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Petros Vassiliadis
Ass. Prof. of the University of Thessaloniki

Beyond Theologia Crucis: Jesus of Nazareth from Q to John via Paul
(or John as a Radical Reinterpretation of Jesus of Nazareth)

Chapter II

The Gospel of John (hereafter GJ) is unique in world religious literature, because it challenges the conventional approach to many religious issues. Ironically, it is also the theological treatise that has shaped the identity and self-understanding of the Christian church, thus becoming the Gospel of Christianity. It is not only its “transcendent theology concerning Jesus,”(29) which determined the Christian doctrine. It is also its profound reflection on the Jesus-of-Nazareth question through its eucharistic theology. The originality of ideas of GJ has provoked strong controversy in early Christianity. This controversy continued in the modern era, though for quite different reasons. It gained recognition, respect and renewed consideration only in post-modernity. For whereas in modernity the focus of biblical theology with regard to Jesus tradition has mainly focused on the Synoptic Gospels, now in post-modernity more emphasis is been laid to the Johannine tradition.

GJ presupposes the synoptic tradition but moves beyond its logic, as well as beyond some of the earlier (Pauline) theological views. Theologically it approaches the enduring problems of history, of human destiny, death and the salvation of the humankind starting not from anthropology but rather from Christology.(30) Christology in GJ, however, cannot to be understood apart from its Pneumatology, since “the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit” (14:26), according to GJ’s terminology, can be easily defined as the “alter ego” of Christ (“and I will ask my father and he will give you another Paraclete so that he might remain with you always” (14:16). This other Paraclete who “will teach you all things” (14:26) is “the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13); and in the final analysis the one who will “guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:12). Consequently human beings are in communion with “the way, the truth and the life”, who is Christ, only through the Holy Spirit, whom he bestows upon the world as a gift of God the Father.(31) The crucial question, of course, is how and on what condition one can become bearer of the Spirit. To answer this question modern exegetes are dramatically divided. Conservative scholars insist that according to GJ this can only happen within the Church through the sacraments, whereas liberal critics argue that it is in keeping the word of God and being in communion with Christ that salvation can be accomplished.

In GJ the members of the Christian community (i.e. the Church), as in the early Christian tradition, is not perceived as a mere institution, as an organization with a logically defined set of doctrines, and/or a specific order, but rather in terms of communion with Christ, when they keep his word and believe in him who had sent him, just as Christ is in communion with the Father (10:30; 17:21f). They are “of the truth” when they hear his voice, just as the sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd (10:1ff). All these happen, when they change their lives, i.e. when they are born from above (3:3), by the Spirit (3:5f). But this birth by the Spirit, unlike natural birth, is the work of God that no one can control, just as so happens to the wind. “The Spirit blows where He (or She) wills (and here the evangelist moves from the meaning of the Spirit to that of the wind, since the Greek pneuma can have both meanings) and you hear its sound but you do not know from where it comes or where it goes. Thus it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8). For this reason the proper worship of the community has to be “in spirit and in truth” (4:24).

This extremely charismatic ecclesiological view, however, alternate with a number of seemingly strong sacramental references, which were so far either rejected in modern scholarship as later additions or interpolations, or explained in a conventional “sacramentalistic”, i.e. pre-modern, way. As a matter of fact, there is no other issue that has so divided modern scholarship than the sacramental or non- sacramental character of the GJ.(32) The debate is usually supported by its apparent silence regarding baptism and eucharist, and by some passages that seem to speak in a veiled or symbolic manner. In my view the issue at stake is whether the various “sacramental” references, are at all related to the “sacramentalistic” views of the ancient, contemporary to the early Church, Hellenistic Mystery Cults,(33) or have much more dynamic connotations, i.e. whether they actually stand as a further reflection on the traditional (Pauline and synoptic) understanding of the Eucharist, thus being a radical reinterpretation of the Christian identity.

GJ, although omits the words of institution of the Eucharist is rightly considered as the “sacramental” book par excellence.(34) The miraculous change of the water into wine at the Wedding in Cana (2:1-11) at the outset of Jesus' earthly ministry, the symbolism of the vine and the branches in the “Farewell Discourse” (ch. 15), the flow of blood and water from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus (19:34) and so many other verses and expressions make the sacramental, or rather eucharistic, character of the GJ more than inescapable. Of course, the most discussed unit in this respect is chapter 6 with its “Eucharistic Discourse” (especially 6:51b-58); the washing of the disciples feet, which actually replaces the synoptic account of the Institution of the Eucharist, and in fact the entire ch. 13; the anointing of Jesus in 12:1ff; and the so-called “High-Priestly Prayer” in ch. 17, as a model of eucharistic prayer and a plea for the unity of humankind. These periscopes we will briefly analyse, starting with what we consider as the indispensable theological framework, namely vv. 11:51-52.

