The temptation the serpent confronted Eve with was to make herself equal to God (Gen 3: 5). The temptation that the pre-existent Christ confronted and rejected was to make himself equal to God (Phil. 2: 6). In the gospel According to John, Jesus explicitly accepts as accurate the accusation of making himself equal to God (5: 18). This affirmation is at the center of its theology. Because they held this opinion of the one crucified, Christians, who to begin with were all Jews who worshipped at the temple of Jerusalem and belonged to different synagogues where they studied the Scriptures and prayed, were expelled from the synagogues. Scholars have not been able to determine exactly when this began to take place.
From the point of view of the Pharisees, the story of the man born blind ended with his expulsion from the synagogue (9: 34). According to them, the one who had been born blind was not only “ex-blind” but also an ex-Jew. The story also tells us that the parents of the ex-blind plead ignorance about the details of his life because of their fear of being expelled from the synagogue (9: 22). They preferred to ensure their position within the synagogue. Their son preferred to confess what he knew and run the risk of expulsion. In chapter 16 we find another reference to expulsion from the synagogue as the disgrace Christians must be willing to endure for being disciples of Jesus (16: 2).
We must note that Paul considered himself a faithful Jew all his life. That is, the first Christians, who were all Jews, did not think it necessary to cease being Jews in order to be Christians. All Christians were as much Jews as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Covenanters of Qumran, the disciples of John (the Baptist), the Nazarites, etc. When the temple of Jerusalem, which was the center that kept all the different Jews (Christians included, Acts 2: 46; 3: 1; 4: 1) united, was destroyed by the Romans, Judaism as known until then ceased to be. Only two of its many varieties survived the catastrophe. Pharisaism survived by becoming Rabbinic Judaism, and the Jesus Movement survived by becoming Christianity. Both survivors claimed to be the only legitimate heir to their dead mother. The struggle for the inheritance caused the two sister religions to engage in an acerbic polemic with disastrous and long-lasting consequences.
The center of the polemic soon came to be occupied by the only doctrine in Judaism. The religion of Yahve in antiquity and Rabbinic Judaism distinguish themselves by being religions of observance, not of doctrine. The exception that proves the rule is monotheism. The scribes adopted as the motto of the synagogue the Shema, the text from Deuteronomy that became the call to worship: “Hear, O Israel: Yahve is our God, Yahve is One” (6: 4). In the gospel According to Mark Jesus includes the Shema as part of the commandment to love God with all your heart, mind and soul (Mark 12: 29).
In According to John we find a Jesus who is viewed by the Jews as one who not only breaks the law of the Sabbath and therefore is a sinner (Chap. 9), he also blasphemes by “making himself equal to God” (5: 18). On account of this preposterous claim, Jews thought it impossible for Christians to claim the inheritance of the religion of Yahve.
In Chapter 17, generally designated “the priestly prayer”, Jesus appeals to the unity enjoyed by the Father and him and insists that there must be unity among the disciples. At the climax of the prayer Jesus pleads: “. . . as thou, Father, are in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me: (17: 21).
That the unity of the Father and the Son is open to allow the disciples, already united among themselves, to enter it and be united “in us”, tells us that the unity of the Father and the Son does not imply homogeneity. The next verse says that the glory of the Son was given to him by the Father (17: 22). We have already seen that the relationship of the Father and the Son is that of “The One Who Sends” and “The One Sent”. In fact to see the relationship in this way is what not only the disciples but the whole world must see, that is, believe. In this way the declaration that The Son is God, totally repugnant to Judaism, is already being nuanced in According to John.
In chapter 5, where the Jews explicitly accuse Jesus of making himself equal to God, Jesus defends himself by explaining that while in fact the Son and the Father are one, his claims to divinity do not represent a real challenge to monotheism.
Judaism taught that while God did delegate some functions to agents, there were some functions that were exclusively God’s. These were primarily the prerogatives to judge and to give life. In their discussions of the person of God, the Pharisees were also concerned with God’s need to keep God’s laws. This was a problem in connection with the Sabbath law. Since the world does not run on its own and there are no other gods in charge of running different natural phenomena, if God rests on Sabbaths, creation should disintegrate on these days. Since creation continues to function properly on Sabbaths, God must be working on Sabbaths to keep it going. This means that God also has the prerogative to work on Sabbath.
