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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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)
“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).
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 nehasnehoset, “a bronze serpent”; and what Moses places on the pole is a nehashanehoset, “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.
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.
“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).
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.
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)
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.
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 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!
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.
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 …..
The Gospel passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Mark 8:31-38) is filled with elements that disturb, disrupt, and destabilise.
Disturbance. The disturbing element comes in the words that Jesus speaks, about a crisis that he sees ahead for himself and his disciples. Jesus declares that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).
The crisis will plunge Jesus and his followers into the depths of death: first, a trial and a verdict; then, a crucifixion and a burial. Although he warns them of this (here, and twice more on later occasions), they seem not to be prepared for this sequence of events when it eventually transpires.
There is a curious end to the words Jesus spoke: “after three days, rise again”. How did the disciples understand this? Why did they not show any understanding of this, when Jesus was crucified and buried?
In my reading, this prophecy placed on the lips of Jesus is the work of the author who crafted this Gospel narrative. The author knows the end of the story. He seeds these words into the narrative to give greater authority to Jesus, portraying him as a person in tune with the way of God, knowing in advance the fate in store for him.
But the fact that when these things happen, the disciples fail to remember, let alone comprehend, what Jesus had said, makes me suspicious. Death by crucifixion was a fate reserved by the Romans for political rebels and criminals. How could the disciples not remember that Jesus was identifying himself with this marginalised, despised group?
And after that revelatory mountaintop event, the same prophecy of Jesus that he uttered (according to Mark) prior to the Transfiguration, is repeated and expanded, on two further occasions, in the narrative that follows. Mark asserts that Jesus persists with his prophecy.
Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).
And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35).
This is followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).
These three predictions, followed immediately by challenging teachings, form a central pivot point in the overall storyline of this Gospel. They pivot from the activities of Jesus in Galilee (chapters 1-8) and the fateful events that take place in Jerusalem (chapters 11-16). The pivot is emphasised by the bracketing, around this whole section, that is provided by two accounts of Jesus healing blind men: first in Bethsaida (8:22-26), then later in Jericho (10:46-52). These bracketing scenes cry out: do the followers of Jesus not see what he is saying?
This is a literary device, intentionally planted here by the author, to sharpen the focus on to the central characteristic of following Jesus. And that is what Jesus then elucidates, with piercing insight, for the first time, after the prophetic words of 8:31.
Disruption. The teaching which Jesus provides is destabilising for his followers. Jesus leads into this destabilising teaching with a dialogue that creates a clear disruption for the disciples. This disruption comes in the interchange between Jesus and Peter (8:32-33).
Peter, acting and speaking on behalf of the disciples (and perhaps on behalf of us as well?) is affronted by talk of suffering, rejection, and death—to say nothing of resurrection! His rebuke of Jesus (8:32) is quite understandable; after all, he was the one chosen by God to bring renewal to Israel. How could he do this, if he is to die as a criminal, hanging on a cross?
However, Jesus appears quite clear about what his fate will be: it is as if he has entered into a covenant with God which involves suffering, and leads to death. At his baptism, he was declared to be the beloved son with whom God was well pleased (1:12); then, at his transfiguration, he was reaffirmed as beloved by God, the to whom people should listen (9:7).
Those passages sound like Jesus will be accorded a prominent position, well on the pathway to glory. Perhaps that is how the disciples understood those words.
Jesus, however (at least, the Jesus whom Mark portrays to us) appears to know the inner dynamic involved in this divine recognition. He knows of the necessity of suffering and death. (The Greek uses the tiny word dei, signalling the inevitable fate, the inescapable future: the Son of Man must suffer.
This pathway is set to follow the way of the Servant of Israel, set out in the series of great poems reflecting on the fate of the servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:13). For in each of these songs, the servant faces opposition, harassment, violence–and then, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”, he encounters his fate: “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed … by a perversion of justice he was taken away … he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa 52:3-5, 8).
