JOHN 3 – 6: Renegade Rebellion

rick pacific crop 3RICHARD McKIM   1/6/14
I’m having an unexpected reaction to reading John — I don’t like this text! My earlier enthusiasm in our Reading Mark days seems now to have been based almost entirely on the exordium. Reading John straight through is, at this early stage, a decidedly off-putting experience for me.

Bill’s remark on the exchange with Nicodemus helps me understand why: “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.” I feel quite sure they’re right, and I see a similar break at 3:31 — the Baptist’s purported words end at 3:30 and what I take to be the Evangelist’s commentary begins. Sign of the switch in both cases: the sudden supervenience of high-falutin’ father/son talk. And in both cases the preceding dialogue feels complete without the tacked-on exegesis. Is this a pervasive pattern that we should be on guard against throughout? Is the break between recording and glossing always so clean, or is the whole narrative distorted by a dogmatic agenda?

By the end of chapter 4, I feel John’s blowing way too much smoke — a smog of theology that’s getting in the way of my relationship to the Jesus story. Hate to admit it, being a logos fan & all, but at this point I’m preferring Mark’s “decide for yourself” approach. Mark doesn’t tell us what it all means; he just tells the story and lets it work its own way into the reader’s soul. By contrast, John can’t record a simple conversation without force-feeding us the “correct” interpretation.

Aren’t these doctrinaire glosses fodder for the worst sort of believer? For example, John’s tendentious obfuscations in the Nicodemus dialogue about being born again (afresh, anew, from above — makes little difference). I doubt it’s coincidental that John is gospel #1 for modern born-againers of the redneck stripe. THIS is what a Christian should believe — not what those Baptist-followers do, or those pointy-headed liberals.

John the Baptist, Constantinople, c. 1300

John the Baptist, Constantinople, c. 1300

His obsession with denying that the Baptist is the Christ may even serve as an overture to the persecution of heretics. What he has the Baptist say up to 3:30 seems already an inflation of the simple denial of messiah-ship in Mark 1:7-8. But starting 3:31 there’s barely a pretense that the Baptist is speaking at all — instead, the Evangelist beats us over the head with the party line, complete with a my-way-or-the-highway threat of God’s wrath to enforce it. There’s an unpleasant screech of axe-grinding behind his whole portrait of this character.

Next comes the woman at the well (chapter 4). You both hear witty wordplay here — to me the text seems thin ice to support you — but in any event her conversation with Jesus and its upshot seem to me entirely concocted, a manufactured excuse to propound dogma and to prop up John’s blame-the-Jews line on the crucifixion by having non-Jews be the first non-disciples to see the light.

We were often struck by Mark’s free-floating way with chronology, but his ordering of incidents developed an organic portrait of Jesus’ life with a dramatic arc and its own kind of narrative logic. The significance of that life gradually emerged from the story, even for Jesus himself, whose self-awareness seemed to grow in a human way through experience.

By contrast, John’s Jesus is an inhuman know-it-all from the start, and the ordering of events seems rigged to dish out pre-packaged doctrine. The “truth” about Jesus isn’t dramatized as it is in Mark. It doesn’t emerge from the story. Instead, we’re told what the “truth” is before the story’s had a chance to make it manifest. John’s gospel breaks the first rule of good story-telling — don’t say it, show it.

Maybe I’ll settle down as we go along and revert to my old logos-worshiping self. But for now I feel that John’s dogmatism leads him to disrespect a powerful storyline, to front-load his gospel with pretexts for telling us what to think of it in advance. He doesn’t trust the story to speak for itself. He doesn’t even trust Jesus to speak for himself. As a result, I don’t trust John.

I am having a similar reaction to Rick’s — the more I read John the more I appreciate Mark. But every now and then he comes out with a sentence that knocks me off my feet. For example, 3.16 “For God so loved the world …”.  Is that Jesus wasting his wisdom on Nicodemus, the Evangelist extrapolating big-time, or some redactor convinced that assertion ought to be added somewhere? Dunno. But there it is, and I don’t want to do without it. Something similar in 1.14, “and the word became flesh and pitched its tent among us.” Yes!  How to write! And that helps me with the tie between the chatter and the action — the fleshiness of Jesus’ actions, being thirsty, turning water into wine, asking Mr. Withered if he really wants to be healthy.

I find that in Revelation, too, when in the midst of all the psychedelia, Jesus suddenly speaks: “Look, I’m here at the door, knocking. If anyone opens it [anyone: it doesn’t matter who, Jew or gentile, sinner or prig] I’ll come in and we will have supper together.” Yes! What a sentence — down to earth, pure fleshiness. What a promise!  Help me open the damn door; it’s stuck. Hurry!

