The Passion According to John
W. ROBERT CONNOR 4/24/14
Here we are at the heart of the New Testament — the Passover meal, the Last Supper, the Holy Eucharist, the memorial he told us to make of him, whatever one wants to call it. In Matthew (26:26–29), Mark (14:22– 5) and Luke (22:19–20, closely paralleled in First Corinthians starting 11:23), Jesus takes bread and wine and gives them to his disciples as a new treaty/covenant/testament (diatheke). He is then betrayed and soon thereafter crucified.
Not so in John. Instead, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and tells them they should do the same for one another (13:14). There’s a dinner, but no talk of bread and wine, let alone of a new diatheke, which is eclipsed by betrayal — by Judas, of course, but implicitly by Peter as well (13:37). There is something else off about this section, seemingly trivial but perhaps revealing about John’s strange gospel. It’s a word that does triple duty in Greek — λαμβάνω, meaning “take” or “accept” or “receive.” That’s the verb Jesus uses in Matthew and Mark when he takes the bread (and later the wine) and tells his disciples to “take, eat, this is my body…”. Take it; receive it; accept it.
Despite the absence of a first eucharist in John, the verb keeps recurring like a tune or a phrase one cannot get out of one’s mind. It’s not a consciously chosen repetition, or motif, but something in the subconscious somewhere that breaks out now and then, whether or not one wants it to. It’s redundant in 12:48: “He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge” (RSV). The verb is back again a few sentences later, in the sense of physical taking: when Jesus gets up from his dining couch and prepares to wash the feet of his disciples, he “rose from supper, laid aside his garment, took a towel and girded himself with it” (λαβὼν λέντιον διέζωσεν ἑαυτόν 13:4). Once the washing is over, he doesn’t simply return to his place but first “took (ἔλαβεν) his outer garments” (13:12). Then in 13:20 the same verb occurs four times in a single sentence: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives anyone whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” And in 13:26, some manuscripts have it, even though it is unnecessary: “So dipping that morsel, he [takes it and] gives it to Judas” (13.26). That’s not a scribal blunder that has intruded itself into some manuscripts; it is, I believe, the recurrence of a word that John, for some reason, cannot get out of his head.
What is that reason? Could it be something that John knows full well but has let become eclipsed in his narrative — the words Jesus used according to Matthew and Mark, “Take (λάβετε), eat, this is my body, given for you”?
You may be on to something with λαμβάνω, though it’s one of the most common verbs in the Greek language, like our “get” and “take,” not to mention “with,” which the participle λαβών often signifies. Yet its forms do occur eight times in chapter 13, beating out the six occurrences in 19. Of course, half of those eight are in a single verse (13:20 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὁ λαμβάνων ἄν τινα πέμψω ἐμὲ λαμβάνει, ὁ δὲ ἐμὲ λαμβάνων λαμβάνει τὸν πέμψαντά με), which you quote.
Immediately after that, in 13:21, Jesus suddenly interrupted himself and ἐταράχθη τῷ πνεύματι (21), “was shaken in his spirit”, his innermost self. The sudden flash, the foreknowledge of betrayal overwhelmed his flesh. Why do I have this feeling of déjà vu? Oh, right, shades of his reaction to the death of Lazarus: ἐνεβριμήσατο τῷ πνεύματι καὶ ἐτάραξεν ἑαυτόν (11:33) — again, as I doggedly maintain, a flash, a vision of Jesus’ own fate. It’s beyond me how Lattimore could have misconstrued so badly here. “Raged at his own spirit and harrowed himself”? When he had the exact equivalent of ἐνεβριμήσατο τῷ πνεύματι looming up in 11:38 (ἐμβριμώμενος ἐν ἑαυτῷ), and our phrase here at 13:21 should have settled all doubts as to the function of τῷ πνεύματι. Finally, if Jesus were actually “harrowing” himself (unthinkable anyway in John), it would have been an intentional act without justification. “Shaking” himself, by contrast, is an involuntary act, understandable and attributable to the weakness of his human flesh.
In John, Jesus gets to engineer his own betrayal. He gives Judas the bread with Satan attached: over the gums and into the tum, and Judas is out the door (13:26-30), robot-like, still galvanically clutching the bread. Once Judas is gone, Jesus can announce “Now the son of man has been glorified, and God in him” (Νῦν ἐδοξάσθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐδοξάσθη ἐν αὐτῷ! (13:31). Where’ve I heard that before? Oh yeah, back in chapter 11 again …
Bob, I think Bill’s point about the ubiquity of λαμβάνω, like English “get” or “take”, means we can’t lean too hard on a few occurrences of that all-too-ordinary verb. You imply that John is somewhat haunted by his omission of the first eucharist, but mightn’t it be aggressively polemical? It must be closely related to his disagreement with the synoptics over the timing of Jesus’ last hours relative to Passover. The synoptics say the Last Supper was a Passover meal, crucifixion the day after, whereas John says Jesus was crucified on Passover. Seems to me this discrepancy is sharply pointed, especially if John is writing later — some sectarian dispute about dating that’s lost on us. “There was no Last Supper because it wasn’t Passover yet!”
