The hour has come: glorify your Son (John 12; Lent 5)

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). So Jesus says to Andrew and Philip, who come with a request from “some Greeks” who were in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover (12:20; see 12:1). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/15/we-wish-to-see-jesus-john-12-lent-5/

Two terms in this declaration by Jesus require exploration; two terms which are key ideas in this Gospel, the book of signs.

The story which John’s Gospel reports contains a contrast between the largely public activities of Jesus, and a secret element, described as “the hour”, which does not come until the climax of the story is reached. There are pointers to this contrast from the very first sign, at a wedding in Cana, when Jesus declares, “my hour has not yet come” (2:4).

What is this hour? The first part of the Gospel leaves it as a mystery, for the time being (see 7:30 and 8:20). Then, after the seventh sign, events in Jerusalem show that the hour has come (12:23, 27); the narrator explains that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from the world” (13:1).

Thus, at the beginning and at the end of the public activities of Jesus in this Gospel narrative, the focus is firmly on “the hour”.

Then, some time later on, at the end of his last meal with his followers, Jesus finally prays: “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son” (17:1). In what will take place after this prayer—the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (John 18–21)—this “hour” is realised.

The Johannine Jesus describes these events, the fulfilment of “the hour”, as the means by which God is glorified (11:16, 23–33; 13:31–32; 17:4).

The word “glory”, in Hebrew Scriptures, signals the divine presence (Exod 16:1–12; 24:15–18; 40:34–39; Lev 9:22–24; Num 14:10–12; 16:19; Deut 5:22–27; 1 Sam 4:19–22). In the book of signs, it is God’s glory which is now made manifest in Jesus (John 1:14; 2:11; 12:27–28; 17:5).

The language of “hour” and “glory” thus provides a framework for interpreting the events in chapters 2–12 as steps on the way towards a full understanding of Jesus, and the events of chapters 13–21 as the realisation of God’s presence in the world in all its fullness. This is the heart of the incarnational theology that is advocated by the writer of this Gospel.

The story of the Gospel fills out the details as to how it is that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, which means that for human beings, “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

The passage offered in this Sunday’s lectionary readings provide part of the Johannine account of the final public moments of Jesus before his arrest (12:20–50). Here, Jesus speaks of this imminent glory (12:20–26), an angel testifies to God’s glory in the death of Jesus (12:27–33), Jesus explains that he comes as light into the world (12:34–36), the scriptures join as witnesses (12:37–43) and Jesus asserts that he speaks God’s commandment of eternal life (12:44–50).

This scene sums up what has come before and opens the door to the events which follow, culminating in the cry of the crucified Jesus, “it is fulfilled” (19:30; the NRSV translation, “it is finished”, downplays the sense of fulfilment in the verb used, teleō). The author of this Gospel thereby indicates that the deepest fulfilment of the hour of Jesus comes on the cross, as the glory of God is revealed in its entirety.

We wish to see Jesus (John 12: Lent 5)

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’” (John 12:20-21).

The fourth Gospel, the book of signs, is distinctive in many ways. One way that it is different from the other three canonical Gospels (the Synoptic Gospels), is that it is the only work that refers specifically to Greeks coming into contact with Jesus.

Mark refers to Jesus coming into contact with a Gentile woman (Mark 7:26). Matthew reports Jesus pointing to the scripture that exclaims about the servant of the Lord, “in his name the Gentiles will hope”(Matt 12:21)—although this account includes the firm instructions of Jesus to “go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5), and delays right until the penultimate verse of the book any command to “make disciples of all Gentiles” (28:19).

Luke, of course, signals from the very start of the story that Jesus brings “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), and from early days the crowds that gather to hear Jesus include people from the gentile regions (6:17). It is clear from the following volume that the intention was always for the good news to be shared with the Gentiles (Acts 10:45; 11:1,18; 13:46; 18:6; 28:28).

But Gentiles encompass far more than Greeks. And only the book of signs specifically names that Jesus comes into close contact with Greeks. Although, it could be argued that the way the text describes things, we are never told that the Greeks who have come to Jerusalem for the festival actually engage directly with Jesus. It is only through the intermediaries, Philip and Andrew, that communication with Jesus takes place.

Nevertheless, this (near) encounter appears to provide a resolution of a sort, to the question asked earlier on by the Pharisees: “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” (7:35). Although Jesus does not “go to the Dispersion”, he is engaged (at one remove) with people from the Dispersion who have come to Jerusalem.

At the minimum, this scene in Jerusalem indicates that the significance of Jesus spreads more widely than just amongst Jews. In fact this Gospel includes a number of pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas.

Now, all four Gospel accounts clearly locate Jesus as a Jew living in Israel. He is immersed in the context of Jewish society, culture, and religion. The book of signs makes this abundantly clear, over and over. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

However, the early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, each point to a wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within “formative Judaism”.

Formative Judaism is one way to refer to the version of Judaism that developed in the decades and centuries after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. This was the historical precursor of current Rabbinic forms of Judaism. The separation of Christianity from that trajectory within Judaism goes back to the early followers of Jesus, interpreting his words and actions in a certain way.

The book of signs contains many indications of the growing tension between the Pharisees, the dominant party after 70:CE (when the book was written), and the developing Christian communities. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/03/raise-up-a-new-temple-jesus-and-the-jews-in-the-fourth-gospel-john-2-lent-3/

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John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11).

It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42). John, in this gospel, does not call for repentance; rather, he bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), testifying that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:20; 3:28).

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers.

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of “heterodox Judaism” on this Gospel.

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Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel. This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident.

The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village. This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions.

Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). They are not utterly different groups.

Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode. Ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/10/the-pharisee-of-jerusalem-and-the-woman-of-samaria-john-3-and-4/

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The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped. The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world.

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/31/in-the-beginning-the-prologue-and-the-book-of-signs-john-1/

We know that Judaism had long been influenced by the Greek–speaking world. Hellenistic culture is reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world.

The issue is explicitly raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” The signs we have noted above point to this influence at various points throughout the gospel.

These elements need not necessarily be reflecting events in the ministry of Jesus himself, but more likely point to the context in which the Gospel was shaped, and the factors that influenced the way the story of Jesus was presented.

The community which received this Gospel indicates that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel was not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It had become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/16/the-hour-has-come-glorify-your-son-john-12-lent-5/

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

The complex and rich world of scriptural imagery in ‘the book of signs’ (John 3; Lent 4)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). So begins the section of the book of signs, the Gospel according to John, that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 3:14-21).