So on I go gold-panning. Every now and then there’s a 24k nugget that’s good enough for me. And so I keep trying.

bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG  
Good scribe-spotting at 3:31, Rick! I think you’re right about the break there. And yes, these exegetical breaks seem to come up throughout the gospel, starting with those I thought I saw in the exordium. There, I seemed to hear the voices of several commentators. Was the whole gospel a communal effort by a bunch of extremists working around a narrative core?  The text is a compositional mess, no doubt about it, but still fascinating to me. Its scope and purpose seem so different from that of the synoptics; those evangelists concentrate on expanding, condensing, and providing a libretto to a central mythos (IMHO a Pauline mythos), while John’s mission seems to be to preach a logos — one that lives in a universe entirely separate from Paul’s.

As for John’s my-way-or-the-highway axe-grinding — Would that have anything to do with the fact that Luther thought John was the only evangelist worth reading?

Jesus and the woman at the well, Duccio, 14th C

Jesus and the woman at the well, Duccio, 14th C

You say the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is concocted, but I can’t help seeing some fun flowing along in their Greek, in the disciples’ dull-witted take on it, and in Jesus’ response to them, too.  It all seems too human and natural to be concocted. This episode seems to be part of the core rather than of the commentary.

CONNOR   1/9/14
I’m in Chapter 6 but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Maybe it was an illusion, but when I read Mark I kept thinking “You can understand this text; its logic is one you are familiar with.” And finally I put together what I was seeing and was pleased (more or less) with the result. But when I read John I don’t see any logic at all, no real structure, no way to relate to a lot of Jesus’ rants.

I liked Mark’s self-effacement. It added to the power of the narrative. Yup, “negative authority.” But here, every time I read “disciples” in John’s text, I think, “John, you are one of them. Tell me about it. How did you get called? What was it like to be near this man? He loved you. What was that like? (And how could he possibly have found something lovable there?) Can either of you help me out of this slough of despair?

Bob, I’m afraid this message will only sink you deeper in Bunyan’s bog!

Starting 4:46 we get a couple of healings — Jesus finally doing something for somebody else rather than just going on about himself — but John uses them as yet another launch-pad for father/son theologizing. Jesus heals the cripple by the pool and the Jewish poobahs, true to form, object that he has violated the sabbath. Even the poor cripple gets castigated for working on the day of rest by carrying his bed. So far so good — there’s a similar incident or two in Mark, though John seems oblivious to Mark’s main point, namely Jesus’ rejoinder about the crabbed absurdity of refusing to do good because of the day of the week.

Instead of drawing this trenchant moral lesson, John’s Jesus treats us to a long-winded disquisition on his own divine authority as God’s son. This is Jesus the know-it-all, born with full awareness of his divine nature, no human learning curve required.

John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci, 16thC

John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci, 16thC

But of course it isn’t Jesus talking at all, it’s John the Dogmatist. Accordingly, he can’t get through his spiel without taking another extended swipe at followers of the Baptist (5:31-44). “You asked John and he told you that I’m the messiah, not he, but I don’t need a mere mortal like him to tell me who I am — I get it straight from Dad. You benighted mortals need a messenger boy like John because you can’t hear God, but I can.” He even adds “I’m telling you this to save your souls” (5:34). How holier-than-thou can thou get?

Attributing this egotism to Jesus leads the Evangelist straight into an absurdity of his own when he has Jesus say: “If I bore witness to myself, then that witness would be false. But someone else [the Baptist] bore witness to me, and I just happen to know [thanks to Dad] that what the Baptist says of me is true” (5:31-34, loosely).  But John’s Jesus IS bearing witness to himself in the very act of saying this. A well deserved fiasco of illogic from our dogma-addled author.

This passage is from a full-fledged sermon of Jesus, in public, in the temple precinct.  The other evangelists give us snatches of public preaching, mostly parables, and almost nothing in the temple. If there was such a person as Jesus, is it so hard to think that, when he preached in the temple, he sounded like John 5:19-5:47?

CONNOR   1/11/14
Can we sing our way out of the slough? In 5:41-45, for example, one of those extended Jesus lectures we’re struggling with, perhaps he’s composing verbal music rather than expounding rational doctrine. Various forms of certain Greek words (δόξα, δοκέω, λαμβάνω, ἔρχομαι, ὄνομα) keep recurring in what seem like melodic patterns, ascending or descending series of notes — ABCBA, ABCDEDECA, and so on. Rick, can you whistle or hum them or set them to music?

Maybe my trouble is “log-ism” — that is, putting the word before the music, the libretto above the score. The narrative/discursive flow of language works in familiar ways in Mark, but in John it may be subordinated to these echoing word-patterns. So in a passage like Jesus’ self-revelation in chapter 5 verses it’s the arrangement of sound, not the sequence of thought, that counts. There is no logic, but there may be music, or a mosaic… Maybe. SING ALONG WITH JOHN!