To defend himself for having cured the paralytic and having told him to carry his mat home on a Sabbath, Jesus says: “My Father works until now, and I work” (5: 17). The Jews, correctly, understood that with these words Jesus was claiming for himself God’s exclusive prerogative to work on Sabbath. This declaration explicitly divides God in two: God the Father and God the Son. Both can work on Sabbath.
The conflict over monotheism is elaborated in According to John in two directions. On the one hand, Jesus elevates his claims even higher. The Son can not only work on Sabbath. He can also judge (5: 22, 27), and he can give life “to whomever he wishes” (5: 21, 26). Both activities, as already said, are God’s exclusive prerogatives. On the other hand, the Son does nothing by himself. Everything he does, he does together with, and according to the will of the Father (5: 19. 30). His activity is totally subordinated to the Father. He does not have an independent will.
In this way According to John, the gospel that squarely challenges Jewish monotheism, begins the process that Christianity has been carrying on for centuries trying to explain the relationships of the persons within the Godhead in a way that does not negate its claim to have only one God.
The claim that the incarnate Logos is God is so audacious that According to John recognizes that this claim needs to be backed by evidence. At once, Jesus admits that his claims cannot be sustained by the fact that he says so. “If I bear witness to myself, my testimony is not true” (5: 31). To sustain his claim to God’s exclusive prerogatives and to work as one with the Father, Jesus presents supporting witnesses.
The first is John the Baptist. His ministry had been “a burning and shining lamp” which for some time the Jews had considered valid (5: 35). In the first chapter we read that “John bore witness to him . . . . he confessed, he did not deny . . . . ‘I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’” (1: 15, 20, 34). Given his influence in Judaism, the testimony of John is effective. But his repeated negations (“I am not the Christ”, “I am not Elijah”, “I am not the prophet”, etc., 1: 21 – 22) and the rivalry between the disciples of John and those of Jesus (given that Jesus was baptizing more people than John, 3: 26; 4: 2) gave rise to doubts about John’s testimony among some. Jesus, therefore, presents more witnesses.
In the second place, Jesus appeals to “the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish.” They testify that he is the One Sent by the Father (5: 36). We have already paid attention to the “works”, which in this gospel are designated “signs”. At the end of the gospel the narrator tells us that Jesus performed “many signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20: 30 – 31). The testimony of the signs should be sufficient to produce faith and life, but, apparently, it is not.
Appeal is then made to the most important One who also bears witness: “the One who sent me, the Father”. God’s testimony should prove irrefutable. The problem is that those who demand proofs of authenticity for Jesus’ claims “have never heard God’s voice or seen God’s appearance” (5: 37). This is the tragic condition of those who do not see the Father in the person of the One Sent by the Father (5: 38). Thus, the testimony that should be incontrovertible is beyond the reach of those who ask for it.
The tragedy gets bigger when those seeking eternal life look for it in the wrong place. Instead of coming to Jesus to obtain it, they misguidedly search the Scriptures hoping to find it there. The function of Scripture is not to give life. It is to bear witness to Jesus (5: 38). Once again a testimony that should be effective is wasted by those who misunderstand the purpose of the Scriptures. Their real problem, actually, is that due to their pride in the Scriptures they lack the love of God (5: 42-44).
Chapter 5 ends in a way similar to that of chapter 9. The irony of the situation is, again, on the surface. Those seeking eternal life in the Scriptures are not condemned by the One Sent by the Father, who was sent with the specific purpose of giving life, and also has the authority to judge. They consider Moses to be the great mediator between God and the people. On the basis of Deut. 18: 15 – 18, they are waiting for the appearance of the prophet “like Moses”. Such are to suffer a great disappointment. Having “placed their hope” in Moses, they are actually being condemned by Moses, not realizing that the Scriptures, instead of being the source of life, are witness to the divinity of the One Sent by the Father. As is said laconically in the prologue, the law was given through Moses, grace and truth are alive in Jesus Christ (1: 17). It is indeed a great tragedy when people reject the One Who is God’s Grace and Truth incarnate because they have placed their hopes on the one who met God at the top of Mt. Sinai.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3333