That Jesus saw the relevance of these songs to his mission is signalled in various places in Mark’s narrative–see, for instance, his words at 10:43-45, on being a servant, and especially 10:45 (“giving his life as a random for many”).
The disciples are focussed on the promises and possibilities in following Jesus; they can see only a wonderful glory. Jesus himself is portrayed as being aware of the very different dynamics he will face as he walks the pathway to a new future.
Destabilising words. So Jesus articulates what this pathway entails. What he says to his followers is thoroughly destabilising (8:34-38). Because in what he says, he turns things right upside down. (This might be behind the accusation raised against followers of Jesus in Thessaloniki, where they were known as people who have been “turning the world upside down”, Acts 17:6).
Jesus begins by relating discipleship to the fate that he has predicted is in store for himself, personally: it is a pathway to the cross. As he will be crucified, so his followers must “take up their cross” (8:34). Not only he, but also they, will be identified with the fate of hardened criminals and treasonous rebels.
In the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295).
In the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate). Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously.
This is the way of Jesus; and the way of his followers. Instead of saving their life, the followers of Jesus are instructed to lose their life.
Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:35-37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity–precisely the kind of issues that later writers, Matthew and Luke, reflected in their more detailed accounts of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. (See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/)
Jesus ends his words by referring to a central cultural element: that of shame. The ancient Mediterranean world was infused with a set of values and practices shaped by a clear and unambiguous honour—shame culture. Everyone had their place in that culture; to act inappropriately would mean that a person was seen to be out of their assigned place, disrespectful of the honour code, meriting the assessment of others, for them to be ashamed of that person.
The honour—shame culture runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15). The same idea is expressed in the version of Isa 28:16 which is cited at 1 Pet 2:6, which modifies the ending to provide explicit reference to the claim that God will not shame believers.
God can thus honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19)–and conversely, God could shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth (1 Cor 1:27).
Honour was likewise praised by Greek philosophers as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3).
Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Life of Abraham 264).
Of course, identification with the cross, in Jesus’ earlier saying (8:34), would be a cause of shame, not of honour (Heb 12:2). It would be seen by other humans as being shameful.
However, that’s not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.
So the declaration of shame in this last verse (8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. This section ends with yet another paradox: to gain honour, a person must follow Jesus, take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.
And that’s the challenge that confronts us in this passage: disturbing, disrupting, destabilising as that may be.
This week we once more read and hear from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark. We hear specifically this Sunday from the very beginning of the story that Mark tells, about the very early stages of the public activity of Jesus.
We have already read about John the baptiser during Advent (Advent 2), and heard Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus (Epiphany 1). Now, in this week’s Gospel reading (Lent 1), Jesus is baptised, plunged deep into the water, from which he emerges changed (1:9-11).
This scene is sometimes regarded as Jesus attesting in public to a deeply personal religious experience that he had in his encounter with John, who had been preaching his message of repentance with some vigour (1:4-11). His encounter with John deepens his faith and sharpens his commitment.
The relationship between Jesus and John is interesting. In the orderly account of things being fulfilled, which we attribute to Luke, it is clear from the start that John is related to Jesus (Luke 1:36). By tradition, they are considered to be cousins–although the biblical text does not anywhere expressly state this.
It seems also that some of the early followers of Jesus had previously been followers of John himself. This is evidenced in the book of signs, which we attribute to the evangelist John. Andrew, later to be listed among the earliest group of followers of Jesus, appears initially as one of two followers of John (John 1:35-40). They express interest in what John is teaching (John 1:39).
Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter, later acknowledged as the leader of the disciples of Jesus. He tells his brother about Jesus. It is Peter who comes to a clear and definitive understanding of the significance of Jesus, even at this very early stage: “we have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Andrew and John are thenceforth committed disciples of Jesus.
Was Jesus engaging in “sheep-stealing”? Certainly, the dynamic in the narrative is of a movement shifting away from John the baptiser towards Jesus the Messiah; the juxtaposition of these two religious figures can be seen at a number of points (John 1:20, 29-34, 35-36; see also 3:22-30).