McKIM   1/12/14
Bob, I can agree that there’s an incantatory quality to the prose, but I don’t see how this obviates or supercedes the discursive meaning of what Jesus is presented as saying. I’m way past looking for logic in John, but how can we deny the primacy of logos, the meaning of what he has Jesus say? After all, these logoi are allegedly spoken by the guy whom John himself calls the Logos! What is this Jesus doing if he’s not trying to verbalize the Logos that is himself?

Granted, human words are inadequate to the task, and perhaps there’s a music here that tries to compensate for that by invoking a mystical meaning beyond what any words can say. That’s the charitable view, and I admire you for trying to find a way to adopt it. But I suspect that what music there is merely serves to drive home the dogma. No rational argument can support John’s christology, so he reinforces it instead with the emotional power of chant. But it’s still the dogma, the logos, that he’s driving home. And that involves creating an inhuman Jesus whose primary mission is not to inspire a transformative vision of who we are, but to insist upon a certain logos-based conception of who he is.

To take one of your verbal patterns, let’s tune in to the “music” of doxa and dokein in 5:39-47. This lecture, addressed to hostile Jewish religious officials, is part of the massive christological disquisition that John tacks on to the healing at the pool. Doxa is traditionally translated “glory” throughout the NT. But the classical “belief” or “opinion”, how things appear to you, makes more sense here, especially given Jesus’ repeated use of the verb dokein (to think, suppose, believe) in the same neighborhood. A stab at translation, using a mix of words for doxa to bring out its various aspects:

“You search the scriptures because you think [dokein] they hold eternal life, and those very texts bear witness to me. Yet you don’t want to come to me so you can have that life. I don’t adopt my point of view [doxa] from men, because I know [ἀλλὰ ἔγνωκα] that you don’t have the love of God in you. I’m the one who has come in the name of my father, and you don’t accept me. But if somebody else [the Baptist?] comes [merely] in his own name, him you’ll accept. How can you possibly have faith when you adopt your beliefs [doxa] from each other and don’t seek the perspective [doxa] that comes from God alone? Don’t suppose [dokein] that I’m the one who’ll accuse you in front of [pros!!] my father. Your accuser is Moses, in whom you’ve placed your hopes. For if you [really] had faith in Moses, you’d have faith in me. After all, I’m the one he wrote about. So if you don’t have faith in what he wrote, how will you have faith in what I say?”

Is it unfair to hear a note of petulance in Jesus’ words here (not for the first time in John), music or no? And to suspect that this note is sung not in Jesus’ voice but in John’s own?

John’s Jesus is so … self-centered. In Mark, when Jesus disputes with the Jews, there’s always some vital moral issue at stake, and Jesus argues for overturning or revising the Law for everyone’s moral betterment. In John, all he cares about is what the Jews think of him.

Why should I care whether he’s the son of God or not? To ask a very Connor-ish question, what difference would this belief make to how I live my mortal life? John doesn’t bother answering. He doesn’t (yet) offer any moral or spiritual reasons why believing he’s the son of God is so all-fired important — apart from the selfish desire for eternal life that he attributes to everybody, and for which right belief about him is a prerequisite.

Bill cited Luther’s contention that John is the only gospel worth reading, and I’m beginning to see why Luther thought that. For him as for John, how you live, what you do, has no bearing on your salvation. All that matters is what you believe — having the right doxa. That’s all God and his self-obsessed son care about. Reading John is upsetting my whole half-baked pro-Luther Weltanschauung!

So, no, I don’t think the music, such as it is, makes that much difference. The petulance of John’s Jesus, the carping, is still there. And I still don’t like him.

BERG   1/13/14
Whether it’s music or just skilful alliteration, I’m grateful to both of you for pointing out the assonance in that sermon/rant in chapter 5. It doesn’t, however, make it less painful for me to read, though I suspect for different reasons than in Rick’s case.

I once had a friend who talked just like that. Severely paranoid/schizophrenic, he, too, was the world’s unacknowledged savior, with a father who lived on a planet 12,000 light-years away. His mission on earth had been thwarted by demons who interfered with the workings of his “spirit.” Kings and commoners conspired sleeplessly to prevent the fulfillment of his will and the establishment of his kingdom, where justice could be served through the condemnation of thousands of unrighteous non-believers (in him). But let me not forget to mention that he performed not a single miracle, and is now under constant surveillance in a state hospital.

Big difference in John 5 & 6.  Each “rant” follows an amazingly undramatic miracle. The first, the healing of the paralytic, is accompanied by breathtakingly savvy dialogue: “Hey, do you really want to get well?” “Mister, I been lyin’ here by the pool man and boy, and ever’ blessit time thet angel comes, some fool beats me to the water.  It ain’t my fault, see?” So no, he doesn’t really want to get well. The response, in the imperative: “Get the hell up and out of here!  And take the damn cot with you!” Voices from the crowd: “C’mon back, Earl!  Who told you to do that now?  Don’t you know it’s the Sabbath?” “You’ll be sorry, Earl! What’ll you do tomorrow?” Smothered guffaws.