More importantly perhaps, Bob and I have already discussed John’s chapter 6 passage where Jesus takes the disciples to task for thinking he means they should literally eat his flesh or drink his blood. John seems a bit squeamish about this. Was there some dispute about the centrality or meaning, or even the propriety, of the eucharist? Did John’s sect maintain that Jesus would never say “Take, eat” and so on, since that would imply a literal interpretation of what John’s Jesus insists is merely a spiritual metaphor? This would give John a strong motive for omitting the cannibalistic event that his predecessors had made such a fuss about.
More rough seas ahead in John’s version. Chapter 13 ends with Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s betrayal. Then we get a gargantuan Johannine interlude, chapters 14 through 17 — essentially yet another christological monologue by Jesus (14-16), only this time even more endless, followed by a chapter-length prayer addressed by Jesus to his father (17). After that, in chapter 18, the Passion narrative picks up where it left off, following the prediction about Peter with the story of Judas’ betrayal and the arrest — as if nothing had intervened! Hard not to think that somebody crammed the 14-17 disquisition into the middle of a narrative text that originally didn’t contain it. Either that, or John has carried his patented narrative clumsiness to a climactic extreme.
There are other grounds for seeing different authors at work in 14-17 and elsewhere in John. In Berg’s Bunker I detail the comings and goings of the Greek particles in various parts of the text — mainly oun, kai and de, used to mark coordination, opposition or transition between phrases or sentences — and the possible significance of their presence, absence, or co-existence as clues to multiple authorship. Of course, we can’t infer that different dates are implied by the behavior of the particles, but it seems safe to say that different hands are at work here — something we’ve already intuited when comparing the narratives with the diatribes. I think we can distinguish, say, a more “Hellenized” hand (liberal use of all three particles, as normal in Greek) from a more “Palestinian” hand (using only or primarily kai as an all-purpose connector analogous to the Hebrew/Aramaic waw) — even, on some occasions, a “more” Palestinian from a “less” Palestinian hand.
Through my reading of John, I’ve learned to bite my tongue when the word “interpolation” threatens to intrude — even where the consensus of scholarly opinion weighs in its favor. I’ve learned to imagine an eclectic composer working under the name of “John” who more or less skillfully patches together his source material without radically reworking it. Some of the narrative scenes — like the first meetings with the disciples in Ch. 1, Jezebel at the well, and my favorite, the woman taken in adultery — seem to me extremely early and smack more of reportage than of folklore. On the other hand, I’m suggesting that in 14-17 we have an example of borrowing more or less verbatim from a body of work that could properly be called “The Sayings of Jesus.”
Bill and I have been chatting in his Bunker about the significance of the stylistic differences in Greek between chapters 14-17 and the rest of John. I was at first inclined to explain the differences in the use of particles as a function of direct quotation, where they seem less frequent than in narrative. Maybe. But when I came to the triadic exposition of 16.8 I began to weaken. I haven’t seen anything like this elsewhere in John’s stream-of-consciousness style.
So now I have started asking the “So what?” question. Does it matter if these were stitched into the text by someone other than the author of the main body, or if the whole text is a pastiche of Jesus stuff that was floating around? Would our understanding of Christianity be any different if we dropped 14-17 altogether so that 18.1 followed directly on 13.38? As Rick points out, that does make the narrative flow more smoothly. Would there be any loss? For example, is it only here that we hear of the paraclete, the Holy Spirit, in its role as advisor and protector of Christians once Jesus has disappeared and turns out not to have returned immediately in glory? Without chapters 14-17 there would be little basis in the gospels for the Holy Spirit. True?
Chapter 16 envisions a situation where the followers of Jesus might be “entrapped”. How? Leaders of the synagogues might ask why Jesus had not yet returned in glory after his resurrection. Those who believed Christ was the Messiah might find that a difficult question. Chapters 14-17 provide them with a post-Pentecost answer — that Jesus has sent to us in the meantime, as he promised, a “consoler” who inspires and guides us. If that is correct it would make sense for someone (John himself, or the not-so-inept Bearbeiter) to meld this material into the narrative.
