The Gospel according to John (or is it Ch'an?)

In a world filled with interpretations of the Gospel of John---I think of works by Raymond Brown, Rudolph Bultmann, C.H. Dodd, Sir Edwin Hoskyns, Craig R. Koester, and Charles H. Talbert, to name only a few; 1here is yet one more attempt to offer a somewhat different approach to an old puzzle. It is not the final answer, for I am not sure there is one. Indeed, the argument is that, ultimately, the conundrum is the answer and the answer in the conundrum.

By Jay Williams
Walcott D. Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
Hamilton College
July 2009

The Gospel of John is, to say the least, full of statements that have formed the basis of orthodox Christian theology. “I and the Father are one”(10:30); “No one comes to the Father but by me” (14:06); “All that the Father has is mine” (16:15); “God is spirit” (4:24); etc. Indeed, without the Gospel of John it seems highly unlikely that Christianity would ever have developed the theology that has become its hallmark.

Therefore, it is particularly important to read and reread John to determine yet again what it is the author really means by these and many other sayings. To do that we must at least ask how the author expected to be read. What assumptions did contemporary Jewish (and non-Jewish)2 authors make when writing and reading. We have in the Mishnah, for instance, examples of the thoughts of famous Rabbis such as Hillel and Shammai, but their interpretations do not help us too much for they primarily interpreted the law and offered their opinions to a specialized Jewish audience. John, on the other hand, obviously wrote to the non-Jew and did not interpret the halakah at all. As an example of the difference, one could not imagine Hillel explaining, as John does (1:38) what a Rabbi is or what Mary Magdalene meant when she said “Rabbouni” (20: 16). Moreover, John seems to have little interest in the law or in ethics. The most he says about ethics is “Love one another as I have loved you” (15:12).

Flavius Josephus3 does write for Gentiles, for he seeks to explain to the Romans something about the history of the Jews and why they acted as they did. He, however, does not offer much of a spiritual message. He is a political apologist, not a spiritual writer. Therefore, he also is not much help for understanding John’s style. Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.-40 C.E.), on the other hand, provides an excellent example of Hellenistic Jewish assumptions about reading and interpreting.4 Philo was an Alexandrian Jew profoundly influenced by Platonic and Stoic thought who spent his life reinterpreting Scripture for his age. His audience was Jewish and not Gentile, but he was deeply influenced by Hellenic and Hellenistic non-Jewish thinkers.

Philo is very clear about one thing: he sees that there are at least three levels of interpretation: historical, moral, and spiritual. Of the three, he cares least about the historical level. Why, he asks, should anyone care about Abram leaving Ur for Harran unless there is in the action some higher moral or spiritual meaning?5 Therefore, Philo approaches the Bible allegorically, taking what look to be historical events as spiritual allegories with a (usually Platonic) meaning for the present day. History qua history, he implies, is as useless and as dry as dust. One must look for the hidden meaning of the texts.

John, of course, is not interpreting an ancient text; he is creating a story. I would argue, however, that the modern reader should at least consider the possibility that in his creation he too has little interest in historical fact and is quite willing to change whatever facts there are in order to express the deeper spiritual meaning of the “event” of Jesus. This would account for the many times that John disagrees with the Synoptic Gospels factually. For instance, in the very first chapter (1:35-51), John presents a very different version of how the central disciples came to follow Jesus.6 Indeed, one would never guess from what John says that any of these men were fishermen until chapter 21 and that appears to have been added to the Gospel after the original author had ended it in 20:30-31.

