Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

1. John the Evangelist |
The man with the inside story

John the Evangelist is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 10, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Jesus posed bewildering questions. Was he God? Was he man? The memories of the disciple who knew him best provide some answers

John the Evangelist - The man with the inside story

John the Evangelist - The man with the inside story
The deeply paternal attitude of the apostle John, evident particularly in his letters, is demonstrated in the hills outside Smyrna. Learning that one of his followers had enthusiastically embraced the life of a brigand, the “Son of Thunder” rides off to confront the prodigal. John’s headstrong response sees him taken prisoner by the band, but also brings the errant young man to his knees in repentance.

In the last thirty years of the first century, the faith already known as Christianity existed in a world that gave every evidence it was coming to an end. Jerusalem, home of all that the Christians had inherited from the Jewish past, lay in ruins. Its great Temple, once supposed to be the indestructible abode on Earth of the unchanging God, had been reduced to a pile of rubble. True, Jesus had foretold all this, but what would happen now? Surely, Christians assumed, the end must be at hand.

Meanwhile, in their communities scattered around much of the Mediterranean world, they lived with fear. Imperial Rome, which they had at first seen as their protector, had suddenly turned savagely against them, the emperor Nero himself burning the Christians in his capital city as living torches. The indefatigable Paul, who had founded so many of their communities, had perished beneath an executioner’s sword in the same imperial rampage.

And what of the original Twelve? There were strange and dramatic reports–Thomas, for instance, was said to have been executed in far-off India; Andrew, missionary to distant Scythia, north of the Black Sea, home of a fierce nomadic people, was later crucified in Greece. Then there were the three whom Jesus so often singled out–Peter and the brothers James and John Zebedee. James had been executed at Jerusalem, Peter crucified at Rome. That left John, aged but still living, it was said, at Ephesus, the big port on the east coast of the Aegean.

What a story John could tell, if he ever told it. For he, even more than Peter, seemed closest to the mind and heart of Jesus. He was sometimes called the disciple “whom Jesus loved.” Jesus loved them all, of course, but John was special. Some thought he would live until Jesus returned. Night after night, day after day, for three years Jesus had talked to them, often with words and ideas they could not begin to understand. But John pondered these things, discussed them, struggled to comprehend them. So if anyone now knew the answers, John did. Was Jesus God? Was the world ending? What would John say about these things?

Already accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were circulating widely, diligently copied by hand and bound in a book-like codex, so much more manageable than the old scrolls.1 Nearly every Christian community had one or two of them. One recorded Peter’s memory of the events, taken down by John Mark, or so everyone seemed to agree. There was a beautifully written account ascribed to Luke, the doctor who traveled with Paul and who, it was said, drew upon Mary’s memories of Jesus’ childhood. Some communities had a third, mostly a record of Jesus’ sermons, with which Matthew’s name was always associated. Then there were other accounts of what Jesus had said and done, either excerpted from one of the three or incorporated into them.

Hearing these read reinforced a Christian’s confidence and helped direct his or her life, but it was not the basis of a person’s commitment. Faith was more commonly based on the very strong sense a Christian had of Jesus’ immediate presence in his life. That was the important thing. At some points, he felt it more strongly than at others, almost as though Jesus were testing him to see if he could walk on his own without help. But if a Christian stumbled, no matter how terribly, Jesus was always there to pick him up. This is what Paul had meant. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, he had said–death, life, angels, principalities, powers, height, depth, things present, nothing whatever (Rom. 8:38—39). This powerful sense of Jesus’ presence was what held whole Christian communities together.

Even so, Jesus had never left the impression he didn’t want his people to think for themselves. And he had left them with a monumental puzzle to think about: Who was he? The fact is, he continually spoke as though he were God. He “forgave” people’s sins, and only God can do that. He referred to everyone as sinful, though he never applied this to himself. And at the crucial point in his trial, he identified himself with the Almighty, making inevitable his conviction for blasphemy–which, of course, his claim certainly was. Unless it was true.

