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.

What do we know about who wrote the letters in the name of the apostles? (4)

Alongside the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, there are another eight documents which are included in the New Testament which are, by tradition, identified as letters. Seven of them are attributed to other apostles: three to John, two to Peter, and one each to James and Jude. One further document is anonymous, in that it is identified by its recipients (to the Hebrews) rather than its purported author.

These eight documents are of varying lengths, addressed to a range of people in a variety of locations. They contain injunctions, exhortations, and commands about how to live in accordance with the way of Jesus.

They reflect the varying realities of some small, growing communities of followers of Jesus in the eastern Mediterranean region. These communities developed within the fertile fields of Second Temple Judaism. Their members were seeking to live out their faith under the realities of the Roman imperial power. Ultimately each of them contributed to the formation of what came to be known as the Christian Church.

In each case, the book is presented as a letter—although the character of some of these books suggests that they may not originally have been written as a letter.

These books provide us with insights into the variety of ways that the early church presented the good news and gave instructions about following the way of Jesus. Each in their own way points to the continuing presence of Jewish believers beyond the initial years of the Jesus movement.

Letters in the Name of John

The author of 1 John is never named, but the opening verse makes the claim that the letter comes from one who has “heard…seen…looked at and touched” for himself, the very “word of life” (1:1). The inference is that the author has had personal contact with Jesus himself; in the third century, Irenaeus made the definitive claim that the letter was written by “John, the disciple of the Lord” (Against Heresies 3.16.5).

This claim goes beyond any direct assertion within the letter itself; although such a claim might be reinforced by the author’s reiteration of his privileged status as eyewitness (and earwitness): “we have seen it” (1:2), “what we have seen and heard” (1:3), “the message we have heard from him” (1:5), as well as a later reminder: “just as he has commanded us” (3:23).

Both 1 John and the Gospel of John state that they were “written … [concerning] “eternal life”, which was granted to people who “believe” in Jesus as “the Son of God”. The similarities suggest either common authorship, or an intentional allusion to the Gospel by the author of the letter. The differences in style and theology between the two works are subtle, but they do reinforce the latter option as preferable.

One clear difference to be noted is that, whilst the Gospel makes frequent references to Hebrew Scripture (both in quotations and by allusion), the letter betrays little awareness of these scriptures, other than what had already been mediated through the Gospel. The strong Jewish context of the Gospel is not evident in this letter.

The identity of the author of 2 John, and the recipients of this letter, has occasioned debate; in neither case is the letter unambiguous in what it says. The “elect lady and her children” (1) could be specific historical individuals, but are usually interpreted in a symbolic fashion, referring to a community of believers with their patroness. A later comment supports this interpretation, with a reference to “the house” (10) suggesting a community of believers meeting in a house. (Evidence for this practice is to be found in Acts and Paul’s letters.)

“The elder”, likewise, is anonymous; similarities in vocabulary and theology point to connections with the author of the first letter of John, and to the author of the Gospel (as noted below). A link with the apostle John depends on decisions made about the authorship of these documents.

A comment in the first church history, written in the early fourth century by Eusebius, provides a problem for this last claim. Eusebius refers to the second century leader, Papias, and notes that he apparently differentiates between John, one of “the disciples of the Lord”, and “the elder John” (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.3–4). Nothing in this letter itself supports a claim for apostolic authorship.

In 3 John, we might readily assume that “the elder” (1) is the same person as the author of 2 John; at a very basic level, there is strong similarity of terminology in phrases used, such as “whom I love in truth” (1), “I was overjoyed” (3), the reference to writing “with pen and ink” (13), and the final greeting (15a).

More significantly, key theological features of the Johannine Gospel and the other two letters of John are evident in this letter: a commitment to truth (1, 3, 4, 12) and a valuing of love (6). There is also a sense that the local community is part of a wider movement, in the exhortation to act “faithfully” towards fellow believers, even if they are not personally known by the recipients of this letter. (The Greek term of verse 5, adelphos, literally means “brother”; NRSV “friends” rightfully gives it an inclusive sense).

A Letter in the Name of James

The description of the author of this treatise is short and to the point: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”(1:1). James was a well-known figure; he is named amongst the brothers of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55; Gal 1:19) and seems to have been the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:20; 21:20).

Was the treatise written before James was put to death in 62CE? (Josephus reports his death in book 20 of his Jewish Antiquities—not to be confused with James, the son of Zebedee, whose death in the year 44CE is noted at Acts 12:2.) The knowledge of Jewish scripture and traditions shown in this work, as well as its extensive set of allusions to the teachings of Jesus, support the possibility that James himself wrote it—or, more likely, preached it, with someone else writing it down. There are many features to support the view that it originated within the early Palestinian (even Jerusalem) part of the Jesus movement.

