The verse most frequently quoted in this debate is one attributed to Jesus in John 14:6: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me." For many centuries, it has been the classic "proof text" for Christian exclusivism--the notion that salvation is possible only through Jesus, and thus only through Christianity.
But is that what it means? Is that how it should be read? Most mainline biblical scholars don't think so.
As is generally the case with words attributed to Jesus in John, the verse does not go back to Jesus himself. Written near the end of the first century, John's gospel is the product of a relatively late stage in the developing tradition of the early Christian movement. Though all four gospels combine historical memory with metaphorical narrative, John is the most metaphorical and furthest removed from the deeds and words of Jesus. Put positively, John is the most symbolic of the gospels.
The first key to reading this text again is setting it in John's historical context. According to most scholars, the gospel was written late in the first century, in a setting of intense conflict between Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews. The setting is reflected especially in the ninth chapter of John, which refers to people being "put out of the synagogue" as the consequence of following Jesus.
In that world, to be "put out" from the synagogue was far more serious than being expelled from a Christian congregation or denomination is in our world. To be expelled from the synagogue meant no longer to be considered a Jew (or at least not an acceptable Jew). In a traditional society where most people lived their entire lives in the same village or town, it was a powerful social sanction. Those expelled faced social ostracism. Among other things, it disrupted relationships within families and with neighbors, and made marriage to "proper" Jews difficult or impossible.
Followers of Jesus were not threatened with such expulsion during his lifetime. At the earliest, it happened a decade or two after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. Thus, John 9 not only suggests an approximate date for the gospel, but also points to the historical situation facing John and his community. They were experiencing painful social ostracism by non-Christian Jews. As a result, some of John's community may have been tempted to return to their community of origin.
This is the setting for the words, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me." John was not thinking of all the religions of the world, but of the synagogue across the street. In effect he was saying, "Stay within the community of Jesus--don't go back to the way you left behind."
It is important not to see this reading of the verse as a rejection of Judaism, as if other religions are all right, but not Judaism. The verse is not an absolute pronouncement about all other religions or about all other forms of Judaism for all time, but a pastoral exhortation in a particular historical setting. In short, reading the verse in historical context relativizes it.
Yet the text may have a universal meaning as well. We see this by using a second key to reading the text again, namely paying attention to the text's central metaphor: Jesus is the way. A "way" is a path or a road to be followed. A "way" is not a set of beliefs.
So, Jesus is "the way." What does this metaphor, applied to a person, mean? We need to ask, "What is Jesus' 'way' in John's gospel?" Or, "What is 'the way' which Jesus is?" The answer is found in the movement or dynamic of the gospel as a whole as well as in a single verse.
If we look at the gospel as a whole, we see that from the beginning, Jesus' way leads to his death. This death is also, for John, his glorification. The way is the path of death and resurrection. If we look at a single verse, we read, "Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). In short, for John, the way or path of Jesus is the path of death and resurrection understood as a metaphor for the religious life. That way--the path of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being--is the only way to God.
The same point is made in a story I heard about a sermon preached by a Hindu professor in a Christian seminary several decades ago. The text for the day included the "one way" passage, and about it he said, "This verse is absolutely true--Jesus is the only way." Then, he continued, "And that way--of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being--is known in all of the religions of the world." The "way" of Jesus is a universal way, known even to millions who have never heard of Jesus.
The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. That people ever thought it was is strange, when we think about it--as if one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be saved are those who know the word "Jesus." Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables.
Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection--the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being. To use the language of incarnation that is so central to John, Jesus incarnates the way. Incarnation means embodiment. Jesus is what the way embodied in a human life looks like.