JOHN 1 – 3: Strange Brew

rick pacific crop 3RICHARD  McKIM   12/11/13
What an odd pastiche of opening gambits after the exordium! First, the Baptist’s strenuous denials that he’s the messiah, insisting he’s just the advance man, as if it were really important to our author to absolve him of any such pretensions right off the bat. Why? Were there still Baptist fans around promoting him as a rival Christ?

Then we get the Baptist’s immediate recognition of the real thing when it comes along. Fair enough. But after the obligatory gathering of a few disciples — notable mostly for a rare flash of humor from Jesus regarding Nathanael and our old friend the fig tree (“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”, as I paraphrased it a while back) — there follows …

(1) the miracle at Cana (2:1-12),
(2) the expulsion of the money-men from the Jeruselam temple (2:13-22),
(3) an obscure aside about how Jesus knows all about people and so doesn’t need anyone to tell him what they’re like (2:23-25), and
(4) the mystical conversation with Nicodemus about what nowadays we call being born-again (3:1-21).

We talked at length about how Mark (unlike Matthew) leads with miracles, not teachings, and John follows suit. But only one miracle, and a strange choice, turning water into wine at a feast where everyone’s already drained the host’s supply of booze. Hardly in the same league as curing the sick or feeding the hungry. The reader has to do some heavy allegorical lifting to make John’s lead miracle symbolize anything momentous.

Strange that John places the cleansing of the temple so early. In Mark, it’s a late, climactic act, after the Palm Sunday entry to Jerusalem. Stranger still is Jesus’ boast here in John: “Destroy this temple and I’ll raise it up again in three days,” with John’s editorial comment that Jesus is referring to his own body, prophesying his resurrection (2:19-21). In Mark, Jesus makes no such boast — in fact, Mark presents the claim that he did so as a false accusation made against him at his trial (Mark 14:57).

How did a false accusation become, in John, a headline pronouncement by Jesus himself? I suspect John gives the temple cleansing such early prominence precisely so that he can have Jesus make the resurrection prophecy up front. Chronology is sacrificed for the sake of presenting Jesus as preternaturally self-aware from the beginning — knowing who he is and knowing he’ll conquer death. What a contrast to the gradually evolving self-awareness we sensed in Mark.

The whole sequence (1)-(4) seems to presuppose a lot more knowledge about Jesus than Mark’s narrative does.  A token miracle. A dramatic late gesture narrated early to impress the reader with Jesus’ foreknowledge of what the reader knows is coming. Then straight to mystical explication of what it means to believe in him. It’s as if John assumes that the reader is familiar with his hero’s biography, and now primarily needs advanced instruction on its spiritual & theological import.

I admit it does seem natural at this point — what with the thick overlay of abstruse christology — to suppose that John’s writing later in the game than Mark was. Bill, how do we maintain a contrarian case for John as earlier?

bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG
Rick, there still are a lot of Baptist fans out there! I’m not so sure John assumes more prior knowledge about Jesus. Mark and John each has his own way of starting in medias res, forgoing background. Mark action, John intellection — two ways possibly (Gentile and Jewish?) of introducing a character around whom an oral tradition had already grown.

For me, so far at least, it’s the apparent hard-core eyewitness stuff that suggests an earlier date for John. We’re in a crowd on the banks of the Jordan. Andrew and John, young God-hungry zealots (picture, if you will, Ginsberg and Kerouac) looking for salvation, hanging out with their baptizer (picture Cassady), who steers them toward Jesus (he’d never met him before, but he’d seen that dove light on him, and figured that was a sign). They follow Jesus home, pass the time with him until around 4 PM. It’s a done deal. Go and round up the rest. Contrast Mark: same guys, only on a different shore, tending their nets, not searching for salvation, no Baptizer John. “Follow me,” and they do, robot-like, as if in a trance. That’s how Jesus picks people up in Mark.