The refined style and extensive Greek vocabulary employed throughout suggest it may have been written by one schooled in Greek rhetoric and literature—and thus, unlikely to have been a Jewish peasant. So, the book might have been written in the form we have it after the death of James, perhaps as statement of his authority and teaching within the Jerusalem church, in order to encourage other congregations with Jewish members.

One verse describes these congregations as “your synagogues” (2:2). Some scholars have claimed that it must have been written much later, even in the second century, by a person writing in the name of James, as a way of claiming his authority for the teachings proposed in this letter. This view seems less persuasive these days.

James 1:15-18 on papyrus 23, dated around 250 CE

Letters in the Name of Peter

The author of 1 Peter is announced simply as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1). This would suggest a letter from a writer with close personal links with Jesus. The substance of the letter sits uneasily with this claim. The letter’s refined style of language, and especially the use of a number of classical Greek words, is rather unexpected for a Galilean fisherman.

There are a number of references to the suffering of Jesus (1:11; 2:4, 21, 24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1), but no other indication that the author knew anything of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Instead, the letter reflects the Christology of the developing movement, interpreting the death of Jesus in sacrificial terms (1:18–19; 2:24; 3:18) and attesting to him as the one who is risen (1:3; 3:21), a mediator with God (2:5), to be acknowledged as Lord (3:15), now dwelling with God in glory (3:22; 5:10), whose future return is awaited (1:7–8, 13; 4:13; 5:4).

The author claims to have been “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1)—a curious claim to be made by Peter, if the accounts of his denial and desertion of Jesus, found in the canonical gospels, are to be believed! He also describes himself as an “elder” (5:1), which we would not expect to be a term to be adopted by Peter. The word indicates the author’s leadership role within the developing community of faith.

The identification of this community as being “in Babylon” (5:13) is frequently interpreted as being code for Rome, drawing on the same tradition found in Revelation 17:1–18:24. The link with Mark (5:13) has been taken as a further indication of Roman origins, as Mark was alleged to have been in Rome with Peter. However, these connections are faint, revealing nothing of substance about the nature or purpose of the letter.

The close of the letter indicates that it has been written “through Silvanus” (5:12), leading some interpreters to suggest that Silvanus, as secretary, placed a more educated and polished mark on the letter as he transcribed the author’s thoughts. But an alternative translation of this verse is possible, by which Silvanus is designated as the one who delivers the letter, rather than being involved in its writing.

Thus, this Silvanus may well be a different person from the Silvanus who is known as a fellow-worker with Paul (2 Cor 1:19; Acts 15:40) and is called the co-author, with Paul, of both letters to Thessalonica. As he was a member of the Pauline group, we would expect more Pauline influence to be evident in 1 Peter if he was involved in its creation.

In fact, the letter shows more similarity to the “pastoral” letters attributed to Paul. Like them, it is more feasible that this letter was written after the death of the apostle, in his name, in order to encourage and guide believers in what appears to have been a time of increased suffering. Jesus is invoked as the guide and example for believers in this situation.

The first verses of 2 Peter follow the pattern of the opening address of a letter: “Simeon Peter…to those who have received faith…grace and peace” (1:1–2). However, nothing else reflects standard letter practice. There are no closing greetings, simply a reference (unique amongst New Testament books) to Paul and “all his letters” and a warning not to be swayed by erroneous interpretations of them (3:15b–17). The work ends abruptly with a truncated benediction (3:18b).

The work presents as a letter, but its true purpose is signalled by a series of revealing phrases in an opening statement. With his death in view, the author asserts, “I intend to keep on reminding you …to refresh your memory…so that you may be able to recall these things” (1:12–15). Rather than a letter, the work is more accurately characterised as a farewell testament, delivered by a teacher to his disciples with his imminent death in view, to ensure that his teaching is remembered after his death.

Farewell testaments can be found in Jewish literature (Gen 47–49; 2 Sam 23; 2 Esdras 14; 2 Baruch 57–86; Testament of Moses; Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs) as well as in the New Testament (John 14–16; Acts 20:17–38; and w there are elements in 2 Timothy).

The content of the teaching preserved in 2 Peter, however, is distant both from the teachings of Jesus (which the historical Peter would have heard) and from the first letter attributed to Peter. Rather than a letter penned by the disciple Peter, this book is a later work, written in the name of Peter in order to gain authority, to encourage believers at the end of the first century to hold fast to their faith.

A Letter in the Name of Jude

The name of the author of Jude, in Greek, is Ioudas. This is the same name as given to the infamous Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, whose crucial key role in the story of Jesus is featured in all four Gospels. English translations usually render this as Jude—probably to differentiate him from Judas Iscariot.

