‘Mysticism’ in the Gospel of John. An Inquiry into its Background (JSNTS 158)

Written by Jey J. Kanagaraj Reviewed By Bill Salier

The claim that John’s Gospel is a mystical work or contains mystical elements is placed under scrutiny in this thorough study into another possible religio-historical context for its contents and organisation.

Kanagaraj begins by reviewing past research into the mystical character of the Gospel. He points to the ongoing problem of contemporary definitions of mysticism being used to evaluate the alleged mystical elements of the Gospel and asks if these elements might be better read against a mystical background contemporary to the actual time of writing. He first examines mysticism in the Hellenistic-Jewish context of Philo and the Hermetica and while finding certain affinities in terms of both language and concept concludes that these provide an inadequate basis for the Gospel’s emphasis. Kanagaraj then turns his attention to Palestinian Jewish mysticism and the practice of Merkabah mysticism as described in the later Hekhalot literature. It is here that he finds the background that will both help to define as well as account for the Gospel’s ‘mysticism’.

After a detailed analysis of a variety of texts Kanagaraj establishes the practice of Merkabah mysticism in the period prior to and contemporaneous with the NT documents and in so doing establishes the main elements of this Jewish mystical practice. Merkabah mysticism consists of meditation on passages from Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel with a view to a visionary experience of ascending to the chariot throne of God and seeing his glory. Other elements include God’s self-revelation, one like a Son of Man, God’s judgement, esoteric knowledge, the transformation of the visionary and sending on a mission. These elements, amongst others therefore help to define the contested term ‘mysticism’.

Having established the presence and content of Merkabah mysticism. Kanagaraj then moves, against this background, to read the Gospel of John. He does this through an examination of seven Johannine motifs: ascent, glory, king, sending, indwelling, light and the logos. He concludes that the Gospel is written both as a polemic against exponents of Merkabah mysticism and as an address, with the gospel, to these exponents. The mystical elements that are reflected in the Gospel are reinterpreted and focussed in God’s revelation of himself in Jesus. Kanagaraj also suggests that the author himself, the priestly John (the Elder?), in all probability had a Merkabah mystical background and adopted certain tendencies from this background in his formulation of the message of Christ.

The wealth of detail and swathe of texts makes, at times, demanding reading, but there is a mine of information here about early Jewish mystical practice as well as some neat observations on the various motifs considered in the Gospel. The discussion on the concept of divine agency in interaction with the work of Borgen was particularly stimulating.

There will doubtless be disagreement over the identification of the essential elements of Merkabah mysticism, the relationship between the elements that Kanagaraj finds in the first century texts with the later Hekhalot literature and whether the polemic/appeal with respect to Merkabah mystics can account for all that is claimed. However the basic premise that any discussion of the mystical qualities of the Gospel is to be grounded in the relevant religio-historical context is correct and this study represents a considerable advance that future studies into the alleged mystical nature of the Gospel will need to reckon with. Kanagaraj has placed us in his debt for this patient and stimulating study illuminating yet another facet of this intriguing Gospel.

Bill Salier

Bill Salier
Youthworks College
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia