Anointing at Bethany
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet and brushes them with her hair. Lovely, erotic image, but Judas provides a cold shower by asking why Jesus is indulging in this luxury when the price of the ointment could have been donated to the poor. With a characteristically heavy hand, John all but paints an Oil Can Harry mustache on Judas to make sure we know he’s evil & just wants to steal the money for himself.
But the truth is it’s a very good question — and what are we to make of Jesus’ response? “The poor are always with you, but I’m not.” In other words, never mind the poor, I’m special. Donald Trump couldn’t have said it better. At moments like this John’s Jesus doesn’t even seem to be the same person as the one we met in Mark.
But, Rick, this very moment is similarly recorded in Mark 14:4-7: Some were upset and said, “What’s the point of this waste of sweet oil? That sweet oil could have been sold for more than 300 denarii, and the money could have been given to the poor!” They were furious with her. Jesus told them, “Let her be! Why make problems for the woman? What she did for me was a fine thing, seeing that you always have the poor with you, and you can do good for them whenever you wish, but me you don’t always have.” Trump again?
On the other hand, I have to agree that John’s Jesus is not the same person we met in Mark, and that John’s story is entirely different. It shows how little we know about what was really going on then — and how little we can trust that what we read in our evangelists reflects any sort of historical reality. Personally, I’m not the slightest bit daunted by that uncertainty. I’m on Cloud 9, dealing with an ancient religious text with two other pairs of inquisitive eyes, delighted by its similarities to, and differences from, other religious texts (Christian or not). And I’d love to be involved emotionally with its content, as you guys seem to be from time to time, reacting positively or negatively, but that just doesn’t seem to be my cup of tea. When the shop closes here, I’d much rather hang out with the Epictetus crowd than with the Jesus crowd. In other words, if I wanted edification or guidance toward becoming a more decent human being, I’d be hard-pressed to find them anywhere in the New Testament — and perhaps especially not in John. But I sure love puzzling through his text.
Bill, you’ve nailed me on “the poor are always with you.” I’d forgotten the Mark parallel (who can keep track?!), which makes my “not the same person” remark rather ridiculous. Apparently in the Marcan context Jesus’ saying didn’t bother me; in this context it does. My negative feelings about John’s whole portrait obviously colored my response to this moment.
I will point out that John adds something — assigning the question “why not give the money to the poor?” to Judas (in Mark it’s just someone or other), complete with that heavy-handed “what an evil man he was” ascription of motive, as usual micro-managing the reader’s judgment rather than letting us judge the merits of the question for ourselves.
And John also omits things, like Jesus’ point that “you can do good for the poor anytime you want to”, which takes some of the the Trumpish edge off his homily. In both accounts Jesus says “Leave her alone”, but only in Mark does he add “she’s doing something nice for me”, concluding with the assurance that she’ll always be remembered for her kindness wherever the gospel is preached. To me, these details alter the whole emotional atmosphere of the scene and make it humanly understandable (maybe even morally correct) that Jesus in this moment should look kindly on Mary’s gesture. For me, it’s characteristic of John that he omits them, lacking the human touch and narrative sensitivity required to see that they’re essential.
Riddles, Reasons, and the Limits of Love
W. ROBERT CONNOR 4/6/14
At 12:37-43 Jesus addresses the blindness of unbelievers, invoking Isaiah. This passage perplexes me in several ways. I’m not sure, for example, what semeia (“signs”) in 37 refers to, nor how the argument relates to the request of the Hellenes to see Jesus back in 12:20-26. But what bothers me most is the treatment of Isaiah 6:10. John seems to be quoting from memory rather than from either the LXX or the Hebrew text, and his memory is peculiarly blurred. In Isaiah the Lord tells the prophet to go and — what? Speak in such a way as to make sure that people fail to understand. At 12:40 John converts that into direct action by God, deliberately blinding people and hardening their hearts so that they won’t believe in Jesus, no matter what semeia he performs.