Four other men by this name also appear in the New Testament: a Galilean rebel (Acts 5:37), a disciple of Jesus (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13; John 14:22), a resident of Damascus (Acts 9:11) and a co-worker of Paul (Acts 15:22, 27, 32).

The opening of the letter emphasises the authority of the writer as one who was close to Jesus: “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James”; he is noted amongst the brothers of Jesus at Mark 6:3 and Matt 13:55.

Could such a person as the brother of James and Jesus have written this work? It has a high quality of Greek syntax and vocabulary, which throws doubt on the claim; and the generalised formulaic and stereotypical language used has led many scholars to date it later in the first century, or even into the second century, by a believer employing the name of Jude to lend authoritative weight to his writing.

A reference to “the words which were previously spoken by the apostles” (17) probably indicates that the apostles were recognised as a distinct group by the time the document was created—suggesting a later rather than earlier date.

A Letter to the Hebrews

The author of Hebrews is most certainly not Paul, as some ancient church writers maintained. Despite claims that the work was written by various individuals mentioned in other New Testament books (Apollos, Priscilla, Silvanus), it is not possible to be absolutely certain about the identity of the author.

The single reference to a known individual, Timothy, in the closing greetings (13:23), does not guarantee that the work came from Paul, an associate of Paul, or even a Pauline circle. The use of a refined Greek style, the intense engagement with Hebrew scripture, and the use of typological interpretation (8:1–7, 13; 10:1, 11–13) together suggest an educated Hellenistic Jew who had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah and was a powerful preacher of the Gospel.

This writer notes that the message of salvation was “declared at first through the Lord, [then] attested by those who heard him” (2:3), thus acknowledging a chain of tradition lying behind the work and indicating that it was probably written towards the end of the first century.

Likewise, the precise identity of the recipients of this letter cannot be known, although some things can be said about them in rather general terms. The reference to “city” (13:14) might suggest an urban context, whilst notes of the good works carried out by the recipients (10:34; 13:16) and a warning to avoid “the love of money” (13:5) might point to a group with a degree of wealth.

The author describes the recipients of this work as being “dull in understanding” (5:11) and needing someone to teach them (5:12). This is the task that is undertaken in this “word of exhortation” (13:22). The document which we label as a letter is more accurately understood as an extended sermon, offering a “word of exhortation”.

The ending of 2 Peter (3:16–18) and the beginning of 1 John (1:1-2:9)
on the same page of Codex Alexandrinus (dated around 400–440 CE)

For previous posts on the authorship of books in the New Testament, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/15/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-new-testament-gospels-1/ 

https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/15/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-new-testament-gospels-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/04/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/

“I am the way” (John 14): from elitist exclusivism to gracious friendship?

The reading this Sunday contains some very familiar, oft-quoted words attributed to Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a). And especially oft-quoted is the next sentence that follows, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6b).

That second sentence is frequently used to interpret the first sentence, to give it a sense of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence. Especially amongst more conservative theological elements in the church, this sense of “only one way”, “no other way” is regularly advocated.

But is this the only way to understand “I am the way”? Let me put the verse into context, consider a number if factors, and suggest why we may need to seek other ways of understanding this declaration about “the way”.

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The first observation to make is that this statement draws on traditional Jewish terminology used by the people in the movement which Jesus initiated. “The Way” is a term which occurs in various chapters in the second volume of the orderly account, the book of Acts (9:2; 18:25; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22). This, according to these references, was the earliest term used to describe these people. (The term which eventually came to dominate, “Christians”, is first referenced at Acts 11:26, and is less-used in Acts.)

Calling the early followers of Jesus “The Way” may owe its origins to scriptural usage in association with God’s activity. The term is used in this way in Psalms 5:8; 18:30; 25:9; 27:11; 37:34; 50:23; 67:2, and so on. We might also note the occurrence of the term in Isa 40:3-5, and observe that it is cited in a prominent position at Luke 3:4-6. The return from exile in Babylon is marked as a preparing of the way by the Lord, leading the exiled people back to their homeland.

The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17-18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6). This may reflect competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects. The Qumran group, of course, was strongly exclusivist (it kept strong boundaries around the membership of the community) and could also be seen as being somewhat elitist in its theological outlook (some documents reflect the worldview that can be crudely summarised as “we have the truth, everyone else is wrong”).

In subsequent usage (beyond the first century) this term, The Way, has come to be completely overshadowed by a term used less often by Luke, that of “Christian” or “messianist” (11:26; 26:28). The latter term initially referred to the fact that the followers of Jesus, from early on, claimed that he was the anointed one, the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ).

So by using the term “the Way”, Luke emphasises the thoroughly Jewish nature of those communities which declared Jesus to be Messiah.