Loaves and fishes miracle, Magdeburg ivories, 10th C

Loaves and fishes miracle, Magdeburg ivories, 10th C

And the second miracle: a smooth-flowing version of the loaves-and-fishes story, told just once, before it’s yet had a chance to be itself multiplied. But this time it’s not about the “leaven of the Pharisees,” but about bread itself, or should we say bread himself, and the message is really startling. John (or whoever composed this section) has Jesus challenging the crowd to believe that he’s “the bread from heaven,” while challenging us to believe that this logos has entirely to do with spiritual things (6:63). It’s not about eating bread, it’s not about eating me, it’s about the essence of life itself. That’s who I am. And I’m reminded of Gandhi’s remark that if God were ever to appear to humans, it would be in the form of food.

Are we ready yet to entertain the notion that there may be more than one author here — at least one for the mythos, and at least another for the logos? And if that’s really the case, which of them, if any, knew Jesus? Or is there still only one hand at work? In this connection, there are some surprises to come.

McKIM   1/14/14
I’ve now read through chapter 6, illuminated by Bill’s commentary. The family resemblance to schizoid raving is indeed disturbing, but also applies to passages in Mark like my favorite, the apocalyptic prophecy in Mark 13. I’m not sure the miracles in John establish the “big difference” you claim for them, Bill. The healing at the pool is, to use your word, undramatic, easily accounted for in a rationalist, psychological way as “faith healing”. The healing-at-a-distance of the royal official’s son (4:46-54) — cured in Capernaum at the very moment that Jesus, who’s in Cana, pronounces him cured — is of a different order, not to mention the feeding of the thousands. But unless we’re ready to revert to believing in magic, such folkloric elements of the Jesus story aren’t enough in themselves to prove he’s any different from the guy who thinks he’s Napoleon.

If there is a big difference, I think it can only arise from one of two considerations: (1) that Jesus’ 1st-century Jewish cultural milieu renders messianic self-exaltation compatible with sanity, whereas our culture does not; or (2) that what John’s Jesus claims about himself is somehow rooted in truth, whereas the raving of his latter-day emulators is not.

Here I want to underline a self-contradiction in my own response to John so far. While reading Mark, I was the trumpeter for the Lutheran/Calvinist strain in Jesus’ preaching, insisting that the heart of his message was not moral precepts but the saving power of belief in him — justification by faith alone. “Eschatology trumps morality,” I wrote with enthusiasm. Now, reading John, whose Jesus is much more single-mindedly devoted to the all-importance of right belief about himself, I’m reacting in the opposite way, repulsed by his self-obsession, complaining that his message lacks a moral dimension! What’s happened to me??

I’m not quite ready to give up on the notion that this apparent about-face is John’s fault, that he rightly seizes on the centrality of justification by faith but then somehow runs off the rails with it.

Take the crowd-feeding miracle, for instance. Bill, you call John’s account “smooth-flowing”, but it contains a characteristically jarring note absent from Mark. When Jesus asks the disciples “How are we going to feed all these people?”, John editorializes: “He said this just to test them, for he knew exactly what he was going to do.” Mark never (I think) pretends to get inside Jesus’ head like this, certainly not in this story. What Jesus is thinking remains a mystery. We can sometimes imagine his thoughts and feelings based on his words or behavior, but Mark is not the omniscient narrator that John presumes to be, with x-ray vision into Jesus’ mind.

Jesus walks on water, Master of Cabestany, France, 12th C

Jesus walks on water, Master of Cabestany, France, 12th C

Next, walking on water. In Mark, Jesus comes on board the ship, tells the disciples to calm down and makes the storm subside, but they’re still frightened of him, as if seeing a ghost, “for they hadn’t understood about the loaves and their hearts were impenetrable.” Contrast John: they’re frightened to see Jesus on the water, all right, but when he says “don’t be afraid” they just “want to take him on board” and the ship is immediately teleported to its destination, abracadabra style. In Mark, we’re left to suppose that the ship made its way to port in the normal way.

Surely here it’s not that Mark has omitted the magic moment, but that John has tacked it on, much to the story’s detriment. Likewise, John’s omission of the disciples’ obtusely persistent terror sucks all the drama out of the episode in order to inflate Jesus’ supernatural powers with a clumsy embellishment. John’s interest is dogma, not drama. He hurries past the story to get to the disquisition that it’s an excuse for.

Thus, having whisked the boat ashore, John has Jesus launch into yet another interminable excursus on father/son christology, spelling out his divine bread-of-life nature as the lesson of the loaves. In Mark we’re left to wonder what it is about Jesus that the disciples just don’t get, and the only “explanation” Jesus offers for the feeding miracle comes in the enigmatic form of a brief parable, equally opaque to the hard of heart.