But how, after all, could God be here on Earth but also up in Heaven? Jesus prayed to God, to his “Father,” as he called him. Could God pray to God? Were there two Gods? Surely, the whole message of the Jewish tradition was that there was only one. Perhaps John knew the solution to the puzzle–if he were ever to tell his story.

If indeed he were even alive. Luke’s history of the church, the Acts of the Apostles, which runs from the Ascension in about a.d. 30 to the mid-60s, makes its last mention of John in the late 30s, when he joined Peter in the Samaritan mission. Later Christian historians record John as leaving Palestine, probably in the 50s, after the death of Jesus’ mother whom he had been assigned by Jesus to care for. He moved, they say, to Ephesus, capital of the Roman province of Asia (later western Turkey), where the first Christian mission had been established by Priscilla and Aquila under the direction of Paul. As an apostle, John supervised the bishops that led the congregations throughout the province.

Toward the century’s end, John had reached a great age, somewhere in his eighties, naturally reinforcing the belief that he would not die, a theory he himself pointedly denied. Stories about him were everywhere repeated. For instance, Clement of Alexandria, writing more than a century later, tells how John had left an intelligent and promising boy, probably an orphan, in the care of the bishop at Smyrna, another Aegean port about thirty miles north of Ephesus, with instructions that he raise the youngster in the faith. The bishop tried, but when the boy became a young man he fell in with a crowd of criminals and soon had a gang of his own, brigands and killers who lived in the hills preying on passing travelers.

When John asked how the boy was doing, the bishop burst into tears and reported, “He’s dead.” Not dead as a man but “dead to God,” and he explained the boy’s fall. “Some guardian!” snapped John, still the “Son of Thunder” that Jesus had once called him (Mark 3:17). Groaning, John tore his garment, demanded a horse, and galloped immediately for the hills. He was soon made prisoner by the gang and demanded to be taken to its leader. When the latter saw him he turned and fled.

“Why are you running away from me, son?” called John. “From your own father, unarmed and very old? You should feel sorry for me, not fear me. You haven’t lost your life. I will make account to Christ for you. I would suffer death for you, just as he suffered death for us. Stop what you’re doing! Believe! Christ sent me to you!”

The young man stopped, dropped his weapons to the ground, and wept bitterly. John threw his arms around him and baptized him with his tears, says Clement. They returned to Smyrna. John pleaded his case and restored him to the community.

The fact there was a Christian community at all in Smyrna–or anywhere else for that matter–evidenced the curious irony peculiar to these people known as Christians. While on the one hand they lived under a cloud, always suspect to officialdom and increasingly repugnant to their neighbors, on the other, their numbers kept growing and their cult kept spreading.

From Jerusalem, it had swiftly moved to the Mediterranean coast, to the Roman provincial seat at Caesarea, then south to Alexandria, where there was a flourishing Christian presence. At Cyrene (whence came the man Simon who had carried Christ’s cross) there was another Christian congregation, and at the burgeoning Roman port of Carthage, the Christian numbers rivaled those at Alexandria.

North of the Mediterranean, the same thing was occurring. From the original seed missions established by the apostle Paul, the movement spread east to Byzantium, at the western terminus of the Black Sea, then along the sea’s northwest coast as far as Odessus, which would become Varna in Bulgaria. Christian congregations dotted the Adriatic coast and the cities and towns of Italy. Even at Rome, where the horror of Nero’s executions had all but wiped out the new faith, it soon revived, and Christian groups were quietly reappearing throughout the city. There were Christian communities along the south coast of Gaul, which would become France, and a few in the provinces of Tarraconensis, Lusitania, and Baetica, which one day would be Spain.