Which story sounds more likely?  Which has the air of myth and magic? Which sounds more remote from actuality? With Mark, we searched for indications of an eyewitness account. With John, the details are so realistic that someone actually notices the time:  “It was around 4 PM” (John 1:39). Or is it contrived, along with the rest of the story?   It would be hard for me to attribute such contrivance to this simple, even awkward storyteller. Or reporter.

Wedding at Cana, Giotto, 14th C

Wedding at Cana, Giotto, 14th C

As for the miracle at Cana — “heavy allegorical lifting”? I’ve always found it delightful, and significant, that Jesus’ first miracle was devoted to getting people happy, getting them high, saving the party. A kind of “eat dessert first” mentality (or physicality) that seems to pop out of the other gospels, too, on occasion.

W. ROBERT CONNOR   12/13/13
I think you are right in suspecting that Baptist disciples were around when John wrote his work. Competition! Free Enterprise! And who knows how many other Messiah candidates. So what makes Jesus different?

Is part of the answer that he generated texts? A lot of them. Not that he wrote anything himself, nor were his followers the only ones with stylus and papyri. The Dead Sea Qumran material shows that there was a lot of text generation going on, but we have no trace of gospels about J. the B. Suppressed? Or simply not an outgrowth of what he said and did? He seems not to be engaged in the reconceptualization of OT texts that we can see Jesus doing (I haven’t seen it yet in John, though). The Baptist quotes Isaiah and lets it go at that.

So my suspicion is that if your Messiah candidate was rethinking all the Messiah literature out there, you (as someone deeply moved by him) might think about writing, too. Could that be why we have such an abundance of gospels, not just the canonical ones, but others too, gnostics and whatever?

A note on the Cana wine: The Blessed Virgin makes bold to point out to him a simple fact: “They are running out of wine.” Instead of saying,”What’s that to me?” or “Get one of my younger brothers to run down to the ABC store and buy some of the real stuff,” he lashes out at her. Full-scale Holy Man Speak at 2:4. “What do we have to with each other?” No Mr. Nice Christ. Then he goes on with a riddle: “My hour has not come.” She might well wonder, even more than we do, “What does THAT have to do with it?” Exeunt omnes wondering what wine has to do with his last hour.

BERG   12/16/13
“My hour has not yet come” seems to refer not to his last hour, but — no riddle here — to the hour of his exit from the closet. Am I reading too much into it to think that his mother has some inkling of his potential, and hints that he might use it here? Isn’t that why she gives the servants a heads-up? John is supposed to have known her pretty well (see John 19:27). But you’re absolutely right about Jesus’ question Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; It’s an idiom, common in the Septuagint, usually meaning something like “Why are you bothering me?” Only in 2 Samuel 16:10 does it seem to mean “What’s it to you or to me?” Elsewhere in the NT, interestingly enough, the idiom is used only by demons, to Jesus: Matt 8:29, Mark 1:24, Luke 8:28. So, as you say, not Mr. Nice Guy.

CONNOR  12/18/13
Before our Christmas break, a complaint. What’s with all this fast-forward stuff in John? Why does he bypass so much vital biography? I miss Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Matthew does a really good job of it and I do not think you can understand the Lord’s Prayer without it. But John not only leaves it out, he fast-forwards to Passover. As if Jesus’ whole ministry was only a few days long. Help me understand!

BERG   12/18/13
Bob, I think we’re dealing here not with the Passover of the Crucifixion, but a previous Passover, presumably three years before the big one.  But in any case, the more I read this gospel, the more it seems to me that time and space are always subordinated to the logos that invariably gives the impetus to the gospel, whether it’s the logos of dialogue (e.g. with Nicodemus) or the logos of the many discourses of Jesus that pervade the gospel. One could almost say that this work is yet another “Sayings of Jesus,” like the gospel of Thomas or like the account that Q is presumed to be.  Events themselves are not yet prominent or developed as they are in Mark and the others, and the timeline is alluded to in the vaguest of terms (“afterward,” “after that,” “passed some time,” etc.). John fixes our attention pretty much exclusively on the Word from the beginning.