Another possible loss: Sin in the OT is what pollutes, and what removes pollution is ritual purification. True? But starting at 15:3, John’s Jesus has quite a different view of the matter. His disciples are already pure (katharoi, with “already” in emphatic first position). How is this possible? There seem to be two answers — one is “You are in me and so if I am pure you are too; therefore, remain in me.” The other is contained in the grapevine analogy (15:2). The father takes the vine branches that have already borne fruit and kathairei them so they will bear even more. Here kathairei must mean “prune/cut back”. That’s the way you do it; I’ve tried with mixed success. What an interesting idea — purification comes not from ritual but from being pruned, cut back, reduced to just one purpose — bearing fruit and that in turn from the ostensibly simple commandment to love one another.
Yup, I know. Even moderately productive branches in this analogy get thrown into the fire. Ow! Hellfire with no brimstone is bad enough.
But (WHACK!) Jesus had already (13:10-11) pronounced his disciples katharoi (all but one, of course), in close association with the feet-washing ritual, when he hadn’t yet given them the new commandment to love one another. That doesn’t come until 13:34. One more indication, it seems, that ch. 14-17 are out of synch with the surrounding text. Or is the logos of 15:3 not the “new” command to love one another, but rather the earlier, all-encompassing command, “Believe in me”? Does it somehow produce the purgative “washing” effect of baptism as Jesus practiced it by the Jordan in the third chapter of John, where βαπτισμός and καθαρισμός seem to be interchangeable (3:25)?
Finally, do we have to translate kathairein here as “prune”? LSJ offers it as presumably the only possible translation for John 15:2, without citing any parallels; and this of course forces us to translate the adjective in the next verse as “pruned”, which in turn has forced commentators over the centuries into all sorts of acrobatics to try to explain exactly what is going on. (Not ol’ Jerome, though. He don’t care; he blithely translates καθαἰρει as purgat and καθαροί as mundi). Some sort of purification is meant, of course, but does it have to involve a Snipper?
I don’t know of any parallel to katharein in this sense but context seems to demand it, so I am not troubled about it. What does trouble me now is 16:25, where Jesus says that, so far, he has spoken of “these things” in parables (ταῦτα ἐν παροιμίαις) but the hour is coming when instead he’ll speak plainly (παρρησίᾳ). Please tell me what “these things” are and what “parables” means here. He hasn’t been talking recently in parables, unless one counts the analogy to childbirth in 16.21. In fact, the only full-scale παροιμία in John seems to be the business about sheepfolds at the beginning of 10, called a παροιμία in 10.6. Any others?
No wonder the disciples are perplexed (16.29). They are like us. Everything he has been saying in chapters 14-16 seems straightforward enough; even the metaphors are routine. They think it’s all been parrhesia — speech that doesn’t fool around, plain talk that you can reduce a fable or a metaphor to.
WHACK! Wrong again. When Jesus speaks of speech in this way, I get sent back to the drawing board. What if one can’t reduce the metaphors to non-metaphorical language? What if the whole thing has been a grope for non-reductionist language? What if the metaphors are irreducible?
By “the whole thing” I don’t mean just chapters 14 – 17. I mean the whole text, beginning with the “Word” in 1:1 and running through the repertoire of pronouncements that “I am + ____ ” — fill in the blank: light, road, vineyard … It’s all metaphor, trying out one after another, seeking for language to approximate a reality that goes beyond words. Is that “John,” i.e. whoever put this text together, or is it Jesus? Was Jesus searching for metaphors to understand who he was, or to convey that understanding to others, or both?
And where does the metaphorical language stop, if at all? Is the incarnation a metaphor for our flesh-bound brains? Is father/son metaphor? Is pneuma/parakletos metaphor? Is king/messiah metaphor? Is death/resurrection metaphor? Where does one draw the line? WHACK. Should one?
And what, pray tell, would the same things be if told plainly, with parrhesia? The hour is coming; it’s here. So it is time for now-speech, speech without the constant comparison of present to past. It might be very different.
I think John lacks a clear concept of parable, confusing it with metaphor. I argued before that the sheepfold is just a metaphor, not the parable John claims it is. And like you, Bob, I can’t think of any other candidates. Parables are a species of allegory, aren’t they? There’s always a story element, missing in the sheepfold passage. Mark’s sower is a borderline case, close to simile: “The kingdom of heaven is like …” But even that has a kind of storyline. None such in John. Assuming he knew the synoptic parables, he either thought this form of Jesus’ teaching superfluous, or thought his readers wouldn’t understand it, or couldn’t understand it himself (shades of Mark’s outsiders, whom Jesus deliberately flummoxed!).