The allusion to Moses is clear, referencing the time when “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:9). The Numbers passage is included in this Sunday’s lectionary, as the reading from Hebrew Scripture (Num 21:4-9).

The brief allusion to the “fiery serpents” (or should that be the seraphim?) in John 3 forms part of an important motif running throughout the whole Gospel, in which Jesus is linked to scripture–often as “the fulfilment of scripture”. It’s a feature that is common to all four canonical Gospels. In the book of signs, this interpretive stance is hinted at as early as the Prologue, in the comparison drawn between Jesus and Moses: “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17).

It is stated explicitly in the claim put on the mouth of Philip, “we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (1:45), and in the words attributed to Jesus, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39).

There are fifteen clear quotations from Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel. There are eight explicit references to scripture in the early chapters (1:23; 2:17; 6:31; 6:45; 7:38; 7:42; 10:34; 12:13–15), while a “fulfilment formula” is used in later chapters, to introduce seven such scriptural quotations (12:38–40; 13:18; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 28, 36–37). There is also a passing note that Judas died after betraying Jesus “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).

However, the total significance of the Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel is much greater than these sixteen occurrences, as the Gospel contains numerous allusions to specific scripture passages, such as references to Jacob’s ladder (1:51) and the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36), as well as more generalised allusions to scripture. Chapter 6, a long chapter on the theme of “the living bread”, functions like an extended midrashic exploration of this important scriptural theme.

These allusions are much freer in their form and indicate that, for the author of this Gospel, the Hebrew Scriptures had become an integral part of his mind and heart, for he treats them with a freedom born from intimate familiarity.

In like fashion, a series of Jewish titles is embedded in the narrative as confessions by key characters of the significance of Jesus. In the extended preface of 1:19–51, Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” (1:38, 49), “Messiah” (1:41), “King of Israel” (1:49), and “Son of God” (1:49). These claims about Jesus, drawn from Jewish traditions, are all made also within the Synoptic traditions.

The Johannine Jesus himself refers, in the allusive synoptic fashion, to the “Son of Man” (thirteen times, from 1:51 to 13:31), which we must presume to be a self–reference. That’s another clear Jewish term drawn from scripture (Dan 7:13; Ezek 2:1,3,6,8, 3:1,3,10, etc).

In later scenes, Jesus is also called “prophet” (4:19), “Messiah” (4:29; 11:27), and “Rabbouni” (my teacher, 20:16). The ultimate Christological confession of the Gospel is uttered by Thomas, when he moves beyond this viewpoint in the phrase, “my Lord and my God” (20:28), echoing the perception of the Jews, that Jesus was “making himself equal to God” (5:18). (Lord, of course, was one of the Jewish terms for addressing God.)

For the most part of this Gospel, Jesus is presented in terms drawn from within a Jewish context. Indeed, even the confession by Thomas (20:28) can be understood within a particular stream of Jewish tradition, for the hellenistic Jewish author Philo uses the terms “Lord” and “God” to designate the two major divine powers of creation (signified by “God”) and eschatological judgement (signified by “Lord”).

And there is much more to be said about the I Am sayings, unique to the book of signs, for each of them draws deeply from the language and imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures. But that’s another blog sometime.

So the allusion in John 3:14 offers a doorway into a complex and rich world of scriptural imagery, story, and language—the very world in which the author of this Gospel lived for many decades.

Thinking about this way of writing reminded me of one of my teachers during the years that I was undertaking doctoral studies at Yale University in the USA—Professor Hans Frei. I took a semester-long seminar with him on hermeneutics, wrote a long essay on how his work shaped the “New Yale Theology”, and had him as one of my assessment panel when I submitted my doctoral thesis proposal. He had an utterly incisive mind along with a gentle eirenic nature.

Prof. Frei used to say “we should not read the Bible in such a way as to make it make sense on our lives; we need to live our lives in the text of the Bible and that way we find its deepest truths”. Or something like that—it is 35 years since I took that seminar with him!!

Here are two of his quotable quotes about this, that I have found online:

“For many centuries before the modern age, most Christian theologians had read the Bible primarily as a kind of realistic narrative. It told the overarching story of the world, from creation to last judgment. Moreover, the particular coherence of this story made “figural” interpretation possible: some events in the biblical stories, as well as some nonbiblical events, prefigured or reflected the central biblical events. Indeed, Christians made sense of their own lives by locating their stories within the context of that larger story.” He argued, in his writings and in his teaching, that we needed to recover something of that way of reading the Bible—living in its world, rather than dragging it into our world.

Another rich quote is:

“A Christian theology that respects the meaning of the biblical narratives must begin simply by retelling those stories, without any systematic effort at apologetics, without any determined effort to begin with questions arising from our experience. The stories portray a person — a God who acts in the history of Israel and engages in self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. They help us learn about that person in the way that a great novelist describes a character or that a telling anecdote captures someone’s personality. They provide insights that we lose if we try to summarize the narrative in a nonnarrative form. No abstract account of God’s faithfulness adequately summarizes Exodus. The Gospels surpass any abstract account of God’s love.”

And he quotes Erich Auerbach, a literary critic whom Frei much admired, as he wrote of the Bible:

“Far from seeking . . . merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history. Christians who tell these stories, stories that are rich, enigmatic, sometimes puzzling and ambiguous, can find that their lives fit into the world they describe — indeed, that our stories suddenly seem to make more sense when seen in that context.”

(You can read more of Frei’s writing at https://www.religion-online.org/article/hans-frei-and-the-meaning-of-biblical-narrative/)

It seems to me that the ethos of the book of signs and the writings of Hans Frei, separated in time by two full millennia, nevertheless share this common feature, of immersing themselves into the ancient scripture so that it shapes the way they live in the world of their own time.

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The earlier part of this blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

The serpent in the wilderness (John 3, Num 21; Lent 4)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). So begins the section of the book of signs, the section from the Gospel of John that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (John 3:14-21).

The allusion to Moses is clear, referencing the time when “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:9). The Numbers passage is included in this Sunday’s lectionary, as the reading from Hebrew Scripture (Num 21:4-9).

The Brazen Serpent Monument
on Mount Nebo in Jordan

Of particular note in the Numbers passage, before we head into the Gospel passage that alludes to it, is the fact that there is a crucially important Hebrew word which appears in Num 21 and which in most current English translation, is not accurately rendered. (This is a favourite of my wife, Elizabeth—she often refers to the translation issues inherent at this point.)