Jesus and Nicodemus

Jesus and Nicodemus, Crijn Hendricksz, Netherlands, 17th C

Jesus and Nicodemus, Crijn Hendricksz, Netherlands, 17th C

CONNOR   12/27/13
In John 2, Nicodemus gets an earful. Here he comes (3.1), an older man, a Pharisee and hence a believer in the possibility of life beyond the grave, learned, well placed in the religious establishment, sneaking over to talk to Jesus under cover of darkness. He’s from a family that has Hellenized, partially at least, as he bears a good Greek name (Nikodemos). But he addresses Jesus not as didaskalos, teacher, but as its Semitic equivalent, rabbi. Perhaps there is a hint of condescension in this – surely this itinerant Galillean would not be comfortable if one put one’s question to him in Greek.

Nicodemus never gets the chance to pose his question. Before he can ask it, Jesus cuts him off: “Unless one is born anew, one cannot see the kingdom of God.” The rest of their exchange turns on the ambiguity of the Greek word ἄνωθεν. Its usual, etymological meaning is “down from above,” but in common-man Greek it can mean “again” or “anew.”  That is how Nicodemus takes it in his sarcastic reply, “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4 RSV).

Ah, a Greek education that has resulted in no alertness to ambiguity or metaphor.  So Jesus douses him with metaphorical language about water and spirit – “Get baptized,” in effect. But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. Still on the dry ground of physicality he asks again, “How can these things be?”(3.9). That lets Jesus come back to Nicodemus’ condescending choice of the word rabbi, asking in mock amazement, “Are you the teacher (ὁ διδάσκαλος, not “a teacher” 3.10) of Israel and you don’t know this?” Then he picks up on Nicodemus’ earthbound  incredulity: ”If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (3.12) But Nicodemus’ deficiencies do not stop Jesus from going ahead to talk of heavenly things, in a most extraordinary manner.

Jesus’ scorn continues. Surely this teacher of Israel understands the symbolic meaning of the story of affliction by fiery serpents in Numbers 21. When the children of Israel  are dying from their bites, the Lord tells  Moses “Make a  fiery serpent, and set it on a pole (in the Septuagint ἐπὶ σημείου); and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (21.8).  In this context the passage prefigures the Crucifixion. Too much to hope for, perhaps, that Nicodemus could imagine that, but perhaps he could go away remembering the words that follow, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that  whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (3.16 RSV)

You’re probably right, Bob, that the discussion is held in their native lingo rather than in Greek.  But I’d dispute that “hint of condescension” in Nicodemus’ use of “rabbi” for Jesus. Nicodemus, himself a rabbi, pays Jesus a compliment. What we’re witnessing, I think, is a full-fledged Talmudic conversation between two fully qualified rabbis who are well versed in the traditional rules of discourse.

For example, N’s first remark is answered by Jesus not with the logical response we’d expect from our tradition, but with a Hebraic gezerah-shawah (literally “equal category”), a verbal analogy based on N’s statement. Here’s how it works in the Greek: οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται (Nicodemus 3:2) becomes οὐ δύναται (Jesus 3:3) and N’s ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετ’ αὐτοῦ becomes J’s ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν. Jesus picks up N’s words and reworks them into his own “argument”. In Talmudic dispute, this is perfectly legitimate and had been since the time of Rabbi Hillel, who laid down the ground rules for such discussions. The two rabbis then proceed to entertain themselves with further gezerah-shawah in 3:4-5, with Jesus echoing N’s words and phrases.

At this point, however, Jesus begins a serious homily of his own, and gezerah-shawah is out the window. Nicodemus is allowed one more respectful question (“How can this rebirth happen?”) before disappearing from view. Jesus then gets to tell him (and us) how it’s not a matter of his being a teacher, a rabbi; it’s about his being the Son of Man, raised up as Moses raised the serpent of salvation, God’s only-begotten son given up, sacrificed (Alford imagines an allusion to Abraham/Isaac).