It’s John’s insistence on spelling everything out that I find so off-putting. He manages to kill the spirit of the justification-by-faith-alone message in the very act of expounding it. His exposition is so verbose and doctrinaire that it smothers the Logos in logoi, and no amount of music can resuscitate it.

Bill, I don’t see the need for a two-authors theory to account for this. What it does suggest to me is what most people have concluded, that John is writing later — when the earlier synoptic mysterianism of Mark is getting beaten to death by the (inevitable?) emergence over time of factional squabbling about the “right” way to interpret Jesus’ life (and the Baptist’s). John puts his faction’s dogma into Jesus’ own mouth in an effort to manufacture authority for it. This is the sound of axe-grinding I beefed about earlier, and a major reason why a message that was so powerful in Mark becomes so tiresome here.

CONNOR   1/15/14
Rick, I agree that what counts is the meaning of the text. But since I am pretty dogmatic that meaning cannot be abstracted from structure and style, I want to understand that stuff too, maybe even first. And I keep seeing a pattern of using the recurrence of main theme-words. One function of John’s first two verses (1:1-2), with its counterpoint repetition of logos and theos, Word and God, may be to cue the reader in to how I, John, am going to write.

This doesn’t seem to me the usual ring-composition found in both classical texts and the OT, but the arrangement of theme-words in a configuration not dependent on either narrative or argumentation. John can segue from this to a discussion of John B. and then go right back to logos (1:14) but now in a new way. This logos was created / made / became flesh (σάρξ).  A simple assertion, no argument, no here’s how it happened (“and the angel of the Lord came unto Mary saying Ave Maria”). No explanations, no narrative.

And — could this be right? — that’s the end of logos as a theme-word in this gospel!  Now we have Jesus in the flesh, talking of course, but also acting, doing things, though we readers know what’s behind those externals. Once the reader has his chance to get it, John moves on. Hey, wait for me. I’m not there yet!

Why would anyone write this way? I don’t like it one bit, but suppose John thought along these lines: “Look, the issue is not what came first and what came next. I’m not writing a narrative, or a theological tract about why you ought to entrust your life to this Jesus. I’m not even making a big deal out of fulfillment of OT scripture. I’m just telling you the good news — that this Jesus was God Incarnate, not to mention the Jews’ Messiah. The ball’s in your court. Do you trust (πιστεύεις) [not me but] this man?”

That puts it on the line, doesn’t it? It sure doesn’t make it easy.

McKIM   1/15/14
Bob, sorry to be obtuse, but I can’t see how any of this addresses my (and your?) objection to John’s text. The complaint isn’t that there are flaws in some logical argument he’s making. He’s not writing or thinking logically at all. Nor am I complaining about the absence of logic. It’s fine with me that there’s no logical justification for faith — that’s why it’s faith! Mark is no paragon of logic, and who cares?

But the fact that John writes in a non-linear, non-logical way doesn’t change the fact that, for me at least, the resulting portrait of Jesus is profoundly unappealing. Yes, John’s style is non-narrative as well, no question — he sacrifices narrative to dogma. But no matter how musically the dogma is expressed, the question remains whether the sacrifice can be justified. Except as factional propaganda, my answer so far is no.

Bob, you say that “meaning cannot be abstracted from structure and style”. I totally agree, but let’s suppose I’m guilty of such abstraction, that my unfavorable impression of John is due to my neglect of style and structure. Please explain to me how, exactly, “the meaning of the text” would change if I didn’t abstract it.

In the end you seem to encapsulate John’s non-abstracted meaning this way: “I am just telling you the good news, that this Jesus was God Incarnate, not to mention the Jews’ Messiah. The ball’s in your court. Do you trust (πιστεύεις) [not me but] this man?

There’s the rub. First, just “telling the good news” — bare dogma — doesn’t work in the vacuum John creates by obscuring the narrative of the life that embodied the news. Second, as I’ve said, I don’t believe for a minute that Jesus made those dogmatic speeches. That’s John talking. If, as you suggest, he’s asking “Do you trust, not me, but this man?”, then he’s being disingenuous. In John’s case, “this man” is in reality himself, not Jesus. This Jesus, when John purports to be quoting him, is John. So if John’s asking me that question, my answer is “I don’t know whether to trust Jesus or not, because you’re too busy blocking my view of him.”

I know, I know. The musicality doesn’t answer the big question, but it’s the only step forward I can take at this point. Forward to what? All I can hope for is to find some perch from which I can say, “Look, John, your stuff is definitely not ‘appealing,’ to use Rick’s word. Not in the slightest. I have the same problem as he does in accepting these rants as what Jesus said. But I am going to keep trying to get to the point where I can understand better what the hell you thought you were doing.” Something more than gold-panning. I’m going to keep trying.

