JOHN 6 – 8: From Abraham to Zen


W. ROBERT CONNOR   1/20/14
I’m struck by the skandalon of Jesus’ disquisition on eating his flesh and drinking his blood at 6:55-58. His followers find it a hard and bitter pill to swallow (σκληρός λόγος). Jesus asks them if they’re “scandalized” (τοῦτο ὑμᾶς σκανδαλίζει; 6:61) — “Do you take offense at this?” (RSV), or more literally, “Does it make you stumble?” But a skandalon is not merely an inadvertently offensive remark or a stumbling-block that accidentally trips you up. It’s a trap, laid for the unwary. That’s how it’s used in classical Greek and in most  New Testament passages, as LSJ indicates. Even in Matthew 18 and Luke 17, the passages commonly cited in support of the “stumbling block”  translation, it is by no means clear that the gospel writers think the word meant anything other than entrapment. So is Jesus saying, “Did I catch you in a trap?”

This well paralleled translation can’t possibly be right here, can it? Traps don’t just happen. Someone sets them. Could John be indicating that Jesus deliberately, craftily, sets a trap for his followers? That’s hard to accept, but there is a partial parallel for this in John 6.5-6 when Jesus asks Philip where they will buy bread to feed the crowd that has gathered. “This he did as a test (πειράζων αὐτόν), for he himself knew what he was about to do.” In other words Jesus, in John’s view, wanted to see if Philip would take the bait, and assume it was all a question of money. He does, calculating that 200 denarii wouldn’t buy enough bread for even a snack for so many. Bad answer, Philip. Andreas comes through better. This is what we have; let’s work with that. That’s not the end of the road for Philip, but it does show a side of Jesus, as he appeared to John — hard, probing, testing. And perhaps not beyond setting a trap now and then.

rick pacific crop 3RICHARD McKIM
In context, I think the direct English derivative from σκανδαλίζειν makes good sense here: “Do you find it scandalous [that I talk of eating my flesh and drinking my blood]?” — just as we might call an exhortation to cannibalism scandalous. Thus the disciples find it “unbearable to hear” (τίς δύναται αὐτοῦ ἀκούειν;). The stumbling-block metaphor approximates the idea. What would a “trap” set by Jesus amount to? That he lures them into thinking he means literal cannibalism? What would the point of such a trap be? Seems to me he’s merely saying “You find my words scandalous because you’re taking me too literally.” That’s why he follows up by saying “The spirit (πνεῦμα) is the life-maker; the flesh is no help at all. What I’ve said to you is spirit and life.” In other words, “I don’t mean ‘eat my flesh’ literally (you idiots!).”

A stumbling block indeed, this passage, for the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation!

How does the trap work?  There’s a clue, I think, in a recurring verbal pattern in this gospel. The Holy Man speaks in paradoxes, asserting things that seem quite impossible, often introducing them by a repeated “amen”.  The response comes in the form “How can that be?” That’s what Nicodemus says in 3:4 when Jesus says that no one can (δύναται) see the kingdom of God unless he is born anothen, anew or from above. Nicodemus asks the obvious question, with a personal interest, “How can a man (πῶς δὐναται) be born when he is already old?” Nicodemus emphasizes the impossibility: “It’s by no means possible (emphatic μἠ rather than οὐ, plus δύναται again 3:5) to enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born.” Jesus responds with a little lecture on the working of the spirit, but Nikodemos is still stuck on impossibility, ”How can (πῶς δὐναται) this happen?” (3:9)

This exchange puts the reader in a surprising position. Although we may come to John’s gospel to learn more about Jesus, we know more than his interlocutors do.  Christians, we understand, believe that baptism is a second birth. With that in mind, everything Jesus says to Nicodemus makes perfect sense. But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He’s entrapped in his own ideas about what is possible.

Eucharist, Roman catacomb, 3rdC

Eucharist, Roman catacomb, 3rdC

The exchange in chapter 6 works in a similar way. As Jesus makes increasingly extreme statements about what the bread of life really is, the necessity of devouring his flesh, his listeners ask the obvious question, “How is this man able (πῶς δὐναται 6:52) to give us his flesh to eat?” It seems impossible, but we readers know that Christians believe that’s precisely what happens in the Eucharist. In neither the Nikodemos episode nor here does John directly allude to what came to be regarded as sacraments. Still, only by being aware of baptism and the Eucharist is the reader able to avoid the trap of perpetually asking, ”How is this possible?”

Yet this awareness may create a trap of its own for sacramentally-minded Christians.  The reader has an advantage over Jesus’ interlocutors. They don’t get it; we do. But superiority is always a risky posture for a Christian. In this case, the risk is that one might lose the alertness to paradox and to the hitherto unthinkable that keeps surfacing in John’s narrative. The answer to the question “How is this possible?” must always echo Peter’s response when Jesus asks the disciples if they too wish to “scram’ (ὑπἀγειν 6. 67, colloquial for άπέρχεσθαι). “Lord, to whom shall we turn (ἀπελευσόμεθα)?”

