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Saturday Series: Genesis 15

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This week we will be looking at the first of three passages in the Pentateuch which involve the idea of a covenant made between God and his people. This idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is altogether foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term b§rî¾ appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [´¹k¹r] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [ƒ®d¹qâ] for him”. The noun ƒ®d¹qâ (hq*d*x=) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world. The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb k¹ra¾ (tr^K*), “cut”. This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect. Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

  • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
  • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
  • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc). This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

I would ask that you think on these questions. Study the passage again in detail, making use of whatever tools you have available to examine the actual Hebrew text. Then continue reading through chapters 16 and 17. What similarities and differences do you find in the two covenant episodes in chapters 15 and 17, and how would you explain these?

Next week, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament. It is thus worthwhile to spend the time necessary to study the passages thoroughly. This we have begun today, and will continue it…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 17:12

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(My apologies for the belated posting of this Saturday series; next week I hope to return to regular postings on Saturday proper.)

John 17:11-12

The great prayer-discourse of John 17 serves as the conclusion both to the Last Discourse (ch. 13:31-16:33) and to the Johannine Discourses of Jesus as a whole. As such, in the Gospel narrative, they represent the climax of Jesus’ parting words to his disciples before his death. Many of the themes and ideas in the Discourses are restated and given new significance in chapter 17. For an outline of the prayer-discourse, see my earlier note on 17:3.

Today we will be looking specifically at verses 11-12:

“And (now) I am no longer in the world, and (yet) these [i.e. the disciples] are in the world, and I come toward you. Holy Father, keep watch (over) these in the name which you have given to me, that they might be one, even as we (are). When I was with them, I kept watch (over) them in your name which you have given to me, and I guarded (them) and not one of them came to ruin…”

There are textual and interpretive difficulties throughout chapter 17, including these verses. As I discussed last week, while the language and vocabulary of the Gospel of John (and the Discourses) is relatively simple, the way this language is applied is often quite complex and allusive. Every grammatical detail and nuance of wording can carry special (theological) significance. At the same time, the style and wording of the Johannine discourses is quite consistent, with the same words, phrases, and images often being repeated from one discourse to the next. This means that we can look to earlier usage in the Gospel for reliable information as to what the author (and Jesus as the speaker) intends to convey.

Moreover, it is possible to use the first Johannine letter (1 John) for added insight as to the meaning of passages in the Gospel. Normally it is not wise to rely upon other New Testament writings for the interpretation of a passage in a particular book; however, the case of the Gospel and Letters of John is special. If they were not written by the same author (traditionally, John the Apostle), then they at least must be viewed as the product of a Community, or congregations, which share a common language and thought-world. The vocabulary and mode of expression in the Letters (esp. 1 John) is very close to that of the Gospel (and the Discourses of Jesus). Many passages in 1 John could have been lifted right out of the Discourses.

There are three elements of John 17:11-12 which we will examine:

  1. The use of the verbs t¢réœ and phylássœ
  2. The meaning and significance of the “name” (ónoma)
  3. The relationship between Father and Son (Jesus), and that between Jesus and the believer

1. First, we have the two verbs t¢réœ and phylássœ, which are largely synonymous:

  • thre/w (t¢réœ) has the basic meaning “watch”, often in the sense of “keep watch (over)”
  • fula/ssw (phylássœ) similarly means “watch, be alert, guard”

Let us look at how these verbs are used in the Gospel (and Letters) of John.

Most commonly they relate to the idea of believers keeping/guarding Jesus’ words. This is expressed three ways, which are more or less synonymous:

  • (1) Jesus’ word/account (singular, lógos)—Jn 8:51-52; 14:23; 15:20; 1 Jn 2:5 (all using t¢réœ)
  • (2) Jesus’ words (plural, lógoi)—Jn 14:24 (using t¢réœ)
    or, similarly, his “utterances [i.e. spoken words]” (rh¢¡mata)—Jn 12:47 (using phylássœ), interchangeable with “word[s]” (lógos, v. 48)
  • (3) The things Jesus lays on believers to complete (plur. entolaí), typically translated “command(ment)s”—Jn 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jn 2:3-4; 3:22, 24

This wording is distinctive in the Gospel and letters of John, and must be studied properly in context, as it can be easily misunderstood. The use of the word entol¢¡ (e)ntolh/), especially when translated “commandment”, can give the impression of a religious or ethical commandment such as we find in the Old Testament Law (Torah). To speak thus of “commandments” of Jesus again suggests a collection of authoritative “commands” like many in the Torah, or, more specifically, in something like the Sermon on the Mount. However, a careful study of the Gospel of John reveals nothing of the kind. While Jesus certainly gave much teaching to his disciples, there is really only one “command” as such—the directive that believers love one another (Jn 13:34-35; 15:12ff; and also 1 Jn 3:11ff, etc). It can be fairly well established from the Gospel that the “commands” actually are two (and only two): (1) trust in Jesus, and (2) love for one another, following Christ’s own example. The author of 1 John states this two-fold “commandment” explicitly in 3:23-24.

An important point is that believers are to keep Jesus’ word(s) just as Jesus (the Son) has kept the word(s) of the Father—Jn 8:55; 15:10; 17:6. This chain of relationship between Father, Son and Believer(s) is central to Johannine theology and will be discussed under point 3 below. Jesus’ words are identified as being precisely those of God the Father; thus, if one keeps/guards Jesus‘ words, the believer is also keeping/guarding the Father’s words (John 12:49; 17:6; 1 Jn 5:2-3).

But this is only one aspect of the verb t¢réœ/phylássœ. Part of the reciprocal relationship between Jesus and the believer is that, just as the believer keeps/guards Jesus’ word, so Jesus also keeps/guards the believer. This is the idea expressed here in vv. 11-12. Jesus prays to the Father, asking that He keep watch (over) the disciples—i.e. the elect/believers, the ones given by the Father into Jesus’ care. Jesus states that he himself kept watch over them while he has been with them on earth (v. 12); but now, he is going away, and requests that the Father would keep watch over them. Almost certainly this refers to the coming of the Spirit/Paraclete (see the discussion last week). It is possible to view Jesus’ request here as a fulfillment of 14:16ff.

What is the nature of this protection? It is more or less explained in verse 15:

“I do not ask that you should take them out of the world, but that you would keep them out of evil” (or, “…out of [the power of] the Evil [One]”)

God, through the Spirit/Paraclete, which is also the Spirit of Jesus (taking his place with believers), will keep watch over us and guard us from sin and evil. In the same manner, we find exhortations for believers to keep/guard themselves (their souls) from evil—Jn 12:25; 1 Jn 5:21 (“from idols/images”).

2. The second point to examine is the reference to the name (ónoma). Twice in vv. 11-12, Jesus uses the phrase “the name which you have given to me”. Copyists apparently misunderstood the syntax, as we find a number of instances in the manuscripts where it reads a plural accusative form (hoús, ou%$), i.e. referring to the disciples—”these…whom you have given to me”. There is basis for such a formulation in the Gospel, but almost certainly the dative singular (hœ¡, w!|) is original. The reference is to the name which God has given to Jesus, and it is this name which keeps/guards believers—”in the name which you have given to me”.

What is this name? Clearly it belongs to God the Father, since Jesus says “your name”—”in your name which you have given to me”. Elsewhere in the Gospel, the “name” specifically refers to Jesus‘ name, usually with the expression “trust in (Jesus)’ name”. The author speaks of trusting in his name, in Jn 1:12; 2:23; 20:31; 1 Jn 3:23; 5:13, while in Jn 3:18 the reference is to trust “in the name of the…Son of God”. The name of Jesus has great power and efficacy, as we see expressed throughout the New Testament. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples (and all believers) that they are to pray/ask of the Father in his [i.e. Jesus’] name—Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24, 26. Moreover, believers experience the release (forgiveness) of sins through Jesus’ name (1 Jn 2:12). Jesus also tells his disciples that the Father will send the Spirit/Paraclete in his name (14:26).

It is overly simplistic (and somewhat inaccurate) to take the view that Jesus’ name is simply the name Jesus/Yeshua itself. This would reduce “in the name of…” to a quasi-magical formula; and, while many Christians have used and understood it this way, the New Testament suggests something deeper (e.g. Phil 2:9-11, and many other passages). The key is in realizing how ancient peoples understood and treated names. In ancient Near Eastern thought, a person’s name represented the person himself (or herself), embodying the person’s essence and power in an almost magical way. To know or have access/control of a person’s name meant knowledge/control of the person (and the power, etc, which he/she possessed). From a religious standpoint, this gave to the name of God an extraordinary importance. To know the name of God, and to “call on” his name, meant that one had an intimate access to God Himself. For more on this topic, see my earlier Christmas season series (“And you shall call his name…”).

This is important because it relates to the Father/Son relationship that is central to the Gospel (and Discourses) in John. Jesus is the Son sent by the Father—thus he comes in his Father’s name (representing) him, working and acting in His name (Jn 5:43; 10:25; cf. also 12:13). As a faithful Son, he does and says what he seen and hears the Father doing/saying—i.e. his words are those of the Father. Moreover, as the Son (and heir), the Father gives to Jesus everything that belongs to Him (3:35, etc), including His name. Jesus, in turn, gives this name to believers, both in the sense of making it known—i.e. manifesting it to us (17:6, 26)—and also in the sense expressed here in vv. 11-12. Believers are kept/guarded in (en/e)n) this name which God the Father gave to Jesus. Is it possible to define or identify this name more precisely? There are several possibilities:

  • It is the ancient name represented by the tetragrammaton (YHWH/hwhy)
  • It is the ancient name as translated/interpreted in Greek as egœ eimi (e)gw/ ei)mi), “I AM”
  • It is to be understood in the fundamental sense of the name representing the person—i.e. the name of God the Father indicates the presence and power of God Himself

The last option is to be preferred, along the lines suggested above. However, serious consideration should also be given to the second option, considering the prominence of the many “I Am” declarations by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. In these statements, Jesus is identifying himself with God the Father (YHWH), as the divine/eternal Son who represents the Father.