So the paroimiai John refers to in 16:25 may simply be the metaphors of the mansion with many rooms, which governs chapter 14, and of the true vine, which governs 15. Alternative: 16:25 starts a patch from a source that did recount parables, grafted onto the 14-15 patch from a different source that did not — but this wouldn’t jibe with Bill’s particle count, where 14-17 are a unit.
Excellent suggestion on 16:25, Rick, and thankfully it does jibe. I’ve already suggested that there’s some patchwork within the 14-17 unit, referencing that passage (16:17ff.) specifically, where οὖν again crops up. Then there’s the “false ending” Ἐγείρεσθε, ἄγωμεν ἐντεῦθεν — “Wake up, let’s go!” — at the end of 14. And who knows where 17:3 is coming from — “This is eternal life, that they may know you as the one true God and Jesus Christ, whom you sent” (ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν). A scribal gloss? Nowhere else in the New Testament does Jesus get away with calling himself Christ!
Far as I can tell, Bob, “these things” refers as usual (16:1, 6, etc.) to what’s been said just before, which in this case, give or take an “interpolation” (I prefer “insertion”) or two, is the lore of the parakletos or “spirit of truth.” Your question about speaking in parables (παροιμίαι) has touched a sensitive nerve with bible scholars in the past, many flinging their arms into the air, or just shrugging: “Oh well, all language is metaphor, isn’t it?” I think you’re right to take the high ground here, though I’m finding it hard to catch my breath at the altitude of your exegetical level. Puff, pant.
I’ll give it a try, though: maybe Jesus refers to a time when the Holy Spirit does all the talking, in its own metalanguage, and we’ll understand, and none of us will have to use our own tongues. Communication in the fullest sense. Παρρησία and beyond.
At any rate, it’s hard for me to ignore the absurdity of the disciples’ response starting 16:29: There now, you’re speaking openly, you’re not talking in any metaphor! Now we know that you know all things, and that you have no need for anyone to make a request of you. That proves it: we do believe that you came from God! Of course Jesus hasn’t stopped talking in metaphor; he has only predicted a time when he will stop. How does that prove that he “knows all things,” or that he “came from God”? The poor guys don’t get it, but want him to think they do. We’ve all had students like that. Jesus ignores this and refers only to the faith they’ve just professed: “Are you just now believing?” After all, in this and other religions, as Rick remarks, reason springs from faith, not the other way ’round.
Bob’s deepest question is “What if the metaphors [or parables] are irreducible?” What would the non-metaphorical version of Jesus’ message be like? What, if anything, would be left if they were all translated into parrhesia, plain talk? Would parrhesia be Wittgenstein’s silence in face of that whereof we cannot speak? And/or would it be embodied in action instead of words — the resurrection, the second coming? Or are those actions themselves metaphorical tales, not things that really happened but attempts to image something that did, but that goes beyond words?
I suspect this is more a problem for us than for the evangelists. WE feel the need for some way to take things like the resurrection as metaphorical in an effort to find some sense in which we can believe something ineffable but analogous really happened. I don’t think the ancients felt the constraints of “reality” to be as tight as we do — reality as circumscribed by science — or the line between reality and metaphor to be as sharply drawn. Compare Paul’s “body of Christ”, a metaphor for the community of believers, but maybe not “merely” a metaphor in our sense. For Paul, I’m quite sure, the community really was the body of Christ, in some sense of “really” that our scientistic culture has lost its grip on.
Bob’s Jesus, testing metaphor after metaphor in search of an accurate image, doesn’t sound like John’s. If father/son talk counts as metaphorical, then the umpteen pages of John’s christologizing would be self-consciously so. But I imagine John thought Jesus really was the son, really was the logos, that God really was the father, again in a sense of “really” that we can’t access anymore.
Rick harked back to Anselm: Believe first and then (maybe) understand. I think that is probably the thought frame we are expected to enter. Not easy! As the scripture says somewhere, “It is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a camel than for a high brow to get framed.” Particularly when the camel is parabolic. But eventually, if I am right, the paroimiai give way to parrhesia. Talk without riddles. Is the whole thematic of belief a build up to 20.29, where Jesus says to Thomas, “You saw me; you believed. Blessed are those who believe without having seen.”