Jesus preaching, Amiens Cathedral, 13th C

Jesus preaching, Amiens Cathedral, 13th C

Rick, you’ve shaken mightily my idea that John is the earliest evangelist. The logoi, the rants, certainly smack of late factionalist propaganda. I’m not, however, entirely relinquishing my original hypothesis of a different author for the narrative sections. I feel those precious paragraphs have been taken over and used throughout the gospel as flimsy pretexts for the dogma, as you say, which ultimately swamped the narrative. The rants often intrude as wholly non-germane to the narrative topics. Take the healing of the lifelong professional cripple, for example. The Judaeans complain that his healing is an abuse of the Sabbath.  The “hinge” verse is 5:17: Jesus gave them an answer: “My father keeps on doing his work right up to this moment, and so do I!” This introduces and enables the long papathon that follows, which is not really relevant to what’s happened.

The narrative itself, by contrast, is so full of human reality that it sounds like actual reportage.  Like the first encounter with the disciples, and Jesus’ put-down of his mother which she takes as a “yes,” and the floozie at Jacob’s well, it shows people interacting “the way damn people are” (John Irving), even with a touch of humor. And the people are large as life, moving and talking naturally, not like the stylized puppets of Mark. We’ll catch more glimpses of Jesus himself like that, logos-less, as in the “woman taken in adultery” episode.

So I can’t tear myself away from the idea that these are the earliest records we have — in other words, that these could actually have been written by a disciple who “held the logos in his arms” (1 John:1). There are, it now seems to me, clear breaks in style, in atmosphere, in purpose, and in time and authorship between the narratives and the rants. The narratives are about flesh and blood people. Then, abruptly, the Flesh becomes Word.

Bob, I’m intrigued with your perception of patterns of verbal resonance in the logoi, and I’m beginning to wonder if they don’t reflect a style made traditional by the Old Testament. There are, in fact, already repetitions and assonance in Genesis 1:1ff. — recurrent words like ἀρχῆ, θεός, φῶς, γῆ — which in the Septuagint version might have set a formal and stylistic precedent for John’s exordium. John might also share this incantatory quality with some of the Psalms. A few examples at random start at Psalms 112:1, 113:8, 122:1.

CONNOR   1/16/14
Bill is helping me relax. Maybe I should lay back and enjoy the narrative bits, and wallow in the (yes, OT-style!) verbal play. But right at this moment I’m on chapter 6 about Jesus as the bread of life etc.

When it turns out I don’t like a book I put it down. Life is short, bookshelves long. But here we are reading John, whom none of us (except Bill?) likes. What a good thing! Or at least a change of pace from the best-seller list, or from showing off our skill in making an intractable classical text into something smart and up-to-date. Good to keep going, but how? Maybe the only way to keep reading this thing is to humiliate oneself. Bob, get down from your high lit-critical horse and wallow in what you think might just be muck. Don’t assume you’re smarter than John is, even if he’s not the disciple Jesus loved, even if his hands, like those of the blinded Cyclops, didn’t grope  (ἐψηλάφησαν) in the dark for the incarnate Word so near to him and yet so far away. (Great passage from 1 John 1, thank you Bill!)

I try thinking of the evangelists as filters, each filtering out some of what Jesus said and did, and letting other things through. But that makes things worse. John seems to filter out everything I like most, not least the Great Simplification: “Thou shalt love the lord thy God … and thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Amen. That’s sweet.

John filters that out and lets through something more bitter. Christian morality is not enough. It doesn’t even figure in. In 6.28 the crowd is ready for it. They ask my question for me, “What should we do to work the work of God?” (Jesus has set them up for the question by his strange use of ἐργάζεσθε in 6:27, where we’d expect “Watch” or “Stand guard” as in Mark 13. But his reply, once again, eclipses ethics with belief (πίστις) — “This is the work of God (ἔργον τοῦ θεοῦ): that you should trust in the one he sent.” Namely, me.

The episode 6:24-59 is divided into four sections, marked by the repetition of the formula amen, amen at its beginning. Jesus is going to tell them the truth about that feeling of fullness they had when the 5,000 were fed, but he will do it in stages of progressive difficulty and increasing provocation, in each of the first three cases provoking a response from his listeners. This makes a dialogue out of what would otherwise have been an uninterrupted sermon. But Jesus has the last, perplexing, stunning word.

The first stage, 26-31, is the provocation about action (erga: work/deeds). Jesus tells those who have followed him ἐργάζεσθε, “Act!”, on the basis of bread that lasts. They say they’re ready to be put to work, but Jesus rebuffs that impulse. They need to trust him and his big claims first.

My friends in the crowd express my disappointment and outrage for me. They hiss their disappointment  — ποιεῖς σὺ σημεῖον … πιστεύσωμεν σοι (6:30). “Why should we believe in you, entrust you with our lives?” Moses (who last appeared in the lecture to Nicodemus) returns to be thrown in Jesus’ face. “Moses gave us bread from heaven. Top that, wonder-worker!” They’re mad, understandably so, maybe even ready to rip him limb from limb and spill his blood on the sand.