It would also help to explain why the Jesus of John speaks very differently from the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. In John, he almost never uses parables, his common way of teaching in the Synoptic Gospels, but instead usually speaks about himself and his relation to the Father. For John, this is not being dishonest. It is rather a way of expressing what it is Jesus was really about. What happened is much less important than the meaning of what happened.7

There are a variety of ways that the author makes clear that John should not be taken literally. Almost every conversation Jesus has features someone who does not understand him because that person does take him literally. For instance, when Jesus talks about raising up the temple in three days, the Jews with whom he is speaking think he is talking about the Temple in Jerusalem while he really is speaking about his own body (2:20-21). Nicodemus thinks that when Jesus refers to rebirth he is talking about entering again into his mother’s womb (3:4). The Samaritan woman thinks he is talking about physical water (4:15) while Jesus speaks of spiritual “water.” These, and many more similar examples, indicate that the Gospel itself is not meant to be taken literally.

To understand the basis of the Johannine allegory, however, we must start at the beginning, with his opening words about the logosLogos, it should be noted, is a word-concept utilized a great deal by Philo. Philo never defines the term and neither does John and, because logos has multiple meanings, this allows for a variety of interpretations, even double entendres. Logos can be translated simply as “word” and interpreted as God’s “self-expression.” That is to say, the world is the result of God’s self-expression, an idea, by the way, that is very anti-gnostic.8 This world of matter, therefore, is not evil, for it is directly from God. This is particularly true of the life and light that illumines all human beings but it also applies to everything else.

At the same time, the logos can be understood as a story or tale. In this case the meaning seems to be self-reflexive so that the Gospel itself is the logos and is the source for divine illumination. On the one hand, one John is a character in the story who comes to bear witness to Jesus and to make him known to the world. On the other hand, John is the writer of the gospel who does the same thing. The Gospel is his logos; the author is the creator; the Jesus of John is his self-expression. We would never know the Jesus of John without John.

In any event, according to John, all people are naturally illumined by the light. “And the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4). Paradoxically, however, although the light is natural for everyone; people are not naturally aware of the light but rather “walk in darkness.” Jesus comes into the world as that primordial, illuminating light. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (1: 9). He comes to awaken people to the light that is already naturally theirs and in so doing to transform them into children of God (which Jesus is and which they really already are if they only knew it). Through this transformation people gain “eternal life.”

Thus, when Jesus speaks in John he always speaks as the eternal life and light. He comes, not to reveal some new and strange teaching, but to awaken people to the life and light that is already theirs. On the one hand, Jesus is fully human because he represents the life and light that is really already the defining characteristic of all humans. At the same time, he is a revelation of that divine life and light that is the essence of humanity but is also the essence of God.

Therefore when he says “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58), he astounds and angers his Jewish audience that interprets what he says in a literal, historical way. “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?” (8:57). What they do not understand is that he speaks as that eternal life and light that has always been, that is the self-expression of God. And, he proclaims that if his hearers trust in that light, they too will know that eternal life here and now. Jesus does not teach that the psyche will live forever in some Edenesque heaven. Rather, if one relies upon the divine light (here represented by Jesus) one experiences the dimension of eternity right now.

During the first half of the book, Jesus performs several miracles that John often refers to as “signs” (semeion). Although many modern readers take these accounts rather literally, there are strong indications that John himself regards them allegorically. The first of the signs, performed in Cana, in fact, reeks of allegory. Jesus and his disciples attend a wedding and, when the wine runs out, Jesus, at the prompting of his mother, turns water into wine, presumably so that the guests, who have already drunk a lot, can continue their celebration.

When taken literally, that hardly sounds like a suitable beginning for a highly spiritual teacher. Allegorically, however, it makes a great deal of sense. The wedding itself symbolizes the covenant, for in the Hebrew Scriptures God is often spoken of as the husband of Israel who he married at Mt. Sinai. In the Gospels, Jesus is pictured as the bridegroom who has come to marry the bride. When Jesus turns the water into wine, the water is said to come from six large jugs (pithoi) containing water to be used for ritual cleansing, for mikveh baths and the like. So Jesus takes water that was used to cleanse the outside of a person and transforms it into very fine wine that will transform the inner consciousness. In other words, the story, allegorically understood, sets forth the very point and purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry. Judaism, according to this view, offers the law and the law essentially operates to reform and control external behavior. Jesus comes, not to add new laws, but to transform the inner self.