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The second observation for understanding the verse in context is that it is one of a number of “I Am” statements that are placed on the lips of Jesus in the book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John. These sayings comprise a verb (“I am”) followed by a predicate (the entity which Jesus claims to be). The predicates in most of these sayings are drawn from traditional Jewish elements.

Jesus presents himself as “the vine” (John 15:1–11), drawing on a standard scriptural symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 6:9; Ezek 15:1–6; 17:5–10; 19:10–14).

Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18), evoking the imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4), and the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

When Jesus calls himself “the bread of heaven” (6:25–59), he is clearly evoking the scriptural account of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1–36; Num 11:1–35; Pss 78:23–25; 105:40). The discourse which develops from this saying includes explicit quotations of scripture, as well as midrashic discussions of its meaning.

Jesus, “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:1–5), evokes the story of the creation of light (Gen 1:3–5) and the light which the divine presence shone over Israel (Exod 13:21–22). The Psalmist uses the imagery of light to indicate obedience to God’s ways (Pss 27:1; 43:3; 56:13; 119:105, 130; etc.), and it is a common prophetic motif as well (Isa 2:5; 42:6; 49:6; Dan 2:20–22; Hos 6:5; Mic 7:8; Zech 14:7; cf. the reversal of the imagery at Jer 13:16; Amos 5:18–20).

Although it is not part of an “I am” statement, the references to the “living waters” which flow from Jesus (4:7–15; 7:37–39) are reminiscent of the water which were expected to flow from the eschatological temple (Ezek 47:1; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8), and, more directly, refer to the description of God used by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:13).

In addition, biblical scholars have noted that rabbinic symbolism has affinities with Johannine symbols; for example, the terms bread, light, water and wine are all used by the rabbis in connection with the Torah.

Thus, the distinctive set of Christological claims made for Jesus in the Gospel according to John are both thoroughly grounded in scriptural images and familiar from the ongoing traditions taught by the rabbis.

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A third observation is that the book of signs was written in a context of polarised disputation and growing hostilities. There was deepening conflict between the followers of Jesus, who acclaimed him as Messiah, and the scribes and Pharisees, teaching the traditions of the ancestors in the synagogues of the post-70 period.

After the destruction of the Temple in the Roman—Jewish War of 66-74CE, as there was no need for priests, the Pharisees became the dominant force in Judaism. Synagogues became key places for instruction in the Law, communal worship, and also community hospitality. Those claiming that the Messiah had come (as the followers of Jesus did) were problematic to the Pharisees. Tensions grew. Hostility broke out in some places.

There are three references to being expelled from the synagogue in the book of origins (John 9:22; 12:52; 16:2). These are widely understood to refer, not to the time of Jesus, but to the time when the Gospel came to take its final form—probably around the end of the first century—when the conflict between the synagogue authorities and the followers of Jesus had come to a head.

Biblical scholars have drawn on the insights of sociology in this regard. A group which acted in the way that the followers of Jesus were acting, is described as a sectarian community. Differentiating itself from the parent body by means of distinctive belief claims is typical of sectarian groups.

As it had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus.

Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community. This emerges over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. The messianists are confident about their faith. And they are certain about the absolute importance of following Jesus and believing in him. He is The Way.

Each of the “I am” sayings noted above is reported in this Gospel in this context of dispute and controversy. The sayings function as markers to differentiate Jesus from his Jewish contemporaries—and, by association, the followers of Jesus from their Jewish contemporaries.

Thus, when the Johannine Jesus expresses the claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”, there is an obvious and (to first-century ears) very clear claim being made about how the community of Jesus’ followers saw themselves, in relation to other groups in Judaism of the day. Like others, they were making claims about their exclusivity as the faithful one, their elitist understanding of what fidelity to the Law meant—and about the singular and central place of Jesus in their faith.

This Gospel consistently sets out a clear claim for Jesus as a distinctive figure, set apart and set higher than other religious leaders. Those who follow him have “the truth”, and are very clear what exactly is “the way” to God. Following Jesus was seen as the way—the only way—to gain “life”, or access directly to God. This is a polemic claim in the context it was first made.

The community in which the Gospel of John was compiled and valued was functioning in precisely the way that sectarian communities operate, holding fast to their exclusivism and elitism.

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How do we read such a text in our contemporary situation? We live in a world where retreating into a corner, keeping separate from other people, and treating anyone different from us with suspicion (if not outright hostility) is practised by some, but it really is an untenable and unhelpful way of living.

In the Uniting Church, our Basis of Union advocates that as we live our faith, we seek to be critically informed (as we enter into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry), ecumenically engaged (as we relate to our partners within the world-wide fellowship of churches), contextually relevant (through contact with contemporary thought), and missionally oriented (as we engage with contemporary societies) (see paragraph 11).

