John’s Gospel as the Eyewitness Event Itself

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What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. Ordering information here, but coming soon is the new two-volume edition!

In the preface to his five-volume opus, Papias (an early second-century Christian bishop and writer) explains his own approach to establishing the truth about Jesus in the following passage. Without doubt he was describing the historiographical method that his master John the Presbyter taught him, which means it is also the method John adopted in writing the gospel.

εἰ δέ που καὶ παρηκολουθηκώς τις τοῖς πρεσβυτέροις ἔλθοι, τοὺς τῶν πρεσβυτέρων ἀνέκρινον λόγους, τί Ἀνδρέας ἢ τί Πέτρος εἴπεν ἢ τί Φίλιππος ἢ τί Θωμᾶς ἢ Ἰάκωβος ἢ τί Ἰωάννης ἢ Ματθαῖος ἢ τις ἕτερος τῶν τοῦ κυρίου μαθητῶν ἅ τε Ἀριστίων καὶ ὁ πρεσβύτερος Ἰωάννης, τοῦ κυρίου μαθηταί, λέγουσιν. οὐ γὰρ τὰ ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων τοσοῦτόν με ὠφελεῖν ὑπελάμβανον ὅσον τὰ παρὰ ζώσης φωνῆς καὶ μενούσης.

And so whenever anyone who had followed the presbyters came along, I would ask carefully for the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or what Philip, or what Thomas or James, or what John or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of the Lord, and which Aristion and John the Presbyter, disciples of the Lord say too. For I did not assume that whatever comes from books is as helpful to me as what comes from a living and persevering voice.

This quotation is not (as some have written) dismissing the value of books; certainly not when Papias wrote these words in a massive written work of his own. He is rather saying that when an actual eyewitness is still alive, still persevering in stating aloud in words his vivid memories, he deserves to be heeded more than a book, no matter how helpful the latter. It is saying that even the best books are of less value because they are indirect, coming between the student and the eyewitness descriptions, and that the eyewitness descriptions are superior because they are only one step away from the actual events themselves.

Modern historiography, while it pays lip service to primary sources, relies mainly on previously written works, as any survey of published material will amply demonstrate. And modern historiography, when it does turn to primary sources, insists that the best eyewitness is dispassionate, perceiving facts without their being distorted by the least shred of emotional attachment, free from subjective interpretation – in this case, spiritual understanding.

The classical historian, on the other hand, would aver that to lack emotional attachment to the event, that is, to not care about what one is observing, reduces one’s effectiveness as a witness. The best witness, that historian would say, is one who is invested in the event, and thus has senses well attuned and memory carefully storing the event away. The best witness is one who not just cares enough about the event to remember it well, but cares about it enough to recount it again and again to various audiences, who therefore has had good practice at the craft of putting memory into words, which strengthens the recall and prevents the memory from fading away.

As it is put in The Circle of Life:

Traditional peoples see time and place in terms of story. Everything around us is alive, and has its story. To exist, to live, is to create story: when we fall in love, when we have a child, and so on, we’re beginning a story, and the only way we can learn how the story is going to come out is by creating the story. The past, to the traditional way of thinking, is the stories that have been told and can still be told; the future is the stories that have not yet been told. Thus, this present moment is ceremony in progress, stories in the making. This moment now, with you holding this book in your hands as you read it, is your story-in-the-making. Some day to come you will remember reading this book. You won’t have this book in your hands, but you will remember reading something in it that really struck you, and what it made you think about, and what you did that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. This remembering will be for you a story, part of the greater story of your life. Death, in this view, is an ending not of life, but of a story – and other stories will always follow.

