XLVII. In Chapter Eight of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict turns to John’s Gospel. Most of what he has presented thus far is from the Synoptics; even casual hearers of Scripture recognize the difference in tone and approach in John. Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke present a more subtle revelation of Jesus’s divinity, John displays that theme openly and insistently. Instead of parables and various miracles, John presents seven signs, progressing in orderly fashion to reveal His purpose in being sent by the Father, accompanied by dialogues that become discourses by Jesus, explaining His mission and identity.
So different is this presentation that scholars for a time discounted John’s grounding in actual history. They argued that the Gospel of John fabricated a largely fictional narrative perhaps written well into the second century, but surely not from an actual eyewitness to real events. Writers like Rudolf Bultmann in the 1940s claimed that John presents an image of Jesus that is rooted in the ancient philosophy known as Gnosticism. This was a set of dualistic ideas – that there are two eternal forces of good and evil, light and dark, that are forever in conflict. Those who discover the secret knowledge (the meaning of the Greek gnosis) that they are in fact divine beings trapped in the material world rise above the darkness and live in the light. Bultmann especially found this link in John’s presentation of Jesus as the Logos, or Word, made flesh. Gnosticism would ultimately deny beliefs like creation and its goodness, the reality of objective moral right and wrong, the value of material creation including the body, and of course the idea that bodily resurrection is good.
Reading John, one understands Bultmann’s logic, flawed as it is. The Fourth Gospel’s vocabulary is filled with ideas of contrast between light and dark, above and below, flesh and spirit, good and evil. But there are other themes as well: the seven signs; legal vocabulary like judgement, testimony, verdict, evidence; sending and being sent; and perhaps above all, the dynamic of seeing and believing.