The Gospel of John and Friendship
The Gospel of John, Friendship, and the Homoerotic
Many questions are answered by-the-by, elliptically, indirectly, and on the way to other more direct concerns. John tells us the purpose of his Gospel: “…these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in His name.” (John 20:30 NKJV). But John, as the great poet of the New Testament, has other secondary issues to deal with. (1)
The Gospel of John, on the way to demonstrating that Jesus is the Son of God, is also an answer to a cultural issue that had become widespread in the Hellenized late Roman Empire. It is an answer to the issue of “friendship”, itself a Hellenized category.
It is indeed the case that as history moves from tribalism toward elegant civilization in advanced empire which is centered on life in the city, the power of the clan, the tribe, of blood, of the family, declines. Politics is the replacement for clan ties. And with the breaking of the ties of blood, the erotic is also freed and made more diffuse. Bonding is necessary in the political realm of freedom, and the old bonds of family are not at the heart of this. It is very likely that the erotic will become the new bond.
For the Greek, the Good and the Beautiful are very closely allied. The Greek word, kalan, is related to both the Good and the Beautiful, and relates them. For the Greek, beauty was related to proportional and perfect form and could be most easily expressed visually in the form of statuary. But the visible merely gave tangible form to every kind of perfect form. The erotic was aroused by the beautiful form of the perfect body and more deeply by the perfect form of the beautiful soul. Hence, Plato’s “Symposium” is a rhapsodizing of lovers for the beauty of the beloved, and for Socrates, this is transformed into a series of rungs on the ladder upward to the forms of the Good and the Beautiful.
The Greek ideal of politics is an especially aesthetic expression. The Greek city state is the place where every form of human beauty and perfection can reach its own pinnacle. This is what the “philosopher king” is able to develop and direct. For this to happen, the ties of family bond must be broken and transcended. Family bonds do not seek the development of the highest forms of beautiful development, but self preservation and enhancement of family power. The purpose of the erotic in the family is the preservation and extension of its own authority through the begetting of many sons. And while this is necessary for the city, the Greek perspective cannot allow this to dominate the city. The city is about the highest development of every form of human beauty, and this is spiritual and philosophic, not biological.
The erotic by definition gives rise to tension. Allan Bloom believed that the Bible resolves this tension within the family and that the Bible is almost exclusively founded on blood and familial relationships, and that apart from very few exceptions (like the friendship of David and Jonathon) the family is the beginning and end in the Bible. In this he is both right and wrong.
The Bible is founded on marriage. The very first relationship in the Bible is Adam and Eve. Marriage carries through the entire Bible and is certainly one of the central relationships, and it gives rise to other relationships that are also familial relationship. It gives rise to the father / son, and father / daughter relationship as well. But what is notable in all of these originally biotic relationships is that they are all transcended and all become spiritual realities. Even in the Old Testament, marriage becomes the symbol of Jehovah’s relationship with Israel, and the father / son and father / daughter relationship becomes the same. But very early in the Bible, the family comes early to be seen sometimes as the enemy of relationship with God, and one must chose between them. This was very notably the reason that the tribe of Levi was rewarded with the priesthood. They were the ones who dared to take up sword against their own family in the scandal of the Golden Calf. “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let every man kill his brother…’ Then Moses said, ‘Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, that He may bestow on you a blessing this day, for every man has opposed his son and his brother.’ ” (Exodus 32: 27-29 NKJV)
While it is true that the entire Covenant of Redemption has its origins in the family of Abraham, it is clear from the outset that family and blood are to be transcended. The son through whom the covenant of grace is to descend is the son of utterly supernatural birth (Isaac) and the son that is passed over is the son of flesh and blood (Ishmael). From that time forward, all through the Old Testament, natural family is oddly demoted as time and again the favored child through whom the covenant passes is either the child supernaturally born to a barren woman (as in the case of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Sampson, and Samuel for example) or is the youngest, thus overturning the family preserving rite of primogeniture (Joseph, Gideon, David for example). (2)
All of this is the Old Testament. The New Testament foundation stone is the birth of Messiah. His birth immediately overturns the power of family by telling us that he is the completer of all of the Old Testament births granted to barren women. The ultimately barren woman is a virgin.