This issue was no doubt important to Papias because, as the Gospel of John demonstrates, it was crucial to his mentor John the Presbyter. The book, the gospel, that John wrote seeks to be something unique: to be not just a book of history like other books of history, even the best of them. It seeks to be more than merely an indirect witness to Jesus, a mere record of oral recollections like other written histories. Rather, it seeks to be itself a direct observer and describer of the events, telling the reader the story about them just the way a witness does – more than that, it seeks to be the event itself, such that we are not mere readers of a text that quotes witnesses about the event of Jesus, but that we are direct witnesses to the event itself. I said above that for classical historians the best witness is “invested in the event, and thus has senses well attuned and memory carefully storing the event away, … and cares about it enough to recount it again and again to various audiences”, which describes this gospel very well. For Jesus promises, in the gospel itself, that a new kind of eyewitness will come to the faithful; he speaks of it as the Paraclete (Παρακλητος), “the Spirit/Wind/Breath of truth … that will bear witness concerning me” (15:26), adding, “Whatever it hears it will speak … [it] will teach you all things and will remind you of all the things that I said to you” (14:26). That new kind of witness is the gospel itself. It is the eyewitness we attend to, so it is the event-itself that gives us Jesus.

In this modern age of malls and superhighways drained of all real intrinsic meaning, meaning, or the mere appearance of meaning, is a commodity that is bought and sold like any other: information technology, as it is called. The “ruler of this cosmos”, as Jesus calls him in this gospel, or Big Brother, as George Orwell called him, tells us to trust him and go home now, and he will explain everything to us later. We are in this modern age to believe what we are told to believe. Scholars in this modern age argue about what this gospel means. Most people just allow their religious organization to tell them what the meaning of this and other scriptures is, rather than discovering it for themselves through intelligent reading. The organized religious establishments took over the role of assigning meaning to events. And the scholars, just as bad, squeeze the scriptures for meaning and throw away the works themselves like an empty orange skin. Yet in fact Marshall McLuhan was right: don’t look for hidden meanings in the gospel; the medium, this gospel, is the message, and the message is the gospel itself.

For classical people, the event, the experience, and the meaning were all inextricably mixed. For the classical mind the truth as to the meaning of any event (historical or happening in front of one) was in the event itself, not in descriptions of the event – the descriptions contain truth to the degree that they conform their words to the truth in the event itself. That is the main criterion by which classical books of history were judged in classical times as to their quality, and it should remain such.

Moderns deem the meaning of an event or a teaching more important than the event or teaching itself. They suggest that there is something defective about a powerful symbolic work like the Gospel of John, and that therefore it needs the official explainers to explain it. They suggest that there is something defective about you and me, in that we are not able to appreciate the gospel fully unless we listen to the official explainers. This has the effect not only of devaluing the work itself and the readers themselves, but it creates a relativism of meaning: the meaning is whatever those powerful enough to take control of the social institutions of education, communication, media, and often government say is its meaning.

Symbols are not like highway signs. A red hexagon tells us to stop the car because we are trained by our culture so to do; someone from another culture will not know to stop. But a symbol, an archetype, is immediately a powerful spiritual dynamo for any human being of any culture in any epoch. It needs no explaining, and in fact explaining does it a disservice, suggesting that the symbol is of lesser importance, and that rather the big-mouthed bonehead who wants us to know how smart he is that he can explain a symbol is the real point. As Jung taught, symbols, archetypes, are hard-wired into our psyches as a species; they are ultimately a primal root part of the World Soul, the collective unconscious. Symbols are like bodies that express the ineffable archetypes; the archetypes are the souls inside the symbols that make the symbols come alive. So in my view symbols do not point at something beyond themselves: they simply are, and we can only gape at their inexpressible forever astonishing wonder. They are numinous. Like the famous “Flower Sermon” of Gautama Buddha, John the Presbyter was wise not to put a lot of explanations into this gospel. He simply gives us the symbols, points toward the allusions in the classics and the Tanakh, and leaves us to contemplate this glorious beauty that means what it is.

Most Jews and most Hellenes weaned on Plato would have agreed with John the Presbyter that the ultimate source of all truth is God, not the official explainers. If there is truth in someone’s words or deeds, in any situation, it is because these things are said or done in accordance with the will of God: they are, in the Presbyter’s terms, in accordance with the Λογος. Hence, if the Gospel of John was written by God’s will, then to the degree John the Presbyter wrote it as God wishes, it carries the truth of the words and events recorded. If it is more than an historic record, if it is in Kant’s term a Ding an sich, if it is in Lao-tse’s term 自然 (ziran; “self-so”), if it is in Borges’s term an aleph, then it is God’s own deed, and the Presbyter is but the instrument. And, if that is the case, then the gospel does not just embody the truth, but it is the truth, because the presence of God is in it.