In case someone doesn’t get the point, this tale is followed by one in which Jesus drives the moneychangers and sacrificial animals out of the temple. This story is told in all four Gospels, but usually the event is said to have occurred near the end of Jesus’ ministry. In John it is near the beginning and, as the ensuing story suggests, the temple is a symbol for the outer body. So, the story of the cleansing of the temple is really an allegory about the cleansing of the inner self within the body.

The next sign is a healing and seems at first blush much less allegorical. A royal official in Cana begs Jesus to heal his son who lies, near death, some miles away in Capernaum. At first Jesus seems reluctant, but when the official places his full trust in Jesus, the boy is cured instantly. Allegorically this passage refers to the next stage in the process of transformation: the healing that takes place when full trust is placed in the eternal light. Parenthetically, faith in the Gospel has little to do with accepting some creed. Faith is reliance and trust in that light that enlightens every person.

To make the point clear, a second healing is described. This time an invalid who has tried to find healing for years in the pool of Beth-zatha is simply told by Jesus to take up his bed and walk. He does so and is healed. Because he carries his pallet on Shabbat, however, he is questioned, and Jesus is attacked by the Pharisees. This underlines the point that the healing has nothing to do with obedience to the law of Moses, but again is simply a result of depending completely upon the light that enlightens every person. It is not, however, that Jesus is against Moses. Moses, he says, testifies to the eternal light. If people really believed in and understood Moses, they would also believe in him (5:46).

The next miracle-sign is the feeding of the five thousand near the Sea of Galilee with only five barley loaves and two fish (6:9). The story is very similar to that also told in the Synoptic Gospels. After everyone had eaten their fill, twelve baskets of food are left over. When Jesus realizes that because of this sign, some are going to try to make him king, he withdraws up a mountain.

The disciples leave by boat without him but, while the sea was very rough and the disciples struggle, Jesus appears, walking on the water. His words to the disciples seem unusual: “ I am. Do not fear.” Since “I am”9 is the name of God, Jesus’ words are to remind the disciples that he is the eternal light, that is always “now,” that provides ultimate security. Immediately, they land on the shore. When others begin to ask him how he got to the Tiberias side of the lake without a boat, he accuses them of just looking for more earthly food, thus signaling that the story should be read allegorically. Jesus provides not physical bread but spiritual sustenance.

He then goes on to talk about himself as the bread of life and how one must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. Many of the Jews and even some of the disciples, taking his words literally, are disgusted by the idea of eating his flesh and drinking his blood and turn away from him. Jesus’ words, however, are obviously metaphorical. He says very clearly, “The words that I have spoken are spirit and life”

(6: 63). He speaks as the eternal light and not just “as the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know” (6:42). Through the eternal light, God can feed the multitude with, it would seem, very little. Moreover, although his feeding can be symbolized by the Eucharist, the truth is that the feeding takes place through faith and not through outward ritual actions.

The next sign is described in chapter 9 when Jesus cures a man born blind. The man is introduced to Jesus as a theological conundrum. Why should anyone be born blind? Was it the parents who sinned or was it the man himself? Ultimately it is a question about evil in the world. If God, through his logos, creates the world, why should there be any evil at all? Jesus does not think that the man’s blindness is the result of any person’s sin, but it is an opportunity for him, as the eternal light, to reveal God. As a consequence, he spits on some dirt, rubs it on the man’s eyes, and in so doing grants him his sight.

In what follows, it is clear that this whole story should be read allegorically, for ultimately it is about spiritual blindness (9:35-41). In effect, we are all born blind but can receive our “eternal sight” through trusting in the divine light. Being so born is not a punishment but an opportunity. What is sinful is claiming to know spiritually while, in fact, still walking in darkness, as the Pharisees do. Not seeing is the key to seeing. Hence, his cure is to have eyes filled with dirt.

