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Johannine Theology

Saturday Series: John 3:16

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John 3:16

This week I would like to address again the importance of studying a verse or passage in context. I turn to John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in all the New Testament. Countless Christians (and non-Christians as well) are familiar with it, yet I wonder how many have ever really read or studied it in its context within the Gospel of John.

It is part of Jn 3:1-21, one of the great Discourses of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. These Discourses, which are really unlike anything in the other (Synoptic) Gospels, present the historical traditions—that is, Jesus’ words and actions—within a very distinctive literary setting, utilizing a dialogue format. Generally, they follow a common structure:

  • Narrative introduction, which establishes the setting and action of the historical episode, often a miracle or encounter episode.
  • A central saying or statement by Jesus
  • The reaction of those who see/hear him, reflecting some measure of misunderstanding
  • An explanation by Jesus of the true, deeper meaning of his words

Sometimes there are multiple exchanges between Jesus and his audience, so that the discourse preserves a more extensive dialogue. The outline of John 3:1-21 should be examined according to this pattern:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)—an encounter episode, between Jesus and Nicodemus (a member of the Jewish Council [Sanhedrin]), presumably in Jerusalem (see 2:13-25). Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night (secretly?), and addresses him (verse 2).
  • Central saying/statement by Jesus (v. 3).
  • Reaction by Nicodemus who has not understood the true meaning of Jesus’ words (v. 4)
  • Explanation by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
  • Second reaction (question) by Nicodemus (v. 9)
  • Explanation/exposition by Jesus (vv. 10-21)

The central saying by Jesus is in verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if one does not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God”

This statement is apparently in response to Nicodemus’ address in verse 2, in which he recognizes that Jesus is “a teaching (who) has come from God”, yet does not fully realize Jesus’ identity. The implication is that only the person who has been “born from above” can see and recognize Jesus truly. The recognition of Jesus is described in more conventional religious terms, drawn from Old Testament and Jewish thought, as seeing “the kingdom of God”.

From verse 4, it is clear that Nicodemus has misunderstood Jesus. This is based on a bit of wordplay in Greek. The adverb anœthen literally means “from above”, but can also have the sense of “from the beginning, again”. This is how Nicodemus takes it, thinking that Jesus is referring to a second physical birth from the mother’s womb. Jesus’ explanation, touching on the true meaning of his words, begins with a statement parallel to that of verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if one does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God” (v. 5)

Clearly, being born “from above” is essentially the same as being born “out of water and (the) Spirit”. The exact relationship between water and the Spirit in this statement continues to be debated by commentators. Some take it as a reference to the need for (Christian) Baptism, but this likely would not have been Jesus primary meaning, if we accept the substance of the saying as genuine. A simpler interpretation, in accord with that of verse 3 (and the discourse as a whole), would be that, without a spiritual birth (from above), in addition to one’s natural human birth (out of water), one cannot see/enter the Kingdom. Nicodemus is still thinking and experiencing things from the ordinary human standpoint. In verse 8, Jesus identifies the birth “from above” specifically with being born “out of [i.e. from] the Spirit“.

A second question from Nicodemus (“How are these things able to come to be?”, v. 9) introduces the exposition (by Jesus) which makes up the remainder of the discourse. This exposition can be divided into two parts:

  1. Jesus as the Son of Man who has come down from Heaven (vv. 10-15), and
  2. Jesus as the Son (of God) who brings light and life into the world (vv. 16-21)

At first glance, it may not seem obvious how these sections relate to the exchange with Nicodemus in vv. 1-9. But I believe that the key lies in a narrative technique found in the Gospel of John sometimes referred to as “step-parallelism”, in which a word or idea from a prior passage is taken up to start the next. Remember that the central idea in Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus was that of being born “from above” (anœthen, verse 3). It is this motif that Jesus expounds in response to Nicodemus’ question. There are two components to the first part of Jesus’ explanation (vv. 11-15): (a) the heavenly source of Jesus’ words (his testimony), vv. 11-12, and (b) the heavenly origin of Jesus (the “Son of Man”), vv. 13-15. Consider how these two aspects relate, centered on the motif of heaven (i.e. from above):

  • Earthly things (v. 12a)
    —Heavenly things (v. 12b)
    —Ascent to Heaven (v. 13a)
  • Descent from Heaven [to earth] (v. 13b)

In verse 13-15 Jesus picks up and further expounds this motif of ascent/descent (using the verbs anabainœ and katabainœ, literally “step up” and “step down”, see last week’s study on John 1:51). According the Johannine view of Jesus, as expressed (by Jesus) in the other discourses, this ascent/descent concept is one of several in the Gospel which serves as a comprehensive symbol or image of both the death and exaltation of Jesus. Another such concept involves the verb hypsoœ (“lift high”) which Jesus uses in vv. 14-15:

“And even as Moshe lifted (up) high the snake in the desert, so it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every one trusting [in him] may have [lit. hold] (the) Life of the Age [i.e. Eternal Life].”

The primary emphasis here has shifted to Jesus’ sacrificial death (on the cross) which will bring (eternal) life to every one who trusts in him. This now becomes the transition to the second half of Jesus’ exposition (vv. 16-21), which begins with the famous verse 16 (note the points of similarity with vv. 14-15):

“For God loved the world this (way), so (that) he even gave his only (born) [monogen¢s] Son, so that every one trusting into him will not be destroyed, but might have/hold (the) Life of the Age [i.e. Eternal Life].”

The joining word which introduces vv. 16-21 is the adverb houtœ[s], related to the demonstrative pronoun houtos (“this”). The idea seems to be that God loved the world “this way”, referring to what precedes—i.e. the “lifting up” of the Son of Man in the manner of the snake upon the pole (Numbers 21:9). This connection also serves to identify Jesus the “Son of Man” as the “only Son” of God (see the earlier study on John 1:18). Once again, by way of step-parallelism, Jesus takes up this motif and continues it for the remainder of the exposition:

  • God sent forth his Son into the world, so that the world might be saved through him (v. 17)
  • Salvation comes through trusting (vb. pisteuœ) in [lit. “into”, eis] God’s Son (v. 18)

Two important Johannine motifs are blending into verse 18: (1) the adjective monogen¢s (“only [born]”), i.e. God’s only Son, and (2) the identification of the person (Jesus) with his name. According to ancient Near Eastern thought, the essence of a person was seen has being bound up, in a quasi-magical sort of way, with his/her name. This took on special significance for Israelites and Jews with regard to the name of God (YHWH), and early Christians developed a similar reverence for the name of Yeshua/Jesus. In the Gospel of John, we find the important idea that Jesus (the Son) reveals God (the Father) by making known his name (i.e., who He truly is)—see 5:43; 10:25; 12:26; 17:6-26. At the same time, the Father acts on behalf of believers in the Son’s name (14:13-14, 26; 15:16, 21; 16:23-26). This inter-relationship of Father and Son is typical of John’s theology and Christology, and is found all throughout the Discourses of Jesus.

In verse 17-21 there is an interesting shift, from the theme of life (vv. 17-18) to that of light (19-21). Both are central to the Gospel of John and feature prominently in the Prologue (1:4-9ff). After the reference to Jesus’ death in verse 14, it seems that it is the incarnation of the Son (Jesus) which is more clearly in view in vv. 17-21. Jesus, in his very person, brings life and light into the world. The reference to light in verse 19 also introduces an aspect of dualism into the discourse—light vs. darkness. This takes us back to the original saying in verse 3. The word “from above” reflects a similar sort of dualism—above vs. below, heavenly vs. earthly. Only those who belong to the light, etc, are able to come to it (i.e. trust in Jesus). Trust is not a matter of human will-power, nor even of repentance and sacrifice, but of belonging to God. This is perhaps best expressed by Jesus words (to Pilate) in John 18:37:

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

And consider also the words of Jn 1:12-13:

“(for) as many as received him, he gave to them authority to come to be offspring of God, to the ones trusting in his name—the (one)s which, not out of blood, and not out of the will of the flesh, and not out of the will of man, but out of God, came to be (born)”

This concludes our study of John 3:16 in the context of the discourse (vv. 1-21). Often it is useful, and even necessary, to consider the wider context of the book as well. I would thus encourage you to go back and read again the first two chapters of John, paying especially close attention to chapter two and episode(s) of verses 13-25. As you read these verses, keep in mind your study of 3:1-21.