3. The third point has already been touched on above—the relationship between Father and Son (Jesus), which is also paralleled in the relationship between Jesus and believers. Central to this two-fold relationship, the key theme of chapter 17, is the presence of the Spirit. While the Spirit/Paraclete (pneúma/parákl¢tos) is not specifically mentioned in chap. 17, it can be inferred at a number of points, based on the earlier references in chaps. 14-16 (and elsewhere in the Gospel). Jesus states clearly in verse 11 that he is departing and “is no longer in the world”. It is fair to conclude that the request in v. 11 relates to the request for the sending of the Spirit (in 14:16, etc). The keeping/guarding done by Jesus in the Father’s name now will be done for believers through the Spirit. The Spirit is also the basis for the unity (between Father/Son/Believers) which is so much emphasized in the prayer-discourse of Jesus in chap. 17.

Special Note on 1 John 5:18

Perhaps the Johannine passage closest to Jn 17:11ff is found in 1 Jn 5:18. The statement made by the author is notoriously difficult to interpret, as evidenced by several key textual variants. Especially problematic is the central phrase, which has been read several ways:

  • “the one coming to be (born) out of God keeps/guards him”
    ho genn¢theís ek tou Theou t¢reí auton
  • “the one coming to be (born) out of God keeps/guards himself”
    ho genn¢theís ek tou Theou t¢reí h(e)auton
  • “the coming to be (born) [i.e. birth] out of God keeps/guards him”
    ho génn¢sis ek tou Theou t¢reí auton

Each reading has a different emphasis:

  1. The “one born out of God” (presumably Jesus, the Son) guards the believer
  2. The believer, as “one born out of God”, guards himself/herself (see verse 21)
  3. The (spiritual) birth itself guards the believer

The reading with the noun génn¢sis (i.e., “birth”) is almost certainly not original, but reflects a modification of the participle, most likely in an attempt to clarify the meaning of the passage.

Typically, in the Gospel and First Letter of John, the verb gennᜠ(“come to be [born]”) is applied to the believer, not to Jesus—see Jn 1:13; 3:3-8; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, and all of these references use the same expression “(born) out of God” [or, “…out of Him”]. It is thus reasonable to assume that both occurrences of the participle in 1 Jn 5:18 apply to the believer. On the other hand, the use of the aorist (genn¢theis) for the second participle is a bit unusual (compare the perfect gegenn¢menos for the first participle). This has led many commentators to suspect that there is an important distinction intended by the author. Though the verb gennᜠonly refers to Jesus’ birth (his human birth) only once elsewhere in the Gospel and 1 John (in Jn 18:37), the basic idea of Jesus as the Son makes the idea of a “birth” from God the Father entirely appropriate. Given the wordplay so common in the Johannine writings, it is likely that something similar is intended here in 1 Jn 5:18, with a dual meaning of “the one born out of God”—both the believer (i.e. child of God) and Jesus (the Son of God). If so, then the most likely original reading would be as follows:

“We see that every (one) th(at) has come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one who has) come to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil (one) does not touch him.”

The parallels with Jn 17:11-12 (and 15) are obvious. Yet, in that passage, as I indicated above, it would seem that the Spirit is in view. Upon Jesus’ departure (back to the Father), the Spirit takes his place in and among believers—thus it is the Spirit which continues the word of keeping/guarding believers in the Father’s name (which is also the name given to the Son). How might this relate to 1 Jn 5:18? The idea of coming to be “born out of God” is closely related to the Spirit, especially in John 3:3-8, where we read of coming to be born “out of the Spirit”. Now the Spirit comes to believers from the Father, but through Jesus—he is the direct source of the Spirit (Jn 3:34; 7:37-39; 15:26-27; 16:7; 20:22). Thus, it may be that the dual use of gennᜠin 1 Jn 5:18 is meant to indicate the shared birth we have with Jesus as Son/Children of God, a relationship which we have through the Spirit. The importance of the Spirit in earlier in chapter 5 makes such an inference all the more likely.

This concludes our exploration of the Gospel of John in these Saturday discussions. I have used this particular book as a way to demonstrate, inductively, many important aspects of Biblical (i.e., New Testament) criticism. Next week, I will begin introducing some of the special problems and issues involved in study and criticism of the Old Testament. I hope that you will be here to embark on this new area of exploration…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 14:7, 17

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This is a belated Saturday Series discussion, which I was not able to post on Saturday proper.

John 14:7, 17

We have been looking at a variety of passages from the Gospel of John, using them as the basis for exploring important issues of New Testament criticism and exegesis. Today I wish to turn to the last of the Johannine discourses of Jesus—the great “Last Discourse”, set in the narrative at the time of the Last Supper, prior to Jesus’ arrest (chapter 18). It is comprised of the material in 13:31-16:33—the Discourse proper—and is followed by the famous prayer-discourse of Jesus in chapter 17. I divide the Discourse into three main parts (see my earlier outline), each of which functions as a distinct discourse, containing as a central theme the impending departure of Jesus from his disciples.

The character and orientation differs somewhat from the prior discourses, since here Jesus is addressing only his close followers, at the beginning of his Passion. The departure of Judas from the scene (13:30) is significant for two reasons: (1) it means that only Jesus’ true disciples remain with him, and (2) it marks the onset of his Passion, a time of darkness (“and it was night“, v. 30b). The latter motif is expressed elsewhere in the Gospel tradition (Luke 22:53; 23:44 par), and foreshadowed earlier in John as well (11:9-10; 12:35). Thus Jesus has occasion to speak with his followers in a way that he could not (or chose not to) before.

The discourses of Jesus in John are carefully constructed—almost certainly reflecting both Jesus (as the speaker) and the understanding/artistry of the Gospel writer. While the vocabulary of the Gospel is relatively simple (by comparison with Luke, for example), the thought and logic of the discourses is often complex and allusive. Each word and form used, every nuance, can carry tremendous importance as well as theological (and Christological) significance. Textual variants, however slight, can affect the meaning and thrust of the passage in a number of ways.

The two verses I wish to look at today are found in the first division of the Discourse (14:1-31), which I would outline as follows:

  • 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)

The two verses relate to the two thematic sections—the first (v. 7), to the relationship between Jesus and the Father (with the central “I Am” sayings in v. 6 and 10-11), and the second (v. 17), to Jesus’ closing words for his disciples, with the two-fold promise of the Spirit (vv. 15-17) and Peace (vv. 25-27) which will be given to them.

John 14:7

This statement by Jesus follows the great “I Am” saying in v. 6. It is a conditional statement, marked by the particle ei (“if”). However, the exact force and meaning remains uncertain, largely due to variant readings involving the four verbs (indicated by placeholders with braces):

“If you {1} me, (then) you {2} my Father also; and from now (on), you {3} Him and {4} Him”

There is little or no variation in terms of the verbs used; rather it is the specific form which differs. Let us briefly consider each of these in turn:

Verb #1ginœ¡skœ (“know”). The manuscripts show a surprising variety, indicating a lack of certainty among scribes; however, the options can be reduced to two—the difference being one of verb tense: (a) perfect (egnœ¡kate), “you have known”, or (b) pluperfect (egnœ¡keite), “you had known”. Just one or two letters are involved, but it creates a distinct difference in the force of the condition:

  • “if you have known [i.e. come to know] me…”, assuming a positive condition: as indeed you have.
  • “if you had known [i.e. come to know] me…”, assuming a negative condition: as indeed you have not (yet).

The former is the reading of several key manuscripts (Sinaiticus [a], the original copyist of Bezae [D], and the minuscule 579; see also the Bodmer papyrus Ë66). The latter is read by the majority of manuscripts, including Codex Vaticanus [B].

Verb #2ginœ¡skœ/eídœ (“know”). There is even more diversity with the form of this verb, though again it comes down to two options regarding the tense: (a) future (gnœ¡sesthe), “you will know”, or (b) pluperfect (¢¡deite or egnœ¡keite), along with the subjunctive particle án, “you would have known”. Again, the latter is the majority reading, including Codex Vaticanus [B], while the former is essentially the reading of the Bodmer papyrus Ë66, Sinaiticus [a] and Bezae [D]. Thus the text-critical choice comes down to two pairs of verb forms:

  • (1) “If you have known me [i.e. as indeed you do], (then) you will also know my Father…”
  • (2) “If you had known me [i.e. as yet you do not], (then) you would have also known my Father…”

Verbs #3 and 4ginœ¡skœ (“know”) and horᜠ(“look/gaze [at]”). Despite some minor variation, in this case we can be fairly certain of the text—a present indicative form (ginœ¡skete) “you know”, followed by a perfect form (heœrákate) “you have seen”. The form of these two verbs, in my view confirms option (2) for the first pair, specifically the use of the verb eidœ (instead of ginœskœ) in #2. Now both eidœ and ginœskœ can mean “know”, but the former verb literally means see, often taken in the sense of “perceive, recognize” (i.e. “know”). Thus internal considerations confirm the majority reading of v. 7a, and yield a text for the verse which would be translated:

“If you had known me, (then) you would have seen [i.e. known] my Father also; (but) from now (on) you (do) know Him and have seen Him”

Keep in mind that verses 9ff deal specifically with the idea of seeing God the Father (in the person of Jesus), which the earlier vv. 5ff emphasize knowing. Verse 7 combines both motifs—seeing/knowing—as is often the case in the Gospel of John.