None of this is in view in the account we read in this Sunday’s Gospel. The rapid-fire movement in this opening chapter simply takes us from John, baptising in the Jordan, to Jesus at the Jordan and then in the wilderness, and on into Galilee, beside the lake and in Capernaum (Mark 1:1-45).
Mark has no concern with exploring the relationship between Jesus and John. He wishes only to indicate that, at the critical moment of the beginning of the public activity of Jesus, it was through contact with John, his message and his actions, that Jesus was impelled into his mission.
The Gospel account moves quickly on from the baptism, to a very different scene, set in the wilderness, where Jesus is tested, challenged about his call (1:12-15). The wilderness was the location of testing for Israel (Exod 17:1-7; Num 11:1-15; Deut 8:2). By the same token, the wilderness was also the place where “Israel tested God” (Num 14:20-23), when Israel grumbled and complained to God (see Exod 14-17, Num 11 and 14). Wilderness and testing go hand-in-hand.
The reference to Jesus being forty days in the wilderness evokes both the “forty years” of wilderness wandering for the people of Israel (Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7, 8:2, 29:5; Neh 9:21; Amos 2:10, 5:25), as well as the “forty days” that Moses spent fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9-11,18,25; 10:10).
Forty, however, should be regarded not as a strict chronological accounting, but as an expression indicating “an extended period of time”, whether that be in days or in years. It points to the symbolic nature of the account.
We see this usage of forty, for instance, in the comment in Judges, that “the land had rest forty years” (Judges 5:31, 8:28)–a statement that really means “for quite a long time”. Likewise, Israel was “given into the hands of the Philistines forty years” (Judges 13:1) and Eli the priest served for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18).
David the king reigned for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chron 29:27), his son Solomon then reigned for another 40 years (1 Kings 11:42; 2 Chron 9:30), as also did Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1) and his son Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23). If we take these as precise chronological periods, it is all very neat and tidy and orderly–and rather unbelievable!
Other instances of forty point to the same generalised sense of an extended time. Elijah journeyed from Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb “forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:8), whilst the prophet Ezekiel’s announcement of punishments lasting forty years (Ezekiel 29:10-13) is intended to indicate “for a long time”, not for a precise chronological period. Jonah’s prophecy that there will be forty days until Nineveh is overthrown (Jonah 3:4) has the same force.
So the story of the testing of Jesus for “forty days in the wilderness” is not a precise accounting of exact days, but draws on a scriptural symbol for an extended, challenging period of time.
Details about the conversation that took place whilst Jesus was being tested in the wilderness are provided in the accounts in the Gospels attributed to Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13). This is not the case in Mark, where the much shorter account (1:12-13) focusses attention on the key elements of this experience: the wilderness, testing, wild beasts, angels–and the activity of the Spirit.
The Markan account of this period of testing is typically concise and focussed. The constituent elements in the story continue the symbolic character of the narrative.
The note that “he was with the wild beasts” sounds like the wilderness experience was a rugged time of conflict and tension for Jesus. However, commentators note that the particular Greek construction employed here is found elsewhere in this Gospel to describe companionship and friendly association: Jesus appointed twelve apostles “to be with him” (3:14); the disciples “took him [Jesus] with them onto the boat” (4:36); the man previously possessed by demons begged Jesus “that he might be with him” (5:14); and a servant girl declares to Peter that she saw “you also were with Jesus” (14:67).
If this Greek construction bears any weight, then it is pointing to the companionable, friendly association of the wild beasts with Jesus—a prefiguring of the eschatological harmony envisaged at the end of time, when animals and humans all live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9; Hosea 2:18). The wilderness scene has a symbolic resonance, then, with this vision.
Alongside the wild beasts, angels are present—and their function is quite specifically identified as “waiting on him” (1:13). The Greek word used here is most certainly significant. The word diakonein has the basic level of “waiting at table”, but in Markan usage it is connected with service, as we see in the descriptions of Peter’s healed mother-in-law (1:31), the women who followed Jesus as disciples from Galilee to the cross (15:41), and most clearly in the saying of Jesus that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (10:45). The service of the angels symbolises the ultimate role that Jesus will undertake.