McKIM   1/21/14
The Nicodemus exchange parallels chapter 6 just as well if we take my pedestrian view that the issue is merely whether to take Jesus literally. Nicodemus fastens on a literal meaning of “born”, just as the disciples fasten on the literal meaning of “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood”. Jesus is understandably impatient. It’s not that he deliberately misleads them into a trap. He’s trying to express the inexpressible by using physical language analogically, and it frustrates him that everyone insists on being obtusely literal-minded.

I don’t mean to imply that Jesus was out to set a trap for the innocent. On reflection it seems to me that what we have is an example of πειρασμός, a testing of mettle. Once the non-believers have hightailed it, he says to his remaining inner circle, in effect, Did you get entrapped by that talk? Peirasmos (trial, testing) can do that.

That still leaves the question Would Jesus/God subject people to peirasmos? One could read the OT, I believe, as a series of such testings, but closer to hand is the ending of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6: “Don’t lead us into peirasmos.” Surely that doesn’t mean “don’t subject us to the temptation” in the sense of robbing the collection plate or sleeping with the parish secretary — except in so far as those situations stress-test our inner fabric. More to the point is the testing of one’s trust level in J. himself.

Your thoughts on peirasmos take me back to the loaves and fishes episode in John, where, as you remind us, Jesus asks where they can buy bread in order to “test” them. I’ve already complained that John here presumes to read Jesus’ mind, like the omniscient narrator of a novel. I don’t think Mark ever did that, but John feels especially free to drop into Jesus’ head whenever he wants to claim that Jesus is “testing” people. Thus again at 6:64, in what you rightly take to be a testing context, after Jesus points out that he means “eat and drink” in the spiritual not the fleshly sense, John the mind-reader pipes up to inform us that “he knew from the beginning who wouldn’t believe in (or trust) him and who the traitor would be [namely Judas, 6:71].”

CONNOR   1/22/14
As for trust … When you tell a story you filter out what isn’t meaningful to you or to your imagined audience and “filter in” what applies to you most directly and spotlight it. Whoever John was, he doesn’t tell us much about himself. But here’s a thought experiment. Imagine someone repeatedly cheated, abandoned, abused, betrayed. He has never been really loved. Then he meets the Wonder-Worker and what he hears him saying is “Trust me”. Not “believe in me,” that’s too easy. Wonder-Worker says he’s the son of God. OK, fine, I’ll believe it. But what’s that to me? He says he’s the Messiah. Great. We need one. But trust me? The one thing I find hardest to do.

Now for the experiment: that guy writes an evangelion. What does he filter out? What does he filter in? What is the thing that obsesses his narrative? ΠΙΣΤΙΣ, trust.

Jumping back to the rich guy in Mark, Jesus has a way of  asking people to do what they find hardest. “Sell all your mutual funds and give the proceeds to the food bank.” Are you kidding? Anything but that. Me, too. I always look for the easy way out. This text keeps pushing me toward what is hard.

But when I get to the argument about circumcision (7:18-24), I revert to my recurrent perplexity about John. I can’t follow the chain of thought. I’m pretty much OK with it through verse 18, but then the exchange seems to lapse into free association of ideas. The verb zetein seems to be the laundry line on which different kinds of “seeking” get hung — seeking δόξα turns into seeking to kill. But then enter Moses with the circumcision knife, a practice that Jesus says comes not from Moses but from the “fathers”. What does he mean by that? And lo and behold it’s the Sabbath and yet the bris goes on.

Then we switch to κρίνειν and κρίσις, judging and judgment (7:24) — as if Jesus were already on trial. The children of Israel had their doubts about Moses on the flight out of Egypt. Did they ever seek to kill him? That might clarify some of the muddle I’m in.

The First Cut is the Deepest?

bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG
The “one work” of his (ἓν ἔργον) that Jesus refers to in 7:21 must be the healing by the pool on the Sabbath. He uses Moses as a foil to point out that his salutary act of healing “the entire human” (ὅλον ἄνθρωπον) conforms to a law that transcends Moses’ Torah with its ban on sabbath work, just as the law of circumcision — God’s major command to Abraham in Genesis 10:17 — predated and transcended the Torah. Thus his own work, like the “work” of circumcision, can be carried out on the sabbath.

So: Moses wasn’t conforming to a new law, the Torah, when he commanded circumcision (7:22). I’m not conforming to the Torah when I heal on the sabbath. You guys don’t conform to the Torah at all. So why are you trying to kill me for not conforming to the Torah? Come on, stop making distinctions between what conforms and what doesn’t (μὴ κρίνετε) based on superficial appearances (κατ’ ὄψιν). Start making distinctions fairly (τὴν δικαίαν κρίσιν κρίνετε)! We observe that, while the ignorant ὄχλος thinks he’s crazy for imagining that someone is out to kill him, the Jerusalem “in crowd” (τινες ἐκ τῶν Ἱεροσολυμιτῶν), by contrast, are not so naïve (7:25).