If this reading is correct, how is it to be understood? The key, I believe, is the setting of the Last Discourse, in the light I have discussed above. It is only now that Jesus can begin to reveal the truth fully to his disciples. Before this point, even his close disciples have not really known him—that is, his true identity in relation to the Father. Now, with this revelation (in the Last Discourse), and through his coming death and resurrection, they do truly know him. And, since, knowing him means seeing him, they also have seen the Father, as it is only through Jesus that we come to see/know the Father.

John 14:17

In this verse, there is again a pair of verbs, for which there is an important variant. The saying of Jesus here follows upon the basic idea (and language) in verse 7. The first part of the saying, which I present along with v. 16 (as a single sentence), may be translated:

“And I will ask (of) the Father, and he will give to you another (one) called alongside [parákl¢tos], (so) that he might be with you into the Age—the Spirit of Truth, which the world is not able to receive, (in) that [i.e. because] it does not see/observe him and does not know him; but you know him…”

The contrast between believers and “the world” is introduced, a theme which will take on greater prominence in chapters 15 and 16 of the Discourse. While the world is unable to recognize the Spirit of Truth (the one “called alongside” [parákl¢tos], i.e. ‘Paraclete’), Jesus’ true disciples (believers) are able to see and know him, since they (and we) now know and see Jesus. The concluding portion of verse 17 contains the variant. Again it will be helpful to examine each of the two verbs:

Verb #1ménœ (“remain, abide”). Here there is no variation, the manuscripts being in agreement on its form: present tense (ménei, “he remains”). This is perhaps a bit surprising; we might have rather expected the future tense (i.e. “he will remain”), since, from the standpoint (and chronology) of the narrative, the Spirit has not yet been given to believers (see 7:39, 16:17 and, of course, 20:22). This apparent discrepancy may help to explain the variant readings for the second verb.

Verb #2eimi (verb of being). The manuscript evidence is rather evenly divided between present and future forms: estín (“he is”) vs. éstai (“he will be”). The present tense matches that of the previous verb; but this could reflect either the consistency of the author or a harmonization by the copyists. On the other hand, the future tense better fits a future coming of the Spirit (in 20:22), but copyists might have modified the present form for just this reason. In my view, the present of the first verb (“he remains”) + the future of the second verb (“he will be”) is the more difficult reading, and best reflects both the most likely original of the text and the context of the discourse. Here is how this portion would be translated:

“…you know him, (in) that [i.e. because] he remains alongside you and he will be in you.”

Why the present tense if the Spirit has not yet been given to the disciples? This is sometimes described as a proleptic use of the present (i.e. anticipating something in the future). However, in my view, a better explanation is at hand here in the discourse. The expression is “remains alongside [pará]”. This reflects the very title given to the Spirit—as “one called alongside [parákl¢tos]”. Note that here Jesus refers to the Spirit as “another parákl¢tos“, which suggests that Jesus himself was a parákl¢tos (“one called alongside” believers, by the Father). An important idea, introduced in the Last Discourse, is that the Spirit/Paraclete takes the place of Jesus with believers. This sense of continuity is expressed both by the present tense of the verb, and by the verb itself (“remain”). Through the Spirit, Jesus remains with believers.

Why then the shift to the future tense? Why would Jesus not say “he remains alongside you and he is in you”, as some manuscripts indicate? While Jesus remains with believers through the Spirit, the coming of the Spirit also indicates something new, a new condition. This condition—the indwelling of the Spirit—does not begin until after Jesus’ resurrection, during his appearance to the disciples in 20:19-23. This is stated in verse 22: “And, having said this, he blew in(to them) and (then) says to them, ‘Receive (the) holy Spirit…'” While the preposition en (prefixed to the verb, “blow in/on”) could be read “he breathed on (them)”, it is better to translate literally here: “he breathed/blew in(to) (them)”. This may reflect the original creation narrative, in which God breathed life into the first human being (Gen 2:7). The coming of the Spirit would then indicate a new birth (“from above”) for believers, by the Spirit, as expressed in 3:5-8.

I hope this study demonstrates how carefully one must read and study the Greek, especially in the context of passages such as the Last Discourse, where even small differences in the form of a word can significantly affect the interpretation. For next week, I would ask that you continue reading through to the end of the Last Discourse, including the prayer-discourse of chapter 17. I will be looking at a couple of verses in that chapter which also involve text-critical questions, and which have proven challenging for commentators over the years.

Saturday Series: John 7:37-39; 8:28, etc

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Today, I wish to explore several points related to chapters 7-8 of the Gospel of John, in order to demonstrate different aspects of Biblical criticism and interpretation which must be considered if one wishes to gain a proper a understanding of the Scripture passage. These involve: (1) Textual criticism and the authority of Scripture, (2) the theology of the book as expressed by the author himself, and (3) the distinctive vocabulary used by the author.

1. Textual Criticism: John 7:53-8:11 in the context of chapters 7-8

Even the casual student of the New Testament is likely aware of the situation surrounding John 7:53-8:11, the famous “Pericope of the Adulteress”. In most reliable translations, you will find a footnote indicating that this section is not found in many ancient manuscripts. Some Bible versions even block out the section in square (or double-square) brackets, to indicate that it may not be part of the original text.

The textual situation is summarized in any decent critical commentary (you will find a concise summary in the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [2nd edition], pp. 187-9). While contained in the majority of Greek manuscripts, 7:53-8:11 is absent from a significant number (and wide range) of early and important witnesses, including the Bodmer papyri (Ë66,75) and the major Codices Sinaiticus (a) and Vaticanus (B). For this reason, most commentators, including nearly all critical scholars, believe that the section was not part of the original Gospel of John.

At the same time, the tendency is to regard the episode as an authentic tradition—a “floating” tradition which made its way into the Gospel at various points, both elsewhere in John (after 7:36, 44, or 21:25), and even in the Gospel of Luke (after 21:38). It seems that the episode was so good, and so much beloved, that it was hard to leave out—a view most readers of the New Testament would share today. The views regarding John 7:53-8:11, and how one should treat it, may be summarized as follows:

  • It is part of the original Gospel of John. As indicated above, few critical commentators and scholars would accept this; it is a view held today primarily by traditional-conservative commentators who hold strongly (on doctrinal grounds) to the priority of the Majority text.
  • It is a secondary addition (interpolation) to the Gospel, but its authority is retained and respected as part of the canonical book. This is the view held by most commentators (including many Evangelicals). It is retained in the text, though set apart or blocked off in some way, and is usually analyzed and commented upon in its canonical position (i.e. after 7:52).
  • It is a secondary addition, and thus is not part of the inspired text. Scholars who adopt this view represent a minority—primarily traditional-conservative commentators and theologians for whom only the original form of the text (the “autograph”) is inspired. For example, Andreas Köstenberger in the Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (BECNT) does not comment on these verses for this very reason.

If the prevailing critical view is correct (i.e. that 7:53-8:11 is an interpolation), then it means that 8:12 presumably would have followed 7:52 in the original text. It also means that the presence of 7:53-8:11 in most Bible versions and Greek editions effectively obscures the intent of the author and the structure of the passage.

Consider that, with 7:53-8:11 present, the impression is that 8:12ff took place on a separate occasion from that of 7:1-52 (the festival of Sukkoth, or Booths/Tabernacles). However, if 8:12ff is read directly after 7:52, the likelihood increases that the entirely of chapters 7-8 (excluding 7:53-8:11) is part of a discourse-scene set during the Sukkoth festival. If you have read chapters 7-8 carefully, you doubtless will have noticed a number of themes, motifs and vocabulary in 8:12-59 which indicate a continuation with chapter 7 (especially 7:14-39). There would appear to be additional confirmation of this narrative continuity in the two sayings of Jesus surrounding 7:53-8:11—7:37-38 and 8:12—which contain motifs traditionally associated with the Sukkoth festival (on this, see the Mishnah tractate Sukkah, and my recent notes on these verses):

  1. Water (7:37-38)—ceremonial procession each morning of the festival, drawing water from the Gihon spring and pouring it as an offering at the Temple altar.
  2. Light (8:12)—ceremonial lighting of golden candlesticks in the Temple courtyard in the evening.

We cannot be certain just how old the Mishnah traditions are, but it is possible that some version of the ceremonies mentioned above was associated with Sukkoth in Jesus’ time. The connection with water was certainly very ancient; as a harvest festival, the traditional ritual prayer for rain, was probably part of its celebration from early times. This is indicated from at least the early post-exilic period, based on the reference in Zechariah 10:1—the later chapters of this book have a Sukkoth setting (14:16-19). The motifs of water and light are found together in Zech 14:6-8, and Jesus is likely drawing upon this passage in the discourse scene of John 7-8.

2. The theology of the book: John 7:37-39

Any number of references from chapters 7-8 could be used to demonstrate this; but, as I have just mentioned the water and light motifs associated with the Sukkoth festival, it makes sense to examine briefly Jesus’ saying in 7:37-38:

“In the last great day of the festival, Yeshua had stood and cried (out), saying:
‘If any one should thirst, he must [i.e. let him] come toward me and drink—the (one) trusting in me, even as the Writing said: Rivers of living water will flow out of his belly‘.”

