (you can leave your own below), but here are my own thoughts on how this Gospel is different.
John’s gospel has richer descriptions, it is more developed in its use of language. It is more theological, more Christian. It doesn’t look like it was written by Jews as a factual report of Jesus’ life, but rather as if it was written by Christians for Christians.
It has a higher Christology, that is, a more developed sense of the importance of the person of Jesus. Jesus openly tells ordinary people that he is the messiah, which contradicts the Synoptic gospels where he is keen to keep it a secret. At the end of the Gospel St. Thomas even acknowledges Jesus as God, something which never happens in the Synoptics.
Yet at the same time this Jesus is more human- there are lots of personal encounters with him (another well known example is with Pontius Pilate), which doesn’t really happen in the Synoptics. This author seems to be advocating that we seek a personal relationship with this Jesus, perhaps through identification with the characters he speaks to. By contrast the authors of the Synoptics seem more concerned with Jesus as the messiah, the saviour of the Jewish people as a whole.
These encounters do not seem like historical accounts. They seem more like stage setting, contrived situations which allow the author to use this Jesus as the mouthpiece for certain teachings. But that is not to say that these words or events are not historical, their detail and use of geography suggests that they could well be.
The point with these encounters, however, is clearly more what they teach about the person of Jesus and what they symbolise, rather than that they really happened in this way. There are lots of signs of Jesus’ power (such as the raising of Lazarus), and also symbols through which to relate to him (such as Living Water, Bread and Wine). The focus of these symbols is that they are life giving (they are sacramental), and the focus of Jesus’ teaching is that he has come to give us life. Particularly something he calls ‘life eternal‘ (a motif which plays a similar role to that of the ‘Kingdom of God’ in the Synoptics- just as these encounters play a similar role to the Parables).
In this Gospel existential choice and binary oppositions are also more apparent. We already saw that the author was fond of stark contrasts when looking at the Prologue. Other examples are life and death, Christians and Jews. The author seems very concerned to separate Christians from Jews, perhaps due to the politics of the time of writing. This is not something done in the comparatively Jewish Synoptic Gospels. Yet there is a strong use of biblical/Jewish themes and locations such as Jacob’s Well, and the days of Jesus’ ministry recalling the days of Creation.