John 18-21

In the gospel of John, Jesus is arrested in a garden outside Jerusalem where he has gone to pray. When the temple police and soldiers who come with Judas to arrest Jesus actually confront him, the gospel tells us that "they drew back and fell to the ground." Jesus almost has to order the police and soldiers to arrest him. Simon Peter is named as the disciple who draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. But Jesus tells him, "This is the cup the Father has given me."

Jesus is taken first to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest for that year. Peter and another disciple follow, and the other disciple, "who was known to the high priest," enters the courtyard and tells the girl on duty at the door to let Peter in as well. Standing near the fire with the servants and police, Peter denies that he is a disciple of Jesus.

Annas questions Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus replies that he has spoken openly "for all the world to hear" in "synagogues or in the temple, where all Jews congregate." And he says sharply, "Question those who heard me; they know what I said." At this, one of the police hit him in the face, but Jesus is not cowed. Outside in the courtyard Peter denies two more times that he is a follower of Jesus, and then the cock crows. Jesus is sent to Caiaphas and then taken to Pilate. We learn that it is not yet the Passover, as the Jews remain outside the headquarters of the Roman governor so they will not defile themselves by entering a Gentile building. (In the first three gospels the last supper Jesus has with his disciples is the Passover meal.)

Pilate comes out to "the Jews" and tells them to try Jesus by their own law, but they answer that they are not allowed to put anyone to death. Then Pilate goes back into his headquarters and has Jesus brought before him. "So you are the king of the Jews?" he asks. Jesus seems to banter with him. "Is that your own question, or have others suggested it to you?" Pilate then asks Jesus what he has done, and Jesus answers, "My kingdom does not belong to this world." When Pilate seems amused that Jesus sees himself as a king, Jesus says he is called "to bear witness to the truth." Pilate replies, "What is truth?"

When Pilate offers to release either Jesus or Barabbas, the crowd cries for Barabbas. Then Pilate has Jesus flogged. The Roman soldiers put a crown of thorns on his head, dress him in a purple cloak, and mock him as "king of the Jews" as they strike him in the face. When the soldiers bring him back before the governor, Pilate says to "the Jews" that he finds no case against Jesus. But the chief priests and temple police cry, "Crucify! Crucify!" Pilate says again that he finds no reason to punish Jesus, but then "the Jews" say that "according to the law" Jesus ought to die "because he has claimed to be God's Son."

Once more Pilate tries to release Jesus, but "the Jews" keep shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; anyone who claims to be a king is opposing Caesar." Finally, Pilate asks "the Jews" gathered before the tribunal, "Am I to crucify your king?" When the chief priests reply, "We have no king but Caesar," to satisfy them Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified. Jesus is taken away, carrying his own cross, to "the place called The Skull (in Hebrew, "Golgotha"). In the gospel of John, Jesus is crucified between "two others" and an inscription in Hebrew, Latin and Greek reading "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" is hung on his cross. The chief priests protest that the inscription should be changed to read, "He claimed to be king of the Jews," but Pilate refuses to make the change. (None of the other three gospels in the New Testament reports that this inscription was in three languages.) The gospel of John also says that the soldiers divided up his clothes by casting lots, and that this fulfills the prophecy in Psalm 22:18.

In addition, the gospel tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was standing near the cross with her sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. (We saw that in the gospel of Mark the women at the cross are Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. In the gospel of Matthew the three women are Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. The gospel of Luke reports that "the women who had followed him from Galilee" witnessed the death of Jesus and names Mary of Magdala, Joanna and Mary the mother of James as among those who came to the tomb after the sabbath.) The gospel of John is the only one of the four New Testament gospels to refer to "Mary the mother of Jesus." The other gospels identify the mother of Jesus as the mother of two of his brothers. Moreover, the gospel of John is the only gospel to suggest that Mary has a sister named Mary.

On the cross Jesus tells "the disciple whom he loved," who is also present: "There is your mother." And he says to Mary: "Mother, there is your son." This conversation is not recorded in any other gospel, and nowhere else do we read that one of the disciples was present at the foot of the cross. Before dying, Jesus also says, "I am thirsty," and is given a sponge soaked with sour wine. Then he says, "It is accomplished!" and dies. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus cries out in agony the first verse of Psalm 22 before he dies, and the gospel of Luke also reports that Jesus cries out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." In the gospel of John, however, Jesus seems calm and, as always, in control of things, even as he dies. Then Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take the body, wrap it for burial, and put it in a nearby tomb.

There are significant differences in the gospel accounts of the arrest and crucifixion, but the similarities are also striking. Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane by Jewish leaders, who bring him to Pontius Pilate. They seek the death penalty, because they find Jesus guilty of blasphemy. In order to convince Pilate that Jesus needs to be put to death, they present him as a political threat to Rome. Pilate offers to release Jesus or Barabbas, who is a convicted terrorist, and those who are present call for the release of Barabbas and demand the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus dies on the cross under a sign saying that he is "king of the Jews" and his body is placed in a tomb nearby.

