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THE JOHANNINE WRITINGS.
It would appear that about this time a mystical book was heard of, of which the faithful thought a great deal; it was a new Gospel, far superior, as was said, to those which were already known; a really spiritual Gospel, as much above St Mark and St Matthew as mind is above matter. That Gospel was the production of that disciple whom Jesus loved,—of St John, who, having been his most intimate friend, naturally knew much that others were ignorant of, so as even to be able on many points to rectify the manner in which they had represented matters. The text in question was a great contrast to the simplicity of the first Evangelical narratives; it put forward much higher pretensions, and certainly it was the intention of those who propagated it that it should replace those humble accounts of the life of Jesus with which men had been contented hitherto. The writer, who was still spoken of in a mysterious manner, had leant upon the Master’s breast, and alone knew the divine secrets of his heart.
This new work came from Ephesus, that is to say, from one of the principal homes of the dogmatic elaboration of the Christian religion. It is quite possible that John may have passed his old age and finished his days in that city. It is at least quite certain that in the early ages of Christianity there were those at Ephesus who claimed St John as their own, and did all they could for his aggrandisement. St Paul had his Churches which ardently cherished his memory, and St Peter and St James had also their families by spiritual adoption. The adherents of St John, therefore, wished that he should be in the same 25position; they desired to make him St Peter’s equal; and it was maintained, to the detriment of the latter, that he had held the first rank in the Gospel history, and as the existing accounts did not bear out these pretensions sufficiently, recourse was had to one of those pious frauds which, in those days, caused nobody any scruples. Thus it may be explained how, shortly after the apostolic age, there emerged obscurely from Ephesus a class of books which were destined to obtain in later times a higher rank than all the other inspired writings in the system of Christian theology.
It can never be admitted that St John himself wrote these words, and it is even very doubtful whether they were written with his consent in his old age, and by any one of his own immediate surroundings. It seems most probable that one of the Apostle’s disciples who was a depository of many of his reminiscences, thought himself authorised to speak and to write in his name—some twenty-five or thirty years after his death—what he had not, to his followers' great regret, authoritatively put down during his lifetime. Certainly Ephesus had its own traditions about the life of Jesus, and, if I may venture to say so, a life of Jesus for its own particular use. These traditions dwelt especially in the memory of two persons who were looked upon, in those parts, as the two highest authorities with regard to Gospel history, namely, one man who bore the same name as the Apostle John, and who was called Presbeteros Johannes, and a certain Aristion, who knew many of the Lord’s discourses by heart. At about this time Papias consulted these two men as oracles, and carefully noted their traditions, which he intended to insert into his great work, The Discourses of the Lord. One remarkable feature in the Presbuteros was the opinion which he gave regarding St Mark’s Gospel. He considered it altogether insufficient, and written 26in complete ignorance of the exact order of the events of the life of Jesus. Presbuteros Johannes evidently thought that he knew the real facts much better, and, if he really wrote it, his tradition must altogether differ from the plan of that of Mark.
We are inclined to think that the fourth Gospel represents the traditions of this Presbuteros and of Aristion, which might go back as far as the Apostle John. It seems, moreover, that to prepare the way for this pious fraud a preliminary Catholic Epistle, attributed to John, was published preliminarily, which was intended to accustom the people of Asia to the style which it was intended to make them receive as that of the Apostle. In it the attack against the Docetæ—who at that time formed the great danger to Christianity in Asia—was opened. An ostentatious stress was laid on the value of the Apostle’s testimony, as he had been an eye-witness of the Gospel facts. The author, who is a skilful writer after his own fashion, has very likely imitated the style of St John’s conversation, and that small work is conceived in a grand and lofty spirit, in spite of some Elcesaitic peculiarities. Its doctrine is excellent, and it inculcates mutual charity, love for mankind, and hatred for a corrupt world; and its touching, vehement, and penetrating style is absolutely the same as that of the Gospel; and its faults—its prolixity, and dryness—the results of interminable discourses full of abstruse metaphysics and personal allegations, are far less striking in the Epistle.