It is also the case that Jesus overturns the law of primogeniture. In the largest picture of things, Jesus is the younger brother who overturns the claims of the elder brother, Adam. Adam is the first born, but Jesus now inherits the rights of the first born by being the “first born from the dead.” (Colossians 1:17) His Kingly powers transcend those that flow from flesh and blood in every way.
Finally, before entering John’s Gospel, one of Jesus’ central and scandalous sayings was, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and his mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-26) And, “from now on, five in one house will be divided; three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:52-53)
In following the hypothesis of several 20th Century scholars, seeking to return to the so-called “Augustinian Order” of the composition of the Gospels, it follows that each Gospel typologically follows the order of the Old Testament.(3) The thesis that the Gospel of John was the “Hellenistic Gospel” was popular in the scholarly world for a long time. That hypothesis has been largely overturned because it is now very clear that the book is intensely Jewish and that whoever wrote it was very familiar with both Jerusalem and the Temple.(4) However, this does not obviate the possibility that while the book is intensely Jewish, much of its primary audience could well have been Hellenized Jews. The Greek mind itself was partly what John was aiming at.(5)
While not necessary to the thesis of this paper, if the old Augustinian order is the correct order, then following Old Testament scholar, James Jordan, it would also follow that each Gospel bears a correspondence to a time period and a section of the Old Testament. So, for example, Matthew seems to correspond to the establishment of Israel as a tribal people under Moses. Jesus is the new Moses delivering his new law from a new mount and referencing the Mosaic legislation far more than any other Gospel. The Gospel of Mark corresponds more to the monarchical era, with Jesus acting as the new David, the Gospel of Luke seems to correspond more to the Empire era of the captivity with more references to “the nations” than elsewhere. Finally, John would correspond to a late Empire era, an era of “man”. This would be a “Hellenistic era”.(6)
There are three configurations of the human ordering of society in the Old Testament. These three still broadly outline for us all types of societies that exist. From Judges through the time of Israel’s appointment of Saul to be king, Israel is essentially a tribal configuration. From the time of Saul and David through the time of Zedekiah, when Judah goes to captivity, Israel is a monarchy, and city and town life begin to come to a new importance… Then, from the time of the Babylonian captivity to the end of the Old Testament, through the time of the coming of Christ, the world is dominated by great multi-cultural empires, and cities assume a very central prominence.
Each one of these eras has a “typical” sin that overshadows others in seriousness. The tribal era is dominated by sins against the father on the part of the son, or of father’s against sons. The typical sin of the monarchical era is brother / brother rivalry. The typical sin of the empire era is the sin of false intermarriage. We see this repeated several times through the Old Testament in spiraling ways.(7)
The one time when Israel approached an empire during its monarchical era was under the reign of Solomon. Solomon’s reign was marred by intermarriage with foreign women who worshiped many gods. Much later in both Ezra 9-10, and Nehemiah 13:23-31, false intermarriage is again the major issue with which Israel must struggle.
Intermarriage with foreign women, while an issue in itself, points to the larger issue of pluralism and syncretism in all empires.
Tribes are ruled by chiefs. Something like national boundaries can begin to grow up when a king unites a number of tribes under his own rule. Thus a king is a chief of chiefs. Then, very large, even enormous human configurations can develop when an emperor unites a number of kingdoms under a single rule. Thus, an emperor is a king of kings.
Empires are thus multi-cultural and, usually, multi-linguistic configurations. In empires, the greater the diversity of culture and language, the less that is held in common amongst the various peoples. Empires become “thin” in terms of commonalities. It is impossible to hold so many cultural and linguistic diversities together apart from considerable tolerance. But, at a certain point, tolerance can increase to such an extent that it becomes paradoxical in effect. Tolerance ceases to enable diverse peoples to cooperate and becomes a firewall that separates peoples from one another. Peoples cease to have enough in common to meaningfully function together in a body politic. A new danger arises of each separate-people-grouping ceasing to be citizens of an empire and beginning to again function as factions and finally virtually as separate tribes. At this point, it is possible that tribalism will become the new configuration, and things will start all over again.