Strangest of all and most worrisome to those in authority, the army itself was being penetrated by Christianity. Christ had shunned violence, yet Christianity had a particular appeal to soldiers and men under discipline. The Twelfth Legion, now back at its base in Armenia after long service in Judea, was said to be especially tainted. And it had to be admitted that the Christians often made good soldiers, fought valiantly, and died honorably. Nevertheless, how could any sane commander trust them?

To the imperial bureaucracy, the whole Christian phenomenon was akin to a plague. It spread insidiously from one man to another, then to his whole family, then to his neighbors. Moreover, it was difficult to make a rational case against these people. They paid their taxes, even cheerfully. Their support for community projects with both their time and money was distinctly generous. They were law-abiding, sober, diligent, eminently good workers; even as slaves, they characteristically served their masters tirelessly, particularly if their masters were also Christian.

So why, one might reasonably ask, was the empire so ill disposed toward them? Because they were, and even saw themselves as, outsiders. Their ultimate loyalty lay beyond Caesar, beyond the empire, to this mysterious person they called Christ. It was disgusting. The man had been crucified like a common criminal. Could anything be less suggestive of deity?

The empire from the start had proclaimed itself tolerant of all authorized religions, and it had certainly authorized some strange ones. But these religions must be considered by the Roman subject as “a personal thing.” The only common “public” religion must be the state paganism of the empire–often embodied, by law, in the person of the emperor. To reject this, to refuse to enshrine the imperial ideal as uppermost in the very soul of the subject, was viewed therefore as a blatant defiance, tantamount to rebellion. And it was precisely this commitment that the Christians refused to make.

Nero had shrewdly discerned in the Christian mind this implicit insurrectionism, and on this ground had pronounced Christianity illegal. In Roman law, this was unprecedented. You could be prosecuted for doing something but not for believing something. Thereafter, by proving a person Christian, the state could establish him as a criminal. But how could it prove a person Christian?

An ingenious formula was devised. The suspected Christian need merely be asked to take a pinch of incense and ceremonially burn it to the “genius” of Caesar.2 Surely a modest demand. But, astonishingly, Christians refused to do it. Their God, they said, was not Caesar. The sentence could then be passed immediately: seizure of property, imprisonment, often death–by the sword, by fire, by the cross, by being fed to starving animals in the arena as a public spectacle, whatever local sentiment called for.

What it called for could be nasty, chiefly because of the other enemy the Christians had to contend with, notably the mob. The mass of the people utterly loathed them, for reasons both good and bad. As everyone but the Christians understood, the fate of any city depended on the gods. Whether there was sufficient food depended on the harvest, which depended on the weather, which depended on the gods. Whether plagues came, whether enemies broke through the cordon of legions protecting the empire, depended largely on chance or fortune, which depended largely on the gods. Pleasing the gods, therefore, was the first duty of the wise and conscientious.

Now these Christians not only failed to do this, they actually denounced the whole state religion. The gods, insofar as they existed at all, were plainly evil, they said. Their images and idols should not just be ignored; they should be destroyed. The Christians were, in other words, atheists–to the mob a downright danger. Every plague, famine, fire, or flood could properly be ascribed to their contempt for the gods.

Such was the reasonable case against them. The unreasonable basis of the other was, ironically, their undoubted generosity. They were such very, very good people. Their women were virginal until married, their men loyal to their wives, respecting their female slaves and shunning the whorehouses. Prissily good. Boringly good. Prudes, in fact. Let’s have them to the arena. Let’s see how virginally good they are there. Such, often, was the local sentiment.

These persecutions, however, came sporadically, depending chiefly on the emperor’s view of Christianity, secondarily on that of the local governor. Since Christianity was technically illegal, either authority could arrange a roundup of the Christians at any time. But the governor usually looked to Rome for direction. In the 70s and 80s, this meant to Emperor Vespasian, or later to his eldest son Titus, both best known for suppressing the rebellion of the Jews and destroying their city and temple in a.d. 70. Their policy toward the Christians was simplicity itself: They didn’t have one.

