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Special Article on the Letters of John

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Special Article on the Letters of John

As I have dealt at length with the Letters of John (1 John, in particular) in the recent notes of this series, touching upon many aspects of their life-setting (and church-setting), I felt it would be worthwhile to supplement this study with a brief survey of the background of the letters, insofar as it is possible to determine. This will not be a thorough or exhaustive introduction (for that, you may consult any reputable critical Commentary); rather, I will outline some of the key points which are especially helpful for analyzing and interpreting the letters.

Authorship, Timeframe, and Geographical Setting

Tradition ascribes authorship of both the Gospel and Letters to John the Apostle. This was established by at least the middle of the 2nd century, as indicated by texts from the latter half of the century, such as the Muratorian fragment and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (I.16.3, III.1.1), as well as the “Anti-Marcionite” prologue to John, and Clement of Alexandria (in Eusebius’ Church History VI.14.7). While this tradition is fairly strong, the writings themselves are actually anonymous, with no specific identification of authorship. Support for the apostle as the author of 1 John, as well as the authenticity (and canonical status) of the letter, is somewhat stronger than that of 2-3 John (cf. Eusebius’ Church History III.24.17, 25.2; VI.25.10; VII.25.7-8, but note also his view in the Demonstration of the Gospel 3.5.88). There are strong indicators in the Letters to suggest that they were not written by a leading Apostle such as John.

With regard to the authorship/origins of the Gospel, the main figure is the close disciple of Jesus referred to as “the disciple whom he loved” (Jn 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), often rendered as “the Beloved Disciple”. Most often, this person is identified with John son of Zebedee, according to tradition, but commentators have suggested other possibilities as well, such as John Mark or Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:5, 36; 12:1-2). All we can say for certain, is that the “Beloved Disciple” was one of Jesus’ close followers, and that he was not Simon Peter (13:23-24; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20ff). The responsible commentator really ought not to presume more than this. It is noteworthy that the “Beloved Disciple” only features in the Passion Narrative spanning the second half of the book (chaps. 13-21), and, it would seem, was regarded by the Gospel writer as a key source of information for this section. It has been suggested that he was the unnamed disciple accompanying Peter in 18:15ff, as well as the witness cited in 19:35-36. The last point is quite likely, especially considering how the ‘appendix’ to the Gospel (chap. 21) identifies the “Beloved Disciple” specifically as a prime witness for the events being narrated in the Gospel (v. 24). This statement is worth quoting:

“This (person) is the learner [i.e. disciple] giving witness to these things and having written them, and we have seen [i.e. known] that his witness is true.”

The reference to “having written” is sometimes assumed, by traditional-conservative commentators especially, to mean that the “Beloved Disciple” is the Gospel writer; but this interpretation is scarcely required by the text. All the statement really means is that the “Beloved Disciple” committed his testimony to writing in some form. It could just as easily indicate that his written testimony was a source used by the Gospel writer, who was a different person; indeed, this seems most likely. Critical commentators generally regard the authorship of the Gospel along the following lines:

  • The “Beloved Disciple” was a leading figure (if not the leading figure) among the Community (i.e. congregations) which produced and first circulated the Gospel. As a close disciple of Jesus, he was a key source for the traditions (including eyewitness testimony and memories) preserved in the Gospel. These would have been transmitted orally, and also in writing; indeed, he may have composed a core Gospel account which the writer incorporated within the main text.
  • The Gospel writer—a different person from the “Beloved Disciple”, though almost certainly coming from the same line of tradition (or “school”, cf. below); he may have been a close follower himself of the “Beloved Disciple”, committed to preserving his Apostolic witness (much like the relationship tradition ascribes to John Mark and Peter in the composition of the Gospel of Mark).
  • The final editing/redaction of the Gospel. This may have been done, at a later point, by the Gospel writer himself, or by a second author/editor. Commentators are divided on this point, though in general agreement that chapter 21 is a secondary (later) addition to the main Gospel, which concluded at 20:31.

On the whole, this a very plausible general reconstruction, which seems to fit the available evidence.

With regard to the Letters, scholars are divided as to authorship, in terms of the relation of the Letters to the Gospel. Clearly, they share the same thought-world and theology (including Christology), as well as having considerable similarity in vocabulary, language, and style. If one takes into account the normal differences, between the Gospel and First Letter, due to the adaptation of earlier historical/traditional material in the Gospel, the two works appear to be very close indeed, and could have been written by the same person. Depending on the relative roles given to the Gospel writer and a (possible) subsequent editor/redactor, commentators have identified the author of the letters (or at least the First Letter) with either the writer or editor/redactor of the Gospel, respectively. There are a range of valid possibilities, but none can be determined with certainty.

There are also differences of opinion regarding the relationship between 1 John and the second & third Letters, which are almost certainly written by the same person. The author of 1 John is not identified in any way, but 2 and 3 John both were written by a man calling himself “the Elder”. While the designation o( presbu/tero$ (“the elder”) could conceivably be used for an Apostle (such as John), this is rather unlikely, especially the context of the initial address of a letter. For example, in 1 Peter, the author (who identifies himself as Peter) calls himself sumpresbu/teros (“elder [along] with [you]”), but only in the immediate context of addressing other elders; in the initial address he clearly refers to himself as a)po/stolo$ (“[one] sent forth”, apostle), even as Paul does in many of his letters. Moreover, the author of 2-3 John does not appear to write as one possessing apostolic authority. Indeed, the entire milieu of the Letters suggests a time after the first generation of apostolic witnesses has passed from the scene. According to tradition, John the Apostle would have been one of the last to pass away. The (recent) death of the “Beloved Disciple” is suggested by the context of Jn 21:22-23ff.

Even so, many commentators would attribute all three Letters to the same person—i.e., “the Elder” in 2-3 John. The close similarity of language, style and content between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this. The best explanation as to why this author did not address himself the same way in First Letter, is that 1 John, in fact, is not a letter or epistle, but a (theological) tract or exposition which achieved circulation among the various congregations. Thus, it would not have been formulated the same way as an actual letter, and, indeed, is lacking most of the common characteristics of the epistolary format. Who is “the Elder” who produced the Letters? There are several ways to understand this:

  • He is simply one of the (leading) Elders of the Johannine churches
  • He is the chief (overseeing, i.e. e)pi/skopo$) Elder for the (Johannine) churches of the region
  • He is a leading figure with the special title “the Elder”, due to his close connection with the founding apostle of the churches (the “Beloved Disciple”, whether John or another apostle)
  • He is, in fact, the “Beloved Disciple” (John or another apostle) who calls himself by the title “Elder”

In my view, only the second and third options are likely to be correct. As an interesting side note, which might confirm option #3, there is an early Christian tradition which distinguishes the apostle John from another elder John. Eusebius (Church History 3.39.4) records a statement by Papias (c. 130 A.D.) which identifies two such distinct figures named John (cf. also Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9; and the Apostolic Constitutions 7:46). A relatively simple, more general explanation would be to distinguish a group of leading “Elders”, installed by the Apostles and other early/leading missionaries, in the various churches, all of whom represent the second generation of Christian leaders. The apostolic witness was passed on to them, and they, in turn, faithfully preserve and transmit it for subsequent generations. This is very much the situation expressed in the Pastoral letters, and is attested elsewhere in early tradition (cf. Acts 14:23; 20:17). Irenaeus confirms such a distinction between “apostle” and “elder” (Against Heresies III.3.4; IV.27.1; V.33.3), and this would seem to be in accord with the general setting of the Johannine Letters.

Geographic Setting—Where were the Gospel and Letters first composed and circulated? Two regions are usually cited as the most likely possibilities: (1) Syria, the area around Antioch, and (2) Asia Minor, spec. the area around Ephesus. In favor of Syria, we might cite as evidence:

  • The Palestinian background of the Gospel, including the Jerusalem setting for many of the episodes, an abundance of local detail not found in the other Gospels, and the occurrence of numerous Semitisms. However, this may reflect the underlying historical traditions, rather than the place of composition.
  • The primacy and importance of Antioch as one of the earliest (and most influential) centers of Christianity.
  • Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, and his letters (c. 110-115 A.D.) reflect Johannine thought and expression at various points, though there are no certain quotations.
  • There are also considerable points of similarity between the Johannine writings (esp. the Gospel) and the so-called Odes of Solomon, a collection of early Christian hymns (late-1st/early-2nd century) which are assumed to have a Syrian provenance.

