John's Gospel and Intimations of Apocalyptic, edited by Catrin Williams and Christopher Rowland

In July, four years ago (wow has it been that long ago?) a number of us met at Bangor University to discuss new directions in research on the Gospel of John and apocalypticism.  The conference was in response to John Aston's book Understanding the Fourth Gospel, and the fact that the apocalyptic dimensions had not received the kind of study that Aston suggested would be valuable.  How is the text pervaded with themes concerning the apocalyptic or revelation?  How does the Johannine narrative offer intimations of another world, another reality, without a direct theophany typical of so many apocalypses (p. ix)?

I dealt with centuries of mistranslations of John 8:44 and argue in my contribution to this book that this text reveals a long-kept secret that the early Johannine community believed that the devil had a Father who is the Jewish biblical god.  This god is not Jesus' Father.   "Why are the Heavens Closed? The Johannine Revelation of the Father in the Catholic-Gnostic Debate."  I also examine 1 John and show that this letter is written to domesticate the early community's original understanding of John 8:44.  This understanding of the Gospel of John forms now the basis of my understanding of Johannine Christianity, and will resurface in my chapter on the fourth gospel (John and the Dark Cosmos) in my book The Ancient New Age.

If you are interested in the Gospel of John and its intersection with revelation, this volume contains some really "new" ideas and I highly recommend it. 

Authors and Table of Contents:

  • Christopher Rowland and Catrin Williams, Introduction
  • John Ashton, Intimations of Apocalyptic: Looking Back and Looking Forward
  • Benjamin Reynolds, John and the Jewish Apocalypses: Rethinking the Genre of John's Gospel
  • Ian Boxall, From the Apocalypse of John to the Johannine "Apocalypse in Reverse": Intimations of Apocalyptic and the Quest for a Relationship
  • Jörg Frey, God's Dwelling on Earth: 'Shekhina-Theology' in Revelation 21 and in the Gospel of John
  • Catrin Williams, Unveiling Revelation: The Spirit-Paraclete and Apocalyptic Disclosure in the Gospel of John
  • Christopher Rowland, 'Intimations of Apocalyptic': The Perspective of the History of Interpretation
  • April DeConick, Why are the Heavens Closed? The Johannine Revelation of the Father
  • Jutta Leonhardt-Balzer, The Ruler of the World, Antichrists and Pseudo-Prophets: Johannine Variations on an Apocalyptic Motif
  • Loren Stuckenbruck, Evil in Johannine and Apocalyptic Perspective: Petition for Protection in John 17
  • Judith Lieu, Text and Authority in John and Apocalyptic
  • Robert G. Hall, The Reader as Apocalyptist in the Gospel of John
  • Robin Griffith-Jones, Apocalyptic Mystagogy: Rebirth-from-above in the Reception of John's Gospel
  • Adela Yarbro Collins, Epilogue


A wild thought about scripture

One of the things that has deeply struck me as I have been rereading the ancient sources like John and Paul as I am writing chapters for my book

The Gnostic New Age

, is that our assumptions make all the difference to our understanding of what a text says. 

Now this is not a new revelation for me.  I have known this since I was an undergraduate.  But knowing it intellectually is very different from really experiencing it.  Scholars know this.  But, by and large, we don't do anything about it.  We continue to read texts as we have been trained to read them (as orthodox Christians have read them for centuries), and there is great turmoil if someone suggests otherwise. 

We assume that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent.  We gloss and harmonize what doesn't fit.  We do it unconsciously so that the text fits our preconceived mental frames.

With the work I have been doing (some of it in cognitive studies), I have come to see that the assumption that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent is simply wrong.  The authors of the New Testament texts were not orthodox.  They were not even proto-orthodox.  They had their own ideas, many of which were innovative, revolutionary, and wild.

What makes the text orthodox is its interpretation, one that is imposed upon it by later readers who had a stake in how the Christian tradition was unfolding.  We simply have inherited this interpretation and consider it authorial.

There was a war over these texts and their meaning, a war that continues today.  It was an early war too.  This is not about Gnosticism at the end of the second century that somehow got the interpretation of the texts all wrong.  This is about the first century.  It is about Palestine and Samaria.  It is at the root of the Christian faith. 

Paul of the letters is far removed from the author of the Pastorals who tries desperately to tame Paul's wildness, or Luther's Paul who is further excised of any charisma.  John of the Gospel is far removed from the domestication that the Elder in the Johannine letters imposed on John and later orthodox church leaders picked up and developed. 