It has long been recognized that the GJ claims that the ultimate gifts of God, usually associated with the end times of history, are already accessible to the believer “in Christ”. This claim is made, however, without compromising the future dimension of those gifts. GJ seems to insist that these eschatological realities are present in the life of the believer, although there is still a future and unfulfilled quality to them. In doing this, it invites the readers to turn their attention from the future to appreciate the quality of Christian existence in the present. Nevertheless, it perfectly keeps the balance between the present and the future, giving the impression that it attempts to correct an excessively future orientation, without dispensing with the value of the future for the believer.

This ambivalence is in fact evident in the entire teaching, and especially the life and work, of Jesus of History, all of which cannot be properly understood without a reference to the messianic expectations of Judaism, i.e. the coming of a Messiah, who in the “last days” of history (eschaton) would establish his kingdom by calling all the dispersed and afflicted people of God into one place to become one body united around him. The idea of “gathering into one place the scattered people of God and of all the nations,” coupled with the descent of God’s Spirit upon the sons and daughters of God, is found in the prophetic tradition,(35) but is also evident in the early Christian literature.(36) And here a statement in GJ – generally overlooked in modern biblical scholarship – about the role of the Messiah is extremely important. In that statement the author GJ interprets the words of the Jewish High Priest by affirming that “he prophesied that Jesus should die...not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (11:51-52).

Jesus of Nazareth, therefore, identified himself with the Messiah of the Eschata, who would be the center of the gathering of the dispersed people of God. It was on this radical eschatological teaching about the Kingdom of God that the early Christian community developed its theology, its ecclesiology, its spirituality, but also its mission. It was exactly this gathering that has ever since been reenacted in the liturgical practice of the Eucharist. Already in the writings of Paul it was stated that all who believe in Christ are incorporated into the one people of God and mystically united into His body through Baptism. GJ has further developed this teaching in regard to the unity of the people of God by pointing out that this incorporation into Christ's body takes place in the Eucharist, a significant identity act which was seen not as a mystery cult but as a foretaste of the expected eschatological Kingdom.

To decipher the overall Johannine eucharistic theology one has undoubtedly to start from ch. 6.(37) The entire chapter begins with three wondrous deeds: the feeding of the multitude, the walking of Jesus on the sea, and the wondrous landing of the boat (6:1–21). Then a lengthy discourse on the “bread of life” follows, where Jesus makes high claims for Himself consistent with the announcement of his prologue (1:1-18). The result is a schism among his hearers, which finds many who had believed now leaving him (6:22–71).

There is no doubt that the author obviously wanted to set the Christ event within the framework of the Exodus-Passover theme. In the Johannine passion story Jesus is made to die at the very time the lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover meal that same evening (19:14). The symbolism suggests that Christ is to be viewed as the new Passover lamb by which God liberates humanity from oppression, just as Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt.

This Passover framework, however, is interpreted through clear sacramental references. Only the passage of the walking of Jesus on the sea (6:16-21) seems to be outside this scheme. But this is probably due to the fact that this very unit was preserved in the earlier synoptic tradition (Mk 6:30-52=Mt 14:13-27) coupled with the account of the multiplication of loaves. At any rate, the entire discourse on the “bread of life” (6:22ff) is a continuation of, and a commentary on, the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, which by the way had already been given in the synoptic tradition an accented eucharistic dimension (Mk. 6:41).(38)

In general, if Paul and the Synoptic Gospels underline the significance of the soteriological/sacramental understanding of the Eucharist, i.e. via the Pauline theologia crucis, it was GJ that went beyond this theologia crucis and gave it a life-oriented understanding. By doing so, it underlined a completely different dimension to the Christ event, thus pointing to another direction the so-called Jesus-of-Nazareth quest. Without loosing its connection with Jesus' death (cf. 19:34), the eschatological meal of the community in GJ is essentially distanced from death and associated rather with life (“the bread that I will give is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world”, 6:51; see also 6:33, 58). The antithesis between bread and manna illustrates perfectly this truth; for whereas the Jews who had eaten the manna in the desert died, those who partake of the true bread will have life eternal (6:58, 33).

