Some writers would have us believe that in response to the events of the period between 70 and 135 AD, the early Church fundamentally changed its view of Jesus, and that a Jewish prophet was transformed into a Christian God by the infusion of Platonic concepts via St John and his idea of Jesus as ‘the Word made flesh’. This, of course, an odd thing, since St John himself is part of the Tradition of the Church, and wrote in Apostolic times, so it is hard to argue that his views were somehow not those of the early Church. If his views gained great traction, it was because they spoke to the experience of Christians who also encountered Christ.
What John offered, and offers, is, like Paul, a way of understanding some of the things in Synoptics which, if read literally and in a purely Jewish context, pointed to a Jewish Messiah who was going to liberate Israel. Clearly, by the time of John’s death. Jesus was not coming again in the lifetime of any of the Apostles; that may, for all we know, have led some of what St Peter calls ‘scoffers’, to reject the Christian message; but for most Christians, it meant trying to understand what such texts really meant. Now, if one means, by ‘tradition’, accepting what one generation held and never changing it, one is, alas, out of luck at the very start, because the second generation of Christians, like nearly all subsequent ones, did not accept that the end of the world was nigh.
That second generation also had to drop the idea that the ‘kingdom’ meant the return of the twelve tribes to Jerusalem under the rule of the twelve Apostles; it had not happened, and it still has not happened. Oddly, or not, not even the most literalist reader now accepts what the first generation who heard Mark, Matthew and Luke accepted about this matter. Having written that, someone may well point out some American sect which does indeed believe this; if there is one, leave me in ignorance of it.
If Jesus was not, then, a political Messiah who would come soon to free Israel and restore the Torah, what was He? Here, both St John and St Paul provided what would have been missing from Scripture if we had only the Synoptic Gospels.
If we had been provided solely with the synoptics and a literal reading, we should have been in trouble. Mark can be read as implying that Jesus was very liberal in his attitude toward the Torah, whilst Matthew seems to state precisely the opposite, stating that Torah must be kept to the smallest detail. Certainly all those who had known Jesus in the flesh seem to have been of the opinion that what Matthew relates was the case. The ‘men from James’ who preached against Paul’s views on Torah and food were called ‘false brethren’ by Paul, and yet came from the mother church of Christendom preaching what those who, unlike Paul, had walked with Jesus thought he had taught. So, they were, without doubt, upholding the tradition they had received, and no doubt expected Paul to accept that. As we know he did anything but, upbraiding Peter himself for backsliding and defending his views at the Council in Jerusalem, where they were accepted. As far as we know, the Jerusalem Church continued to insist on Torah, but as it was destroyed in 132 AD, that turned out not to matter.
Nonetheless, we see, again, how the Church struggled with what it had received and, far from insisting unbendingly on a literalist understanding, was open to the movement of the Spirit. The discussions were certainly heated ones, but we are in the presence of men open to the promptings of the Spirit and who, when it points where they did not think to go, went there all the same. Those who had known Jesus seem to have thought keeping the Torah was what he wanted, those who had not, or who accepted the Pauline view, thought that this could be relaxed for Gentiles, a view Peter came to, and which his disciple, Mark, recorded in his Gospel. So, we see, in Mark’s Gospel, a softening of what was in Matthew, not because Mark was falsifying the record, but because he was accurately reflecting the developing understanding of the Church; that is true Tradition.
Well within the life time of the Apostles, the Church not only found itself having to reconsider what it thought Jesus had meant, it did so successfully not by relying on any external forces, but by following the promptings of the Spirit within it. Here, St John was perhaps the most significant force for good, although, as we shall see, his contribution led to much dissent.