The root of every crisis that has afflicted the church down through the centuries has been disputes over the nature of Jesus. Was he truly divine and was his crucifixion an expiatory sacrifice and the source of our salvation? These are the questions that separate the wheat from chaff and will always do so…
High christology refers to the idea that Jesus was the logos incarnate and died an expiatory sacrificial death on the cross and then was resurrected from that death in glory. Resistance to this fantastic story and to the idea that Jesus was an incarnation of God in the flesh began right at the start of the church and persists to this day. Islam defines itself in opposition to this idea as does Judaism. Within the Christian church itself there are many voices that urge a movement away from this high Christology as it is considered anti-scientific and immoderate. The idea that the divine can be killed as a sacrificial victim on the cross is particularly repugnant to Islam, Judaism and the modernizers within the church.
It will therefore be instructive to investigate the ancient sources of this high Christology to see if lessons can be drawn as to how best to combat modern deniers of this high Christology.
One of the sources of ‘high Christology’ in the Christian tradition has been the fourth gospel. Behind this gospel lay one of the most intriguing of early Christian communities: the Johannine community, otherwise known as the ‘community of the beloved disciple’. The author of the fourth gospel identified himself as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ and the community that formed around this disciple has ever since been called the community of the beloved disciple.
One of the most respected reconstructions of the history and theology of the community of the beloved disciple; the community that produced the fourth gospel and the epistles attributed to John, has been Raymond E. Brown. I will discuss some of the ideas in his 1979 landmark book on the community of the beloved disciple. Brown emphasized the theme of the development of a high Christology and that is the theme I will develop here as well.
Brown begins his treatment with a discussion of method and notes that he used to hold with tradition that the author of the fourth gospel was the Apostle John but after reading the work of his colleague J. Louis Martyn, Brown could no longer hold to the traditional view. Brown reasonably argues that we have to accept results of the latest science or produce good, rational reasons not to accept what the latest science can tell us about the gospels. Scholarly biblical criticism has now produced something of a consensus around the view that the Apostle was not the author of the fourth gospel. Biblical criticism focuses on the ‘life situation’ of the community associated with the texts of interest as well as the internal logic and sense of the texts themselves. The texts tell us what issues were facing the community that produced the texts. For Brown one of the most prominent issues facing the early Johannine church was the ‘Christological’ question of just who Jesus was.
Was Jesus just a wisdom teacher? Was he merely an enlightened human being and not a god? Was he God and not human at all? Was he a reincarnation of a prophet like Elijah or Moses? Or was he God himself? But if God how could that be as Jesus himself prayed to his ‘Father’. In addition John the Baptist baptized Jesus. If Jesus was God why did he need baptism? How could Jesus be the Messiah as that was a Royal title and Jesus was crucified.
According to Brown these were some of the theological issues that concerned the early Johannine community. Don’t they sound remarkably modern! The fourth gospel was written to the ‘Community of the beloved disciple’ but this community included several factions including 1) former disciples of John the Baptist, 2) a group who held to a very high Christology (Jesus as LOGOS–these members had probably been expelled from the synagogue for holding these beliefs) and 3) a group who exhibited an anti-Temple bias possibly associated with the Essenes. There was probably also 4) a group of gentile converts as there is much material in the gospel that explains Jewish customs and references.
Brown posits four phases in creation of the written texts associated with the beloved disciple. These are: 1. The period before the gospel was written (between death of Jesus and after the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70). The writing of the core material of the gospel occurred prior to the expulsion of Johannine Christians from the synagogues (John 9:22; 16:2); 2. The period when the first version of the gospel itself was written (around 90 AD) after the Jewish persecution; 3) when the epistles were written when intra-community schisms began to be develop again around Christological issues and; 4. The period after the last Johanine epistle was written and the final version of the gospel was edited (100-110 AD).
Brown’s basic thesis seems to be that the community began with a group of Jewish Christians, disciples of Jesus and John the Baptist, eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry who held to a low Christology. Jesus was considered to be the potential messiah and a prophet along the lines of John the Baptist. He might even be considered a son of God along the lines of the Davidic royal person. Jesus was definitely God-sent but he was not divine himself. Into this group of Jewish disciples of Jesus espousing a low Christology came another group of followers of Jesus who held to a high Christology. These too were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ earthly ministry as the writer of the gospel himself emphasizes…particularly at the end of the gospel (John 21:24).
It is not clear why this second group developed a high Christology. At first these members (who also exhibited the anti-Temple bias) of the Johannine community seemed to espouse a low Christology like the original members of the group did: they treated Jesus as another Moses or wisdom figure who like Moses had seen God face to face and had been with God on the mountain and brought God’s word down to earth. But then Brown argues that they facilitated development within the Johannine community of a high Christology with Jesus as a logos figure pre-existing with God. This development appears to have been led by the beloved disciple himself who had seen Jesus face to face, spent time with him, witnessed the crucifixion (unlike the other apostles), witnessed the empty tomb and received special treatment from Jesus throughout Jesus ministry and was now sheltering Jesus’ mother Mary.