Anyway, I’m trying to be more open-minded about this discussion, including Jesus’ final rant, based on David A. Frank’s article “Arguing with God, Talmudic Discourse, and the Jewish Countermodel:  Implications for the Study of Argumentation” in Argumentation and Advocacy 41 (Fall 2004). He distinguishes between (1) Greek “hypotactic logic”(subordination of arguments to a governing premise) which is “designed to end disagreement”, and (2) Hebraic “paratactic rationality” (all elements juxtaposed, not subordinated), which proceeds “in a spiral” — “takes an ancient tradition, gives it a twirl, and comes out somewhere new.”

CONNOR   12/28/13
This is really good, and helps me with a problem. My reading makes Jesus a petulant one-upsmanship player, just bashing his interlocutor. Bill lets it be a genuine exchange, for a while at least. But it still doesn’t  seem to me quite a congenial exchange among the rabbis. There does seem to be some scorn when Jesus refers to Nick as “you the teacher of Israel”. And at the beginning doesn’t Nicodemus lay it on pretty thick. A sign of insincerity? Don’t we ask “What is this guy up to?” Was his plan to ingratiate himself and then pose a trick question to Jesus? Pharisees do that.

One clarification.  By the time the word ἄνωθεν occurs (3:3 Jesus: “Unless one is born ἄνωθεν, he can’t see the kingdom of God”), the dialogue has to be imagined in Greek. At least, I assume that the ambiguity in that word — “anew”/”from above” — does not exist in Aramaic or Hebrew. True? That doesn’t prove that Jesus sometimes spoke Greek, since we may have a radical re-imagining of the episode by John.  But in such a multilingual society, why not Greek? And when he finally meets Pilate do they speak in Aramaic or Greek? Bill’s general point about parataxis in Hebraic discourse may be correct but there is plenty of it in classical Greek prose, e.g. Herodotus.

True that the ambiguity of ἄνωθεν does not exist in Aramaic or Hebrew. According to poor old out-of-date Alford (who nevertheless knew more Greek than anyone alive today), Nicodemus “obviously understood it of a new birth in mature life.” In any case, I assume the pivotal terms of the gezerah-shawah would come across just as well in Hebrew as in Greek.  Paul makes it work all the time when he does gezerah-shawah with his Septuagint citations.

Nicodemus at the deposition from the Cross, Michelangelo, 16th C

Nicodemus at the deposition from the Cross, Michelangelo, 16th C

Indeed the Pharisees do like to “pose trick questions”. But they normally do it in broad daylight, in front of a crowd of admirers. Nick sneaks over under cover of darkness (for why, see John 12:42), and, despite the browbeating he gets from Jesus, remains his ally on the Sanhedrin (John 7:50), and brings a ton of spices to his tomb (19:39).

It’s interesting to note that Erasmus, and many followers, decided that Jesus’ actual words end with verse 15; the rest would then be commentary by the evangelist. But then that begs the question as to the evangelist’s source: Who, if not Jesus?

CONNOR   12/29/13
Nicodemus gets his earful and then disappears. There’s no closure to this exchange. We’re never quite sure what question brought him to Jesus in the dark of night. Next thing we know Jesus is in Judaea baptizing. That’s what it says in 3.22, clearly enough, but in 4.2 there’s a correction: Jesus didn’t do the baptizing himself, his disciples did it. Is that John correcting himself, or is it a redactor straightening things out, perhaps  for a readership arguing about the place of baptism in Christian practice?

Sandwiched between these two contradictory statements is another problem. In 3.25 we are told there was a zetesis about purification. This comes from the disciples of John and takes place, the text says, “with Jew,” μετὰ Ἰουδαίου. The  ever-incisive Bentley saw that couldn’t be right and emended to “with Jesus”.  But that doesn’t quite work either, since the following dialogue is with John, not Jesus. Hence Markland’s conjecture “with the disciples of Jesus.” Not bad, but how did such an error arise?