Reading carefully through the entire Johannine eucharistic discourse (6:22-71) a clear change of vocabulary and content in vv. 51b-58 is more than evident.(39) In these verses faith in Christ is no longer the basic presupposition for eternal life (“he who believes in me has eternal life. I am the bread of life” 6:47-48; cf. also 6:35); eternal life now is linked with eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ (“truly truly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you will not have life in yourselves. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.... he who eats me, shall live by me” 6:54f, 57). However, as I argued elsewhere,(40) the profound meaning of these sayings, however, is given by the concluding remark of v. 6:56: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them”. With these words GJ denotes an unbroken relationship, communion and abiding presence of God, which surpass both the Hellenistic concept of “ecstasy”, and at the same time the classical conception of the Jewish prophecy; for it transforms the eschatological expectation from a future event to a present reality. But at the same time it avoids any trace of pantheism, since there is no hint to the idea of “identification” of the initiate with the deity, which was the principal teaching of all contemporary mystery cults.

Here we have the beginnings of what has become axiomatic in later Christian tradition: to have “eternal life” – in other words to live an authentic and not just a conventional life – one has to be in communion with Christ. Communion with Christ, however, means participation in the perfect communion, which exists between the Father and the Son (“Just as the living Father send me, and I live through the Father, s/he who eats me will live through me” 6:57). What we have here in GJ, is in fact a parallel expression to what has become in later patristic literature the biblical foundation of the doctrine of theosis (divinization), (cf. the classic statement of 2 Pe 1:4, “partakers of the divine nature”). In the case of GJ, however, this idea is expressed in a more dynamic and less abstract way.

Taking this argument a little further, one can say that GJ further develops an understanding of the Eucharist as the unceasingly repeated act of sealing the “new covenant” of God with his new people. This interpretation is, of course, evidenced also in the earlier synoptic and Pauline tradition, although there the covenantal interpretation of Jesus’ death in the phrase “this is my blood of the covenant” (Mk 14:24 par and I Cor 11:25), is somewhat hidden by the soteriological formula “which is shed for you” (ibid).

This eucharistic theology of GJ, with the direct emphasis on the idea of the covenant and of communion, is in fact in accordance with the prophet Jeremiah’s vision, which was at the same time also a promise. Just as in Jeremiah, so also in GJ, it is the idea of a new covenant, of communion, and of the Church as a people, that are most strongly emphasized.(41)


Through this covenantal dimension of Eucharist GJ does not only go beyond the theologia crucis; it also develops other important characteristics in dealing with both the profound meaning of the identity act of the Eucharistic celebration of the early Christian community and with the question “who was actually that Jesus of Nazareth”. The pericope of the “Washing of the Disciples’ Feet” (13:1-20) is in fact a key periscope in this respect. The incident in question, which is preserved only in the GJ, is placed in the context of the Last Supper, and in direct connection with Judas’ betrayal; in other words, exactly in the place the Synoptic Gospels have all recorded the so-called dominical sayings of the institution of the Eucharist (Mark 14: 22-25 par). Given GJ’s almost certain knowledge of the synoptic tradition, one can fairly argue that its author obviously replaced the account of the Institution of the Eucharist with the symbolic act of Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. A careful reading of the reference to the new commandment of love (13:34-15), in the same context, brings immediately to the reader’s mind the Institution Narrative. The “new commandment” sounds very similar to the “new covenant” of the so-called institution narratives of the synoptic tradition.

In sum, GJ understands the Eucharist not as a mere “cultic” and “sacramental” act, but primarily as a diaconal act and an alternative way of life with apparent social implications. For in those days the washing of a disciple’s feet was more than an ultimate act of humble service and kenotic diakonia; it was an act of radical social behavior, in fact a rite of inversion of roles within the society.(42) Add to this Jesus’ admonition to his disciples, and through them to his Church: “I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you” (Jn 13:15), and the diaconal implication of the Johannine understanding of the Eucharist becomes quite evident.


It is almost an assured result of modern theological scholarship (biblical and liturgical) that the Eucharist was “lived” in the early Christian community as a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God, a proleptic manifestation within the tragic realities of history of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality, with no practical differentiation (soteriological and beyond) between men and women.