Here Jesus identifies himself with water, just as he identifies himself with light in 8:12. More precisely, he claims here to be the source of “living water”. This same idea was central to the discourse with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 (see verses 7-15). Similarly, Jesus identified himself as “living bread” in chapter 6 (vv. 27, 33, 35-50 and 51ff). This powerful imagery brings forth much discussion and thought as to the true meaning and significance of Jesus’ words. For the most part, the Gospel writer does not comment directly on the discourses; yet here he does, in verse 39, in which he identifies the “rivers of living water” specifically with the Holy Spirit:

“He said this about the Spirit which the (one)s trusting in him were about to receive…”

The follow-up statement in 39b is a bit awkward in the way that it tries to make clear that the Holy Spirit did not come upon the disciples until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Note the important theological use of the verb of being (“was not yet…”), and the key Johannine verb doxázœ (“give [or regard with] honor/esteem”, typically translated “glorify”).

This statement in verse 39 is instructive for several reasons:

  • It points out what should already be clear from a careful study of the discourses—that the sayings of Jesus carry a deeper, spiritual meaning which people had (and have) difficulty understanding.
  • The central theme of the Spirit—in many ways this is the interpretive key to the discourses, even though the Spirit is not always mentioned specifically in the discourses of chapters 3-12 (cf. 3:5-8, 34; 4:23-24; 6:63). The Spirit will be emphasized more in chapters 14-16 of the Last Discourse.
  • Another guiding theme of the discourses is the twin aspect of Jesus’ exaltation/glorification—being “lifted high” through both his death/resurrection and his return back to the Father. The giving of the Spirit and Life is tied directly to this sequence of descent/ascent which summarizes Jesus mission on earth: descent–death–resurrection–ascent.

All of the discourses in the Gospel of John should be studied with these points in mind.

3. The distinctive vocabulary: John 8:28

This distinctive Johannine vocabulary has already been mentioned and illustrated above. Here I wish to focus on one verse in the Sukkoth discourse-scene—the saying of Jesus in 8:28:

“When you (have) lifted high [hypsœs¢te] the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [egœ eimi], and (that) from myself I do nothing, but even as the Father taught me, these (thing)s I speak”

One tricky aspect of the Johannine discourses is the frequent wordplay involved. This is often the basis of the misunderstanding which is part of the discourse-format—Jesus’ audience understands the words in one sense, or at one level, not realizing that Jesus actually means them in a different (theological or spiritual) sense. Two examples of such wordplay are found in this saying:

  • The verb hypsóœ (u(yo/w), “raise/lift high”—this word occurs five times in the Gospel, in three passages (3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34). It is one of several verbs of ascent which has a dual meaning in the discourses, as indicated above:
    (a) Jesus’ death on the cross—this is the primary reference in 3:14 and here in 8:28
    (b) His resurrection and exaltation, including his return to the Father—this is primarily in view in 12:32.
  • The expression egœ¡ eimi (e)gw/ ei)mi) “I am”, which often means simply “I am he”, “I am the one (who)”, etc. Some commentators and translators fill out the sentence this way here—”I am (the Messiah)”, “I am he [i.e. the Son of Man]”, etc—in order for it to make sense to Jesus’ audience in the context of the narrative. However, the expression “I Am” has a special theological significance in the Gospel of John—it signifies Jesus’ identity as the divine/eternal Son, in relation to God the Father (YHWH). There are several times in the Gospel narrative when egœ eimi has this deeper meaning implied, even though it could be read as “it is I” or “I am he” in the ordinary context of the narrative (see, for example, 1:20; 3:28; 4:26; 6:20; 8:24; 18:5ff).

Sometimes this wordplay is obscured in translation, and much is lost as a result. Every effort should be made to study the original Greek of the passage—and specially in the case of the discourses of Jesus—as far as this is possible for you. If you are making use of Biblesoft’s PC Study Bible software, you probably have access to tools and resources which will be of considerable help, even if you do not (yet) read Greek.

For next week, I will be moving ahead in the Gospel of John to the great “Last Discourse”, which begins in 13:31 and continues to the end of chapter 16. As you are able, you should read chapters 9-13 carefully. If you have already done this recently, I would recommend going over these chapters again, examining the Greek whenever and wherever you can. Pay careful attention to the close of the first half of the Gospel (12:36-50) and the start of the Passion Narrative in chapter 13, as well as the beginning section of the Last Discourse (13:31-38). As you continue on through the initial verses of chapter 14, study them closely, noting especially the variant reading(s) indicated (in the footnote, etc) for verse 7, as this will be one of the main items we will be looking at…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11

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This Saturday I am interrupting the current series of discussions centered on passages in the Gospel of John to explore the Ascension of Jesus. This past Thursday (May 30) was the traditional day commemorating the Ascension (40 days after the Resurrection, according to Acts 1:3), and the Sunday following (tomorrow) is sometimes referred to as “Ascension Sunday”. It so happens that the Ascension narratives (in Luke-Acts) are extremely instructive for those wishing to learn more about Biblical (New Testament) criticism. I have dealt with the critical questions in some detail in an earlier 3-part article (“Where Did Jesus Go…?“), which I recommend if you wish to dig deeper into the matter. Here I introduce the discussion in terms of three essential aspects of Scriptural study:

  1. Textual criticism—what is the most likely original reading, and how or why was it modified?
  2. Historical criticism—what is the historical-traditional background; how was it developed and how do the literary and historical “levels” relate?
  3. Theological factors and interpretation—we might call this “doctrinal criticism”, i.e. how do our beliefs about Jesus and the nature of the Scriptures relate to the text?
1. Textual Criticism (Lk 24:50-53)

The textual-critical question primarily involves the text of Luke 24:50-53. If you are reading in a standard English translation, or have a reliable critical edition of the Greek (such as the UBS/Nestle-Aland edition), your version of Luke 24:50-53 likely reflects the so-called Majority text (MT)—that is, the reading of the majority of manuscripts and other textual witnesses. However, if you examine, for example, the footnotes in your Bible, you will find mention that certain “Western” manuscripts (Codex Bezae [D], Old Latin a b d e ff2 l, and the Sinaitic Syriac) omit or do not include portions found in the MT of verses 51 and 52. There are two variation units where this occurs:

  1. Verse 51 reads: kai egéneto en tœ¡ eulogeín autón autoús diést¢ ap’ autœ¡n “and it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood (apart) from them” (without kai anephéreto eis ton ouranón “and he was carried up into the heaven”). In other words, it relates that Jesus simply “parted” from them, without any reference to an ascension into heaven.
  2. Verse 52 continues: kai autoi hypéstrepsan eis Ierousal¢¡m metá charás megál¢s “and they turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy…” (without proskyn¢¡santes auton “worshiping him”).
    See how this shorter version of vv. 50-53 reads, in context, in conventional translation:
    “And he led them out toward Bethany, and raising his hands over (them) he blessed them; and it came to be, in his blessing them, (that) he parted from them; and they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple, blessing God.”

These are both so-called Western “Non-Interpolations”, i.e. instances where the shorter reading of the (usually longer and more expansive) “Western” text has been thought, by some scholars, to preserve the original reading in the face of superior manuscript evidence. I have discussed the other seven key “Non-Interpolations” in a previous post). The first of these two (in v. 51) is far more significant, especially since, in addition to the Western MSS, the shorter reading is also found in the Georgian version (group 1) and the original hand of Codex Sinaiticus (a*).

How is one to explain this variant? As indicated above, the vast majority of witness, including all the early/best Greek manuscripts, contain the words “and he was carried up into the heaven”. The manuscript evidence would seem to be decidedly in favor of the longer reading, but internal considerations make it a bit less certain. In which direction did the change occur? There are a number of possibilities:

Reasons for Omission (in support of the longer text):

  1. To avoid contradiction with the chronology in Acts. It is certainly possible that scribes, noticing the apparent discrepancy between v. 51 and Luke’s own account of the Ascension in Acts 1:1-11, deleted the words. In the Gospel, it would seem that the Ascension takes place on the same night as the Resurrection, whereas in Acts (v. 3) it occurs 40 days later. This is probably the most popular explanation.
  2. A scribal mistake. A scribe may have skipped from ap’ autœn kai in v. 51 to ouranon kai autoi at the end of v.51 & start of v. 52 (homoioarcton: each has the segment nkai).
  3. Theological reasons. Some scholars have thought that the so-called “Non-Interpolations”, involving the Resurrection appearances and “Ascension”, exhibit a purposeful tendency in the Western text (in Luke-Acts) to eliminate concrete references to the resurrection body of Jesus, and physical nature of the Ascension, etc.
  4. The support of Acts. Acts 1:2 would seem to indicate that the Gospel referenced the Ascension (“until which day…he was taken up”). Assuming this is the case, it could be (rightly) argued that the author would not say he described an event which he in fact did not record. It should be noted that several Western witnesses also omit reference to the ascension in this verse.

