Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Gospel of St. John

Reading N°32 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

St. John the Evangelist
Domenichino (1581-1648)
The fall of the Flavians was followed by a conservative reaction, from which the Christians profited. At Domitian's death, in 96, St. John returned from exile to Ephesus. There he had the consolation of being again in the society of Christians in which he had lived for about thirty years. This whole crowd of converts, some from the ranks of Judaism, some from paganism, were all more or less imbued with the same philosophical ideas that issued from Alexandria. The educated discussed abstract systems that were venturesome and obscure. Even the common people spoke the language of those ideas; and by that unfelt influence which descends from the heights of speculative science little by little into the practice of life, curious theories insinuated themselves into the popular beliefs.

Some people were making a distinction between Christ and Jesus, regarding the latter as a mere man, like other men. This theory had been taught especially by a certain mysterious personage, Cerinthus, whose life is almost entirely unknown to us. His views are recorded by St. Irenaeus.[1]

Cerinthus seems to have been a native of Egypt. He was a Jew before his conversion. After becoming a Christian, he kept his narrow views, refusing to admit the catholic character of Christianity. If we are to accept St. Epiphanius' report,[2] Cerinthus organized even around St. Paul a sort of opposition preaching for the purpose of maintaining the Christian religion in strict dependence on Judaism. But the Judaism to which Cerinthus held was that interpreted by Philo - a synthesis of pagan wisdom and Mosaic teaching. After travelling through Palestine, Syria, and Galatia, Cerinthus returned to Asia. He may have settled at Ephesus during St. John's exile. Here is a brief outline of his teaching:
So far is the supreme God raised above all things, that even the angels do not know Him. He is neither the Creator nor Lawmaker of the world. This function belongs to the angels. As for Jesus, He is the son of Joseph and Mary. At His baptism, a power of the supreme God descended upon Him and remained in Him until the Passion exclusive. This divine entity was the Christ. The power of the supreme God left Him during His Passion, but nevertheless He rose from the dead.[3]
Did Cerinthus confine himself to teaching by word of mouth, or did he put his ideas in writing? Contemporary evidence is too vague on this point to allow us to decide. We know that he made devoted disciples among the Christians. Upon St. John's return to Ephesus, the heresy of the Cerinthians was a great peril for the Church. Polycarp relates that John, the disciple of the Lord, one day entered a bath at Ephesus and there saw the heresiarch; thereupon John ran out, crying: "Let us fly lest the baths fall in, since Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within."[4]

Besides Cerinthus, were there any forerunners of Docetism - later propounded by Saturninus, Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcion - the error which holds that Jesus Christ had only an apparent body? Or did Cerinthus himself teach this heresy? It is impossible to say. But several passages of St. John's writings seem to have such a doctrine in mind.[5]

However this may be, to refute the false notions that were circulating about the adorable person of the Savior, nothing could equal the testimony of him who had known the Master intimately, who had rested his head upon His breast the night before He died, and who had heard His last words on Calvary. St. John addressed to the Christians of Asia Minor, who had been converted from paganism, a letter which may be considered as a preface to the Gospel which he wrote later. This letter begins thus:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life. [...] That which we have seen and have heard, we declare unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship may be with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.[6]
These words indicate the aim of the Fourth Gospel: to show, as against the new heretics, the identity of Jesus of Nazareth with the eternal Son of God, the life and light of the world. The first three Gospels had given a glimpse of the eternal preexistence of Jesus Christ.[7] St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Colossians, and later in the Epistle to the Hebrews, represented Christ as the sole revealer and sole mediator of the invisible Father.[8] St. John's originality consisted in this, that, in the light of more intimate recollections and deeper supernatural illuminations, he made Christian revelation more precise on these points; and that, in his exposition, he ventured to use the abstract expressions of Oriental language, expressions that were common in the country where he was writing.