Thus, the Gospel of John, as the Paraclete, by its established nature as the event itself, does not therefore reflect the truth of the event in its words as the moon reflects the sun, as we humans (should) reflect the image of Elohim, but rather it has the truth within its own very nature. And therefore it is for us, as not readers but eyewitnesses to this gospel-event and its inherent truth, to believe. Thus Jesus says the truth will set us free if we know it (8:32), that God’s word is truth (17:17), that he bears witness to the truth such that those who hear his voice have truth in them (18:37), and of course says to Thomas and us

“You believe because you have seen me.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!”

For example, the resurrection appearances of Jesus were for the disciples new experiences that at first they could not understand. They were receiving sensory data that did not make sense to them, and had to be explained to them. They probably discussed and even argued with each other as to the meaning of these appearances. They may have realized that their guesses at the meaning might be wrong or incomplete. But they would never once have thought it was for them to establish the meaning, that the meaning was theirs to decide, but rather that the meaning was in the event itself and was something that they must discern in the event. Thus, as an event in its own right, the gospel does not like other works of classical history seek to reproduce faithfully the meaning in the event; it is the event, and so it carries its own intrinsic meaning. The meaning it gives to the resurrection is that this is no ordinary man but Messiah, and no ordinary event but a kairos, a tirtha, a moment-place where the veil between the worlds has grown thin and one can glimpse the eternal, the Æon.

This gospel is to be accepted, then, not an ordinary history based on the accounts of witnesses but a witness itself; more than that, it is to be taken as the direct experience of Jesus: by reading it we are there with Jesus. Therefore, we are not mere readers, removed from the event by the intervening media of witness and book; rather, we are witnesses ourselves to the gospel-as-event/teaching, we are put squarely in front of the truth itself, the event-presence itself, and thus we are anointed as disciples and presbyters and apostles and elders ourselves. Jesus in effect addresses us, the readers of the gospel, when in the gospel’s very last words he says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!” We, the readers of the gospel, have not seen the events and teachings in the gospel, but by reading we know them, and are called to believe. And the Envoi to the gospel, which follows immediately, drives home this same point:

πολλα δε και αλλα σημεια α εποιησεν ο ιησους ενωπιον των μαθητων αυτου α ουκ εστιν γεγραμμενα εν τω βιβλιω τουτω ατινα εαν γραφηται καθ εν ουδ αυτον οιμαι τον κοσμον χωρησαι τα γραφομενα βιβλια ταυτα δε γεγραπται ινα πιστευσητε οτι ιησους εστιν ο χριστος ο υιος του θεου και ινα πιστευοντες ζωην *αιωνιον* εχητε εν τω ονοματι αυτου

Indeed there are also many other signs Jesus has been doing in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book, which, if each one of them were written, I think not even the cosmos itself could contain all the books (that would have to be) written. These, however, have been written so you might believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the son of God, and that, by believing, you might have Æonian life in his name.

The Jewish view in John’s day was that truth flowed from the Torah and from the Temple – whichever Temple, and hence the conflicting “truths” espoused by the priesthoods in Jerusalem, Samaria, and Leontopolis in Egypt; Mary and Jesus allude to this conflict in 4:20-21. But the gospel seeks to present God as the only source of truth and valid meaning; God has sent Jesus as emissary to express this truth, and the gospel is presenting itself as the Paraclete, continuing to express God’s truth, the only real truth.

