Finally comes chapter 5, Searching the Source, which deals with the question of who was behind this code. As this is the most revolutionary part of the book, I will deal with it in more detail. Stibbe makes a distinction between narrator and author – they are not necessarily the same. Narrators are actually a character of the story, whether they are participants in the story or not. In John’s gospel the narrator isn’t a participant, but rather an omniscient narrator outside the story. However, he is part of the narrative world. On the other hand, the author and reader are part of the real world. The author has created an omniscient narrator who gives a unique perspective to the story. This narrator is the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, who functions as a faithful eye-witness to events. This legal approach is used because Jesus is presented as the Judge, but also because there needs to be some authority for how John’s gospel is so different from the other gospel accounts. For instance, it mostly deals with events in Jerusalem and Judea, the other gospels are mostly set in Galilee. The beloved disciple makes his first (explicit at least) appearance in John 13, the night before Jesus died, where he is in the position of an intimate friend of Jesus, leaning on him. Next we find ‘another disciple’ known to the high priest, mentioned in John 15, which is usually taken to be the beloved disciple. He is also the only male disciple who is at the cross with the women disciples, and Jesus entrusts his mother to this man. The beloved disciple is stated to be the eyewitness who saw the soldier pierce Jesus with a lance. The beloved disciple is with Peter when Mary Magdalene comes with news of the empty tomb, and he runs to check it out. He is also with Peter when Jesus appears on the shore of the sea of Galilee, and he is the one who recognizes Jesus. Finally, after the incident where Peter asks about the beloved disciple, John’s gospel states that the beloved disciple writes these things and they are true. Whenever the beloved disciple appears, he takes precedence over Peter, and is always portrayed in a very positive light. He is also very perceptive – he recognizes Jesus, he hears what Jesus says about Judas that Peter misses, he understands the significance of Jesus’ bones not being broken, and the sight of the grave clothes causes him to believe. Also whenever the beloved disciple appears in the narrative, suddenly the account gives a high level of detail, suggesting an on the spot eyewitness report.
But who was this beloved disciple? Stibbe turns to the ideas of scholar Richard Bauckham (for openness sake, I should note that Bauckham was one of my lecturers at university). Bauckham starts with the end of John’s gospel which makes quite clear that the author is the beloved disciple. Stibbe says that most scholars now don’t believe that the author is John the son of Zebedee, one of the 12 disciples. For instance most of the action in John’s gospel takes place round Jerusalem, not Galilee where the sons of Zebedee came from. There were in fact two John’s mentioned by early church historians and leaders, the apostle and ‘John the elder’. Bauckham argues that the fourth gospel was known as the gospel of John from the second century, and that it was understood to be ‘John the elder’, not the apostle. He was called ‘the elder’ because he lived to a very great age, and he also wrote the letters of John. So who was this ‘John the elder’? One very early bishop of Ephesus, where John’s gospel is traditionally said to have been published, talks of him being ‘a priest, who wore the sacerdotal plate’. This can be interpreted to mean that John was a high priest (we know that there was at least one high priest by this name at the time, and John was a very popular name amongst priestly families – for example, John the Baptist), or Pokies it can be interpreted to be spiritual, meaning that John was the Christian equivalent of a high priest, a high authority (in the early church there is at least one document that calls prophets the churches high priests). Stibbe plumps for the former line, although he thinks the author was a regular priest, rather than a high priest, but he was seen as such due to his authority and leadership in the church. He gives as further evidence the fact that the beloved disciple knows the high priest, knows lots of details about the high priestly staff, like Malchus and his relatives, inside information about some Sanhedrin meetings, he is very familiar with Jewish religious rituals, regulations and festivals, and with the details of Jerusalem geography. Also the fact that the beloved disciple takes Mary to his house suggests he was resident in Jerusalem. Finally, the fact that John’s gospel uses light-dark imagery that appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls and that his native tongue was obviously Aramaic / Hebrew support this idea. Stibbe views the author as a forerunner of those priests that became disciples in Acts. This would also explain why the beloved disciple so perceptively grasps the spiritual significance of many events, and why the fourth gospel shows such careful use of subtle priestly and temple themes. He concludes that the beloved disciple became leader of a Christian community in Jerusalem, probably including other priests, and that Mary Magdalene was one of the leaders of this group also. Finally, Stibbe notes in connection with the Day of Atonement theme in John 20.1-18 that the Talmud (Jewish sacred works) records that during the 40 years from Jesus’ death to the fall of Jerusalem, disturbing things happened in the temple that were connected to signs of God’s presence in the temple and / or the Yom Kippur rituals. First, the colossal doors of the Temple swung open of their own accord every Yom Kippur from AD30 to AD70, for 12,500 nights straight the perpetual menorah flame (symbolizing God’s eternal presence in the holy of holies) went out, no matter how well it was tended, the lot for the Yom Kippur scapegoat was black for 40 years straight (the priests used a black and a white stone to cast lots), and for 40 years the crimson thread used to tether the goat did not turn white as it used to, but remained red.
Finally (really this time) in the conclusion Stibbe compares two modern takes on Jesus and Mary Magdalene– the da Vinci Code and Cameron’s claim that he found the final tomb of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and other close family – with the biblical account. He shows how they are full of errors, but that the bible accounts give every indication of being factual. He gives three main arguments for this – one is that having any woman, let alone one with the dubious past of Mary Magdalene, being the first witness of the resurrection would be unthinkable in a society where women’s testimony was seen as idle chat – unless it was the case. The next is that the accounts are so restrained – compared to later ‘gospels’ which have angels 60,000 feet tall and a talking cross following Jesus out of the tomb. Finally there is the fact that John, like all the other Jewish Christians, placed an emphasis on the first day, rather than the Jewish Sabbath, which Jews regarded as a ‘Queen’ of days. Something huge must have led these Jews to celebrate also the first day – the resurrection of the divine King, in fact.
There are two appendixes, one by Stibbe assessing 10 controversial claims of the Da Vinci Code, seeing whether they are true or false (answer : mostly false, and even the true ones the novel miscasts somewhat), the other is the scholar Dwight Pryor arguing that Jesus was actually resurrected on the evening of Saturday, not the morning of Sunday, and that Mary and Peter went to the tomb that evening, and that Jesus first appeared to the disciples in that evening. On reflection, I didn’t find his arguments very convincing.