Engaging with contemporary societies and participating in them such that we better come to understand our own nature and mission, is a key commitment of this church. Multicultural societies, such as Australia, offer many opportunities for such engagement and learning. Seeking to understand the cultural practices and commitments of friends and neighbours in our midst, means that we will better understand who we are as Church: what it means to be in relationship with one another, to serve one another, to proclaim the living Word afresh.

I wrote a blog about this last year (after the tragic events in the Mosque in Christchurch), which you can read at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/04/friendship-in-the-presence-of-difference-a-gospel-call-in-a-world-of-intolerance-and-hatred/

The Uniting Church Assembly has advocated, “Friendship in the presence of difference is regarded as being a central Christian attitude and value. Engagement with those of other faiths is welcomed as a pathway on which we may rediscover the heart of the Christian way while also being enriched by wisdom others have to share.” (Adopted at the Thirteenth Assembly (2012), from a statement prepared by the Working Group on Relations with Other Faiths, entitled Friendship in the Presence of Difference: Christian Witness in Multifaith Australia.)

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So: with this theological commitment to living with those different from us with an attitude of acceptance and friendship, a generous attitude of embracing diversity, an intention to hold to an informed faith, on the one hand; and a biblical text (John 14:6) that recounts how a deepened understanding of Jesus emerged through the process of antagonism, aggressive argumentation, and hostile actions—what do we need to do to hold these two together?

Should a text which originated in conflict, with the intention of carving out a space for a smaller group with a distinctive set of beliefs, still be interpreted in the same way as those first readers and hearers of the Gospel understood it?

Or do we allow the changed context in which we live, and the different perceptions that have developed in our time, to reshape our understanding, to recast our interpretation, to challenge long-held views and to invite fresh appreciations?

Is it the case that we MUST read this biblical text as requiring us to have an attitude of elitist exclusivism—there is but ONE WAY, there is certainly NO OTHER WAY, of approaching God, of being drawn near to the divine presence?

Or—is there another way to understand “I am the way”?

 

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 commitment to an informed faith in the Basis of Union, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/15/what-i-really-like-about-the-basis-of-union/

Holding out for hope in the midst of turmoil (John 11)

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). That’s the question posed by people who had gathered to mourn with Martha and Mary, in the days after their brother had died.

It’s a question that, with some slight rephrasing, may well be posed in the days ahead of us, as we begin to experience the savage impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on movement, imposition of social isolation, spreading unemployment, rising numbers of infections being reported, and the early stages of what threatens to be a huge death rate, all from this powerful, invasive, invisible virus.

Frustration, anxiety, fear, and anger are within us, suppressed; and around us, beginning to be expressed. These times will be turbulent, confronting, disturbing. We draw deep into our emotional reserves in anticipation of what lies ahead.

I A message from Bethany

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Lazarus was dead, lying in the tomb (and had been there for four days, 11:17), so the reality of his death had surely been registered. But why did this have to be so? The level of grief being felt by his sisters, their household, and their friends from the village, was obviously intense.

Jesus had been reticent to travel from Galilee, back into Judea, where opposition to him had been steadily increasing (6:41; 7:1; 10:39). He initially paused, wanting not to go back to the place where, twice, threatening stones had been raised against him (8:59 and 10:31).

Jesus had been to Judea a number of times previously; in the book of signs, he is found there at 2:13, 5:1, 7:10, and 10:22—unlike the Synoptics, where his only visit as an adult is at the end of his earthly life (Mark 11:11). Jesus was reluctant to return there yet again. It was dangerous territory. He was in touch with his own deep emotions, as he considered his next move. Jesus demonstrates basic, raw humanity.

II Debating with the disciples

So Jesus delayed his travel for two days (11:6). Was he procrastinating? weighing up his options? looking to hide? making a strategic plan? The Greek word used here (meno) refers to staying still with purpose, resting, abiding. It is the word that appears quite a number of times in the “farewell discourse” as Jesus spends time with his disciples, before his arrest in Jerusalem (John 13-16).

This word occurs ten times in twelve verses in John 15, where Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches, and exhorts his followers to “remain” or “abide” (meno) in him, as he “remains” or “abides” in them. This is a deliberate, carefully thought out, plan, to hold back from travelling too quickly. Jesus had a plan in mind (as he indicates, first at 11:4, again at 11:15).

Then, when Jesus finally committed to a plan of action—“Let us go to Judea again”—we are told that Thomas the Twin expressed the great fear of his fellow disciples by saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). Down south (in Judea) was dangerous territory for the radical prophet from the north (in Galilee), fuelled both by the traditional antagonism between the regions, and by the plotting against Jesus that was underway amongst the leadership in Judea (5:18; 9:16: 10:39).