And I will see you again next Saturday.

Note of the Day – April 12 (John 13:31-38ff)

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John 6:51-58; 13:31-38 (continued)

Today, I wish to explore the final difference between John and the Synoptics in the presentation of the Last Supper scene—the inclusion of the great Last Discourse (or series of Discourses) which follows the Supper and precedes the episode in the Garden (Jn 18:1-11). There is nothing remotely like it in the Synoptic Gospels, though perhaps a very loose parallel may be seen in the teaching which Luke records in 22:25-30, 35-38 (cf. the earlier note). It is not possible here to examine the Last Discourse (13:31-17:26, or, properly 13:31-16:33) in much detail, but a structural and thematic survey may help us to understand its place in the Passion Narrative (on this, cf. the supplemental note).

Jn 13:31-38—The Introduction to the Last Discourse

I regard 13:31-38 as the beginning, the introduction, of the Last Discourse. Indeed, these verses introduce the primary themes of the Discourse, weaving them around the Passion Narrative tradition of the prediction by Jesus of Peter’s denial. I will leave the role of Peter in the Passion (and Resurrection) Narratives for a later note. It is more important, at this juncture, to consider the place of this tradition in terms of the Last Discourse, and how it connects with the earlier Last Supper scene. I outline these verses as follows:

  • Narrative transition (v. 31a)
  • Saying of Jesus #1—Son of Man saying (vv. 31b-32)
  • Saying of Jesus #2—Declaration of his going away (v. 33)
  • Saying of Jesus #3—The Love Command (vv. 34-35)
  • Excursus: Prediction of Peter’s Denial (vv. 36-38)

Let us examine each of these elements briefly.

Narrative transition (v. 31a)—This short statement serves to join the sayings of vv. 31-35 with the Last Supper scene. It is parallel with the even shorter statement that closes the earlier scene:

  • “And it was night” (v. 30b)—darkness symbolizing the identification of Judas as the betrayer, his departure, and the beginning of the Passion.
  • “Then, when he [i.e. Judas] went out…” (v. 31a)

Judas’ departure is significant for a number of reasons, but it has special importance in terms of the Last Discourse. With Judas gone, only the true disciples, the true believers, remain in the room with Jesus. This allows Jesus the opportunity to begin his great “Farewell Discourse” with his faithful followers, imparting information and teaching which he could not have done earlier. Now it is the right time.

Saying #1 (vv. 31b-32)—This is a complex Son of Man saying with a clear earlier parallel in 12:23. Both sayings involve the verb doca/zw—which fundamentally means to regard someone with honor/esteem, but can also be used in the sense of “give honor”. Typically it is translated in the New Testament as “glorify” (i.e. give glory). For other occurrences of the verb in John, see 7:39; 8:54; 11:4; 12:16, 28. It will become an important keyword in the Last Discourse—14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1, 4-5, 10, and cf. also 21:19. First consider the Son of Man saying in 12:23:

“The hour has come that the Son of Man should be given honor/glory [docasqh=|]”

The context is Jesus’ impending death (vv. 24-27, note the parallel with the Synoptic Passion narrative in v. 27), as well as the declaration of Jesus in v. 28:

“Father, give honor/glory [do/cason] (to) your name”

This emphasis on the name of God is also an important motif in the Last Discourse, especially the Prayer-discourse of chapter 17.

I mentioned the complex structure of the saying in 13:31:

“Now the Son of Man is given honor/glory, and God is given honor/glory in him; [if God is given honor/glory in him], (then) also God will give him honor/glory in him(self), and straightaway will give him honor/glory”

The textual evidence for the phrase in brackets is divided; a simpler structure results if it is omitted:

  • Now the Son of Man is given honor
    —God is given honor in him
    —God will give him honor in him(self)
  • Straightaway (God) will give him honor

The interrelationship between the Son (Jesus, here called by the self-title “Son of Man”) and the Father is a fundamental (Christological) theme in the Fourth Gospel, which reaches a high-point in the Last Discourse.

Saying # 2 (v. 33)

“(My) little children [tekni/a], (only) a little (time) yet am I with you—you will seek (after) me, and, even as I said to the Yehudeans {Jews} that ‘(the place) where I lead (myself) under [i.e. go away], you are not able to come (there)’, (so) also I relate (this) to you now”

This saying refers back to 8:21-22, and introduces the theme of Jesus’ departure—his going away—which covers the entire process of his Passion, much as the verb doca/zw does in v. 31 (cf. above). It refers, variously, and with complex layers of dual meaning, to: (1) his death, and (2) his return to the Father. The theme is especially prominent in chapters 14 and 16 of the Last Discourse, where it is also tied to the promise of the Spirit (the Helper/Paraclete). The word (tekni/on), used by Jesus to address his disciples, is a diminutive form of te/knon (“offspring”, i.e. “child”), which features in several key verses in the Gospel (1:12; 8:39; 11:52) and the Letter of John (1 Jn 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; 2 Jn 1, 4, 13; 3 Jn 4)—always in the plural (te/kna). It may indicate that Jesus is identifying the disciples (the true believers, with Judas absent) as the “offspring [i.e. children] of God” (1:12). The diminutive tekni/on (“little children”) occurs only here in the Gospel, but is used frequently in the first Johannine letter (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21).

Saying #3 (vv. 34-35)—The last saying introduces another primary theme of the Last Discourse: the bond of love which binds the disciples to Jesus (and God the Father), and to each other. It had a precursor in the foot-washing scene of vv. 3-17 (cf. the previous note), especially Jesus’ teaching in vv. 12-17. Here Jesus frames it as a “command” (e)ntolh/), the literal Greek referring to something laid upon a person which he/she is charged to accomplish. The so-called “love command” is an essential aspect of Jesus’ teaching (cf. Mark 12:28-34 par, also Matt 5:43-46 par; Lk 7:41-48), and became a primary (and binding) component of the early Christian identity—Rom 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor 8:1-3; 12:31b-14:1; 16:14; 2 Cor 5:14; Gal 5:13-14; Phil 1:9; 2:2; 1 Thess 4:9; James 2:8; 1 Pet 1:22, etc. When the term “commandment(s)” is used in the Gospel and letters of John, it primarily refers to the love-command.

Prediction of Peter’s Denial (vv. 36-38)—As in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 14:26-31) functions as an excursus within the Passion narrative, following the Passover meal scene. It is transitional to the Gethsemane scene (Mk 14:32-52 par), which in John’s version does not come until after the Last Discourse (18:1-11). The similar outline indicates that both John and the Synoptics are drawing upon a common historical tradition:

John’s version differs from the Synoptic primarily in the way that the core Peter tradition (vv. 37b-38) is incorporated into the Last Discourse. Verses 36-37a mark this joining transition:

“(Then) Shim’on (the) Rock [i.e. Simon Peter] says to him, ‘(To) what (place) do you lead (yourself) under [i.e. go away]?'” (v. 36a)
(to which Jesus answers:)
“(To) whatever (place) I lead (myself) under [i.e. go away], you are not able to follow me (there)—but you will follow later” (v. 36b)

Note the similarity in language and phrasing to verse 33 (Saying #2, above). The declaration that Peter will follow Jesus at a later point has a loose parallel in Lk 22:32. Peter’s response in v. 37a continues the same Johannine emphasis:

“Lord, through what [i.e. why] am I not able to follow you now?”

