Normally one reads the Gospels as all filling out details of the same basic story. This traditional attitude even affects critical scholars, who have focused on questions about the synoptic gospels’ shared source and their incorporation of their own particular sources into its basic framework. When they come to John, they assume that he has some other source — hence “further information” about Jesus. But as class prompted me to read Mark and John in rapid succession (along with the basic context surrounding the temptation in the desert in the other two gospels), another theory forced itself on me: what if the Gospel of John is a polemic against the picture of Jesus we get in the synoptic gospels? And more specifically, what if the Gospel of John has a polemic against the sacramental rites that the synoptic gospels helped to legitimate?
Here are some data points:
- The segment on John the Baptist simply skips over John’s baptism of Jesus. John sees the Spirit descend like a dove, but the text does not mention anything about the baptism that is the occasion for this vision in the other gospels (1:29-34).
- The author also makes a point of highlighting the fact that only Jesus’s disciples baptize people, not Jesus himself (4:2).
- John’s account of the Last Supper does not make any mention of the institution of the sacrament of communion, but instead has the rite of washing each other’s feet — and when Peter suggests getting his whole body washed (which sounds a lot like baptism to me!), Jesus tells him that his desire for such a thing shows he’s misunderstood Jesus (13:10-11).
- The only person who is recorded as consuming bread and wine at the Last Supper is Judas. To emphasize this point, Jesus tells the beloved disciple that consuming bread and wine will be the sign of the betrayer and directly hands it to Judas — and then the instant he eats it, Satan takes possession of him (13:26-27).
- If we return to the great discourse on consuming Jesus’s flesh and blood in ch. 6, Jesus seems to be establishing it as a kind of shibboleth for his disciples, similar to how parables work in the other gospels — and the text repeatedly highlights Judas’s presence among the disciples precisely in this context (6:64, 6:70-71). The fact that Judas goes on to take “literal” communion seems to indicate that the true disciples would understand this discourse in a different way — not, as the later tradition would have it, as a legitimation of the rite of communion.
If we pair this polemic against sacraments with the fact that John moves the cleansing of the Temple forward substantially, we could probably conclude that the evangelist is worried that the use of sacramental rites represents a relapse into Judaism. And this is problematic because the Jews know nothing about the true God, but are instead children of the devil (passim).
In short, I’m pretty sure John is actually a Gnostic gospel and that it does violence to the text to include it as a legitimation of orthodoxy.