Whether they know the gospels verbatim or not, many Americans can cite one of the Gospel of John's most poetic phrases: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son." That's John 3:16, whose chapter and verse appears on T-shirts, billboards, and handheld signs on television. It's only one of the fourth gospel's many well-known and powerful verses: "In the beginning was the Word"; "I am the vine, you are the branches"; "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain."

Christians who read John in discrete chunks at church might wonder why scholars and interfaith advocates wring their hands over it. How could this beautiful and poetic text, this staple of the canon for nearly 2000 years, raise red flags?

The answer comes in watching "The Gospel of John," a three-hour, word-for-word screen dramatization of John's text from Visual Bible International. The film makes clear what a cursory reading doesn't: John's Jesus was at war with the Jewish leaders of his day. In the movie, Jesus repeatedly goes to the temple, condemns the Pharisees and high priests, and leaves, judging them more harshly with every visit. Each encounter ups the ante with the high priests, who eventually plot to arrest him.

John's Jesus comes off even slightly maniacal in the film version, if only for the number of times he reiterates that he was sent by God. Played by Henry Ian Cusick, this Jesus is forceful, believable, and not nearly as moony-eyed as other movie Messiahs. But it's completely understandable why this Jesus makes the Jewish leaders nervous, and finally angry: If today we heard an unkempt man in the streets yelling relentlessly that we must believe in him and love him, what would we think?

"The Gospel of John" is well-acted, with production values and realism most non-Hollywood movies only dream of: even the desert plants look authentic. For the most part, the actors don't sound ponderous--perhaps because the creators chose to use the conversational translation of the Good News Bible. The filmmakers even manage to make the long Last Supper monologues work via a judicious use of flashbacks.

But dramatizing the Gospel of John is a dangerous game. Because it pits Jesus against the Jewish leaders in the battle for people's souls, some Christians have taken the fourth gospel as justification for treating Jews badly. And it's not just the obvious lines, like "The Jews picked up stones again to stone [Jesus]," that make interfaith experts worry.

In the other three gospels, Jesus is primarily a man of action: a healer and a teacher of parables. John's Jesus, by contrast, is a mystic theologian, speaking in symbols and occasionally in abstractions. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus rarely refers to his fellow Jews as "them." The author of John's gospel often has Jesus distinguish between himself and "the Jews."

Less grounded in history, scholars say, and more concerned with who Jesus was than with what he did, John's gospel is rooted in mythic truths. John's Jesus repeats over and over that he is God's son, and the only way to his father.

The Jewish leaders of the time held as a foundation of their faith that the Lord is one. It was blasphemy in their eyes to identify oneself with God. John's Jesus berates these leaders repeatedly in their holiest place, the Jerusalem temple, in front of people who theoretically look up to them as models of the holy. Jesus tells the temple authorities that their God will reject them if they reject him. And in the film version, Jesus shouts at them. A lot.

"Why would anyone want to be faithful to such a text?" Bible scholar Donald Harman Akenson has said. "To film a literal version of the Gospel of John is like filming a faithful version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion." That may be going a little far, but no amount of massaging makes John, or any of the gospels, ultra-friendly to Jews.

Still, many scholars say that John's gospel, read in conjunction with the other gospels and within the context of Jewish debate of the time, describes an internecine quarrel, not a call to arms. That kind of context is something the film's word-for-word rendering simply doesn't provide.

Certainly there are many touches that tell us the filmmakers know the issues. An introductory white-on-black disclaimer notes that Jesus and his disciples were Jews, and that the Gospel of John reflects polemic between emerging Jewish-Christians and established Jews.

In the first few scenes, the disciples exclaim about the mysterious rabbi being the Messiah promised in scripture. The movie dwells on the calling of tefillin-wearing Nathaniel while he prays under a fig tree. To modern eyes, Nathaniel is the most visibly Jewish of all the disciples: in subsequent scenes, he is never shown without his talit. "Here is a real Israelite-there is nothing false in him," Jesus says.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus