The earliest gospels 5 – Gospel of John (according to P L Couchoud)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing here with Couchoud’s views of second-century gospel origins. Earlier posts, including explanations for the reasons etc for these posts, are archived here.

C’s story of John’s gospel begins with a setting in Ephesus, two generations after the feverish hopes for the coming of the Lord that produced the Book of Revelation. The church at Ephesus “preserved the tradition of the pillar apostle who had seen the Lord, for in this lay its claim to fame and to authority.” (p. 223) Apocalyptic enthusiasm had dwindled away and been replaced by a mysticism that experienced Christ as having come in the “here and now” in spirit and in their own flesh. Paul’s teachings about a mystical union with Christ also primary, according to the evidence of “Ignatius” in his letter to the Ephesians, so much so that Paul’s concept of baptism as symbolic of death and burial had been superseded by the idea of baptism as a principle of a new life in Christ, with eternal life being granted at the moment of emerging from the real “water of life”.

These Christians were “born again” here and now and forever. They lived here and now in Light and Life. They could see and touch here and now the miracles of that divine life in full joy and love. The love was, however, a cultic love for their own brethren and worshiped spirits and not for the world. The prophets were revered, but also tested to see that they were not false and that they carried the same teaching of Christ having come now in the flesh.

They rejected the Marcionites and original teaching of Paul that Jesus had come only in the form of a man. Christ’s body was mystically both heavenly and human flesh and blood. Being heavenly Jesus was not, as Matthew said, born through a woman. The logical impossibility of being both spirit and flesh at one time in one body was resolved by mystic illumination that passes rational understanding.

Christ, they said, was manifest not only in the water but also in the blood. For this reason they rejected Basilides’ teaching that Christ did not really suffer crucifixion, and the teaching of Cerenthus (a Jew by birth) that the Spirit entered Jesus at baptism but left him at the Passion. Christ was manifest both at baptism and on the cross. They accordingly replaced the eucharistic cup of water (Marcionites) with the cup of wine. Jesus was also crucified as the saving Passover Lamb and therefore at the same time as the Passover Sacrifice — the 14th Nisan, and the eucharist of the evening before was not itself the Passover meal. Without a flesh and blood death Christ could not remove sins, they taught.

The Background Disputes

Their Gospel was written some time after the three epistles bearing John’s name were penned by the same author or group of prophets. These epistles railed against the Anti-christ, Marcion. (Tertullian recognized their identification of the anti-christ with Marcion but believed this was by prophetic anticipation.) The themes and images of the Gospel are seen laid out in these epistles.

There are differences, too, indicating that the Gospel was composed some time later. The Gospel no longer has any interest in the Parousia or anticipated coming of Jesus. Jesus has come now. In the Gospel the promised Comforter or Paraclete is a Spirit double of Jesus who takes the place of the once anticipated Son of Man, while in the epistles he was Jesus himself.

The Gospels of Marcion, Mark and Matthew contained false alarms about the Coming. Jesus had come. The mystics experienced eternal life here and now. The earthly life and death of Jesus — not a future hope of seeing Jesus in the clouds of Daniel — were his true glorification. Forget two advents, one past and the other to come. There had been and remained only one.

After the crushing of Bar Kochba’s revolt in 135 a number of rabbinic exiles sought refuge in Ephesus. They brought with them their hostility against those they believed were worshiping a second God in Christ alongside the One True God. Conflict with these Jews, absent from the earlier epistles, is expressed in the Gospel that seeks to explain that Jesus was from the beginning One With the Father. (An interesting footnote speculation suggests a possibility that Justin’s Dialogue partner Trypho was meant to represent the famous rabbi Tarphon who was a contemporary of Akiba and Bar Kochba.)

So the Gospel of John was born from these disputes and a knowledge of the Gospel of Mark.

Relation to Matthew and Mark

Mark’s Gospel provided the story frame. Marcion’s Gospel added a few scenes such as the centurion’s faith and the miraculous catch, and names Lazarus, Martha and Mary whom he joins into a single family. The Gospel of Matthew did not reach Ephesus till late since it does not appear to influence John’s Gospel till the final appended chapter. Other traces of Matthew, such as the name of the high priest Caiaphas, may also have been added at the time the author later added his new ending.

The Identity of the Author

The name of the apostle John was associated with the Gospel to give it some marketing momentum, and this was done quite subtly:

  • A ‘beloved disciple’ was created to be a special confidante of Jesus and the most important of witnesses
  • But nowhere is this mysterious friend named
  • Just as John himself is not named where he very probably appeared
  • Conclusion of the reader: the beloved disciples is John.

The date of the Gospel is indicated by allusions to Bar Kochba:

John 5:43 : I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.

Another possible allusion is in John 16:2: They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.

The author was well acquainted with Jewish customs but less so with those no longer in force, such as the tenure of the high priest. He thought this was annual in the manner of a similar position in Asia.

Couchoud suggests that the Gospels appeared between 134 and 145.

Contrast with Marcion’s Gospel

Where Marcion had set up antitheses between the Good God and the Creator God, the author of this Gospel seeks a synthesis. He makes one and the same the Unknown Father and the traditional Hebrew God, the Jesus of the Clouds and the Jesus of Galilee, the Spirit Christ and the Flesh-and-blood Christ. From Marcion he borrowed the hostility between Grace and Law and from Paul mystic gnosis.

Not a single man’s gospel

The Gospel’s authority was given added support by the story that circulated about its origin. It was not one man’s interpretation. It was the work of fasting and prayer on the part of fellow-apostles and bishops according to the Muratorian Canon:

John, one of the disciples, when exhorted by his fellows and his bishops, said to them, ‘Fast with me today for three days. All that is revealed to us we will tell one another.’ That very night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that under the control of all (recogniscentibus cunctis) John would write down everything in his name.