In Num 21:6, the Lord sends creatures often described as “fiery serpents” or “poisonous serpents” amongst the people, who are grumbling about the food and water available to them in the wilderness. In Num 21:8, the Lord commands Moses to put a “fiery serpent” or a “poisonous serpent” on a pole. In both verses, the crucial word is saraph — a word that appears just seven times in the Hebrew Bible.

On three occasions (twice here, and again at Deut 8:15), saraph is translated as “fiery serpent”. In two instances, it is rendered as “flying serpents” (Isa 14:29 and 30:6). But in one very well-known story (the call of Isaiah), the word appears in its plural form, seraphim—and here, it is usually transliterated, letter for letter, as “seraphim” (Isaiah 6:2, 6).

The seraphim, of course, were one of three forms of angels known to the ancient Hebrews—the malachim, or messengers (from which Malachi gets his name), the cherubim (depicted on the ark, according to Exodus 25:18-22), and the seraphim (six-winged creatures who are the heavenly attendants of God).

And as Isaiah indicates, these seraphim were certainly able to fly (Isa 6:2), and they clearly dealt with fire, taking a coal from altar with a pair of tongs and delivering that to the prophet (Isa 6:6-7). In fact, the word saraph derives from a word that literally means “burning”.

Alongside this word, the more usual Hebrew word for serpent, nehash, is found in the Numbers story. It occurs once in what the narrator reports in Num 21:6, where the word stands right alongside seraphim; here the double barrelled hanehashim haseraphim appears to designate the serpents that bit the Israelites as “fiery serpent-like seraphim”, or even “flying serpent-like fiery-seraphim”.

Then the simple nehash appears once in what the people say (21:7), asking Moses to “take away the serpents from us”; and then twice in the actions of Moses (21:9). What Moses makes is a nehas nehoset, “a bronze serpent”; and what Moses places on the pole is a nehas hanehoset, “the bronze serpent”—that is, a serpent figure forged from bronze metal (21:9). But what God had commanded him to place on the pole was a saraph, a “fiery serpent” (21:8).

So there is a curious element in the Numbers story—did Moses use an image of a serpent, or an image of a seraph, to ward off the seraph-serpents who bit the people? (Num 21:9). The Hebrew actually refers to the image on the pole using both terms!

This brief (and complex) allusion to the “fiery serpents” (or should that be the seraphim?) in John 3 forms part of an important motif running throughout the whole Gospel, in which Jesus is linked to scripture–often as “the fulfilment of scripture”, but in many more ways as well.

It’s a feature that is common to all four canonical Gospels; but it has a distinctive shape in the book of signs. I think that topic warrants its own blog ….. https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/10/the-complex-and-rich-world-of-scriptural-imagery-in-the-book-of-signs-john-3-lent-4/

Raise up a (new) temple: Jesus and “the Jews” in the fourth Gospel (John 2; Lent 3)

The Johannine account of the incident in the Temple (John 2:13-22), which appears in the lectionary as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday, concludes by indicating that Jesus, the northerner from Nazareth in the Galilee, is intent on confronting the southern Judeans and their degrading of the Temple.

(I’ve done an earlier blog on the incident itself, at https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/01/righteous-anger-and-zealous-piety-the-incident-in-the-temple-john-2-lent-3/)

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”, Jesus had said to his disciples (2:19); and the author concludes, “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22).

Indeed, the previous story in this Gospel, the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine whilst at a wedding in Cana of Galilee (2:1-11), also flags this confrontational aspect. It infers that the water of the Jewish purification system (2:6) is inferior to the “good wine” which Jesus offers (2:10).

Wedding at Cana by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-1311)

The dynamic of confrontation continues in the scene in which a zealous Jesus, whip in hand, speaking with righteous anger, expels traders from the temple courtyard, quoting the prophets to support his actions (2:13–17).

The programmatic purpose of these two passages, placed at the very start of the long narrative section about the public activities of Jesus (2:1-12:50), is that they introduce this dynamic of conflict and opposition. This is a motif that runs throughout the whole of the book of origins.

The supremacy of Jesus

In the first Jerusalem controversy (5:16–47), Jesus makes a grand claim for himself in relation to Jewish history: by healing on the Sabbath, he continues to do “the works which the Father has granted me” (5:36). This controversy reaches its culmination with Jesus’ claim that no less an authority than Moses supports his understanding of his role (5:45–47); for indeed, “he [Moses] wrote of me” (5:46).

The issues in this first controversy are resumed throughout 7:10–10:39, and the claims of Jesus come to a further climax when he claims support from no less a figure than Abraham (8:53–58); indeed, “your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day” (8:56).

Then, a similar claim is made by the narrator concerning the prophet Isaiah at the very end of the first half of the Gospel, in the aftermath of the raising of Lazarus (12:36b–43). The response of many people to Jesus was one of disbelief, in direct fulfilment of the words of Isaiah, who “saw his glory and spoke of him [Jesus]” (12:41).

Thus, three venerable witnesses from Hebrew scripture (Moses, Abraham and Isaiah) give personal testimony to the supremacy of the words and deeds of Jesus.

Criticisms of Jesus

The situation which lies behind the recounting of these words, and the retelling of controversy narratives, is one of high tension between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities. The cry of the crowd, that Jesus has “a demon” (7:20; 10:20), is repeated by the Jews at 8:48–52, with the added insult that he is “a Samaritan” (8:48). A demon-possessed Samaritan could not be more of an outsider!

A third criticism levelled against Jesus is that he was born illegitimate (8:41). The words of the Jews represent a tense argument which was taking place within the Judaism of the first century, as Jewish followers of Jesus debated with the authorities in their synagogues about the status of Jesus of Nazareth.

The threat of persecution

This tension is increased by the ever–present threat of persecution which runs throughout this Gospel. Jesus highlights this in his discourse on the sheep and the shepherd, with references to the threat posed to the sheep by thieves and bandits (10:1, 8, 10), strangers (10:5), the hired hand (10:12–13), and wolves (10:12).  The menace posed by these figures leads Jesus to infer that some of his sheep will be “snatched” out of his hand (10:28–29).

A fuller and more explicit exposition of this theme is given in the second farewell discourse, under the rubric of “the world hates you” (15:18–25). Jesus here predicts that his fate will set the pattern for the fate of his followers; “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (15:20).

At this, the Jews prepare to stone Jesus for the second time (10:31; the earlier instance was at 8:59). This enacts the revelation made by Jesus in an earlier discourse, that his fate is to be hated by the world (7:7); and already in the Prologue the narrator has spoken of the rejection of the Word (1:10–11).