The lead-in to this argument features repeated use of two key terms, doxa and zetein (to seek). Rick, a while back you argued that in chapter 5 we should connect the meaning of doxa with that of dokein (to think/suppose//believe) within the same passage, and I can certainly understand the attraction. In 7:18, however, we’re again discussing doxa in a similar context, and I think here we have to allow for the usual NT sense of that word — “glory” is probably an over-translation; maybe just “honor.”  “The one who speaks on his own initiative is seeking his own belief/opinion/perspective” (7:18) doesn’t seem as coherent as “The one who speaks on his own initiative is seeking his own honor;” and so I think we have to preserve that sense in the following sentence, “The one who’s seeking the honor of the one who sent him — he’s the true teacher. There’s no wrong (adikia, self-seeking unfairness) in him.”

In this passage, zetein “seek” seems to be the hinge for the rant that follows. Gezerah-shawah-like, the repetitions of zētein provide a verbal link between thoughts that seem to us to lack “logical” connection, for example between Jesus’ remark about seekers of doxa (7:18) and his abrupt outburst “So why are you seeking to kill me?” (7:19), which the Judaeans take to be a sign of Jesus’ paranoid lunacy.

Woven into all this, of course, is the idea of the “true teacher” with Moses as the traditional archetype —  Jesus meaning, “I’m being and doing nothing different from what Moses was and did, so why are you trying to kill me?”

McKIM   1/23/14
One of the things John “filters in” here, to use Bob’s term, is the persistent hostility of his Jesus to Judaism. Take the exchange at 7:19-24, where his Jesus is accused of doing work on the sabbath by healing (at the pool, I guess, his most recent such “miracle”, back in chapter 5 where a similar dispute about work on the sabbath ensues). Here in 7, Jesus contrasts his noble work of “making the whole man healthy” with the Jewish work of circumcision (of that little part of a man?), which the Jews perform on the sabbath.

Abraham with circumcision knife, Fra Filippo Lippi, 16thC

Abraham with circumcision knife, Fra Filippo Lippi, 16thC

Bill, you take him to be granting that circumcision is a worthy exception to Moses’ no-work rule because, as God’s command to Abraham, it “predated and transcended the Torah.” But isn’t Jesus’ point instead pejorative? Whether he’s contrasting his whole-person healing with making that little part healthy or with disfiguring it, the belittling implication seems the same: “You allow work as trivial as circumcision on the sabbath, and you’re angry at me for doing some real good?”

“Anti-Semitic” would be an anachronism, but John’s anti-Jewish agenda gets more & more obtrusive. Is the main mission of his gospel to sell Jesus to the Gentiles? This episode would contribute to the pitch by making Jesus as contemptuous of circumcision as John’s Gentile audience presumably was.

BERG   1/24/14
This doesn’t feel like a Gentile gospel to me, the way Mark did. Its ambience seems thoroughly Jewish. John is often anti-Judaean (i.e. pro-Galilean), but yes, “anti-Semitic” seems out of place. James Charlesworth at Princeton Theological Seminary argues against the suggestion (admittedly frequent) of anti-Semitism in John. He also argues for an early date for at least parts of John, and notes that more and more scholars are now finding evidence in John that predates the Synoptics.

McKIM   1/25/14
Leaving aside for the moment the issue of anti-Jewish sentiment, I’m bothered, like Bob, by the incoherence of the circumcision argument.

Jesus’ reasoning in 7:19-23, such as it is, seems to run this way: “Didn’t Moses give you the law [not to work on the sabbath]? And yet none of you follows it [because you perform circumcision on the sabbath]. So why do you want to kill me [just because I don’t follow it either]? … I  perform one work [on the sabbath] and you’re thunderstruck. But by the same token (διὰ τοῦτο), [you do one work too.] Moses gave you circumcision — in fact, circumcision comes not from Moses but from the fathers [who have even more authority than he does] — and so you break the sabbath law in order to follow Moses’ law [of circumcision]. And yet you’re angry with me [for doing even more good than you do] because I make the whole man healthy on the sabbath.”

Jesus argues that Jews break the sabbath by performing the work of circumcision. Never mind that categorizing circumcision as “work” seems sophistical. What’s the point of the interjection that it comes not from Moses but from “the fathers”? Bill, you take it to mean that the authority for circumcision — God’s command to Abraham — is greater than that of Moses’ laws. But not only does Jesus call it Moses’ law right before that (22), but right after it as well (23).

