The Gospel According to John is distinct from the other three so-called “synoptic gospels” (so-named for their historical synopses of Jesus’s life): Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In contrast, John presents an existential text filled with dichotomies: manichean lightness and darkness, friends and enemies, sons and fathers and so on.
The Gospel can be read as a pre-Aquinas attempt to harmonize faith and reason, or theology and philosophy. The text echoes Genesis (“In the beginning…”) and delivers an account of the logos (a complex Greek word perhaps loosely translated as “word” or “account” or even “reasonable account of something”) which exists in the beginning with God, and also the logos is God (recall YHWH speaking things into existence in Genesis). In John, Jesus is born out of light into darkness, into which the logos becomes flesh in “grace and truth” (1:1-14). The logos is the pre-requisite for politics, theology, and philosophy. The Aristotelian maxim that ‘man is a political animal’ depends upon the logos. Thus by embodying the logos as a man, making god a man, John seeks to bring together the antinomies of philosophy and theology. For both, at root, are dependent upon the logos.
Appropriately, Jesus’s first words uttered in John are “what seekest thou?” (1:38) in speaking to two of John the Baptist’s followers, one being Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother (an account not given in Matthew). His question beckons his followers to ask the same question -‘what do you seek?’ He asks them to give an account of what they hope to find. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus proclaims to offer answers -‘seek and ye shall find’ (Matthew 7:7) but in John he asks his followers to look inward, to worship in “spirit” (4:24). Rather than commanding them to “seek” he asks them (inquiring like a teacher) ‘what do you seek?’
The author of John is concerned primarily with questions, like the question of faith. How does one come to accept the writings and teachings of Moses? How will future people, who do not have access to Jesus directly, hear and believe in his words? Can the Torah be recreated anew? The answer is to peretuating the teaching of Jesus is through logos. Indeed, Jesus asks this same question to a crowd (5:47) and asks that if they believe in the writings of Moses can they not also believe in Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the Torah and the prophets (in Matthew Jesus declares himself to be the fulfillment of the law Matthew 5:17-20). Thus a logos is needed; the people beyond those present among Jesus must be made aware of their opportunity for salvation, and a written book can reach more people than can one simple evangelist. A book can communicate to thousands, while one man is far more limited. However, a book speaks to all people equally, a deficiency of the medium of the written word. Thus, there is need for Jesus to disguise himself behind parables in the written word, so that his teaching is not clearly visible to all, and therefore easily perverted. Along these lines, The Gospel of John also closes with a brief acknowledgement that Jesus performed these and ‘so many other acts’ that if every one of them should be written down, not even the whole world could contain all the books. In other words, pointing to the acts themselves rather than relying on written testimony because the medium of writing is limited, terse by its formal nature. However, how else will Jesus’s acts and miracles be presented to the masses? It is impossible to capture every moment, perspective, and word and so on in a single text. Books present a particular logos for readers and listeners to digest, a unique account or reflection of things. But people cannot live like doubting Thomas (20:24-31) who demand the criteria of physical proof in front of them -Thomas demands to see and touch Jesus’s wounds for proof that Jesus has, in fact, conquered death. However, Thomas is provided his required for proof, and this account is documented and explored in John, as a meditation on the nature of belief, and how the written word can provide a gateway to belief. These events are written in John so that the reader can be made aware of Jesus and can believe in him, and in doing so, the reader can be made better by having life in his name (20:34). The author of John, is acutely aware of writing, and he breaks the existential wall between writer and reader in speaking directly to his audience. He is existential in his outlook (recall that the author(s) of the Torah give no cues from off the page directed to the audience.) In this way the Gospel according to John, is a book about books.
The teaching of John is not biographical, at least not in the same way that the synoptic gospels present a detailed genealogy and history of Jesus leading back to the Abrahamic line (thus justifying his royal bloodline) as well as his miraculous birth and so on. John is far more concerned with the words of Jesus, his practice, and his offering of “eternal life,” rather than a Plutarchian account of his noble deeds. Biography is not the method of teaching in John. The question of the text pertains to Jesus’s teaching of conquering death, the fear of everyman (recall Socrates’s lack of fear of death): How does one gain eternal life? The criteria that Jesus offers is himself. That is, belief that he is the son of God, the preacher of the kingdom of heaven (not the kingdom of the earth), and a bringer of wisdom and truth (recall, Jesus regularly uses the phrase “verily, verily” or “truly, truly” in John).
In this way, John is distinct from Matthew as a spiritual text, one that looks for a way to present the esoteric teaching of Jesus as worth ‘seeking’ in part for its mysterious metaphors about the good life, the way to live, and the path to eternal life (the overcoming of corporeal death for which all men desire), which is by means of faith. That is, faith that Jesus is who he claims to be. And faith in Jesus cannot rely solely on miracles and demonstrations of his divinity, for a logos must first be provided; an account of his teaching which is how most men will come to know his acts of divinity. Jesus’s teaching is of himself not as a “judge” (as in the Hebrew Bible) but one who ‘saves the world’ (12:47) and even “overcomes the world” (16:33) through comfort in the “spirit of truth” (14:16-18) and he asks only that his followers “obey his commandments.” And what are Jesus’s commandments? He commands people to “love another as I have loved you” (15:12) and his love is one of self-sacrifice for friends, for “there is no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friends” (15:13). Thus, Jesus beckons people to lay down their lives in passion (passio in Latin) for one another, turning “sorrow into joy” (16:22) for all believers, as there is hope in overcoming sin (the transgression of divine law). For as Jesus says, if a corn of wheat falls into the ground and dies, its abideth alone; but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit (12:24, and also the epigraph to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov). Perhaps interpreted as: a single death, a lonely moment of suffering may seem insignificant, but if it dies for a greater telos, such as dying for the sake of friends, it brings forth future fruit, and this is the joy on the underside of suffering. Man can survive suffering so long as his death, and therefore his life, bring forth much fruit. Recall the famous maxim in Herodotus where Solon’s advice to Croesus is to ‘look to the ends in all things’ (Histories 1.33).
Thus John is a hopeful book, a meta-textual contemplation on its form as well as its content, its ends as well as its means, as it explores achieving “everlasting life,” an opportunity available to anyone as long as they pursue ‘lightness over darkness’ and obey Jesus’s commandments, which are revealed to be to “love one another” in mutual ‘self-sacrifice for friends’ (enemies are not mentioned as worthy of love as in Matthew). Self-sacrifice among like-minded friends for some ‘greater good’ is a necessity for the persistence of the city (the topic of giving what is owed to one’s friends is discussed in Plato’s Republic as a definition of justice worth considering). John is a life-affirming text, in its focus on new fruit that grows from the clan of a well-shepherded herd (to combine two of Jesus’s metaphors). It is a text worthy of great consideration and could indeed fill many libraries across the earth with its logos.