Where God meets humanity: Jesus, Son of God and King of Israel

Fr Michael Hall explores St John’s Gospel and how extra-biblical material helps our understanding of it, particularly as we consider the role that the Temple plays in this gospel.

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“Scripture is like a river, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim”. I used this quotation from St Gregory as an introduction in last month’s article on the ancient material lying outside the Old Testament, and how it could help us to gain fresh insights into the New Testament.

In this second article, we turn to the wonderful “Fourth Gospel”, the Gospel according to St John. I hope to show how that extra-biblical material can “deepen our swim”, particularly as we consider the role that the Temple plays in this gospel.

People often find themselves asking questions when they sit down to study this Gospel. Why is it so different from the other three (often known as the “synoptic gospels”, because they can be studied side-by-side)? Why are there sayings and stories in John that are not there in the other three – and vice versa? Why doesn’t John have a “Year D” of his own in Sunday Mass readings?

In fact, the Gospel of St John is read at Mass at some of the most important times of the Church’s year – in Holy Week and Eastertide. It’s also read during the summer of Year B, to supplement the rather short Mark’s Gospel.

An A-level student once asked, “What makes John unique?” While I may not be able to answer all the questions John raises for you, I hope to answer that one.

At one time, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, John’s Gospel was regarded by many biblical scholars as a rather late addition to the “Jesus tradition”. They thought him to be heavily influenced by Greek thought. That was before the discoveries at Qumran by the Dead Sea, and other archaeological finds. These showed that John’s “uniqueness” was prefigured in the beliefs and teachings of a number of groups in the centuries immediately before Our Lord’s birth.

Each of the Gospels arises out of a particular community and speaks to a particular audience. These ancient, extra-biblical texts have given us some interesting pointers to the community and audience of John’s Gospel.

I referred in my last article to the work of the Methodist bible scholar Margaret Barker. In particular, I pointed to her belief that the “Book of Enoch” – parts of which date from at least two centuries before Jesus – was well known by many people in the Holy Land at the time of the Lord. It was also known and used by many in the first Christian communities. One of the things that Enoch does is to provide a parallel “alternative history” to that which we find in the first five books of the Bible.

Margaret’s studies go beyond the Book of Enoch, though. Her abiding interest is the role of the Temple in Jewish and Christian theology. In particular, she traces the influence of the spirituality and practice of the “First Temple”, built by Solomon and finished around 957 BC. This Temple sought to replicate in wood and stone the “tabernacle” or tent that had been the centre of Israelite worship in the desert.

It is a matter of biblical record that towards the end of the 7th century before Christ, there was a great upheaval in Temple worship. King Josiah, we are told, finds a copy of the Law walled up in the Temple, and this leads him to purge the Temple of things that he and his advisors felt were not appropriate. Many of the First Temple priests were kicked out – even exiled.

This “Reformed Temple” (my words) lasted not much more than thirty years before it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586/587 BC. It was, however, rebuilt, starting in 516 BC, by the newly-released exiles from Babylon. We read about this process in Ezra and Nehemiah.

Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote around the time of Christ, says that these returning exiles “called themselves the Jews”. They had a distinctive set of beliefs that emphasised separateness and purity. They raised the figure of Moses to a position that he may not have had before the exile. They were also responsible for the collection and “correction” of biblical traditions. For example, the stories of the patriarchs and the Exodus, which were not written down until during or after the Exile, were supplemented by the book of Deuteronomy. This gives a nuanced interpretation to the events surrounding the giving of the Law. The Deuteronomic historians also collected and “corrected” traditions about the first kings of the Israelites – so important in First Temple tradition – and suggests that, with few exceptions – they were a pretty rotten lot.

All this is a matter of biblical record. The step that Margaret Barker takes is to say that, far from being a united document, there are “two streams” in the Old Testament. One is the Moses / exodus stream – the people living in the Promised Land under kings who were mostly failures. The other is the story of the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the story of the First Temple and the kings who were also priests in the tradition of Enoch and Melchizedek. Members of this other stream – which included many of the early prophets – criticised the spirituality and practice of the “new Temple”. They looked for the renewal and restoration of the true Temple, under one who would be both King and Priest. They considered themselves “Hebrews” or “Israelites” – but not Jews.

Margaret says, “The Gospel of John shows the turbulence when these two streams came together” and “The background to the Fourth Gospel is Temple tradition and the memories and hopes of those who longed for the true Temple to be restored.”

But let’s look at what John himself says.

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

We are so used, as Christians, to using the words “Christ / Messiah” and “Son of God” that we fail to realise that at the time of Jesus these phrases already had strong associations. They were words that were applied to the priest-kings of the line of David (just look at Psalm 89 verses 20, 26, 27).

So while we tend to interpret John’s “mission statement” as “I want you to believe in Jesus”, Margaret Barker argues that we should read it as “I want you to believe that Jesus is the anointed priest-king in the line of David, who has come to restore the true Temple.”

Going to the other end of John’s Gospel, to the wonderful Prologue, we find that the Word, who was “with God and was God” from the beginning, “became flesh and lived among us.” Not only were the early priest-kings seen as “God present among his people”, but the phrase “lived among us” in Greek actually says, “tabernacled among us”. Just as in the desert the tabernacle – foreshadowing the Temple – was the place where God met with his servants, so John is telling us that Jesus is the new meeting place between God and humanity.

In next month’s article I shall explore further the role of the Temple in the theology and structure of St John’s Gospel. But let me finish by indicating how this can bring a fresh understanding to what might be seen as an “incidental” passage.

In the first chapter of St John, many of the disciples are called to meet Jesus. We are told that one of these, Philip, goes to his friend Nathanael and says, “We have found the one spoken of in the law and the prophets.” (John 1:45)

When Jesus sees Nathanael approaching, he says, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” (John 1:47) If we didn’t know that there were some deeply religious people in the Holy Land who considered themselves not Jews, but representatives of a much older tradition, we might miss the significance of this.

Nathanael seems not to be too surprised, and says in effect, “How did you know?” Jesus’ response is “I saw you under the fig tree.” (John 1:48) As we shall see, this provokes an amazing response from Nathanael (a bit like Thomas’s “My Lord and My God” in chapter 20). But why? Staying close to Margaret Barker, we learn that one thing that happened to the priest-kings of David’s line, when they went into the Holy of Holies to be anointed, was that they received heavenly revelation. They “saw” things – just as Jesus says he did. This puts into context Nathanael’s response: “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel”. Nathanael has no doubt that this Jesus from Nazareth is the anointed King, the presence of God among his people, the one who will restore true worship.

Jesus then tells Nathanael that he too will see – and see greater things. For example, he will see the angels “ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”. This reference to Jacob’s dream at Bethel was much discussed at the time of Jesus. Some sages thought that what the angels were doing were comparing the face of Jacob with the face of the “One to Come” in heaven. Jesus says, in effect, “this time there is a match”.

Jesus saw and Nathanael too will see. The wonderful message of John’s Gospel is that not only is Jesus the new meeting place between God and humanity, priest, prophet and king, but that in him, in all his facets, men and women – you and I – may become Sons and Daughters of God.

Fr Michael Hall is a parish priest in the Leeds Diocese. For over 20 years he was also a teacher and school leader in secondary education. He is Lead Associate of Barnabas Education Services.