If he’s trying to distinguish between (1) keeping the sabbath as Moses’ law and (2) circumcision as having the higher authority of the fathers, then he should say in effect “You perform circumcision on the sabbath in order not to break with the tradition of the fathers.” Instead he says “You perform circumcision on the sabbath in order not to break Moses’ law.” But doing work on the sabbath does break Moses’ law. if their priority were to keep Moses’ law, then they wouldn’t circumcise on the sabbath!

What’s going on here? Later interpolation seems the best answer, someone trying to “clarify” Jesus’ argument or correct his attribution of the circumcision law to Moses. At any rate, this is tortured logic, to say the least. And here we can’t let John off the hook by saying he’s writing music. He’s clearly trying to give Jesus a knockdown rebuttal in a debate.

Circumcision of Jesus, Menologion of Basil II, illuminated ms 10thC

Circumcision of Jesus, Menologion of Basil II, illuminated ms 10thC

Bill, I think you’re suggesting that the gist is something like “Just as you have a higher authority than Moses for sabbath circumcision, so I have an even higher authority (the one who sent me) for my sabbath healing.” And it’s true that back at 7:18 Jesus strongly implies that, as “the seeker of the doxa of the one who sent him”, he can’t do anything wrong (adikia) — by definition! But 19-23 seems to me to present a second, basically moral argument that if circumcision is a good enough reason to break the sabbath, then whole-person healing is an even better one. Here he doesn’t appeal to the authority of the one who sent him.

But that interjection about the fathers makes the argument a mess. If the fathers’ authority for circumcision is higher than Moses’ authority for the sabbath, then of course you’d break the sabbath to circumcise. Jesus undermines his own point, namely that circumcision is a weaker reason for breaking the sabbath than whole-person healing is. After all, whole-person healing on the sabbath is neither the tradition of the fathers nor the law of Moses, so it’s worse than irrelevant to grant that circumcision has the imprimatur of the stronger of those two.

Alternatively, if we ditch the interpolation as spurious we get a cleaner line: “I do one work on the sabbath and you’re thunderstruck. But by the same token, you do one work too — circumcision, because Moses gave that to you, authorizing an exception to his own no-work rule. But if that one little part of a man is a good enough reason to break the sabbath, then surely my whole-person healing is an even better one.”

In other words, there’s a higher moral standard (δικαία κρίσις) than Jewish law. We’ve seen Jesus make similar claims in Mark, but in John I still think there’s an additional, more hostile undertone — not only dismissive of Jewish law but (with an eye to Gentile sensibility?) belittling circumcision as a trifling matter. Jesus has more important things to do than such superficial (κατ’ ὄψιν) tinkering.

BERG  1/27/14
Rick, I can’t find much to argue with in your analysis. And I love your translation “you’re thunderstruck”  — yup, nothing particularly positive in that θαυμάζετε!

A couple of details: You translate διὰ τοῦτο as “by the same token”, but it’s better, I think, to take the phrase with the following ὅτι-clause (as usual in NT Greek, e.g. John 5:16, 18, etc.): “Moses gave you circumcision for this reason, [namely] not because it’s from Moses himself, but because it’s from the fathers.”

You call the classification of circumcision as work “sophistical”, but according to the divisions of the Torah it does fall under the rubric of ἔργα νόμου, duties of man to God (like keeping the sabbath, dietary restrictions, sexual taboos, etc.).  The other division, δικαιώματα νόμου, is everything that falls under Leviticus 19:18 — duties of man to man. (See Gal. 3:10, Rom. 2:26, etc. etc. in Paul.)  What you point out is interesting, that Jesus calls his miracle an ἔργον rather than a σημεῖον or something else.  Not sure whether he means to put it on the same level as circumcision, or if it has a more neutral sense.

Yeah, I know the argument appears messy;  it all seems like “tortured logic” to us.  But I suspect that’s at least partially because we don’t have a feel for what was customary in Jewish diatribe. I’d go for that assumption first; textual interpolation would be a last resort.

In light of your remark about διὰ τοῦτο, Bill, I see that of course it points forward to the ούχ ὅτι clause, making that clause integral to the text, so that my whole mishegas about interpolation may be misguided. I guess Jesus’ argument must amount to something like I suggested anyway, but boy it’s a herky-jerky road. This isn’t the first time that John’s attempts at constructing an argument have left us in the lurch. Maybe, as you suggest, we’re simply not tuned in to Jewish debating style. Your Christian charity in suggesting that the fault lies not in John but in ourselves puts me to shame! But I suspect instead that, while he’s great at mystical music about the Logos, John’s lousy at logic.

The Evangelist as Riddlemeister

John the Evangelist, Segna di Bonaventura, 14thC

John the Evangelist, Segna di Bonaventura, 14thC

CONNOR   1/28/14
If John were a Zen master who whacked me on the back every time I tried to think in a logical way, I would have a very sore back by now. I keep asking, what is John’s chain of reasoning? WHACK! How does this text hang together? WHACK! Why can I not follow it? WHACK! Didn’t Marshall McLuhan say “The whack is the message”?