Reasons for Addition (in support of the shorter text):

  1. Literary or Theological reasons. Although Luke-Acts may have been published together as a ‘two-volume’ work, by the mid-second century (at the latest), the Gospel of Luke was being copied and distributed bound together (in codex form) with the other Gospels. This means that, as in nearly all printed New Testament editions today, it was separated from the book of Acts. The shorter reading, if original, would close the Gospel with the suggestion that Jesus simply “parted” from the disciples—a rather unexciting and possibly misleading conclusion. The scribal tendency was always to add Christological details, rather than remove them; it would have been natural to add the few extra words (both in v. 51 and 52), in order to exalt the portrait of Christ and have the Gospel close with a reference to the Ascension.
  2. The shorter text removes the chronological difficulty with Acts. This argument cuts both ways (see above), for the longer text could be said to be the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior potior). However, since Luke explicitly records the Ascension taking place at least 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3ff), would he (the same author of Luke-Acts, by general consensus) have created the confusion by recording the Ascension (apparently) taking place on the day of the Resurrection (Luke 24:50-53)?
  3. Additional support from Acts. It is possible that the phrase áchri h¢¡s h¢mérasanel¢¡mphth¢ (“until which day…he was taken up”) in Acts 1:2 should not be taken to imply that the Ascension was narrated in the Gospel, but only events which took place prior to that day. In this regard, note the reference (v. 22) in Peter’s subsequent address (Acts 1:15-22), where nearly similar language is used. Could the author of Acts simply be reproducing the phrasing from v. 22, as part of his “prologue”, without specific reference to details in the Gospel?
  4. Evidence from the Church Fathers. The Ascension is referred to numerous times in writings of the 1st-3rd centuries (see my earlier article for a list of these). Most of these references are to the narrative in Acts 1:9ff; Ephesians 4:9-10, or to the belief generally; however, I have not been able to find a single clear reference to the long text of Luke 24:51-52 cited in any writing up through the third century (outside of the Diatessaron [§55], a work with a singularly difficult textual history).
  5. The Western Non-Interpolations. Despite protests from scholars on both sides of the argument, it is hard to avoid the notion that the 9 key “non-interpolations”, eight of which are all found together in the same set of manuscripts (D a b d e ff2 l), stand or fall together—most likely, they are all original, or they are not. If one accepts the shorter text in the previous 7 Lukan instances, then one really ought to do so here as well.

Clearly, sound arguments can be made for both sides. Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming textual evidence in favor of the Majority text (i.e., the longer reading). If the longer reading is, in fact, original, I suspect that the apparent discrepancy (with Acts) may be the result of Luke compressing/conflating the narrative, thereby giving the impression that it all happened on one night. This sort of handling of historical narrative was quite common with ancient writers, as unsatisfying as it might be to our modern sensibilities. On the other hand, the clear scribal tendency was to add significant Christological details to the Gospel narrative, rather than omit them (even when there are apparent discrepancies involved). It seems to have been much more acceptable to modify difficult words in the text, rather than deleting them. The presence of the longer reading(s) in the early Bodmer Papyri (Ë75, c. 200 A.D.) has turned the tide decisively for most scholars.

2. Historical Criticism (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11, etc)

If we regarding the longer (Majority) text of Luke 24:50-53 to be original, there are still a number of important historical-critical questions to be considered. In particular, there would seem to be a discrepancy between Lk 24:51-52 and Acts 1:3ff—in the former, the ascension apparently takes place on the night of the Resurrection (that evening), whereas in the Acts narrative (1:9-11) it is set at least 40 days later. Most scholars believe that the same author (traditionally Luke, physician and companion of Paul) wrote both the Gospel and Acts—why would he create such an apparent discrepancy? A number of solutions have been offered to explain this:

  1. The Gospel and Acts record different events—an ‘intermediate’ ascension followed by a final departure into heaven 40 days later. I would regard this as highly unlikely. There is nothing to suggest that the ascension in Luke 24:51-52 is any other than Jesus’ ‘final’ departure from his disciples. A better solution in this regard would be to adopt the shorter reading—then separate events (but not separate ascensions) could be involved.
  2. After composing the Gospel, the author discovered the “correct” chronology (Ascension after 40 days), which he recorded in Acts, without altering the Gospel narrative.
  3. The author of Luke-Acts records separate traditions, without necessarily attempting to harmonize them. Admittedly, ancient (and/or traditional) authors may have been less bothered by apparent inconsistencies than modern readers and commentators; however, it is hard to gloss over such a glaring difference, in such relatively close proximity, within the same 2-volume work. Luke’s statement in the prologue of the Gospel (1:1-4) shows he was conscious of the need to narrate the traditions “accurately” (akribœ¡s) and in order (anatáxasthai, v. 1; kathex¢¡s, v. 3), though we should not read too much into this. Prior to Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels (III.25.77ff), there seems to be little (if any) comment on the apparent discrepancy by early Christian writers.
  4. The same event is consciously set in two different chronological contexts, without necessarily any regard for establishing which one is historically “correct”. This is a variation of #3, though with greater emphasis on the creative freedom of the author in setting the inherited tradition. In other words, while early tradition clearly believed in the exaltation/ascension of Jesus into heaven, specific details on location, timing, etc. may have differed as the story was told.
  5. In the Gospel, Luke has compressed the narrative so that events which may have occurred days apart are recorded as taking place at the same time. In my view, this is by far the best explanation. Many examples could be cited of this phenomenon in biblical (and other ancient) literature. Narrative episodes and sayings of Jesus are often connected together in the Gospels for many different reasons; one should not always read it as a simple historical/chronological sequence without further ado.

The historical-critical question is complicated by the Synoptic tradition, in Mark (through 16:8) and Matthew, of Jesus’ final(?) appearance to the disciples in Galilee, where, one might assume, his departure (ascension) would have taken place. This contrasts with the traditions in Luke-Acts and John where Jesus appears to his disciples in Jerusalem—in Luke-Acts they specifically remain in Jerusalem, with no reference at all to an appearance in Galilee. For those seeking to harmonize all the New Testament passages, this is made even more difficult by the Gospel of John, in which, while it contains no narration of an ascension, records Jesus stating that he is about to “step up” to the Father (20:17)—an event which apparently would take place prior to his appearance to the disciples (rather than after, as in Luke-Acts), though this is not entirely clear. The so-called “Long Ending” of Mark (16:9-20) makes passing reference to the ascension in v. 19, generally following the tradition in Acts.

3. Theological Factors and Interpretation

A proper method of Biblical criticism would have textual and historical criticism precede any subsequent theological or doctrinal interpretation. That is to say, one should seek to establish the text, along with an understanding of its historical (and traditional) background, before attempting any interpretation on theological grounds. The temptation, of course, will always be present to “read in” one’s theological/doctrinal beliefs, into the text, whether or not it is supported by the text itself.

The problem with the Ascension of Jesus is that there are very few direct references to it, either in the New Testament or in early Christian literature, which makes theological interpretation difficult. Apart from the main passages mentioned above, only Ephesians 4:8-10 could be cited as referring to the Ascension (see Part 3 of the aforementioned article). More commonly, reference is made to Christ’s exaltation (usually involving either the verb hypsóœ, “to raise high” or adjective hyps¢lós, “high”; see Acts 2:33; 5:31; Philippians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3; 7:26, etc), or to his being in heaven at the “right (hand)” (dexiós, that is, the giving/receiving hand) of God (Mark 14:62 par.; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). This is true even in the book of Acts itself, where the Ascension, as such, is narrated in rather cursory fashion (1:9-11, note the obvious parallels to the Resurrection narrative). By contrast, in the early Christian preaching and related episodes, the idea of Jesus’ exaltation and presence at the right-hand of God is much more prominent.

If we look carefully at the references to the Ascension in the narrative of Luke-Acts, we see that it is closely tied to the coming of the Spirit. Both in Luke 24:44-53 [MT] and Acts 1:2-11, the Ascension follows soon after a directive to the disciples that they should remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes down upon them from the Father (Lk 24:48-49; Acts 1:4-5, 8). Furthermore, though it is narrated quite differently, drawing upon separate lines of tradition, in both the Gospels of Luke and John, the coming of the Spirit to the disciples follows close upon a reference to Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9-11; 2:1-44ff; John 20:17, 22-23). For more on the subject of the sending of the Spirit in Luke-Acts and John, respectively, see my earlier article. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes the point that, unless he departs from the disciples (back to the Father), the Spirit will not come (16:7). Thus, the association with the Spirit is the first theological point, or theme, which we may draw from the text.

Second, I would emphasize the thematic connection with the Resurrection itself. The reference in Lk 24:51-52 MT is part of the Lukan Resurrection narrative, and Acts 1:9-11 is written to bring out the similarities with Lk 24:1-8. On this aspect of the Ascension, see Part 2 of the previously mentioned article (“Where Did Jesus Go…?”). In terms of the development of early tradition, the Ascension in Luke-Acts serves as the historical/narrative transition between the Resurrection and the Exaltation of Jesus (see above). The former is the subject of Luke 24, while the latter features in the preaching, etc, recorded in Acts 2-7ff. In between, we have the Ascension and the Coming of the Spirit (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:2-2:4ff).

Third, the Ascension is connected to the presence of Jesus in heaven, at the right hand of God. For early Christians, this was a central tenet of their preaching, and was related to the idea of Jesus’ return to earth at the time of the great Judgment. This is abundantly clear from the language and tone of the early Gospel proclamation (Acts 2:33-40; 3:19-21; 10:40-42; 13:32-41; 17:31, etc). Stephen’s vision of Jesus in 7:55-56 is obviously related to the Gospel tradition in Mark 14:62 par, which referrs to the appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14) at the end-time Judgment (see also Mk 8:38; 13:24-27 par, etc). This same eschatological emphasis is found in the Ascension narrative itself in Acts 1:9-11.

These are just three fundamental theological points which can be drawn out of the text, to which others could be added, though with caution. One of the most interesting developments of the ascension-motif is found in the Gospel of John, where certain keywords, used in association with the Ascension, are given special meaning in the context of the Gospel. Two of these are the verbs anabaínœ (“step up”) and hypsóœ (“raise/lift high”). The first verb appears often (16 times), along with the related katabaínœ (“step down”), part of a descent/ascent motif that is central to the Christology of the Fourth Gospel. For the second verb (hypsóœ) it occurs 5 times, in three important passages (3:14 [twice]; 8:28; 12:32, 34). I will be discussing the 8:28 reference, especially, in next week’s post.