In the second stage, 32–46, Jesus claims “I am the true bread of life,” contrasting this form of nourishment with the physical manna of Moses. That provokes grumbling (ἐγόγγυζον 41) among those who hear him; after all, they think,  this is just the son of Joseph, whom we all know. Jesus says “Don’t grumble” (μὴ γογγύζετε 43) and calls attention to Isaiah 54:13 — “All your sons shall be taught by the Lord” (45) — implying that even a carpenter’s son might have  some wisdom from on high. But Jesus won’t stop there. Anyone who listens to God will come to him.

The third section, 47–59, shows the same rhythm, a reassertion by Jesus of his claim that he is the bread of life, but now with a shocking addendum. Yes, you must eat that bread if you want eternal life, and the bread is my flesh (ἡ σάρξ μού 51), given for the whole world. That provokes not just grumbling but open conflict (ἐμάχοντο 52). Jesus intervenes (53) in the dispute with his fourth amen, amen, carrying his assertion one step further. It’s worse than they think. It’s not just that the bread with which he has fed the thousands really sticks to your stomach. It’s not that hanging out with Jesus makes you a better person, nicer to your neighbor, thanks to spiritual nourishment. The trust (πίστις) that Jesus demands is of a totally different order. You must not only eat my flesh; you must drink my blood (56). If you do, I will stay with you and you with me, and you will live forever — even though I’ve given you no clue yet how you could possibly do that, short of literal cannibalism.

Silence. For οnce there is no response from his listeners. How could there be?

I don’t like this text. Why do I keep reading it?  Why do I find that every now and then it sends a chill down my spine?

The Great Simplification is what the epistle 1 John is all about. Patience, friends! By the time we get to having our feet washed, I hope I won’t appear such a black sheep. As for cannibalism, check out Jesus’ words at 6:63: It’s the spirit that makes things alive. The flesh is no help at all. What I’ve just told you about is spirit, it’s life!

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4 thoughts on “JOHN 3 – 6: Renegade Rebellion”

  1. I’m thoroughly amused by the intensity with which you all seem to detest John. It would be helpful to ask why it is that Luther and many others have even loved John the most of all the gospels. It surely wasn’t that they loved “dogma” so much. Luther thought it was the most “spiritual” gospel. I think he and others actually love the high christology, the transparency of the incarnation, the unqualified certainty that this Jesus is God manifest, the identification of John’s God with love, and the suggestion of a community of love resting in the arms of that God.

    It appears that you, by contrast, prefer a relatively low christology, a wholly human Jesus who struggles like all other humans and calls his brothers and sisters to a morality that is both challenging and inspiring. You want a modest moral teacher, not a smug, arrogant, self-aggrandizing poseur. But what if John’s Jesus is the exemplification of John’s faith, not a realistic portrait of the man, but a mythic evocation of the divine made man (the Logos become flesh)? Then the crucifixion is not an agonizing depth, but, as John conceives it, a moment of glorification, of victory over death. Jesus is not a helpless victim buffeted by malignant forces beyond his control, but the master who dispassionately controls everything (though it is to be remembered that it is in John that Jesus is said to have wept!).

    I also find the long “rants” (NT scholars usually call them “discourses.”) tediously repetitious. And I enjoy more the narratives, which can at times come across as quite vivid and witty. But I think you are right to use musical metaphors to understand John. I myself think of John’s gospel as something like a Wagnerian opera, with a mystical cosmic prelude (prologue), lengthy arias, and repetitious motifs, also ponderous, perhaps even pompous, yet elevating if one allows oneself to be swept along by its language and its drama.

    John clearly lacks the verisimilitude of the synoptics, and especially of Mark. Which is not to say that the synoptics are any more accurate of the facts “as they really happened” than John. Bob has written thoughtfully about that issue in Thucydides. I myself don’t believe Jesus actually ever said much of anything attributed to him in John (Who would have sat there and recorded Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus or the “floozie” at the well?) No, we are seeing a Jesus through the lens of John’s very late 1st century faith and, of course, from the vantage of whatever issues were besetting the Johannine community at that time, to which this gospel would have been intended as his apposite response.

    • Thanks for this, Gary. You’re right that John’s Jesus is “not a realistic portrait of the man but a mythic evocation of Logos become flesh”. The problem is this: if God (or the Logos) really became a human being, he did so to experience what life is like for us, to share in our suffering, to take upon himself the burden of mortality and know what it’s like to die. I take this notion to be Christianity’s central faith. But if so, then he wouldn’t (in his human incarnation) KNOW that he was divine. If he did, his humanity would be a sham. He’d just be wearing a disguise — and he certainly couldn’t suffer as we do, because he’d know all along that he was immortal and above it all.

