I had my students draw pictures to show the different aspects of each gospel. One student drew flowers. The synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were common house flowers of different varieties, but John was a wildflower. One student drew different kinds of sandwiches for each of the Synoptics. Mark was a sloppy joe, Matthew was a kosher sandwich, Luke was a neat and well made club sandwich, but John was a hotdog. Historically, the church has ascribed different animals to show the uniqueness of each gospel. Matthew was represented by an angel, Mark was represented by a lion, Luke was represented by an ox, and John was represented by an eagle.
This fun exercise illustrates an important point: John is not just different from the other gospels. He is vastly different from the other gospels. John is doing something different with his gospel than what the others are doing. Clement of Alexandria called John’s gospel the “spiritual gospel.”
Even a casual reader of the New Testament will see that something different is happening with the fourth gospel. John’s gospel is the odd one. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke were students in my class they would be in trouble for plagiarism, but not John.
Opinions vary on how familiar John was with the Synoptic tradition and what exactly he is trying to do with his gospel. To put my cards on the table, I think John is supplementing and meditating on the Synoptics. I think John is providing a piece of art. It is simple in presentation, but complex in interpretation. It is easy to behold, but difficult to understand. It is a meditative piece of literature. The more we read it, the more we see. The concept itself is simple: paint, canvas, colors, texture, etc. But the longer you look at it the more you see the elegant theological thought.
Let me show you two things that have helped me see the artistry of John’s gospel.
First, John’s prologue (1:1-28) is beautiful, philosophical, and provocative. John the author hops back and forth between Jesus and John the Baptist (who is never actually called the “baptist” in John’s gospel). There is light and dark. There is drama and music. There are questions. There are answers.
John has managed to combine Jewish and Stoic thought into a brilliant narrative about Jesus the Logos. The Stoic thought revolves around the Logos. The Logos is the intellectual integrity that holds everything together. It is the logical glue of the universe as we know it. Here is a little more about it. For the Jewish thought, John is clearly alluding to the first creation story (1:1-2:3). More precisely, John is tapping into the creation theology of the Jewish wisdom tradition (Prov. 8:27-30; Ps. 33:6; Wis. 9:1; Sir. 43:26). For a detailed technical study of the background of John’s prologue see the excellent work by Craig A. Evans in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series.
For now, let it suffice to say that John’s prologue is a brilliant work of art. He takes multiple contrasting pastels and blends them together in an unexpected, but elegant fashion.
Second, there are seven titles ascribed to Jesus in the first chapter after the introduction (1:1-28):
- “The Lamb of God” (1:29, 36)
- “The Son of God” (1:34, 49)
- “Rabbi” (1:38, 49)
- “Messiah/Christ” (1:41)
- “a true Israelite” (1:47)
- “the King of Israel” (1:49)
- “Son of Man” (1:51)
Sit with them and see what you notice. See what emerges in your heart and imagination. Where will we see these titles later in the gospel of John? It is as if John is giving us a word bank for a Word search (see the play on words here ;)) Every story in John here after has a Word bank over it to help us go hunting for these titles for Jesus.
Art is best appreciated by stepping back and gandering until it moves you. So step back. Take it in and let John’s words paint you a vision of the Word.