In favor of Ephesus:

  • Early Christian tradition associates John the apostle (and the Johannine writings) with Ephesus. This is part of the Johannine tradition established by the middle of the 2nd century—cf. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; the Acts of John; Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.1.1, etc; and the testimony of Polycrates bishop of Ephesus (in Eusebius’ Church History V.24.3). On the other hand, Ignatius, in writing to the Christians of Ephesus, mentions Paul’s work, but says nothing of John having been there.
  • As mentioned above, Ignatius’ letters (c. 110-115 A.D.), many of which are addressed to congregations in Asia Minor, show many similarities with Johannine thought. The same is true of the letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who is said to have been a disciple of John the apostle. In writing to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles, Ignatius attacks Christological views similar to those denounced in 1 John (on this, cf. below).
  • The book of Revelation, written by a “John”, and traditionally identified with John the Apostle, is addressed primarily to churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 2-3), the first of which is Ephesus. The warnings in those letters are similar in certain respects to those given in 1 and 2 John.
  • The island of Patmos, where “John” writes the book of Revelation, and where John the Apostle was exiled (according to tradition), is not too far from Ephesus.
  • John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel of John, and it often thought that the Gospel was written, in part, against those would might identify the Baptist (rather than Jesus) as the Messiah. According to Acts 18:25ff; 19:2-6, there appear to have been disciples of the Baptist in the vicinity of Ephesus.

Timeframe—When were the Gospel and Letters written? Most scholars would place them at the end of the 1st century A.D., making them among the latest of the New Testament writings. This would be possible, even for those who identify the author as John, since, according to tradition, John the Apostle died an advanced age, toward the end of the century. Moreover, the danger expressed in the Gospel, of early Christians being expelled from the Synagogues, and in the way this is formulated by the author, has been thought to reflect a time around 80-90 A.D. There are other aspects of the treatment and adaptation of traditional material in the Gospel which suggests a similar time frame. I have discussed this at some length in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition“.

The Relationship between the Johannine Letters and the Gospel

The similarities in thought, language, and expression, indicate that the Gospel and Letters of John both derive from a common church-setting or environment (usually referred to as the Johannine Community), and also date from around the same time. The Gospel probably was composed earlier than the Letters (though this is not absolutely certain); a date of around 90 A.D. is often posited for the Gospel, with c. 100 A.D. for the Letters, and this likely is not too far off the mark. It would seem that the First Letter was written after the pattern of the Gospel (in the notes we examined the similarities between the opening and closing of both works), and functions a kind of authoritative exposition of the theology (and Christology) expressed in the Gospel. In particular, it draws heavily upon the discourses of Jesus, especially the Last Discourse (chaps. 14-17); or, at the very least, is working from the same basic Tradition. The main theological concerns of First Letter are echoed in the Second, which is addressed to a particular congregation (a “sister church”) some distance removed from the author. The subject matter of the Third Letter differs, but helps provide a glimpse of the overall church setting of the Letters (cf. below).

It is sometimes held that the separatist Christians who are the opponents (“antichrists”) in 1 and 2 John reflect a split in the Johannine Community centered on different approaches to the Christology of the Tradition (i.e. in the Fourth Gospel). I have discussed this in the recent notes, and address it again down below.

The Relationship between 1 John and 2-3 John

As stated above, I tend to regard the author of 1 John as the same as “the Elder” who wrote the Second and Third Letters. The similarities in thought and emphasis between 1 and 2 John would seem to confirm this; at any rate, it is the simplest explanation. There is some question as to the order in which the Letters were composed. The traditional arrangement tells us nothing, since it simply reflects length (longest to shortest). There is really no way to determine the chronology. However, from our standpoint, the traditional order is helpful, since the theological exposition of 1 John helps to elucidate the church situation of 2 and 3 John (which are actual letters). 1 John 2:18-27 is a warning against the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations (“they went out of us…”) and would deceive others in the churches (v. 26). This is precisely the situation the author describes in 2 John 7-11, and it is clear that these “false” believers are considered (by the author) to hold and proclaim the “false” view of Jesus indicated in 1 John 4:1-3. The author warns his “sister church” not to treat such persons as fellow believers in Christ (2 Jn 10-11). This could mean that the situation has grown more serious by the time 2 John was written, though this is not certain. It is also possible that the conflict with Diotrephes in 3 John (vv. 9-10ff) is related in some way to this same situation involving the Johannine separatists. Missionaries and representatives from both “sides” would have sought to visit the various congregations in the region. Just as the author of 2 John urges his audience to refuse hospitality to the other side, so Diotrephes may be doing the same (but in the opposite direction) in 3 John.

The Church Setting and Opponents in the Letters

If either region proposed for the Johannine Churches (and Writings) is correct—i.e. Antioch or Ephesus—then it is possible to reconstruct, to some extent, the church setting of the Letters. This would involve the congregations of a major city or town (such as Ephesus), which had authority or influence over congregations in the surrounding region; quite likely, these outlying churches would have been founded by missionaries working from the main city. All of these congregations would have been fairly small—house churches (typically the house of a relatively wealthy individual), large enough to support perhaps several dozen people, though many congregations were likely much smaller than that. The earliest church centers were founded by apostles—men (and possibly women) who represented the first-generation of believers, who had either been close companions of Jesus, or who witnessed the resurrection and the beginning of Christianity (in Judea). The “Beloved Disciple”, whether or not he is to be identified with John son of Zebedee, was certainly one of these apostles, and, according to the Gospel, he was the source of reliable early tradition and teaching; presumably he was the leading figure (and founder) of the Johannine congregations. Such apostles would have set in place leaders (“elders”) in every congregation, and where appropriate, special elders assigned to be overseers of a particular area. In the setting assumed by the Pastoral letters, Timothy and Titus functioned as this sort of regional overseer, under Paul’s (apostolic) authority; it is possible that “the Elder” of the Johannine Letters had a similar role (and/or relationship to the “Beloved Disciple”).

As I discussed above, only 2 and 3 John are true letters, addressed to a specific group or individual. Second John is addressed to a “sister church” (vv. 1, 13), presumably one with a very close relationship to the author’s own congregation(s). At any rate, he is writing to believers whom he assumes will be, and should be, in agreement with him. Third John is written to an individual (Gaius) who is a member of a particular congregation. This may (or may not) be the same congregation currently being led by Diotrephes (vv. 9-10); probably it is a separate congregation. The author is asking Gaius for support in the missionary work of certain “brothers”. In ancient times, relations between groups (such as churches), and leadership networks, had to be maintained through personal visits and messengers delivering authoritative letters. Travelling missionaries (both “apostles” and “prophets”) were common in the early church, and it could be difficult at times to determine the legitimacy and authority of such persons. Both those aligned with the author, and those on the other side (the “antichrists”), would have visited various congregations seeking to gain support and influence. In 2 John 10-11 the author urges the congregation to refuse hospitality to any missionary or representative who holds the aberrant view of Jesus described in vv. 7-9. Similarly, in 3 John 9-10, Diotrephes apparently is doing much the same thing—urging people to refuse hospitality to representatives aligned with the author. Demetrius (v. 12) would seem to be one of these representatives, or missionaries, and that the author is asking for Gaius to provide support for him.

Clearly, Diotrephes is presented as an opponent in 3 John; however, we do not really know the basis or origin of the apparent conflict that has resulted in the situation described in vv. 9-10. It is a different matter in 2 John, where the opponents are characterized by particular Christological views (vv. 7-9). The language used to describe them is quite close to that in 1 John 2:18ff and 4:1-3. Some commentators have questioned whether one or more opposing groups are being referenced in 1 John; in my view, there would seem to be one main group in focus—a group which separated from the Johannine congregations, holding and proclaiming a distinctive view of Jesus that differed markedly from the traditional (Johannine) portrait presented in the Gospel. These “false” believers (“antichrists”), according to the author, are violating both aspects of the two-fold ‘commandment’ which defines our identity as (true) believers in Christ—(1) trust in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God, and (2) love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example.

There have been many attempts to identify these separatist opponents with various heretical or heterodox groups in the early Church, such as the Nicolaitans, mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15, but of whom we know very little. More common is an association with Cerinthus, who, according to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.26.1-2; III.3.4., 11.1), was both an early “Gnostic” and adversary of the apostle John (in Ephesus). Unfortunately, much of the information provided by the Church Fathers regarding Cerinthus is contradictory and far from reliable. He appears to have held a quasi-Gnostic “separationist” view of Jesus, which does not quite square with the data in 1 and 2 John. Much closer to the Johannine opponents are the Christological views attacked by Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110-115 A.D.), in his letters to the Christians of Smyrna and Tralles. This is echoed closely by Polycarp in his letter to the Christians of Philippi (7:1 is virtually a quotation of 1 Jn 4:2-3 and 2 Jn 7). It would seem to confirm that there were Christians in Asia Minor in the period 110-130 A.D. (within a generation of the Johannine letters) holding views similar to those described (and condemned) in 1 and 2 John.

The Johannine “School”

Many critical commentators have referred to a Johannine “School”, though this term can be quite misleading. The basic idea it expresses is of a chain of common tradition, stemming from the apostolic testimony of “the Beloved Disciple” and the first generation of believers associated with him, down to the end of the 1st century A.D., and the leaders of the congregations he helped to found. These leaders are the ones who preserved and safeguarded the traditions—the Gospel message, teaching of Jesus, and the theology/Christology expressed in the Gospel of John—and represent the group(s) which originally composed and circulated the Gospel (and First Letter). The author of the Letters (“the Elder”) was a leading figure (perhaps the leading figure) for these Johannine congregations. The language, ideas, and theology in the Gospel and Letters is distinctive—”Johannine”, as compared with that of the Pauline letters and churches, etc. The Book of Revelation has also been considered a “Johannine” work, with certain characteristics in common with the Gospel and Letters, though written in a very different language and style. According to tradition, all five writings are attributed to John the apostle (hence, “Johannine”), but few commentators today would accept this traditional identification without further ado.