'The style of the pseudo-Johannic writings is something quite by itself, no model for which existed before the Presbuteros. It has been too much admired; for whilst it is ardent and occasionally even sublime, it is somewhat inflated, false, and obscure, and it altogether lacks simplicity. The author relates nothing, he merely demonstrates dogmatically, and his long account of miracles, and 27of those discussions which turn on misapprehensions, and in which the opponents of Jesus are made to play the parts of idiots, are most fatiguing. How preferable to all this verbiose pathos is the charming style, altogether Hebrew as it is, of the Sermon on the Mount, and that clearness of narrative which constitutes the charm of the first Evangelists. No need for them to repeat continually that they that saw it bear record, and that their record is true; for their sincerity, unconscious of any possible objection, has not that feverish thirst for those repeated attestations which go to prove that incredulity and doubt have already sprung up. One might almost say, from the slightly exalted style of this new narrator, that he feared that he might not be believed, and that he sought to dupe the religious belief of his readers by his own emphatic assertions.
Whilst insisting strongly on his qualities as an eye-witness, and on the value of his own testimony, the author of the fourth Gospel never once says I, John, for his name does not appear in the whole course of the work, but only figures as its title; but there is not the slightest doubt that John is the disciple intended or designated in a hidden manner in different passages of the book, nor is there any doubt that the forger intended to cause it to be believed that that mysterious personage was the author of the book. It was merely one of those small literary artifices such as Plato is so fond of affecting, and the result is that the recital is often very elaborate, and contains investigations, observations, and literary pranks which are totally unworthy of an Apostle. Thus John mentions himself without mentioning his own name, and praises himself without doing it openly, and he does not debar himself from that literary method which consists in showing, in a very carefully-managed 28semi-light, those secrets which one keeps to oneself without revealing them to every chance corner. How pleasant it is to be guessed at, and to allow others to draw conclusions favourable to oneself, to which oneself only gives a half expression.
The two objects which the author had in view were to prove the divinity of Jesus to those who did not believe in Him, but, even more than that, to make a new system of Christianity prevail. As miracles were the proofs, above all others, of His divine mission, he improves on the accounts of the wonders that disfigure the earlier Gospels. It seems on the other hand that Cerinthus was one of the manufacturers of these strange books. He had become almost like John’s spectre, and the versatility of his mind now attracted him to, and then repelled him from, those ideas which were agitating religious circles at Ephesus, so that at the same time he was regarded as the adversary whom the Johannine writings were striving to combat, and as the veritable author of those writings; and the obscurity that reigns over the Johannine question is so dense that it cannot be said that it must be wrong to attribute the authorship to him. If it be a fact, it would correspond very well to what we know of Cerinthus, who was in the habit of covering his thoughts under the cloak of an apostolic name, and it would explain the mystery as to what became of that book for nearly fifty years, and the vehement opposition which it encountered. The ardour with which Epphianius combats this opinion would lead us to believe that it is not without foundation, for in those dark days everything was possible; and if the Church, when it venerates the fourth Gospel as the work of St John, is the dupe of him whom she looks upon as one of her most dangerous enemies, it is not, after all, any stranger than so many other errors which make up the web of the religious history of humanity.29
It is quite certain, however, that the author is at the same time the father and the adversary of Gnosticism, the enemy of those who allowed the real human nature of Jesus to evaporate in a cloudy Docetism, and the accomplice of those who would make him a mere divine abstraction. Dogmatic minds are never more severe than they are towards those from whom they are divided by a mere shade of difference. That Anti-Christ whom the pseudo-John represents as already in existence, that monster who is the very negation of Jesus, and whom he cannot distinguish from the errors of Docetism, is almost he himself. How often in cursing others, does one curse oneself! and thus in the bosom of the Church, the personality of Jesus became the object of fierce strife. On the one hand there was no checking the torrent which carried away every one to the most exaggerated ideas as to the divinity of the founder of Christianity, and on the other hand it was of the highest importance to uphold the true character of Jesus, and to oppose the tendency which so many Christians had towards that sickly idealism which was soon to end in Gnosticism. Many spoke of the Eon Christos as of a being that was quite distinct from the man called Jesus, to whom it was united for a time, and whom it abandoned at the moment of the crucifixion. Cerinthus had maintained this, and so did Basilides, and to such heresy a tangible Word must be opposed, and this was just what the new Gospel did. The Jesus whom it preaches is in some respects more historical than the Jesus of the other evangelists, and yet he is only a metaphysical first principle, a pure conception of transcendental theosophy. This may shock our tastes, but theology has not the same requirements as æsthetics, and the conscience of Christianity, after trying in vain for a hundred years to settle what right conception it should make to itself of Jesus, at last found rest.30
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.
In loin was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to became the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.—St John, I. 1-14.