His declaration in v. 37b may also be shaped by the language and thought of the Fourth Gospel—compare with 10:11, 15, 17 (from the Good Shepherd parable):

Peter: “I will set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life] over you” (v. 37b)
Jesus: “I set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life] over the sheep” (10:15)

 

Saturday Series: John 1:51 (continued)

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John 1:51 (continued)

Last week we looked at the enigmatic statement by Jesus in John 1:51:

“Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you [pl.] will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man.”

A proper study of such difficult passages requires a careful two-step approach: (1) analysis of the Greek words/phrases and how they are used, and (2) the context of the passage within the book. Last week we dealt with the first of these, today we will explore the second—that is, the context of the verse within the Gospel of John. Much of the difficulty surrounding this saying has been in trying to identify it with an actual event which the disciples experienced (or would experience). I mentioned three possibilities: (a) an otherwise unrecorded event during Jesus’ ministry, such as the Transfiguration scene in the Synoptic Gospels; (b) a post-resurrection vision or encounter; or (c) an eschatological vision. None of these really seem to fit the narrative setting of this saying—at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after the Baptism and the call of the first disciples. It seems more likely that it is meant by the author (trad. John the Apostle) as a symbolic picture, and that its fundamental meaning is Christological. I believe that a study of the Greek (last Saturday) already points rather clearly in this direction. But let us examine things a bit further.

1. The Location of the Saying

After the hymnic prologue of Jn 1:1-18, the first main section of the Gospel is Jn 1:19-51, which has, as its primary theme, the testimony of John the Baptist regarding Jesus. The section is divided into four “days”, and with each “day” the witness of Jesus’ identity is developed:

  • vv. 19-28—the Baptist’s testimony regarding himself (“I am not…”)
  • vv. 29-34—the Baptist’s testimony regarding Jesus
    • account of the Baptism (vv. 31-33)
  • vv. 35-42—disciples respond to the Baptist’s testimony and follow Jesus
    • a disciple (Peter)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 41-42)
    • saying of Jesus (v. 42)
  • vv. 43-51—disciples respond to the testimony of other (disciple)s and follow Jesus
    • a disciple (Nathanael)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47-51)
    • saying of Jesus (v. 51)

Each of the last three days follows a basic pattern, which includes a pair of declarations regarding Jesus, using a range of significant titles or descriptions:

  • Day 2: “Lamb of God” (v. 29) / “Son of God” (or “Elect/Chosen One of God”) (v. 34)
  • Day 3: “Lamb of God” (v. 36) / “Messiah” (“Anointed One [Christ]”) (v. 41)
  • Day 4: “the one of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote” (v. 45) /
    “Son of God” | “King of Israel” (v. 49)

The saying in Jn 1:51 thus concludes this opening section of the Gospel, which fundamentally has a Christological orientation, in two respects:

  1. The focus moves from John the Baptist to Jesus (see vv. 8, 15, 30; 3:28-30)
  2. John and the disciples witness (see) Jesus—that is, they begin to recognize who he is, and testify as to his identity.

The account of Jesus’ Baptism (vv. 31-34) is central to this section. Moreover, its close proximity to verse 51 makes it extremely likely that some sort of allusion to it is intended. Last week I mentioned several words in verse 51 which echo the baptism:

  • The Holy Spirit, in the form/shape of a dove, descends [lit. “steps down”] upon Jesus, using the same verb (katabainœ) as in Jn 1:51. Also, the versions in Matthew/Luke specifically use the preposition epi (“upon”) and narrate the episode as something observable by all the people.
  • In the descent of the Spirit, the heavens are said to separate; in Matthew/Luke (Matt 3:16; Lk 3:21), the verb used is anoigœ (“open up”) as in Jn 1:51.

The Baptism is not narrated as something that people observe directly—it is only “seen” through the verbal account (or word) of the Baptist. Similarly, throughout this section “seeing” Jesus is intimately connected with hearing and responding to the message of the Baptist and the first disciples (vv. 34, 36, 39, 46). In Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47ff), he also “sees” based on what Jesus says to him; note, in particular, the wording:

“Jesus responded and said to him, ‘(In) that [i.e. because] I said to you that I saw you underneath the fig-tree, you trust (in me)? (Thing)s greater than these you will see!” (v. 50)

This interplay between “seeing” and “saying” should caution us against the simple assumption that a concrete visible event is intended in v. 51.

Consider also that, while the saying in v. 51 concludes the first section (1:19-51), it also marks the beginning of the next—that is to say, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In terms of the Gospel of John, this means the core narrative of the Gospel spanning chapters 2-20. Commentators typically divide this into two main parts:

  1. Chapters 2-12, sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”, in which the narrative alternates between accounts of miracles and teaching (discourses) by Jesus—the miracle (sign) often serving as the basis and starting point for the discourse which follows (see especially in chapters 5, 6, and 9). All but the first and last of the Son of Man sayings are found in these chapters.
  2. Chapters 13-20, which narrate the Passion (and Resurrection) of Jesus—chapter 13 (a Last Supper scene similar to that in the Synoptic tradition) leads into the great Discourses in 13:31-16:33, concluding with the remarkable Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17.

The last Son of Man saying in John (13:31) opens the Discourses which are set at the beginning of the last major section of the Gospel (chs 13-20). It seems likely that the first Son of Man saying (1:51) is meant to have a similar transitional role in the structure of the Gospel narrative.

2. The other Son of Man Sayings

For a survey of the other Son of Man sayings in John, see my earlier note on the subject. As mentioned above, all but the first and last sayings occur in chapters 2-12, which is significant for two reasons:

  • They are part of the Discourses of Jesus in these chapters, marked by a unique style of teaching. A statement or action by Jesus is misunderstood by the audience, leading to a pointed question, and the subsequent response (and exposition) by Jesus, answering the question at a deeper level of meaning. This process of redirection and reformulation always involves Jesus’ identity—his Person and Teaching—the Son in relation to God the Father. Where they occur, the Son of Man sayings (esp. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 32, 34) are central to the Discourse.
  • They point toward the death and exaltation (resurrection, return to the Father) of Jesus described in chapters 13-20. Indeed, the principal sayings all have a dual-meaning, centered on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The sayings which refer to the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) or being “glorified” (Jn 12:23; also 13:31) have both aspects in mind.

The dualism of these sayings is best demonstrated by the use of the verbs katabainœ and anabainœ (“step down”, “step up”), as in Jn 1:51. The saying in 3:13 is followed by that of v. 14 (which speaks of the Son of Man “lifted high”); the sayings in Jn 6:27, 53, 62 have a more complex reference matrix, as part of the great Bread of Life discourse (6:25-66). In schematic form, we might outline the dualism as follows:

According to this outline, the last Son of Man saying (Jn 13:31) reflects the central, inner dynamic of the Father-Son relationship and identity, governed by the verb doxazœ (“give honor/esteem/glory”, i.e. “glorify”). If this is correct, then it is not unreasonable to assume that the first of the Son of Man sayings (Jn 1:51) is parallel to this in some way, and may reflect the outer dynamic—the ascent/descent. Again, this would seem to be correct considering the use of the verbs katabainœ and anabainœ in 1:51. However, in that first saying, it is not the Son of Man descending/ascending, but rather of Angels (“Messengers of God”) ascending/descending on the Son of Man.

3. An allusion to Genesis 28:12

As mentioned last week, in Jesus’ saying there is almost certainly an allusion to Genesis 28:12. In Jacob’s dream-vision at Bethel, he sees Angels ascending and descending on the ladder; in the Greek Version (Septuagint) “ascending and descending” uses the same verbs (anabainœ and katabainœ) as Jn 1:51. Note also:

  • There is a traditional Jewish interpretation which understands the Angels ascending/descending on him (Jacob). In one reference (Genesis Rabbah 68:12) Jacob is seen as being simultaneously in heaven.
  • The Targums (Aramaic translations) express the idea that the shekinah—the visible manifestation and/or personification of God’s glory—was on the ladder. In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (mid-2nd century A.D.), we find the earliest evidence for the interpretation that Christ was on the ladder (86:2).
  • Bethel as the “House of God”, i.e. the rock/stone which symbolizes the Temple and its foundation. In ancient and traditional religious thinking, the Temple served as the meeting place between God and human beings, a point of contact between Heaven and Earth. Moreover, in John 2:19ff (not long after the saying in 1:51), the Temple is identified with Jesus’ own person (and body), specifically in connection with his death and resurrection.