The last of the signs is the account of the resurrection of Lazarus (11:1-44), a story not found in any of the other Gospels. It is a strange story, for Jesus waits to make sure Lazarus is dead before heeding Lazarus’s sister’s plea for him to cure Lazarus. Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days when Jesus arrives, but he is able, simply by calling Lazarus, to bring him back to life. In a sense, it is his ultimate miracle. It also symbolizes the last stage of the radical transformation that the eternal light can bring.

As in the case of the man born blind, it also emphasizes the paradox of presence and absence. On the one hand, humans are born with the eternal light. It is the source of their life. To be transformed, one must trust in that light. On the other hand, the transformation can only take place when one truly acknowledges the absence of the light. To claim illumination when there is none is the greatest of sins. For Lazarus to be resurrected, Jesus must be both absent and present.

In any event, these signs that dominate the first half of the book point to the radical transformation that trust in the light involves. One begins with the turning of the water of external practice into the wine of internal spirituality. Those ways of relating to the Jewish community (changing money to pay the Temple tax) and to God (through animal sacrifice) are expurgated. Then the healing process begins through the power of faith (pistis) and many are fed with spiritual food. Ultimately, however, it is through the admission of spiritual blindness and the absence of the eternal light that spiritual resurrection takes place. Not knowing is the key to knowing.

Not long after the resurrection of Lazarus, the Gospel of John turns to the last days of Jesus: his triumphal entry, the last supper, his trial and crucifixion, and his resurrection. For those familiar with the Synoptic Gospels, it would seem that much has been omitted. We have heard nothing of the Sermon on the Mount or on the Plain. None of his famous parables such as that of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son has been mentioned. There is no trip to Caesarea Philippi or any transfiguration on a mountain. In fact, the whole Gospel, thus far, has concentrated upon Jesus as the Son of the Father, as the divine light, as the Savior of the world. Jesus has urged his disciples to obey his commandments but the only commandments the reader knows are to believe in Jesus and love one another.

Like the other Gospels, John introduces Jesus’ last days with his triumphal ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. A crowd, in this Gospel familiar with his raising of Lazarus, greets him with loud hosannas. Here, however, the meaning of the “king’s entrance” seems muted for, unlike the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus in John has said very little about the kingdom of God. Thus far the kingdom has only been mentioned most briefly in Chapter 3 (verses 3 and 5). The kingdom is not mentioned again until John 18:36 when Pilate questions Jesus and he replies that his kingdom is not of this world. When pressed further Jesus implies that he is not really a king, for his main purpose is to testify to the truth.

It is also interesting that although the author says that he wrote the Gospel to convince the reader that Jesus is the Messiah (20:31), little emphasis is really placed upon his Messiahship. Out of the nineteen times the word Christ (Messiah) is mentioned in the Gospel, only twice is the title “Jesus Christ” used (1:17, 17:03). In some of the other instances, people say that they believe he is the Christ, but most simply raise questions about who the Christ is. Since the word Christ could easily have been added to the text by a scribe in 1:17 and 17:03, this hardly gives much credence to the claim that the Gospel was meant to convince people he was the Christ.

After his entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus again proclaims himself the light of the world, but the people do not really believe in him and he therefore “hides himself.” At the same time, he now believes that his time has come and that, like a grain of wheat, he must die in order to produce more “wheat” (12:24).10 The stage is now set for that one great act that fulfills his mission. The light must be, it would seem, extinguished.

As in the Synoptic Gospels, the next event to be described is, of course, the “Last Supper.” In John, however, it is not a Passover seder meal because it takes place before Passover, on the day of preparation. That, one may suppose, is because John wants the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and the time of the sacrificing of the lambs in the Temple to be the same. He has been, after all, proclaimed the “Lamb of God” by John the Baptist (1:29), though it is never made very clear what this means.