What follows is not less surprising. We have before us a life of Jesus which is very different to that which the writings of Mark, Luke. or the pseudo-Matthew have put before us. It is evident that those three Gospels, and others of the same sort, were but little known in Asia, or at any rate had very little authority there. During his lifetime, John no doubt, was in the habit of relating the life of Jesus on a totally different plan to that slight Galilean outline which the traditionists of Batanea had created, and which served as a model after them. He knew that Jerusalem had been one of the chief centres for Jesus' activity, and he drew persons and details which the first narrators were unacquainted with, or had neglected. As to Jesus' discourses as given in the Galilean tradition, the Church at Ephesus, supposing that they were known there, allowed them to 31fall into oblivion. According to the spirit of the age, there was no more difficulty in putting discourses into Jesus' mouth which were intended to found such and such doctrines, than the authors of the Thora and the prophets of old found in making God speak according to their own prejudices.
Thus the fourth Gospel came to be produced, and though it is of no value if we wish to know how Jesus spoke, it is superior to the synoptic Gospels in the order of facts. The various visits of Jesus to Jerusalem, the institution of the eucharist, his anticipated agony, a number of circumstances relating to the Passion, the Resurrection and his life after he had risen; certain minute details, e. g., concerning Cana, the apostle Philip, the brothers of Jesus, the mention of Cleopas as a member of his family, are so many features, which assure to the pseudo-John an historical superiority over Mark and pseudo-Matthew. Many of these details might be drawn from John’s own accounts of events which had been preserved, whilst others sprang from traditions which neither Mark nor he who amplified his narrative under the name of Matthew, knew anything about. In several cases in fact, where pseudo-John deviates from the arrangement of the synoptic narrative, he presents singular features of agreement with Luke, and the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Moreover, several features of the fourth Gospel are to be found in Justin, and in the pseudo-Clementine romance, although neither Justin nor the author of the romance knew the fourth Gospel. It is clear, therefore, that, besides the synoptists, there existed a collection of traditions, and of ready-made expressions, which were, so to speak, scattered about in the atmosphere, which the fourth Gospel partially represents to us; and to treat this Gospel as an artificial composition with no traditional basis is to mistake its character just as seriously as when it 32is looked upon as a document at first hand, and original from beginning to end.
The discourses which are put into the mouth of Jesus in the fourth Gospel are certainly artificial, and without any traditional basis, and criticism ought to put them on the same footing as the discourses with which Plato honours Socrates. There are two striking omissions in it; it does not contain a single parable, nor a single apocalyptic discourse about the end of the world, and the appearance of the Messiah; and one feels that the hopes of an approaching manifestation in the clouds had partly lost their force. According to the fourth Gospel, Jesus' real return after he had left the world, would be the sending of the Paraclete, his other self, who would comfort his disciples for his departure. The author takes refuge in metaphysics, because material hopes, already at times appear to him mere chimeras, and the same thing seems to have happened to St Paul. The taste for abstraction was the reason why then little weight was attached to what is regarded as the most really divine in Jesus. Instead of that refined feeling of the poetry of the earth which fills the Galilean Gospels, we find here nothing but a dry system of metaphysics and dialectics, which turn on the ambiguity between the literal and the figurative sense. In the fourth Gospel, indeed, Jesus speaks for himself, for he makes use of language which no one could be expected to understand, as he uses words in a different sense to their general acceptation, and then is angry because he is not understood. This false situation produces an impression of fatigue in the end, and at last one thinks that the Jews were excusable for not comprehending those new mysteries which were presented to them in such an obscure fashion.
These defects are the consequence of the exaggerated attitude which the author has given to Jesus, 33for it is one which naturally excludes anything natural. He declares Himself to be the Truth and the Life, and that he is God, and that no one can come to the Father but by him. Such weighty and solemn assertions could not be made without an air of shocking presumption. In the synoptic Gospels, he does not assert that he is God, but reveals himself by the charm of his impersonal discourses, whereas, in this one, the Deity argues in order that he may prove its Divinity. It is as if the rose were to dispute in order to prove that it is fragrant. The author, in such a case, cares so little for probabilities that at times there is nothing to indicate where the discourses of Jesus finish and the dissertations of the narrator begin. At other times he reports conversations at which nobody could have been present, and one feels that his true object is not to relate words which were really spoken, but that above all he wishes to impress the mark of authority on some cherished ideas of his own, by putting them into the mouth of the Divine Master.
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