Christology appears to be at the root of the conflict in 1 and 2 John—between the author (representing the ‘mainstream’ Johannine congregations) and the separatists who “went out” from them. Many commentators feel that this split reflects a fundamental difference of interpretation regarding the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The viewpoint of these separatists, by all accounts, was an early “docetic” Christology, one which denied the reality of Jesus’ human life (and death), or, at least, minimized or relativized its importance. It is easy enough to see how such a view might develop out the uniquely “high” Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, the Gospel of John proved to be popular among certain heretical/heterodox Christians, including so-called Gnostics, many of whom evinced “docetic” or “separationist” tendencies which challenged and clashed with the (proto-)orthodox view of Christ as the incarnate Son of God. Heracleon, for example, wrote perhaps the earliest commentary on the Gospel of John, which spurred Origen to compose his own massive (and unfinished) Commentary.

This question of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” plunges us into a difficult and sensitive issue which ought to be addressed, in closing. How far should Christians today go in following the example of 1 John 5:16-17 and 2 John 10-11, essentially refusing to regard or treat as fellow those with differing Christological views? Remember that the author of 3 John decries the fact that Diotrephes is apparently doing much the same thing (vv. 9-10), only on the other side of the fence! Surely this is not merely a question of lining up to a precise Christological formulation or creed. The author of 1 John spends five chapters expounding the theological (and ethical) aspects of what we might call the “fundamentals” of Christian identity—of our identity as (true) believers in Christ. It is tied to such powerful notions as what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, the affect of his death, the meaning and significance of sin, and the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. For centuries, supposed Christians have accused one another of not being true believers, not holding the correct belief, and this has often resulted in many tragic episodes (often based on unfortunate misunderstandings), including angry words, insults, excommunication, hostility of all sorts, not infrequently leading to persecution and violence. In the name of Christ, many have exhibited the very sort of hatred which violates the command to love other Christians, according to Christ’s own example. Before proceeding to the drastic step of refusing to acknowledge Christians as fellow believers, let us take the author’s own advice and “test the spirits”—including the manner in which we are acting and reacting. Is it in accordance with the Holy Spirit of God and Christ?

Sadly, many Christians today are no longer faced with the kind of Christological questions with which the Johannine congregations sought to grapple. Christology has almost disappeared entirely from the Church. We must return to it anew, and I can think of no better place to start than with the Gospel and Letters of John. I hope and trust that this series has been stimulating and inspiring, perhaps encouraging you to further study of these marvelous works.

Special Note on 1 John 4:3

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Special Note on 1 John 4:3

As indicated in the most recent daily note, there is a famous text-critical question in 1 Jn 4:3. It is unusual in that the majority reading is found in the entire Greek manuscript tradition, as well as nearly all versions, and yet the minority reading is still thought to be original by a number of scholars. Here is a translation of the verse with the variation unit marked by braces:

“…and every spirit which { } Yeshua is not out of [i.e. from] God; and this is the (spirit) th(at is) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$], of which you have heard that it comes, and now is already in the world.”

The first italicized phrase characterizes this “spirit” which is subsequently identified as being “against the Anointed (One)”. Let us examine the verb which is at the point of variation:

  • The majority reading:
    pa=n pneu=ma o^ mh\ o(mologei= to\n Ihsou=n
    “every spirit which does not give common account [i.e. confess] (regarding) Yeshua…”
  • The minority reading:
    pa=n pneu=ma o^ lu/ei to\n Ihsou=n
    “every spirit which looses Yeshua…”

As indicated above, the majority reading is found in every Greek manuscript (and lectionary), as well as nearly all the versions, and in most of the Church Fathers who cite the passage. The minority reading, by contrast, has very limited attestation. Indeed, the Greek (manuscript) evidence is limited to the margin of the 10th century MS 1739, where it is noted that the verb lu/ei is the reading known by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen in the late 2nd century. That Irenaeus and Origen knew (and cited) this reading is confirmed, but only in Latin translation, by Against Heresies III.16.5, 8 and Origen’s Commentary on Matthew (§65 [PG] of the books/portions preserved only in Latin). The Latin equivalent of lu/ei to\n Ihsou=n (solvit Iesum) is also cited by Tertullian (Against Marcion 5:16), Priscillian (Tract 1:31), and other Church Fathers, as well as in a number of Old Latin and Vulgate MSS. The earliest surviving citation of the actual Greek would seem to be by the 5th century historian Socrates (Church History 7:32).

On the basis of the overwhelming textual evidence, most commentators accept the majority reading as original, though some scholars prefer the minority text as the lectio difficilior (on the principle that the “more difficult reading” is more likely to be original). If secondary, it is hard to explain how the verb lu/ei would have been introduced in place of mh\ o(mologei=. On the other hand, mh\ o(mologei= is grammatically peculiar enough that its presence in the entire Greek manuscript tradition, substituted throughout in place of lu/ei, seems most unlikely. Which ever direction the change took place, it probably occurred as an explanatory gloss, perhaps as a marginal reading such as we see in the Greek MS 1739. The reading lu/ei to\n Ihsou=n (solvit Iesum, “looses Yeshua”) is cited in the 2nd-3rd centuries—by Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian (and, presumably, Clement of Alexandria)—in relation to the Christological controversies of the time. This increases the likelihood that the reading was introduced, perhaps intentionally, in order to defend an orthodox (or proto-orthodox) Christology against certain “Gnostic” views which separated the man Jesus from the divine Christ. According to such an interpretation, the (variant reading of) 1 John 4:3 was cited to demonstrate that anyone who “separated” Jesus in this way was, in effect, denying him; certainly such a person was not giving account (i.e. confessing) as one (with the orthodox believers) the proper view of Christ.

But is this anything like what the author of the letter had in mind? Let us consider for a moment what the variant reading lu/ei might have meant for the author if original. The verb means “loos(en)”, and can be used: (1) in this general, fundamental sense; (2) of loosening a bond in the sense of freeing or releasing a person; (3) in the negative sense of “dissolve” (i.e. destroy). It occurs 7 times in the Gospel and Letters of John, more or less in each of these three senses:

  1. The basic meaning of “loosen” (Jn 1:27)
  2. The positive sense of freeing or releasing a person (Jn 11:44)
  3. The negative sense of dissolving/destroying something (Jn 2:19; 1 Jn 3:8)
    To this may be added a special usage (3a) related to the observance of the commands, etc. in the Law (Torah). To “loosen” observance of the Law means essentially to nullify its binding authority (Jn 5:18; 7:23; cf. also 10:35).

The context of 1 John 4:3 is decidedly negative, which suggests that something like meaning 3 above would be intended. The closest parallel is found in the Temple-saying by Jesus in Jn 2:19:

“Loose [i.e. dissolve] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it (again).”

The Gospel writer in verse 21 makes clear that the sanctuary, or Temple building, of which Jesus spoke was his own body. This association is not too far removed from false view of Jesus in 1 Jn 4:2-3. As verse 2 speaks of confessing that Jesus is the Anointed One who has come in the flesh—i.e., as a real flesh-and-blood human being—the contrary message or belief in verse 3 would deny this. In effect, such a “spirit” would dissolve or destroy the body of Jesus, perhaps in the less concrete sense of denying or nullifying its importance for believers (cf. the parallel in Jn 5:18; 7:23).

Of course, if the majority text is original, the question is moot. The author in verse 3 simply negates the (orthodox) view of Christ in verse 2: the different “spirit” does not agree that Jesus is the Anointed One who has come in the flesh.

For several citations and points above, I have relied upon the detailed discussion by Bart Ehrman in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993), pp. 125-35. He presents strong arguments in favor of the Majority text of 1 Jn 4:3.

Supplemental Note on Luke 23:47

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Luke 23:47

In the most recent daily note, I discussed briefly the difference between the centurion’s declaration in Luke and that in the Synoptic tradition of Mark/Matthew. It is one of the most dramatic differences or discrepancies in the Synoptic Passion Narrative, and has resulted in a considerable amount of commentary, both from a critical and traditional-conservative viewpoint, much of which is foreign to the context of the Gospels.