In such a hiatus, the faith spread more rapidly than ever, penetrating not only all cities but also all classes. To the imperial administrators this last was particularly disturbing. That a slave should embrace this new creed was understandable enough. The poor wretch often had nothing whatever to look forward to in this life–death slumped over the oar to which he had been chained for years, then to be pitched into the sea; or death in the hot sun of the field in which he had worked every painful day of a hopeless and painful life. Common laborers were only a little better off. To such woebegone creatures, the figure of a crucified god might understandably appeal.

But how could you account for a man like Flavius Clemens, consul of Rome, father of the declared successors to the imperial throne? Why in the name of all sanity would he become one of these Christians, along with (or perhaps because of) his wife? Why would a respected senator, aristocrat, and former consul of Rome like Marcus Acilius Glabrio become Christian? These and others from the top ranks of Roman society were charged with “atheism,” and it was altogether likely their actual crime was Christianity. What could they have possibly gained from this crucified Jew?

Vespasian ruled the empire with a refreshing sanity from his accession in a.d. 70 until he died nine years later after a brief illness. Sensing his moment of death, he leapt to his feet. “An emperor should die standing!” he cried, and he collapsed into the arms of a servant. It was the stamp of the man. Titus, a mirror of his father, promised a similarly benign reign but fell ill and died of fever two years and twelve weeks later. This brought to the throne Titus’s brother Domitian, ten years his junior, and conditions for both the Christians and the empire began to decline.

How rapidly and how steeply they declined is difficult to know, since both of the foremost historians of the era, Tacitus and Suetonius, appear to compete with one another in so blackguarding Domitian that it’s difficult to distinguish the facts from the invective. He is vain, arrogant, an emulator of Nero, they say, and a practiced seducer of other men’s wives. Not of his own wife, it seems, for the year 90, his ninth in office, found him still without an heir. He named as his successors the two sons of his cousin Flavius Clemens. Even skeptical historians allow that their mother, Clemens’ wife Domitilla, was assuredly Christian. So, probably, was Clemens himself.

The avenues by which Christianity had so infiltrated the imperial household remain a secret of history. Some speculate that Sabinus, Vespasian’s brother, in his day a gentle and humane prefect of Rome, evidenced distinctly Christian tendencies and might very well have influenced Domitilla. In any event, it was a secret unknown to Domitian until five years after he had named Clemens’ sons as heirs of the empire.

Then he discovered it and unleashed a sudden purge of the atheists in the imperial circle. Clemens was arrested, tried for neglecting his state religious duties, and executed; his wife Domitilla was banished to the island of Pandataria, off the coast at Naples, on the same charge. Glabrio was sentenced to death,3 his family persisting in the faith through the bloody century that would follow, making their cemetery on the Salarian Way one of the most ancient of all the Christian burial grounds.

How far beyond the court the Domitian crackdown extended, however, is debated by historians. In one instance, it took a strange path. Determined to discover what lay behind this insidious influence that was infesting his own household, Domitian ordered the arrest and examination of the surviving members of Jesus’ family, the grandchildren of the apostle Jude.

Quoting the early Christian historian Hegesippus (whose works have since been lost), the fourth-century church historian Eusebius describes how these simple Palestinian farmers were arrested and led terrified under escort before Domitian himself at Rome. There the emperor asked them whether they were descendants of David. Yes, they said, they were. It was a dangerous admission, writes Eusebius, because Domitian, by now persuaded that Christianity was a Jewish conspiracy, had ordered the roundup and execution of all Jews descended from King David.

How wealthy were they? Domitian demanded. Together they had land worth about nine thousand denarii, they replied. How much actual property did they own? Thirty-nine acres, they said, out of which all of them had to make a living. They then showed him their callused hands by way of proof.

What was this about Christ’s “kingdom?” came the next question. It was not of this world nor of anything on earth, they said, but had to do with the angels and Heaven, and would be established when this world came to an end.

