The lectionary has offered us a series of readings during Lent which show Jesus encountering and conversing with others (John 3, 4, 9, and 11). The anonymous author of the Gospel of John had high-level literary and dramatic skills. The lectionary has very clearly demonstrated this in the series of readings offered in weeks 2–5 of Lent.
The Pharisee in Jerusalem (Ch.3) is really a foil who asks leading questions which offer Jesus the opportunity to speak forth at some length for the first time in the Gospel (3:11–21). The woman in Samaria is a genuine dialogue partner for Jesus who learns through the back-and-forth of their conversation about a number of matters (4:7–26). The story of the man born blind (9:1–41) is presented as a seven-part comedic drama, illustrating the “light of the world” claim of Jesus (8:12; 9:5) and showing how people respond in varied ways to that.
Then, the story of Lazarus (11:1–45) is a complex dramatic moment, a story with its own integrity and form, with a range of characters and varied dramatic moments. This story also serves as the seventh and final sign in the Gospel; these signs commenced at 2:1–11 and are interspersed throughout the ensuing narrative (4:46–54; 5:1–9; 6:1–15; 6:16–21; 9:1–7; and 11:38–44). This sign, like others before, has lead many to believe (11:45), but it serves also to confirm the plot of the Sanhedrin leaders to arrest and kill Jesus: the reason for the crucifixion, in this author’s eyes (11:46–53; 11:57; 18:1–12).
All of this is a masterly dramatic development through the first half of this “book of signs”. These stories are certainly worth hearing in full every three years!
These encounters, however, are told in the context of an emerging story which places Jesus into a position of antagonist, arguing and dissenting, disputing and disagreeing, with some regularity. This thread comes to a head in the story of Martha and Mary, their recently-deceased brother Lazarus, and Jesus (John 11:1–45).
The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb marks a climactic moment, for the family in Bethany and many of their neighbours (11:44–45), but also for the chief priests and Pharisees, who together determine to put Jesus to death (11:53). The seventh sign recounted in this Gospel is the most significant miracle of Jesus, but also the deed that determines the fate of Jesus, for it leads immediately to the plot to arrest Jesus (11:53) and then inevitably to his death at the hands of the Romans (19:30).
Soon after he has raised Lazarus back to life in Bethany, Jesus says, “I have come to this hour” (12:27), the hour when “I am lifted up from the earth, [when I] will draw all people to myself” (12:32), the hour when the Father will “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (17:1). The death of Jesus is to be, paradoxically, the complete fulfilment of his mission (19:30). Its inevitability has been flagged since early in the Gospel narrative.
Antagonism begins early in that narrative. It is initially signalled by “the incident in the Temple” (John 2:13–22). In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus tells the Pharisee, “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (3:11–12). The plural form of the Greek word translated “you” makes it clear that the “you” being addressed is at least the collective Sanhedrin Council, if not the whole population of Judea. It is an oppositional, confrontational encounter at this point.
In talking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus reflects the historical antagonism between the Judeans of the south and those of the north. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem”, the woman says to Jesus (4:20). Jesus replies, pugnacious oh, “you worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). The use of the plural “you” once again in these verses makes clear the antagonism between the peoples, especially if we translate that final phrase, “salvation is from the Judeans”.
When Jesus heals a man born blind, the Jewish authorities function as the chorus reflecting on, and reacting to, the events taking place in Jerusalem. First, some Pharisees declare, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath” (9:16). Then, they declare to the healed man, “we know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (9:29).
Their view of Jesus is quite negative— in an earlier debate with him, they had called him “a Samaritan and have a demon” (8:48), and that encounter ends, “they picked up stones to throw at him” (8:59). Mind you, Jesus had said to them, “you are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (8:44), so it was a vigorous two-way argument!
So Jesus responds to the negativity of the Jewish authorities who questioned his credentials after learning of the healing of the man born blind, with a statement, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39), followed by, “if you were blind, you would not have sin; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (9:41). This encounter ends, yet again, on a negative note.
Then, after Jesus has raised Lazarus back to life, the Jewish authorities decide to make their move. Worried that, “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (11:48), Caiaphas leads with these prophetic words: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). And so, “from that day on they planned to put him to death” (11:53).
Jesus is clearly aware of this antagonism; he later warns his disciples, “the world hates you” (15:19), and then, “they will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (16:2). And of course, the narrative of the Gospel ends with Jesus handed over to die by crucifixion (18:28). We need to think carefully about how we interpret this antagonism.