Moreover, while the Synoptic Gospels emphasize the breaking of bread and drinking of wine at the meal as the prototype of the eucharistic celebration, John says nothing about that at all. He has already spoken of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, so it is clear that he knows of the symbolism, but perhaps he does not wish to connect it with a ritual. In any event, before (or perhaps during) the meal, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.

Since people at that time usually only wore one garment, when Jesus takes off his robe to do the foot-washing he is, except for the towel tied around his waist, quite naked. He is therefore “dressed” as a slave and plays the role of a slave. It is not surprising that Peter is somewhat taken aback and even offended by this. The light of the world, the image of God becomes a slave? Moreover, his disciples are now called not only to love one another but to be slaves to one another.

Eventually they do sit at table and eat. Jesus tells them that one of them is going to “hand him over” to authorities. Usually the word paradosei is translated “betray” but that is not its primary meaning. First of all, it simply means to hand over to authorities and, given the fact that Jesus seems intent upon being crucified, “betrayal” sounds too strong. It is true that the passage says that Satan entered Judas but, since, this is the only time Satan is mentioned in John, it is difficult to know whether he thought of Satan, as the Hebrew Scriptures do, as the “tester” or as “evil incarnate.” In any event, when Jesus tells Peter that he will “deny” him, that has a much more negative tone. It is interesting to note that Judas does appear with the soldiers to arrest Jesus, but John leaves it at that. Judas does not say or do anything.

In the meantime, most of the Last Supper time is taken up with Jesus’ last teachings. Jesus knows he is going to die and, on the one hand, says that no one can follow him (13:33), but on the other, because he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6), that his disciples will be able to follow him and, because he is one with the Father, they will know the Father also.

After he has returned briefly, he promises that he will send the Advocate, the spirit of truth, to comfort and empower them as they carry on his mission in the world. Essential to that mission is trusting in the eternal light and loving one another. Jesus seems to end his last words with John 14:31, “Rise, let us be on our way,” but instead the text goes on with his final teachings for three more chapters. It is probable that these passages, moving and significant as they are, were added by a later hand to address the meaning of the church and its relation to Jesus and to the world. They end with a long prayer by Jesus for his disciples.

Finally, Jesus and his disciples do leave for a garden in the Kidron valley,11 just east of Jerusalem. In the other Gospels, Jesus prays at length while his disciples fall asleep. In John, Judas and the police arrive very quickly. Jesus makes no attempt to get away but immediately identifies himself as the person they are after. Peter, who for some reason carries a sword, cuts off the ear of one of the slaves of the High Priest and Jesus has to order him to desist.

In fact, throughout this account, Peter is pictured as weak and unable to grasp what Jesus is about. Jesus knows that he is to be captured, tried, and crucified and speaks about that repeatedly, but Peter will not accept that and at first tries to protect him and then denies Jesus to protect himself.

John’s story of the trial is slightly different from the Synoptic Gospels, for no other Gospel knows that Jesus was first interviewed by Annas, but, on the whole, the story is similar to that told by the other Gospel writers. When it comes to the crucifixion, however, Jesus seems much more in control in John. He carries his own cross to the crucifixion site. There he says little except to commend his mother to his favorite disciple’s care and to say “I thirst.” After receiving what is said to be sour wine, he suddenly dies.12 His life is over very quickly.

The account of the resurrection in John is very different from that of the other Gospels. Mary Magdalene sees him first while she is alone.13 Then his disciples see him in Jerusalem behind closed doors. He also returns a week later to meet Thomas and convince him of his presence. The book seems to have originally ended with John 20:30-31, but the text as it stands goes on to tell of one more resurrection experience, this time while seven of the disciples are fishing at night on the Sea of Galilee. Like the apparent addition to the Last Supper sayings, this also deals with the church “catching fish” and with Jesus’ strong admonition to Peter to “feed his sheep.” None of the other Gospels tell this story.