Domitian sneered, dismissed them as beneath his notice, and ordered as pointless the arrests of other “sons of David” to stop. The brothers returned to Palestine, where they were honored by the Christians for having borne Christian witness to the emperor.

Meanwhile, writes Eusebius, Domitian had exiled John, the preeminent Christian in Asia, to the island of Patmos in the Aegean. But Domitian then faced consequences of his own back at Rome, where the aristocracy decided they had had enough of him. If men of the status of Clemens and Glabrio weren’t safe from him, who was?

The three Flavians, as the dynasty of Vespasian and his two sons is known to Roman history, had never been wholly accepted by Rome’s old and established aristocratic families. The Flavians were what a later empire would know as “commoners,” their bloodline uncertain since they had risen by their own effort from the business class. Vespasian himself had even worked at one point as a mule trader. Although he and Titus, having distinguished themselves in the battlefield and ruled intelligently, won a grudging acceptance, Domitian, despite efforts to gain for himself similar battle honors, had never succeeded. He ruled with increasing brutality, needless cruelty, and, in the opinion of Pliny the Younger, eventual insanity.

The conspirators who eventually murdered Domitian were neither politicians nor even noblemen, writes Domitian’s biographer, Pat Southern (1997). They were his own domestic staff.4 The Senate, obviously privy to the plot if not engaging in its execution, promptly named as successor one of their own set, the sixty-six-year-old Cocceius Nerva, whose family had served Julius and Augustus Caesar. Nerva had helped Vespasian establish himself in the imperial office. One of Nerva’s first administrative acts was to stop the arrest of the Christians. John, says Eusebius, thereupon returned to Ephesus.

The year was a.d. 96. It was at some time in the two or three decades before then that two crucial documents began spreading rapidly through Christian communities everywhere. One was a vision in the old Jewish apocalyptic style which, among other things, seemed to broach a controversial issue: Is the world coming to an end? After much debate, it would be preserved in the Christian New Testament as the Book of Revelation. The author repeatedly identifies himself in the text as “John,” though not specifically as John the Apostle.

The other document undertook an even thornier question: Was Jesus God? This one, all agreed, was indeed produced by John the Apostle. It was just what Christians had been hoping for, giving John’s memories and subsequent reflections on Jesus’ ministry. It was to become the Gospel According to St. John, fourth book of the New Testament.

One early Christian, Irenaeus, a pupil of one member of John’s circle at Ephesus and destined to play a major evangelical and teaching role in the coming century, ascribes both books to the apostle, not just the Gospel. So do most early Christian writers. Eusebius, however, ascribes the Gospel to John the Apostle but mentions no author for Revelation. Dionysius of Alexandria, another early Christian scholar, says the language of Revelation was so different from that of John’s Gospel that both could not possibly have been written by the same man.

Certainly, the Greek of the Revelation was remarkable for its incompetence. “The crudities, grammatical errors, and quite extraordinary juxtaposition of words,” writes twentieth-century translator J. B. Phillips, “make many scholars find themselves unable to believe that both it [and the Gospel] could be written by the same person.” Revelation “piles word upon word remorselessly, mixes cases and tenses without scruple, and shows at times a complete disregard for normal syntax and grammar.” The Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, “is written, within limited vocabulary, smoothly and correctly and would have caused no literary qualms in a contemporary Greek reader.”

Even so, Phillips is persuaded of the validity of the vision. “The intense emotion of being, as it were, ‘in the heavenlies,’ the excitement of seeing what is normally invisible to human eyes, and the frustration of having to use human words to describe what is beyond human expression would, it seems to me, fully account for the incoherence.” Once he had absorbed the initial shock of the Greek, Phillips said, “the effect of the language of this book is most powerful.”

The style of the Revelation is called “apocalyptic,” a form of religious writing widely used by the Jews for the previous two centuries, in which lurid visions of God, Heaven, Hell, angels, devils, and monsters, often engaged in superhuman conflict, serving to reveal realities beyond normal human understanding.

