Secrets of the fourth Gospel: A new approach


For a period of time in the early years of the Church, it was felt necessary not to speak, or write openly about some of the beliefs of Christians. This was the age of the disciplina arcani, the discipline of the secret. While the three synoptic Gospels preceded that period of time, the fourth Gospel was subject to it.

Early in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is identified by those authors as:

1. The son of Abraham (Mt 1:1), the Son of Mary (Mt 2:11).

2. The Christ, the Son of God (Mk 1:1).

3. The Son of God (Lk 3:38).

The author of the fourth Gospel never uses his own words to identify Jesus! 

The Greek language was the common international language of the Mediterranean basin at that time. The term for “word” in Greek was logos. This term among pagan philosophers (Plato, Zeno, Aristotle, etc) and Jewish philosophers (Aristobolus, Philo, etc.) indicated some connection to the Divine. So the author of the fourth Gospel chose to use Logos as a technical term to engage Jew and gentile in an instructional dialog. Instead of identifying Jesus, he identifies the Logos as being with God, as being God (Jn 1:1), as being the Father’s only Son (1:14).

From this point on, we have to understand that our author makes use of a great deal of parallel phrases, ambiguous words, and other forms of word play to insinuate the identity of Jesus. The first of these insinuations of identity is found in the verses Jn 1:9, 15, 29 and 30. The Logos was coming into the world (1:9), He ranked above John the Baptist because He existed before him (1:15); Jesus was coming toward him (1:29), “He ranks above me because He existed before me” (1:30).

A parallel phrase begins the text as the first words of the fourth Gospel are identical to the first words in the Greek version of the Old Testament. This gives us a clue that there might be a greater connection between the two. The logos existed from all eternity in the day before time. He was coming into the world (1:9). After the day of eternity, the “next day’’ (1:29), was the day of time. John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him (verses 1:29-34), but in these verses, Jesus does nothing. At this point, we have an example of ambiguous language. John saw him coming toward him in the Old Testament prophecies (1:23) and the personal revelation made to him (1:6,7), and also saw Him coming toward him where John was baptizing.

Verse 1:35 repeats “the next day,” but this is the same day after eternity looked at from the point of view of time. Now, Jesus is doing things. He is walking, engaging people in conversation, etc. We note that two of John’s disciples stayed with him that day. Consider this not a day of 24 hours, but a day to complete a certain task. Andrew brought his brother to Jesus, presumably during some other 24-hour period, since he had stayed with Jesus that first day, but if “the next day’’ of verse 1:43 is speaking of 24-hour days, we have a contradiction in time. This exposes another secret of the fourth Gospel: certain references to days are actually references to tasks, not to time.

What is the task of that first day? Jesus meets Simon, son of John, and gives him the iconic name and title of Peter! 

‘’The next day” of 1:43, the second task day, Jesus finds Philip (a man with a Greek name) and Nathaniel (a man with a Jewish name). Jews and non-Jews will come to Jesus in the Church.

The tasks of these first two days see the structure of the Church (in Peter, the head), and the membership of the Church (in Jew and non-Jew). Thus, we are justified in calling these first two days, Jn 1:29—Jn 1:51, the Book of the Church.

Chapter two, verse one announces “the third day’’ as the beginning of Jesus’ signs (2:11). This sign, and those that followed, resulted in belief throughout the third day. 

The closing sign of the third day was the private revelation to the disciples that Jesus is God; the theophany of walking on water and the Divine self-identification “I AM.’’ Many versions of the Bible mask this identification by using the ambiguous translation, “It is I” (Jn 6:20). However, several times in the remaining chapters, the same Greek phrase occurs where it cannot be translated as a mask, so I believe the strong translation is completely justified here.

Immediately after this theophany, we again encounter the phrase “the next day.’’ This marks day number four, and the signs continue, but alongside belief, we see disbelief growing, and there is even the prediction of betrayal (6:71). The greatest sign of the fourth day is the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11. The fourth day ends with the decision of the authorities to kill Lazarus also (12:11).

Days three and four constitute the Book of Signs.

Day five begins immediately after the decision to “kill” Lazarus in verse 12:12. This is the beginning of the Book of Glory and starts with a royal procession into the city of Jerusalem. However, the ancient aphorism ad astra per aspera” (to the stars through hardships) holds true here.

At His betrayal, Jesus asks the same question He asked of John’s disciples, “Who (or what) are you looking for?” The disciples answered, “Where are You staying?” To which Jesus said, “Come and see.” The arresting soldiers answered Jesus, “Jesus of Nazareth.’’ And He replied, “I am He (or, I AM).” Considering that this Gospel is a text for catechumens, they would be asked at the beginning of instruction, “What are you looking for?” The answer at the end of instruction would be, “Jesus of Nazareth, the I AM.’’

As Judas left the Last Supper to betray Jesus, the author notes “It was night” (13:30). When Jesus appeared before Pilate for His trial and Passion, “It was morning” (18:28). Thus, “evening came and morning followed” (Gen 1:5,8,13,19,23,31). The Passion occurred on the sixth task-oriented day. The words to signify that God had completed Creation, and the word from the cross for completion contain the same Greek root. Now the insinuations of the author are complete. Jesus is not only to be identified with the Logos, but with God!

On the seventh day, the Sabbath, God rested. On the seventh day, the Sabbath, Jesus rested in the tomb. 

The work of God in creating the world is matched by the work of the Logos bringing about new life and a new world (the Church) in a new week of Creation. The Gospel is an instruction text. The Gospel shows the disciplina arcani. Ambiguity and other word play are used extensively. Jesus is both Logos and God. The identity of Jesus was hidden in plain sight throughout the Gospel.

Read the Gospel anew!

Father Buote is a retired priest of the Fall River Diocese.

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