The Passion Narrative details the course of this rejection: betrayal (18:1–9), denial (18:15–18, 25–27), abandonment by his own people (18:38b–40, 19:7–8), and crucifixion (19:16–30). The ultimate fate of martyrdom, suffered by Jesus, is quite explicitly the same fate in store for those who follow Jesus: “They will put you out of the synagogues … whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (16:2–3). This, presumably, is what was meant by the allusion to their being “snatched out of the Father’s hand” (10:28–29).

Fear of “the Jews”

Who is it that perpetrates this persecution? Running throughout the storyline of this Gospel is a refrain concerning “the fear of the Jews”. This note is first sounded after Jesus’ second visit to Jerusalem (5:1). Upon returning to Galilee, Jesus refuses to return to Judea (7:1); but when his brothers travel there, he follows “not publicly but in private” (7:10). Obviously his presence in Jerusalem is known, as there is a divided opinion about Jesus – again, in private, for “no one spoke openly of him for fear of the Jews” (7:13).

Later in this same visit to Jerusalem, after Jesus has enabled the man born blind to see once more, the parents of this man distance themselves from their cured son, claiming not to know of the details of the healing, “because they feared the Jews” (9:22).

Likewise, after the crucifixion of Jesus, his body is requested of Pilate by Joseph of Arimathaea, who is described as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (19:38). Finally, when the disciples gather after the crucifixion, not yet aware that the tomb is empty, they meet with “the doors locked, for fear of the Jews” (20:19). In each case, fear of the Jews leads to deeds and words which take place in secret; any desired confession of allegiance to Jesus is muted and repressed, because of this fear.

Even Pilate, in the Johannine account of the trial of Jesus, trembles before the Jews; “he was more afraid than ever” (19:8). This would seem to be a highly implausible historical possibility, given what is known of the rigour of Pilate’s rule. It seems reasonable to conclude that the theme of the fear of the Jews is functioning as a significant Johannine motif at the level of the readers of the narrative.

Who are “the Jews” ?

The opposition to Jesus which runs throughout the first half of this Gospel often comes from the group described, indiscriminately, as “the Jews” (2:18–20; 5:16–18; 6:41, 52; 7:1; 8:31, 48; 9:18, 22; 10:19, 24, 31). Who are these people who evoke such fear?

The Greek word used (Ioudaioi) can point to a geographic entity (the Judeans, from the southern kingdom), or a religious entity (Jews, as opposed to Samaritans or Gentiles). The identity of the Ioudaioi in this Gospel is a critical matter. They appear to be clearly identified with the Judaeans at 7:1; but not every usage of the term must necessarily bear this geographical meaning.

Some scholars see this term as a typically Johannine symbolic cipher—a code word for “the world”, since “the world” parallels “his own people” at 1:10–11, and the actions of “the Jews” is consistent with what is said of “the world” at 15:18–16:4.  

More plausible is the view that “the Jews” are simply to be equated with the Judaean leaders. Midway through the Gospel, the specific opponents of Jesus are identified as “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (11:57). Soon, this grouping broadens its opposition to Jesus, to include Lazarus (12:9–11).

Yet a clear contrast is drawn between the “great crowd of the Jews” who had come to see Jesus and Lazarus (12:9), and the “many Jews” who believe in Jesus (12:10), on the one hand; and the leadership of the Jews, who were planning the persecution: the chief priests who plot his death (12:10), and the Pharisees, who initially appear unable to act (12:19), but who ultimately join with the priestly group to effect the arrest of Jesus (18:3). The opponents of Jesus are here described quite specifically from the moment that Lazarus is raised from the dead.

Thus, it is clear that “the Jews” is a shorthand way of referring to the religious authorities in Jerusalem who are hostile towards Jesus. See more at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm

The Synoptic Gospels indicate that throughout his public activities, Jesus had engaged in controversy with the Pharisees (Mark 2:16, 24; 3:6; 7:1, 5; 8:11, 15; 10:2; 12:13 and parallels; Matt 5:20; 12:24, 38; Luke 7:30; 11:37–44, 53; 12:1; 15:2; 16:14). It was only from the time of his arrival in Jerusalem that there was any priestly opposition (Mark 11:18 and parallels).

In John’s Gospel, the position is somewhat different. Opposition to Jesus from the time of his last visit to Jerusalem comes not only from the Pharisees, in particular (4:1; 7:47; 8:13; 9:13, 40), but also from the chief priests and the Pharisees (7:32, 45; 11:47, 57).

Expulsion from the synagogue

In the Synoptic accounts, the Pharisees fade from view once Jesus enters Jerusalem, whereas in this Gospel, when Jesus is arrested, it is at the hands of the military police from the chief priests and the Pharisees (18:3), in conjunction with the Roman soldiers.  The role of the Pharisees, as opponents to Jesus, is thus expanded in this Gospel. More than any other identified group, it is the Pharisees who become the focus of the opposition and persecution of Jesus.

J. Louis Martyn has argued that the Pharisees stand as representatives of the Jewish leadership in the situation after 70 CE, when the final form of this Gospel took shape. This was different from the situation at the time of Jesus’ earthly life. Scholars now refer to this period as the time of formative Judaism—a period when Pharisaic leadership began to form the kind of Judaism which could survive the destruction of the Temple.

This period was marked by sectarian dispute and division—including the development of the Jesus movement away from Judaism, towards its eventual identity as a predominantly Gentile religion. A vacuum had been opened up by the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, and this meant that the Pharisees were struggling to assert their dominance in a new, unsettled, and unfamiliar context.

The book of origins contains three references to the expulsion from the synagogue of the followers of Jesus (9:22; 12:42–43; 16:2–3). This is one point at which the “partings of the ways” begin, for believers within this stream of the Jesus movement became completely alienated from their Jewish religion.

Martyn argues that the experience of the man born blind reflects the situation of those Jews of some decades later on, who had come to faith in Jesus (9:38), in that when they attempted to declare that he was the Messiah, they were expelled from the synagogues (9:22). This expulsion was enforced by the Pharisees (12:42), who instigated persecutions of Jews (16:2) when they refused to adhere to the position which they were putting.

Thus, the beginnings of the development of a sectarian community can be seen; when Jews who confessed Jesus as Messiah were expelled from the synagogue, they formed their own community with their own developing beliefs. Into that context, decades after Jesus, the account of the book of signs is crystallised into a full Gospel.

Placing blame on “the Jews”

The Johannine passion narrative (18:1–19:42) contains further indicators of the sectarian nature of the community. Although Jesus dies by crucifixion, under Roman jurisdiction, the blame for his death is placed amongst the Jerusalem leadership, through a sequence of events uniquely highlighted in this Gospel.

