Changing Jesus, Changing Times:
The Implications of a Jesus Who Does or Doesn’t Learn
John begins his gospel with “In the beginning,” the same three words that preclude Genesis and the entire Jewish book of belief (Jn 1.1). John does not just reiterate the Torah, however: he reinterprets it. Jesus, “The Word,” has existed all along, John asserts, and he trumps Moses, Abraham, and the like, because he is God himself (Jn 1.1). By rewiring the Torah’s widely known and significant first chapter, John sets the stage for a Jesus who is so ancient, having been around since the beginning of time itself, that he is permanent and unchanging; the absence of birth and childhood scenes help to reinforce this notion. This Godly and unchanging Jesus stands in stark contrast with the Messiah in the gospel of Luke, presented, in a lengthy genealogy, as the “son” of such people as David, Abraham, Adam, and, finally, of God. (Lk 3.23-38). This genealogy makes it appear as if Jesus is more directly an Israelite than the Son of God, and it humanizes Jesus while connecting him to a long, ever-developing tradition of patriarchs and prophets. While Luke presents Jesus as a logical and fluid evolutionary continuation of Judaism and humanity, the Gospel of John is concerned with proving the timelessness and supremacy of Jesus over Judaism. In a sense, Luke’s Jesus acknowledges his precursors and is a product of those who come before him; John’s Jesus, on the other hand, is not a product of anything Earthly because he has always existed. Luke’s Jesus goes through a very human-like development, from baby to teacher, while John’s Jesus enters and leaves much the same guy. Most importantly, the differences between a developing Jesus in Luke and an eternally unchanging Jesus in John shed light on the two gospel writers’ distinctive strategies for attracting followers to Jesus’ new religion and on their ideas of faith in the changing religious climate of the first century.
Both Luke and John include a scene involving the Temple in Jerusalem in their second chapters; the attitudes of each Jesus towards Judaism and the temple, however, are markedly different. In both John and Luke, Jesus and his family travel to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. In the beginning of Luke, Jesus is presented as a precocious twelve-year-old who, instead of going home with his parents, spends three days “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who [hear] him [are] amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Lk 2.46-37). Importantly, Jesus spends this time listening and asking questions—this is not yet the teachy-preachy, all-knowing Jesus. While he is certainly giving some wise answers (many interpret this passage to mean that Jesus is already teaching), it is clear that Jesus is still developing his intellectual capabilities. This passage is extremely significant because it acknowledges that the greatest Teacher of all, Jesus, once asked questions himself, and that his teachers, being from the temple, must have been some of the most important Jews. As for Jesus’ godliness, the only indication of Jesus being something more than just a very inquisitive twelve-year-old comes when Mary complains to her son that “your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety,” and Jesus retorts: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”(Lk 2.48-49). Mary and Joseph are very confused and simply ignore this utterance, highlighting that just as Jesus’ religious and intellectual capabilities are still developing, the knowledge that he is the son of God has not yet been revealed even to his mother, suggesting that Jesus needs the time between his birth and baptism to develop and evolve into a teacher and powerful presence in his own right. Jesus also supposedly is “obedient to [his parents]” once they leave the temple (Lk 2.51). In other words, Jesus does not rebel against authority quite yet. More broadly, the “parent” of Jesus’ philosophy and belief system is Judaism. At this point, Jesus is still obedient towards his “parents,” the laws and customs of Judaism. He is still living through the boyhood of an ordinary Jew, getting sacrifices of “turtledoves” and “young pigeons” made in his name and observing Jewish holidays, and it is only much later that he is able to infuse his Jewish heritage with revolutionary ideas and to dare to speak out against the practices of the Pharisees (Lk 2.24). The temple scene is one of many points in the personal development of the ever-evolving Jesus presented in Luke’s gospel. Importantly, at the end of the scene, the author adds that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Lk 2.25). Though Jesus is the Son of God, it appears that divine favor, much like in the Hebrew Bible, is something to be gained over time (for example, the prophet Samuel goes through a long period of development to become a famous Judge; he, like Luke’s Jesus, grows “in favor with the Lord and with the people” (Sam 2.26)). Full wisdom does not come right away even to Jesus; he must increase “in years” to become the Jesus we all know and love.
