by Herold Weiss
It is not uncommon for a person who has not read the Bible to ask a Bible reader for advice as to where to start. Most books are read starting at the beginning. Reading the Bible this way, however, may prove quite a challenge. If one does that it may not take long to find it hard to concentrate on the reading. Quite often the person asking for advice is told, “Start with the Gospel of John. It is simple and interesting.” That is true, and reading According to John for its narrative can prove quite beneficial. The simplicity of its language and its limited vocabulary make it quite accessible. Teachers of New Testament Greek invariably use texts from this gospel as examples for learning Greek vocabulary and grammar. The familiar expressions make it an ideal text for beginning students of Greek.
In the process of coming to terms with the story of Jesus told in According to John, the careful reader soon realizes that there is something going on underneath the surface of the story, and this discovery sparks the desire to dig down to the deeper levels of meaning that echo on the surface. Curious readers who decide to explore the treasures buried underneath will soon discover that the simple vocabulary is the carrier of heavy loads of meaning. They will find that the narrator had an ample supply of plays-on-words, a good ear for irony, that the dialogues consistently leave Jesus’ interlocutors in uncomfortable positions, and that the community in which this gospel took shape was philosophically literate. Of course, the linguistic alchemy is not there to impress readers with the superior talents of the narrator. It is there at the service of radical and profound theological claims.
The richness of According to John is not easy to tap because it is cast in a symbolic universe that is strange to us. The Johannine community apparently had serious disagreements with the Jewish community within which it had been conceived and with the Christian communities that were being formed around the main apostles. Coming to terms with the peripheral Christian community that defined itself by means of this document is a basic requirement for reading this gospel intelligently. With the help of a good historical guide, however, reading According to John can be an act of contemplation.