This is essentially what happened with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the resurgence of tribalism. The West has actually recycled this spiral one whole time since the first Advent. Now we see the resurgence of tribalism on a world wide level, while at the same time we are experiencing in an unprecedented way an expanse to a kind of world wide economic empire with the growth of “globalism”.
In this global empire environment, orientation and direction becomes a crisis. There is not enough agreed upon cultural content to give direction and common consent to the large bodies of diverse people who are forced to function together. The gods are indeed at war, and no god reigns with any supremacy. Hence, no one knows what to do.
The power of empires is very great. But, either the will or capacity to use power is lacking. Action requires certain orientation, and this is just what becomes scarce in these situations.
The sin of intermarriage is symbolic of what plagues all empires. Having “many wives” means that a plethora of directions are a given, with none being able to come to dominance. “Truth” as a concept suffers, with many “truths” claiming priority. But even pragmatism as a way of finding orientation becomes difficult. Empires become very broad and the great difficulty is orientation and direction.
In late empire eras, friendship becomes an overriding category as politics becomes central. “Politics” as a self conscious science, is a great Hellenistic contribution . Friendship trumps family in the great Platonic dialogues as the erotic is diffused and detached from the family. “Friendship” is a Greek category far more than a Hebrew one. Almost nothing, outside of David’s friendship with Jonathon and Hushai, is said about human friendship in the Old Testament.(8) Almost everything else is in the context of blood, the clan, the family, and the tribe. Friendship was clearly seen as something dangerous in the light of what friendship very broadly meant in the Greek world. At least three of Plato’s most important dialogues revolve around the issue of homoerotic friendship.(9) The new freedom brought by politics needs a new bond to hold all things together. The bond of nature given by the Hellenized to enable the politics of the city to function is the bond of Eros. Thus, the homoerotic bond becomes central.
One could contend that John answers the Greek “problem”. In the Gospel of John, there is an explosion of material around the theme of “friendship”.(10) With the coming of Jesus, and with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, friendship is now a category that can be redeemed, cleansed, and perfected. The Upper Room Discourse is virtually a new “Symposium” a “drinking party” revolving around the theme of love. Christ is the new Rhapsodizer who sings a new song of love to his friends. The Gospel of John is the new Gospel of Friendship, and the Beloved Disciple is even the new Best Friend. This is Greek life redeemed and purified. The Gospel of John is the Gospel of the restoration of the self in relationship to purified friendship.
The Gospel begins with its profound reflection on the “Logos”. The logos was clearly a Greek theme, and older commentators saw this as the beginning of their reflection that the Gospel had a Hellenistic theme about it. Immediately we see the theme of the intimacy experienced within the Godhead Himself. “The Word was with God…” The Greek preposition “pros” is translated in the English as “with”, and it is related to the Greek word, “prosopon”, which is the word for “face”. The meaning is that the Father and the Son (God and the Word) are from eternity to eternity, facing one another. Jesus thus is the one who has been awaited as the Prophet spoken of by Moses. God spoke to Moses, face to face, but to all other prophets in visions or dreams (Numbers 12:8). But God would raise up another like Moses (Deuteronomy. 18:15). This one has now become “flesh” (John 1:14) Then we are told, “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared him.” (John 1:18, NKJV) Thus, we once again have a declaration of the intimacy of the Father and the Son and a declaration of the function and competency of the Son. The Son is in the bosom of the Father and thus “declares” the one who is invisible, and who has never been seen. The Greek word for “declares” is “exegete”. Hence, the Son exegetes the Father.
Friendship is a growing theme throughout the Gospel. In the 11th chapter, Lazarus is referred to as “our friend” and his entire relationship with the “Lazarus household” is the relationship of friends. Then, when we reach the “Upper Room Discourses” in chapters 13-16, we reach the epitome of the expression of friendship. In the 15th chapter, verses 11-15, Jesus clearly declares the spiritual reality of his friendship with his disciples. He contrasts friendship with servant hood.