First, the plotting of the priestly leaders, reported immediately after the raising of Lazarus (11:49–53), is briefly rehearsed (18:14).

Then the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem declare Jesus to be a criminal (18:30) and hand him over to the Roman procurator, Pilate (18:34), who is reluctant to accept the case (18:31). Yet Roman justice is not permitted to run its course; indeed, had this been so, Pilate would certainly have released Jesus (18:38; 19:6, 12).

The Synoptic version of the trial scene notes the interference of the priestly rulers in the “Barabbas” incident (Mark 14:8–15 and parallels). The Johannine version intensifies the role of the Jews by their persistence in calling for the death of Jesus (19:7, 12, 15).

It is only when Jesus hangs on the cross that Pilate is able to stand up to the priests—on a matter of negligible consequence (the wording of the inscription, 19:21).

Thus, the apologetic against the Jews is heightened in the Johannine passion narrative, giving clear reasons for the disciples’ later decision to meet behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (20:19).

And so, the book of origins provides fertile grounds for later developments that pitted Christians against Jews with such ferocity—and that led to medieval pogroms, then the development of ghettos, then the systematic persecutions leading to the horrors of the Shoah under the Nazis.

The thread of antagonism and conflict, present at the start of the book of signs (2:1-22), has grown and developed throughout the Gospel (and beyond). We must take great care in how we use and interpret this text.

*****

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

On the importance of avoiding antisemitism, and negative attitudes and behaviours towards Jews and Judaism, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/download/1109_09f709cccf49d83607c92e31d650d581

Righteous anger and zealous piety: the incident in the Temple (John 2; Lent 3)

How might we characterise what Jesus wants all of his followers to exhibit? Loving kindness, gracious acceptance, patient servanthood, self-effacing humility? If we take seriously the disturbing teachings we heard last week (Mark 8:34-38), these will be the central characteristics we will exhibit. And such characteristics are, as we noted last week, disruptive and destabilising!

However, in yet another instance of such disruptive instability, the lectionary this week offers a story about a time in the life of Jesus when he was anything but humble, gracious, and self-effacing. The infamous story of “Jesus cleansing the Temple”, set for Lent 2, is found in all four canonical Gospels. It occurs at the very end of the public activity of Jesus in the three Synoptic Gospels, where it provides the catalyst for the arrest and trial of Jesus.

By contrast, and quite strikingly, in the fourth Gospel, the book of signs, it is recounted very early on, immediately after the very first miracle that Jesus performed (2:1-11). It stands as a kind of “programmatic statement” which declares what Jesus is on about in the whole of his ministry (in much the same way that Luke 4:16-30 provides a “manifesto for mission” in the Lukan presentation of the story of Jesus).

And the Jesus who is portrayed in this striking account demonstrates very little gracious, self-effacing humility. Rather, he acts out his righteous anger, embodies zealous piety, and provides an intensity of focus on the role to which (according to this author) he has been called: “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19).

I. Righteous anger. First, this story depicts Jesus as manifesting “righteous anger”, both in his actions (2:15) and in his words (2:16).

The actions of Jesus include overturning the tables of the money changers (as noted when this story is reported in Mark 11:15 and Matt 21:12) and driving them out of the temple area (as is also noted in Mark 11:15, Matt 21:12, and Luke 19:45).

They also include tipping out the coins of those money changers (not reported in other accounts), and knitting together cords to form a whip, by which he carried out these actions (also absent from the Synoptic accounts of this scene). The fact that this would take some time to do indicates that, at least in John’s eyes, Jesus was entering the area with intention and purpose.

James McGrath notes that “both the selling of animals for sacrifices and the payment of the temple tax were activities required by Jewish law and central to the temple’s functions” (see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/jesus-and-the-moneychangers). What Jesus does is therefore not an incidental act of anger; it is part of a deliberate plan of action.

McGrath suggests that the reference to the Temple as a marketplace might be an allusion to the eschatological prophecy of Zechariah, that “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (Zech 14:21). Is Jesus enacting this prophecy through his actions in the Temple forecourt?

Certainly, the words of Jesus (2:16) are sharp and accusatory. There is both the sharp command to take the elements of money changing out of the precinct, as well as the accusation that what the traders are doing is “making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus commands them directly to “stop”.

This is similar to, but not the same as, the Synoptic accusation that the money changers are making the temple “a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17, Matt 21:13, and Luke 19:46). That most likely references the rhetorical question of the prophet Jeremiah: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jer 7:11).

Gail O’Day considers that “by going to the Jerusalem temple and disrupting the practices that were necessary for the celebration of Passover, Jesus places himself in a long line of Israel’s prophets who go to Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power, and announce and enact the word of God.” (see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/cleansing-or-cursing)

In this dramatic prophetic action, Jesus acts and speaks carefully, deliberately, with “righteous anger”. This concept is explicitly is named in an earlier Jewish text, telling of the moment when Mattathias exploded in anger at the desecration of the land that he was witnessing by the foreign powers that held Israel under their power.

Mattathias the Maccabee:
bronze head (1894) by Boris Schatz

Mattathias watches a Jew come forward to make a sacrifice on the pagan altar erected in Modein, in accordance with the command issued by Antiochus. It is said that Mattathias “burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar” (1 Macc 2:24).

Does Jesus stand in this tradition, when he enters the Temple, is disturbed by what he sees there, and acts to purge the forecourt of the activities taking place there? Is this an expression of righteous anger? (Not to the extent of killing a person; but still, enacting vigorous actions and speaking striking words.)

Of course, anger—presumably, justified, or righteous, expression of anger—is a characteristic of God throughout Hebrew Scriptures. Moses experienced the anger of the Lord (Exodus 4:14), as did all of Israel in the wilderness (Num 11:1,33, 12:9, 25:1-5, 32:9-15; Deut 6:15, 11:17, 29:19-28, 31:17, 29, 32:22), and then this divine anger is present as a regular and consistent element through the narratives of the ongoing story of Israel.

Certainly, there are places in Hebrew Scripture which repeat the formulaic claim that God is “slow to anger” (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:8). Nevertheless, scripture contains invocations to God to put aside his anger, such as that by Moses (Deut 9:19) and the prayer of Daniel, “O Lord, in view of all your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath, we pray, turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain” (Dan 9:16). God’s anger was well known.

So in this incident in the temple, Jesus is manifesting, not just the righteous anger of the revolutionary Mattathias, but the anger of the righteous one himself, the Lord God. And this anger is directed at those who debase the Temple, the house of God, through their actions.