To begin with, a simplistic harmonization to the effect that the centurion actually said both things, together or in sequence, would seem to be ruled out by the fact that the two versions of the declaration have virtually the same form:

  • a)lhqw=$ (Truly)
  • o&ntw$ (Really)
    • ou!to$ o( a&nqrwpo$ (this man)
    • o( a&nqrwpo$ ou!to$ (this man)
      • ui(o\$ qeou= ([the] Son of God)
      • di/kaio$ (just/righteous)
        • h@n (was)
        • h@n (was)

Critical commentators who hold that Luke made use of the Gospel of Mark would assume that the former has altered the Synoptic tradition at this point. On the other hand, if a change/development in the tradition took place, it is perhaps more likely that it was in the opposite direction—altering “righteous (one)” to the more exalted title “Son of God”, rather than the other way around. If one is determined to retain the historicity of both, conceivably the centurion could have said something like, “Surely this man was a righteous son [of God]”—however, this remains entirely a matter of speculation.

However one judges the historical-critical question, and whether or not Luke has altered the Synoptic tradition, we are left to consider what the Gospel writer intends to convey to us with this form of the centurion’s declaration. An important detail is preserved in the first half of the verse: “And seeing the (thing which) came to be, the chief-of-a-hundred [i.e. centurion] gave esteem/honor to God [e)do/cazen] saying…”. Thus the centurion is portrayed as a God-fearing Gentile who gives esteem [do/ca] to God—i.e. recognizes and worships the true God—much like the centurion in 7:2-5ff or the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10. This is an important theme in Luke-Acts, closely related to the early Gentile mission—cf. Lk 2:30-32; 3:6; Acts 10:34-35, 44-48; 11:18; 13:46-48; 15:7-11ff, etc. On the motif of giving honor/esteem (i.e. “glory”) to God, using the verb doca/zw, see Lk 2:20; 5:25-26; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43.

As far as the declaration itself in verse 47b, there are two other important aspects to consider in the use of the adjective di/kaio$ (“just, righteous”):

1. The Innocence of Jesus

In the LXX, di/kaio$ can be used to translate Hebrew yq!n` (“clean, without guilt”, etc), as in Gen 20:5; Prov 6:17; Joel 3:19; Jon 1:14. It seems to have this sense also in Matt 27:19 and Acts 16:39 D (cf. also 1 Pet 3:18). The innocence of Jesus is an important motif in the Passion Narrative, but is especially prominent in Luke’s version, running through the entirety of the Roman interrogation and crucifixion scenes of chapter 23—cf. especially vv. 4, 11, 14-15, 22, 41. In the dialogue between Jesus and the criminals on the cross, di/kaio$ referred to the just punishment given to the criminals, while the “good” thief declares that Jesus, on the other hand, has done “nothing out of place [i.e. nothing wrong]”. Jesus’ punishment then is not just, for he is innocent of any guilt, precisely as the centurion states in v. 47.

2. Jesus as the Just/Righteous One

The adjective di/kaio$, used as a substantive, occurs in the Lukan book of Acts as a title of Jesus—i.e., “the Just/Righteous One”, Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14. It is found similarly in the New Testament in 1 Jn 2:1, etc. The references in Acts reflect early Christian tradition, i.e. preaching and proclamation of the Gospel message by the first believers. It is natural that Luke would prepare his readers for it here at the end of the Gospel narrative. The early Christian use of the title may derive from Messianic passages in the Old Testament (Jer 23:5; Zech 9:9; also Isa 53:11) and later Jewish tradition (Ps Sol 17:32). We may also recall how in Luke’s version of the Crucifixion Jesus quotes Psalm 31:5; in verse 18 of the same Psalm, in a context evocative of the crucifixion scene, the sufferer is referred to as “the just/righteous one”.

Returning to the difference in the titles used by the centurion in the Markan and Lukan version of his confession—”Son of God” and “Righteous One”—it is worth considering the association of the righteous as “sons/children of God”. This derives from the Old Testament image of Israel as God’s “son”—more specifically, of the faithful ones in Israel as the sons/children of God. In Wisdom Literature, it was natural to extend this to the righteous ones generally. In the book of Wisdom, such an identification is made (cf. 2:13, 16, 18); moreover, in 3:1 there is a passage which would seem to apply well to the idea expressed by Jesus in his dying utterance (Lk 23:46): “the souls of the righteous is in the hand of God”.

Supplemental Note on John 18:28-19:16

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John 18:28-19:16

The recent daily note in this series examined the Roman “Trial” of Jesus before Pilate, as preserved in the Synoptic Tradition. The version of this episode in the Gospel of John has certain unusual details and elements which require a separate study, however brief. Apart from the issues of chronology related to the Passover festival (cf. the historical detail in 18:28, 39, along with the recent supplemental note), the Johannine account has a unique structure, and line of tradition, centered on the two exchanges between Jesus and Pilate in 18:33-38 and 19:8-11. The remainder of the narrative here, while differing in detail from the Synoptic, is fully in accord with the essential (historical) tradition shared by both.

The Structure of the Episode

There is a very precise, symmetrical structure to this episode in John’s Gospel; from the standpoint of the narrative, it plays upon the image of Pilate going out to the Jewish leaders (J. L.), and going in (i.e. inside the Palace) to deal with Jesus, presented in alternating scenes:

Cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol 29, 29A, pp. 858-9.

Exchange #1—Jn 18:33-38

Each of the dialogue exchanges between Jesus and Pilate centers on a title which is part of the charge/accusation against Jesus by the Jewish embassy. The first is “King of the Jews”, which features in the Synoptic interrogation scene (Mk 15:2 par). As in the Synoptics, Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 33). Nothing in the narrative prepares us for this, since John does not have anything comparable to the Sanhedrin scene of the Synoptics in which the question of Jesus’ identity as the “Anointed One” (Messiah, presumably of the Davidic Ruler type) was addressed. The Lukan version of the interrogation before Pilate specifically makes this part of the accusation against Jesus (Lk 23:2). There is little reason to doubt that this political aspect of Jesus as the “Messiah” (and thus a would-be king of Judea) was the basis of the trial/interrogation by the Roman governor Pilate. John’s Gospel, unlike Luke’s, has little interest in the political implications. Rather, the author uses the title “King of the Jews” to emphasize a theological point related to Jesus’ true identity.
The dialogue begins from the political level of understanding; Pilate assumes that the title “king” (basileu/$) is being used in the customary ethnic and national/political sense—i.e. “king of the Jews“, of Judea. Jesus’ initial response in verse 34 plays on Pilate’s own understanding of the title, and of Jesus’ identity—”(Is it) from yourself (that) you say this, or did others say (it) to you about me?” The question draws out from Pilate the ethnic/national aspect of his way of thinking—i.e. Roman vs. Jew: “I am not a Jew, [am I]? Your (own) nation…gave you along to me” (v. 35). In his mind, Jesus’ actions must have similar national and political implications, as he asks “What (have) you do(ne)?”

This leads in to the dual statement by Jesus in vv. 36-37; it has the same place and function as the expositions of Jesus in the earlier Discourses, in which he explains the true, deeper meaning of his words. In this instance, he explains the sense in which he is a king—that is, the true nature of kingship and his own true identity. The first part of this exposition deals with the nature of kingship and the idea of a kingdom. The structure of Jesus’ statement is interesting in its logical symmetry:

  • “My kingdom is not out of this world(-order)”
    —”If my kingdom were out of this world(-order)…”
  • “But now my kingdom is not from this (place)”

The conditional, hypothetical statement in between (“If my kingdom were…”) reflects precisely what is denied by the surrounding declarations. The sort of political, partisan action assumed by the conditional statement is completely foreign, even antithetical to Jesus’ kingdom. This, of course, was illustrated vividly by the rash and violent action by Peter with the sword in the earlier Garden scene (vv. 10-11), and has, sadly, been repeated by Christians and non-Christians alike throughout the ages. Such violence and partisan power-struggles are part of the world—the current world-order, which is dominated by darkness (1:5; 3:19; 8:12; 12:35, 46; 13:30b; cf. also Lk 1:79; 22:53 and 23:44 par). Jesus declares flatly “My kingdom is not of/from this world”.