It is interesting that throughout the Gospel, as in John 19:36, the Gospel writer speaks about fulfilling the scriptures. In fact, however, the Hebrew Scriptures must be read allegorically or at least stretched to their limits, for any of these so-called predictions to make much sense. For instance, is Psalm 22 that is referred to repeatedly, really predicting anything? It is not surprising that Jesus’ Jewish listeners often had difficulty accepting the so-called predictions that all the Gospels mention.

In any event, when one finishes John, the big question remains: what does all this mean? If we are to take the account literally, why do the various Gospel accounts differ so widely about so many details? And what meaning and purpose, after all, does the death of this man have? Could not God have just forgiven humans without the pain? Since Lazarus has already been raised from the dead, why should Jesus’ death be so significant? Most Jews did not think that the Messiah had to die. In fact, they thought that when he came he would stay forever (John 12:34). So what really is the point? Is it an allegory and if so what is its meaning?

The whole of the Gospel seems to be one vast paradox. “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son” (3:16), but we are told that “those who love their life lose it and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12: 12). What God loves, we are supposed to hate. Jesus is said to be the eternal life and light; yet it is precisely he who must die. How, one might ask, does eternal life die? We are told that Jesus and salvation come from above; yet we are also told that eternal life bubbles up like water from a well (4:14). Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, but he is also proclaimed the Lamb of God who is slain for the sins of the world. We are told that it is essential to believe in and trust Jesus, but, in fact, what he teaches is that we must believe in and trust him. Jesus is described as the light that enlightens every person; yet it is clear that only the few, if any, really accept him. He is not for everyone.

Like the Zen koan,14 John is a difficult (maybe impossible) nut to crack. What it seems to provide is not really any answers but rather a conundrum that resists any easy, theological solution. This is undoubtedly why the early church found it so difficult to develop a consistent theology about which all could agree. Every agreement produced yet one more deviation. To develop a rational theology, half of each paradox had to be removed and that was then an invitation for others to emphasize the part of the paradox that had been suppressed. Even to accept the paradox, as the Council of Chalcedon seemed to do, did not solve the matter, for the paradox of paradoxes is that there is no paradox.

At least one thing is clear: John was not paradoxical by mistake. It was by intent. The light that enlightens every person is not just very sophisticated thought. It is thought beyond thought; it is No-Thought. Religion, always looking for converts, tries to present the ultimate mysteries in understandable ways. God becomes an object, albeit a great big OBJECT in whom one should believe. Sometimes John sounds that way too, but ultimately he knows that humans are God’s eternal life and so cannot see him as object. He is ultimately beyond subject and object. Like the Dao, like the Buddha Mind, like Brahman, God is no thing and when one thinks of God as thing (and thinking can only deal with things), one misunderstands and perverts.

Jesus comes to awaken people to the eternal light, but that light, though it arrives through God’s logos, is beyond human logos. Human logoi are based upon the senses and that sensory world is, as science has pointed out, illusion. Apart from the senses there is no color, odor, sound, or smell out there. Hardness and softness are really not “there,” for matter itself is largely empty space. Indeed, “out there” and “empty space” are also constructs of the mind. The world, even the world of the scientist, doesn’t exist outside the mind. It is No Thing, for things are what we think. God is not what we think.15

John’s paradoxes rattle the very roots of so-called reality. Somehow the whole of our supposedly literal world is turned upside down. Jesus dies; he leaves this world in order to wake us all to the unreality of what we have taken to be the truth. The Spirit of Truth comes to remind us of that untruth. The eternal light illumines a world about which we had and have no idea. We can only trust without knowing.

The eternal light is before Abraham, before the Vedas, before Lao Zi, before the Buddha. Jesus, the man of Galilee, may reveal that eternal light and awaken people to it, but the light transcends all time, all race, all religion. The Pharisees were not bad people, but they judged as all humans judge, according to the ways of their own world. In effect, all religious people are Pharisees; their way is the right way. So Buddhism and Daoism, Hinduism, and Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all different religions with different ideas that often conflict. Nevertheless, somehow they have all had a taste of that eternal light that makes human life possible.