In saying we are blessed who have not seen and yet believe, in saying the gospel was written “so you might believe”, the gospel is saying that those who believe are good witnesses to the experience of Jesus. As the Paracete the gospel presents itself, as I have often said, not as a history book, but as in itself the experience-of-Jesus, which makes us not mere readers of a book but witnesses to an event. Some people over the millennia have read the gospel and remain readers, remain agnostic, because for them this book remains a book; no harm in this. Yet some organizations, while they pay lip service to calling this book scripture, treat it as a book that they will interpret for their adherents, despite the fact that the meaning of the event is in the event, not enforced upon it by a social institution, in this case the meaning is in the book, not the institution, and to separate meaning from event, like separating the spirit from the body, kills both.

But for those who read and believe, the book becomes not just a witness to Jesus, but moreover an event, the experience-of-Jesus. As I have also previously noted, classical historians preferred to base their writings on witnesses who were emotionally involved, because that quality better engraved their memories of what they observed than the “dispassionate observer” preferred today; also, they had experience in telling the story of what they witnessed, and so their wording would be useful to the historian. Like a dream quickly written down at dawn or immediately told to someone, verbalizing an experience helps to firm up and fix the details in the memory with exactitude.

Perhaps thousands of people heard and saw Jesus – but only a relatively very few were so moved that they didn’t just “hear and see” but listened and observed. The difference is in this very factor of becoming involved in, committed to, the event, such that one absorbs it: the individual becomes a part of the event and it becomes a part of the individual. Therefore, for the gospel to discuss belief as a result of reading this gospel is to say it is possible for some readers to become more than readers: to become believers, that is, emotionally involved, committed witnesses to the experience-of-Jesus as mediated by the gospel (20:29,31).

Classical and modern historians both understand that the truth known to human beings is subjective: the only truth we have is the knowable truth, the truth from our finite perspective. And of course in ancient times like now, people would “spin” their telling to make the truth appear in ways that furthered their desires. Thus the wise historian, then and now, presents various perspectives as if in a courtroom, and evaluates the evidence supporting each in order to arrive at the truth in the event itself. Thus in the Gospel of John we find occasional courtroom terminology; even the original title, The Paraclete, is a courtroom term. Thus too we find the gospel focused on the nature of truth: Pilate asks what it is, and Jesus says I AM is the truth that, if we know it, frees us.

Pontius (“What is truth?”) Pilate had no more access to objective truth than any other human being; thus he like most others sought only the truth that would serve him, he like most others sought to be the master of the truth, but Jesus said to him, in effect, “You would have no truth at all, unless it comes to you from above.” John the Presbyter would agree with George Berkeley that, while our human truths are subjective, that we have at best an asymptotic relationship with the truth, God is a priori the one entity for whom truth is objective, whole, and perfect. We human beings cannot bridge the asymptotic gap to perfect truth – the closer we get the harder it is to get closer, like approaching absolute zero or the speed of light. But in the Messiah of Jesus, and therefore in the gospel that embodies his teaching, the truth has come to us, God has come to us – for, where we cannot bridge the asymptotic gap, God can. This is a major point in the Prologue to the gospel, and this coming of God into the human experience is the very essence of kairos, the Greek concept of sacred time, the “eternal now” moment when all ordinary life hushes in the presence of the inexplicable.

The final two words in the quotation from the Muratorian Canon, saying that John wrote “all the wonderful things of the Lord in order” (italics added), are significant here. For a central factor in classical historiography, besides primary reliance on committed eyewitnesses, was the arrangement of the raw observational reports of the eyewitnesses interviewed into a seamless historical narrative: that is, imparting an architecture to that narrative, a pattern as pleasing to the mind as the structure of a cathedral is pleasing to the eye. In Hegelian terms, this is the dialectical relationship between content and form, between truth and beauty, in Greek terms, between χρειαι (units of oral recollection) and συνταξις (organization into a large-scale work): while the eyewitness and historian could be the same person, properly speaking the former was the provider of content, of truth, and the latter the provider of form, of beauty. A classical historical work of fine quality had both blended into a unity; indeed, in classical works of history – indeed, in all great classical literature – these two were the same thing: in the words of Keats, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth.” Put another way, the classical historian saw his task as a form of fine art, painting a truthful image of the past with the raw materials of testimony and records. The structure of the gospel, which is detailed in the Commentaries, is clearly modeled on that of a Greek play, in four major sections (called Acts in my translation), with at least the beginnings of a seven signs and seven seals substructure. It is also filled with inclusio (details or themes or phrases in the early chapters that return in the final chapters), as well as with abundant references to Greek poets such as Sappho and Homer, the philosopher Plato, and the playwright Euripides.