Finally, we note that the whole scene of the testing of Jesus takes place under the impetus of the Spirit, which “drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12). This was the place that Jesus just had to be; the action of the Spirit, so soon after descending on him like a dove (1:11), reinforces the importance and essential nature of the testing that was to take place in the wilderness.
And the action of driving out is expressed in a single word which contains strong elements of force—the word is used to describe the confrontational moment of exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 9:18, 28, 38) and is also used with great force at 11:15. The testing in the wilderness becomes a moment when Jesus comes face to face with his adversary, Satan—and casts his power aside. The more developed dialogues in Matthew and Luke expand on this understanding of the encounter.
Both of the key elements in this reading (baptism and testing) serve a key theological purpose in Mark’s narrative. They shape Jesus for what lies ahead. They signal that Jesus was dramatically commissioned by God, then rigorously equipped for the task he was then to undertake amongst his people. The two elements open the door to the activities of Jesus that follow in the ensuing 13 chapters, right up to the time when the long-planned plot against Jesus, initiated at 3:6, is put into action (14:1-2).
Of course, this story is offered in the lectionary each year on the first Sunday in the season of Lent. It serves as an introduction to the whole season. Jesus being tested in the wilderness points forward, to the series of events taking place in Jerusalem, that culminate in his crucifixion, death, and burial.
The narrative arc of Mark’s Gospel runs from the baptism and wilderness testing, through to death at Golgotha and burial in a tomb. The weekly pattern of Gospel readings during Lent follows a parallel path, from the wilderness testing of Lent 1, to the entry into Jerusalem on Lent 6, the farewell meal on Maundy Thursday, and the death and burial on Good Friday.
That is the path that Jesus trod. That is the way that he calls us to walk.
Every year at this point of the year, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we read the story of Jesus on the mountain, when “his clothes became dazzling white”, and—quite amazingly—Moses and Elijah appear alongside him (Mark 9:2-8). This is a story which pierces the constraints of history, which gathers three greats of the faith together.
Alongside this story, on each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we read a companion story from Hebrew Scripture. This year, we read a story about Elijah—the moment when he passes the mantle of his prophetic leadership to Elisha, and “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (1 Kings 2:1-12). This story also breaks open the constraints of how we normally see life, as the whirlwind whisks Elijah into the heavens.
Both stories are pertinent for the times we are living; both stories are relevant to the context of a global pandemic, rolling lockdowns, restrictions on social gatherings, and constraints on “life as normal” (at least as we knew it up to this point in time).
Both stories invite us to look carefully for those moments when things suddenly look different from what we were expecting. We had become so accustomed to life with no limits on travel, no constraints on gathering, shaking hands and hugging, eating together without a second thought, visiting friends and family in other suburbs, other cities, whenever we wished. All of those things have changed over the last year. Life is different. Our patterns of behaviour are different. Life looks very different.
Both stories invite us to undertake a process of discernment; to perceive how the heavenly realm is breaking into the earthly realm; to sense how the barrier between heaven and earth is opened wide. That’s the special gift of these stories at this time of the year, as this season of Epiphany draws to a close. Where is God, in what is happening to us now?
In Celtic Christian spirituality, such moments when we perceive just how different things are, are called “thin places”. The thin place offers an opportunity to glimpse a different dimension, to review the regularity of our lives, to grasp a vision of the deeper things of faith, to sense a deeper reality in the midst of the mundane.
Now, describing the onset of a global pandemic as a “thin place” is a big call. We need to be careful about how we describe an event that has resulted in millions of deaths, caused deep grief to many millions of people, stretched already over-stretched medical resources to breaking point, ensured that hundreds of millions of people will have long term enduring medical conditions well into the coming decade (and beyond), and upturned the way of life of almost every human being on the planet.