      So John’s “mythic evocation” of Jesus as a self-consciously divine know-it-all runs profoundly counter to Jesus’ mission as Logos made flesh. Yes, John’s trying to convey to us the true nature of Jesus, not pretending to report historical facts — but by putting his christology into Jesus’ own mouth, John turns him into a sham human being and obscures the whole point of the incarnation he wants us to believe in. At least, that’s my impression by the end of chapter 6.

      As for Luther, I suspect his love of John’s gospel is indeed a love of its dogma — namely, justification by faith, which John hammers home with an obsessive passion to match Luther’s own. But it’s one thing for Luther to propound that dogma, quite another to make Jesus himself do it. And if Luther or anyone else loves John for presenting God as Love, or for presenting the Christian community as bound by love — well, a reader of the first six chapters can be forgiven for being baffled as to why. John certainly hasn’t yet done anything of the kind. RM

      • I want to be clear, Rick, that I am enjoying the colorful invective heaped on John, which reflects feelings I’ve often had about the gospel as well. What you say about the diminishment of Jesus’ humanity in John is spot on and has been a point of controversy among Christians for centuries. John’s theology has often been labeled docetic or gnostic, i.e. heretical, as a result. And defenders have been at pains to explain away these criticisms.

        One could say that the more naturalistic portrayal of Jesus in the synoptics reflects the uncertainty among the earliest followers of Jesus about how to frame the arrest and execution of their leader, how to understand the meaning of his short life. The trust that a risen Jesus was going to return within the lifetimes of the followers, a belief we find in Paul that helps to explain the “interim ethic” we find in his letters, began to ebb as the first generation of believers began to die. The impetus to begin writing gospels may have come from this recognition that Jesus’ return was not immanent. The return was pushed further back within the synoptics themselves so that Luke has sometimes been called the gospel for the long haul.

        John comes on the scene even later, reflecting further developments in christology as Jesus’ humanity began to give way to a focus on his divinity. John pushes the divinity at the expense of Jesus’ humanity. So we have to ask why was this attractive to his readers? We live in an era that gravitates toward Jesus’ humanity, sometimes toward a chummy familiarity–Jesus the guy I could guzzle beers with while watching the Super Bowl. But John’s personal faith and the needs of his community resonated with a heightened focus on divinity. Why?

        One can guess this was a community in peril, under threat, facing persecution. Apparently it was reassuring to this community to conceive of Jesus as the manifestation of God, strong, assured, confident, able to fix things. He expends no effort getting good things to happen. You need wine? No problem. Just start pouring from these monstrous water jugs. He doesn’t even have to say anything, let alone perform any sleight-of-hand to set things right. This guy isn’t some troubled searcher; he is the master of all he surveys. He is GOD! Our leader is GOD! That, I guess, is a comfort to anyone facing possible torture and death.

        Funny, I don’t think of justification by faith as dogma. For Luther it was a very personal experience of acceptance by God. The full formula is actually “justification by grace through faith.” It was not intended to hold that faith was some sort of requirement for salvation. Making faith a requirement was denounced as fideism, turning faith into a “work.” The point was that one could not earn God’s love, but, even more, one had no need to earn God’s love because the love was already there. God’s love was seen as unconditional and unmediated by anything humans might imagine they had to do to obtain it. It was free, gratis. Faith was not a work, but a relationship in which humans could appropriate or experience for themselves the love God has for them whether or not they recognize it.

        Obviously there are passages in John that seem to conflict with this interpretation. But I think Luther focussed in John on passages that supported the posture I’m describing here. So John’s gospel was not about a remarkable human being or even a godly human. It’s a human enactment of the nature of God.

  2. This is really helpful, Gary. You offer a vivid historical scenario to explain why John writes as he does, illuminating the road ahead for all of us, I think. I’m especially grateful for your clarification of Luther’s take on faith and grace. I suspect that my affection for his darker, Augustinian side — the deep doctrine of original sin & all that — misled me into a kind of fideism, making faith into a work, of which I’m happy to be disabused.

    Funny, I still think of Luther’s view as dogma, but I don’t mean anything negative by that. Wealth of dogma, and of dogmatic controversy, is one of my favorite things about the Christian tradition — the insistence that faith involves a boatload of complex, rationally perplexing content (the Incarnation, Trinitarianism, transubstantiation or not, grace itself …), not just some vague, all-too-comforting notion of God as a benevolent whatever, of Jesus as a very wise man who was kind to children and sparrows. To me, Luther’s a proud pillar of that tradition.

    Any religion worth believing should be hard to believe — and Christian dogma does a bang-up job on that score! By contrast, mainline Protestant churches today try to shepherd their dwindling flock by making the faith seem as comfortable, as content-free, as possible — as if you can be a Christian without believing anything in particular. Maybe that’s one reason the flock keeps dwindling. Better a wishy-washy Unitarian than a bible-belting troglodyte, of course, but I was raised Anglican & so keep searching for some middle way.

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