If you have not already done so, I would ask that you read and study chapters 7-8 of the Gospel most carefully, noting the complex structure (with or without 7:53-8:11), along with the various themes, motifs and keywords from the earlier discourses, and they way they are developed. Consider how 8:28 fits into this structure—especially its place in 8:12-59. And I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 6:51-58

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John 6:51-58

One controversial aspect of Biblical Criticism has to do with determining how the original text came to be in its current, or final, shape—that is to say, how the various historical traditions were pieced together, in the case of the Gospels, to form a continuous narrative from start to finish. This is sometimes referred to as composition criticism, or redaction criticism—analyzing the work of the author or editor (redactor) in composing the text. Even traditional-conservative commentators recognize that a considerable amount of editing of traditions, sayings, and narrative episodes has taken place in the composition of the Gospels. Critical scholars have pointed out many apparent seams in the text, where originally separate material has likely (or possibly) been joined together.

We have been exploring the Gospel of John in this series, and one particular portion of that Gospel has continued to challenge commentators—the great Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6. I have discussed this long and complex discourse in a number of earlier notes and articles, including the most recent daily note. There are many ways to analyze and outline the discourse. You will find one presented in the aforementioned note; I give a slightly different outline, covering the entire chapter, further below.

An especially difficult question of interpretation involves the relationship of verses 51-58 to the earlier portion of the discourse (vv. 22-50), and also to what follows in vv. 60-71. A major difficulty has to do with the apparent eucharistic language and imagery Jesus uses in vv. 51-58. In some ways, it seems out of place. Would his fellow Jews at the time have understood these motifs of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood” at all? Critical commentators have often questioned whether the eucharistic allusions genuinely come from Jesus, or if they are the product of early Christians relating the “Bread of Life” and Passover themes to the ritual of the Lord’s Supper.

All four Gospels record Jesus’ “Last Supper” with his disciples (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23ff; John 13:1-30), but with a well-known chronological difference: the Synoptics indicate that it was a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; and especially Luke 22:7), the 14/15th of Nisan; while John records Jesus’ death during the preparation for Passover, 14th Nisan (John 19:14; also see 12:1). A number of solutions have been offered to explain or harmonize the difference between the accounts, none, I should say, being entirely satisfactory. Much more interesting, however, is the fact that John records no institution of the sacrament (Lord’s Supper), attention rather being given to a different kind of symbolic and ritual act—Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (13:3-20). In fact, the only mention of the bread and cup would seem to be in the earlier “Bread of Life” discourse. This has prompted many scholars to ask if perhaps vv. 51-58 have been inserted by the author/redactor into the current location from a traditional Last Supper setting.

But this raises an even more significant question of interpretation: do verses 51-58, in fact, refer to the Eucharist—that is, to the material sacrament? As I will discuss below, I do not think the primary reference is to the sacrament. However, here are some arguments in favor of a sacramental reference:

  1. Suddenly, in place of Jesus himself (or his words) identified with the Bread from Heaven (“the Bread [which] came down from Heaven”, ho ek toú ouranoú katabás, see especially verse 51), we hear of “eating his flesh” (phág¢te t¢¡n sárka) and “drinking his “blood” (pí¢te auoú to haíma) (vv. 53-56)
  2. The verb (trœ¡gœ) used in verse 56, conveys a very concrete image of eating (literally “striking” or “crunching” away; in colloquial English it might be rendered “munching”). This would suggest a physical eating (of a material sacrament) and not simply a spiritual appropriation.
  3. It is most unlikely that the Gospel of John would not have some reference to the Eucharist, and this is the only passage which fits.
  4. The ’embedded’ reference to the Eucharist is parallel to a similar reference to the sacrament of Baptism in the Discourse with Nicodemus (see 3:5)
  5. The Bread of Life Discourse follows the Feeding of the Multitude, which, in all four Gospels, is described using Eucharistic language (see my earlier note on this), and presumably was understood in connection with the Eucharist from earliest times.
  6. One critical argument is that a redactor of the final version of the Gospel intentionally added in more specific sacramental details in order to modify or qualify an otherwise “spiritualist” teaching.

What about the idea that the author (or redactor) added Eucharistic teachings of Jesus to the discussion of vv. 25-50? One can certainly see how verse 51(b) could have been a connection point with the prior teachings on the “Bread from Heaven” (expounding the Passover theme of the Manna), as well as teaching on the Eucharist. The mention of “flesh” (ho ártos de hón egœ¡ dœ¡sœ h¢ sárx mou estin hyper t¢¡s toú kosmoú zœ¢¡s, “and the bread which I will give over [i.e. on behalf of] the life of the world is my flesh“) would lead naturally to discussion of the Eucharist.

The situation is complicated when one looks at what follows vv. 51-58—namely, verses 60-71, especially verse 63: to pneúma estin to zœopoioún, h¢ sárx ouk œpheleí ouden (“the Spirit is th[at which] makes live, the flesh benefits nothing”). The tone of this portion seems to be at odds with a reference to the material sacrament—that is, a ritual partaking of bread and wine—in vv. 51-58. A number of critical scholars have noted that reading 6:25-50 and 60-71 in sequence makes good sense, while including vv. 51-58 creates an interpretive difficulty. R. E. Brown, in his commentary (Anchor Bible 29 pp. 302-303), takes the precarious step of assuming both that vv. 51-58 were added by a redactor, and that we should read vv. 60-71 as relating to vv. 25-50 but not to vv. 51-58.

In my view, it is important to look at the Gospel as it has come down to us, whether or not sayings of Jesus from different contexts have been combined together to give it its current form. I would outline the chapter, as a whole, as follows:

  • 6:1-14: The Miraculous Feeding, which includes Eucharist language and imagery [vv. 11-13] + transitional verse 15
  • [6:16-21: The traditional episode of the Jesus’ Walking on the Water to meet his disciples]
  • [6:22-24: Transitional section which sets the scene]
  • 6:25-30: Discussion of the Miraculous Feeding, with a saying of Jesus on the “work of God” (toúto estin to érgon toú theoú, hína pisteú¢te eis hón apésteilen ekeínos, “this is the work of God: that you should trust in the [one] whom that one sent”, v. 29)
  • 6:31-59: The Bread of Life Discourse, which I break down into four parts:
    a) The Scripture reference (“Bread from Heaven”), and Jesus’ initial exposition: 6:31-33
    b) Crowd (“Lord, give us this bread always”) and Jesus’ Response: egœ¡ eimi ho ártos t¢¡s zœ¢¡s (“I Am the bread of life…”), 6:34-40
    c) ‘The Jews’ reaction to “I am the Bread”/”which came down out of Heaven” and Jesus’ Response, 6:41-51
    d) ‘The Jews’ reaction to “The Bread that I will give…is my flesh” and Jesus’ Response, 6:52-58 + concluding note v. 59
  • 6:60-71: Discussion of the Bread of Life Discourse (the Disciples’ Reaction), in two parts:
    a) The reaction “This is a rough account [i.e. word/saying], who is able to hear it?” and Jesus’ Response, 6:60-65
    b) The turning away of many disciples, with Peter’s response (“you have words of life [of the] Age [i.e. eternal life]”), 6:66-71

Here I view vv. 51-58 as integral to the Discourse as we have it. The “flesh and blood” of vv. 53-56 is an intensification and expansion of the imagery in verse 51: the “bread that he gives” is his “flesh [and blood]”—compare verses 51 and 54:

eán tis phág¢ ek toútou toú ártou
(“If someone should [actually] eat out of [i.e. from] this bread…”)
ho trœ¡gœn mou t¢¡n sárka kai pínœn mou to haíma
(“The [one] chewing [‘chopping at’] my flesh and drinking my blood…“)

z¢¡sei eis tón aiœ¡na (“…he shall live into the Age [i.e. have eternal life]”)
échei zœ¢¡n aiœ¡nion (“…has life [of the] Age [i.e. has eternal life]”)

Jesus returns to mention just the bread (again) in the concluding verse 58, which also reiterates the OT scriptural motif that began the Discourse: hoútos estin ho ártos ho ex ouranoú katabás, “this is the bread (which) came down out of heaven”.

Another way to read the core section of the discourse (6:35-58) is in parallel, as though verses 35-50 and 51-58 represented two aspects of the same message. Note the points of similarity:

  • Saying of Jesus: “I am the bread of life / living bread” which begins the section (v. 35a / 51a)
  • Teaching by Jesus expounding the “bread of life” in terms of “coming/believing” and “eating his flesh”, respectively (35b-40 / 51)
  • Question by “the Jews” (grumbling/disputing), reacting (with misunderstanding) to Jesus’ teaching (41-42 / 52)
  • Jesus’ Response: second exposition (43-47 / 53-57)
  • Concluding “Bread of Life” statement, comparing those who ate manna with those who eat the true bread from heaven (48-50 / 58)

Each of these sections follows the basic pattern of the discourses in the Gospel of John. It is interesting that in vv. 35-50, eating as such is not mentioned (until the conclusion, vv. 49-50). Rather, the emphasis is on “coming toward” Jesus and “believing in [lit. trusting into/unto]” him, which is part of the initial statement in verse 35:

“The (one) coming toward me, no he shall not hunger; and the (one) trusting into/unto me, no he will not thirst, never”

This is contrasted with vv. 51-58 where the theme is specifically “eating” (Grk phágœ):

“If (any) one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age; and the bread which I will give is my flesh, over [i.e. on behalf of] the life of the world” (v. 51b)

“Bread” clearly represents both food and drink in v. 35. This is paralleled in vv. 51-58, where the bread (“flesh”) of v. 51 quickly expands to include “blood” in verse 53ff; it signifies both aspects of human sustenance as well as both primary aspects of the human (physical) constitution, in conventional terms.