This seems to me worse than a narrative muddle. The theology troubles me. Are we to believe that God deliberately blinds us and darkens our understanding so that we cannot believe in his son? Is that the kind of God we are called to worship? Isaiah seems to me to do better with the theological problem, at least starting 53:11, where we hear the news that a suffering servant will bear the sins of many. That pushes us squarely to the idea of atonement, not an easy one to hear, but at least not malevolent. Help me think this through, please.
This line of thought (a holdover from the OT?) seems not to be peculiar to John. It comes up in Matthew 13:10-17, where Jesus gives this paradoxical and (to me, at least) rather callous justification for his use of parables: To the one who has it, that and more than that will be given. Those who don’t have it, even what they have will be taken away from them. I speak to them in parables because when they see they don’t see, and when they hear they don’t listen or understand — and so on. Mark is, as usual, more concise, but just as harsh, in summarizing this point (4:10-12).
Bob, your perplexity kicks against the pricks — “Is that the kind of God we’re called to worship?” Well, yes. In the Mark 14 passage Bill mentions, Jesus alludes to the same patch of Isaiah in explaining why he speaks in parables: so that outsiders should remain blind to the truth, so that they should not understand, “lest they be converted and forgiven.” Same rationale not only at Matthew 13:14 but also Luke 8:10 (minus the “lest” part in both — a squeamish omission?). In the Isaiah passage itself, sure — as you point out, Bob — Isaiah’s the one who’s to speak in riddles, not God himself, but it’s God who’s commanding him to do so, for God’s express purpose of making sure that the blind stay blind. Similarly, Jesus’ deliberate mystification of outsiders via parables is God-approved. OT and NT, synoptics and John, all agree on this as the way God works.
Their characterization of God is indeed scary, but I don’t find it at all off-putting, as you seem to. It’s the very heart of the Christian concept of faith — those who insist on seeing/hearing reasons to have faith will (must!) never find it. I’m reminded of Anselm’s characterization of his search for a proof of God’s existence — “faith seeking understanding,” “I believe in order that I may understand.” Faith comes first, understanding as a consequence. The blind are kept in the dark because they insist on the reverse order. They demand reasons first. They want to know why faith is justified. Only then will they consent to believe. Parables and riddles serve to ensure that this cannot happen. Faith is not founded on reason; right reason is founded on faith.
First, believe; only then you can understand. Only then will you be vouchsafed the meaning of the parables.
Sometimes I find it useful to read texts as if they were riddles, that is, I try not to shy away from the obvious question to ask at the beginning of a text, and then look for the answer as it unrolls. In the Iliad, for example, what is this menis, the very first word of the poem? Or in the Odyssey what does it mean to be polytropos? The answers are there in the texts, waiting for us, but it takes time and patience to find them and often they surprise us. That’s why I think of them as riddles, ainigmata.
There’s something similar in John. I don’t mean Jesus’ own love of riddling speech. I mean the opening phrase, “In the beginning,” which brings us right back to Genesis (1:3) where God spoke, ΓΕΝΗΘΗΤΩ ΦΩΣ, “Let there be light” — and there was light. So what is the corresponding speech act in Jesus’ case? Many scholars try to answer that by looking outside the text, to Philo, for example, and his understanding of logos. Maybe they are right, but if you like riddles, you look first inside the text. It would have been easy for John to follow Matthew (3:17) and Mark (1:11) where a voice from heaven speaks at Jesus’ baptism , “You are my beloved son, in you I am glorified.” But, as so often, John is not interested in what is easy. Instead he makes us see the scene through the eyes of John the Baptist. The baptism itself is passed over as if it were routine. But John the baptizer reports something decidedly non-routine: “I saw the Spirit descending as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.” As in the other two gospels there’s a dove, and an affirmation of Jesus’ divine sonship, but in John no voice from heaven, and no mention of glory (doxa).
