The Gospel Lesson for the first Sunday of Christmas is the operatic Prologue to the Gospel According To John:
In the beginning was the Word
And the World was with God
And the Word was God
Through him all things were made
And without him not anything was made
And that life was the light of humanity
The light shines in the darkness
And the darkness has not overcome/comprehended it . . ..
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
John’s Gospel is a narrative, but it begins with a hymn; so the Prologue was probably written separately. New Testament scholars sometimes say the Prologue was written later as an overture to interpret the story. Maybe. But usually, Biblical Scholars think that poems and hymns are older than prose narratives. So, just possibly this hymn came first and the narrative in John was written to flesh out the imagery of the hymn, as Jesus fleshed out the Word, the Logos, the Meaning of Reality. Just maybe the hymn came first.
The Gospel According to John is usually said to be the last Gospel written. It is dated to the 90’s, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke are assumed to have been written in the 70s and 80s. That may well be true.
But why do we believe John came late? I don’t think it’s because of archaeological or historic evidence. It rests on this: In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see a very human Jesus.[i] But in John we see God in human form. We assume that as time went by memories of the real human Jesus faded and a loftier golden haze image of Jesus developed. We call John a “high Christology” meaning a more divine Christ; as opposed to a “low Christology” meaning a more human Jesus.
Maybe it happened that way. But to my mind there’s a small fly in that ointment – the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is also commonly said that the Epistle to the Hebrews is late like John and that is said for the same reason: Jesus in Hebrews is every bit as divine as he is in John, maybe more so. But here’s the glitch. Hebrews is obsessed with Temple Sacrifice. It makes an emphatic case against the oblation of goats, grains, etc. in the Jerusalem Temple. But the Temple was destroyed in 70 C. E. Why is Hebrews going on so about something that could not have been happening in the 90s?
New Testament scholars have not missed that point. They are bright folks, no doubt brighter than I. They argue that these passages challenging Temple sacrifice are symbolic or evoke memories, etc. They may well be right, but these arguments seem strained and convoluted to me, rather like the various arguments that the Song of Songs isn’t really about sex. If Hebrews was written before the destruction of the Temple in 70, and its Christology is every bit as high as John’s, then John could well have been written then too.
So here’s what I wonder: These days there are Christians who see Jesus as a completely human way-shower, a wise teacher, a man who showed us the path to God. There are others of us who see Jesus as the focal human expression of God. For some of us today, take New Testament scholar N. T. Wright for example, truly “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . ..” But for others of us, take for example another respected New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, Jesus was quite human and divinity is a subsequent human interpretation.
Maybe these different perspectives on Jesus go all the way back. Maybe in 60 C. E. Mark’s community had a rather Crossan-esque view of Jesus while John’s community took more of an N. T. Wright view. Maybe the Apostles who sat at table with Jesus each saw him differently.
Low Christology is in vogue these days. But I am of the High Christology school myself. With complete respect for the low Christology folks, the assumption that Low Christology came first is not necessarily warranted by the facts and is a rhetorical assumption that marginalizes some of our greatest theologians over the centuries, not to mention the folks I hang out with today.
On this first Sunday of Christmas, when we read one of the most beautiful passages of the whole Bible, the Prologue to John, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God – those lines that set the sameness and difference of Christ and God in a pulsating fluid interchange that will ultimately flower into the doctrine of the Trinity – when we read that text, might we consider that maybe it is not an afterthought, but that maybe at least near the beginning of the writing of the Gospels someone saw this light shining in the darkness?
[i] N. T. Wright argues that the Christology in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is higher than it seems, just less explicit. Sill, John’s Jesus is much more explicitly divine.