The motives of those who press for the crucifixion of Jesus are clearly selfish and political, but here as in the gospel of Matthew the Jewish people are held responsible. Can Christians read the passion story in the gospels of Matthew and John and not blame Jews for the death of Jesus? Can we see that each of these gospels has been written in the midst of a conflict among Jews who have different beliefs about Jesus and his relationship to the hope for a Messiah? Are we willing to admit that much of what is attributed to Jesus in the gospel of John is the author's argument against the Jews that have rejected him and his friends from their synagogue?

In the gospel of John we read that Mary of Magdala comes to the tomb alone. When she sees that the stone had been rolled away, she runs to find (Simon) Peter and the disciple that Jesus loved. When the two disciples come and enter the tomb, they find only the wrappings that had been around the body of Jesus. They return home, but Mary remains behind. The gospel tells us that, as she is crying, she sees two angels and then, without at first recognizing him, Jesus. When Jesus says to her, "Mary!" she replies by calling him, in Hebrew, "Rabboni," which the author of the gospel says means "Teacher." Jesus warns her not to "cling" to him and sends her to tell the disciples.

Later in the day Jesus appears among the disciples, who are hiding "behind locked doors for fear of the Jews," and says to them, "Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, so I send you." Then he breathes on them, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit!" A week later he appears to them again. The disciple, Thomas, who was not present for the first appearance and doubts the account related to him by the other disciples, is present this time and confesses, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus replies, "Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are they who find faith without seeing me.” 

Chapter 20 of the gospel of John concludes by affirming that Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples. "Those written here," the author says, "have been recorded in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may have life by his name."

In the final chapter of the fourth gospel Jesus reveals himself some time later by the sea of Tiberias. (Is the Greek name for the Sea of Galilee used in order to signify the life of the Greek-speaking church after the death and resurrection of Jesus?) Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples have apparently gone back home and are again fishing. A man on the beach tells them to throw their nets on the starboard side of the boat, and when the nets fill with fish the "disciple whom Jesus loved" exclaims, "It is the Lord." Peter leaps into the sea and swims ashore, as the other bring in the boat.

On the beach they find a fire with fish frying and bread. Jesus invites them to have breakfast with him, gives them fish and bread, and after breakfast asks Simon Peter three times if he "loves him." When Peter asserts that he does love him, Jesus answers, "Then feed my sheep." The gospel concludes with a dialogue between Peter and Jesus about "the disciple whom Jesus loved." It appears that this conversation is an attempt to settle a difference of opinion among Christians as to whether or not this disciple would remain alive until Jesus comes again. "It is this same disciple," the gospel of John relates, "who vouches for what has been written here. He it is who wrote it, and we know that his testimony is true."

If the gospels are quite similar in their reports of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, they are strikingly dissimilar in their accounts of the resurrection and the appearances of Jesus to his followers. They vary in naming the first witnesses at the tomb. Those who, in the gospel of Mark, flee in fear are, in the gospel of Matthew, filled with joy. In the gospel of Mark those who went to the tomb tell no one, but in the other gospels they tell the disciples. In the gospel of Luke the disciples do not believe the women who return from the empty tomb, but in the gospel of John two disciples respond to Mary's story by hurrying to the tomb. In the gospel of Mark a young man is seen at the tomb, in the gospel of Matthew there is a single angel, in the gospel of Luke there are two men in "dazzling garments," in the gospel of John we read that Mary of Magdala sees two angels. In the gospel of Matthew the women touch the feet of Jesus and worship him. In the gospel of John a risen Jesus tells Mary of Magdala not to cling to him.

In the gospel of Mark the young man present at the empty tomb tells the women that Jesus will meet them and the disciples in Galilee. In the gospel of Matthew a risen Jesus appears to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee. In the gospel of Luke the risen Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, leaves them in Bethany, and we are told that the disciples remain in Jerusalem. In the gospel of John the risen Jesus also appears to the disciples in and around Jerusalem, but later he appears to some of them in Galilee. The gospel of Matthew and the gospel of John end with the disciples in Galilee. The gospel of Luke ends with the disciples in Jerusalem worshipping in the temple.

Any attempt to reconcile these accounts into a single, factual narrative is not only doomed to failure, but misunderstands that the witness of the gospels is not to facts but to faith. In the life of the early  Christian congregations there is no question that Jesus has risen, because Paul and Peter and others have had experiences of the risen Christ. The fact of the resurrection experience — however that fact may be understood — is accepted by all those who have found new life in a Christian community. That is what is important, not the details concerning his appearances. The four gospels in the New Testament witness to the experiences in the early churches of the power and mystery of the risen Christ. 

The good news of the gospels in the New Testament is the good news proclaimed by Paul and the other apostles to the Greek-speaking Christian communities. In the death and continuing presence of the risen Christ, who abides with those who have faith and who love God and their neighbors, we may find forgiveness. In Christ one may be born again, one may enter the kingdom of God (heaven), one may have eternal life. This is good news because anyone, whether male or female, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, may respond with faith to the Son of the Father. © Robert Traer 2016