And yet, writes Leon Morris in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Revelation has numerous qualities which separate it from other Jewish apocalyptical literature. Revelation’s author calls his book a prophecy; the others do not. Far more than the others, he relates man’s salvation or his condemnation chiefly to man’s moral conduct. And while he certainly condemns the Roman empire as an instrument of wickedness, he does not see the world as hopelessly dominated by evil, as the others do. Most notably, Revelation does not look forward to a coming Messiah. To its author, the Messiah has already arrived, and the fearsome “Lion of Judah” has turned out to be “the Lamb.”

In his striking vision that follows, the author perceives a great scroll, foretelling the future of humanity but locked shut by seven seals that no one in Heaven or on Earth can open. Then the Lamb appears and proves worthy to break the seals, “for thou hast been slain and by thy blood hast purchased for God men from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation!” One by one, the Lamb breaks the seals. When he breaks the fifth seal, he “could see, beneath the altar, the souls of those who have been killed for the sake of the Word of God and because of the faithfulness of their witness.”

How long shall it be, they ask, before the Lord shall judge and avenge their blood upon the inhabitants of the earth? “Then each of them,” the passage concludes, “was given a white robe, and they were told to be patient a little longer, until the number of their fellow-servants and of their brethren, who were to die as they had died, should be complete” (Rev. 6:9—11 JBP).

The conflicts that the Revelation depicts are not confined to the supernatural. The spiritual condition of seven specific churches in Ephesus and vicinity is described intimately, two depicted as in excellent shape, three as wavering between Heaven and Hell, and two as in grave spiritual danger (Rev. 1:20—3:22).

From the start, the book puzzled and divided Christians, says Morris. It can be regarded in four ways. By the “preterist” view, it can be taken to have relevance only to those seven churches to whom it is addressed and to no one else. The “historicists,” by contrast, see it as a forecast of events through the whole of human history. The “futurist” perspective sees it as a pre-depiction of events at the end of the world. Finally, the “idealist” version regards it as setting forth the principles under which God determines the outcome of human history in all ages. Some combination of at least two of these views, observes Morris, “is essential.”

The imperial authorities, once they had acquired copies of it, were for their part not at all divided on what it meant. In it, Rome is shown as “Babylon,” as the “harlot of the Seven Hills” who is “drunk on the blood of the saints” (Rev. 17:6ff) who deceives the nations with her “sorcery” (18:23). As the Roman bureaucracy saw it, therefore, the book clearly demonstrated the Christians as anticipating and plotting the empire’s overthrow, and it would be cited against them for the next two centuries and more as evidence of their subversive intent.

However, it was the other document, John’s story of Jesus’ ministry, that Christians everywhere would have sought most avidly to read or hear. More than any of the other three gospels, it gave evidence throughout of the firsthand eyewitness, the man who was there and had seen for himself exactly what happened.

It abounded in detail–the behavior of crowds, the position of the boats along the Galilee shore following the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:22—24), the confrontation between the healed blind man and the irritated Pharisees (9:1—7), the exchange between Jesus and Martha over the meaning of the Resurrection (11:20—27), the specific name of the soldier whose ear was cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane (18:10), and the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (4:5—26). She left the water pot behind, we are told (4:28—30). But so what? Why is such a detail included in the story? No doctrine or moral lesson is implied by it. It’s there simply because the author remembers seeing it.

Far more than in the other three, it named names. Where they referred only to “the disciples,” the fourth would specify which disciples. “Philip answered him . . .” (6:7); “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him . . .” (6:8); “Simon Peter answered him . . .” (6:68); “Then said Thomas which is called Didymus . . .” (11:16); “Philip came and told Andrew . . .” (12:22). Peter, Thomas, Philip and Judas are individually mentioned in the long discourses between chapters 13 and 16. All this requires an eyewitness.

