In Pope Benedict’s forthcoming book, Jesus of Nazareth II, the Holy Father draws heavily on St John’s Gospel. Oxford New Testament scholar Ian Boxall, looks at the relationship between the two texts.
Past treatment of St John
At least for purposes of historical reconstruction, John’s Gospel used to be treated as the ‘Cinderella’ among the gospels: a theological treatise containing little of historical worth. Pope Benedict’s extensive use of John reflects the more nuanced view scholars now take of the interplay between history and theology within all four gospels.
There are at least three ways in which the Pope is especially indebted to St John’s witness to Christ.
The historicity of John’s account
The first is his openness to the possibility that John contains important historical traditions, particular relating to the Passion. This does not mean that he ignores the difficulties of reading John’s Gospel as a straightforward historical record. It remains a complex theological book. Yet John may well have preserved unique historical details.
A case in point is the date of the crucifixion. The Synoptics place this on the Feast of Passover, 15 Nisan in the Jewish calendar.
Yet it is doubtful whether such an event could have taken place during a major festival. John’s alternative dating, on the previous Day of Preparation, may be more historically satisfying.
Of course, this enables John to exploit its theological significance: the death of the true paschal Lamb at the time when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple. But it is precisely an interweaving of history and theology, rather than a replacing of one by the other.
Events exclusively in John
Secondly, this book devotes considerable space to exploring the meaning of events only found in John’s account of the Passion, from the seamless robe to the blood and water flowing from Christ’s side.
Two chapters are devoted entirely to Johannine scenes: the foot-washing at the Last Supper, and the so-called ‘high priestly prayer’ of John 17, interpreted through the lens of the Jewish Day of Atonement.
Both chapters are profound meditations on the passages in question, and will provide much food for thought during Holy Week.
Using St John’s method and pace
The third way in which the Pope betrays the profound influence of John’s Gospel is in his overall approach to the events of Holy Week. Back in the second century, Clement of Alexandria identified the slower, more meditative character of John, its multilayered quality.
Pope Benedict adopts a similar ‘Johannine’ method in his treatment of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.
He too is interested in slowing us down, enabling us to see the events ‘from the inside’, penetrating more deeply into the truth of the Passion. In short, Benedict thinks and teaches like John.
A possible postscript
The ultimate aim of Pope Benedict’s book, as expressed in his Foreword, is to aid ‘all readers who seek to encounter Jesus and to believe in him.’ John’s Gospel too sets out its purpose with equal clarity, which could form an excellent postscript to the Pope’s new volume:
“Now Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written about in this book. But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing have life in his name.”
Ian Boxall is a senior Tutor and New Testament scholar at St Stephen’s House, Oxford
You can pre-order the book and read all the pre-publication extracts here.