4. A Comprehensive Symbol?

Returning to the specific context of John’s Gospel, there is still more evidence to suggest that the saying of Jesus John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:

  • The clear parallels with the Baptism (see above, and the discussion last week), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation). Again, the location of Jn 1:51 strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
  • Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
  • Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (especially in the Synoptic Gospels, Mk 13:26; Matt 16:27-28, etc). However, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (that is, divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent.
  • The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel. This expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involve parallel confessions:
    • Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
    • Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
      It is possible that these confessions themselves as bracketing the entire narrative of chapters 2-20:

      • “Son of God” (in a Messianic context)
        —”King of Israel” (i.e. Anointed Davidic Ruler)
        —”My Lord” (Jesus as Messiah/Lord, cf. Ps 110:1)
      • “My God” (Deity)
    • Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
  • In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (opsesthe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—as the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. This, of course, is also related to “seeing” the Son in terms of being with him, in his presence, as other instances of the verb optanomai, optomai/opsomai would indicate (Jn 16:16-17, 19, 22).
  • As a concluding observation that “seeing” in Jn 1:51 signifies something more than a concrete vision, note the parallel with 20:29:
    • “because I said to you that I saw [eidon] you… you trust?
      you will see [opsesthe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God… upon the Son of Man” (1:51)
    • “because you have seen [heœrakas] me you trust?
      Happy/blessed are the ones not seeing [idontes] and (yet) trusting!” (20:29)

In both Jn 1:51 and 20:29, the eventual seeing by the believer is contrasted with the disciple believing on the basis of an extraordinary or miraculous experience. Even the concrete evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (in the case of Thomas) should not be relied upon as the basis for faith and trust in Christ, but rather the word that bears witness to him and the Spirit that draws us to him.

It is a great wonder that, wherever you turn in the Gospel of John, there appears to be an almost limitless depth to the passage. Even a careful, objective treatment of individual words inevitably leads down into a wide expanse of meaning and spiritual significance. I hope that I have been able to offer some help in demonstrating how a study of both the words and context of the passage can serve as a reliable guide to exploration. For next week, I would exhort you to continue on in a similar manner, reading and studying the next two chapters of the Gospel as carefully and thoughtfully as you are able. It will prepare you for a discussion on one of the most familiar verses in all the New Testament, but one which is often cited without much consideration for its context in the Gospel. As you may have guessed, this is the world-famous John 3:16—and we will be looking at its context most carefully…next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 1:51

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John 1:51

Today I want to continue on in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, with a verse that is one of the most difficult to interpret in the entire book—the saying of Jesus in Jn 1:51. Unlike the situation in verses 18 and 34 (discussed the past two Saturdays), there is no question about the text of the verse. The Greek is secure and there really are no significant variant readings. But this only raises a different sort of critical question: how does one proceed when we are sure of the text, but the passage is still difficult to understand? Consider the saying itself as I give it here in a (literal) translation:

“And (Jesus) says to him [i.e. Nathanel]. ‘Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you [pl.] will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man’.”

This saying has proven sufficiently difficult and obscure for commentators throughout the years, resulting in a wide range of possible interpretations. To what, exactly, is Jesus referring here?

A fundamental question is whether the saying should be taken as a concrete prediction (of a future event), or a symbolic picture. If the former, then one must ask to which specific event or episode it refers; there are three possibilities—(1) a supernatural event witnessed by the disciples (similar to the Transfiguration), but otherwise unrecorded, (2) the resurrection and/or ascension, or (3) the future/end-time appearance of Christ. Given the similarities with key eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics, the third option makes most sense. Heavenly “Messengers” (i.e., Angels) are present in both the eschatological Son of Man sayings (Mk 13:26-27; Matt 13:41; 25:31, etc) and the resurrection/ascension scenes (Mk 16:5; Lk 24:23, etc; Acts 1:10f). However, neither of these seem to fit the context where the saying is set in John. If we are to understand the saying primarily as a symbolic picture—whether by the Gospel writer or Jesus himself—then there a number of possible associations or allusions which may be in mind.

An important part of Biblical criticism involves examining the intent of the author, as far as this can be determined. In order to do this, we must explore the verse from two vantage points, much as we did in studying the text of Jn 1:18 and 34. These two aspects are: (1) the specific language and terminology (i.e. the Greek words and syntax) used, and (2) the context—both the immediate context, and that of the Gospel as a whole. Today I will examine (1) the language and terminology, leaving (2) the context for next Saturday.

1. The language and terminology used in the saying

Interpretation should always be based on a careful study of the original language (here the Greek of the NT)—the specific words and phrases, and how they are used in the passage (i.e. the grammar and syntax). I will look briefly here at the significant words and phrases, in the order they appear in the verse.

[Amen, amen]—The Greek am¢n (a)mh/n) is a transliteration of the Hebrew °¹m¢n (/m@a*), an adverb which means something like “surely, certainly, truly”. As a Semitic idiom, it was used frequently by Jesus, and is often preserved in its Hebrew/Aramaic form in the Gospels (41 times in Matthew, 13 in Mark, and 6 in Luke). It occurs 25 times in John, always in the double form (“amen, amen…”) we see in 1:51. In this form, it tends to be used by Jesus when addressing his disciples (or would-be disciples) and declaring to them something of the utmost importance. A comparable form of address in English idiom might be something like: “You may be sure of this…”, “I tell you the truth when I say that…”, etc. The formula introduces key sayings in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, and often are central to the theological (and Christological) points being made by Jesus in his exposition (cf. Jn 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24-25; 6:26, 32, etc).

[you will see]—The Greek verb optanomai (o)pta/nomai) in the future tense commonly means “see”, though its concrete, fundamental meaning would be something like “look with (open) eyes”. The motif of seeing, especially the idea of seeing Jesus, has special theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John. Typically it refers to something more than the ordinary (sensory) experience of sight. There are too many passages to cite them all here—e.g., 1:14, 33-34; 3:3, 36; 6:36, 46, 62; 9:37ff; 11:9, etc. The future form (of optanomai) occurs 9 times elsewhere in the Gospel, the first being in 1:39, where it relates to the basic idea of the disciple encountering Jesus, and realizing something of his true identity. In 3:36 the context is the experience of salvation (i.e. eternal life) through faith/belief in Jesus. The context of 11:40 (the miracle of raising Lazarus) indicates that it primarily refers to witnessing the splendor of God manifest in the person of Jesus, by way of his life-giving (and miracle-working) power. The four occurrences in 16:16-22 are more difficult to decipher, due to the wordplay and dual-layered meaning running throughout the passage: of the disciples encountering Jesus (a) after his resurrection and/or (b) in the future, following his return to the Father.

[the heaven opened up]—The wording here is an echo of the earlier baptism scene (vv. 29-34). Even though John does not describe the heaven “opening up”, the Gospel writer (trad. John the Apostle) almost certainly was aware of the historical tradition (vv. 32-33). In the Synoptic account (Mk 1:10), we find the specific image, including the same verb (anoigœ, a)noi/gw, “open up”) in Luke’s version (3:21) as used here in v. 51. Elsewhere in John, this verb is often used in the idiom “open up (one’s) eyes”, as a reference again to the important theme of seeing.

[the Messengers of God]—”Messenger” is the proper translation of the Greek angelos (a&ggelo$), which is usually transliterated into English as “Angel”. Here, of course, it refers to God’s heavenly Messengers (Angels) rather than human messengers. As noted above, in the Gospels, Angels are associated both with the resurrection/ascension of Jesus (as in Jn 20:12), as well as a number of the eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics (cf. Mk 8:38; 13:26 par; Matt 16:27, etc). However, there is also here likely an allusion to Genesis 28:12.

