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Note of the Day – February 18 (John 1:35-51)

Yesterday’s note explored the tradition(s) related to the call of Peter and the first Disciples, in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 1:16-20 par). Today I will be looking at the very different line of tradition preserved in the Gospel of John. While it is not entirely impossible to harmonize the Synoptic and Johannine accounts (for those who wish to do so), it should be noted that there is scarcely a single detail in common between them, other than the presence of the brothers Andrew and Simon, and the introduction of the name “Peter” for the latter.

John 1:35-51

As discussed in earlier notes, these verses are part of the larger narrative block of 1:19-51—a sequence of four episodes, set as occurring on four consecutive “days” (a literary device, as much as historical). Verses 35-51 make up the last two “days”. Here again is an outline of vv. 19-51, indicating how deftly the author has blended together traditions regarding the baptism of Jesus and the call of the first disciples, into a single narrative:

  • 1:19-28—Day “1”: The testimony of John the Baptist regarding his own identity
  • 1:29-34—Day “2”: The testimony of John regarding the identity of Jesus
  • 1:35-42—Day “3”: Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of John’s witness
  • 1:43-51—Day “4”: Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of his (and other disciples’) witness
Day “3” (John 1:35-42)

Verses 35-36 essentially repeat the opening from the previous “day” (v. 29f), in which the Baptist sees Jesus (coming) and declares, “This is the lamb of God!”. What follows in the earlier episode (vv. 30-34) is the Baptist’s narration of Jesus’ baptism and his witness as to Jesus’ true identity as the “Son of God” (v. 34 [some MSS read “Elect/Chosen One of God”]). This is treated as a public declaration, for all people to hear. In verses 35-36, on the other hand, it is (only) heard by John’s immediate followers (disciples), two of whom, upon hearing it, leave the Baptist to follow Jesus (v. 37). Compare this with the Synoptic tradition (in Mark):

  • “Jesus said to them, ‘Come (here) behind me…’ [Mk 1:17] and straightaway, releasing th(eir) nets, they followed him” [v. 18]
  • “…looking on Jesus, John says, ‘See! the lamb of God’ [Jn 1:36] and the two…heard him speaking and followed Jesus” [v. 37]

There is a general similarity, but the details differ considerably. It is interesting that, in both traditions, two disciples are involved, and one of them is Andrew (Mk 1:16; Jn 1:40). This cannot be mere coincidence; rather, on entirely objective grounds, it almost certainly reflects authentic (historical) tradition. It is likely that the original Johannine tradition, in its simpler form, continued from verse 37 on (directly) to vv. 40-41:

37…they heard him speaking and followed Jesus. 40Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two…following (Jesus)… 41He finds his own brother Simon and says to him…”

This tradition follows the Synoptic by recording Andrew and his brother Simon (Peter) as the first two disciples (known by name) who follow Jesus. However, the entire setting in John appears to be quite different from that of the Synoptics. There is no mention of fishing; indeed, Andrew appears not to be engaged in fishing at all, but has been a disciple of the Baptist. Nor does Jesus take the initiative, speaking first to Andrew and Peter both, but a very different process and order of events seems to be involved. Moreover, this distinct Johannine tradition has been further adapted by the Gospel writer in light of the overall narrative in chapter 1. This has been done through the inclusion of a number of details:

  • The emphasis on the disciples responding to the witness of John the Baptist regarding Jesus (cf. verses 7-8, 15, 19, 31-32, 34). This is made all the more emphatic by the repetition of verse 29 in vv. 35-36.
  • This begins a chain of witness from John to the disciples in turn (cf. 17:20; 20:31, etc), as narrated in vv. 40-42 and 43-46.
  • The central encounter with Jesus in vv. 38-39, told with distinctly Johannine language, including the special use of the verbs e&rxomai (“come”), me/nw (“remain”) and the motif of seeing/knowing.
  • The declaration of Jesus as “the Messiah” (i.e. Anointed One, Christ); cf. the parallel declaration in v. 49 (also in v. 45), whereby the first disciples bear witness to the identity of Jesus (20:31).

This particular episode also concludes with the naming of Peter (as “[the] Rock”, pe/tro$), by Jesus. This is associated with a different point of the Gospel narrative in the Synoptics (Mk 3:16 par; Matt 16:18). The naming of Peter will be discussed in a subsequent note.

Day “4” (John 1:43-51)

Much that has been said of the prior episode applies to the fourth “day” as well. One main difference is that the disciples are shown responding to Jesus’ call directly, rather than the testimony of John the Baptist (compare vv. 35-37 and 43). Indeed, verse 43 is similar to the Synoptic tradition in Mk 1:16-20 par, though a different disciple (Philip) is involved; yet the basic motif is very close, as Jesus says to the person:

  • “Come (here) in back of me…!”
    Deu=te o)pi/sw mou (Mk 1:17 par)
  • “Follow me!”
    Akolou/qei moi (Jn 1:43)

Again, as in the Synoptics, we are dealing with a second pair of disciples who come to follow Jesus—Philip and Nathanael (instead of the brothers James and John). That this reflects an authentic (historical) tradition, however different from the Synoptic, would seem to be confirmed by the presence of disciples (Philip and, especially, Nathanael) who otherwise play little role in the Gospel narrative. A Christian tradition from a later period would almost certainly have involved better known figures. It is interesting, again, how it is said of Philip (in v. 44) that he was from the same town (Bethsaida) as Andrew and Peter; similarly, in the Synoptics, Andrew/Peter and James/John are, it would seem, from the same area (Capernaum).

From the standpoint of the Johannine narrative (and theological) context, note how in this episode we find the same keywords and motifs as in the prior one—e&rxomai (“come”), me/nw (“remain”), and seeing/knowing (vv. 46-48, 50). All of these common words are given a special meaning and significance in the Gospel of John, involving the relation of the believer to Christ:

  • Jesus comes into the world from the Father, and also comes to those who will believe. Believers, in turn, come to Jesus
  • Believers remain/abide in/with Jesus, and Jesus in/with them

This same dynamic is defined in terms of seeing/knowing—Jesus sees/knows from the Father, and sees/knows those who will believe; then believers also come to see/know Jesus (the Son).

The saying/statement of Jesus in the closing verse 51—a suitable climax to the entire section (and, indeed, chapter 1 as a whole)—draws together all of these motifs, as well as the entire Baptism scene, in the vision promised to the disciples (believers). This remarkable verse has been discussed in considerable detail in an earlier note.

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