In 7:30–40, an unspecified “they” seek to put pressure on Jesus. A while ago they were seeking to kill him. Why the change? WHACK. His hour had not yet come. Jesus’ following, which had dwindled away a little earlier, is now once again a full-fledged ὄχλος. How come? WHACK! They are responding to his miraculous signs. But has he done any recently, enough to change the mood of the crowd?  WHACK!

Then (7:32) comes the pressure alluded to in verse 30. I’ve been wondering what form that would take. WHACK! As with Nicodemos, before they get a chance to say anything, Jesus takes over, latching on to the “seeking” word in 30, but shifting it just a bit.  So you are “seekers?”, he says (34). Well, play hide and seek to your hearts’ content. You will not be able to find me. More Holy Man Speak — another impossibility (adunaton), and the poor delegation tries to figure out what he could possibly mean. After all, they have found him, and are talking face-to-face to him. Maybe he’s bought a ticket to Greece and will do his teaching there (7:35-36).

No whack this time. Instead Jesus stands up (in synagogue, I suppose) and shouts a ritual shout: ἐρχέσθω…πινέτω (“Let them come! Let them drink!”). Another golden nugget. If you are thirsty, here is the water you need. We’re transported back to the well in Samaria, and the woman who understands at one very simple level who Jesus is. Now we taste that water again, and it is living water (7:38).

Oh, John, what’s the meaning of your little exegesis in 7:39? “He said this about the pneuma that those who believed in him would receive, but there wasn’t any pneuma yet, for Jesus had yet to be glorified.” WHACK!

Bob, aren’t “the unspecified they” the same milling crowd in the temple precinct whom we assume we’ve been seeing before him all this while?  As in any crowd, time passes, the crowd ebbs and flows, personalities shift (“Jerusalemites,” etc.), moods shift …  And, if LSJ  is right on later usage, πιέζω doesn’t mean merely “put pressure on” but “lay hold of”. Couldn’t that be just what they did at Gethsemane, preparatory to handing him over to the Romans, i.e. killing him? But premature, because the hour was yet to come.

Regarding the dearth of recent miracles — what have you done for me lately? — good question! Nothing in John since the healing at the pool. But it’s a huge festival (Tabernacles). Bound to be plenty of Galileans there, who may have seen Cana and the loaves & fishes and healings mentioned but not described — as at 6:1, where “A huge crowd continued to follow him, because they were witnessing miracles performed by him on the infirm.”

McKIM   1/30/14
At 7:41-42, the skeptics in the crowd say, “Surely the messiah can’t be from Galilee! Didn’t scripture say that the messiah is from the seed of David and comes from Bethlehem, where David came from?”

But wait a minute — Jesus was born in Bethlehem, at least according to Luke! One of two strange things seems to be happening here. Either John expects his reader to know that Jesus does in fact come from Bethlehem, and thus to share an in-joke at the expense of these ignoramuses, or (more likely) the nativity tale in Luke is a (later!) attempt to neutralize a well-known objection that John has faithfully recorded, that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem — and John, or the author of this bit at any rate, is writing before that tale had evolved.

This passage reminds me of 2:19-21, which I remarked on earlier. There, John has Jesus declaring that he’ll resurrect the temple in three days, whereas Mark says it’s a false accusation that Jesus ever made such a claim. Somebody’s reacting to somebody else’s account in both cases, and the most natural explanation seems to be that John is earlier — predating Luke’s nativity in chapter 7, while in chapter 2 he records something Jesus was generally reputed to have said, but which by Mark’s time was perceived as casting Jesus in a bad light. Is there a better explanation in either case?

Journey to Bethlehem, Chora Church, Istanbul, 14thC

Journey to Bethlehem, Chora Church, Istanbul, 14thC

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how implausibly I’m afraid they lie. It’s in Matthew, too, along with the rest of the Christmas pageant. I’m afraid Bethlehem has to go, and the Magi are suspect, and that means the flight to Egypt, too. And maybe the sheep and the star. What’s left? The Incarnation. Still, the skeptics are wrong that no prophet ever came from Galilee. Lightfoot has a few examples.

BERG    1/31/14
Quite right, Bob!  Alford reports that Elijah himself came from Galilee! Rick, I would think John the logos-guy would be right up there brandishing the Matthew/Luke story about Bethlehem, if it were true. After all, tradition holds that he lived with Jesus’ mother, and you’d think she would’ve dropped a remark about Bethlehem (and/or Egypt) if she knew of it. And I’d forgotten Mark 14:57-59, where the promise to rebuild the temple is called a false accusation. Good detective work, Rick!