Once I was able to dislocate myself from my orthodox training, I have come to see that both Paul and John were impacted by Gnostic spirituality.  It forms the center of their concept of the Christian faith.  Both were reacting to Judaism, which they saw as a religion that did not really know the true God or what he actually wanted.  Both preached liberation from the old forms of Servant spirituality that was the cradle of all the Near Eastern religions.  Both believed that the experience of God, the revelation of God, was what mattered, and it was to be experienced by everyone through initiation.  Both were transgressors who understood the old Jewish scriptures in ways that subverted its accepted meanings.  And on and on.

I guess what I am saying is that I think there is more work that needs to be done on Christian origins, work that demands we set aside our assumptions about orthodoxy, and come to see the wild innovative nature of the early Christian communities.

The name of my John talk

The name of my talk on the Gospel of John for the Hidden God, Hidden Histories conference is: "What is hiding in the Gospel of John? Reconceptualizing Johannine Origins and the Roots of Gnosticism".

My "paper" has become so full and so detailed that it looks like it is going to become the basis of another book. I already have the title for it:

John Interrupted: What can the Gospel of John tell us about the origins of Christianity and Gnosticism?

The work I'm doing is from the ground up, straight back to the ancient sources. And all because one day, while preparing to deliver an undergraduate lecture on the Gospel of John, I stumbled upon a passage in Greek that is not translated accurately in any modern translation I have been able to find.

Self-perservation and the Gospel of John

I haven't been blogging too much lately because I have been up to my neck in research on the Gospel of John as I am preparing for the upcoming Hidden God, Hidden Histories conference. This research has been both enlightening and depressing, a sort of high and low of my academic journey.

I have known for a long time that traditions are conservative and self-interested, but what is coming home for me in a very real way is just how much the traditions are safe-guarded by the dominant group - be it the mainstream churches or the academy - and how far the dominant group will go to protect them. The interests and preservation of those interests often become the end-all, even at the expense of historical truth. The rationalizations, the apologies, the 'buts', the tortured exegesis, the negative labeling, the side-stepping, the illogical claims accumulate until they create an insurmountable wall that preserves both church and academy, which remain (uncomfortably so for me) symbiotic.

The entrenchment of the academy is particularly worrisome for me. Scholars' works are often spun by other scholars, not to really engage in authentic critical debate or review, but to cast the works in such a way that they can be dismissed (if they don't support the entrenchment) or engaged (if they do). In other words, fair reproduction of the author's position and engagement with it does not seem to me to be the top priority. The quest for historical knowledge does not appear to me to be the major concern. It usually plays back seat to other issues including the self-preservation of the ideas and traditions of the dominant parties - those who control the churches, and the academy with its long history of alliance with the churches.

I already know that what I have to say about the critical history of the Gospel of John and the origins of Christianity is going to be countered with the full force of the church and academic tradition that has built up around the fourth gospel a secure armor of 'correct' and 'permitted' interpretation, an exegetical tradition as old as the Johannine epistles that has worked to normalize, to deradicalize, to tame the beast. What I have to say is 'not allowed' speech, 'can't be' talk.

Even so I continue to study and write, to speak the unspeakable in my quest to remain fully engaged with the critical investigation of Christian history.

Jesus on the Road to Nicaea 3: Anti-Semitism

If we are going to talk about turn-of-the-century Christian literature and the development of a Christian self-identity, then we are going to have to be ready to face anti-


. It infuses this literature. It is explicit as well as implicit.

This is a topic that is difficult to broach because we are talking about hatred that, when mobilized by those in power, leads to terror, violence, and death. It is very tough to look at this literature and not feel shame and guilt.

What I think has been happening in scholarship as a way to dampen this shame and guilt in post WWII modernity is a


of the conflict between the Jews and the Christians in this period as an


-Jewish conflict. In my opinion, this revision of history (whether intentional or unintentional) serves to soften the shame and guilt by suggesting, however


, that Christianity is not guilty of originating anti-


because 1) Christianity didn't really exist yet and 2) the conflict was a conflict that arose among Jewish brothers and sisters. The desire to revise the history of Judas is part of this scholarly trajectory (whether intentional or unintentional), either wishing Judas away or wanting him to be a hero that later traditions demonized. All of this effectively works toward exonerating the earliest Christians, so that the Christian tradition is not inherently at fault for anti-


(and therefore we don't need to change anything essential to Christianity today), and so we can return to being brothers and sisters as we were before the conflict arose.

There are many things about this revision of history that I am uncomfortable with, especially the argument that anti-


arose as an


-Jewish conflict, which effectively ends up shifting the blame for the origin of anti-


on Judaism rather than Christianity (although I don't think that this was the intention of the academic argument).