John’s Jesus has no developmental phase; he just appears suddenly as a full-grown incarnation of God’s word, and he begins to act just as rapidly. Immediately after turning water into wine, Jesus and his mother, brothers, and disciples travel to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. This Jesus is not Luke’s inquisitive twelve-year-old. This Jesus is the harsh man who, upon entering the temple and “[finding] people selling sheep and doves and the money changers seated at their tables,” suddenly decides to make a whip to “[drive] all of them out of the temple” (Jn 2.15). In a display of fury, Jesus “[pours] out the coins of the money changers and [overturns] their tables” (Jn 2.15). It is just the beginning of the second chapter of the gospel, but Jesus is already waging open war with Judaism. In Luke, Jesus’ parents had “brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the lord… and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Lk 2.22-24). Most probably, the doves offered to the Lord to commemorate the birth of Jesus had been bought from one of the merchants in the Temple. John’s Jesus, however, has no ritualistic connection to the Temple; this fleshy incarnation of God’s Word has a task on Earth, and overturning the tables of the merchants and driving the sacrificial animals out of the temple is one of his first acts. This moody Jesus is completely infuriated; “Take these things out of here!” he commands, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (2.16). In Luke’s first temple passage, the inquisitive Jesus speaks in questions, and even when his mother asks him where he has been, Jesus answers her with a question: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2.48-49). In this passage from John, however, we see the total opposite—angry commands, punctuated by exclamation points. This Jesus has not come to the temple to learn. He has come to mend the ways of the Jews who are insulting his Father, and, by extension, Jesus himself, by focusing too much on the physical and ritualistic aspects of Judaism. The reaction from the Jews themselves is also markedly different; whereas Mary and Joseph simply “[do] not understand” what Jesus means by calling the temple his Father’s house, John’s Jews, characterized as a distinct and solidly anti-Jesus group, demand that Jesus show them a “sign…for doing this” (Lk 2.50, Jn 2.18). In other words, the Jews challenge Jesus to prove by whose authority he can simply march into the temple and start knocking everything over, and they do this very early on in the Gospel. This presentation of the Jews is very different from Luke’s: here, the Jews are not simply confused: they challenge Jesus and refuse to believe him without a miracle. Yet Jesus, who is presented as increasing in “human favor” in Luke, does not seem to care much for the opinions of the Jews—in fact, part of his role, it seems, is to infuriate the Jews just enough to make them execute him (Lk 2.25). Very enigmatically (as it often is in John) Jesus provides the Jews with evidence: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” he claims (Jn 2.19). The Jews, as usual, cannot understand Jesus: it turns out he is referring to his own body. Taken further, Jesus’ assertion here could be taken to mean that he is now the Temple—Jesus, the word that has been there all along and has now come down to Earth, has replaced the temple as the object of reverence. In 1 Kings, Solomon constructs the original Jerusalem temple so that God can “hear the plea of… [his] people Israel when they pray toward this place” (8.30). Solomon builds the temple in part so that the Jewish people can have one place towards which to direct their prayers and belief. By calling his own body a temple, inviting non-Jews to believe, and violently destroying the aspects of Judaism that he does not like, Jesus asserts his supremacy over the traditional Jewish system, and, most importantly, disconnects himself from it from the very beginning of John’s gospel.
Just as he is presented in the first temple scene, John’s Jesus is an independent, omniscient, and determined figure, part of God’s pre-arranged plan for Earthlings. Jesus spends no time growing up or developing a life plan; his purpose is immediately stated. His mission’s goal? Because the Jews “do not accept him,” he gives to all “who [believe] in his name … [the] power to become Children of God.” His PR stunt? To “die for the people,” in the words of Caiaphas (Jn 11.50). His proof of divinity? The 7+ miracles that he performs. All the details are very precise and, it seems, prearranged: When Caiaphas convinces the Jews that Jesus must be executed, John points out that “it was not on his own that he said this, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation” (Jn 11.51). In other words, God, who throughout the Hebrew Bible had spoken through prophets, seems to now again be speaking through a very important Jew to help execute his plan for the people. Everything is sudden and quick: the devil enters Judas right after he receives the bread from Jesus (13.27). Jesus’ “life” goes by quickly, and the short time he spends on earth must be a blink of an eye for the God who has lived forever. Quite fittingly, the emphasis of Jesus’ teachings in John is also very specifically on life after death. Standing in front of a well, Jesus explains: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty” (Jn 4.13-14). Jesus repeats the idea again a little later when he explains to the Jews that their “ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This [Jesus] is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (Jn 6.49-50). The eternal life and satiation Jesus speaks of can only come in the life after death, and Jesus spends significantly less time than in Luke discussing questions pertinent to this life, such as Social Justice. Jesus’ metaphors, too, invoke the afterlife: he calls himself the bread that must be “eaten” to guarantee ascension into heaven. By characterizing himself as “bread” (one of many such metaphors in John) Jesus likens himself to an inanimate object. In this way, as the “grapevine” or “bread” Jesus becomes a sort of dehumanized, purposeful tool. It makes sense, therefore, that this steely, determined Jesus is unchanging—he is nothing like a human; he has a one-way relationship with Judaism and people in general. And, after all, Jesus has little time to change as a person in John—the period of time between his appearance and death is only a year. Jesus has nothing to learn from the Earth because he is on a mission from above.
