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Sep 2, 2016

Why the Symbols in John's Gospel Matter

Matt Dunn

It is often mentioned that rich symbolism can be found in the Gospel of John.  Not a page of it is lacking in some sort of theological symbol.

Some, such as the opening words: “In the beginning,” or mentioning the five porticoes at the pool where the man was healed, come from the evangelist’s pen in describing the scene (Augustine and Chrysostom suggest John mentioned the five of them as symbolic of the five books of the Torah). John makes no effort to explain these symbols; they are part of how he presents his work.  It is up to the reader to realize and understand that there are two levels to the discussion.

However, it must be noted that there is a difference between the symbolic language of John, and the symbolic language of Jesus, as told by John.

The Symbols Used by Jesus

Some symbols presented in John’s Gospel come from the mouth of Christ in the form of dialogue.  One example of these would be found in John 1:47, when Christ addresses Nathanael by saying “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (The use of the word “Israelite,” rather than “Jew” is intentional: it refers the reader back to Jacob—renamed Israel—who obtained his birthright through guile).

This is followed by discussing an episode from Nathan’s past that Jesus couldn’t have known about, and included a symbolic mention of a fig tree.  Another such example that was discussed previously is Christ’s speaking of living water to the woman at the well.  The Lord’s symbolic language, though, does not keep his audience in suspense as to his meaning.

Consider again the call of Nathanael, who sees that Jesus must know something of him, but since they’ve never met, is not sure what or how, so he asks.  Christ then explains further that he knows of what Nathanael has done in the past, and after further explanation, Nathanael becomes aware that Jesus is the Lord.

Similarly, the woman at the well first tries avoiding the issue.  When she does try to take advantage of Jesus’ offer, she misunderstands, but Christ calmly and continuously keeps explaining to her what he can offer, and when she still doesn’t get it, he eventually states that he is the Messiah.

Why the Difference Matters

So why is there a difference between Jesus’ symbols and John’s?  One reason could be the audience.  Nathanael and the Samaritan woman were new in their awareness of Christ.  John may be assuming that we, by the fact of our reading his Gospel, have some awareness already.  Another possibility is the more simple explanation that this is a written text.  As readers, we are unable to ask John questions in the ways these early witnesses were able to ask theirs of the Lord.  The reason may also combine these two.  John may have used the dialogue as a device for those symbols that are more important (or more difficult) to grasp, while not mentioning any dialogue pertaining to those issues we were able to see on our own.

There is not presented here an actual reason why some symbols are defined and others aren’t.  What is more important is to understand that the symbols which Jesus did discuss verbally were always explained to those who did not understand and asked for his assistance.

Therefore, when the Temple authorities question Jesus regarding the man healed on the Sabbath, he does not answer them quizzically—or ambiguously—but is straightforward, even though he knew they would not enjoy his response.  Think about this: He knows they are short-sighted.  He knows they are only looking to bolster their own pious reputations and the power they derive from that alleged piety.  And he knows they could use this as reason to put him to death.  Yet, without any coyness at all, he equates himself with God through his Father.

This not only shows his honesty, but how important it was for him to share the truth with everyone, even those who would hate him.  This could have been based on the off chance that even one of them could turn from their stiff-necked ways to him.  Perhaps this episode is even what led Joseph of Arimethea to become the “disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (19:38).  What we do know is that he replied as always, with a response that was thorough and complete.

‘I Am the Bread of Life’ Is Not a Symbol

This will be something to consider as the reader explores John, in particular Chapter Six’s message on the Eucharist.  When many folks felt this saying was too difficult, the Lord only repeats the same phrase over again. Between verses thirty-five and fifty-three, there are ten occasions where the Lord says “I am … bread” or “Eat my flesh.”  After all this, how does he respond to those who still don’t get it? Jesus lets them leave.

The same Savior who calmly preached to the Samaritan woman until she finally saw the truth, and told Nathanael private facts about his past …

The same Son who spoke at length to the Pharisees of his relationship with the Father after healing on the Sabbath, even though he knew they wouldn’t understand …

He would not have let these people walk away if he meant bread to be a mere symbol.

Jesus answered everyone’s questions, sometimes even changing metaphors (such as with the Good Shepherd/Gate discourse in Chapter Ten) to make sure that people understood what his symbols meant. If these disciples cannot accept transubstantiation, after the detailed explanation, he will not force anyone his way; they have to accept it.

What do the symbols and the Bread of Life Discourse in the Gospel of John mean to you? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • In the article “Why the Symbols in St. John’s Gospel Matter,” I question the heading ‘I Am the Bread of Life’ Is Not a Symbol. The issue concerns the meaning and force one attributes to the word “symbol.” I prefer to honor its first meaning of a different guise in which the self-same reality may appear. Both my visual frown and my aural task tsk indicate the same displeasure.
    Maintaining that the same Jesus Christ in his Paschal Mystery of dying, rising, ascending to the Father’s Right Hand etc. is with us in this time and place under the Eucharistic species of bread and wine is, to me, the ultimate symbol. We are dealing with the modern semantic conflict between “sign” and “symbol.” Sign I understand to be one independent reality that suggests or point to another independent reality. The being of a photograph of my friend is independent of whether my friend still exists in this world or not. This piece of photographic can cease to exist without influencing the reality of my friend, alive or deceased. Not so re the symbol classically.

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