So too does the topographic detail: “Bethany beyond Jordan” (1:28); “Aenon near to Salem” (3:23); “Jacob’s well at Sychar, near to the parcel of land that Jacob gave to his son Joseph” (4:5); “the pool of Bethesda” (5:2)5; “the boats from Tiberias” (6:23); “Solomon’s porch” (10:23); “the place beyond Jordan where John baptized” (10:40); “Bethany about fifteen furlongs from Jerusalem” (11:18); “the city called Ephraim in the country near to the wilderness” (11:54); “the brook Cedron” (18:1); “the place called the Pavement” (19:13). Only someone who had been there could have furnished such detail.

Again and again, the author insists on his own reliability. “He that has seen it has borne witness and he knows that his witness is true” (19:35); “This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and we know that his witness is true” (21:24). Yet, the reader scarcely needs all this. The text breathes credibility. Not for another eighteen centuries, with the appearance of the modern novel, would writers learn to invent otherwise irrelevant details to make imagined scenes seem real. This man wrote these things because he heard and saw them. How else could they be accounted for?

It’s plain also that the writer had the other three accounts before him. He omits a great deal that they include because he considers their description adequate. The genealogical tables and the infancy and childhood stories that begin Matthew and Luke are not there. But he also solves problems the others left unresolved. They record only one visit of the adult Jesus to Jerusalem, an improbability since devout Jews customarily made the pilgrimage annually. John records a visit in each year of Jesus’ three-year ministry.

Like Mark’s, the Fourth Gospel begins its narrative with the ministry of John the Baptist. But from there on to the arrest and trial, Mark’s is a compendium of one miracle after another. In John there are only seven miracles, each cited to convey a theological point. A blind man’s sight is restored to show Jesus as “the light of the world.” Jesus walks on the water to show himself as a guide. Water is turned into wine to relieve a hostess’s embarrassment at a wedding banquet and to demonstrate that God has kept back the best wine until now, meaning presumably Jesus.

There is no mention in the Fourth Gospel of the directive about the bread and wine at the Last Supper. Since the churches were everywhere following it, there would be no need to cover it again. What the fourth does give, however, is a description of an appalling incident on the Galilee shore after the feeding of the five thousand, when the crowd sought to proclaim Jesus as a king. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” Jesus declares, “you have no life in you” (6:53). Understandably revolted, people deserted him in droves. Even the Twelve were shaken.6

John’s account of the Last Supper does provide the striking example Jesus left for every succeeding generation. Taking a towel and washing the feet of his followers, he drives home the point that the Christian leader must see himself as the servant of those he leads. (He thereby furnished the title assumed by the bishops of Rome–Servus Servorum Dei, “the Slave of the Slaves of God,” a description a considerable number of them would actually live up to, though certainly not all, as events over the centuries would disclose.)

Finally, the Fourth Gospel’s record of the Last Supper includes four full chapters of discourses the author recalls Jesus making, whether then or on other occasions, infused no doubt with John’s own reflections over the years. These and other discourses in the Gospel would provide maxims and sayings of Jesus that would inspire Christians throughout the ages: “I am the vine and you are the branches” (15:5); “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7); “I am the Light of the world” (8:12); “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25); “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (14:6); and finally the beloved, “I am the good shepherd . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:14, 15).

Little in the Fourth Gospel directly contradicted the other three accounts. Rather, it complemented or completed and explained them. The narratives of Matthew, Mark and Luke, wrote Anglican Archbishop William Temple in his Readings in St. John’s Gospel, “are unintelligible unless something like John’s story is accepted.” The others, he says, give a photograph of Jesus where John paints a portrait. The photograph is literally accurate, but the portrait brings out what a photograph cannot.

Jesus’ confrontation with Nicodemus, for instance, with its strange assertion that a man must be “born again,” is a story not told in the other three gospels. It leads directly to the staggering assertion: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16). Temple calls this the “central declaration” of the Christian faith.

More instructive still to first-century Christians, however, was the fourteen-verse prologue with which the Fourth Gospel begins, since it directly addressed the question: Was Jesus God?