In all of the Upper Room Discourses, we have the final outpouring of love, of friendship. In 13:23 we have the first declaration that is then repeated four more times, (19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 20), concerning “the disciple whom he loved.” Presumably this is John himself, but we are never explicitly told this. In this first great declaration concerning the disciple who Jesus loved, we are told that this disciple was “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.”
This disciple, who leaned on Jesus’ bosom, points back to the first use of “bosom” in John 1:18. Jesus is competent to exegete the Father because he is “in the bosom of the Father.” Therefore, if John reclines on Jesus’ bosom, he likewise is competent to exegete Jesus. This is his declaration as to why he is capable, and indeed has written, this Gospel.
We know from the source material of the other Gospels that Jesus had three friends from among the twelve disciples who were especially close to Him (Peter, James, and John). They witnessed some things that the others did not. The Gospel of John makes clear that, of the three, John is Jesus’ “best friend”. Even on the surface it is obvious that John’s Gospel is very different from the other three. In fact, Matthew, Mark and Luke have come to be referred to as the “synoptic Gospels”, meaning that they are “synonymous”, similar, a symphony. They are all markedly alike, covering much of the same material and even using overlapping vocabulary. But John is very different. Why? It is because John is written from the inside, from the perspective of the “best friend”. This is what accounts for its difference.(11)
Friendship is clearly dangerous for a Jew. Everyone knows what it means for the Greek. It means the homoerotic. This is clearly forbidden by the Torah. Until we have Jesus about to leave, and promising the coming of the “Paraclete”, the one who is the “friend who stands by one”, the friend who will come and live within, friendship is not developed. It is “too hot to handle”. Until that time, the spirit that in all likelihood animates friends with one another will be the spirit of sex, of the erotic.
The erotic is developed in Revelation by this same John. The final revelation is marriage, the fullness of the Bride of Christ. Here is where the erotic comes to its fullness in the final revelation of what originally was the other great Greek theme, the environment of the erotic, the city, the New Jerusalem (not the New Athens or Sparta, or Rome). This is the final crescendo of the entire Bible. What begins in the creation account of Adam and Eve, the first marriage, ends with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. In John the exalted is friendship. It is purified from the erotic, with the new bond being the Holy Spirit. In Revelation the city, (the realm of politics for the Greek), is fulfilled by marriage. But even marriage, in which the erotic is fulfilled, is now animated by friendship. The bride also becomes the friend, a thought very foreign to the Classical world. What begins as “Daughter Jerusalem”, in the Old Testament is fulfilled in “the Bride of Christ” who is also the final great city, in The New Jerusalem.(12)
1. Nobody understands the Greek ethos of the homoerotic in relationship to politics and the life of the city better than Allan Bloom. His relationship of this to the Biblical record is fascinating, but less than satisfying. The original stimulus for this paper was Bloom’s reflection on this topic…Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993) pp. 431-444
2. Primogeniture is the rule that the eldest son either inherits all of the family property, or that he inherits the majority of it over against all other brothers and siblings. The purpose of this was to preserve family land holdings so they would not be broken up into non-productive small plots.
3. John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1992)
Rosenstock-Huessy, Eugen, The Fruit of Lips (Pittsburgh : Pickwick Press, 1978)
Rosenstock-Huessy argues that each Gospel picks up where the previous one left off and that this order can be seen clearly in the so called “Augustinian order” (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
4. All the vogue until the discovery of the Qumran MSS, the attribution of Hellenistic thought to the writer of the fourth gospel seemed to nail the coffin shut on Johannine authorship. However, with the absolute dualism found in Qumran which parallels both Hellenism and John, scholarly opinion has swung very far in the other direction: this gospel is very Jewish! Still, full weight must be given to F. C. Grant’s warning that the relative amount of parallels with Qumran vs. “the vast array of parallels” with Hellenism cannot be used to deny a strong Hellenistic influence.18 The real issue, therefore, is simple: Would a Galilean fisherman ever be able to gain such an acquaintance with Hellenism? In response, it need only be mentioned that (a) Hellenistic thought pervaded Galilee in the first century; (b) John , as son of a fishing magnate, would probably have received a decent education, exposing him to much Hellenism;19 (c) the targeted audience, being Gentiles, might well have prompted the author to shape his material with a Hellenistic strain which they could comprehend and appreciate; and (d) John could well have employed an amanuensis (as early patristic writers seem to hint at) for the writing of this gospel—a person who could have easily packaged the material with a Hellenistic hue at John’s beckoning.20 Thus, though I am not nearly as optimistic as many today who want to pour all of John’s dualism into a first-century Jewish mold, neither would I argue that a Hellenistic coloring denies Johannine authorship. Indeed, the Hellenistic overtones, in my view, argue when coupled with date and occasion of writing.