Soon afterward, St. John's Gospel appeared. It begins thus:
In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.
This term "Word" or Logos was in common use by the Alexandrian philosophers. But we would be quite mistaken if we therefore concluded that the Evangelist's thought is at all dependent upon a particular philosophy. In the philosophy of Philo, the word Logos means vaguely an organ of the divine power, although we cannot exactly say whether it is confounded with God or constitutes a distinct person; for other philosophers, this word signified either a being intermediate between the world and God, or divine reason spread forth in the world, or something entirely different. The Logos, for the Hellenists of the time, was the favorite word to express whatever is beautiful and harmonious and great. We may form an idea of this by considering what the eighteenth century philosophers put under the name of Reason, those of the nineteenth under the name of Science, those of the twentieth under the name of Life. The Apostle seized upon this word - he uses it only four times in all his writings - and declares to that Alexandrian world, seduced by all the grand things which that term suggested to them, that its ideal is fully realized only in this Jesus, whose witness he, John, is.[9] And the Evangelist makes the idea of the Word, or Logos, more precise by means of the two clearer words, light and life:
The Word was with God. [...] In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.[10]
The wonderful prologue containing these words so far surpasses the ordinary conceptions of the human mind as to dazzle and astound it. This son of thunder does not speak a human language; he flashes lightning, he thunders, he stuns, he humbles every created mind under the obedience of the faith, when, by a rapid flight, cleaving the air and piercing the clouds and rising above the angels, he intones these words: "In the beginning was the Word."[11]

Once the theologian has set forth the grand concept we should have of Jesus Christ, the part of the witness begins. St. John's aim in writing his Gospel is evidently to prove the faith; but he wishes to prove it by history, chiefly by that which he knows in a more personal way. He is not at pains to harmonize his account with that of the preceding Evangelists. As a rule John records the events in the order of their happening; and nevertheless it is possible to note a progressive movement in the march of ideas, which warrants the division of the Holy Book into three parts. The first recounts the various greetings accorded by the world to the Light bestowed on it by the Incarnate Word;[12] the second describes the implacable resistance it met with from the creatures of Darkness;[13] the third describes the eclipse of the Light, but only an apparent eclipse, since from it Jesus emerges in a more striking manifestation of His Divinity: His love attaining its climax in the Eucharist and the sacrifice on the Cross.[14] "None but God could have loved so greatly as this."[15]

The Fourth Gospel seems to flow in a single stream. The events and discourses connect, explain, and supplement each other in a magnificent unity. Everything in it is lifelike and glowing; the events are intermingled with dialogue and animated retort, with realistic interruptions; the actors of the story seem to live again in its pages. Even the abstract ideas take on a body, and the most material events evoke supernatural realities. The Savior's features appear more lifelike than in the Synoptic Gospels; the inner depths of His soul are more clearly revealed. The Apostle, writing his narrative after a long interval, "recording conversations and discourses that he did not write down on the spot, subjects these conversations and discourses to certain literary transformations," by giving them "a personal stamp of his own in the construction of phrases and the grouping of ideas."[16] Yet it is quite natural to think that the beloved disciple was able to attain to deeper realities than the other Evangelists, either by the more intimate confidences which his divine Friend may have bestowed on him, or because a more ardent love made it easier for him to understand and remember, or because a half-century of intense mystical life revealed to him more clearly a saying at first imperfectly understood.[17]

The appearance of St. John's Gospel was one of the greatest events in the early Church. It occurred about the year 98.[18] The Evangelist accomplished his purpose. Without any direct controversy or specific mention of the heresy, by a simple mention of the opposite facts,[19] which he himself had witnessed, he reduced to nothing all the affirmations of Cerinthus. Thereafter, in the teaching of the faithful, the influence of this book was immense. Eusebius says: "It is read in all the churches under heaven."[20] Some heretics tried to make it serve their own purpose; others fought it with all their might. Especially in Alexandria it occasioned many metaphysical speculations. Eusebius speaks of "a school of sacred learning" or didascalia, founded in Alexandria at an early date.[21] This was the germ of the famous school on which Clement of Alexandria and Origen shed such incomparable luster. It was the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Church. In Jerusalem, Christianity appears as a brotherhood, with St. James the Less as its father; at Antioch, it appears as a propaganda, with St. Paul as its chief champion; at Rome, it declares itself as a government, with St. Peter as the head; at Alexandria, it presents itself as a philosophy, with St. John as its doctor. These were, however, merely diverse aspects, successive adaptations, of a doctrine always one, always identical: for it to enlarge and develop was simply to succeed in fathoming the Master's teaching more and more deeply.