Was the world an evil place, in the sway of the devil, which would inevitably turn against Jesus? But what, then, of the claim that God sent Jesus because he “so loved the world” (3:16)? How are we to see the relationship between Jesus and “the world”?
Of course, it needs to be said that none of these scenes offered by the lectionary—nor any of the intervening scenes in this Gospel—come as eyewitness (or rather, earwitness) accounts of what actually happened in a real, historical encounter. Of none of the scenes can we say with certainty that they actually occurred, let alone that the dialogue recorded by the author of the book of signs was what was actually said. These scenes are all literary creations, perhaps based on a report of an encounter that took place, but most certainly elaborated and developed over a period of time, worked into a narrative that catches attention, invites reflection, and has a life all of its own.
“John” wrote his book of signs some 50 to 80 years after the lifetime of Jesus. The account of each of these conversations—at night with Nicodemus, at noon with the woman, in Jerusalem with the authorities, and then the encounter in Bethany and the council meeting in Jerusalem—are thus far removed from each of these events. (How could we possibly claim to know verbatim what was said in a Sanhedrin meeting in the early 30s CE? — especially since the High Priest articulates a central tenet of later Christian doctrine!).
I recently read a comment that said, “The television show MASH was set during the Korean War but was about the Vietnan War. While the framework was faithful to the earlier conflict with regard to combatants, equipment, etc., the issues selected reflected Vietnam: distrust of authority, questioning blind patriotism, the need to get around the rules, the effort to ‘get out of this place’, the cynicism-based humor.”
Similarly, John tells a story set in the the time of Jesus; but this period is seen through the lens of the division of Christians and Jews that has eventuated and the heartache that comes when there’s a separation. I think that’s a helpful analogy. The later situation, when the work is created, is reflected in so many ways, even though the story is set decades earlier. As with MASH, so with John’s Gospel.
The depictions of these encounter scenes in the first half of John’s Gospel are shaped by the events that have taken place over those intervening decades—particularly, the rising antagonism between “messianic Jews” following Jesus, and “rabbinic Jews” adhering to the teachings of their teachers. The antagonism reflects the situation.
John’s Gospel indicates, three times, that followers of Jesus were expelled from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:1–2). That’s quite a schism! So any negative comments or portrayals of people from years back may well have as much to do with what has transpired in those intervening years, as with the actual event—probably, I think, much more to do with those intervening years than with the conversations and encounters as reported in the book of signs. All of this is basic Gospel interpretation.
The church to which I belong, the Uniting Church in Australia, adopted a Statement on Jews and Judaism in 2009 (I was on the working group that developed initial material for this) which offered guidance about our theology, exegesis, and preaching. It is in the same vein as many other statements issued by various enlightened denominations around the world, ever since the lead was taken by the Roman Catholic Church in promulgating Nostra Aetate in 1965.
(I published an analysis of these statements as “Christians relating to Jews: key issues in public statements”, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 44/2, 2009, 180–202.)
Nostra Aetate covered important new ground: it repudiated the centuries-old “deicide” charge against all Jews, stressed the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirmed the eternal covenant between God and the People of Israel, and dismissed church interest in trying to baptize Jews. It called for Catholics and Jews to engage in friendly dialogue and biblical and theological discussions to better understand each other’s faith. Many other Christian denominations have followed suit in the decades since.
The 2009 Uniting Church Statement declares that “The Uniting Church acknowledges with repentance a history of interpretation of New Testament texts which has often failed to appreciate the context from which these texts emerged, viz. the growing separation of Christianity and Judaism with attendant bitterness and antagonism, resulting in deeply rooted anti-Jewish misunderstandings” (para. 9).
That’s a key guiding principle for me, as I read and interpret the Gospels—particularly those attributed to John and Matthew, for these books contain texts which have been grossly and inventively distorted and misused by the Church over many centuries, to fuel the false doctrine of supersessionism and thus the hatred of antisemitism. They do provide evidence for the growing separation between Judaism and Christianity, but they should not be used in a supersessionist way or to fuel antisemitism.
The Uniting Church Statement offers concise definitions of supersessionism (“the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God”) and antisemitism (“a term coined in imperial Germany during the 1870s by propagandists who did not wish Jews to enjoy equal rights with Christians. Its true political meaning is ‘I am against the Jews’.”). We should take care not to reflect either of these in our interpretation of scripture. Passages from John’s Gospel, especially, present us with the temptation to be negative about “the Jews”. We need to resist these temptations with all our heart!