Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, February 22, 2018

msgrliptak_halfQ. In your column recently, you discussed a question about the author of St. John’s Gospel. Could you answer two other questions about the same Gospel? (1) Did St. John borrow the idea of referring to the Word (the Logos) from the theory of Gnosticism? and (2) how can I respond to current, widespread theories that the Gospel postdates the first century?



A. These are questions that merit books of answers, of course, but some brief replies are possible.

Because the Gospel according to John is strikingly different from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), a theory (or a set of theories) erupted in modern times that it was somehow devoid of an historical character; on the contrary, it was said to be simply a "Jesus poem" (a phrase used in the ongoing debate as to its place in the Bible). By and large, only the Passion narrative (plus a few other sections) was accorded historical value. For one thing, scenes from the Gospel (i.e., locations in the Temple area) could not be confirmed with archeological evidence. Moreover, it was labeled as a relatively late "reconstruction" of the data and a delayed theological interpretation of the original happenings and sayings. Some commentators were even ready to dismiss St. John’s Gospel as historically unreliable.

One of the Biblical exegetes whose theories tended to undermine the traditional chronology (first century) and reliability of John’s Gospel was the Protestant Rudolf Bultmann (d. 1976), whose commentary on St. John first appeared in 1941 and had enormous influence.

Today, however, just 70 years later, John’s Gospel has weathered well all the assaults upon it. Since Bultmann’s thesis became popular in Protestant circles, papyri manuscripts from second-century Egypt have been discovered, incontrovertibly attesting that the Gospel belongs to the first century. (St. John died around the year 100, toward the close of the first century.)

Pope Benedict XVI beautifully summarizes this subject in his Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007).

Even though the traditional first-century date for the Gospel has been verified by archaeology, however, Bultmann’s defense of Gnosticism as the source for St. John’s description of Christ as the Logos is still held by some non-Catholic commentators. According to Bultmann, the principal themes of St. John’s Gospel are borrowed from Gnosticism, a religious theory which allegedly predated Christianity.

Like most Biblical exegetes, Bultmann was understandably astonished by the Prologue to the Gospel according to John, especially the use of the Greek philosophical term Λόγοѕ (transliterated in Latinized English as Logos). Thus, the Fourth Gospel begins, "In the beginning was the Logos" (traditionally translated "Word").

Such usage is obviously stunning to anyone trained in philosophy. The Greek logos means word and reason; the message is that the Son of God, who took human nature in Jesus Christ, is the Father’s complete and ultimate Word; a perfect reflection of the Father’s infinite, incomparable intellect and will.

In defining the Son of God Incarnate as the Logos, John was enunciating, under divine inspiration, an entirely new concept. This was definitely not a concept borrowed from Gnosticism, which unquestionably postdates the birth of Christianity. In other words, Christianity came first; Gnosticism, later.

Bultmann wrote that Gnosticism is "the only possible source of the idea of absolute Logos." (cf. Die Religionen in Geshichte und Gegenwart, 1956) Pope Benedict responds: "On this decisive point, Bultmann is wrong." (Jesus of Nazareth) Or as another expert, Martin Hengel, has put it, Bultmann’s thesis is a "pseudo-scientific development of a myth." In fact, Gnosticism came into being only at the very end of the first century and during the second – after John’s Gospel was completed, therefore.

Thus John’s Gospel belongs to the first century. And John’s use of "Word" for the Son of God was not borrowed from Gnosticism.