John the Presbyter’s work included more than putting the reminiscences into chronological order and inserting later marginal additions where they seemed best to go into the narrative flow. It included more than refining the literary language was and adding artful references to Hellenistic philosophy and literature, and composing the Prologue. It included more than arranging an artful A-B-A symmetry or inclusio format.

The Presbyter also was determined a: to attest to the truth of this gospel and its hard-to-believe contents, b: to effectively quash the inevitable allegations by cynics (Celsus being the first in a line of them to the present day) that the whole thing about Jesus was made up or a matter of delusion, and c: to prevent ideological tampering with the text. He did this as did the great prophets (e.g., Isaiah 8:2,16; cf. the concern expressed in Jeremiah 8:8), by writing into the text statements that in modern terms are written legal depositions or affidavits, solemnly certififying that the text tells the truth. Therefore, the structure includes a “seven seals” arrangement that was at least partly fleshed out.

Thus we find factual certifications at 1:14, 3:33-34, 19:24, 19:35, 20:30-31, plus two more by John the Immerser at 1:32 and 34. These seven certifications are mentioned in Revelation 5:1-9; they are “seven seals” that seal the codex which is clearly this gospel; the imagery is borrowed from Ezekiel 2:9-3:3. (Note: I do not include a separate certification at the end of chapter 21, since the latter was not originally part of the gospel, nor the approximately seven times that Jesus serves as his own witness, at 3:11, 7:7, 8:18, 5:39, 5:43, 5:46, 18:37, since these are certifications about Jesus, not of Jesus.)

There is also a partly fleshed-out structure of “seven signs” (in modern parlance, miracles) done by Jesus, equivalent to the seven trumpets in Revelation 8-9, trumpeting Jesus’s identity as Messiah. These seven signs are themselves certifications as well: in the Jewish faith then and now a putative Messiah is expected to perform certain signs (אוֺתוֺת; otot; the singular is אוֹת; oth, rhyming with “oat”) to certify themselves as meriting that recognition. However here John evidently ran into a problem which may have delayed completion of the gospel (permanently, as it turned out): the chiastic structure of the seven signs should have had the healings of the paralytic and blind man mirror each other as the third and fifth sign, with the loaves-and-fishes taking the center spot – however, that would only be possible in the text if it were to ignore the chronological fact that the loaves-and-fishes sign preceded that of the paralytic man. The amanuensis could easily have “solved” this problem by just changing the order – but the man who had criticized John Mark for putting events out of their actual temporal order, now had to choose between doing just that or accepting a flaw in the chiasm.

Why all these artistic devices, especially the inclusio and the references to classical literature, in an account that stresses its eyewitness nature? Artifice to our contemporary thinking suggests hyperbole, exaggeration, even outright deception and fallacy. How can these accounts be truthful, we moderns may well ask, when they are so beautifully contrived? The answer is found in such classical philosophers as Plato and Aristotle whom the gospel writer clearly admired and studied. To the classical person, if not the modern, Keats was correct in saying, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth.” All of the great works, in all genres of artistry, are beautiful and true, even when they are ugly and raw. Guernica, Inferno, Hamlet, Rashomon, Don Quixote, Le Sacre du Printemps; these works are jarring and difficult to appreciate – but, for me, that is their beauty. This gospel has its brutal scenes, most especially the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, as well as some that are exquisitely lovely – and note that it is during the crucifixion that the prose gives way to several lines of the most pure, passionate, poignant poetry. Yet without doubt the composition of the gospel was intended, or inspired, to make this another one of these truthful, beautiful works, beautiful even as Jesus struggles on the cross through the last tortured gasps of life. So, for the first century reader, this careful arrangement of the raw materials to create the inclusio effect and bring out the allusions to classical literature is not as we might think today – after too much exposure to the bathetic blandishments of mendacious politicians and hypocritical clergy – to deceive us, but, quite the opposite, to make the gospel more trustworthy and true.

