“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” - John i 1.
These magnificent words seem to be a straightforward exposition of the Jewish religion. Now, rabbinical Judaism, as it exists today, developed out of the Jewish diaspora in Roman times, and its adherents were labelled Pharisees, as opposed to the Temple Jews who were called Sadducees. One messianic offshoot of rabbinical Judaism developed into Christianity. The messiah (“Christ” in Greek) meaning “the anointed one” was originally conceived as a man with plenipotentiary powers bestowed in a time of national emergency jointly by the King and the High Priest, in the same circumstances that a Dictator in the Roman republic was appointed. After Herod's death in 4 BC there were no more kings; and after the Temple was wrecked in AD 70 there were no more High Priests. This left the rabbis in sole charge of managing the Jewish religion. So any messiahs had to be self-appointed.
There were three qualifications for being a rabbi: most importantly, the candidate had to be accepted by his fellow rabbis after an exhaustive series of oral examinations; he also had to be at least thirty years old; and he had to be married. A great deal of ink is spent in the Gospels to prove that Jesus Christ was a genuine rabbi. Tradition has it that he started his ministry when he was thirty years old. The only evidence that he was married comes from John ii 2-11, where Jesus turns the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, an act that is described as his first miracle. The point seems to be that the wedding was his own, since the bridegroom, in Jewish tradition, was responsible for laying in the booze. So who was his wife? The canonical gospels (the ones in the New Testament) do not say. Other gospels say that she was Mary Magdalene.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the “synoptic gospels”, because they are written from the same viewpoint. John's Gospel is more poetic, more rarefied. Let us look at the dates when they were written. Mark: 68 AD, except for the “Secret Gospel”, the last three chapters.
Revelations: 69 AD. Then in or around 73 AD we have Matthew, Luke and the so-called “Secret Gospel”. Bringing up the rear is John, written according to tradition on the island of Patmos in the year 100 AD, a date which modern scholarship does not seem to dispute. So, the gospels and Revelation should come at the end of the New Testament, with Revelation coming after the main body of Mark. The rest of the New Testament consists of St Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles.
I suggest that Luke's story of Salome is key to the whole sequence, as Oscar Wilde seems to have realised. The Salome story explains how Jesus Christ (the first one?) became the legitimate leader of the anti-Roman movement. St Paul, by my understanding, was employed by the Romans to suppress or minimize the incipient rebellion that broke out in 44 AD. He sought to do this by converting a revolt over bread-and-butter issues into a harmless pie-in-the-sky religion. [By the way, his given occupation of “tent maker” is a literal translation of the Greek skenopoios; but a secondary meaning of the word is “maker of scenes”. For skene means “tent”; in the Greek theatre the tent, erected at the back of the stage, served as the green room, and the “scene” of the drama was painted on the side of the canvas facing the audience. Thus Paul, I suggest, was really a theatrical director, which explains how he gained access to the most important theatres in the Greek Mediterranean.]
The revolt broke out anyway, and the Christians (i.e. messianic Jews) were accused of setting fire to Rome. According to Revelations they did indeed do so, but that is not conclusive evidence. Tacitus thought they did, but Suetonius suggests that Nero did it himself in the interests of property speculation. The next revolt was the big one in 66 AD, that lasted until the capture of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD and ended with the storming of Masada in 73 AD. Do these dates seem familiar?
Anyway, if the John who wrote the Gospel was the same John who was a disciple of Jesus the Messiah, who was by tradition crucified in 33 AD, then he was a very old man when he did so. Hence he was a very young man when he knew Christ.
The next and last big revolt was the Revolt of Bar Kochba (“Son of the Star” - Aramaic) in 132 AD in the reign of Hadrian. Hadrian took drastic measures. He scattered a lot of the population of Judaea round the Empire, renamed Judaea “Palestine”, and renamed Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina”.
In 161 AD St Polycarp, Bishop (N.B.) of Ephesus, was killed by a Jewish mob. Here we see evidence that messianic Judaism had mutated into a separate religion. But St Polycarp, who was an old man, was supposed to have known St John when he was young. That is just possible. What led to the final schism between Judaism and Christianity? One suggestion is that Hadrian's redistribution of the Jewish population after Bar Kochba led to a scattered population who still had the sacred literature but who had no rabbis to tell them what it meant. [I was once amused by a young rabbinical student, with broad black hat, ringlets and all, who solemnly stated that Christians should not be allowed to read the Bible because they hadn't a clue what it was about.] Furthermore, Christianity only came into existence because the books of the New Testament are in the wrong order!
Let us leap forward into the Italian Renaissance. Specifically, let us look at Leonardo da Vinci's “Last Supper”, painted in the 1490's. You will see that the figure on Jesus's right hand is very young. This has given rise to an apparently modern conspiracy theory that this beardless youth, generally taken to be St John, is in fact Mary Magdalene, who was airbrushed out of her rightful status by later Christian authorities, but whose importance as the wife of Christ had been handed down secretly through the generations. Well well! To begin with, Leonardo would have prepared a cartoon, or detailed sketch, for his patron's approval. In this case his patron was the prioress of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, who wanted it for (appropriately) the dining-room wall. Was she a proto-feminist in cahoots with the artist to resurrect Mary Magdalene to her proper importance? Or was it that, given that St John was supposed to have been very young at the time of the event depicted, Leonardo drew him accordingly? The simplest answer is usually the best.
And yet... Let us leap forward another three centuries, to Calcutta. In 1787 the East India Company built a colossal church in the classical style to accommodate English worshippers and to demonstrate the piety of its Board of Directors. It is called St John's Church. In a side chapel there is a painting of “The Last Supper”, using the same layout as Leonardo, by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) who was perhaps the most expensive portrait painter of his day. And, what appears shocking even now, the figures of Christ and his disciples are represented by portraits of the bigwigs of Calcutta society. Amusingly, whereas Leonardo had modelled his Judas on the nastiest prisoner in Milan Jail, Zoffany modelled his Judas on the local auctioneer.
Now, the figure representing St John, the beardless youth, is replaced by an actual woman, who is snuggling up to the Jesus figure in a manner which can only bear one interpretation. Now this particular officer was one W.C. Blacquière, who was the Police Magistrate of Calcutta. He was accustomed to patrol the streets of the city in women's clothing. Zoffany's portrait suggests that the reason for that was that the Police Magistrate was really a woman doing what was considered to be a man's job, not a transvestite or a member of a self-appointed persecuted minority with an alphabetic designation.
But that would mean that Zoffany was privy to a story that the beardless youth in Leonardo's painting is really a woman. The plot thickens...
Note: I have never got used to dates being given as CE (Common Era) or BCE (Before the Common Era). I do not even know what is common about an era. I am using the Christian calendar devised by St James the Less after the fall of Rome in the fifth century. Thus AD means “Anno Domini” (In the Year of Our Lord) and BC means “Before Christ”. The fact that I am using this style of dates does not indicate any particular religious affiliation on my part.