Bob, the Thomas story definitely reinforces the theme that those who demand reasons to believe (or in this case empirical evidence) are on a lower spiritual plane than those who don’t. Here Jesus doesn’t explicitly bar them from the fold, as he does when he says that the purpose of parables is to keep them out. Still, there’s an unmistakable put-down. After he offers to let Thomas stick his finger in the wound, and Thomas simply replies “My Lord and my God”, Jesus says “You believe in me because you’ve seen me? (ὅτι ἑώρακάς με πεπίστευκας) Blessed are those who haven’t seen and believe.” (20:29) In other words, “Belief based on evidence isn’t worth much to me. The faith I value is faith in the absence of evidence.” (Bill, do the aorist participles have some nuance my translation misses?)
Like most people, including Christian artists from time immemorial, I’ve always assumed that Thomas went ahead and stuck his finger in. But the text is as clear as can be on this point — he didn’t! Before Jesus appears, Thomas insists to the other disciples that he won’t believe “unless I stick my finger in the nail-holes and stick my hand in his side,” but in fact all it takes to make him a believer is to see Jesus. “My Lord and my God” is an immediate response to Jesus’ words, no finger-probing required. Jesus says “You believe because you’ve seen me”, not “because you’ve touched me.”
Hearing Jesus make the offer also helped, we can assume, but Thomas doesn’t take him up on it. Thomas is just like Mary at the tomb on Easter morning when she mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener. All Jesus has to do is speak and she says “Rabbi”, instantly seeing him for who he is.
There’s artful dramatic irony in the way that Thomas’s adamant refusal to believe without touchy-feely evidence evaporates at the mere sight of the risen Jesus. However, even the need to see with your own eyes is too rationalist a prerequisite to please Jesus. The story works to reassure believers who have no empirical reason to believe that they are specially blessed for not requiring one.
Memorable as the story is, doesn’t it feel concocted? I mean, in order to teach a kind of illustrated lesson to the many who must have balked (and still do) at the resurrection — the most essential yet most incredible article of Christian faith. “Don’t be like Thomas, refusing to believe it just because there’s no physical evidence to show you. Believing without evidence is the spiritually superior state, the road to salvation.”
I’m not denying that it’s an effective fable. It certainly is, and placing it at the very end as the climactic moral of the whole story — if we discount the second ending (more on that anon) — is a masterstroke in a text I’ve so often criticized for its stumble-bum narrative; but partly because it’s such a perfect deal-closer, it does feel like deliberate fiction to me.
“Concocted”, Rick? A put-down, other belittling things? Maybe but what impresses me is that Thomas has the guts to come back with the disciples at a time when nobody knew what might happen next. Followers of Jesus had good reason to be afraid. The easy course was to lie low. But Thomas comes back to the disciples and it is then (not at his initial grammatically emphatic expression of doubt) that Jesus shows him the wounds. So the negative moral is: Don’t be so skeptical. The positive one is: Have the courage to be part of this community. Two sides of the same coin, I guess.
“Concocted” wasn’t meant pejoratively, but in the sense that aetiological myths are concocted — after the fact, to explain something, in this case why belief without rational or empirical justification is far from a foolish thing. I do think there’s a “put-down” of Thomas for demanding evidence, but everything you say about the story is also true. My point was just that it seems deliberately invented for a purpose — as distinct from many other gospel episodes, which may be fictional but arise organically from oral tradition within a community, without anyone consciously making them up.
No nuance really in those aorist participles, Rick, at least none that can be easily conveyed in English. If Jesus had described those who are blessed for believing without seeing as οἱ οὐκ ἰδόντες, we could literally translate “those who haven’t seen”; but that innocent-looking little μὴ, for “not” (instead of οὐκ) removes the temporal frame, takes it out of time and space, generalizes the principle: “Those (whoever, anytime, anywhere) who have not seen and are convinced.”
Help me with one detail. It seems to me that everything in the gospel up to 20:28 aims to show that Jesus is (a) the Messiah, and (b) the son of god. Right? But Thomas’ response when Jesus addresses him is “My lord and my God.” Nothing about sonship. Maybe that was too wishy-washy for no-nonsense Thom? He lays it on the line. Am I right in thinking this is the first time in this gospel (or the others?) that Jesus is declared to be “God,” pure and simple?
Thomas certainly outdoes Mary’s down-to-earth honorific on recognizing Jesus in the garden: “Rabbi.” But his double “my” seems emphatic — “My lord and my God” (ὁ κύριός μου και ὁ θεός μου). Maybe “You are lord and God to me“? Thomas would be acknowledging that, for him as a Christian, Jesus and God are one. His need to stick his finger in the wounds evaporates in the light of the true faith that Jesus’ invitation inspires. Thomas sees the light and no longer needs empirical proof — a dramatic lesson for Christians that faith, to be worthy of the name, must abide without evidence to support it. To invoke father-son christology at this climactic moment might strike the tale-teller as muddying the water.