[stepping up and stepping down]—The Greek verbs anabainœ (a)nabai/nw) and katabainœ (katabai/nw) are usually translated “ascend” and “descend”, but literally mean “step up” and “step down”, respectively. Both verbs are used frequently in the Gospel of John, and often with special theological (and Christological) significance. This will be discussed when addressing the context of v. 51 next Saturday. This is the first occurrence in the Gospel of anabainœ, but katabainœ was used earlier in the description of the Baptism scene (vv. 32-33), of the Spirit descending (lit. “stepping down”) upon Jesus. These two verbs are also used in the Greek (Septuagint) version of Gen 28:12, of the Angels ascending and descending upon (the ladder). This makes an allusion to that Old Testament tradition here all but certain.

[upon]—The preposition epi (e)pi/) here again relates to both the Baptism of Jesus (the Spirit descending upon him, vv. 32-33) and to the Gen 28:12 tradition.

[the Son of Man]—This is a translation of the Greek ho huios tou anthrœpou (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou). The expression is a Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) idiom which is generally synonymous with “Man”, referring to human beings or humankind, sometimes in the specific sense of human nature or the human condition. Jesus makes use of the expression in several special ways, which have been preserved in the Gospels. Two fundamental groups of “Son of Man” sayings relate to: (1) Jesus’ suffering and death, and (2) his appearance in glory at the end-time. Similarly, in the Gospel of John these two aspects are found in the (twelve) Son of Man sayings, though expressed in language and imagery that has special meaning in the context of the Johannine theology (and Christology). A number of Son of Man sayings involve the very verbs—anabainœ and katabainœ—used in this verse. I have recently discussed these sayings in a separate note, which may be helpful for you to read as part of this study.

Next week we will be examining the context of this verse more closely. In the meantime, I would recommend that you continue to study and meditate on Jesus’ saying. Based on what we have done so far—studying the specific words and phrases that are used—does this offer you any new insights on the meaning and significance of the verse? You may wish to write these down, or at least keep them in mind as we continue…and I will see you next Saturday.

Note of the Day – March 28 (Jn 1:51; 3:13-14; 8:38; 12:23, etc)

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Having discussed the various Son of Man sayings and references in the Synoptic Gospels in the previous notes, today I will survey the sayings in the Gospel of John. None of the Synoptic sayings occur, as such, in John; as in most cases, the Fourth Gospel draws upon a separate line of tradition. However, there are some interesting parallels. As in the Synoptics, the Son of Man sayings have undergone relatively little development in John. Any adaptation that has taken place has primarily been to emphasize particular words or concepts which are common to the Gospel’s unique mode of expression. There are twelve distinct Son of Man sayings, the first of which is perhaps the most difficult.

John 1:51

“Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you will see [o&yesqe] the heavens opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon the Son of Man”

I have discussed this enigmatic verse in some detail in an earlier note, and will deal with it again this Saturday (as part of the running “Saturday Series”). Here I summarize the results of the study previously published.

I am very much inclined to the view that the saying of John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:

  • The clear parallels with the Baptism (cf. the earlier note), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation); the location of Jn 1:51 also strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
  • Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
  • Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (esp. in the Synoptic tradition); however, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (i.e. divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent (cf. above).
  • The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel, expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involving parallel confessions:
    Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
    Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
    Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
  • In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (o&yesqe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. Note the parallel with 20:29:
    • “because I said to you that I saw [ei@don] you… you trust?
      you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God… upon the Son of Man” (1:51)
    • “because you have seen [e(w/raka$] me you trust?
      Happy/blessed are the ones not seeing [i)do/nte$] and (yet) trusting!” (20:29)

The comprehensive nature of the Son of Man reference in 1:51 is paralleled by two key sayings toward the end of the ministry period (in John, the so-called “Book of Signs” chaps 2-12), which also serve to introduce the great Last Discourse (chs. 13-17) and Passion Narrative. Both of these sayings use the verb doca/zw (doxázœ), “give (or regard with) esteem, honor”, etc, i.e. “glorify”, related to the noun do/ca (dóxa, usually translated “glory”).

John 12:23; 13:31

  • John 12:23: “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be honored/glorified [docasqh=]”—the primary context in this passage is to Jesus’ upcoming death (cf. below).
  • John 13:31: “Now the Son of Man is honored/glorified [e)doca/sqh], and the Father is honored/glorified in him”—this saying effectively begins the great Discourses of chapters 13-17, and is tied throughout to the idea that Son is about to go away: a dual-layered reference to his death and his return to the Father.

For additional occurrences of the verb doca/zw in reference to Jesus (or the Son) being glorified, cf. John 7:39; 8:54; 11:4; 12:16; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1, 4-5, 10. This “glory” covers both aspects of Jesus’ Passion—his death and his resurrection. In classic Christian theology this duality is often referred to as the two “states” of Christ—his humiliation and exaltation. However, in Johannine terminology, it is better understood as a descent to earth (i.e. the incarnation) leading all the way to death, followed by an ascent to heaven (including the resurrection), back to the Father.

This two-fold process of Jesus’ glorification is expressed in two distinct groups of Son of Man sayings. The first group involves the verb u(yo/w (hypsóœ, “make/place high”, i.e. “raise, lift up”); the second uses the related pair of verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw (“step up” and “step down”, i.e. “ascend”, “descend”).

John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34: “lift (up) high”

  • John 3:14: “so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai]”—the comparison is with the ‘fiery’ copper/bronze serpent lifted by Moses (on a pole) which brought healing (from the burning snakebite) to all who looked at it (Num 21:9); the reference is primarily to Jesus’ death (on the stake/cross), but almost certainly has his resurrection and exaltation in mind as well (cf. below). This is described in terms of salvation: “…so that every one trusting in him might have (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]”.
  • John 8:28: “when you (have) lifted high [u(yw/shte] the Son of Man…”—the formulation here (“when you…”) indicates more precisely Jesus being put to death (on the stake/cross), but again the subsequent exaltation is also in view. Throughout the discourse(s) of chapters 7-8, Jesus has been expressing, in various ways, his relationship to (and identification with) God the Father; here specifically Jesus states that when they have lifted up the Son of Man “…then you will know that I am, and I do nothing from myself, but just as the Father taught me, (so) I speak these things”. In verse 26, this is also described in terms of judgment, which is associated with the eschatological Son of Man figure of many of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptics.
  • John 12:32: “and if I am lifted high [u(ywqw=] I will drag all (people/things) toward me”—this is related to the previous sayings (especially 3:14), as well as to the Son of Man saying in 12:23 (cf. above). The context is specifically that of Jesus’ impending death (and resurrection), again relating to the promise of salvation and eternal life (vv. 24-25, 27-28, 33, 36).
  • John 12:34: “you say that it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high…”—this is part of a question to Jesus from the crowd, referring (in context) to verse 32, but more properly it cites the saying in 3:14 (above). There is a clear connection with the “Anointed (One)”, and expresses some confusion on the part of the people in the crowd as to just what Jesus means by the expression Son of Man—”…who is this ‘Son of Man’?”

These are the only instances of the verb in John; for similar usage elsewhere, cf. Acts 2:33; 5:31.