But then this theological development created a reaction and friction with mainline Jews who thought that these Christians were breaking with monotheism. These Jews had the Johannine Christians either sanctioned or outright expelled from the Temple and subjected to persecution. So the gospel was directed against ‘the Jews’ and these ‘children of darkness’ and in support of the ‘children of light’ who saw Jesus as logos. These theological developments coincided with the destruction of the Temple and the demise of the Temple priesthood and the rise of the new Pharisee party that emerged from the council of Jamnia. The early anti-temple bias no longer mattered as the new threat was from the rise of rabbinic Judaism and its hostility to Christianity. There was apparently a late first century ‘benediction’ or curse against the Christians promulgated in the synagogues and Brown claims that this was a critical factor in creating an animus between the Johannine community and the ‘Jews’. This animus of course appears throughout the fourth gospel. The high Christology had to be emphasized against crypto-Christians who wanted to remain in the synagogues and against former followers of John the Baptist so the high Christological theme was emphasized throughout the gospel.
I am particularly interested in the early faction of Jewish Christians who Brown argues were characterized by an anti-Temple bias because they, under the leadership of the beloved disciple developed the high Christology and were later the ones who had been expelled from the synagogue. Perhaps the early anti-temple bias was due to associations with the Essene community whose scriptures were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. An alternative source for the anti-Temple bias may have been recent conversions from Samaria. The story of the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well points to a special relationship between the Johannine community and the Samaritans who did not worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.
In any case it was these anti-temple members who Brown asserts developed the high Christology that characterizes the first gospel. Why or how did these individuals catalyze the development of the sublime Christology we find the fourth gospel? They must have been influenced by Greek culture given the utilization of the logos concept. But Greek culture alone could not account for the development of the sublime Christology we find in the fourth gospel.
A third body of material found in John that might shed some light on the development of the high Christology is the pervasive dualism of the gospel. We find the themes of light versus the darkness; world vs. elect; flesh vs spirit, truth vs the lie and so forth. Jesus is the light of the world. He existed before Abraham (8:12-59). The light shineth in the darkness with the world cast in the role of darkness. These dualistic themes of good vs evil are echoed in some of the dead sea scrolls derived from the Essene community at Qumran (the temple scroll, the war scroll and the Damascus scroll for example). These Qumram community members were very pious Jews who felt that the Temple had been corrupted and thus they separated themselves from mainstream Judaism of the period. They were led at first by a ‘teacher of righteousness’ in the century before Jesus. They kept the memory of this teacher alive. They grew increasingly alienated from Temple worship but did not jettison the notion of animal sacrifice that was so central to temple worship. They also developed apocalyptical themes in response presumably to the impending cataclysmic clash with Rome. They like the gospel of John too spoke in terms of children of the light versus children of the darkness or evil. The expression “sons of light” is a key term in the War Scroll, one of the Essenes’ self-designations. The same term appears in John 12:38. Baptism, or ritual immersion, plays a key role in the Community Rule of the Essenes and in the New Testament. It is therefore possible that some members of what was left of the Qumram community became followers of Jesus when Jesus appeared.
Ultimately the dualistic theme of light versus darkness with light equivalent to goodness may derive from Zoroastrianism. The Jews, like everyone else in the ancient near east would have been exposed to the Persian religion during the period of the return from Exile when Cyrus rebuilt the Temple (the second temple period). By the time of the Maccabees, however, the Temple and the high priesthood had been compromised in the eyes of the leader of the Essenes, The Teacher of Righteousness (which interestingly was a religious title in Zoroastrianism) and thus they separated themselves from the temple worship. This anti-temple bias can be detected in John as can the dualistic theme so beloved of the Essenes.
Ultimately however we have to find the real source of the high Christology in John in the beloved disciple himself, supported by ex-members of the Essenes. It was the beloved disciple who witnessed Jesus’ life first hand, face to face as well as his crucifixion. He knew Jesus better than anyone else. He was Jesus’ preferred confidante. Even though Peter was the preferred leader of the disciples, the beloved disciple apparently received Jesus’s special revelation and he remained true to this revelation to the end.
In Brown’s fourth phase of development of the Johannine community, after the death of the long lived beloved disciple, he maintains that Christological themes continued to divide the people. In 1 John the presbyter is concerned to heal divisions within the Johannine community. A group had separated from the main body of the community (Brown calls these secessionists) on the basis of the nature of Jesus’ nature and earthly mission. They seemed to have downplayed the cross or Jesus’ death as expiation for sin (1 John 1:7; 2:2; 4:10 and 5: 6). In 2 John the author sends a letter to a distant daughter community in order to prevent schism along the same lines (i.e. due to differences over the meaning of the Passion). There also appears to be a danger of dissident teachers as the author attempts to bolster his readers against false teachers (II John 10-11). In 3 John the issue is one of church authority rather than Christological error. Diotrephes refuses hospitality of the main community and is a false teacher that needs to be guarded against.
Nevertheless the prestige and legacy of the beloved disciple was strong enough to keep a Johannine sensibility alive in the church through the turbulent birth of Christianity as an empire – wide religion. The Johannine church is still alive today but dormant and under sustained attack from all sides. Just as the earliest Christian communities had to fight to keep alive the beloved disciple’s special revelation so to must we today do the same in order to overcome the current crisis in the church today as in the final analysis it is a very old crisis.
Brown, R. E. (1979). The community of the beloved disciple. The life loves and hates of a individual church in New testament times. New York Paulist Press.
Brown, R. (1997). An introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday.
Brown, R., Fitzmeyer, J., and Murphy, R (Eds). (1990). The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Coogan, Michael, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Acknowledgement: This piece is excerpted and modified from a longer work by Augustinus submitted to St Joseph’s College in 2012