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.
"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.
But almost immediately, Jesus' conflict with the temple authorities flares into a savage temple-trashing scene, with a frenzied Jesus whipping the moneychangers' tables in fury. It's the first and most violent of many tense scenes in the temple. Though miracles, healings, and tender moments intersperse the story, Jesus' temple disputes--a war of wills and words that finally turns physical--are the focal point of the drama.
Jesus holds up the Hebrew patriarchs to the Jewish leaders, telling them they've abandoned Moses, that they don't truly love God the way Abraham did, or him the way they should: "If God were your father, you would love me," Jesus says. One of the temple crowd retorts, "You're only a man."
This is the essence of the divide. "What God wants is for you to believe in the one he sent," says Jesus. Once the Jewish authorities have heard this, "they no longer have any excuse for their sin."
The gospel refers to, but does not spell out, divisions among Jews about whether Jesus was a good thing. In this word-for-word film version, we hear few Jewish leaders defending Jesus. Early on, the Pharisee Nicodemus visits with Jesus on a rooftop, wrinkling his brow as he puzzles over Jesus' words. But as his fellow priests grow malevolent, Nicodemus can't help Jesus. After Jesus has died, two Jewish leaders, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, secretly take his body away, ducking around corners. No temple official stands up to the others, or is portrayed as having firm principles.
Would these issues dissolve if the film provided more context, or tried harder to paint certain Jewish characters sympathetically? Most American Christians are quick to say that Jesus was a Jew. The gospels, it's said, must be taken symbolically; Jesus was attacking the hypocrisy and legalism and small-mindedness that afflicts all faiths, and was not attacking Judaism per se.
But the issue on the screen isn't hypocrisy. When John's Jesus shouts "if you loved God, you would love me" and the Jewish leaders don't embrace him, we're looking at two visions of reality that appear incompatible.
Even if the appalling history of Jewish-Christian relations magically turned out to be a nightmare—no pogroms, no blood libel, no Holocaust--the problem of John's gospel wouldn't go away. Jews and Christians can agree that God loves us all, that we should act justly and help the unfortunate. What we can't agree on is what established Jews and emerging Christians of the first century couldn't agree on. One group says God revealed himself fully in Jesus. The other group says that to believe that is a profound mistake.
No amount of talk can reconcile these visions of God. Interfaith dialogue and human love may help them dwell in dynamic equilibrium, but the two positions cannot be equated.
This divide becomes more clear in the film's post-resurrection scenes, which lack temple drama. There are no more furious confrontations set against the backdrop of stone columns, no more scroll-grabbing.The same Jesus who seemed magnetically attracted to the Jerusalem temple, unable to keep away from it even when he knew his life was in danger, appears at the seashore and in houses, but not before the Jewish leaders. He and they have nothing more to say to each other.
Is that the position Jews and Christians find themselves in today? Let's hope not. Christianity certainly can't do without John's gospel. In no other scripture do we find the mysterious and powerful monologues that reveal, by inches, the Christian God's essence: "I am the gate for the sheep"; "I am the real vine"; "I am the way." But how we present this gospel remains a challenge, one that we can't solve merely by filming it with a verbatim script.