But could it be, that in this moment of challenge, overturning established patterns, reshaping familiar practices, reimagining ways of living—could it be that this was in fact a “thin place”, a moment when a force from beyond breaks into the mundane, when heavenly realities reset earthly patterns?
The stories in our readings this week invite us to consider how this might be.
The story of the Transfiguration tells of the moment that Peter, James, and John perceived Jesus in a new way. No longer did they see him as the man from Nazareth. In this moment, they see him as filled to overflowing with divine glory. He was not simply the son of Joseph; he was now the divinely-chosen, God-anointed, Beloved Son (Mark 9:7).
Jesus brings the heavenly realm right to the earthly disciples. They had the possibility, in that moment of time, to feel intensely close to the heavenly realm, to stand in the presence of God. They symbolise the desire of human beings, to reach out into the beyond, to grasp hold of what is transcendent—to get to heaven, as that is where God is (see Gen 28:10-12 and Deut 30:12; Pss 11:4, 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19; although compare the sense of God being everywhere in Ps 139:8-12).
But how were they then to get to heaven, the perceived dwelling-place of God?
Elijah. The story of Elijah, known to these Jewish men from their religious upbringing, hearing the stories of scripture, offers one possibility. The account in 1 Kings 2 indicates that it might, indeed, be possible for a human being to go straight to heaven, to be with God. This was the experience of Elijah.
Elijah did not die; he was simply whisked up directly into heaven. He had a “get out of gaol free” card, as it were; go straight to heaven, do not pass the moment of death, go straight to heaven. If it was possible for him—could it not also be possible for us?
Elijah, on the mountain, standing beside the shining, dazzling figure of the transfigured Jesus, represents this possibility. Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Elijah?
Moses. Standing next to Elijah, however, was Moses. And Moses represents another, very different, way of gaining access to the presence of God. It was to Moses that the commandments of the Torah were given. It was to Moses that every tiny detail, every instruction and regulation and commandment of the Torah, was given, so that he might pass them on, in turn, to the people of Israel.
Following the way of holiness and obedience that was set forth in the Torah, was another way by which faithful people might gain access to heaven, the dwelling place of God. Obedience to the Law was the pathway, in this case.
Those who would diligently and scrupulously keep all the commandments which Moses had instructed, would find their pathway to heaven set forth with assurance. Such people would be finding heaven as their place of destiny, after they had achieved fulfilment of the laws. (Perhaps the claim of the rich man in Mark 10:17-20 reflects this kind of understanding.)
Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Moses? Did they envisage a pathway to heaven through their faithful obedience to all the prescriptions of Torah? After all, Jesus had explicitly affirmed those who keep the commandments as “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34).
However, the larger story of Jesus, told in the various accounts created by the early evangelists, makes it clear that, for Jesus, and for those who follow him, neither of these pathways are, in fact, the way to gain access to the heavenly realm where God dwells.
Jesus. For Jesus, in contrast to Elijah, ascending into heaven in order to be with God, and Moses, advocating adherence to Torah in order to be with God, the aim is to bring the kingdom of heaven, and all that entails, into life on earth in the here and now.
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ( Mart 6:10) is what Jesus is said to have instructed his followers to pray. His was a mission, not to enable his followers to ascend into heaven, but to bring down to earth, from the heavenly realm, the rule of God.
The moment of being transfigured, for Jesus, was a moment that signalled the gracious presence of God on earth, amongst the creatures of God’s creation. The transfigured Jesus, shining forth the glory of God on the mountaintop, symbolised the possibility, for his followers on the mountain, and for his followers in subsequent times and places, that they might have the glory of God shining from their lives in the here and now.
For us, today, as followers of Jesus in own time, that means that we are called into a commitment to serve others who are around us, to work for justice for those we encounter, to seek to do what is right here and now, to love our neighbours—immediate and far away—as we love ourselves and love God and God’s ways.