Distinctive features

Couchoud follows scholars of his day who saw the Gospel of John as “a cultus poem” for a Paschal liturgy. Its successive sections of poems and speeches are hymns stitched together in narrative form. Many of them reflect the themes of Marcionism — the Good God coming down unknown, not to judge but to save. John the Baptist did not baptize Jesus but merely announced him as the Son of God and Paschal Lamb to save the world from sin. The Jews belong to the Devil, Jesus to Light and has nothing in common with them.

Jesus did not himself undergo baptism or temptation by Satan or institute the eucharist as in the other gospels. His life and death themselves were the institution of such rites.

He is the founder of these rites mystically by his death, as Paul taught.

It was from the Cross that his body issued blood and water — the cup of the sacrament. Unlike the Jesus in Mark’s Gospel this Jesus was not the first of the martyrs but the Redeemer God himself.

The Gospel of John’s Christ replaces the Christ of the Book of Revelation by undergoing a three-and-a-half year ministry, or time of trial, before finally fulfilling the Day of Judgement and casting out of Satan by his death.

Various stories in Mark are combined and re-written to give them new spiritual meanings. Mark’s healing of the paralytic who was lowered through a dug-out roof of a house is transferred to Jerusalem beneath the five porticoes of the pool of Bethesda. The charge to “Go and sin no more” was added to Mark’s account. There is no further remission of sins after baptism.

Mark mentions two blind men being cured, one at Bethsaida and the other at Jericho. John amalgamates the two into one who is healed by the divine saliva. John’s healing symbolizes the healing by the light of the world of the whole world who knew not the law.

From Marcion he took two sisters symbolic of piety, Mary and Martha, and added them to the symbol of poverty, Lazarus, from whom the Dives or the Rich Man had vainly asked to be resurrected, and joined them into one family. Mary was also identified with the prostitute who had wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. Another interesting footnote suggests that the name of Lazarus was originally taken from Eleazar whose resurrection was celebrated on Hanukkah’s 25th Kislev. (4 Macc. 17:8-24)

At his arrest and trial Jesus is in complete control, declaring his identity, overpowering an entire cohort of Roman soldiers by his mere word, carrying his own cross, and dying not in darkness but in light.

Jesus’ mother in this gospel takes the place of the Woman in the Apocalypse. Jesus never calls her “Mother”, since he was not born of her. Rather, she personifies the old (Jewish) Church and the beloved disciple, into whose care Jesus’ sends her, represents the truly initiated Christians, the mystics. These two are to live together after Jesus’ decree from the Cross, with the woman coming to live in the son’s house.

The most important detail on the Cross was the spear thrust into Jesus’ side shedding both water and blood — the blood of the eucharist and the water of baptism. This was the evidence, the true testimony, of Jesus. And it was to see this that Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled: “They shall look on him whom they pierced.”

Jesus then ascends to heaven (Mary, the first to see him, could not touch him because he had not yet ascended) and then descends again to be witnessed and touched by his disciples. This Ascent and Descent “recall in reverse order the Descent and Ascension of the Gods of the Mysteries”. Both Ascent and Descent are celebrated on the same day — the morning and evening of Easter Sunday, the festival of the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Parousia — all in the one extended past event.

Conflict with other Gospels

The Gospel of John refutes Marcionism not by rational argument but by the need to believe in the mystic understanding. Jesus is both God and Flesh. The Father of Jesus is also the Father of the Hebrew nation in the Jewish Scriptures. The Christians literally have fellowship in the flesh with God and Jesus here and now. Despite the Jews having the Devil as their father salvation paradoxically still comes from the Jews. The Second Advent is not a future event. Christ has come already and dwells with and in his Church.

But the evangelist is careful to do nothing to alarm Christian sensibilities, and plunges his audacities in a mist of devotion and muffles them behind the harmonies of poetic incantations. (p. 257)

But there could be no harmony with the Gospel of Matthew. Where Matthew preached a New Law John preached the all sufficiency of love; Matthew that Christ was the Messiah of Israel, John that he was the Eternal God; Matthew appealed to Hebrew Christians, John to Greeks schooled in the mysteries and enthusiastic Christians.

John’s Gospel found influence in Syria and apparently influenced the Odes of Solomon and the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, but was not definitely quoted until Theophilus of Antioch ca. 181 c.e.

This Gospel could not overthrow the authoritative status of Peter though it did show that it was John who was the first to discover the secrets of Jesus.

Final chapter

The traditional site of the tomb of John_the_A...
Image via Wikipedia

Later the evangelist chose to replace his original conclusion with a new ending to rebut the rumour beyond Ephesus that John had been expected to live until the time of the Parousia. So he combined the story of the miraculous catch of fish from Marcion with the investiture of Peter and the appearance of Jesus in Galilee to the eleven disciples from Matthew into a third appearance of Christ to his disciples. Later copyists faced with two manuscripts copied both endings and so we have the two today.

Next and finally, the Gospel of Luke.

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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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4 thoughts on “The earliest gospels 5 – Gospel of John (according to P L Couchoud)”

  1. Couchoud’s views are indeed intriguing, with a fresh perspective, certainly worth reviewing here. Too bad he has such a funny name! Bringing the spotlight back on the significant role of Marcion in the early struggles about interpretations of Jesus, too often glossed over, is a positive contribution.

  2. “The logical impossibility of being both spirit and flesh at one time in one body” This an anachronistically way talking about Spirit. Modern Scholars increasingly recognize that Paul was using a Stoic definition of the word and apparent Platonism in his writing was meant to refute Platonism.

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