The second part of the exposition is introduced by another question from Pilate. Since Jesus speaks of “my kingdom”, Pilate naturally asks him “Are you not then a king?”. This moves the discussion more decidedly in the direction of Jesus’ identity (cf. below). With his response in verse 37, Jesus make no further mention of his kingdom or being a king, telling Pilate “You say that I am a king”; instead he makes a powerful statement regarding his purpose in the world, which epitomizes the theological portrait of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born) and unto this I have come into the world that I might bear witness to the truth—everyone being out of [i.e. who is from] the truth hears my voice”

Exchange #2—Jn 19:8-11

The second exchange relates to the second title—”Son of God”—which is part of the Jewish Council’s charge against Jesus: “…according to the Law, he ought to die, (in) that he made himself (to be the) Son of God” (19:7). The mention of the title “Son of God” causes fear in Pilate—doubtless a superstitious kind of fear, but one which fits the Johannine portrait of Jesus, whose commanding (divine) presence and authority caused the soldiers in the Garden scene to shrink back and fall to the ground at the sound of his voice and the declaration “I am” (18:5-6). And, indeed, it is the very theme of authority (e)cousi/a) which is central to this portion of the dialogue. It begins with another question by Pilate—this time specifically addressing Jesus’ identity (cf. above): “Where are you (from)?” (v. 9), to which Jesus gives no answer (cf. Mark 14:61; 15:5 par). This provokes Pilate to make his own declaration, expressing his political (worldly) authority as Roman Imperial governor:

“Do you not see [i.e. know] that I hold (the) authority [e)cousi/a] to loose you from (custody) and I (also) hold the authority to put you to the stake?” (v. 10)

The noun e)cousi/a fundamentally refers to something which is in a person’s power, i.e. that he/she has the ability to do—literally it means something which is (or comes) out of [e)k] a person. Pilate refers specifically to the power/authority he holds (vb. e&xw) personally. However, quite often the noun is used in the sense of something which a person is allowed or permitted to do (i.e. by a higher authority). Jesus develops this aspect in his reply to Pilate:

“You (would) hold no authority (at all) against me, if it were not [i.e. had not been] given to you from above [a&nwqen]” (v. 11a)

The use of the adverb a&nwqen (“from above”) is of tremendous theological significance in the Gospel of John, being used in the Discourse of Jn 3:1-21 (vv. 3, 7)—i.e. the idea of a person (believer) coming to be born “from above”. It appears again in 3:31, part of a powerful Christological statement (by John the Baptist?) which is similar to Jesus words here, especially if they are combined with the earlier declaration in v. 37 (cf. above):

“The one coming from above is over (and) above all (thing)s; the one being out of [i.e. from] the earth is (indeed) out of the earth and speaks out of the earth. The one coming out of heaven [is above all things]; he witness of what he has seen and heard, and (yet) no one receives his witness”

With Jesus’ concluding statement, the scene returns to the traditional motif of the responsibility for Jesus’ death being upon the Jewish leaders, rather than Pilate (on this aspect of the Gospel tradition, cf. the recent daily note).

Supplemental Note on the Sanhedrin “Trial”

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As was discussed in the recent daily note in this series, there are three different versions of the “Trial” (or examination/interrogation) of Jesus before the ruling authorities of the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin). In each of these versions there is a distinct order and arrangement of traditional material:

In Mark/Matthew, there is a night session of the Council, assembled quickly, it would seem (Mk 14:53), soon after Jesus’ arrest on the evening beginning the Passover (Nisan 15). It is presented as a formal trial, with witnesses and announcement of sentence. The central scene has the High Priest (identified as Caiaphas by Matthew, 26:57) questioning Jesus directly (Mk 14:60-62). A second session (consultation) is mentioned in 15:1, after which Jesus is sent to the governor Pilate, where the Council would present their case (and the criminal charge) against Jesus.

In Luke, by contrast, there is only one session of the Council recorded, corresponding to the night session of Mk 14:53-65 par, but Luke has it set specifically in the morning (“as it came to be day”, 22:66). This fits with the Lukan order of events, which has the session take place after Peter’s denial.

The Gospel of John has nothing corresponding to the Synoptic episode, but instead records a separate interrogation of Jesus (by the Chief Priest Annas, described as the father-in-law of Caiaphas, 18:13). There is very little in common between this scene and the Synoptic account, except a general similarity of outline with Mark/Matthew—questioning, Jesus’ response, mistreatment (striking) of Jesus. Peter’s denial is intercut with the interrogation scene, indicating that they are taking place simultaneously.

For those concerned with harmonizing the Gospel accounts, it is relatively simple to blend Luke’s version together with that of John, but extremely difficult to reconcile either Luke or John with the order/arrangement in Mark/Matthew. Consider how the events in Luke and John might be put together:

  • NIGHT-TIME
    • Jesus is bound and taken to the house of the Chief Priest Annas where he is held in custody—Jn 18:12-14
    • Peter is waiting the Chief Priest’s (Annas, not Caiaphas) courtyard outside—Jn 18:15-16; Lk 22:54-55
    • Peter’s First denial, while he waits—Jn 18:17-18; Lk 22:56-57
    • Jesus is interrogated by Annas—Jn 18:19-21
    • While this is going on(?), Peter’s second and third denials take place outside—Jn 18:25-27; Lk 22:58-62
    • Mistreatment/abuse of Jesus by the “police” holding him in custody—Jn 18:22-23; Lk 22:63-65 (details differ between the two at this point)
    • Jesus is bound and sent to Caiaphas—Jn 18:24
  • MORNING
    • Jesus is question by the Council, led by the High Priest Caiaphas (to be inferred, cf. the Synoptic account)—Lk 22:66-70
    • [This may include witnesses/testimony as in the Synoptic account, cf. the wording in Lk 22:71]
    • Determination that Jesus is worthy of being sentenced to death—Lk 22:71
    • Jesus is bound and taken to the governor Pilate where the Council will present its case—Lk 23:1; Jn 18:28a

Insofar as it is possible to get back to the historical level of the tradition, in an objective sense, this would probably be a fair reconstruction. The problem lies in evaluating the Synoptic evidence of the Council session held at night (which Luke sets in the morning). Most critical scholars would hold that the Lukan order is almost certainly more accurate, and that, in many respects, John’s account, with its wealth of unique local detail (cf. Jn 18:10b, 12-13, 15b-16, 26, 28b, etc) may be closest to the original historical tradition. The reasons for preferring John’s chronology, in which all these events occur on the day before Passover (Nisan 14), rather than on Passover itself, have been discussed in an earlier note. At the same time, it is hard to explain the curious inclusion of the Synoptic Temple-saying report if it were not part of the historical tradition regarding an accusation/charge brought against Jesus by the Council. If Luke were aware of this tradition—which would be the case if he made use of the Gospel of Mark (cf. also Acts 6:14)—one can only guess as to why it was left out in his account. Perhaps the similarity of language and thought with portions of the speeches by Stephen (7:48-50) and Paul (17:24-25) in Acts prompted him to omit the “false” report of the saying (= a false saying by Jesus?) in Mk 14:58 par.

Supplemental Note: On Passover and the Passion Narrative

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On Passover and the Passion Narrative

One of the most certain traditions regarding the Passion Narrative is that the arrest and death of Jesus occurred around the time of the Passover festival. This is confirmed by multiple lines of tradition—in both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John, as well as in subsequent Jewish tradition (e.g., the Talmudic baraitha in b. Sanhedrin 43a). However, there is a distinct difference between John and the Synoptics in the precise dating and relationship to the day of Passover (Nisan 15).

According to the Synoptic Tradition, the “Last Supper” shared by Jesus and his disciples was a Passover meal which took place on the evening (after sundown) which begins the day of Passover (Nisan 15). This is stated explicitly in Mark 14:1, 12, 14, 16 par. The dating makes clear that we are dealing with the day of 14/15 Nisan—prior to the feast after sundown, on the daytime eve (of the 14th), the Passover lambs would be sacrificed (Mk 14:12; Luke 22:7).

However, according to the Gospel of John, the Last Supper (Jn 13:1-17ff) occurred some time before the day of Passover proper. This is indicated specifically by:

  • The introduction to the Passion narrative and the Last Supper scene in 13:1:
    “And before the festival of Pesah [i.e. Passover]…”
  • Jn 18:28 and 19:14 make clear that the trial and crucifixion of Jesus both took place on the day of Passover eve (Nisan 14), before sundown and the start of Passover. On the 15th of Nisan Jesus was already dead (and buried).

This creates an obvious chronological discrepancy between John and the Synoptics. Commentators have tried to solve the issue in a number of ways, none of which are entirely satisfactory. Many critical scholars would simply admit that two different (variant) traditions regarding the precise dating, in relation to Passover, have been preserved. For those interested in determining the “correct” historical tradition, or in harmonizing the two lines of Gospel tradition, there are several possibilities which must be considered:

  1. Either John or the Synoptics record the “correct” dating, while the other has adapted and interpreted it, giving the association with Passover a special theological or Christological application.
  2. Both traditions, in their own way, are giving a specific interpretation (or application) to the original historical tradition which generally recorded Jesus’ death as occurring around the time of Passover.
  3. Each tradition is following a different way of dating Passover—i.e. is using a different calendar.

The last of these has been a favored way of solving the problem, especially for traditional-conservative commentators eager to harmonize John and the Synoptics. The idea is that two different calendars were in use in Palestine at the time of Jesus—for example, a 364-day solar calendar, along with a lunar (or lunar-solar) calendar. According to this theory, popularized by the work of A. Jaubert (accessible in English as The Date of the Last Supper [Alba House: 1965]), the Synoptics, along with Jesus and his disciples, are following the solar calendar, by which the Last Supper was celebrated, as a Passover meal, the evening beginning Nisan 15, while Jesus would have been crucified and buried on Nisan 17/18. John, by contrast, is following the official lunar-solar calendar, whereby the Last Supper occurred on Nisan 12. Evidence for use of an alternate (solar) calendar has been found in the Qumran writings (Dead Sea Scrolls)—e.g. 1QpHab 11:4ff and 11QPsa 27—as well as in other Jewish writings such as the book of Jubilees. Nevertheless, despite its attractiveness and convenience, this theory has fallen out of favor somewhat in recent decades, largely because commentators do not see any real evidence (apart from our desire to harmonize the accounts) that there are two different calendars used in the Gospels.