In John the voice and the glory come much later, in the days leading up to Passover, and to Jesus’ death. Facing this fate, Jesus publicly imagines different prayers he might offer up. He considers asking his father to rescue him from a time of peril, but finally acknowledges that his hour has come and says, “Father, glorify thy name” (12.28). That does it. There comes a voice from heaven saying, “I have glorified it and I shall glorify it again.” We hear that loud and clear but for the eye-witnesses it sounds like thunder. No dove chirping here. Or maybe it was an angel in private conversation (λελάληκεν) with Jesus. The witnesses don’t know what we now know, the answer to the riddle. This is the speech act we have been waiting for. Jesus goes on to explain what he, and we, have heard (12:30-32): Not through/for me has this voice come into being [γέγονεν, echoing the creation language in Genesis 1], but for/through you. Now is the deciding point of the world, now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am raised up from the ground, will draw everyone to myself.
Why now? Why not at the outset? At the baptism, at the end of the temptation? Is it that what really counts is his willingness to accept death?
I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the “speech act” Jesus commits just prior to that prayer, where he lays down the law for the inquisitive gentiles at 12:25: He who loves his soul loses/destroys it (ὁ φιλῶν τὴν ψυχήν αὐτοῦ ἀπολλύει); he who hates his soul in this world preserves it for life everlasting. I take this to be the John version of the synoptic “He who would save his life must lose it … ” — a VERY different proposition. So far as I can see by googling, John doesn’t use the synoptic version, and the synoptics don’t use his.
I can (just barely) imagine myself defending John’s sentiment here with an Augustinian spin in one of my darker moods. But it seems to stand against everything you both were so passionate in espousing when we read Mark — the primacy and value of this life, the Great Simplification with its command to love thy neighbor, so immeasurably more important than any theology, etc.
John’s Jesus wants you to hate this life! Theology is all he cares about. Despite the conventional wisdom that John envisions a Christian community bound by love, there’s still (as of chapter 12) no such notion in this gospel. Here John’s Jesus follows up the hate-your-life verse by saying that God will honor, not those who love me, but my servants (diakonoi 12:26). Yes, this is addressed to Greeks so there’s a bit of ethnic one-upsmanship in it, but still … Love?? Of your neighbor or anything else? Not a trace. Except, if you “love” the life you’re living now, you’re by implication damned. I admire all the scholarly energy you both devote to understanding why John wrote what he did, but sometimes I feel it’s obscuring the fact that what the text basically says is so hostile to everything that matters to you.
Then, right on cue, love walks in — or does it? In Chapter 13, it turns out Jesus “loves” his followers or servants — his idioi — and will to the end (13:1). So he washes their feet — hard not to be moved by this after watching Pope Francis wash the feet of female (!) convicts on the eve of good Friday. Then of course there’s the tenderness that Jesus seems to feel for his beloved disciple at 13:23. Perhaps it’s time to distinguish between Jesus’ brand of loving (verb agapan) and the lesser love people may feel for their lives/souls in this world in 12 (verb philein). As usual, however, John spoils a touching effect with over-exegesis — here in 13:6-20, a lot of deadening talk with Peter about how much of your body needs washing, whether or not you’re katharos, how you don’t understand now but will later, how no slave (i.e. you) is superior to his master (i.e. me), etc etc. Can’t this text leave well enough alone??
All leading up to the grand climax in 13:31-35, the “new commandment”, to love one another (agapan). Not even I can be curmudgeonly about that, except perhaps to say it seems to come out of the blue in this gospel. Granted, the foot-washing is supposed to set it up, but that scene is marred by Jesus’ pedantic efforts to prevent the disciples from getting the wrong idea (I’m still the master, you’re still the slaves!). And the new commandment itself would be more powerful if we’d seen more of Jesus putting agape into practice and heard less of his going on about himself. Notably, there’s none of the latter to spoil things here. Ergo, an interpolation?!
