Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Book Review "The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times by Raymond Brown

The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times by Raymond E. Brown[1]

In The Community of the Beloved Disciple Raymond Brown takes an in depth look at the community that surrounded the teachings of the Beloved Disciple.  His interpretation into Johannine ecclesiology and reflection upon the incredible struggle of the community itself is fascinating.  The Community is readable and engaging.  Brown wrote this book 14 years after his magisterial commentary on the Fourth Gospel.  In the introduction to The Community he acknowledges that he has given up his insistence on the authorship of John Son of Zebedee after J.L. Martyn’s commentary appeared several years after his.  Despite this concession, Brown’s look into the life of the followers of the Beloved Disciple is “alive.”  He paints a picture of the Johannine community that is lucid with color and you can literally hear the sounds and see the sights of these early Christians struggling to survive yet simultaneously moving outward to preach the Gospel even to those most hostile to the message.               
Included in the book is a lengthy discussion on the significance of the Johannine relationship to outsiders and how those relationships informed the development of the text.  Brown holds the following view: “The Gospel is not an in-group manifesto meant as a triumph over outsiders; its goal is to challenge the Johannine community itself to understand Jesus more deeply” (62).  The  doctrinal fissures both within and outside the community are over and above all else Christological divides that cannot be compromised.  Brown seems to suggest that the Fourth Gospel is set forth to bring one to a true confession about the person and work of Jesus Christ – the Son of God.  I want to focus primarily on one particular chapter that was of keen interest to me, under the heading “Johannine Relations to Outsiders” (p. 59-100).        
The Fourth Gospel opens with a positive view of “the world.”  The true light which “enlightens everyone” was coming into the world.  It would seem the story is being set up for a grand reunion between fallen humanity and the Word made flesh.  It is an ordinary sight to see bumper stickers, signs and t-shirts all parade the sublime text “For God so loved the world…”  Less popular however are the multiplicity of passages affirming that the world, in turn hates Jesus, hardly a feel good message for public consumption (1:11, 7:7, 15:18-19).
At times in the Gospel there seems to be a great deal of similarity of attitude toward “the world” and “the Jews” as if they are essentially the same oppositional group.  Brown however, is clear to point out that the reader ought not fuse these groups together as if they were the same hostile unit opposing the beloved disciples’ teachings.  It is Brown’s observation that there is both a geographic and chronological widening in the encounter first with the Jews and then “the world,” which includes Jews, gentiles, and pagans of various stripes without distinction.  Chapters five through nine generally deals with the hostile encounter with Jews, while chapters 14-17 deals primarily with the more dramatic rejection from the gentiles.  It has also been posited that ‘the world’ is short hand for Rome itself and Roman authorities, given that the Gospel was written during the terrifying persecution under Domition.  While John’s writing in Revelation clearly depicts a particularly lucid and hostile meeting with Rome, the fourth Gospel does not share, at least on the surface, the same antagonism with the empire.  After all, Pilate, the figurehead of the wider empire, appears as an inquiring philosophical man of prudence making every effort to release Jesus, in turn absolving Jesus of any crime (19:6).    
Brown suggests that by the time the Gospel was written the Johannine community had had enough hostile encounters with both Jews and non-Jews (equally antagonistic) to their message that “the world” served as a better term to cover all such opposition.  By this time it was clear that the gentile world was not a world eagerly waiting and willing to be enlightened by the light of Jesus Christ, a theme much more positively and optimistically set forth in Luke’s Gospel.  Brown anchors the central experience the beloved disciples’ community mainly in the expulsion from the synagogues, thus lashing out at the new Pharisee party that emerged from the council of Jamnia.  The Pharisees were now the new power brokers thereby replacing the leadership once previously held by the priest-dominated Sanhedrin.  Brown takes the position that the Fourth Gospel is not a missionary tract or an apologetic to the Jews despite the countless references to the Jews.  J Martin and K. Bornhauser both play with this idea.  I have also found it suggested by Painter[2] in his article “Inclusivism and Exclusivism in the Fourth Gospel.”  Brown finds this suggestion untenable, being certain that active conversion efforts had by and large dropped off.  Now, it was clear that only God Himself could convert and grant them the possibility to believe (6:44,65).  The greater urgency and commitment of the Johannine community for Brown lies in their commitment to bring true believers in Jesus to confess Him as they live out their conflicted lives in a culture dominated by the synagogue.  Brown senses that many believers are hidden away in the synagogues unable to confess Jesus as God for fear of being thrown out of the synagogue or community, or threatened with death.  The extended narrative of Jesus healing the man born blind (the entirety of chap.9), serves as a catechetical model for coming to faith under the policing surveillance of “the Jews”, than once might eventually come to say, “Lord I believe” (9:38).        
This encounter with rejection both from within and without is incredibly formative for the narrative of the fourth Gospel for Brown.  He writes “The rejection of the Johannine Gospel by ‘the Jews’ and by the world has produced an increasing sense of alienation, so that now the community itself is a stranger in the world” (64).  The community’s likeness to Christ becomes apparent and is identified in rejection more than any other experience.  As sojourners – strangers like Jesus, the only real respite in sight is to return home to one of the many dwelling places in the Father’s house, to the place prepared by Jesus Himself (14:23, 17:24).                   
The practical applications for Johannine thought on the The Jews, the world, and other oppositional groups are manifold.  First, despite the fact that the community was faced with rejection and persecution from all sides, the missional impulse remains in the fourth Gospel in a unique and amplified message, “these things are written that you may believe” (20:31).  The missional commitment to extend the kingdom is also highlighted in the post-resurrection command to Peter to “Cast the net,” reaching a crescendo with “Feed my sheep” (21:17).  The fourth Gospel however serves also as a sobering reminder that the world is not simply a mission field filled with those who are eager and waiting to hear the Gospel of Jesus.  Brown has this prudent observation, reflecting on his own Vatican II community:

The world is not simply unplowed ground waiting to be sown with the Gospel; it is not simply neutral terrain.  There is a Prince of this world that is actively hostile to Jesus, so that the maxim Christus contra mundum (‘Christ against the world’) is not without truth…By all means Christians must keep trying in various ways to bear a testimony about Christ to the world, but they should not be astounded if they relive in part the Johannine experience” (66).    

[1] Brown, Raymond Edward. The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist Press, 1979. Print.
[2] Word, Theology, and Community in John. 2nd. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005. 85-109.

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