The story of St. John's last years has not been recorded; it is lost in fanciful legend, with which the Gnostics embellished it. What we can accept as a truthful detail is the continuance of his amiable kindness. All the traditions represent him as a kindly man advanced in years, summing up all his teaching in one saying:
My little children, let us love not in word nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth.[22]
These same traditions are agreed in saying that his death was as gentle as falling asleep.[23] His tomb soon became an object of universal veneration. Today, upon the ruins of the city of Ephesus, it is thought that traces of it are to be found on the side of a hill where eight or ten poor families are living together; and the memory of the great Apostle survives in the name of the little village which these families have founded, Aya Suluk, the place of the "Holy Theologian" (aghiou apostolou).[24]

Tomb of St. John the Apostle in Ephesus. The Basilica which once stood over
the tomb was abandoned after the Seljuk conquest of the 13th century, with the
remains being completely burned and destroyed during the Mongol raids of 1402.


[1] St. Irenaeus, Haereses, I, xxvi, 1.
[2] St. Epiphanius, Haereses, XXVIII, 2-4.
[3] St. Irenaeus, III, xi, 7. On Cerinthus, cf. idem, I, xxvi, 1; Tertullian, De praescr., 48.
[4] Eusebius, H. E., IV, xiv, 6.
[5] John 1:14; 19:34; 1 John 1:1; 4:3; 2 John 7.
[6] 1 John 1:1.
[7] Mark 12:35-37; Matt. 22:41-46; Luke 20:41-44.
[8] Coloss. 1:13-20; Heb. 1:2 f.; 7:6; 9:15; 12:24. Cf. 1 Cor. 8:6.
[9] On the comparison of Philo's Logos with the Logos of St. John, see Lebreton, Les Origines du dogme de Ia Trinité, I, 515-523.
[10] Anyone who will consult a Concordance, under the words "light" and "life," will be impressed with the important place which these two ideas hold in St. John's Gospel.
[11] Cf. Bossuet, Elévations sur les mystères, 7th edition.
[12] John 1-4.
[13] John 5-12.
[14] John 12-20. The last chapter, undoubtedly added as an afterthought, presents a somewhat different point of view.
[15] Fouard, St. John, p. 176.
[16] Lepin, art. "Evangiles", in the Dict. apol. de la foi catholique.
[17] Fouard (St. John, p. 175) admits as probable that other hands cooperated with St. John in the editing of his recollections. Calmes (Comment se sont formes les Evangiles, pp. 5-7, and L'Evangile selon saint Jean, Introduction) is willing to consider rather broadly the part of St. John's disciples in the editing of his Gospel. But, on any supposition, these authors maintain that the whole Gospel reproduces the Apostle's thought. Even with this restriction, the hypothesis admitted by Fouard and Calmes seems to us improbable. The perfect unity of plan and style to be observed in the Fourth Gospel does not easily comport with the supposition of a plurality of collaborators; unless these latter be regarded as simple scribes, passive secretaries, solely engaged in rendering with scrupulous care the thoughts and expressions of the Apostle - which would fundamentally be a return to the traditional thesis. (On the history of the Fourth Gospel, see Levesque, Nos quatre evangiles.)
[18] Probably the Apostle had begun to write his Gospel during his exile at Patmos, or even earlier, and it was merely the reproduction and orderly arrangement of his habitual preaching.
[19] Cf. Döllinger, The First Age of Christianity and the Church, I, 192.
[20] Eusebius, H. E., III, xxiv, 2. On the Gospel of St. John, see Corluy, Commentarium in Evangelium S. Joannis; Knabenbauer, ibidem; Lepin, La Valeur historique du quatrième Evangile; Nouvelle, L'Authenticité du quatrième Evangile.
[21] Eusebius, H. E. V, x, 1.
[22] 1 John 3:18.
[23] Zahn, Acta Johannis, p. 256.
[24] Le Camus, Voyage aux pays bibliques, III, 132 ff.


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