II. Zealous piety. Second, the incident is interpreted as a manifestation of zealous piety from Jesus. Interestingly, it is not Jesus himself who directly expresses this; rather, the author indicates that this interpretation was made after the event by the followers of Jesus. They understand the actions of Jesus in the terms of a verse from the Psalms, “zeal for your house will consume me” (Ps 69:9, quoted in John 2:17).

The expression of zeal is linked with anger in the same extract from 1 Maccabees that we saw above: “Mattathias burned with zeal … and gave vent to righteous anger” (1 Matt 2:24). There are further examples of intense zeal amongst the people of Israel–most notably Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, of whom God said: “he has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites” (Num 25:11). That shows the power of zeal, to restrain God’s wrath!

A depiction of Phinehas

Zeal for the Lord is expressed by Jehu the king: “Come with me, and see my zeal for the LORD” (2 Kings 10:16). Later, in the time of return and restoration in the land, Ezra notes, “Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, or wrath will come upon the realm of the king and his heirs” (Ezra 7:23)

Like righteous anger, intense zeal is attributed to God at a number of places in scripture. For instance, “the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward; for from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (2 Kings 19:30-31)

That refrain recurs elsewhere. Most famously, as the prophet Isaiah says of the one promised by God, “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:7).

And again, later in Isaiah: “from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 37:32).

In the period of the Maccabees, zeal for the law was highly valued. The instruction found at 1 Macc 2:50, “now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors”, led directly to the movement which became known as the Zealots—revolutionaries who would go to any length to stand up for the Law. Josephus later describes this “fourth philosophy” (alongside Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes) as being characterised by precisely this characteristic—a zeal for the Law—to the extent that Zealots were willing to put their lives on the line in defence of their traditions and customs.

A later Jewish document describes such people (Jewish political rebels) in this manner: “a common zeal for nobility strengthened their goodwill toward one another, and their concord, because they could make their brotherly love more fervent with the aid of their religion” (4 Macc 13:25-26). And the key figure from earlier Jewish stories, for these zealous rebels, is Phinehas, whom we noted above (Num 25:11) as exhibiting zeal that changed the mind of God.

Jesus, entering the Temple precincts, seeing what is taking place in the outer courtyard, is filled with the zeal of the Lord and expresses the righteous anger of the Lord, as he confronts the money changers.

Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple
oil painting by Quinten Massijs (1514)
(Museum: Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp)

The conclusion of the Johannine account of this incident makes it clear that Jesus, the northerner from Nazareth in the Galilee, is intent on confronting the southern Judeans and their degrading of the Temple. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”, Jesus had said to his disciples (2:19); and so, “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22).

This distinctive Johannine interpretation of the incident in the Temple points to a major theme that runs through the book of signs: the conflict between Jesus and “the Jews”. Which needs a blog in its own right …..

https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/03/raise-up-a-new-temple-jesus-and-the-jews-in-the-fourth-gospel-john-2-lent-3/

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

In the beginning … the Prologue and the book of signs (John 1)

The book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John, begins with a beautifully poetic Prologue (1:1–18). As well as being a piece of poetry, it is a piece of theology; it sets out many of the key themes of the whole work. The Prologue is the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in the season of Christmas. It offers a rich array of ideas for consideration. Only some of them are in focus in what follows.

1. The Prologue begins by introducing the main character of the story: the pre–existent Logos, the word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the one who “makes God known” (1:1, 14, 17-18). This motif of word runs consistently throughout the work: Jesus “speaks the words of God” (3:34; 8:47; 12:50; 14:8–10; 17:14), gives teaching which is “from God” (7:16–18; 14:24; 17:7–8), makes known “everything that I have heard from my Father” (15:15), utters words of “spirit and life” (6:63, 67). For the author of this Gospel, Jesus is, indeed, the Word who was always with God (1:1).

2. Already in the Prologue the narrator speaks of the rejection of the Word (1:10–11). This is played out in the body of the Gospel, especially in chapter 10, with references to the threat posed to the sheep by thieves and bandits (10:1, 8, 10), strangers (10:5), the hired hand (10:12–13), and wolves (10:12). The menace posed by these figures leads Jesus to infer that some of his sheep will be “snatched” out of his hand (10:28–29). At this, the Jews prepare to stone Jesus for the second time (10:31; the earlier instance was at 8:59). This enacts the revelation made by Jesus in an earlier discourse, that his fate is to be hated by the world (7:7).

A fuller and more explicit exposition of this theme of opposition is given in the second Farewell Discourse, under the rubric of “the world hates you” (15:18–25). Jesus here predicts that his fate will set the pattern for the fate of his followers; “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (15:20).

3. The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to the hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped. The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world.

That Judaism had long been engaged with the dominant hellenistic culture, has been well proven by contemporary scholarship. Influences from the Greek–speaking world, and its hellenised culture, are reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world.

The issue is also raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” The kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel is not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It has become open to the wider hellenised world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

4. An important motif running throughout this Gospel is that Jesus is to be regarded as the fulfilment of scripture. This feature is common to all four canonical Gospels. This interpretive stance is hinted at as early as the Prologue, in the comparison between Jesus and Moses (1:17). It is stated explicitly in the claim put on the mouth of Philip, “we have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote” (1:45), and in the words attributed to Jesus, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39).

There are fifteen clear quotations from Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel. There are eight explicit references to scripture in the early chapters (1:23; 2:17; 6:31; 6:45; 7:38; 7:42; 10:34; 12:13–15), while a fulfilment formula is used in later chapters, to introduce seven such scriptural quotations (12:38–40; 13:18; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 28, 36–37). There is also a passing note that Judas died after betraying Jesus “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).

However, the total significance of the Hebrew Scriptures in this Gospel is much greater than these sixteen occurrences, as the Gospel contains numerous allusions to specific scripture passages, such as references to Jacob’s ladder (1:51) and the sacrificial lamb (1:29, 36), as well as more generalised allusions to scripture. These allusions are much freer in their form and indicate that, for the author of this Gospel, the Hebrew Scriptures had become an integral part of his mind and heart, for he treats them with a freedom born from intimate familiarity.

5. In like fashion, a series of Jewish titles is embedded in the narrative as confessions by key characters of the significance of Jesus. The Prologue has introduced a key Johannine title for Jesus: the Word (1:1, 14).