“In my Father’s house,” says Jesus, “are many dwelling places” (14:2). With these words, he indicates that his band of disciples is only one of many groups called by the eternal light. This light is the only way to the ultimate reality of God but has shone in many parts of the world and many have sought to follow that light as best they could. The Pharisee in each one of us wants to claim that we have the only way, but the eternal light will continue to shine long after our way has crumbled into dust.

John reminds us of that ultimate mystery that surrounds us and of the very arbitrary, even illusory, nature of the world we think is real. To understand John is not to understand at all but to be blown away by the inconceivable nature of the unthinkable. The koan cannot be solved; but it can serve as a bomb to destroy the very roots of our assumptions. Perhaps this is the death for which Jesus’ crucifixion is the allegory. It is a perpetual reminder that what we think we know is limited by our way of knowing and beyond that world of sensation and cogitation is the inexplicable world that defines who we are. Eternal life is not living forever; it is stepping into that timeless and space-less “world” of which we have only the dimmest awareness. On second thought, one cannot step into that world at all, for stepping involves space and space is a construct of our own minds. Ultimately, we cannot enter, for we are there already. The true light enlightens every person---NOW.


1 These are some of the older classics. Right now there are some twelve newer works available that also deal with John’s Gospel.

2 C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953) pp. 10-53. presents an excellent account of the Hermetic tradition and its relation to John. Walter Scott, Hermetica (Boston: Shambala, 1993) provides a translation of much of this extensive literature. One might also mention all those Hellenistic novellas that feature people who miraculously return from the dead.

3 Josephus is known particularly for two extensive historical works: The Wars of the Jews and The Antiquities of the Jews.

4 Samuel Sandmel, Philo of Alexandria: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) provides a very readable account of Philo. C. D. Yonge, The Works of Philo, complete and unabridged (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993) offers a readable translation.

5 Sandmel, op. cit. p. 25.

6 Sometimes, as is the case here, John provides an account that is more believable than the Synoptic Gospels.

7 It should be noted that, unlike Philo, John seems to have little interest in numerology, astrology, gematria at the like. Therefore, his allegories are very different than those of Philo who leans much more toward the Hermetic tradition. [But see: Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) pp. 264-268.]

8 Gnostics, for the most part, want to separate the spirit and the flesh and regard the latter as evil. Later Jesus also expresses hate for life in this world, but here God is the source of the world. Hence John’s attitude toward it is positive. But see: Rudolph Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, trans. G.R. Beasley-Murray, R.W.N. Hoare and J. K. Riches (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975) pp.7-9.

9 Jesus uses the expression “I am” seven times in John.

10 This one of the very few references to a parable in John.

11 Note that Gethsemane is never mentioned. The “Garden of Gethsemane” is the creation of a fusion between John and the Synoptics. Some today think that Gethsemane was actually a cave and not a garden at all.

12 Since Jesus died so quickly, many have speculated that there must have been something in the wine to render him unconscious if not kill him.

13 It is noteworthy that the resurrected Jesus is very different from the resurrected Lazarus who seems to return to “regular life.” Jesus, on the other hand, seems to walk through closed doors and do other “unnatural things.”

14 A koan (Chinese: kung an) is a paradoxical story or statement for which there is no conceptual answer but is, nonetheless, of ultimate significance. Many such koans are found in the Pi Yen Lu or Blue Cliff Record, trans. Thomas and J. C. Cleary (Boulder, CO: Shambala, 1977).

15 All of this may sound much too skeptical to be attributed to John and perhaps it is. On the other hand, Plato and the Platonic Academy (that was heavily skeptical) had a profound influence on Philo. If the eternal light is like the sun in Plato’s myth of the cave in the Republic, then it is a call to leave the world of illusion.

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