There is another oddity. The inquiry, we are told, concerns purification, katharismos, a complex matter in Jewish law, — just the sort of thing that a Pharisee, learned in such matters, might wish to interrogate John and his disciples  about. Did purification really only require a simple dip into the water? Once and for all? Was it not rather a life-long vigilance lest one risk God’s anger, judgment and punishment?

And whatever John and his followers said, what did Jesus think? Was Jesus as willing as John’s disciples to dismiss the Law and promise instant purification through baptism? One gets fragments of such an inquiry in John 3:34-35, but any fuller response to the inquiry is eclipsed by the evangelist’s  nervous, repeated assurances that John was not the Christ, Jesus was. That leads into the restatement that Jesus was the only begotten son of God, and the implications of that sonship.

I suggest then that John’s  control of his narrative was overwhelmed by his eagerness to establish that Jesus, not John, was the Christ, who came not to judge but to save the world. John starts off with a specific Jew but never clarifies his reason for coming to Jesus. Then, perhaps in another draft merged into the final copy, he starts again with an anonymous Jew concerned about katharismos but  again loses his way in the richness of his understanding of Jesus. Not surprisingly, the Spirit does not deliver its gifts in neatly measured units (3:34).

BERG   12/30/13
Not sure Nicodemus came with a question in the first place. I have the impression he just wants to hang out with Jesus, engage in serious lamplight chat, like the prospective disciples in chapter 1 who followed him home. Maybe I’m hallucinating, but there seems to be an undertone of conviviality, of fellowship throughout this gospel — the good-humored banter with Peter, Philip and Nathaniel in ch. 1, Jesus’ joshing with the “grass widow” of ch. 4, the guaranteed good time at the Cana wedding — though there, as Bob points out, Jesus gets a bit huffy with his mother. His father’s not there, of course, and we’re reminded of our discussing his feelings about marital fidelity in Mark; might his disposition at wedding feasts be therefore somewhat delicate, over-sensitive? Anyway, John’s portrayal of human relationships seems more natural, less wooden than in Mark, maybe more engaging, more credible.

On the confusion over who’s doing the baptizing: In any case, I’m sure we’ll see plenty of “redactorship” in this gospel as well, some fine stitchery and some pretty crude tack-ons (like the alternative ending).

On the disputed phrase “with Jew” (μετὰ Ἰουδαίου), the earliest MS for this passage is a papyrus from ca. 200.  There the reading is plural:  μετὰ Ἰουδαίων, “with Judaeans.” I see no problem either way, but if someone like Bentley, who knew a hell of a lot more Greek than I do, saw a problem, there must be one. I’ve found it convenient to translate Ἰουδαῖοι here and elsewhere in the gospel as “Judaeans,” since I think it’s a real ethnic/border issue. Jesus is a Galilean who’s crossed over into Judaean territory, which represents a danger zone for him throughout the gospels.

CONNOR   12/31/13
I am still trying to absorb Bill’s exegesis of the possibly playful exchange with Nick at Night. Happy rabbis! But now at the well in Samaria, I start seeing something similar  — verbal give and take but not with a learned rabbi but — a woman! A non-Jew, a slut! OMG, what will he be up to next? You go down to the grocery to buy some matzohs and there he is breaking all Miss Manners’ rules.

And it turns out she can play the game too. He says “Give”; she reminds him that their father Jacob gave them the well. He says, “I have living water”; she says give me some. The exchange about men/husbands (ἄνδρες 4:16/18 — does that work in Aramaic?) ends up with her back to talking about the fathers (4:20) and the way they worshiped. Jesus picks up on that by talking about the father (4:23).

This seems to me neither hypotaxis nor parataxis but a kind of verbal net that draws them both together. And with her, for the first time, Jesus is explicit about who he is. In Samaria, of all places. What next?

Way to go Bob! You may be the first to shed real light on that puzzlingly abrupt transition from her husbands to father. I’ll bet there was some pivotal kinship-related word in Aramaic that more explicitly linked the two.

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