John 3:13; 6:62 (with 6:27, 53): “descend / ascend”

  • John 1:51: “You will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man”—on this saying, cf. above.
  • John 3:13: “no one has stepped up into heaven if not the one stepping down out of heaven, the Son of Man”—this saying is obviously related to that of verse 14 (cf. above); it identifies/contrasts a person being raised/exalted to heavenly status with one who has (first) come down out of heaven. The implication is that Jesus is not simply a human being who has been (or will be) raised to a heavenly/divine position, but was previously in heaven (with God) before coming to earth. This, of course, is stated clearly in the Prologue of John (1:1ff) and indicated throughout the Gospel by Jesus; in precise theological terms, it refers to the (divine) pre-existence of Jesus. This is made even more definite in the manuscripts which read “…the Son of Man, the (one) being in Heaven”.
  • John 6:62: “then (what) if you should behold the Son of Man stepping up [a)nabai/nonta] (to) where he was (at) the first?”
    This saying is part of the great Bread of Life discourse in John 6:27-71, which I have discussed in considerable detail in prior articles. Especially noteworthy are the references to the bread that has come down (lit “stepped down”) from Heaven (vv. 33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58), which in context clearly symbolizes Jesus (the Son of Man) who has stepped down from Heaven (i.e. the incarnation), and who will soon step back up into Heaven (back to the Father) from whence he came (v. 62). As in 3:13 (above), this indicates a pre-existent, heavenly status in relationship to God, and must be understood in light of the many references throughout the Gospel—especially in the discourses of chapters 13-17—where Jesus speaks of the Son coming from and going (back) to the Father. There is, of course, eucharistic symbolism in the bread—broken down into the dual image of eating his body and drinking his blood. This is expressed in the Son of Man sayings in vv. 27, 53, associated specifically with Jesus’ sacrificial death:

    • John 6:27: “work…for the food th(at) remains in the Life of Ages [i.e. eternal life], which the Son of Man will give to you”
    • John 6:53: “if you do not consume the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not hold Life in yourself”

All of these sayings which speak of Jesus’ glorification through the dualistic imagery of death and resurrection, descent and ascent, along with the two-fold meaning of being “lifted (up) high”, as they run through the Gospel narrative, have a general parallel with the Passion predictions by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (cf. the earlier note). In those declarations, reference to the suffering and death of the Son of Man is followed by the announcement of his resurrection. In a similar way, the death of Jesus, indicated by his “trial” before the Sanhedrin, prefigures his exaltation (cf. Mk 14:62 par). The Synoptic Gospels use these three Passion predictions (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par) as a framing device for the narrative. However, in the Gospel of John, the Son of Man sayings serve rather a different purpose, which is primarily theological and Christological. However, there are two Son of Many sayings in John which draw more clearly upon the traditional imagery found in the Synoptics.

John 5:27; 9:35

  • John 5:26-27: “For (even) as the Father holds life in himself, so also he gave the Son to hold life in himself; and he [i.e. the Father] gave him authority [e)cousi/a] to make judgment, (in) that [i.e. because] he is the Son of Man”
  • John 9:35: “Do you trust in the Son of Man?” (other manuscripts read “…in the Son of God“)

The first saying (5:27) identifies the Son of Man with the end-time Judgment, as we see in many of the Synoptic sayings (cf. the previous two notes). Yet consider the way Jesus expounds this traditional association in the Johannine discourse. The statement in v. 27 essentially identifies Jesus with the heavenly “Son of Man” figure-type (Dan 7:13, etc), much as we find in the Synoptics:

  • V. 27—”He [i.e. God the Father] gave him [i.e. Jesus] authority to make judgment, because he [i.e. Jesus] is the Son of Man

At the same time, the statement in v. 26 brings out the distinctly Johannine idea of Jesus as the divine/eternal Son (of God), in his unique relation to (God) the Father:

  • V. 26—”Just as the Father holds Life in himself, so also he gave (it) to the Son to hold Life in himself”

The saying in 9:35 is rather different; Jesus addresses the man whose sight was restored: “Do you trust in the Son of Man?”. As noted above, some manuscripts read “Son of God” instead of “Son of Man”, perhaps reflecting a point in time when copyists no longer understood the expression “Son of Man” and wished to stress the deity of Christ as the point of belief. However, as we have seen, Jesus often used the expression “Son of Man” as a self-reference, as if to say, in this instance, “Do you trust in me?” Yet, even people at the time seem to have had difficulty understanding Jesus’ use of the expression “Son of Man”, if we accept the authenticity of the crowd’s response in 12:34, and the question of the healed man here in v. 36: “Who is he, (my) lord, that I may trust in him?” Jesus’ immediate answer (v. 37) perfectly encapsulates the Johannine theology which associates belief (and salvation) with seeing Jesus—that is, coming to recognize just who Jesus is, his true identity.

It is worth noting that each of these last two sayings are set in the context of traditional healing miracle episodes, and thus are perhaps closer to the Son of Man sayings which occur in the Synoptics (from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative) during the period of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. With these sayings we bring this portion of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, dealing with the Galilean Period, to a close. It may serve as yet another reminder of the many rich and powerful ways that the traditions were developed—a fact, and a theme, that we will continue to explore as we enter into the next major portion of this series: the Passion Narrative.

Saturday Series: John 1:34

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John 1:34

Today we will be looking at another example from the first chapter of John, which involves a key textual variant (or variant reading), much as we saw last week with verse 18. A bit later on in the chapter, at verse 34, we find the following declaration (by John the Baptist):

“And I have seen and have given witness that this (man) is the <…> of God

The textual unit involving the variant is marked in bold, while the specific variant is indicated by the placeholder with angle brackets. There are two main variant readings for this unit:

  1. “…the Elect/Chosen One of God” (ho eklektos tou theou)
  2. “…the Son of God” (ho huios tou theou)

The conflated reading “…the Elect/Chosen Son of God”, found in a few witnesses, is clearly secondary and can be disregarded; however, it does show that both readings above were familiar to certain copyists. If you followed the study on Jn 1:18 the past two Saturdays, you are aware of the importance of analyzing such variant readings, so that our examination of the Scripture is founded upon a clear understanding of the text. Let us follow the approach taken in that earlier study, beginning with the external (manuscript) evidence.

1. The External Evidence. The manuscript evidence clearly favors the second reading above (“the Son [huios] of God”). It is the reading of the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, versions, and other textual witnesses. By contrast, the first reading (“the Elect/Chosen One [eklektos] of God”) is found in only a couple of manuscripts (Papyrus 5, and the original copyist of Codex Sinaiticus [a]), along with a few early translations (Latin and Syriac versions). Normally, such overwhelming external evidence would decide the question; however, in this case, the matter is not quite so straightforward.

2. Transcriptional Probability. This refers to the tendencies of copyists—i.e., which reading was more likely to be changed/altered during the process of copying? Unlike the situation with Jn 1:18, there is no real indication that the reading in v. 34 would have been changed by accident; almost certainly, the alteration was conscious and/or intentional. But in which direction is the change more likely? From “Elect/Chosen One” to “Son”, or the other way around? Here it would seem that the evidence decisively favors the first reading above (“Elect/Chosen One”), on the principle difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). In other words, scribes are more likely to have changed a difficult or less familiar reading to one which is easier/familiar. Both in the Gospel of John, and throughout the New Testament, “Son of God” is far more common than the title “Elect/Chosen One of God”, and would be more easily understood as a title of Jesus by early Christians. It also fits better the parallel with the Baptism scene in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:11 par).

3. Style and Usage of the Author. The adjective eklektos (e)klekto/$, “elect/chosen”) does not occur elsewhere in the Gospel of John, but the related verb eklegomai (e)klegomai, “choose”, literally “gather out”) is used five times, all by Jesus, and always in reference to the disciples, i.e. as those chosen by him (6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19). Indeed, throughout the New Testament, both the adjective (as a noun) and the verb are typically used of believers (Matt 13:20; 22:14; Lk 6:13; 18:7; Acts 1:2; Rom 8:33; 1 Cor 1:27-28; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:1, etc), and only rarely of Jesus (Lk 9:35; 23:35; cf. below). By contrast, Jesus refers to himself as “the Son” many times in the Gospel of John. The title “Son of God” is less frequent, but still occurs 8 times, declared by others (Jn 1:49; 11:27; 19:7; 20:31) as often as by Jesus himself (3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4). It is also relative common (7 times) in 1 John (3:8; 4:15; 5:5, 10-13, 20). A consideration of style and vocabulary would thus tend to favor the reading “Son of God” in Jn 1:34.