So in my posts when I discuss the separation of Christianity and Judaism, I will be addressing this issue openly. It is correct that Christianity is a Jewish movement during this period, BUT it also is a movement that is taking on a self-identity that is beginning to define itself against Judaism or superior to Judaism. So when the Christian tradition was forming as its own unique religion (when it was identifying itself as something other than Jewish), it generally did so by defining itself over and/or against Judaism rather than in continuity with it. Even its attempt to keep the Jewish scriptures was done in terms of superiority, the Jewish scriptures become the "old" covenant


by the "new." The Jewish ways of interpreting their scriptures were discarded as foolish and ignorant, while the Christian way was understood to be God-inspired.

This process of self-identification occurred gradually and at different times for different Christian populations and some groups chose to keep closer ties to Jewish traditions than others did. Anti-Semitism originated within this environment. It is at the core of the original process of Christian self-definition. What this means for Christianity today and in the future is something that I think the churches still need to address, especially since the anti-Semitism that was the consequence of early Christian self-definition became part of the Christian scripture when texts like the Gospel of John were canonized.

Creating Jesus 24: Transmutative Soteriology

As I finish up the final paradigm, the one in which God's Logos or Reason functions at Jesus' soul, so that God is literally a human being walking around on earth, I want to address how this alters the pattern of salvation. Because we have here a christology in which God and the flesh meet, forming an extraordinary human being, the goal of this paradigm is for all humans to experience this same transmutation, a perfecting that alters their humanity in the same way that it had altered Jesus'. This is a process called theosis and it is captured in the words of many of the church fathers from the east, "God became man so that man can become God."

How was this achieved? Largely it happens through the sacraments. It begins through baptism when one is "reborn of water and spirit" (John 3:5). It is a REBIRTH. The person's soul is literally born anew. It was believed that the waters purified the person while the spirit infused the soul, altering it so that the soul and person was created anew reflecting God's image.

This transmutation was maintained through the person's participation in the eucharist. In John 6, the author is not speaking about cannibalism, eating the flesh and blood of the historical Jesus. Rather the person is supposed to consume a sacred or divinized flesh, the extraordinary body of God. This body the person's eats is "the bread of life" which has "come down from heaven." This heavenly bread is Jesus' divinized flesh, and when consumes, yields life eternal to the one eating it. This incorporation of the sacred body worked like divine medicine, immortalizing the person over time. It is familiar to us in our adage: "You are what you eat."

So here, in John's gospel, we have our third and final paradigm, one that understands the eucharist as an experience of at-one-ment in contrast to the sacrifical model familiar to the Pauline tradition of "atonement." The devotee incorporates the sacred elements to imitate the ensoulment of Jesus, since at the moment of consumption a unification between God and the human is experienced. When this happens regularly, a process of transmutation is undergone, and eventually theosis will be achieved.

Since I got a very positive response to continuing this series beyond the foundational paradigms, I have decided to move forward into the second-century and trace with you what happened to these paradigms in the theology and practices of the Christians up to Nicaea. So my posts will begin a "new" series called Jesus on the Road to Nicaea.

Creating Jesus: To Chalcedon?

Pastor Bob has asked me to take us to Chalcedon in terms of christology. I can certainly do this...but I don't want to bore my readers with the same subject for an extended period of time. I can cover all the controversies to Nicaea, Nicaea, and its fallout, but only if this is something that will interest you.

As for James McGrath's post today, arguing for a possession christology in John. I do not find these arguments convincing. There is no prophetic tradition from Judaism in which the prophet is ever God. No prophet would ever claim "I AM" for himself or "I and the Father are one." Now the Kavod and Angel of the Lord traditions do help to explain this, as they also help to explain the distinction that Jesus is the son and a mediator figure (which I have explained in earlier posts in this series). But prophet traditions do not. The spirit in prophetic tradition is always a temporary possession of a full human being and never makes the possessed God himself.

This is not to say that prophetic traditions have not influenced early strata of Johannine traditions. They have, particularly Samaritan understandings of the Prophet-like-Moses. But these traditions have been reconfigured within a Hellenistic model of anthropology in which the Logos descends into flesh. The language is not language of descent into a full human being, into a "man", but of the descent of God's Reason into flesh. This is ensoulment language not possession language.

Perhaps it would be helpful to know that in Hellenistic philosophy, particularly that influenced by Plato, God was conceived as The Good and The One. When he thinks (which is all he can do) he is Mind-Logos within which exists all thoughts and patterns for the universe. Plato perceived these to be "forms." Some of the first Christians thought of them as little logoi. Origen, in fact, says that these little logoi became our souls when their love for God began to cool off and they fell down into matter and became psyches. Only one little logos remained completely attached to God and this is what Origen thought became Jesus' soul.

Creating Jesus 23: Ensoulment christology

I have been on vacation, and now that I'm back for a couple of weeks at least, I want to try to finish up the Creating Jesus series.