How should we relate these two main points of emphasis: (1) “coming/believing” and (2) “eating/drinking”? Is one sapiental (response to Jesus’ words as teaching/wisdom) and the other sacramental (participation in the ritual symbol [eucharist])? Or do they reflect two sets of images corresponding to the single idea of spiritual life in union with Christ? I prefer to regard them as signifying two “levels” for the believer:

  1. The first, that of coming/believing (vv. 35-50), is well served by the use of the two prepositions (pros “toward”, and eis “unto/into”)—the believer approaches Christ through faith, coming, we could even say, “into” him.
  2. At the second level (vv. 51-58), believers commune and nourish themselves—now Christ comes “into” the believer, there is now life in us (see the powerful statement in verse 57).

But is this second level specifically the Eucharist, in a ritual sense?

Within the overall context of the Discourse, the sacrament of the Eucharist may be implied (a preshadowing), but I do not think it is at all primary to Jesus’ teaching. It is rather the Person of Jesus himself and the Life which he conveys—by means of the Spirit—which is central to the message; and it is this “word” (lógos) which the disciples find “rough” or difficult to hear. Too much has been made of verse 63, in a sacramental setting (Eucharist), for in that context it simply gives priority to the Spirit—just as the Spirit takes priority in the context of Baptism (if such is alluded to in 3:5-8). In other words, Spirit first, then sacrament. Too often in Church history, Christians have made it the other way around, as though only through the tangible sacrament (as a “means of grace”), can one truly experience the Spirit. Consider the fierce fighting over the words of the institution (toúto estin to sœ¡ma mou, “this is my body”, Mark 14:22 par.)—all of the ink (and blood) spilled over the significance of “is” (estin)—when it would have been better to focus on the demonstrative pronoun (“this”, touto): that is, not the reality of the sacrament, but the reality of what it signifies.

How would you relate verses 51-58 to the Bread of Life discourse as a whole? If we regard these as authentic words of Jesus, what would they have meant to people at the time? to his disciples? Is there a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper as it would be understood by accepted by believers, or is the reference entirely spiritual (v. 63)? Consider these questions and study chapter 6 again in detail. Then go back and examine the parallels between the “Bread of Life” and “Living Water” in chapter 4 (vv. 10ff). Begin to think about what the author is trying to convey by combining these episodes and discourses together as he has done. Pay close attention to the various keywords, motifs and themes which run through the chapters. Then proceed to study the next discourse, beginning in chapter 7, and which most commentators regard as continuing on through the end of chap. 8 (excluding 7:53-8:11). Note any similarities you see, both in structure, and in theme or language, between chs. 7-8 and the previous discourses (especially the Bread of Life, ch. 6).

And I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 5:39

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John 5:39

In a previous Saturday post, we studied John 3:16, as a famous verse often cited completely out of its context in chapter 3. Today we will be looking at another verse that is frequently referenced outside of its context—the statement by Jesus in 5:39. It happens to involve a variant reading, though not a textual variant as such. The Greek of the verse is secure—in particular, the first word (eraunáte), a form of the verb ereunáœ, “seek, search” (in the sense of “search out”, “search for”, “search after”).

There is ambiguity, however, in that the form eraunáte (e)rauna=te) can be read as either (a) an indicative (“you [do] search”) or (b) an imperative (“you [must] search”, “search!”). Many commentators have understood it as the latter (an imperative), and those who cite the verse out of context invariably read it this way: i.e., “Search the Scriptures…”. Traditional-conservative Protestants have been especially prone toward referring to the verse (out of context) this way, as a kind of proof-text demonstrating the view held by Jesus on the authority of Scripture. When quoted outside of its context in chapter 5, the verse gives the impression of being an exhortation by Jesus, to his disciples, on the importance of studying Scripture. While this is a noble and true sentiment, it would appear to be off the mark in terms of what Jesus is actually saying in this passage. In order to gain a proper understanding, it is necessary, as always, to look carefully at the place of the verse in the passage as a whole.

Chapter 5 is an extended discourse—one of the great discourses of Jesus that make up the core of Gospel (especially the ministry period spanning chapters 3 through 10). There is a major discourse in each of chapters 3-6, each of which is based upon a central historical tradition—in chs. 3 and 4 it is an encounter episode (Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman), while in chs. 5 and 6 a miracle story is involved, similar to ones we see narrated in the Synoptic Gospels. The miracle story in chapter 5 functions as part of the narrative introduction (vv. 1-16), which may be divided as follows:

  • Narrative setting (vv. 1-3)
  • Healing miracle by Jesus (vv. 5-9a)
  • Reaction to the miracle (vv. 9b-16)

Central to this narrative, though introduced only in v. 9b, is the fact that this healing occurred on a Sabbath. In terms of the Gospel Tradition, this marks the episode as a “Sabbath Controversy” scene, similar to a number of such scenes in the Synoptic Gospels. There is a block of episodes in Mark 2:1-3:6, all involving negative reaction to Jesus’ ministry (and/or debate with him) by religious authorities—that is, the experts on Scripture, the Law (Torah) and related matters of religion, typically identified as those among the Pharisees (i.e. “Scribes and Pharisees”). In Mk 3:1-6 (par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11) the Sabbath controversy is centered on a healing miracle, as in Jn 5:1-16, though in some ways in the miracle narrated in Mk 2:1-12 is closer to John’s account. Luke records two other Sabbath miracle scenes (13:10-17; 14:1-6), which are similar in tone and structure.

In all of these “Sabbath Controversy” episodes there is a negative (even hostile) reaction to Jesus. This is implied already in v. 10, but is not made explicit until the end of the narrative in v. 16: “And through [i.e. because of] this, the Yehudeans {Jews} pursued [i.e. persecuted] Yeshua, (in) that [i.e. because] he did these (thing)s on a Shabbat (day)”. This is the setting for all that follows in verses 17-47, which means that Jesus is not addressing his disciples, but his opponents. In all of the Synoptic Sabbath controversies, the negative reaction comes from religious authorities (“Scribes and Pharisees”, etc). While this is not stated specifically in chapter 5, it may be assumed fairly from the overall context; and it is more or less confirmed by the close points of similarity between chap. 5 and the episode in chap. 9, where the opponents of Jesus are identified as Pharisees (vv. 13-16, 40).

The negative reaction to Jesus (by his opponents) sets the stage for the central saying of the discourse (5:17): “My Father works (even) until now—and I also (do this) work!”. It draws upon the ancient Sabbath theme of God’s work and life-giving power in creation. Jesus identifies his own working of healing miracles—i.e. giving (new) life to those suffering from illness and disease—with this same creative power exercised by the Father. The implications of this were not lost on Jesus’ opponents—indeed, it only increased their hostile reaction, according to the statement by the Gospel writer in verse 18. A lengthy exposition by Jesus follows in vv. 19-47 covering the remainder of the chapter. This exposition has two main divisions:

  • Verses 19-29: Jesus (the Son) does the work of the Father, exemplified by the ability to raise the dead (the ultimate work of giving new life). This section also may be divided into two parts:
    (1) Resurrection (i.e. new life) in the present for believers—”realized” eschatology (vv. 19-24)
    (2) Resurrection at the end time for those who believe—traditional (future) eschatology (vv. 25-29)
  • Verses 30-47: Testimony that Jesus comes from the Father and does the Father’s work

It is the second division that supplies the immediate context for verse 39. The interpretive key lies in the opening verses (30-32), in which Jesus expounds the principle that a person who gives witness about himself cannot be considered reliable (v. 31). On this point, see, Deut 19:15, where the testimony of more than one witness, in a legal/judicial setting, is necessary to secure valid evidence (Num 35:30; Deut 17:6; Matt 18:16, etc). Jesus makes precisely this point later on in the Gospel (8:14-18). Verse 32 is vital for an interpretation of what follows:

“There is another [allos] th(at is) witnessing about me, and I have seen that the witness which he witnesses about me is true.”