Options 1 and 2 above posit the alternative view that either John or the Synoptics (or both) have made the dating specific so as to bring out a particular theological/Christological connection with Passover:

  • In making the Last Supper unquestionably a Passover meal, the Synoptic tradition, which records Jesus’ words of institution (of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper), associates the impending sacrificial death of Jesus with the sacrificial offering(s) drawn from the Exodus narratives (Exod 24:8), by which the Covenant with God’s people was established. Jesus’ own body and blood (i.e. his death) will similarly establish a (new) Covenant with believers.
  • John identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb (19:31, cf. also 1:29, 36), which is why the Gospel writer dates the crucifixion to Nisan 14, when the lambs are prepared for slaughter (19:14). The mention of “hyssop” (19:29 MT) may also be an allusion to the ancient Passover tradition (Exod 12:22). Paul offers a similar identification of Jesus with the Paschal Lamb in 1 Cor 5:7 (and cf. also 1 Pet 1:19).

We should perhaps consider a fourth option, which, while it does not solve all of the chronological problems, may offer a simpler way of harmonizing the two lines of tradition. It is possible that Jesus and his disciples observed the Passover meal—or a meal with Passover characteristics—ahead of time, i.e. on Nisan 14, or even earlier. Several details in the Gospels could be cited in favor of this solution:

  • The dating of the Last Supper in John 13:1ff.
  • The Synoptic tradition which records that the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) did not wish to have Jesus arrested on the feast of Passover, indicating that they would have done this before sundown on Nisan 14/15 (cf. Mark 14:1-2 par).
  • It has always seemed somewhat implausible that the Sanhedrin would have met to interrogate Jesus on Passover. This removes the difficulty, preserving the (accurate) information in John 18:28, 39—i.e., that the trial and execution of Jesus took place prior to sundown Nisan 14/15.
  • The language and wording of Luke 22:15 could be taken to indicate that the meal is prior to Passover.

The main argument against this view is the specific dating indicated by Mark 14:1, 12. It would end up as a variation of option 1 above, implying that the Synoptic Gospels redated the historical tradition in order to make the Last Supper more clearly a celebration of Passover.

Supplemental Note on Judas Iscariot

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Special attention should be given to the traditions involving Judas Iscariot in the Passion Narrative. He features variously in the first three episodes, as has been discussed in the prior notes of this series. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas is one of the most secure traditions in the entire Narrative, and its authenticity as a historical tradition is all but certain (on objective grounds). The reasons for this are:

  • It is preserved in multiple lines of tradition, evidenced at multiple points in the Synoptic and Johannine lines, as well as Acts 1:16-20.
  • Early Christians are unlikely to have invented the idea that Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers, nor would it have been readily accepted if it did not derive from a strong and reliable historical tradition.
  • Indeed, there are signs that early Christians (including the Gospel writers) were uncomfortable with the idea and felt the need to explain it (on this, cf. below).

To this we must note that Judas scarcely appears in the Gospels at all apart from his role as betrayer in the Passion Narrative. He is associated exclusively with the betrayal, and there are indications that the fact of his betrayal had a profound affect on early Christian tradition. Consider that in the calling of the Twelve (an early/authentic tradition, to be sure), with the associated list of names (Mk 3:13-19 par), specific information is provided for only two of the Twelve disciples—the first (Simon Peter) and the last (Judas). The reference “Yehudah Ish-Qiryah [i.e. Judas Iscariot], the (one) who gave (Jesus) over…” was a familiar formula among early Christians, some version of which is found in the Gospels practically whenever his name is mentioned.

The Passion Narrative

Within the Passion Narrative itself, Judas appears at several key points, each of which is associated with a distinct tradition. I cite the Gospel of Mark as the simplest version among the Synoptics:

  • Mark 14:10-11 (par Matt 26:14-16; Lk 22:3-6):
    “And Yehudah Ish-Qiryah {Judas Iscariot}, one of the Twelve, went (away) from (there) toward the chief sacred-officials [i.e. chief Priests], (so) that he might give him [i.e. Jesus] along to them. And hearing (this) they were delighted, and gave a message upon (it) to [i.e. announced they would] give him silver.”
    In Mark/Matthew, this passage functions as an excursus between the first and second episodes. In Luke, it follows the introduction and similarly precedes the Passover meal episode.
  • Mark 14:18-21 (par Matt 26:21-25; Lk 22:21-23; also Jn 13:21-30):
    The prediction of betrayal, and the identification of the betrayer by Jesus, which includes a declaration of woe (Son of Man saying). This is part of the Passover meal episode, discussed in earlier notes.
  • Mark 14:43-46 (par Matt 26:47-50; Lk 22:47-48; also Jn 18:2-5):
    Judas comes with a crowd to arrest Jesus; he approaches to kiss Jesus. This is part of the Gethsemane/Garden scene, discussed in the previous notes. Mention should also be made of the declaration by Jesus which climaxes the previous Prayer scene (Mk 14:41-42 par): “…the hour came [i.e. has come]! See, the Son Man is (being) given along into the hands of sinful (men)…See, the one giving me along has come near!”

The last two traditions are found in all four Gospels, though with certain differences, indicating various ways in which the traditions have been developed. Matthew generally follows Mark closely, but adds certain details, including more direct interaction between Jesus and Judas (26:25, 49-50).

Luke has a different order/arrangement of events in the Last Supper scene (22:17-23), so that the prediction of the betrayal comes after the meal (and the words of institution); otherwise, the author generally follows the Synoptic/Markan account. However, this reordering allows the prediction of the betrayal to lead into teaching by Jesus regarding the nature of true discipleship (vv. 24-30)—that is, in contrast to the “false” discipleship of Judas the betrayer. The nature of this betrayal is brought out by Luke in the “Gethsemane” scene, and the arrest of Jesus, which follows (vv. 39-53), in two ways:

  • As Judas comes near to kiss Jesus, Luke is unique in the record of Jesus’ address to him: “Yehudah, you give along [i.e. betray] the Son of Man with a (mark of) affection [i.e. kiss]?” (v. 48)
  • The concluding declaration—”this is your [pl.] hour and the authority of darkness!” (v. 53)—alludes back to verse 14, as well as v. 3, where it is stated that “(the) Satan came into Yehudah {Judas}…” In the Gospel of John, Judas is similarly associated with darkness and the Devil (cf. below).

Development of the Tradition in Luke and John

Within the Gospel Tradition, two explanations were given for the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest disciples: (1) Judas’ greed, and (2) the influence of Satan. Neither of these are found in the core Synoptic tradition represented by Mark’s Gospel, though there is perhaps an allusion to the first in Mark 14:10-11. Luke’s version at this point (22:3-6) may bring out the idea of Judas’ desire for payment, but only slightly (compared with Matthew’s version, cf. below). However, both Luke and John record specifically the diabolical nature of the betrayal, and the influence of Satan over Judas. In Luke, this is indicated by verses 3 and 53, mentioned above. The presentation in the Gospel of John requires a closer look.

John does not include a specific tradition of the calling of the Twelve such as we see in the Synoptics (Mk 3:13-19 par), but there is a similar sort of reference in 6:66-71, where Jesus declares:

“Did I not gather out [i.e. choose] you the Twelve—and (yet) out of you [i.e. among you] one is a devil!” (v. 70, cf. the author’s explanation in v. 71)

Judas appears again in chapters 12-13, especially the Last Supper episode of 13:1-30. Note the role of Judas here, in comparison with the Synoptic tradition:

  • V. 2: “And (with the) dining coming to be, the Devil [lit. one casting (evil) throughout] already had cast (it) into the heart that Yehuda Ish-Qirya (son) of Shim’on should give him along [i.e betray him]”—the Greek is somewhat ambiguous, but it should probably be understood that the Devil cast the idea/impulse into Judas‘ heart, i.e. that he should betray Jesus.
  • V. 10 (Jesus’ words to his disciples at the foot-washing): “…and you are clean—but not all of you!” (and the author’s explanation in v. 11, compare with 6:70-71, above)
  • V. 18 (a similar declaration by Jesus): “I do not say (this) about all of you—I know (the one)s whom I gathered out [i.e. chose]—but (so) that the Writing may be fulfilled…” (a citation of Psalm 41:9 follows).
  • Vv. 21-30—the expanded role of Judas in the scene of the betrayal prediction:
    • Jesus gives special information to the ‘Beloved disciple’ that he will identify the betrayer by giving him a piece of bread dipped in the dish (vv. 25-26a)
    • Jesus gives (shares) the piece of bread with Judas—described by the narrator (v. 26b)
    • At the moment that Judas eats the bread, it is stated that “then the Satan came into that one [i.e. Judas]” (v. 27, compare Lk 22:3)
    • The exchange between Jesus and Judas (vv. 27b-29), followed by Judas’ exit, i.e. his departure from the the room and the circle of Jesus’ (true) disciples (v. 30a)
    • After Judas’ leaves, we have the simple (symbolic) statement by the author: “And it was night” (v. 30b, cf. Lk 22:53)

In addition to the Satanic influence over Judas, the Gospel of John also indicates his greed, expressed through a distinct development of the Anointing tradition (Jn 12:1-8)—the person who objects to the ‘waste’ of expensive perfume (Mk 14:4; Matt 26:8-9) is identified as Judas (v. 4). Moreover, the author goes out of his way to explain that Judas, despite his noble-sounding objection, really did not care for the poor; rather, he simply wanted to preserve the money in the disciples’ common purse, since he was a thief and often would filch from it (according to the best sense of v. 6b). In 13:29 we find again the tradition that Judas held the common purse of money.