I tend to think that, had I been there alongside Thomas and Jesus and the rest, my words would have been more like, “What? Are you crazy? Go back to Jerusalem? And risk being stoned to death? No way. Just no way at all!!” But I wasn’t there. And this, according to the story told in the book of signs, is how Thomas responded: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Wow!

III Meeting Martha by the tomb

Then, when Jesus arrived, he was met immediately with a very strong kickback from Martha, who went out to meet the group beside the tomb, before they arrived in the house. Martha was clear and direct; she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:22).

I would think that she was angry. We can assume that she would have known the reputation of Jesus, she would have known he was able to perform miracles (signs, as they are regularly described in the book of signs). With this knowledge, Martha would have despaired that Jesus chose not to come and perform such a sign in her village, for her family. She lashed out at Jesus. Understandably. Perhaps with good reason.

Being forced into an uncomfortable place, being railroaded into disturbing emotions and unsettling experiences, means that any human being is likely, at some point, to kick back, lash out, with unrestrained raw emotion. We need to take care of ourselves lest we offend or damage people of property in such a state.

IV Mary and others join

As the story continues, Jesus begins to mollify Martha, and then invites her sister, Mary to join with her (11:28). Jesus and his group have still not arrived at the village; they are still where Lazarus lies in the tomb. Mary brings with her a group of friends and family (11:31). As the group of mourners arrive, the tension in the air would have been palpable.

When Mary came to the tomb, where Jesus was, and saw him, she knelt at his feet. She appears to be expressing due respect and reverence, perhaps. “Lord, I am so glad you are here”, we might expect her to have said.

But no—the first words out of her mouth are the same as what her sister had said, a little earlier: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). She, too, was angry. Human emotions easily dominate. How clearly these sisters reflect the way we human beings operate!

V Jesus responds with raw human emotion

Hearing these words for a second time—“look what has happened, you could have stopped this from happening”—penetrates right to the core of Jesus. The author of the books of signs uses a number of colourful words in describing how Jesus responded. My sense is that Jesus had been stirred up, to the very depths of his being. He was profoundly moved—not with compassion, but with anger.

First (according to the NRSV), we learn that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit” (11:33). The word chosen in Greek signifies the uttering of a sound from deep in the belly; a full-blooded reaction, a sound that shocks and shatters the eardrums. The most literal way of translating this would be to say that Jesus “snorted like a horse”—that deep, guttural warning that horses utter when they are distressed, cornered, angry. The basic word used here (as in a couple of other places in stories about Jesus—Mark 1:43 and Matt 9:30; Mark 14:5) signifies deep, burning anger. Jesus was thoroughly angry.

Then, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved” (11:33, NRSV) or “troubled” (NIV). This word comes from the root word which means “to shudder”. Jesus’s reaction was so strong, so extensive, that his whole body shook and shuddered. There was a clear physical manifestation of the inner emotional turmoil raging in Jesus. He was, as we say, shaking with anger. One commentator writes, “the word implies deep disturbance”; another, that it means “an expression of rage; to become indignant, be furious”; yet another simply says, that “Jesus is angry”.

After this, as he presumably draws closer to the tomb and sees where Lazarus has been laid, we are told, “Jesus began to weep” (11:35). The Greek word used here is significant. The weeping of Mary and her companions, described just a moment earlier (11:33), is weeping that a band of mourners would do. It was the weeping and wailing, the anguished crying of those deep in grief, which was the socially-expected, customary grieving form of weeping. An expression of deep human emotions, to be sure; but channelled in the appropriate and customary manner by this group of grieving family and friends.

The weeping of Jesus is described with a different word—a word that is used only once, at this exact place, in the whole of the New Testament. The word (dakruo) has its primary reference point in the tears shed by Jesus. As we read this passage in English, where the same word is used, it looks like Mary and Jesus are both weeping in the mourning customs of the day. In Greek, where completely different words are used, the weeping is different. Mary and her friends are grieving the loss of Lazarus. Jesus is thoroughly rattled, completely shattered, by what he has experienced. And he is angry. Utterly angry. Jesus weeps tears of anger.

There have been various explorations as to why Jesus was feeling such anger. Was he angry at the lack of faith he had encountered in Mary and Martha? I think that seems reasonable, given some other comments he makes in this narrative.

Other suggestions have been made. Was he angry because he was under pressure to perform yet another miracle? (a miracle far greater than any others he had performed thus far). Was he angry that sin held such a hold on his friends? Was he angry because he was realising that his own time on earth was soon to come to an end, that he would soon be grappling with the devil in the final battle? (The latter exotic suggestion was made by John Chrysostom in the fourth century.)