In the extended preface that follows (1:19–51), Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” (1:38, 49), “Messiah” (1:41), “King of Israel” (1:49), and “Son of God” (1:49). These claims about Jesus are all made also within the Synoptic traditions. The Johannine Jesus himself refers, in the allusive synoptic fashion, to the “Son of Man” (thirteen times, from 1:51 to 13:31), which we must presume to be a self–reference. In later scenes, Jesus is also called “prophet” (4:19), “Messiah” (4:29; 11:27), and “Rabbouni” (my teacher, 20:16). These are all Jewish titles.

6. The ultimate Christological confession of the Gospel is uttered by Thomas, when he moves beyond this viewpoint in the phrase, “my Lord and my God” (20:28), echoing the perception of the Jews, that Jesus was “making himself equal to God” (5:18). Is this already alluded to in the conclusion of the Prologue, in the affirmation, “it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18)?

For the most part of this Gospel, Jesus is presented in terms drawn from within a Jewish context. Indeed, even the confession by Thomas can be understood within a particular stream of Jewish tradition, for the hellenisticJewish author Philo uses the terms “Lord” and “God” to designate the two major divine powers of creation (signified by “God”) and eschatological judgement (signified by “Lord”).

7. Another characteristic which dominates the Christology of this Gospel is the Father-Son relationship (3:35–36; 5:19–23, 26; 6:37–40; 8:34–38; 10:32–38; 14:8–13; 17:1–5). This relationship is hinted at in the Prologue in 1:18, where the “only-begotten son” is portrayed as being “next to the breast of the Father” (my literal translation), or “close to the father’s heart” (NRSV). In one of his disputes with the Jewish authorities, Jesus declares that he does his works “so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father” (10:38).

This mutual interrelationship is brought to the pinnacle of its development in the lengthy prayer of chapter 17: “you, Father, are in me, and I am in you” (17:21). The purpose of describing this relationship in this way is to strengthen the claims made for Jesus, to validate him as authoritative, in the context of debates with the Jewish authorities.

8. Finally, Jesus is perceived as being “equal with God” (5:18). At the narrative level, this is a polemical view of Jesus, attributed to the Jews. However, the author of the Gospel clearly wants the readers to agree with the claim. This is supported by further comments such as: it is clear that he is the Messiah, for he is “doing the works of God” (10:24–25); he is “making himself a god” (10:33); “he has claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7); and he is acclaimed as “Lord and God” (20:28). It is also signalled in the closing verse of the Prologue: “it is God the only Son [or, the Father’s only son], who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made [God] known” (1:18).

This is the strongest claim made about Jesus; it lifts him above the realm of human debate and, as a consequence, it also lifts the claims made by his disciples, in his name, above that human realm. By this means, the community of his followers lay claim to a dominant, privileged position, vis–a–vis the Jewish authorities. The Christology which is proclaimed in the written Gospel has thus been developed and refined in the controversies and disputes of the community over the preceding decades.

9. Later Christian theology developed the doctrine of the Trinity, in which God, Jesus and the Spirit relate to one another as equals. Whilst the Gospel of John provides biblical warrant for the equality of Father and Son, the role of the Spirit is less prominent. Jesus is endowed with the Spirit at his baptism (1:32–33) and gives the Spirit to others through the words he speaks (3:34).

However, the Spirit is clearly subordinated to the Son in this Gospel. It is not until after Jesus is glorified that the Spirit is given (7:39; 20:22). The role of the Spirit is to be the Advocate of the Son (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7), sent by the Son to testify on his behalf (15:26) and to represent what has already been spoken by Jesus (14:26; 16:13–15). As the Son testifies to the truth (1:14, 17; 8:32, 45–46; 14:6; 18:37), so the Spirit is “the spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13).

So the book of signs provides pointers towards this central Christian doctrine, but does not actually articulate it in the categories and using the terms from later debates amongst the Church Fathers and decisions made by the various Councils of the Church. We need to hear the message of this Gospel in its own terms, in its own context, in its own right.

Advent Three: The witness of John (John 1)

Last week, the lectionary offered a Gospel passage from the beginning of the good news about Jesus, featuring the fiersome desert-dwelling prophet, John, known as the Baptiser (Mark 1:1-8). This week, we have a section from the book of signs in which the same person, John, figures. But he is quite a different person in this week’s text–and the way he is portrayed offers a glimpse into another world.

The book of signs introduces John as a much more domesticated figure, compared with the way that he appears at the start of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. In John’s account, he appears, all of a sudden, in the midst of the majestic poetic Prologue (1:1-18) which opens this Gospel. 

The Prologue is focussed on the eternal character of the Word of God (1:1-2), present at the moment of creation (1:3), shaping the world that we know and inhabit (1:14, 16-17). In the midst of this, the human figure of John appears—as somewhat of an anomaly in the midst of the ethereal poetic lines (1:6-8, 15).

The Prologue is followed by a more prosaic Prelude (1:19-51), which narrates a series of encounters involving John, Jesus, and their followers. These encounters establish the centrality of Jesus in the narrative, first through the testimony of John the baptiser (1:19-36), then by having various individuals “come and see” him (1:39, 46). 

Both John and these individual disciples confess the significance of Jesus through a variety of Christological titles. This Prelude ends with Jesus himself adopting a title to explain his significance (“Son of Man”, 1:51).

That John is a witness to Jesus is already indicated in the Prologue, through some prosaic narrative insertions into the grand poetic opening. The Lectionary this coming Sunday offers us both the initial prosaic comment (1:6-8), and the ensuing story relating what John said about Jesus (1:19-28).

But the John whom we meet in this gospel is a very different figure from the desert dwelling apocalyptic visionary whom we encountered in last week’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The Johannine John does not frequent the desert, as in Mark 1; rather, his activity is located in Bethany, near the Jordan (1:28). 

The Johannine John does not issue a clarion call for repentance, as in Mark 1; rather, he bears witness to Jesus, “the one coming after me” (1:27), as the one “who ranks ahead of me” (1:30). As John, in this gospel, bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), he testifies that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:203:28).

What is the reason for this different portrayal of John the Baptist in this Gospel?

The Gospel of John includes some pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas. It offers us glimpses 

The early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, and other content such as the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, and even the way that the Logos (the Word) is portrayed in the Prologue, each point to this wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within formative Judaism.

John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11). It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42).

John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus.
A panel from the Isenheim altarpiece,
painted by Mattias Grünewald around 1515.

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers. This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of a different kind of Judaism on this Gospel, which led to the development of a different form of Christianity in the ensuing centuries.

Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel.  This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident. 

The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village. 

This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions. Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode; ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.

The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped.  The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world. 

That Judaism had long been engaged with the dominant hellenistic culture, has been well proven by contemporary scholarship. Influences from the Greek–speaking world, and its hellenised culture, are reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world. 

