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Note of the Day – April 21 (Easter Sunday)

John 11:50-52

On this Easter Sunday, in celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, I will be looking at what I have always considered one of the most extraordinary passages in the Gospels dealing with the salvific effect of Jesus’ sacrificial death. It is found in John 11:45-54, especially the prophetic statement(s) made by the High Priest Caiaphas in verses 50-52. It is an example of supreme irony in the Gospel narrative—the words of Jesus’ enemies unwittingly become a prophecy of the true effect and result of Jesus’ death.

This tradition is found in no other Gospel, and critical commentators would tend to question its historicity. However, there is some basis for the idea that High Priest could, and would, utter prophecies regarding events that would take place during the year—cf. Josephus, Antiquities 11.327, 13.299. As an anointed figure, in the service, ideally, of God and the Israelite/Jewish religion, the prophetic gift was a natural characteristic of the Priesthood, in terms of the phenomenology of religion. Whether or not the Gospel writer would recognize this gift in Caiaphas, he interprets the High Priest’s words ultimately as prophetic, though in a way, and at a level of meaning, different than Caiaphas intended.

We should distinguish between the statement by Caiaphas in verse 50, and the explanation by the Gospel writer in vv. 51-52 which summarizes an earlier prophecy. The setting of the utterance in v. 50 involves the effect of Jesus’ miracles on the people, which is especially significant in the context of the raising of Lazarus (vv. 1-44). The concern expressed by the Jewish Council in verse 48 is that people will come to trust in Jesus in greater numbers because of these miraculous signs (cf. 7:31; 10:25-26, 37-38; 12:18-19, etc). Regarding Jesus as a miracle-working Messianic Prophet, the popular support could easily create such disturbance and prove a sufficient threat to Roman authority that it would cause the Romans to act. Josephus describes a number of such would-be Messianic figures in the 1st century prior to the war of 66-70 (Antiquities 18.85; 20.97, 169-72; War 7.437ff; cf. also Acts 5:36; 21:38; Mark 13:5-6, 21-22 par). In the face of such danger, Caiaphas gives his advice in verse 50—

“and you do not take account [i.e. consider, realize] that it bears together (well) for us that one man should die away over [i.e. on behalf of] the people, and (that) the whole nation should not be destroyed”

i.e., it is better for one man to die rather than the entire nation. The wording suggests a kind of substitution—sacrifice this one would-be Messiah for the good of the nation. This is straightforward enough, but what follows in vv. 51-52 gives much greater scope to this saying. The explanation (presumably by the Gospel writer) refers to a prophecy given by Caiaphas in his role as High Priest that year. According the narrative, he prophesied

“that Yeshua was about to die away over [i.e. on behalf of] the nation—and not over the nation [i.e. Judea] only, but (so) that even the offspring of God having been [i.e. which had been] scattered he might bring together into one”

According to this amazing prophecy, Jesus’ death would somehow result in the entire Jewish people—including those in the Diaspora—being reunited. It is impossible to recover the precise meaning of this historical tradition, i.e. the prophecy as Caiaphas might have uttered it. Early Christian tradition, as represented by the Gospel of John, interprets it in terms of Jesus’ death, in a new and unique way. Let us examine briefly the key words and phrases in vv. 51-52.

Dying “over” [u(pe/r] the people/nation. We find this idea essentially in the Gospel tradition, in Jesus’ words of institution at the Last Supper (Mark 14:24; par Lk 22:19-20 MT):

“This is my blood of the agreement [i.e. covenant] th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many”

A similar idea expressed in Mk 10:45 uses the preposition a)nti/ (i.e. “in exchange for”) instead of u(pe/r. The preposition u(pe/r should be understood both in its literal sense (blood poured over/upon people) and in the figurative sense (i.e. “on behalf of”). Jesus’ death is presented as a sacrificial offering comparable to that by which the (old) Covenant was established in Exod 24:5-8. The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ death similarly in terms of a sacrificial offering over people—cf. 2:9; 5:1; 6:20; 7:25, 27; 9:7, 24; 10:12—specifically an offering on behalf of sin.