The Greek word állos (a&llo$), “(someone) different, another”, is in an emphatic position at the start of the verse. Who is this “other”? There are two possibilities:

  1. It simply means “another” in the general sense—i.e. someone different from Jesus, or
  2. It refers primarily (and fundamentally) to God the Father as the one who gives witness about Jesus

The initial context of vv. 30-32 suggests #1, but the overall context of the passage makes it likely that #2 is intended—i.e., God the Father is the ultimate source of this testimony. Actually, there are four different witnesses, or sources of testimony, referenced by Jesus in this section:

  • John the Baptist (vv. 33-35)
  • Jesus himself—specifically the works (miracles) which he does (v. 36)
  • God the Father—his Word (vv. 37-38)
  • The Scriptures (vv. 39-40)

Each of these is connected in important ways; note the chain of relation:

  • John the Baptist
    • Jesus himself (greater than John)—does the Father’s work
      • The Father who sent Jesus—His Word abiding in believers
        • (His Word) manifest in the Scriptures

The Scriptures come at a climactic point in this chain of testimony. Verses 39-40 also serve as a transition into the declaration of judgment against Jesus’ opponents in vv. 41-47. Clearly, verse 39 is not an exhortation to study the Scriptures, but rather a strong rebuke against those who fail to accept Jesus. The reference to the Scriptures, in this regard, is especially significant if, as the context suggests, Jesus is addressing the supposed experts (Scribes/Pharisees) in Scripture and the Law. Almost certainly, the initial word of verse 39 (eraunáte) should be read as an indicative:

“You search the Writings [i.e. Scriptures], (in) that [i.e. because] you consider (yourselves) to hold Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life] in them, and those are the (writing)s witnessing about me, and (yet) you do not wish to come toward me, (so) that you might hold Life” (vv. 39-40)

The force of the contrast (and rebuke) is largely lost if eraunate is read as an imperative. Indeed, the context would seem to demand the indicative:

  • “You (do) search [eraunate] the Scriptures…(which witness about me)
  • and (yet) you do not wish [thelete] to come toward me”

The idea that a person might gain (eternal) life from the Scriptures (and a study of them) was not uncommon in Judaism, especially in the Rabbinic tradition, with its strong emphasis on a detailed study of the Torah. Consider the following statements from the Rabbinic collection “Sayings of the Fathers” (Pirqe Abot):

“He who has acquired the words of the Law has acquired for himself the life of the world to come” (2:8)
“Great is the Law for it gives to those who practice it life in this world and the world to come” (6:7)
(Translation by R. E. Brown in The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29, p. 225)

Paul declares virtually the opposite in Gal 3:21b:

“For if (the) Law was given being able to make alive [i.e. give life], (then indeed) justice/righteousness would (have) been out of [i.e. from] the Law”

Note also Romans 7:10: “and it was found with/in me (that) the (commandment) laid on me (which was to be) unto life, this (turned out to be) unto death”.

The Scriptures are not the source or means of Life; this is only found in the person of Jesus—the Son who makes God the Father known to us. He possesses the Father’s Life in himself (Jn 5:26), and gives that same Life to those who trust in him (the Elect/Believers). Yet the Scriptures bear witness to Jesus, and his identity as the Son sent by the Father. Protestant Christians have, at times, perhaps, been guilty of placing too much emphasis on the Scriptures (the Bible), and too little on the person of Christ, and his presence in and among us through the Spirit. Fortunately, if we really do study the Scriptures carefully—particularly, the Gospels and writings of the New Testament—we will never lose sight of the centrality of Christ (and the Spirit). The Gospel of John is especially valuable in this regard, which is one of the main reasons why I often use it as the ground for Bible study and instruction in methods of interpretation.

I would encourage you to read the entire discourse of chapter 5 (again), giving careful consideration to what has been discussed here, and then proceed to do the same with the following discourse in chapter 6—the great “Bread of Life” discourse. Analyze the chapter as whole—are you able to detect the points of the Johannine discourse-format, used throughout the Gospel? Where is the central saying of Jesus in this discourse? (Recall that it was verse 17 in chapter 5). Is there more than one central saying? Examine the structure of the dialogue in verses 25-58. How would you divided this? What patterns in the text do you see? In particular, consider how verses 51-58 relate to vv. 35-50. What do you make of the apparent Eucharistic imagery in vv. 51ff? This has been the source of considerable difficulty (and controversy) for commentators over the years. We will be examining Jesus’ words in vv. 53-58 when we meet again…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 3:34-36

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John 3:34-36

Last week we explored the context of John 3:22-36, especially the relationship between vv. 27-30 and 31-36. The parallelism between Jesus and John the Baptist, brings chapter 3 in connection with 1:19-51 (as well as the Prologue, vv. 1-18), framing the entirety of chapters 1-3. As a result, it is possible to view the exposition in 3:31-36 as forming the conclusion of this portion of the Gospel. The thought and imagery expressed in these verses are important for a proper understanding of what follows (from chapter 4 on). In particular, I would point to the last three verses (vv. 34-36) has having special significance for the remainder of the Gospel. There are some difficulties of interpretation, but these can be overcome with a careful study of several key words and phrases in the Greek. In today’s study, I will address two of these—one in verse 34 and the other in verse 36.

Verse 34—The statement in this verse introduces the important reference to the Spirit (pneuma), which had first been mentioned in Jesus’ earlier dialogue with Nicodemus (vv. 5-8). Here is the statement in translation:

“For the (one) whom God has se(n)t forth speaks the utterances [i.e. words] of God; for (it is) not out of measure (that) he gives the Spirit.”

Here we have two fundamental ideas, expressed previously in the Gospel, and which are to become key themes throughout: (1) that God the Father has sent forth Jesus (the Son) from him, and (2) that Jesus (the Son) speaks the words of God (the Father). What is especially intriguing is the way that this “speaking the words of God” is treated as synonymous with “giving the Spirit”. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in 6:63: “the utterances [i.e. words] that I speak to you are Spirit and Life“. Jesus refers to the action/work of the Spirit in vv. 5-8, but does not mention the giving of the Spirit. Later in the Gospel, in the Last Discourse, Jesus promises that he and/or the Father will send the Spirit (14:16-17, 26; 15:26; cf. also 16:13). This same idea is mentioned by the writer in 7:39. The giving the Spirit is actually recorded in 20:22, where, notably, it comes by Jesus’ mouth—thus reflecting the connection with his speaking.

What does it mean that Jesus gives the Spirit “not out of measure [ou ek metrou]”? Some commentators feel that God (the Father) is actually the subject of the verb didœsin (“he gives”) in this verse. The overall context makes that unlikely, especially when one considers the thrust of verse 35 which follows:

“The Father loves the Son and has given all (thing)s in(to) his hand”

God the Father has already given all things (including the Spirit) to the Son, and it is the Son who will give them, in turn, to believers. Here the parallel between Spirit and Life (6:63) is instructive, especially Jesus’ statement in 5:26:

“For even as the Father holds Life in himself, so also does he give to the Son to hold Life in himself”

But what of the expression “not out of measure”? The negative particle (ou, “not”) implies a contrast with the giving of the Spirit “out of [i.e. with/by] measure”. A likely explanation is to be found in the Jewish midrash (Midrash Rabbah) on Lev 15:2 (words of Rabbi Aµa): “…the Holy Spirit resting on the Prophets does so by measure“. The idea may be that, in the past, the Spirit was given only on a temporary basis, and in a portion, usually for the accomplishment of a certain mission (such as that of the Prophets). By contrast, Jesus (the Son of God) gives the Spirit without measure—that is, complete and in full, and on a permanent basis. This certainly fits with the idea, expressed in the Last Discourse, that the Holy Spirit will function as the abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers. It is through the Spirit that believers experience the divine, eternal Life of God and are united with both the Father and the Son.

Verse 36—The motif of life (zœ¢) is reiterated in the closing statement of this passage. In the Gospel of John, the word zœ¢ (zwh=) always refers to divine, eternal life. This is clear enough from the first occurrence in the Prologue (1:4):

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men”

This is the divine Life which the Son (or the Word/Logos) shares with God the Father (cf. on 5:26 above). The next occurrence of the word comes from the discourse in 3:1-21, where it occurs, for the first time, in the expression “the life of the Age [ho aiœnios zœ¢]”, usually translated in English as “eternal life”. It literally refers to the blessed divine life which the righteous will possess in the “Age to Come”—at the end time, following the resurrection, according to tradition Israelite/Jewish thought. In the Gospel of John this eschatological condition (i.e. eternal life) is “realized” for believers already in the present, through trust in Jesus. This is essentially expressed in vv. 14b-16:

“…so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every (one) trusting in him should hold life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]. For (in) this (way) God loved the world, so (that) he even gave his only (born) Son, (so) that every (one) trusting in him should not be destroyed, but (rather) should hold (the) life of the Age.”

Here the eschatological significance of the expression is clear enough—it refers primarily to the life which the believer will come to possess (literally “hold”) at the end time. The basis for possessing this (eternal) life, and being saved from the Judgment, is trust in Jesus (the Son). This same concept is found in the closing statement of v. 36, but with a somewhat different formulation and emphasis:

“The (one) trusting in the Son holds life of the Age; but the (one) being unpersuaded by the Son will not see life, but (rather) the anger of God remains upon him.”

There are two parallel, contrasting phrases:

  • the one trusting holds life…
  • the one being unpersuaded (i.e. refusing to trust) will not see life…

The second phrase uses a future verb form (“will not see”), and so preserves the original eschatological context. However, the first (relating to believers) is in the present tense—”holds” life, i.e. already in the present. This is an important distinction. Believers possess eternal life in the present, having “realized” the eschatological condition through trust in Jesus. Non-believers (i.e. those failing/refusing to be persuaded) endure the fate of the world in the future Judgment, expressed vividly by the phrase “the anger of God remains upon him”.

A careful study of the Greek words and phrases gives us important insight on the way that John the Baptist, Jesus, and/or the Gospel writer has made use of traditional religious and theological expressions, transforming them in the light of the Gospel message—giving to them a profound Christological significance. This transformed vocabulary runs through the Gospel of John, informing nearly every discourse and episode in the narrative. We must always pay attention to the way these key words and phrases are utilized.

Next week, we will be jumping ahead to the discourse in chapter 5, and another occurrence of the expression “life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life). I would recommend that you read through chapters 4 and 5 carefully, paying special attention to the way that the words “life” and “living” are used. Study the discourse in chapter 5, considering its structure and the line of thought in the exposition by Jesus spanning verses 19-47. Beginning with verse 30, read these concluding verses with particular care. As you reach verse 39, what are your thoughts on this statement, based on the context of the passage? I will be discussing it is some detail…next Saturday.