More importantly, isn’t Jesus supposed to love everybody, not just his idioi?
I’ve been bothered by something analogous. Why do I do more for my grandchildren than for kids sick and hungry and dying all over the world? Are we not all equal? Is human life not incomparably valuable wherever it occurs? But Jesus doesn’t say “Thou shalt love the Chilean earthquake victims as thyself.” He says “neighbor”. And he leaves us to figure out the riddle.
Maybe loving whatever neighbor we find is hard enough for us. Maybe we have to start close to home, moral weaklings that we are — loving oneself, one’s partner, one’s idioi. That’s not easy either. Doesn’t make me feel very warm and fuzzy. I see all the warts, including my own. It’s a workout. Or try this — take a stone and throw it high up into the air so it drops straight down into the water. The energy moves out in perfectly concentric circles, further and further out, to what shore no one knows. With what effect, if any, is a mystery. None of your business. Your job is to toss the stone.
A moving meditation, Bob, and true for us mere mortals. The problem in John is that it’s Jesus himself, the Logos, whose capacity to love seems limited in this way. Isn’t he supposed to do better, shine a light, show the way? He does so in other gospels — the parable of the Samaritan etc. It’s one thing for him to say “love thy neighbor” is good enough for us, quite another for his own love to be confined within that boundary.
Agreed. John seems a pretty thick filter. The brew that makes it through can be thick and bitter.
The problem isn’t confined to chapter 13. In light of Jesus’ subsequent disquisition in chapters 14-17 (containing the only discussion of love in the entire gospel), I’m having to correct my earlier impression that the “new commandment” in 13 brings John up to speed with the synoptic emphasis on brotherly love. Loving your neighbor as yourself — in the tradition of Leviticus 19:18, whether your neighbor be Jew, Samaritan, Greek, etc. — has nothing to do with what Jesus is talking about in these chapters. The “love” he commands is severely limited, namely to those who belong to a very select group who are “in” Jesus as Jesus is “in” the father. The “in” group loves not all men, not the outsiders (e.g. “the Jews”), but its own members. In such groups, solidarity is essential, and Jesus commands it accordingly.
Rick, your remarks on the difference between ἀγαπᾶν and φιλεῖν led me to compare John 12:25 with the synoptics. All 4 are using ψυχὴ to mean “life,” a common usage in those days. And all four use ἀπόλλυμι (active) to mean “lose,” also common since Homer (synoptics future, John present). So where are the big differences? Matthew has “the one who has gained/secured” his life losing it, and the one losing his life for “my” sake gaining it; Luke’s elegant Greek has “the one who wants to preserve” his life losing it, and the one losing his life for “my” sake preserving it; and Mark follows Luke except for switching “my” for “the gospel’s.”
Yes, John’s version is different from those, and, to my mind, gentler: Loving your life means losing it; hating your life in this world (this eon) will keep it for life in the eon to come. The Synoptics call for action: Die for me/my gospel. John calls for attitude: Hate the world. You’re right, though, Rick: John sure contradicts my attitude, not to mention Jesus’ own in 3:16 (“For God so loved the world …”): Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
This week at Passover I attended a seder. During the communal reading-aloud I was struck by cross-currents on the subject of love. Often the texts espoused just the kind of inward-turned, tribal love that Bill sees in John 14-17, binding a community together in mutual protection against (and shared hostility toward?) the rest of the world. And yet at several points the seder texts reached outward with a more universal concept, where tribal love becomes the basis for love of all humankind.
Bill cites Leviticus, but I’m not sure how pervasive this wider notion is in the OT itself and how much it’s a product of post-scriptural reflection and commentary. I think Bill is right, though, that it’s absent from this stretch of John, including Jesus’ pronouncement of the new commandment itself. Could it be that the “Christian” concept of universal love is more a product of post-NT second thoughts than of the NT itself? Or do the synoptics make a big enough deal about it that we can point to its origin there? Bill, does Paul play any positive role in developing the Christian concept of love beyond the merely tribal?