5. Because of John’s familiarity with the Temple, it has been surmised that either he is a priest, or comes from a priestly family. If this is so, it fits very well with the Hellenized tinge of John’s Gospel, because the priestly group were all Sadducees, which was the Hellenized party or sect of the Jews.
6. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus sends out the twelve on an evangelistic and healing mission (Matthew 10:5-15). In Luke, he does initially send out twelve, but later sends out seventy (Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-12). Twelve is the number of Israel, following the number of tribes, but seventy is the number of the nations, taken from the table of nations in Genesis 10 following the Flood, in which 70 peoples are named. It is in the Empire era, when the four giant empires enumerated in Daniel 2 that the spreading of the truth of the true God to all nations begins to take precedent.
7. The first cycle of sin against the Father, sin of brother / brother rivalry, sin of false intermarriage is seen in the opening chapters of Genesis. Adam sins against God as his Father, Cain murders his brother Abel, and “the sons of God” married the “daughters of men.” We see it again in the second half of Genesis when all of these sins are corrected. Abraham obeys and believes and obeys God as the Father for many years in believing him for a son. Then, in the case of Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau, we see brother / brother rivalry, as well as the rivalry of all of Jacob’s sons against Joseph. None of these cases finally issue in fratricide, and in the case of Joseph, the godly brother is given complete triumph. Finally, Joseph marries the daughter of the priest of On of Egypt. There is no condemnation of Joseph in his deportment in any of his relationships, and one ought to assume that along with Pharaoh, one sees true conversion to the true God in the case of his wife.
This pattern is again repeated in the era of the initiation of the monarchy. Israel rebels against God as the King and Father of Israel, and rebels against Samuel as a father of Israel in the request for a king. Saul falls into murderous rivalry against David, but is taken to death himself. Then Solomon corrupts himself and Israel with false intermarriage to hundreds of foreign women who all worship false gods.
In the larger scheme, we see Israel in the tribal era during the Judges, the monarchial era through the times of the kings, and in an empire era after the captivity. In each of these eras in a general sense, the primary sin fits with the time, with smaller cycles fitting into the larger scheme.
I owe this insight to my friend and Old Testament scholar, James Jordan.
8. There is a considerable amount about friendship with God in the Old Testament, beginning with Enoch, who “walked with God” (Gen. 5:22). Abraham is explicitly termed “the friend of God” (2 Chron. 20:7, Isa. 41:8, James 2:23). But human friendship is rare.
9. The Greek attitude toward the homoerotic is ambiguous. The Laws clearly condemn homosexuality as “against nature”, but The Symposium, The Phaedrus, and Lysis are all structured around homoerotic friendship. Some interpretations do not see the homosexual as being ideal, but see the ideal in contraposition to the homosexual. The love of wisdom is what the erotic is meant to lead to, and in some sense may be its fulfillment.
10. Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship, pp 436-444 Simon and Schuster, New York, 1993
11. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, The Fruit of Lips:or Why Four Gospels (Pittsburg: Pickwick Press, 1978)
12. “The Daughter of Zion” or “Daughter of Jerusalem” can sometimes be translated simply, “Daughter Zion” or “Daughter Jerusalem”.
2 Kings 19:21, Isa. 37:22, Lam. 2:13, 15, Mic 4:8, Zeph. 3:14, Zech. 9:9