I am not so much interested in WHY Jesus was angry. I am more taken by the fact THAT Jesus was angry. He was human. Fully human. He had had enough. He was at breaking point. He had a plan, a carefully thought-out intention, and he was determined to carry it through. The emotional turmoil surrounding him was distracting, getting in the way. Jesus held to his purpose with a steely resolution.

I can identify with the grieving sisters, with the crowd that met Jesus. They had been thrown into confusion. Grief does that to you. A global pandemic will do that to you, too. There are restrictions that now limit how we live our lives, our news becomes more alarming, we are becoming hard pressed. Emotions surge within us. We are at risk of lashing out. We might want to play the blame game. We are losing any sense of hope.

It is exactly at this point, according to the narrative we have in the book of signs, that some of those around Jesus respond to his intense, visceral expressions of anger, with their own angry, accusing words: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). Tit for tat. Accusation and counter-accusation. Throwing it back, with interest. The scene has become ugly.

The story continues, fraught with emotion. Jesus is still “greatly disturbed” (11:38)—that is to say, still uttering that deep-seated, raw emotional outburst of anger, “snorting like a horse”. Yet, in the midst of this emotional upheaval, Jesus is able to act calmly, and speak with purpose and clarity.

VI Removing the stone, unbinding the dead man

“Take away the stone”, he commands (11:39). “Did I not tell you …”, he says to the crowd (11:40), offering a clear explanation of his intent. “Father, I thank you …”, he prays (11:41), withdrawing, gathering himself together, drawing on his inner resources. Clear, measured, purposeful.

Then, he shouts, “Lazarus, come out”, crying in a loud voice (11:43)—the verb used here has a sense of a raucous outburst. Jesus becomes, once more, highly emotional at this critical point. Yet this is a more positive emotion. A sense that things are now being set right. This is what he came to Bethany, to do. There is a purpose, amidst all the upheaval and turmoil.

And, finally, the clear instruction, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:44). The deed is done, the man emerges from the tomb, walking, no longer lying dead. There are signs of hope, right at this point: Lazarus is alive, a new reality is in place, the freedom of life restored is evident. Jesus has achieved what he had intended from the start. “This illness … is for Hod’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4).

VII In a global pandemic

Where do you find yourself in this story? We might really want to be at that moment at the end, where hope bursts forth. But we are not there. Not now. Not for a while. Not, most likely, for a long time. So where do you see yourself in this story?

With Thomas, fearful of what the future will bring, and yet resolute about stepping forth with confidence? With Martha, pushing back, crying out in despair at the situation we are in? With Mary, piling on with more angst, fuelled by uncertainty, angry at what has happened?

With the grieving crowd, rushing from one thing to the next, gripped by a host of competing emotions? With the astonished crowd, watching the miracle of a man once dead, now alive?

Or with Jesus, determined to hold a steady course through the upheavals he experiences? He was clear about what he intends to achieve, steadfast in working his way through the obstacles, to the place of fruition. (If we want to emulate him, we need to be careful that we do not say “God is working through the pandemic”, or “God sent this pandemic to us for a purpose”.) Holding to a steadfast goal in the current context is a daunting challenge.

This story, set in this Sunday’s lectionary, invites us to consider who we are, as human beings; how we respond, when under pressure; what it is, that we hope for, in challenging times; how our faith guides us, in the midst of fear, anxiety, and despair.

*****

I have been greatly assisted in writing this blog by the research of my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, who has a great eye for detail when it comes to matters of translation. I have also drawn on published work by Gail R O’Day, in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary vol. IX p. 690; and the wonderful commentary by Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol. I pp. 425-426.

See also my other blogs on the Book of Signs:

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/23/yes-lord-i-believe-even-in-the-midst-of-all-of-this-john-11/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/

Yes, Lord, I believe—even in the midst of all of this! (John 11)

In the midst of a time of fear and anxiety, generated by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, holding to our faith and being nourished by that faith is important.

The story set for this coming Sunday is pertinent to this situation. How do we confess our faith in the midst of the rapid spread of the virus and news of the dramatic escalation of infections and deaths around the world?

In the midst of this story of death and grief, of life being thrown out of joint by an unexpected happening, the author of the book of signs (identified in the tradition as the apostle John), we have a story of faith. In this story, Martha expresses her trust in Jesus—even as what is happen around her fuels her unsettled state, as she grieves the death of her brother.

The book of signs has seven clearly narrated signs, or miracles, performed by Jesus. Each of them is inserted in the midst of an evolving narrative, in which followers of Jesus grow in their understanding of who he is, whilst at the same time a movement of those opposed to Jesus gains strength.