As for Paul, I’m wondering if I need do more that cite his remarkable encomium on the universal value of love (1 Corinthians 13). His successors, the Synoptics, echoed those sentiments variously, starting with Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Luke, whose theology is never far from Paul’s, gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:27-37) to amplify just who the “neighbor” is that we’re to treat as ourselves in compliance with Leviticus.
Matthew has a rather moving take on the “neighbor” beginning in 5:43: You’ve heard that it was declared, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor” — and hate your enemy. But I’m telling you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you become children of your father in heaven … If you love only the ones who are loving you, what reward will you have? Don’t even tax collectors do the same thing? And if you embrace only your brothers and sisters, are you doing anything special? Don’t even Gentiles do the same thing? Therefore, you people: try to be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.
Matthew’s Jesus follows up with a word to the wise about acts of kindness (δικαιοσύνη): Don’t do them in front of people for show. In John, we have to read all the way to 16:8 to see the word δικαιοσύνη make its debut as one of the things, along with sin (ἁμαρτία) and judgment (κρίσις), about which the “paraclete” (traditionally “holy spirit”) will come to cross-examine (ἐλέγξει) the world. Even the kindred adjective δίκαιος occurs only three times in the entire gospel (5:30, 7:24, 17:25). Do please help me understand 16:10, where Jesus says the reason that the paraclete will grill us on δικαιοσύνη is that “I’m going away to the father and you won’t see me anymore.”
What’s weird about this is that δίκαιος and δικαιοσύνη are commonplace buzzwords in Paul and the synoptics, representing the very essence of the Jesus-outlook. In classical Greek these words denote something like “just” and “justice”, but by the first century they’d evolved through their use in the Septuagint and the Stoics into something far more humanitarian, infused with the idea of benevolence. (Avoid at all costs the modern mistranslations “righteous” and “righteousness” — meaningless and misleading). In the Septuagint, for example, the Hebrew hesed (loving kindness) can be translated as either δικαιοσύνη or ἐλεημοσύνη (compassion, pity) interchangeably. Not so with John’s usage here. Might as well be back in classical times: it’s frontier “justice,” and the paraclete is there to hand down the sentences.
Who or what is John’s “paraclete,” anyway? Bob rightly asked if he/it is in any way essential to Christian doctrine elsewhere, and the answer seems to be no. Elsewhere (primarily in Paul and in Acts), the “holy spirit” is there to impart ecstasy, superhuman power, inspiration, and solidarity. In John, the “paraclete” is a barrister with bills of indictment.
Jesus introduces him earlier, at 14:16: “And I’m going to ask the father to give you another counselor (ἄλλον παράκλητον), to be with you into the coming eon, the spirit of truth,” where ἄλλον must mean “other than myself” or “a second me.” Are we to envision this judgmental counselor as a person? (Our Muslim friends, who identify the paraclete with Muhammad, certainly do.)
Bill, your citations of Paul and the others on agape drive home the difference in John. Not just what I call the tribal nature of his “love” — felt only by insiders for insiders — but the obsessive use of agape by John’s Jesus to mean “love of me”. Yes, he says that you, my idioi, should love one another, but his overriding insistence is egocentric — in 14:15-24, for example, where he uses forms of ἀγαπᾶν eight times to refer to your love of me (which you show by obeying me) or the love that I (or my father) will feel for you, provided that you love (i.e. obey) me. A world away from the non-Johannine passages you cite.
You’ve also dampened the enthusiasm with which I was about to propose three cheers for John for introducing the Trinity via his invocation of the Holy Spirit. I disagree completely with the notion that the HS is superfluous to Christian faith. Quite apart from his/her/its own unique merits as the binding agent between father & son & the faithful, the Holy Spirit completes the Trinity — as you know, my favorite Christian doctrine, the one above all that asserts the primacy of faith over reason. How can one God be three? Reason alone can never grasp the Trinity. It can only do so by the guiding light of faith. Christianity is the only monotheism that preserves the essential wisdom of polytheism — by flying in the face of reason — and this is its primary claim to an insight that goes beyond the others.