If this was the original meaning of the Eucharist, then the redaction by GJ of another full of ritual connotation pericope – and closely related to the “eucharistic” incident of the “washing of the disciples’ feet” – namely that of the “Anointing of Jesus” (Jn 12:1ff), may not be accidental. GJ not only placed this famous pericope in the same Passover setting as the pericope of the “Washing of the Disciples’ Feet” (Jn 13:1ff); it also replaced the unknown woman by Mary, a figure from within the most beloved by Jesus family of Lazarus, and in fact in contrast with her sister Martha, who according to an account in St. Luke’s Gospel was “anxious and troubled about many things (except) the one thing...needful” (Lk 10:41). What is, however, even more important in our case, is that by actually replacing the original, and by all means more authentic, place of the pouring of the “costly ointment of pure nard” from Jesus’ hair (Mk 14:3=Mt 26:7, originally understood as a prophetic act of messianic character, parallel to St. Peter’s confession at Caesarea of Philip (Mk 8:27ff par) to Jesus’ feet (12:3),(43) GJ made a woman proleptically anticipate the incident of the washing by Jesus himself of his disciples’ feet. By so doing, the “disciple of love” (according to the Christian tradition) changed even an act of “witness” into an act of “diakonia”.


Before closing this short reflection on GJ it is necessary to say few words about ch.17, the famous “High-Priestly (Eucharistic?) Prayer”, to be ultimately understood as a prayer for the unity of humankind. It is commonly accepted that GJ is structured of in two major parts: the “Book of Signs” (chs. 1–12) and the “Book of Glory” (chs. 13–20). Both of them are woven around the notion of Jesus’ “glorification”, his “hour”. Whereas in the first part Jesus’ “hour has not come” (2:4; 7:30; 8:20), in the second part the presence of the “hour” of Jesus – his death and resurrection – is clearly affirmed (13:1; 17:1). In this second part GJ presents Jesus addressing his disciples alone (13–17) and narrates, but at the same time reflects on, Jesus’ passion and resurrection (18–21).

Chs. 14–16, the so-called “Farewell Discourse,” deal with Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples. They consist of a mosaic of themes introduced, explored, dropped, and reintroduced, central point of which is the promise of the sending of the “Paraclet”, “the Spirit of the Truth”, the first serious pneumatological reflection in Christian literature, the second and more decisive being that of St. Basil the Great.(44)

Nevertheless, the most important part is undoubtedly ch. 17, the so-called “Jesus’ High-Priestly Prayer” for his disciples. However, Jesus’ prayer in ch. 17 is not only a prayer on behalf of his disciples and their glorification in his glorification, but also “on behalf of those who will believe in (Christ) through their word” (17:20). All the motifs and symbols used in this chapter remind us of the “eucharistic prayer”, the anaphora of the later Christian liturgy, which as a “reasonable worship” and “bloodless sacrifice” is being offered not only for the Christian community itself, but also for the oekoumene, “for the life of the whole world”. In addition, the basic aim of Jesus’ prayer is “that they may all be one” (17:21ff), and by extension an appeal for the unity of humankind. It is characteristic that the whole argument is being developed on the model of the perfect unity that exists between Christ and His Father, i.e. the unity that exist within the Holy Trinity (“as you, Father, are in me and I am in you,” 17:21; “that they may be one, as we are one,” 7:22). It is not accidental that the Eucharist, the Church’s Mystery par excellence, is also an expression of unity, the ultimate act of unity; nor is it accidental that it is a rite of glory, experienced as such in almost all Christian traditions, though more evidently in the Eastern Orthodox Church.


Therefore, if any conclusion is to be drawn from this affirmation of the ecclesial and diaconal dimension of the Eucharist in GJ, this is – so I believe – a radical reinterpretation of the picture of the Jesus of Nazareth, presented in the Pauline (and Synoptic) tradition through the famous theologia crucis.


29. Pseudo-Dionysios Areopagite, Epistle X, 1117A and 1120A (208:4-5 and 209:12).

30. E. Lohse, Grundrisse der neutestamentlichen Theologie, 1974 (all references here are from the Greek transl. 1980, pp. 184ff). Cf. however the interesting essay of C. K. Barrett, “Christocentric or Theocentric? Observations on the Theological Method of the Fourth Gospel,” Essays on John, 1982, pp. 1-18.

31. This does not mean that there are no pneumatological hints in the earlier synoptic tradition, but there the references are limited and indirect.