In the Gospel of John we also find the expression in the context of Jesus’ sacrificial death—i.e. 6:51; 10:11, 15; and the associated tradition that believers should follow his example (13:37-38; 15:13). The closest parallel to Caiaphas’ prophecy is the illustrative language used by Jesus in 10:11, 15 (cf. below).

“Offspring of God” [te/kna qeou=]. While Caiaphas presumably would have used this expression to refer to Israelites/Jews as the “children of God”, for the Gospel writer (and other early Christians) it had a deeper meaning, as we see clearly in Jn 1:12. It is used specifically as a title of believers, indicating their spiritual status, in the first Johannine letter (3:1-2, 10; 5:2), and similarly in the Pauline writings (Rom 8:16, 21; 9:8; Phil 2:15, cf. also Eph 5:1, 8).

The verbs diaskorpi/zw and suna/gw. These two verbs must be taken in tandem, whereby Jesus’ death will “bring together” (vb. suna/gw) the ones who have been “scattered throughout” (vb. diaskorpi/zw). Caiaphas certainly means this in the sense of reuniting the Jewish people (Israel) that has been scattered throughout the Greco-Roman world (and other nation)—i.e. the Diaspora or “Dispersion”. The Old Testament Prophetic background for this can be found in passages such as Isa 11:12; Mic 2:12; Jer 23:3; 31:8-11; Ezek 34:16, etc. While early Christian thought retained something of this theme (cf. Acts 1-2), it is understood in terms of Israelites and Jews responding to the Gospel and coming to faith in Jesus. Yet, the mission to the Gentiles also meant that the concept had to be extended—to all believers throughout the world, Jew and Gentile both.

In the Gospel tradition, the verb diaskorpi/zw occurs once in connection with Jesus’ death—in Mk 14:27 par (citing Zech 13:7), referring to the persecution which the disciples will face following his death (cp. Acts 5:37). The verb suna/gw (from which the noun sunagwgh/, “synagogue” is derived) occurs elsewhere in the Gospel of John at 4:36, and, most notably, in the miraculous Feeding episode (6:12-13). In particular, the motif of the gathering together of the fragments came to be interpreted by early Christians as a distinct sacramental (Eucharistic) image expressing the unity of believers. This is clear in Didache 9:4, which seems to contain an allusion to Jn 11:52:

“Just as this broken (bread) was scattered throughout [dieskorpisme/non] upon the mountains above, and (then) was brought together [sunaxqe/n] and came to be one [e%n], so may your ekklesia [i.e. Church] be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom”

Thus, we may say that the true meaning of Caiaphas’ prophecy is that Jesus’ sacrificial death will bring all believers together, at a level of fundamental and essential unity.

“One” [ei!$, e%n]. This aspect of unity is confirmed by the last word of the prophecy—literally, “one” (ei!$, n. e%n). While it may be understood in the simple sense of a people united as a community, it has a far deeper (theological) meaning in the Gospel of John. There are two interrelated themes in the Gospel: (1) the unity of believers in Christ, and (2) our spiritual participation in the unity shared by the Son (Jesus) and the Father. Both themes are prevalent throughout the Fourth Gospel (esp. the Last Discourse, chapters 14-17), and involve use of the specific word ei!$ (“one”):

  1. Unity of Believers in Christ—Jn 10:16; 17:11, 21-23
  2. Unity of Father and Son (and Spirit)—1:3; 10:30; cf. also 1 Jn 5:8

Perhaps Jesus’ statement in 10:14-16 best approximates the essential message of Caiaphas’ prophecy (verbal parallels in bold italics):

“I am the excellent (Shep)herd, and I know the (sheep that are) mine and the (ones that are) mine know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I set down my soul [i.e. lay down my life] over the sheep. And I hold other sheep which are not out of this (sheep)fold, and it is necessary for me to bring them (also), and they will hear my voice—and there will come to be one herd [i.e. flock] (of sheep) and one (Shep)herd.”

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