The author of this Gospel makes it clear that there were more signs performed by Jesus than what is narrated (20:30), and that the signs actually narrated are told in order to strengthen the faith of those hearing or reading them (20:31).

The first and second signs take place in Galilee (2:1-11, 4:46-54). Subsequent signs are located in Jerusalem (5:2-9), the Sea of Galilee (6:1-14), on the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum (6:16-21), back in Jerusalem (9:1-7) and then, for the seventh, and final, sign of those narrated, in Bethany, where Lazarus had recently died (11:17-44).

This final sign provides a clear climax to this collection of seven signs. This is the miracle supreme—raising a dead person back to life takes some beating! It is told at some length, with many details, leading to the climactic moment of the appearance of the once-dead man, now alive. “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (11:44).

In the literary framework of the whole Gospel, however, this building to a climax through the seven signs is paralleled by a growing tension, as leaders in the Jewish community marshal forces in plotting against Jesus. Initially, there were positive responses to Jesus (2:23, 4:42, 4:45). Then, an engagement in debate and controversy with “the Jews” (5:13) quickly escalated into persecution (5:16) and indeed an attempt to kill Jesus (5:18).

This double attitude towards Jesus continues unchecked throughout the narrative. Whilst Jesus remained popular in Galilee (6:14, 34) and amongst some in Jerusalem (7:31, 40-41a, 46: 8:30; 9:17, 38; 10:21, 41) and Bethany (11:27, 45), hostility towards Jesus continued, being expressed both in verbal aggression (6:41, 52; 7:15, 20; 8:48; 9:18-19; 10:20), threats of his arrest (7:32, 44; 11:57), direct physical threats (stoning at 8:49, expulsion from the synagogue at 9:22, and stoning once more at 10:31) and threats against his life (7:1, 25, 32).

Then, at the climactic moment, after Lazarus appears, the Jewish leadership plans a strategy to put Jesus to death (11:45-53). The plot is hatched, the fate of Jesus is sealed. That section of the narrative also includes the famous, yet ironic, comment by Caiaphas: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). And so the inevitable process begins, moving towards the death of Jesus (11:53, 57).

In the midst of this story, about the death and burial of Lazarus—before Jesus acts in any way to bring Lazarus back from death—Martha, the brother of Lazarus, makes a striking confession of faith in Jesus.

First, however, as Jesus arrived in Bethany, Martha had initially berated him with an outpouring from the depths of her grief—“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21).

One element of that confession, that Jesus is the Son of God, was articulated very early in the narrative of the Gospel, by one of the lesser-known disciples, Nathaniel (1:49). Another element, that Jesus is Messiah, had been spoken by another less prominent disciple, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter (1:41).

In my reading, this confession of faith stands at the same place, structurally, as the confession that Simon Peter made in Caesarea Philippi, as recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels: “you are the Messiah” (8:27, and parallels in Matt 16:16 and Luke 9:20). This comes at the high point in the public ministry of Jesus: just before he is transfigured, and then makes his fateful decision to turn towards Jerusalem, in the Synoptics.

In like manner, the confession by Martha comes in the midst of the climactic miracle that he performs, raising Jesus from the dead, in the book of signs.

The declaration of Jesus as Messiah, as the christological high point of the three Synoptic Gospels, is uttered by the unchallenged leader of the apostles in those accounts, Simon Peter. The equivalent christological high point in the narrative of John’s Gospel is here, in Bethany, on the lips, not of one of the favoured male leaders (Peter, or the beloved disciple, or even, in other books, James the brother of Jesus). This high claim is made by a woman, not a man.

And how significant it is, that this high point of confession is made in the midst of grief and turmoil. Similar confessions, also by women, have occurred in the book of signs, also in difficult contexts.

At the end of the Gospel, there is an important confession of faith that is made as a result of the encounter that Mary Magdalene had with Jesus, in the garden, after his resurrection.

Mary was deep in grief as she went to the garden. Her grief initially stopped her from recognising Jesus. By the end of her conversation with the person she assumed was the gardener, she realised that he was actually Jesus. She returned to the disciples and declared to them that she has seen the risen Lord (20:18). She becomes known, in later tradition, as “the apostle to the apostles”. Her confession of faith comes to fruition in the midst of her grief.

Earlier, of course, there was the woman of Samaria, back in chapter 4, who encountered Jesus, thirsting, in the heat of the day, who enables many people in her city to come to faith in Jesus.

So, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end, the story of Jesus—recognised as prophet, Messiah, Son of God, Saviour of the world, the risen Lord—is entrusted to women. Not to the familiar male leaders. But to women. Thanks be to God!

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

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/

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

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/04/living-our-faith-in-the-realities-of-our-own-times-hearing-the-message-of-the-book-of-signs/

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