We were discussing Johannine understandings of Jesus last time. What we have in John is something different from the other gospels. The Johannine perspective is an ensoulment perspective. In other words, the Logos (God's mind) descends and takes on flesh. So Jesus' soul is the Logos. This means that he is different from ordinary human beings who do not have God's Logos as our souls. The divine aspect of Jesus is not an appendage to Jesus' soul; it is Jesus' soul.

There is in this paradigm a fusion of Logos language and Hellenistic anthropology with Angel of Yahweh traditions. The word Logos is appropriate because it would have been understood by the Hellenistic populace to describe a substitute psyche. God's Reason is ensouled in Jesus.

The result? God walks around on earth as a human being. Jesus' body is the New Temple in which God's presence walks. He is the Glory, God's manifestation, visible in his person, his signs and wonders, and his crucifixion. Because of the ensoulment paradigm, the Kavod is made to assert characteristics of Reason, characteristics that would otherwise be foreign to its tradition, particularly the assertation that the Glory or Kavod is personalized as Jesus' soul so that a particular person, Jesus, becomes the earthly manifestation of the hidden God (John 1:18).

It is a rather clever theological claim, blending Hellenistic philosophy and anthropological knowledge with Angel of the Lord and Kavod biblical traditions. By so doing, the author of John has God himself manifested in history as Jesus.

Creating Jesus 22: God's psyche

I have been home doing improvement projects lately, so the blog has been quiet on my end. Back in the office for the day today, so here is the next post.

There has been some activity in the comments to my last post about whether or not the Logos is really God or just sharing his nature. This discussion is a Nicene discussion, and is reading John in light of those later theological wars. John was read and claimed to support both the Arians and the anti-Arians and the marginal Arians. It was read to be a subordinianist document - that the Son was the Logos (lesser or other than God), a mediator between God the Father and humanity. And it was read to be a homoousian document, identifying the Father with the Son. It came to be read as a document that supports the two-natures doctrine that prevailed at Chalcedon, as well as the monophysite position.

So John is a difficult document to work with, especially if we are trying to understand the text as a pre-Nicene document. But if we look internally, we see that the author appears to have understood Jesus to be the pre-existent Logos, God's very mind, and that this mind came to exist in flesh. So what we have here is an ensoulment Christology. In other words, God's mind or psyche (=soul in English translation) took on flesh and became a human being. Thus Jesus didn't have his own normal human soul or psyche like you and I have. His soul or psyche was God's mind. Quite literally he was God manifested as a human being.

Again, Sophia traditions cannot explain Jesus' equivalence with the eternal God. It appears that we are dealing again with the Angel of YHWH traditions, the manifestation of God that bears his NAME, the Tetragrammaton. The NAME in Jewish traditions was understood to be a hypostasis of God's eternal nature, and thus, was viewed as equivalent to him. The NAME was instrumental in creation and was present in the Angel of YHWH. So what we seem to be seeing in the Johannine gospel is retrospective thinking about the embodiment model. Jesus' identification with the Angel of YHWH is pushed back pretemporally, from pre-existent to precosmogonic.

This traditional Jewish thinking is combined with Hellenistic-Greek understanding about the origin of the human being, particularly the origin of the psyche or rational aspect of the human being. The psyche or soul fell from the heavens into the material body. This becomes a human being and is birthed from the womb. So what we have in John is the idea that God's Logos, his mind becomes a soul embodied as Jesus.

More on this in the next post.

Creating Jesus 21: What about the Gospel of John?

So far I have discussed the earliest paradigms: The Jerusalem Paradigm where we find a possession christology and a behavioral soteriology; The Antiochean Paradigm where we have an embodiment christology and a sacrificial soteriology. The Jerusalem paradigm survived in the eastern formations of Christianity and is still prominent in the traditions of the Syrian and Assyrian orthodox churches. The Antiochean paradigm is most familiar to westerners because it survived most prominently in the Roman Catholic tradition which also means that it survives in the Protestant reform movements.

The third paradigm is most prominent in Alexandrian traditions and our earliest source for it is the Gospel of John. It is also known in some eastern Syrian literature because there was an ancient road that connected Alexandria with Edessa and news and ideas spread quickly across this route. I do not have an answer to the question of John's birthplace, but I have been leaning lately toward Alexandria for a host of reasons that are too involved to comment on here.

This paradigm knows the other two, and represents the height of retrospective teaching about Jesus. Jesus is not a great Angel or a spirit who descends and embodies a human being at baptism or in the womb. His pre-existence is moved a step back, to a time before creation. He is God's reason or logos. The Logos IS God, the text says. He is God's mind that becomes flesh.

Although scholars have opted in the past to explain this by noting parallels with sophia traditions - traditions about God's wisdom - these parallels have never been able to explain the identification of the Logos with God existing from the beginning. Sophia is never God from the beginning.

How is this to be explained? More on this in my next post.