Luke’s Jesus, on the other hand, is nothing like a tool. Throughout the first few chapters of Luke, we see Jesus develop his teaching on Earth, and there is barely any mention of Jesus’ impending death—Jesus’ focus is much less on himself and much more on social justice and righteousness. Jesus is in his classic role of teacher, telling parables to alleviate the grievances of the downtrodden by promising them happiness in the afterlife. Though both John and Luke lead Jesus to the same end—the crucifixion and resurrection—Luke’s Jesus follows a much more crooked path. He gets off to a bad start in Nazareth, where the mention of Gentiles being helped out by God infuriates the Jewish population and almost gets him killed, but he improves significantly by his arrival in Capernaum, where he “[speaks] with authority,” and where everyone is “astounded at his teaching” (Lk 4.32). As Jesus finally gains a following, he decides to employ disciples (Lk 5.10). And instead of immediately fighting with Judaism, Jesus slowly breaks off from tradition, beginning at first by disobeying the Sabbath day in 6.2 and very eventually building up opposition to Jewish laws and customs, culminating in Luke’s second temple scene, in which Jesus “[enters] the temple and [begins] to drive out those… selling things there” (Lk 19.46). Immediately afterwards, Luke informs us that the priests are seriously “looking for a way to kill [Jesus]” (Lk 19.47). Significantly, it has taken this long for Jesus to build the hostility of the Jews up to the point of murder; this attack on the temple seems to be the tipping point in this developing hostile relationship. Just as Jesus changes to become more and more rebellious, the Jewish leaders become more and more determined to get rid of him. This temple scene is extremely short and undescriptive compared to John’s, which goes into meticulous detail to describe the hostility and violence of Jesus towards the merchants. Jesus’ violent character is partly explained by the fact that John’s Jesus is seeking crucifixion—being killed by the Jews is part of his one-year plan. Luke’s Jesus, on the other hand, takes nineteen chapters of questioning, development, and teaching to come to a much less violent version of the Temple scene. Still, the mere juxtaposition of the first and second temple scenes in Luke is a powerful testament to the way that Jesus has changed. Once the precocious Jewish son of a carpenter, he is now acknowledged as a powerful orator and as a Messiah who has the power to challenge Jewish custom because “all the people [are] spellbound by what they [hear]” (Lk 19.48).
This organic development in Luke helps humanize Jesus and, more than anything, make his death more tragic. After all, we do not get lengthy speeches in Luke about how good Jesus’ death is; In John, Jesus’ death is always the subject du jour, and Jesus’ death, when it comes, is all part of the plan. In Luke, however, Judas’ betrayal is tragic and only revealed by a dismayed Jesus a few verses before his capture: “woe to the one by whom [the Son of Man] is betrayed!” he cries (Lk 22.22). To see someone develop from young child, to build up their knowledge and divine favor, to gain followers, and then to be betrayed, hung, and denied even by his most beloved disciples, is heartbreaking. Luke’s Jesus inspires great pity, and calls for great hatred toward Judas, the betrayer. In other words, it calls on simple human feelings to convince readers and get its message across. Luke’s story gives us nice warm and fuzzy feelings during the nativity scene and tears of sorrow at the crucifixion scene because it uses Jesus as a way to draw on people’s emotions to inspire them to believe in God and to work towards their own salvation. Luke calls on readers’ empathy, and by portraying Jesus’ story in the way he does, making his readers feel Jesus’ life, in a sense he compels them to live like Jesus—to always ask questions and challenge the established order. John’s gospel, on the other hand, stresses that nobody can be like Jesus because he is God. In creating a less human, permanently unchanging Jesus who is harder to relate to, John loses the ability to manipulate human emotions like Luke can; that is why his gospel places such a major emphasis on evidence, going into great detail to describe the miracles that Jesus performs and the names of slaves whose ears get cut off. It searches for a way to justify what is essentially blind faith. John’s Jesus acts very suddenly, and with lots of passion; John’s first temple scene, full of rash anger, in some ways reflects John’s idea of spirituality: belief in Jesus comes suddenly, passionately, and powerfully. It does not come out of questioning and it does not develop over time—it happens as quickly as Jesus’ miraculous resurrection of Lazarus or his healing of the blind man. And yet, not in spite of but because of their differences, the gospels fit together nicely: Luke’s, which was written earlier, seems to pertain to an era of questioning, when Jesus was still new and the Jewish order was being scrutinized. John’s gospel, with its call for strong, impulsive faith, no-questions-asked, seems to come from a time when Christianity had become more solidified in its own right. In this way, the two gospels form a neat historical timeline, allowing their readers to trace the evolution of Jesus’ new religion.