4. The Context (1:19-51). Jn 1:19-51 is the first main section of the Gospel after the Prologue (vv. 1-18). It is comprised of four smaller sections, or narrative episodes, which are joined together, using the literary device of setting the four episodes on four successive days. This may be outlined as follows:

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

The first “Day” involves the question of John the Baptist’s identity. He specifically denies any identification with three figures or titles—”the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah), “Elijah”, and “the Prophet”. The last two relate to a Messianic Prophet figure-type, drawn from the Old Testament figures of Elijah and Moses (Deut 18:15-20); for more on this subject, see Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. It is not entirely clear whether “the Anointed One” refers to a Messiah generally, a Messianic Prophet, or the traditional Messianic ruler from the line of David; based on the overall context of vv. 29-51, the latter is more likely.

The second and third “Days” follow a similar pattern; each begin with John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (vv. 29, 36). Each ends with a distinct declaration regarding Jesus’ identity. The declaration of the second day is that of verse 34; that of the third day again involves the title Messiah—”We have found the Messiah!” (v. 41), where the Hebrew word M¹šîaµ is transliterated as Messias (before being translated, “Anointed One” [Christos]). This common Messianic theme would perhaps suggest that the reading “Chosen/Elect One” is to be preferred, since this title (presumably derived from Isa 42:1) is more directly Messianic than is “Son of God”. This is certainly the case with its use in Lk 9:35 and 23:35, the only other occurrences in the New Testament where the title is applied to Jesus.

However, a careful examination of the fourth “Day” (vv. 43-51) points in the opposite direction. Here the declaration regarding Jesus’ identity, made by Nathanael (v. 49), is two-fold:

“You are the the Son of God, you are the King of Israel

The thematic and narrative structure suggests that these two titles are parallel to those in the declarations of the 2nd and 3rd days:

  • “Son of God” = “<Chosen | Son> of God” (v. 34)
  • “King of Israel” = “Messiah” (v. 41)

The parallelism would tend to favor “Son” in v. 34, if only slightly. This, along with the overwhelming external manuscript evidence (in favor of “Son”), makes it the preferred reading. Still, the matter is far from decisive, and it is worth keeping the variant “Elect/Chosen One” well in mind whenever you read this passage. Consider how the two titles (and concepts) are closely intertwined in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration scene, in which the voice from Heaven declares (according to the best manuscripts):

“This is my Son, the Elect/Chosen One [ho eklelegmenos]…” (9:35)

The Transfiguration scene, of course, parallels the earlier Baptism scene in the Synoptic Gospels, in which the voice from Heaven makes a similar declaration (in Matthew they are identical). Now, the Gospel of John only narrates the Baptism indirectly (vv. 29-34), through the testimony of John the Baptist, who witnesses the visionary phenomena. His declaration is in the same climactic position as the Divine/Heavenly voice in the Synoptics:

Yet consider, too, a comparison with the variant reading from John—

  • “You are My Son…” / “This is My Son…”
  • “This is the Chosen One of God” (Jn 1:34 v.l.)

which matches the words of the heavenly voice in Lk 9:35:

“You are my Son, the Chosen One”

This declaration, in turn, is an echo of Isaiah 42:1, where God speaks of “My Servant [±e»ed]…my Chosen (One) [baµîr]…”. In Greek, ±e»ed is translated by pais, which can also mean “child”—”my Child” is obviously close in meaning to “my Son“. At the same time, baµîr is translated by eklektos, the same word used in Jn 1:34 v.l. (and related to that in Lk 9:35).

By carelessly choosing one variant reading, and ignoring the other, we risk missing out on an important aspect of the text, and the historical (Gospel) traditions which underlie it. Next Saturday, I will be examining an even more difficult verse from the first chapter of John. It does not involve a variant reading; however, it, even more than verse 34, requires a careful study of the Greek words as they are used in context, in order to decipher its meaning. I recommend that you read and study the entire first chapter again, all the way through to verse 51. Think and meditate upon all that you find, and begin to ask yourself what Jesus’ enigmatic saying in verse 51 could mean…

…and I will see you next Saturday.

Note of the Day – March 18 (John 6:22-59)

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John 6:22-59

Today’s note will look at the relationship between the Feeding Miracle tradition (6:1-15) and the Bread of Life discourse (6:22-59) in the Gospel of John. There are three motifs from the Miracle tradition which are developed in the following discourse:

  1. The Passover setting—which is unique to John’s account, though Mk 6:39 could also indicate springtime.
  2. The eating of Bread, and
  3. The Eucharist (on these allusions, cf. the previous note)

These three themes run through the discourse, but it may be said that each dominates one of the three main sections. Verses 22-24 serve as the narrative introduction to the discourse, and are transitional, joining the discourse with the Feeding Miracle, etc, in vv. 1-21. Each of the three main sections builds on the dialogue/discourse format used in the Gospel—

  • Saying of Jesus
  • Reaction/question by the people, indicating some level of misunderstanding
  • Explanation/Exposition by Jesus

In addition, the three sections are joined together, forming a larger discourse, by way of a step-parallel thematic technique:

  • Miracle of the bread-loaves —>
    • Passover: manna / bread from heaven —>
      • Eating bread: Jesus the “bread from heaven”, Bread of Life —>
        • Jesus the Living Bread —>
          • Eucharist: eating his flesh/blood leads to (eternal) Life

Section 1 (vv. 25-34)

  • Principal saying by Jesus—verse 27:
    “Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]…”
  • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 29
  • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 28-31
  • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 32-33
  • Theme: transition from the Feeding Miracle (v. 26) to the Passover motif (i.e. the manna, “bread from heaven”, vv. 31-33)

Section 2 (vv. 35-50)

  • Saying by Jesus—verse 35:
    “I am [e)gw\ ei)mi] the Bread of Life—the one coming toward me (no) he will not (ever) hunger, and the one trusting into me (no) he will not ever thirst. …”
  • [Explanation by Jesus]—vv. 36-40
  • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 41-42
  • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 44-50
  • Theme: Eating Bread—Jesus as the “Bread of Life”, the Bread come down from Heaven

Section 3 (vv. 51-58)

  • Saying by Jesus—verse 51a (parallel to v. 35):
    “I am [e)gw\ ei)mi] the Living Bread stepping down [i.e. coming down] out of Heaven—if any one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age (to Come)…”
  • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 51b
  • Reaction/question by the people—v. 52
  • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 53-58
  • Theme: transition from Bread (of Life) to the Eucharist motifs (vv. 53-56ff)

I will not here discuss the rich texture and theology of the discourse; this has been done in some detail in an earlier note. The outline above is meant to demonstrate how the Gospel writer has developed the Feeding Miracle tradition, by making it part of the larger Bread of Life discourse, much as he did with healing miracle (and Sabbath controversy) episode in chapter 5. The Discourses of Jesus in John are complex and difficult to analyze, due to the sophisticated way that authentic historical traditions have been adapted and interpreted within the Johannine literary style/format (i.e. of the Discourses). This compositional style can be seen at many different points in the Gospel. Compare, for example, the close similarity of structure, language and ideas, between Jesus’ exchange with the Samaritan woman (4:9-15) and that of 6:25-34 (above, cf. also Brown, p. 267). The parallel between Jesus as the living water (ch. 4) and the living bread (ch. 6) is unmistakable, and is clearly intentional within the context of the Gospel.

Also most difficult is the relation between the Bread of Life and Eucharist symbolism in second and third sections (vv. 35-58) of the discourse. As challenging as these passages have been for Christians throughout the ages, Jesus’ words must have been completely baffling to the first hearers, if we accept the essential historicity of the discourse (v. 59). Indeed, this is a prominent theme of the Discourses in John—the misunderstanding of his words by the people who hear him. The explanation by Jesus, within in the discourse format, expounds the true (and deeper) meaning of his words, much as we see him, on occasion in the Synoptics, explaining his sayings and parables to the disciples in private (Mk 4:10-20 par, etc).