But you’re right, Bill — John’s judgmental paraclete bears little resemblance to the inspirational, unifying Third Person that Paul intuits. I think even John would agree, however, that the paraclete is a far cry from a small-p person, Mohammad included. You’re also right to be puzzled by 16:10, where Jesus says the paraclete will judge us on δικαιοσύνη because “I’m going away and you won’t be seeing me anymore.” Assuming that δικαιοσύνη means something like compassion, he may mean that, without Jesus around to set an inspiring example, some may lose their bearings, reverting to their nasty brutish ways, so that the paraclete will need to sort the black sheep from the white.
Finally, going back to John’s endorsement of hating your life … The fact that you can read this as “gentler” than the synoptic versions raises again for me the baffling question why you’re so passionate about defending an evangelist who clearly stands against everything you believe. The synoptic “lose” doesn’t need to be read so strictly as to demand martyrdom. As I read “He who loses his life for my sake,” it encompasses everything from dying to being born again through baptism — giving up the life you’ve been living for a new life of faith. The synoptic version doesn’t demand that you hate your present life — on the contrary, it implies that you value it, that it costs you something to give it up. To me, this is not only gentler but wiser than John’s life-hating asceticism.
I’m sure you’ve been reading my posts, as I yours, so I’ll just have to assume that I expressed myself badly at some point and misled you into thinking that my passion was for John’s doctrine, or for defending it. I am indeed passionate about John, but only for his text, not for his views. As a lifelong student of ancient Mediterranean religions, I’m fascinated by John’s obvious difference from the tradition of Paul and the Synoptics, and by what appear to be very early elements stitched into his text.
As for John 12:25, I was reading ὁ μισῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ — “he who hates his life in this world” — not just ὁ μισῶν τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ, as you appeared to be doing. John’s version seems to be devoid of the self-annihilation implicit in the Synoptics (you’ve gotta be pulling my leg with the “being born again” theory), and so gentler. Ever hate your life in the world? I know I have. All the compromises with evil you have to make just to survive. Sometimes that “hate” is the beginning of wisdom. Didn’t Socrates say that the true philosopher behaves as if dead to this life, in order to prepare himself for the world of truth, beauty, and goodness? More to the point is Luke 14:25-27: Huge crowds would accompany him on his way; turning to them, he said, “If someone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and, more than that, even his own life, he can’t be my disciple.”
Is John saying anything different from Luke? I’ll give anyone a break if I catch them saying something right, even John.
Bill, I admit to being an avid reader of all our posts (including my own, often with chagrin). So, recently I was intrigued by two paragraphs of yours from the same message. The first:
The second, on Jesus’ emotions just before he resurrects Lazarus:
My reaction was (is) that the second seems to be shot through with just the sort of “emotional involvement” that the first disavows. The second seems to be written by a guy with a stake in the game, while the first claims to be merely watching from the sidelines. You’ve posted many other messages conveying a passion similar to the second. I think any reader would be struck by the overall difference in tone between your posts about Mark — skeptical, ironic, irreverent — and those about John.
This thought leads me to reflect (with appreciation & fellow-feeling) on why we’re all devoting so much time & energy to this project. I don’t think scholarly fascination can be the whole story. We all, as “lapsed” Christians to varying degrees, feel the emotional/spiritual pull of these texts, and feel compelled to wrestle with them like Jacob with the angel — each for his own purposes, but all with a similarly conflicted & intense spiritual engagement. In short, I have the impression that John has a spiritual resonance for you that the synoptics don’t, and that’s the sense in which I said that you seem to “defend” him.