The skeptics don’t say no prophet ever came from Galilee, but that the Christ can’t come from there.

Bill, are we seriously entertaining the idea that our author, the logos guy, is the disciple who’s reputed to have lived with Mary?? Bob noted way back that there’s not a trace of personal experience as to what it was like to be a disciple, and anyway the whole portrait of Jesus seems to me immensely remote (not just in time) from any personal acquaintance. Am I tone-deaf to your irony here?

BERG   2/1/14
You’re right about 7:41, Rick. That’s what the skeptics say. What’s confusing is that the Sanhedrin skeptics in 7:52 claim that no prophet was ever “raised up” from Galilee. Whom is that remark aimed at? I find Metzger’s comment useful on the “prophet from Galilee” verse: “Instead of προφήτης … read ὁ προφήτης, … ὅτι ὁ προφήτης ἐκ τῆς Γαλιλαίας οὐκ ἐγείρεται (“that the prophet is not to arise out of Galilee”)” — alluding to “the foretold prophet” of e.g. John 1:21-25. That seems to clear up the difficulty: it was hard to believe that the Sanhedrin folks could really be that ignorant about prophets.  My only remaining question is, Are they here merging the Messiah (7:41) with “the prophet”?  John 1:25 certainly keeps them separate.  Or is the Sanhedrin, unlike the ὄχλος, not even entertaining the idea that Jesus might be claiming to be the Messiah?

John the Beloved, Sankt-Katharinenthal, Switzerland, 14thC

John the Beloved, Sankt-Katharinenthal, Switzerland, 14thC

Yes, I do go along with the tradition, faute de mieux, that at least one author of this gospel meant us to take him as Jesus’ beloved. That seems to be the whole point behind having Jesus join his mother and John in 19:26-27. Otherwise, why keep calling attention to this particular disciple? Aren’t we meant to see him as the one whose ties to Jesus, his bonding in love and family, make his “testimony” the most reliable?

John’s “Jesus” is immensely remote from the bland, gentle, only occasionally frenetic Jesus of Mark. It even goes against my grain to call them by the same name. John’s hero has wild eyes and wild hair, and most people these days would immediately spot him as a loony and go out of their way to avoid even eye contact. But it’s not impossible to imagine him having a knack for attracting certain types, at least in that culture. He knows his, and they know him, and he gives them the take-me-or-leave-me choice (6:66-67). I think we’ll see more such interaction with his disciples, at least around the table at the last supper.

I’ve been re-reading that Mark passage Rick points to (14:58-59) about the “false accusation” that Jesus claimed he’d re-build the temple in three days. I seem to find that the accusation is based on an “inconsistency” rather than on an outright falsehood. Jesus’ statement in John uses the second-person plural imperative, “Destroy this temple, and I’ll raise it up in 3 days,” while the accusers in Mark make Jesus threaten to destroy the temple himself. They also say that Jesus promised “a different temple not built by hands,” also missing from John. Mark comments that their testimony was “not even here consistent” (οὐδὲ οὕτως ἴση), seeming to imply that there was a correct version.

According to John, that promise by Jesus was made right after his first grand entrance into the temple precinct, whip in hand, three years before his trial.  If so, the witnesses had had quite some time to muddle details.  Of course, Mark doesn’t give Jesus’ public life more than a few months, or does he?

McKIM   2/3/14
Granted, Bill, ἴση in Mark 14:59 might mean something like “fair” — not, I think, “consistent” but still perhaps implying that Jesus said something similar that’s being unfairly misrepresented — though immediately before, in 14:57, Mark says that those who attribute such an utterance to Jesus are lying or “bearing false witness” (ἐψευδομαρτύρουν), which feels stronger.

In any case, it seems clear enough that Jesus’ remark about rebuilding the temple had become problematic in a way that it wasn’t for whoever wrote that bit in John. OR — is John just quietly correcting the (earlier) record by “quoting” precisely what Jesus did say on the subject? This business of who’s earlier / who’s later is maddening and maybe ultimately pointless. There doesn’t seem to be a single passage that can’t be made to fit whatever hypothesis one likes.

The Woman Taken in Adultery

The Woman Taken in Adultery -- Lucas the Younger Cranach, 16thC

The Woman Taken in Adultery — Lucas the Younger Cranach, 16thC

CONNOR   2/4/14
I am having trouble figuring out which manuscripts have this passage here (7:53 – 8:11) and which don’t. If I read the app crit correctly, the Vulgate has the passage, so Jerome must have had it in whatever ms(s?) he was using. Also in papyrus 66 (circa 200). So I suspect the doubts are a combination of omission in some mss, its appearance after Luke 21.38, and in some mss at the end of John rather than here.

So its location is problematic but that doesn’t prove we should throw it out. Let the textual critic who’s never wrong be the first to excise it!

