The style of St. John’s Gospel has captivated its readers from the earliest days in its depth and elegance—and it has equally baffled two millennia of believers as to its authorship and editing. The most obvious question is how a roughhewn Galilean fisherman produced such a masterpiece. Complicating matters further is the fact that there are five books of the New Testament under the name of John—ranging from the profoundly theological Gospel to the three Pastoral Epistles to the heavy metal apocalyptic world of Revelation.
The place to start, of course, is the question of whether the Apostle named John actually wrote any New Testament literature in his own hand. John was an immensely popular figure in the early Church, as he is identified as one of the inner circle, along with Peter and the senior James. In the Synoptic Gospels John and James are known collectively as boanerges, “the sons of thunder.” They are the ones who urge Jesus to destroy the faithless towns he would encounter. After the Pentecost event, the writer Luke in his Acts of the Apostles pairs Peter and John as exceptional evangelists in the holy city, Jerusalem. However, Luke will then take the book to a different direction and follow Paul on his mission to the Gentiles. The Apostle John’s future works and deeds are not recorded, but they have been the object of much speculation.
In the fourth and final Gospel in the historical line, John emerges with a significantly different persona, and its text strongly implies that John is no longer boanerges but “the disciple whom Jesus loved” pictured famously by Leonardo da Vinci leaning against Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper. I find humor in Dan Brown’s contention that John was actually Jesus’ wife, the basis for the novel The Da Vinci Code. The Synoptic portrayal of John is rather muscular, to say the least.) The Fourth Gospel describes John as the only one of the Twelve to remain with Jesus to his death; that Jesus entrusted his Mother Mary to John’s care, On Easter Sunday he is the first of the Twelve (after Magdalene) to reach the empty tomb, though he defers to Peter and lets the latter enter first.
There is respectable but not conclusive evidence that many Christians looked to John for leadership, and that a community of the Church gathered about him. The tenor of the Letters of John and certainly the Resurrection narratives of the Johannine Gospel suggest a possible strain between Peter’s and John’s followers, as this literature works to put things in order. John 21 has Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved him, and then commanding him to feed his sheep. In the same chapter Peter asks Jesus if John will live until the end of time.
Whoever was the mastermind of John’s Gospel (aside from God, of course) was truly brilliant. Although working around St. Mark’s basic biographical outline, this sacred author has a highly developed theology of the humanity and the divinity of Christ. He integrates such phrases as “the Word became flesh” and “Philip, he who sees me sees him who sent me.” He is the only evangelist to use the “prolonged discourse” to reveal God’s plan, such as the one we are hearing at Mass these five weeks. However, there has long been a theory that the author died before his final work could be processed, and that his disciples may have completed this Gospel in its final form.
For all of its elegance, John’s Gospel shows some clumsy editing, and this will become evident in this Sunday’s Gospel. Our current reading of John 6 begins at verse 41, where last week’s reading has the crowd now “murmuring.” This is a code word, referring back to Exodus 15 and 16 where Hebrew “murmuring” against Moses led to the miracle of the water from the rock and the manna respectively. (Even in English translation, “murmuring” is a great example of onomatopoeia, words that imitate the sound of the action.) The crowd is disquieted to hear Jesus describe himself as the bread from heaven, but they do catch the significance in part, at least, of what he has said about coming from heaven because they turn to his local origins as they know them
Verse 42 is taken from Mark with one interesting adjustment. In Mark 6:1-4 Jesus is derided as the hometown son of Mary; John amends this to “the son of Joseph.” John does not record Jesus’ birth in his Gospel, but nonetheless Mary gets significant favorable attention from the author. Jesus then proceeds with a series of statements. While each supports the main teachings of Jesus as the bread from heaven, it is noticeable that they do not flow smoothly in a sequence. Thus verse 44a: no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him; 44b: I will raise him [the believer] up on the last day; 45a: Old Testament quotation that “they shall all be taught by God; 45b: everyone who has heard the Father has heard him through me [Jesus]; 46a: no one has seen the Father except the one sent by God; and 47: “he who believes in me has eternal life.”
One of the singular features of John’s Gospel is Jesus’ emphasis that judgment is in the here and now, not in a vague future. The raising of Lazarus later in this Gospel will emphasize this point. Jesus’ preaching that salvation pivots upon decisions made now lead inevitably to the conclusion of listeners that rejection of his words is an effective damnation now, which no doubt added to the hostility of the crowds.
Verse 48 cuts to the heart: “I am the bread of life.” No matter what the disposition of each listener, clearly no one had ever said anything to them quite like that. Jesus leaves no doubt; verse 49 emphasizes the temporary nature of the manna and should not be confused with this new bread of life. The closing verse 51 is more radical still: the living bread is his own flesh. How will the crowds react to that?