I’ve pointed out before the clash between my own responses to Mark & John. When reading Mark, I was a cheerleader for Jesus’ more scarifying pronouncements, but in John I find them distasteful. I campaigned against reducing Mark’s gospel message to an anodyne “love thy neighbor”, but in John I’m forever complaining about the absence of that all-too-human moral dimension.
Take my remarks about “hating your life”. I’ve been acutely aware all along that Jesus calls it “your life in this world” (ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ τούτῳ), complete with attachments to people & things, to ordinary life as we know it. He who “hates” that life is to me a very different person from “he who loses that life for my sake”. No, I wasn’t pulling your leg in putting a loose construction on the latter, including being “born again”, losing what matters to you in your present life as the price of a life of faith. The essence of the difference is that John’s Jesus wants you to despise life in this world, while the synoptic Jesus wants you to sacrifice it, in whatever sense — and a sacrifice is meaningless unless it’s of something of value, something you love.
Granted, Jesus demands that you disown your family and hate your life in the Luke passage you quote, and at least the “disown your family” part is in Mark too, but to me context is all. There’s a balance between the two elements in the synoptic story — all-or-nothing eschatology on the one hand and a warmly human morality on the other — a balance that John almost totally lacks (except for the interpolated adulteress episode). So, when Jesus makes apocalyptic all-or-nothing demands in the synoptic context, they have a different feel than do the same demands in John, who has stripped away the warm, complex human dimensions of Jesus to present a cardboard cut-out of a superhuman being coldly obsessed with self-centered theology.
By the way, would you really want to spend eternity chatting with Epictetus, Chrysippus and Seneca? For all that I love Graeco-Roman culture, Christianity brought something to the table that was missing before, and I’d get claustrophobic if I were stuck forever with with folks who had no inkling of it. Aeschylus, Heraclitus and Plato, maybe. They had inklings. A bunch of stoics? I’d rather hang out with, say, Dante, Aquinas and Occam. But hey, that’s the kind of difference between us that makes this whole crazy project worthwhile.
Rick, you’re going to spoil me — I’m not used to all this attention. Mark has “good clear illustrations” like any shop manual or (back to my cinematic analogy) Walt Disney production, but there are narrative overlays in John — not just the Adulterous Woman in 8, but Jezebel at the Well, the ex-blind guy’s family, Jesus on his way to Lazarus’ tomb, etc. that to me are real Alexandrian chiaroscuro, something you might find by scraping away a two-dimensional Byzantine fresco. Art can make one weep sometimes. Sunt lacrimae rerum.
Of course I become emotionally involved when I encounter such texts, and you’re right, I never did with Mark. As a teacher of classics, I’m used to the necessity of effusing over such things to catch the students’ attention (the things we have to do, right? — anything to get a point across short of tearing off our clothes). I hope you won’t be shocked to learn that I can get much more emotionally involved with Sappho or Catullus. And now I just automatically let myself do it when I stumble across a nugget. Why not? Too old to worry about preserving my dignity.
Apart from the “nuggets,” I’m with you in your view of the rest of John — the monomaniacal bombast, the lack of humanitarian feeling (though I catch whiffs of that in some narrative sections). And my reaction to that overall backdrop fuels my sense that the “nuggets” were produced by people who were very different from our composer John. That “discovery,” while certainly not an end in itself, accounts for much of my fascination with the entire work.
Please cross Chrysippus and Seneca off that list of my preferred companions. As you know, I hope not to be around for eternity, and assume those folks are also no longer available, but don’t sell Epictetus and the late Stoa short. They knew all about Christians. I’d fully expect Paul to drop by now and then to join (but, please, not monopolize) the conversation. Paul was born and raised in Tarsus, a hotbed of Stoicism, and had a very positive view of the Stoa of his day. His appreciative nods toward Stoic philosophy and ethics can be detected, e.g., in Romans 1:20, 2:14-16, and 2:26. And you can google a seemingly endless list of articles and books s.v. “Paul and Stoicism.”