Most of the scholarship about the Gospel of John for the 20th century theorized that the reason for the gospel was that Jesus-believing Jews were expelled from the synagogue. The gospel of John is the writers response to the shock, pain, and anxiety of this traumatic exile forced upon Jesus-believers by their friends, family and community.
Warren Carter presents a different reading of John in his book ‘John & Empire.’ His theory, which I find convincing, but which I will not explain in detail, is that the Jesus-believing synagogue/community members felt that Judean synagogue leaders were far too enmeshed in and comfortable with Roman culture. (Note: Throughout the coming weeks and months it will vitally important for us to carefully use our own language. While we have been raised with the gospel of John and its many reference to ‘the Jews’ and the assumption that the writer means to refer to all members of a specific ethnic group this is not the case. John’s argument is not with everyday Jews, with ALL Jews. John’s argument is with Jewish leaders, wealthy elites. I will refer to the ethnic group as Jews, and the leading elite as Judean, so as to remind us that John’s problem is not with an entire ethnic group, but with a specific class within the ethnic group.) Returning to Carter, his theory is that John is not reacting to a forced expulsion, but instead is inciting distance, leading an exodus of Jesus-believers from synagogues lead by Judean elites, for they were far too influenced by Roman culture. John isn’t reacting to rejection, John is encouraging distance and rejection (again, not from an ethnic group, but from an institution created by and lead by wealthy elites tied to Roman power.
When we read, listen too, and study the Gospel of John, we are interacting with a story that at it’s core, is meant to encourage Jesus-believers to observe the culture that they live in from a distance and participate with caution. Why? Because as we discussed yesterday, Roman Imperial culture defined what the good life was and how to create and maintain it in a very different way than God, the creator of life, defined and maintained life. The writer of John strongly suggests that the church, the gathering of believers, should be an anti-society or a counter-culture. Bert Newton has said in regards to this idea; ‘Those who born of God constitute a new family, a new community, even a new nation... a transnational community of peace, truth, light, love and justice.
What biblical stories can you think of that define life, love, peace in ways that run counter to the culture in which we live?