John the Presbyter clearly states the intention that this gospel be the event itself, that it be the presence of Jesus, in 15:26-27. “The Paraclete,” he quotes Jesus as saying, “will bear witness concerning me, and you too (will) bear witness because you have been with me from the first.” The last two words, απ αρχης, form a double entendre: to his actual disciples he means the phrase in its common sense, that they have been with him since this whole series of events began; but to those who are reading this the Paraclete, he means that they, we, have been with him from the first (απ αρχης) word of the gospel, which is, though conjugated differently, this very word, εν αρχη. In other words, we are not just reading about, but experiencing, observing, and witnessing Jesus as he teaches and performs signs. Thus 15:27, like 20:29, can be understood as Jesus speaking directly to the reader of the gospel.

These two verses, therefore, provide future generations with two witnesses: the gospel and its readers. Since under Jewish law the consistent testimony given by two witnesses of probity is to be accepted as truth, the combination of this gospel Paraclete and its readers – readers who become involved, committed witnesses, which in this case is a demonstration of their probity – is to be accepted as the truth. Once again we see how this gospel is laid on a strong legal foundation.

Following these two verses in this reconstruction of the original gospel is verse 13:20, in which the Presbyter further drives home his point through Jesus’s words: “Anyone who receives what I will send receives me,” which is to say again that this Paraclete-gospel is Jesus’s continuing presence, and if we become involved, committed witnesses by receiving it, we thereby receive Jesus; and then he adds, “who receives me receives the One who sent me”, which is to say if we accept and live by Jesus’s teachings we are living in accordance with the Λογος, and hence we become part of the Æon, and are one not only with each other but also one with God (17:26,22,21,23).

This understanding of the gospel as not merely witness but the event itself would have been immediately comprehensible to first-century Jews, and would be to most Jews today were it not for the mental barriers erected between religions that often blind us to their shared elements.

Jesus gives this teaching about the Paraclete, hence about this gospel, mere hours before the beginning of the Passover. Exodus teaches us in the generations following the Exodus to observe the Passover with the understanding that we were there too, for if our spiritual ancestors had not miraculously escaped bondage in Egypt, we their descendants would not be free today. Notice how the following verses do not say “our ancestors”, but “me” or “us”. Exodus 13:8 says, והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה יהוה לי בצאתי ממצרים (“And you shall avow to your son on that day, saying, ‘This is done because of that which YHWH did to me when I came out of Egypt’”), and verse 14 says, והיה כי־ישאלך בנך מחר לאמר מה־זאת ואמרת אליו בחזק יד הוציאנו יהוה ממצרים מבית עבדים (“And it will be, when in future times your son asks you ‘What is this?’, that you will say to him, ‘With a mighty hand YHWH brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage’”). For this reason, the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus, is told to this day at the Passover Seder as not our ancestors’ story, but our story, that we were there too.

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.


2 thoughts on “John’s Gospel as the Eyewitness Event Itself

  1. Hi, Audlin. Finally I found a good and accessible blog about Jesus and Magdalene’s relationship without mad theories or any other thing of that kind. The serious and respectable work of yours fascinates me! I hope someday I will be able to read some of your books complet, in the place I am books like yours are ignored, unfortunately…

    What gets me more curious is the relationship between Jesus-Magdalene-Lazarus-John Mark. If I’m not wrong, you say Jesus was Lazarus’ stepfather, being Magdalene his mother; and John Mark his half-brother, son of Jesus. I’m just curious from where you took this ideia, and how can the birth of both disciples be dated? I have made some conclusions and theories of mine, I have reconstructed based on them and if it pleases you, I may share something with you.

    I really like your blog and work, congratulations! And excuse my bad english, but I’m not English…

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