As we do this, we might realise that keeping the law offered in the covenant with God is integral to our discipleship; and whilst we fix our vision on the ultimate goal (heaven—the kingdom of God—the vision of God’s way—whatever we might call it), the work that we undertake in the here and now is actually the full realisation of that ultimate goal.
As the story of Jesus itself indicates, the way that Jesus took to realising the reality of heaven on earth is through submission and death. The Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus “descended to the dead; on the third day he rose again”. Jesus models the pathway of dying to self in order to rise as a new self. All of this takes place within this life, for the sake of this life.
Following Jesus. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is surrounded by teachings which highlight this central element for his faithful followers. Immediately before ascending to the mountaintop, Jesus states that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).
He follows this with a clear word of commission to his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:34-35).
Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).
And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35), followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).
This is what it means to perceive the glory of God in our midst in the transfigured Jesus, and to commit to follow him in all of life—here, now, in the present. And this story invites us to look at our present times with new eyes—to see the glory of God in our midst in unexpected and enlivening ways!
Should we take everything we read in the Bible as clear, unquestionable fact? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean that we toss everything out. We need to be critically discerning.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a case in point (Mark 1:29-38). There’s a brief reference to a crowd scene, outside the house of the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, in Capernaum. After the healing that took place inside, word spreads, and people begin to gather outside. That then provides the basis for the healing and exorcising activities of Jesus (1:29-34).
How big was the crowd that gathered outside the house? Mark makes the claim that “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:33). Now that is some crowd: the whole population, outside one house in the town!
It is thought that the population of a town like Capernaum in the first century would have been about 1,500 people. So that’s quite a crowd squeezed into the street next to this little house!
For myself, I take such a claim with a pinch of salt. (That’s a saying that is thought to have originated with Pliny the Elder, who included a recipe for an antidote to poison, in his Natural History, that included “a grain of salt”.)
In other words, whilst there is some truth to what is said, let’s not take it uncritically, unthinkingly, literally. There were lots of people there; but not every one, not every single inhabitant of Capernaum. Mark most likely is here exaggerating.
He has already indicated that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5). After his teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), he becomes renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33).
Then he is told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and so he sets off, touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). Much later in the story, Mark declares that in Jerusalem, “the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18).
Lots of exaggerations there!
We find the same in Luke’s writings. For instance, after they were arrested in Philippi and incarcerated in prison, Paul and Silas are praying. Suddenly, we read that “a great earthquake” shakes open the prison doors (16:26). The universal scope of the earthquake’s impact (“all the doors opened … everyone’s chains unfastened”) is striking, but perhaps a Lukan exaggeration. Everyone was set free? Really?
This is characteristic of the Lukan narrative—notice how many times “all” the people say, or do something (Luke 3:21, 4:14, 20, 22, 28, 36, 40, 5:26, 6:17, 19, 7:16, 17, 29, 8:37, 40, 52, 9:43, 13:17, 18:43, 19:7, 48, 21:38, 23:5, 48, 49; Acts 3:11, 4:16, 9:35, 17:21, 19:10, 19:17, 22:12, 26:4). That’s a lot of “all the people” doing things and saying things in complete unison! I take this as a sign of his literary licence. He’s a garrulous story-teller, not a clinical historian.
And Matthew is not immune from the same tendency. Some of the sayings of Jesus that are reported in this Gospel reveal the same tendency to extremism, hyperbole, exaggeration. For instance, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. (Matt 5:29). Who obeys that command?
And similarly, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3) Who has ever had a log of wood in their eye? A splinter, maybe— but not a log. And when Jesus condemned the Pharisees , he berated them as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh. That has to be excessive exaggeration, told for dramatic impact, and not an actual documentary description.
So let’s not get hung up on rigid literalistic readings of scripture. Let’s allow for the artistic input of each evangelist—and, indeed, for the creative impact of Jesus himself, as he exaggerates and overdraws his words for the sake of making an impact. And let’s read with careful attention to the symbolic sense of the story, rather than focussing on the words as the literal truth.