The issue is also raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” Other signs, less immediately obvious, pointing to this influence, are claimed at various points throughout the gospel. Once again, we see that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel is not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It has become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

Contemporary Mandaeans

So, the distinctive figure of John at the start of this distinctive Gospel, offers a keyhole through which we can gain a glimpse of a little-appreciated strand amongst the wide diversity of options in early Christianity.

See also John (the baptizer) and Jesus (the anointed) in the book of signs (the Gospel of John) – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com)https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2020/01/preview-the-mandaean-book-of-john.html
What the Mandaeans know about John the Baptist | Bible and Beyond (earlychristiantexts.com)
and https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/11/the-symbolism-and-meaning-of-johns-baptism.html

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/towards-the-coming-the-first-sunday-in-advent-mark-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/

Revelation: a complex and intricate world of heavenly beings and exotic creatures

When we come to the end of the New Testament, we find that the final book bears the name of the apostle John. We know it as the book of the Revelation of John. This book, however, is dramatically different from the Gospel that also bears John’s name. It has its own utterly distinctive character and style.

This book has some indications that it is to be understood as a letter. The opening section (1:1–20) includes an explicit identification of the author (1:4) and the location of his writing (1:9); a brief description of the situation of the recipients (1:9) along with a listing of the specific cities in which they lived (1:11); and a short blessing and doxology (1:4–5).

The book also contains the text of seven short letters, to the churches in these seven cities (2:1–3:22). The closing section (22:8–21) reiterates the role of the author (22:8) and concludes with a blessing formula (22:21). Each of these elements reflects traditional letter-writing style.

The author identifies himself as John (1:4, 9; 22:8) and notes that he was living on the island of Patmos (1:9); church tradition has equated him with John, the disciple of Jesus, as well as the author of the fourth Gospel and three letters. However, this book is strikingly different from the Gospel and the three letters.

Some have argued that the tone of the book might reflect the style of one of “the Sons of Thunder”, as the disciple John was labelled (Mark 3:17); but such a generalisation is not grounded in specific evidence.

Both the style of Greek employed and the way that biblical imagery is deployed sets this book apart from the Gospel which bears John’s name; whilst that book is steeped in biblical imagery and language, it is done in a more subtle and sophisticated manner.

The issues addressed in each of the letters which are attributed to John are internal church matters, quite different from the broader view of society which is in view in Revelation. These letters require separate consideration from the dramatic scenes which follow.

The recipients of the book, identified generically as “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4), are then named one by one, by city (1:11).  In the details of the seven letters which are addressed specifically to these seven churches (2:1–3:22), we might imagine that we will find insight into the specific situation in these churches, which is being addressed in this book.

Yet, a careful reading of these particular letters indicates that they are written and delivered in response to a dramatic vision of a distinguished figure with an ominous presence, who instructs the author to write the letters to the angels of the various churches (1:9–20).

Furthermore, the content of a number of these letters introduces additional elements which are striking and unusual—seven stars held in a man’s hand, seven spirits of God, seven golden lampstands, white robes and a white stone, immoral behaviours and strange teachings which exhibit Satanic influences.

As we read on, we discover that this turns out to be just a little “sampler” of the far more complex and intricate world of heavenly beings and exotic creatures, who populate a series of increasingly bizarre and disturbing visions throughout the rest of the book. The whole book is much more than a letter, or a series of letters.

The opening and closing chapters give a number of clues in this regard. The work is characterised as being words of prophecy (1:3; 22:10, 18–19). The prophecy which is presented in this book is summarised as what must soon take place (1:1; 22:6). Both at the beginning and at the end of the book, the author declares that he is looking forward in time, reporting events that will soon occur.

However, this is not simply John’s view of what is to happen; what he writes, he maintains, has first been made known to him by an angel (1:1; 22:6, 8). So, the visions reported in chapters 4–21 are encircled by strong assertions of their significance and import.

As the book ends (22:6–21), a series of statements and affirmations reinforce the importance of what has been revealed in these visions.

First, the author repeats the explicit claim that this was shown to him by an angel (22:8–9). The instruction he is given, to make this known (“do not seal up the words”, 22:10), ensures that the message will become public—the author must write letters and report visions to those who will listen.

Then the author intensifies the moment by reporting the direct words of Jesus: “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you” (22:16); the message has a clear heavenly origin.

Next comes a dire warning not to tamper with the words as revealed by these means (22:18–19); the style is that of a solemn oath. The work closes with a prayer which looks to the way of Jesus in the future, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20), and a final formulaic benediction of grace (22:11, evoking the opening blessing of 1:4).

Ways of interpreting this book

The book of Revelation has probably become the most misunderstood book of the New Testament—because of the enigmatic nature, and the dramatic power, of these visionary sections. There are numerous theories seeking to ‘explain’ the meaning of the visions and to ‘prove’ the identity of the various figures who appear in these visions.

There are many approaches that have been taken to explain the vivid imagery which depicts the future judgement of humanity, which has led to this also being one of the most misused books of the New Testament. It has been interpreted by groups of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand.

How, then, do we seek to “understand” this book? When ever we turn to scripture, are we looking for clear doctrinal statements? In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”.

Or do we hope to encounter stories which help us to understand what has transpired in history? In which case, we will look for evidence that pins down the content of this book and grounds it in real-life events.

Both approaches require us to develop an extensive system of interpretation for reading this book. This is not a simple or straightforward task.

An alternative (and often employed) way of reading this book is to consider that it is prophecy which provides a set of predictions about the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century. Other interpreters claim that the book is pointing forward in time, to events that will take place beyond the time of the reader, in our own times (that is, the 21st century). 

Some people will want to read the book simply as literature in its own right; as a work of art, it has the power to generate ideas and responses without necessarily tying these down to what is “true” or “accurate”. Ideological critics might wish to engage in dialogue with the book in relation to the violence which runs throughout the visions. 

Some readers have considered this book to be an expression of patriarchal power, caught up in the masculine enterprise of solving disputes through coercion and violence. Others have undertaken a search for an alternative vision of peacemaking in the midst of human warfare, as the lamb who was slaughtered is the one who ultimately triumphs.

How do you come to this book? What is the lens, the perspective, that you employ, to read this dramatic and different book?

Whatever the way is that we seek to approach our reading of this book, it will influence the kind of understanding that results. Because the work does not lay down one simple narrative line; because it is so rich and intricate in its symbolism; because it places layer upon layer, image upon image, it will produce multiple readings with multiple appreciations. Such is the complex nature of interpreting biblical texts.