I’m with you there, Bob.  I’d sooner throw out the whole gospel than this episode. But wouldn’t you know my favorite passage in the whole NT would turn out to be spurious! Alford’s venerable commentary details the stylistic anomalies with his usual frightening punctiliousness, and just about everyone seems to agree that it’s a later interpolation.

The NT text site sums up the situation this way: “This passage is enclosed in double brackets in the UBS text, which means that the UBS Textual Committee felt that it was not written by John, but that it was old enough and historical enough to be considered as scripture. The passage was known to some third and fourth century writers, although it does not seem to be found in any extant Bible manuscripts until the fifth or sixth century. It possibly circulated at first in oral form and was later written down and added to the text of John or Luke.”

But why should I be surprised that others have noticed that at least one narrative section of this bricolage of a gospel is authored by someone other than the rant-composer?  I’ve felt that way about other narrative sections as well. Whether or not the stylistic “differences” are illusory, what makes this one stand out is that it doesn’t lead directly into a rant: Jesus is silent, writing or doodling in the sand, looking up only to issue a single imperative, and finally dismissing the lady with just a sin-no-more.  I don’t have to “defend” the authenticity of the passage;  whoever authored it, it stands up well enough on its own.  Any evangelist should have been proud to have written it.  As a vehicle for displaying what Christianity ought to be, it’s worth its weight in “miracles.”

It’s very hard to do meaningful stylistic comparisons based on a short passage as short as  this.  I don’t see  any flagrant deviations from John’s style elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean much. Nor would one or two deviations.  Pace Alford, I don’t think stylistic analysis will solve the problem.

Unlike Bob, I find (as an amateur) that the textual grounds for interpolation are persuasive. More importantly, the content of the story seems totally non-John. To me, this is definitely the synoptic Jesus making a (very welcome!) cameo appearance, throwing into strong relief exactly what’s missing from John’s portrait of our hero — the moral dimension, the moral basis for his hostility to the traditionalists, the difference Jesus’ mission makes in the way we live our lives and relate to other people.

John’s own Jesus is so tiresome by comparison! Inevitable but disappointing that, immediately after this moving narrative interlude, we go straight back to the endlessly repetitive pontification of that above-it-all supernatural being — a discourse that the woman taken in adultery has so rudely interrupted.

Jesus writing in the sand, Codex Egberti, Carolingian 10thC

Jesus writing in the sand, Codex Egberti, Carolingian 10thC

CONNOR   2/5/14
More perplexity: why does Jesus bend over and write on the ground? We’ve been talking a lot about writing, like the laws of Moses central to chapter 7. Then in 8:3 enter the scribes (grammateis), the poor adulteress in tow. As they pontificate on the Mosaic law that she should be stoned, Jesus “writes in the dirt (εἰς τὴν γῆν) with his finger”. Is he mocking them by parodying their scribal work? Is he suggesting that he’s a second Moses, writing his own entole, with its good legal use of the 3rd person imperative, βαλέτω, in 8.7 — “let the sinless one among you cast the first stone”?

We’re not the only ones to be puzzled. I notice in  the app. crit. on vs. 7 that ms 264  provides an explanation, “with his finger writing onto the ground the sins of each one of them …”.   I love it!  Catches the damn hypocrites in secretis delictis. It makes sense of his otherwise puzzling body language. But I don’t imagine we could ever convince a text critic that this was the right reading.

But what, pray tell, does “right reading” mean? We know what it ought to mean — what John himself wrote, or at least what the most “reliable” mss, properly evaluated, point to. But the more I look at the variations in reading among the  manuscripts, the more I wonder whether they, the scribes and “copyists” (our word, not theirs) thought that way. It looks to me as if they were in the same boat we are, trying to make clear to one another what the story meant.

They were not, I suspect, trained in the Alexandrian Library’s courses in advanced paleography. They were trying to make sense out of what they had before them, a text maybe never quite finished or polished, or fully proofread by its often dreamy, sometimes ecstatic author,  then transmitted through some copies with obvious errors and puzzling obscurities in them — the product of semi-trained scribes, just like them. So every now and then one of them went up to the top deck of the boat, stripped down, and took the plunge. In the cool awakening water he said, “Ahh, now I see what it must mean. I’ll put in what some idiot must have  left out.” Back on board, dried off in a warm fluffy towel, he does us the favor (as he sees it) of adding a phrase that clarifies it all.

In the app crit I find this all the time, as if they did not think of the text as a sacred imperishable object but as an ongoing project. In the graduate seminar at Alexandria he would have been trained in how to add  a note, a scholion, in the margin to provide his explanation. Not on our ship! Gospel mss never have scholia, do they? My hunch is they reshaped the text itself rather than adding notes in the margin.