The Development of the Tradition in Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew has developed the Synoptic traditions regarding Judas in a distinct way, at two points:

  • Matt 26:14-16—Judas takes the initiative and asks the Priests “What are you willing to give me…?” (v. 15). Also a specific amount of money is indicated (30 silver-pieces). Both details emphasize the motif of Judas’ greed.
  • Matt 27:3-10—The reaction of Judas to Jesus’ arrest, etc, culminating in his suicide. This is a tradition completely unique to Matthew, and it partially undoes the negative portrait of Judas, by showing him to be repentant/remorseful over his actions. At the same time the suicide (hanging) depicts him as coming to a terrible and wicked end. The idea seems to be that his (apparent) repentance cannot completely undo the evil effects of his betrayal. Yet, the Gospel writer is not so much interested in Judas’ psychology, as in his actions as the fulfillment of Scripture (the difficult citation in vv. 9-10).

The tradition of Judas’ death in 27:5-8 is partially confirmed by Acts 1:18-19, though the specific details differ. The manner of Judas’ death in the latter passage, with its more grotesque description, seems to be in line with other early Christian treatments of Judas which tend to depict him in increasingly evil and ugly terms.

Supplemental Note on Luke 22:43-44

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Luke 23:43-44

There is much textual uncertainty regarding the Lukan version of the prayer scene in the Garden. To see the matter in context, I give the passage as follows (with the disputed portion in double-square brackets, according to the Nestle-Aland critical text [27th ed.]):

40geno/meno$ de e)pi tou= to/pou ei‚pen au)toi=$: proseu/xesqe mh ei)selqei=n ei)$ peirasmo/n. 41kai au)to$ a)pespa/sqh a)p’ au)tw=n w(sei li/qou bolh/n kai qei$ ta go/nata proshu/xeto 42le/gwn: pa/ter, ei) bou/lei pare/negke tou=to to poth/rion a)p’ e)mou=: plhn mh to qe/lhma/ mou a)lla to son gine/sqw. [[43w&fqh de au)tw=| a&ggelo$ a)p’ ou)ranou= e)nisxu/wn au)to/n. 44kai geno/meno$ e)n a)gwni/a| e)ktene/steron proshu/xeto: kai e)ge/neto o( i(drw$ au)tou= w(sei qro/mboi ai%mato$ katabai/nonto$ e)pi thn gh=n.]] 45kai a)nasta$ a)po th=$ proseuxh=$ e)lqwn pro$ tou$ maqhta$ eu!ren koimwme/nou$ au)tou$ a)po th=$ lu/ph$, 46kai ei‚pen au)toi=$: ti/ kaqeu/dete; a)nasta/nte$ proseu/xesqe, i%na mh ei)se/lqhte ei)$ peirasmo/n.

40And coming to be upon the place, he said to them: “Pray not to enter into testing.” 41And he drew out from them like a stone’s throw (away), and setting (down) the knees he prayed, 42saying: “Father, if you wish, carry away this cup from me, but more—(let) not my will but yours come to be.” [[43And a Messenger from heaven was seen (by/unto) him, strengthening him. 44And coming to be in agony, more fervently he prayed: and his sweat came to be like thick-drops of blood going down upon the earth.]] 45And rising from the prayer, coming to(ward) the learners he found them sleeping from sorrow, 46and he said to them: “What, you are asleep? Stand up (and) pray not to come into testing.”

Commentators and textual critics are divided on whether the bracketed portion (vv. 43-44) should be considered as part of the original text. Indeed, the external (manuscript) evidence is rather evenly divided:

  • Manuscripts Ë69 (apparently), Ë75, aa, A, B, N, R, T, W, 579, family 13 mss, etc., as well as a number of key early translations (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, etc.) and a number of Church Fathers (such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria), do not include vv. 43-44. A number of additional manuscripts include the verses but mark them with asterisks as suspect.
  • Manuscripts a*, D, K, L, X, G, D, 565, family 1 mss, etc., along with key translations (Syriac, Coptic, Latin, etc.), and a number of Church fathers, do include the verses.

To judge by some of the best/earliest Alexandrian manuscripts, a slight edge would be given to the shorter text, as well as on the basis of lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is [generally] to be preferred”). However, it is hard to say which is the more difficult reading. Did scribes add the verses, perhaps to help combat “docetic” Christologies by emphasizing the suffering of Jesus? Or, did scribes delete the verses, because they seemed to give too much emphasis on the human suffering of Christ? It is always easier to explain how such variants were preserved in the manuscripts, than to explain how they first came about.

In any event, the change, whichever direction it occurred (add or omit), must have taken place before the end of the second-century, since late-second- and early-third-century witnesses attest both forms of the text. Vv. 43-44 clearly represent an ancient tradition — early Church Fathers like Justin Martyr (see the Dialogue with Trypho c. 103) cite it, though not specifically as coming from the Gospel of Luke.

On the whole, the text-critical evidence appears to be slightly in favor of the shorter reading. So cherished and familiar are vv. 43-44, however—and such a powerful ancient tradition—that even scholars who reject them as original still feel compelled to include them (bracketed, as in the Nestle-Aland text above) and to comment upon them.

 

Supplemental Note: Outline of the Last Discourse

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As a supplement to the recent daily notes on the Passion Narrative and the Last Supper scene (cf. the last two notes on this scene in John), it may be useful to provide a survey of the structure of the Last Discourse, which many commentators regard as a series of discourses joined together. It has been outlined many different ways; I suggest the following thematic outline:

  • 13:31-38Introduction to the Discourse (cf. above)
  • 14:1-31Discourse/division 1Jesus’ departure
    • The relationship between Jesus and the Father (vv. 1-14)
      • Initial statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 1-4)
      • Question by the disciples [Thomas] (v. 5)
      • Jesus’ response: I AM saying (vv. 6-7)
      • Question by the disciples [Philip] (v. 8)
      • Jesus’ response: I AM saying (vv. 9-11)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 12-14)
    • Jesus’ Words for His Disciples (vv. 15-31)
      • Instruction to the Disciples: Love and the Commandments (vv. 15-24)
        —Initial statement: Promise of the Spirit (vv. 15-17)
        —Instruction: Relation of the Disciples to Jesus and the Father (vv. 18-21)
        —Question by the disciples [Judas] (v. 22)
        —Jesus’ response: The disciples and the world in relation to Jesus and the Father (vv. 23-24)
      • Exhortation for the Disciples: Farewell Promise of Peace (vv. 25-27)
        —Initial statement: Promise of the Spirit (vv. 25-26)
        —Exortation: Jesus’ gift of his Peace (v. 27)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 28-31)
  • 15:1-16:4aDiscourse/division 2—The Disciples in the World
    • Illustration of the Vine and Branches: Jesus and the Disciples (vv. 1-17)
      • The Illustration (vv. 1-3)
      • Application:
        —Remaining/abiding in Jesus (vv. 4-9)
        —Love and the Commandments (vv. 10-11)
        —The Love Command (vv. 12-15)
      • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 16-17)
    • Instruction and Exhortation: The Disciples and the World (15:18-16:4a)
      • Instruction: The Hatred of the World (15:18-25)
      • Exhortation: The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 26-27)
      • Concluding warning of the coming Persecution (16:1-4a)
  • 16:4b-28Discourse/division 3—Jesus’ departure (farewell)
    • The Promise of the Spirit (vv. 4b-15)
      • Initial statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 4b-7a)
      • The Coming of the Spirit (vv. 7b-11)
      • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 11-15)
    • Jesus’ Departure and Return (vv. 16-24)
      • Initial statement by Jesus on his departure (v. 16)
      • Question by the disciples (vv. 17-18)
      • Jesus’ response: The Promise of his Return (vv. 19-24)
    • Concluding statement by Jesus on his departure (vv. 25-28)
  • 16:29-33Conclusion to the Discourse

Some commentators would make chapter 17 part of the Last Discourse. Generally, this fits, but structurally, it is probably better to regard it as a separate component of the Passion Narrative in John. Despite the odd reference in 14:31b, it would seem that the Gospel writer intended (and envisioned) all of chapters 13-17 taking place at the time of the Last Supper. This, at least, is the narrative setting, which seems clear enough from the opening words of chapter 18: “(Hav)ing said these (thing)s, Yeshua went out [i.e. out of the room/house] with his learners [i.e. disciples]…”

Special Note on 1 Corinthians 13:8

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In discussing the role of Prophets in the early Church, I have mentioned the difficulty in relating it to the modern Age, and thus in applying passages such as 1 Cor 11:2-16 to the Church today. If Paul accepts the idea of women functioning as prophets, delivering messages in the congregational meeting, then this would certainly seem to support the idea that women may also do so (i.e. preach) today. However, according to one line of interpretation, the spiritual gifts (xarisma/ta, charismata) documented and described in 1 Corinthians (and elsewhere in the New Testament) are part of a unique set of phenomena, limited in time (more or less) to the age of the Apostles and the initial spread of Christianity. According to this view, Paul is essentially describing a situation which no longer applies today, contrary, of course, to the core belief of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Spiritualist traditions. But if, for example, 1 Cor 11:2-16 is taken as referring specifically to women exercising a (prophetic) gift which is no longer in effect, then it would not necessarily support the general idea of women preaching or delivering messages in the church meeting today. It is thus worth examining the main verse (also in 1 Corinthians) which refers to the gift of prophecy coming to an end.