32. Cf. Robert Kysar, “John, The Gospel of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary on CD-ROM.

33. B. Lindars has admitted that the discussion on the issue “would never have arisen if it had not been for the effect of the Reformation on Western theology” (The Gospel of John, 1972, p.261).

34. Cf. O. Cullmann, Les Sacraments dans l'Evangile Johannique, 1951, incorporated in his Early Christian Worship, 1953. The rediscovery of the sacramental characteristics in St. John's Gospel has in fact a long history in modern biblical scholarship: cf. S. Smalley, “Liturgy and Sacrament in the Fourth Gospel,” EvQ 29 (1957) 159-170; C.T.Craig, “Sacramental Interest in the Fourth Gospel,” JBL 58 (1939) 31-41; also J. M. Creed, “Sacraments in the Fourth Gospel,” The Modern Churchman 16 (1926) 363-372.

35. Is 66:18, 2:2, 59:21; Joel 3:1; Ez 36:24 etc.

36. Mt 25:32; Rom 12:16; Didache 9:4b; Mart. Polyc. 22:3b; Clement of Rome, I Cor. 12:6 etc

37. According to R. E. Brown, “The Eucharist and Baptism in St. John,” Proceedings of the Society of Catholic College Teachers of Sacred Doctrine 8 (1962) 14-37, the correct understanding of the Johannine mysteriology very much depends on the proper understanding of ch. 6 (and ch.3).

38. G. H. Boobyer, “The Eucharistic Interpretation of the Miracles of the Loaves in Mark's Gospel,” JTS n.s. 3 (1952) 161-171, half a century ago suggested that Mark understood the miracle symbolically, but not eucharistically.

39. For a history of interpretation see X. Léon Dufour, “Le mystère du Pain de Vie (Jean VI),” RechSciRel 46 (1958) 481-523; C. R. Koester, “John Six and the Lord's Supper,” Lutheran Quarterly n.s. 4 (1990) 419-437, et al. Among the most serious proposals cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. I, 1966, ad loc; G. Bornkamm, “Die eucharistische Rede im Johannes-Evangelium,” ZNW 47 (1956) 161-169; R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, vol.II, engl. transl., 1980, ad loc; O. Cullmann, Urchristentum und Gottesdienst, 1944 and its translation into English The Early Christian Worship; G. H. C. MacGregor, “The Eucharist in the Fourth Gospel,” NTS 9 (1963) 111-119; O. S. Brooks, “The Johannine Eucharist. Another Interpretation, JBL 82 (1963) 293-300; E. Schweizer, “Das johanneische Zeugnis vom Herrenmahl,” Neotestamentica1963, pp. 371-373; J. Jeremias, “Joh 6,51c-58 - redaktionell?” ZNW 44 (1953) 256ff.; J. Bonsirven, “Hoc est corpus meum,” Biblica 29 (1948) 205-219; R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John, p.218ff; P. Borgen, Bread from Heaven, 1965 (cf. also his article “Unity of the Discourse in John 6,” ZNW 50 (1959) 277-78; J. M. Perry “The Evolution of the Johannine Eucharist,” NTS 39 (1993) pp.22-35.

40. “The Understanding of Eucharist in St. John’s Gospel,” in L. Padovese (ed.), Atti del VI Simposio di Efeso su S. Giovani Apostolo, Roma 1996, pp. 39-52.

41. Note the prophet's phraseology: “and I will make a covenant ...a new covenant,” Jer 38:31; and “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord... and they shall be unto me a people” (Jer 24:7).

42. More on this in A. Destro-M. Pesce, “Gestualità e ritualità nel Vangelo di Giovanni: la lavanda dei piedi,” in L. Padovese (ed.), Atti…; J. D. G. Dunn “The Washing of the Disciples’ Feet in John 13,1-20,” ZNW 61 (1970) 247-252; D. Tripp, “Meaning of Foot-Washing: John 13 and Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 840,” ET 103 9 (1992) 237-239.

43. E. Kasselouri, “The Narratives of Peter's Confession (Mt 16:13-20 par.) and of the Anointing of Jesus (Mt 26:6-13 par.). Parallel Messianic Narratives?” Deltio Biblikon Meleton 13 (1994) pp. 27-33. Also, in The Gospel of Matthew (Proceedings of the VII Conference of Orthodox Biblical Scholars) Thessaloniki 1996, pp. 169-175 (in Greek).

44. Cf. his treatise On the Holy Spirit, PG vol. 32.

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