Can we scale this up, moving beyond the manuscript readings to the gospels themselves? Why do we have so many of them? Why four canonical ones, and others that were read not just by gnostics but by ordinary Christians as well (Gospel of James, anyone?). Another hunch: the same process was at work. That is, the gospel writers were trying not to record as exact an account as possible, but to make sense out of a man who didn’t act in predictable ways, or say the logical, sequential thing,  and MAYBE, just maybe did not fit the available categories very neatly. (Even the Messiah category? Oh my, dare we go that route?)  So one gospel writer makes his best effort, and another is not satisfied, takes the plunge and says, “Here’s how I see it…” What a good way to drive the  V-8 Quest for a historical Jesus right into the madhouse garage!

BERG   2/6/14
Fascinating suggestions, Bob! I had taken the ΓΡΑΦ-stuff to indicate drawing, actually doodling, to pretend insouciance. First time in literature: the Doodling Hero? Since he’s already sitting down (καθίσας 8:2), he doesn’t need to bend over to reach the ground. Maybe κάτω κύψας  means “kept his head down”?  “Looked down”?

William Blake, 18thC

William Blake, 18thC

I find myself now sorely tempted to regard the Adulterous Woman story the way I regard so many other narrative sections in John, i.e. as a launch pad for preaching on a particular topic. Chapter 8 may not be as well cobbled together, or run as smoothly, as the other mythos-to-logos episodes, but it still could be seen as following the same pattern. In this case, the author pulls another story out of his hat (the story doesn’t have to be by him, the author — which could explain Alford’s stylistic anomalies), then turns his hero loose with logoi on that particular topic (in this case, judgment — κρίσις/κρίνειν).

Subsequent scribes are made uncomfortable by chapter 8’s more-awkward-than-usual cobbling, while nonnulli are feeling extreme moral compunctions about the passage, so more often than not it’s deleted, sequestered at the end, or passed on to another scribe to deal with as he sees fit. (You see, Bob, I’m already learning from you about their fast-and-loose habits, as compared with the transmitters of classical texts.)

But what am I doing here, again butting my head against scholarly opinio — in this case not just communis, but universalis?  Incurable black sheep!

I don’t know what Jesus is scribbling on the ground, but this is one of those details that make you think “That must have been the way it happened — who could make it up, and why?” I’m sure Bob’s right about the way scribes tried to incorporate their comments into the story in lieu of scholia, treating the text as an organic, growing thing rather than as graven in stone. But it’s tempting to believe that everyone’s trying to puzzle out what he was writing because he really was writing something!

BERG   2/8/14
Trying to figure out just why John 8 was usually targeted by our scribes for insertion of the Adulterous Woman episode, I’m considering the possibility that the recurrent theme of judgment (κρίνειν, κρίσις), first brought up by Nicodemus in 7:51, made the chapter particularly hospitable to such a passage. The mention of stoning in both 5 and 59, and of illegitimate sexual relations in both 3 and 41, might also be seen as links.

The Pharisees are asking Jesus for his opinion on their judgment of this woman, who has been caught in an illicit relationship. They declare that “In the Torah, Moses has commanded us to stone such women” (5). As for the Torah, Jesus refers to it in 17 as “your Torah”;  as for their judgment, Jesus declares in 8:15f. ὑμεῖς κατὰ τὴν σάρκα κρίνετε, ἐγὼ οὐ κρίνω οὐδένα — “You judge by your human standards, I’m not judging anybody” — ἡ κρίσις ἡ ἐμὴ ἀληθινή ἐστιν, just as he doesn’t judge the woman, after her “judges” have all left (10f.). However, if he wanted (he declares in 26), he could do a lot of judging: πολλὰ ἔχω περὶ ὑμῶν λαλεῖν καὶ κρίνειν.

Things really get out of hand in 41, when the mob taunts Jesus with “We, at least, were not begotten in adultery!”, which can’t help but remind me that this chapter began with the controversy over an adulterous relationship. Jesus doesn’t have to take that shit. He fires back with ὑμεῖς ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ διαβόλου ἐστὲ (44), insulting their own parentage. Tίς ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐλέγχει με περὶ ἁμαρτίας; (46) may or may not have been seen as a match for μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε in 8:11. But look at the famous 8:7 — “let him who is without sin (ὁ ἀναμάρτητος) be the first to throw a stone”!

Finally, in 8:50, ἐγὼ δὲ οὐ ζητῶ τὴν δόξαν μου· ἔστιν ὁ ζητῶν καὶ κρίνων (ὁ πατήρ μου, of course).  “It’s my father who’s entitled to judge.” And the stones of 8:5-7 lie ready to be picked up again (59).

CONNOR   2/9/14
Nice. Really nice. So do we after all NEED the adulterous woman story?

I don’t know if “we” need any of this, but I’m suggesting that the composer of John (thanks to your insights, I’m now calling him the composer, not “one of the composers”) needed something very much like this story to kick off his next logos.  We’ll see if that pattern persists.

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