“In the beginning,” it declares, “was the Word.” In the Gospel’s original Greek, the term used was logos. It was an expression they knew well, since it appeared recurrently in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, to render the Hebrew word dabar, as in, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made” (Ps. 33:6). Or, “At his word the waters stood in a heap, and the reservoirs of the waters at the word of his mouth” (from 39:17—18 of the apocryphal Book of Sirach).

But the same term, logos, had ancient usage in Greek philosophy as well. It appeared frequently in Plato, who used the term to describe the rational principle that must lie behind all nature. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo, a contemporary of Jesus who sought to reconcile the Greek Hellenistic tradition with that of his own people, combined the Greek and Hebrew usage of the word. He saw the logos as the image or reflection of God, through which the universe was originally ordered and continued to function.

The term “in the beginning” was also instantly recognizable. It echoed the opening verse of the Book of Genesis. So the Fourth Gospel isn’t talking about the beginning of Jesus, nor even the beginning of the world, but the beginning of everything that ever existed. It then makes two seemingly contradictory statements. “The Word,” it says, “was with God, and the Word was God.”

A succession of such declarations follow, each as sweeping as the last. Through the Word all things came to exist that do exist. Nothing exists apart from the Word. What came to be in the Word was “life,” and “the life was the light of men.”

The light “shines in the darkness,” it declares, and its next assertion would tax the vocabularies of English translators. “The darkness comprehendeth it not,” say the Authorized Version of the English King James I and the traditional Catholic Douay-Rheims translation. “The darkness did not absorb it,” says Temple. “The darkness did not overcome it,” says the New International Version. “The darkness did not overpower it,” says the Revised King James. But the translator Phillips, with a blunt simplicity that strained the Greek but better made the point, averred: “The light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out.”

The text next introduces John the Baptist, who was, it says, not himself “the light” but came to bear witness to it, this being the light “that enlightens every man who comes into the world.” The light was in the world and the world didn’t know “him.” It came to its own people and they didn’t receive him. However, those who did receive him gained a new life, became in fact the children of God, born not through nature, nor through the power of man, but through the action of God himself.

Then with a grand finality, the prologue closes. The Word became a living human being and “dwelt among us.” So there is the answer. Jesus is the Word. He is “with God” and also “was God.” The prologue concludes: “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Startling though it was, the gospel’s first hearers would have realized that much the same description had been used by St. Paul. In his epistle to the Christians at Colossae, he had portrayed Jesus as the “image” of God. (Col. 1:15); all things were created through him (1:16); all wisdom and knowledge are concentrated in him (2:3); in him the fullness of God dwells (1:19); he reconciles all things to himself, and through the cross he vanquished all the principalities and powers of Heaven and Earth (1:20).

Along with John’s Gospel and the Revelation, three other documents appeared, all letters or epistles ascribed to the name “John” and sharing the language of the gospel. The first repeats the terminology of the Fourth Gospel’s prologue. “The Word of life,” it begins, “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 . . . this is what we declare unto you” (1 John 1:1—3). These three letters would likewise be incorporated into the New Testament.

So the question was answered. Was Jesus God? Yes, and yet not quite yes, since he was also “with God.” The nature of God, so it appeared, was not simple. Yet, why should it be simple? they could ask. Nature is certainly not simple, and the more men discover about it, the less simple it becomes. So why, then, should we expect the Creator of nature to be simple?

Something else became abundantly clear to them. If the Word of God, which had existed from the beginning of time, had become in fact and in deed a living human being on this Earth, then that event must be paramount over all other events, at least as important as the first appearance of life itself.

Beside this, everything else must be inconsequential. Rome, the emperor, the pagans, the mob, all the forces ranged against them would be as nothing. For the light would shine in the darkness, and the darkness would not put it out.

This is the end of the John the Evangelist category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 10, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about John the Evangelist from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at