A Man Named John who Came to Testify About the Light and Whom We Call Evangelist
Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
These are the words with which John the Evangelist opens his Gospel. They are amongst the most consequential and enlightening words of the New Testament, and they were transcribed by the author for a very specific purpose.
John the Apostle was the youngest of the Apostles. He was the younger brother of James the Greater with whom he was called Son of Thunder by Jesus himself. He also lived to be the oldest apostle and the last to die. As such, his direct influence upon the early church fathers was monumental. Indeed, some of the questions today's doubters of the authenticity of the Gospels have are answered by John's experiences. The first one being why did it take so long to write the Gospels if they were actually written by those who lived with Our Lord?
In point of fact, the claim that the narratives were chronologically separated from the actual times of Jesus's life and resurrection is misleading. At least three of the Gospels were written by people who lived with Christ, who spoke to him directly, and who walked with him. The Gospel of Matthew was written by an actual apostle as early as 70 A.D., as was Mark's. The Gospel of Luke was authored a little later by a Greek doctor and disciple of Paul in about 80 A.D., and that of John is thought to have been started in 70 A.D. and took its final form around 90 A.D. Since the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ took place on or about 33 A.D., then the separation between the Gospels and the events they describe is thirty to fifty years. By today's standards, the chronological separation appears significant, but it dissolves when one considers the time in which they were written.
For starters, the new Christian community was convinced that the return of Christ was imminent. The belief stemmed in part from their all-too-literal interpretation of Christ's comments about defeating death. If those who accepted Our Lord were not to die, then didn't that mean that he would be returning to them while they were still living? And if the Christ were imminently to return, what need would there be to document his time on earth? As time went on, and in particular, as the Apostolic Fathers began to die, it became apparent that there may be future generations needing to know of Christ's acts while here on earth, and the need to document his actions and teachings grew.
A much more significant cause for the delay was the Jewish-Roman War that began on 66 A.D. and which resulted in Jerusalem's destruction in 73 A.D. During those times, a devastating famine decimated the Jews. There was so much hunger and such little food that Jewish citizens ate their own leather shoes in a desperate attempt to remain alive. There is one particularly poignant account of a Jewish mother who cooked her own child shortly after delivering it. She was discovered by Roman soldiers who followed the scent of the food in the hopes of robbing her of whatever scraps they could, but instead were repulsed to discover of the horrific events that had just taken place. Under such circumstances, there was no inclination for writing, meditation, or historical documentation.
Ironically, the Christian population was largely spared the famine and destruction that besieged Jerusalem because of Our Lord's very words. Jesus predicted a time of colossal suffering for the Jews. It is recorded in detail in Chapter 13 of The Gospel of Mark. Additionally, Jesus's comments to women bystanders as he made his was to his crucifixion was prophetic. He said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, 'Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.' At that time people will say to the mountains, 'Fall upon us!' and to the hills, 'Cover us!' for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:28-32)
Because of Christ's prophecies, many Jewish Christians left Jerusalem prior to the Roman siege. They were part of the diaspora, but theirs was not The Jewish Faith. Theirs was a sect, and like so many other Jews, they were being absorbed by the cultures of the regions in which they found themselves. For this reason, and because the Jewish religion was not adopting the Christ as the Messiah, the new Faith, their Faith, needed to be memorialized.
There was also the evangelical work of Paul, who was converting gentiles to Christianity. His travels took him to present day Greece, Rome, and maybe even Spain. Initially, he took his proselytization to the Jewish temples throughout the Mediterranean, but as the Jews rejected his message, he took it to the gentiles. These were pagans who not only did not know Jesus, they did not know the concept of the One God. For them, this Jew from Antioch must have sounded like he was from Mars. Not only did they need to learn about Jesus, they needed to learn about Judaism. For them and in support of the effort at converting them, the documentation of the life and works of Jesus the Christ was instrumental.
The push for the stories of our Lord while on earth thus materialized. Mark's Gospel was targeted to the Jews. It was the result of a request from the early followers that he write everything that Peter said. Thus, Mark's was a more descriptive text, reporting on what Peter told of the actions and words of Christ.
John's Gospel, according to Eusebius, was "being urged by his friends and inspired by the Spirit." It is a more "spiritual" Gospel.
John himself tells us about why he wrote his Gospel in the opening words of his text: "A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify in the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." (Jn 1:6-9)
John's Gospel was shaped by the heresies that had started to creep in, even at that early age, and to which he needed to respond. How could Jesus be God and man at the same time? If he was born of the Virgin, then how could he have existed prior to his birth? This need to explain Christianity's theological premises is part of the reason for the philosophical undertone of the opening of John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be." It also motivates the explanatory language that follows shortly thereafter: "And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth."
Thus John was amongst the most influential members of the earliest Christians, and arguably the truest to our Lord. John was the one who unquestioningly followed Christ when John the Baptist pointed him out to be the Lamb of God. He recruited his brother, James the Greater, and was the only one who never abandoned Jesus to the point of being the only apostle who mourned at the foot of the Cross during the Lord's crucifixion along side of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and likely, Salome. So trusted was John to Jesus, in fact, the he entrusted his mother to John's care, saying to Mary, "Mother, behold, your son," and to John, "Behold, your mother."
John lived a long life, with most estimating he died at 93 years of age. He remained active throughout those days, spreading the word of God to the end. His influence beyond the Gospel was monumental, and we shall cover it in our next installation of our Christianity Series.
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Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He served in the Florida House of Representatives. He is the author of numerous books including The Federalist Pages, The Case for Free Market Healthcare, and Coronalessons. He is available for appearances and book signings, and can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.com.