1 Corinthians 13:8

This is part of the famous Love-chapter in 1 Corinthians, 12:31b-14:1a. I have explored the setting and structure of this section in an earlier note. Here is the outline again:

  • 12:31b: Introduction to the way of love
    • 13:1-3: The superiority of love—contrast with other spiritual gifts (Current time)
      —Such gifts without (being guided by) love are of little value

      • 13:4-7: The characteristics of Love
    • 13:8-13: The superiority of love—contrast with other gifts (Eschatological/teleological–in the End)
      —All such gifts will pass away, love is one of the only things which remain
  • 14:1a: Exhortation to the way of love

Love is contrasted with the spiritual “gifts”, in the parallel statements of vv. 1-3 and 8-13—the first referring to the current time (for believers in the Church), while the second refers to the end time. Verse 8 introduced this second section:

“Love does not ever fall; but if (there are thing)s foretold [i.e. prophecies], they will cease working; if (thing)s (spoken in other) tongues, they will stop; and if (there is) knowledge, it will cease working”

Paul does not refer here to knowledge generally, but to a special kind of spiritual knowledge or revelation, granted to believers by the Spirit. This idea of knowledge (gnw=si$) is given considerable emphasis in 1 Corinthians (cf. 1:5, 21ff; 8:1-3ff; 12:8; 14:6, etc), and especially here in chapter 13. The close connection between knowledge and prophecy is important (cf. 14:6), and is indicated by the parallel structure of the verse:

  • Prophecies will cease working [katarghqh/sontai] —Speaking with (other) tongues will stop
  • Knowledge will cease working [katarghqh/setai]

It is interesting that the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues occurs in between the references to prophecy and knowledge, since ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) was the central phenomenon marking the coming of the Spirit upon believers (in Acts 2). At the same time, prophecy and knowledge reflect two (higher) aspects of the Spirit’s work among believers as they participate in the Community. Though they can be separated as distinct “gifts”, they are really two sides of the same coin. In chapter 14, prophecy and messages in tongues are mentioned as specific ways that believers (men and women) may speak and minister within the meeting; Paul clearly gives priority to prophecy—delivering a message expressing the word and will of God in the ordinary language of the people—rather than similar messages in unknown languages (tongues) which require special interpretation. The close connection between prophecy and knowledge is reiterated in verse 9:

“For we know (only) out of a part [i.e. in part], and we foretell [i.e. prophesy] out of a part…”

The phrase e)k me/rou$ (“out of a part”) means that, even through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers only have a portion—that is, the knowledge and revelation we have of God, and from Him, is partial and limited. And it is this partial understanding, made available through the gifts of the Spirit, which will “cease working”:

“…but when the (thing which is) complete should come, (then) the (thing which is only) out of a part will cease working.” (verse 10)

It is the same verb (katarge/w), used twice in v. 8, and frequently elsewhere by Paul—of the 27 occurrences in the NT, all but two are found in the Pauline letters, including 9 times in 1 Corinthians. The basic meaning of the verb is to make something stop working, have no effect, etc. Paul uses it in a variety of contexts, but the essential idea is related to something new (e.g., the new covenant in Christ) replacing that which was in effect before (the old covenant). With the presence of the new, the old “ceases working”—i.e. is no longer valid or has no effect. In the current context of 1 Cor 13, the idea is that the old way (the spiritual gifts) is no longer needed or of any use. What is it that makes the prior working of the Spirit in believers obsolete? This is stated in v. 10a, and is the interpretive crux of the passage:

“when the (thing which is) complete should come”

Because of the importance of this clause, it will be helpful to look at each word in detail.

o%tan (“when[ever]”)—this is a combination of the temporal particle o%te (“when”) and the conditional a&n, indicating possibility or uncertainty, etc (“if, perhaps”). The simple o%te is used twice in verse 11 as part of the illustration of human development, marking two points in time—”when I was an infant” and “when I became a man”. This should be understood parallel to the use of the related to/te (“then”, i.e. at that time) in verse 12. The conditional o%tan here in verse 10 indicates some degree of uncertainty—i.e. whenever this should take place.

de/ (“but”)—a simple joining particle (conjunction), “and”, but which sometimes is used in a contrastive or adversative sense (“but”). Here Paul uses it to contrast v. 10a with the earlier statement in v. 9, as well as what follows in 10b. The point of contrast is between e)k me/rou$ (“[out] of a part”) and te/leio$ (“complete”).

e&lqh| (“[it] should come”)—this is an aorist subjunctive form of the verb e&rxomai (“come, go”), and is used here to indicate a specific point (in time) when something should take place, that is, when it will come. The subjunctive is related to the particle a&n embedded in the temporal o%tan (“when[ever]”, cf. above). Paul has no doubt this will occur, there is only some uncertainty just when it will take place.

to\ te/leion (“the [thing which is] complete”)—this adjective (te/leio$) is related to the noun te/lo$ and refers fundamentally to something being (or becoming) complete. It can be used in three different basic senses: (a) for the end of something, (b) for something which is full, perfect, whole, etc, and (c) for coming to fullness, maturity, etc. Paul uses the term in all three senses at various points in his letters. When applied to human beings (believers) it is often the third aspect (c) which is meant, as in 1 Cor 2:6 and 14:20 (the only other occurrences of the adjective in 1 Corinthians). The illustration of human growth and development in 13:11 might suggest that this is also the meaning of te/leio$ here—i.e. as believers come to greater maturity and understanding, there will increasingly be less need to rely upon the various spiritual gifts. There is no doubt that a number of the Corinthian believers were unduly enamored by the gifts of (spiritual) knowledge, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and so forth, which is the very reason why Paul was inspired to pen 12:31b-14:1a, to emphasize the priority (and superiority) of Christian love over all other manifestations (gifts) of the Spirit.

However, I do not believe that the adjective te/leio$ can be limited to only this sense. While it may relate to the idea of believers coming to completeness in Christ, it is primarily used in the more general (temporal) sense of something which is to come (in the future). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament of the neuter form te/leion, used as a substantive with the definite article—to\ te/leion, “the (thing which is) complete”. This should be compared with the plural substantive in 1 Cor 2:16: toi=$ telei/oi$, “[in] the (one)s (who are) complete”. In 13:11, Paul does not refer to “the (one)” [i.e. the believer], but to “the (thing)”—something which is going to happen or will appear. What is this “thing” which will come at some point in the future? The only answer Paul gives in the immediate context is found in verse 12, as he describes the transforming moment when we (believers) “will see face to(ward) face”. There can be little doubt that Paul’s orientation here is eschatological—that he has the end time (te/lo$) in mind, the completion of all things, which will follow upon the return of Christ, the resurrection, and the final Judgment. It is God himself we will see, face to face, far more perfectly than Moses did, through our union with Christ (2 Cor 3:7-18). We will know Him fully and intimately, even as we are known by Him. This is already experienced by believers through the course of our lives (2 Cor 3:18), as we grow in faith, wisdom and knowledge, but will only be realized completely at the end.

Given this basic outlook by Paul, it is unlikely that he envisioned a time, prior to the end, when the spiritual gifts would cease—least of all prophecy, which he regarded as one of the highest gifts. The situation is complicated by the fact that Paul, like most (if not all) believers of the time, more or less had an imminent expectation of the end-time—that the return of Christ and the final Judgement would soon take place, presumably in his/their own lifetime. In approaching Paul’s letters from our standpoint today, we are forced to factor in an intervening 2,000 or more years between his teaching and the end (which is yet to come). Still, if we are to give an accurate portrayal of what Paul said and wrote, we must recognize what his perspective was on the matter. It seems reasonably clear that he felt that the current working of the Spirit (the charismata, etc), and his instruction to believers regarding its manifestation, would be valid until the coming of the end, when we would experience and know God (and Christ), as well as each other, in new and perfect way.