The Four Johns….

….a little bit of exegesis to while away the hours….

I, John, your brother and partner in hardships …was on the island of Patmos.

So starts the last book in the Christian Bible, the Revelation to John (in Greek Ioánnis). Patmos, a small island in the Dodecanese (the eastern Aegean)   has earned a lasting reputation because of its association with the enigmatic John. The first time that I visited the island (on which is based ‘The Island’ in my new novel Ikon) I took the walk up the main mountain to where can be found a cave surrounded by a church. This, it is said, was where John received his revelation, the Greeks call it his Apokalypse. It is a small grotto but contains a stone slab where John, it is alleged, laid his head.

Emerging from the cave I came upon a tall, black-bearded Greek monk who was explaining to two tourists that this John was one of the two sons of Zebedee (the other was James), fishermen who became disciples of Jesus but also the apostle whom Jesus loved (an enigmatic figure in the Gospels), the author of the Gospel of John, probably written towards the end of the first century CE and the Johannine epistles, around the same time, and then this character who was banished to Patmos.

As I wrote to a friend on a holiday postcard “it’s amazing how far a Galilean fisherman can go if he eats his greens.”

There are, in fact, a good number of reasons to suggest that there were three, if not, four Johns involved in these various works. Stylistically the John of the Apokalypse is quite different from the John of the Gospel and the Epistles ( though the latter two are similar enough in style and content  to sustain the view that they have the same author). All these works were written in Greek, John the disciple would, of course, spoken Aramaic, as would Jesus. This makes it highly unlikely that the ex-fisherman could have written such elevated Greek. The content of the Gospel is close to the Gnostics (a very un-Galilean mystical movement) and some material is very similar to that that was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, writings from a Judaic sect known as the Essenes.

So now we have three Johns. What of this enigmatic ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’? He only appears in John’s gospel and then only at the Last Supper and standing by the cross when he was directed, by the dying Jesus, to take Mary into his household. There are many theories as to who this beloved disciple might be – Lazarus, John, James (brother of Jesus) even Mary Magdalene. No particular claim can be made for any of the contenders.

This is what exegesis is (literally ‘to lead out’) – taking authoritative texts and submitting them to critical analysis. In Ikon the young Ioánnis is introduced to this way of exploring texts and ideas by the old priest, Father Ignatios. It is a revelation which is to run throughout his life.

It is also a movement that has been present in the Christian Church for more than a century though its insights are largely ignored by Christians today (witness my black-bearded monk) who continue to hold to a traditional, unchanging cosmic view of their religion. It is that latter type of Christianity which is target to the neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins, an Aunt Sally at which they cannot resist taking a shy. Such a pity that we cannot have a more grown-up debate about being religious.

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