The following is an excerpt from Richard Bauckham’s Gospel of Glory.
Luke Timothy Johnson characterizes the difference between the Jesus of John and the Jesus of the Synoptics thus: Jesus “in John appears as more a symbolic than a literal figure. He bears the narrative burden of revealing God in the world.” He means that John’s Jesus in his humanity signifies God in the world, and that John’s Jesus, unlike the Jesus of the Synoptics, explicitly claims this.
However, Jesus’s “symbolic” function, as revelation of God, would be meaningless unless Jesus were also a “literal” figure. To the extent that the symbolic replaces the literal, it is self-defeating. For those who suppose that this happens in John’s Gospel, Jesus reveals only that he is the revealer of God. But then there is no revelation, only an empty tautology.
Only if Jesus retains his human particularity and story—only in his miracles, his human emotions and relationships, his suffering and humiliation in his death, his resurrection: the story that John shares with the Synoptics—can Jesus be the revelation of God. The glory is revealed in the flesh, which could not occur were the glory to overwhelm the flesh or be merely disguised in the flesh.
Thus, the integrity of John’s portrayal of the human character and story of Jesus is essential to his christological project, and a sensitive reading will show that he does not dissolve the literal in the symbolic. The “metahistorical” aspect of John’s story—Jesus comes from God and returns to God—does not deprive the historical of its reality, but interprets its meaning.
John is, however, as I have repeatedly stressed, very selective. Only by reducing the “literal” story to key moments and indispensable sequences—albeit told in relatively lavish detail—has John allowed himself space to expound the “symbolic” meaning of it all. Yet, if we take John’s Christology seriously as exposition precisely of the “symbolic” meaning of it all, then there is no reason why we should not include the more plentiful stories that the Synoptics tell in this “all.”
In this way, which has been the predominant way the church has read the Gospels in the past, we may develop the complementarity of the Synoptics and John that I proposed above into a more comprehensive interrelatedness. The Synoptic abundance of “literal” human particularity will prevent us from taking the Johannine “symbolism” in a docetic direction (a danger not unknown in the tradition), while the incarnational-revelatory Christology of John provides the most all-encompassing theological framework for reading Jesus’s story, in all the Gospels, as the story of God with us.
©2015 by Richard Bauckham. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.
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