John 6:60-65ff

As it happens, John records a similar sort of “private” explanation by Jesus to the disciples in vv. 60-65. This comes in addition to the exposition(s) within the discourse proper; as such, vv. 60ff functions as an epilogue or appendix to the discourse. There is a loose parallel, perhaps, to this in 4:31-38. Verses 60-65 have greatly complicated interpretation of the discourse (particularly the eucharistic motifs in vv. 51-58), since they contain a distinctly spiritual explanation of Jesus’ words. This section may be outlined as follows:

  • Reaction by the disciples (i.e. to the discourse)—v. 60
    “This account [i.e. word/discourse] is hard/harsh; who is able to hear it?”
  • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 61-65, which is framed by a question and a statement directed toward his disciples:
    “Does this trip you (up)?” (v. 61b)
    “But there are some of you that do not trust (in me)” (v. 64a)

The explanation in vv. 62-63 is comprised of three sayings, which must be taken together:

“Then if you should look upon the Son of Man stepping up to where he was at (the) first(, how will you react)?” (v. 62)
“The Spirit is th(at which) makes (one a)live; the flesh does not help (in) anything” (v. 63a)
“The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you (they) are Spirit and Life” (v. 63b)

The first saying (a rhetorical question) emphasizes the divine origin of the “Son of Man” (Jesus), and foreshadows his departure back to the Father. It is at the time of his departure that the Spirit will come to the disciples (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:13-15; 20:22-23; cf. also 8:39). The second saying clearly states that the Spirit (of God, and Christ) is that which gives life; the flesh plays no role, or is of no use in this. In the third saying, Jesus identifies his words with the Spirit and with the life the Spirit gives. The disciples, at this point in the narrative, could not possibly understand the significance of these things, since they foreshadowed events which had not taken place. They simply had to trust Jesus. This is the emphasis of verses 64-65, and in the tradition which follows (vv. 66-71). Not all of Jesus’ disciples truly trust in him, but only those chosen and given to Jesus by the Father (i.e. the Elect believers). Here the author seems to have joined to the discourse a separate tradition, with similarities to several found in the Synoptics—i.e., the calling of the Twelve (cf. Mk 3:13-19 par) and the confession by Peter (vv. 68-69; cp. Mk 8:29 par). On the latter point, compare Peter’s words in Mk 8:29/Lk 9:20 and Jn 6:69 respectively:

“You are the Anointed One [xristo$] of God”
“You are the Holy One [a%gio$] of God”

It is another example (among many) of how the Synoptic and Johannine traditions are so very similar, and yet, at the same time, so very different.

References marked “Brown” above are to R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29 (1966).

Note of the Day – March 17 (John 6:11ff, 16-21)

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Having discussed John’s version the Miraculous Feeding episode in the previous note, before proceeding to the Bread of Life discourse, it is necessary to examine briefly two aspects of the Feeding Miracle tradition:

  1. Its connection to the Walking on Water episode, and
  2. The eucharistic allusions in the tradition

The Walking on Water (Mk 6:45-52; Matt 14:22-33; Jn 6:16-21)

The episode of Jesus walking on the water follows directly after the Feeding miracle, both in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark/Matthew) and in John. Being thus preserved in two separate lines of tradition, it would seem that the Feeding miracle and the Walking on Water were connected at a very early point. Mark and Matthew follow the same basic narrative, the main difference being the Matthean addition in vv. 28-31 (involving Peter’s walking on the water out to Jesus). Mark certainly has the earlier form of the tradition, confirmed by the parallel in John. The common elements of the tradition are:

  • Jesus goes up the mountain (to be) alone—Mk 6:46 / Jn 6:15b; however, there are two (very) different explanations for Jesus’ departure:
    —Synoptic: Mk 6:45-46a
    —John: 6:14-15a
  • The disciples go out by boat across the lake, though with a different geographical location indicated:
    —to Bethsaida (Mk 6:45)
    —to Capernaum (Jn 6:16-17)
  • At evening, the boat is in the middle of the lake—the wind is rough and the disciples are (having difficulty) rowing—Mk 6:47-48a / Jn 6:16-19a
  • The separation between Jesus and the disciples is indicated
  • After a time/distance, they see Jesus coming to them, walking on the water—Mk 6:48b-49a / Jn 6:19a
  • The disciples are frightened by the sight of him—Mk 6:49b-50 / Jn 6:19b
  • Jesus tells them not to be afraid (Greek: e)gw\ ei)mi mh fobei=sqe)—Mk 6:50b / Jn 6:20
  • Jesus comes into the boat and a miracle occurs—Mk 6:51 / Jn 6:21

Mark’s ending probably reflects the original tradition. John’s account has been adapted to fit the verses following (22-23ff) which join the Bread of Life discourse to this episode. Mk 6:52 is an addition, most likely by the author, which points back to the feeding miracle.

The inclusion of the Walking-on-the-Water episode in John causes some difficulty for the author, in terms of joining the Bread of Life discourse to the Feeding miracle. The awkwardness of verses 22-23 is largely the result of his inclusion of the Walking-on-Water episode (vv. 16-21). He clearly felt compelled to include it, which indicates again the strength of the (early) Gospel tradition. Even so, there are several (subtle) details which demonstrate Johannine adaptation of this traditional episode:

  • When the disciples are out on the water, John specifically states that there was darkness [skoti/a] (v. 17). There is definite theological significance to this word in the Gospel of John, where darkness is contrasted with Christ as the light (1:5; 8:12; 12:35, 46; cf. also 20:1, and note 1 Jn 1:5; 2:8-11). The reason for the darkness is clearly stated: “Jesus had not yet come toward them”.
  • In the Synoptic version, the storm/wind is decidedly negative—it is something against which the disciples struggle (Mk 6:48), and which Jesus’ presence immediately calms (v. 51). These details are absent from John’s version; there the storm/wind seems to function as a kind of theophany, marking the presence and appearance of Jesus, prior to his coming near the boat (vv. 18-19).
  • The presence of Jesus is signified by his words to the disciples—e)gw ei)mi mh fobei=sqe (“It is I! do not be afraid!”). The words are identical in the Synoptics and John, being part of the original tradition. However, in John, they take on deeper significance. The expression e)gw ei)mi could also be rendered “I am (he)”, “I am (Jesus)”, or, literally, “I am”. As such, the expression appears numerous times in John, in the famous “I Am” sayings of Jesus, which begin with the Bread of Life discourse (v. 35). This is the second occurrence of e)gw ei)mi, spoken by Jesus, in the Gospel (cf. 4:26, and compare 1:20-21; 3:28).

The Eucharistic Allusions

Let us begin with Mark’s account (Mk 6:30-44); the key verse is v. 41:

“And taking [labw\n] the five bread-loaves and the two fish (and) looking up into the heaven, he gave good account to [i.e. blessed eu)lo/ghsen] (God) and broke down [kate/klasen] the bread-loaves and gave [e)di/dou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside them [i.e. the people], and the fish he divided (among) them all”

Matthew’s account (Matt 14:13-21, v. 19) is simpler, but shows only minor differences, most notably perhaps the use of kla/w (“break”) instead of the compound verb katakla/w (“break down”). Luke’s version (Lk 9:10-17) of this verse (v. 16) is almost identical with Mark.

On the surface, there might not seem to be much relation to the Eucharist here; after all, there is no mention of a cup, nothing to suggest symbolism of Jesus’ body (or blood), plus the mention of fish—is there actually a connection to the Lord’s supper? The answer is yes, and there are several reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.

1. The Greek verbs used

Look at the Greek verbs indicated in square brackets in Mk 6:41 above, and you will see that, with just one slight variation, they are the same verbs (and in the same sequence) used to describe Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22 par):

“And in their eating, taking [labw\n] bread (and) giving good account [eu)logh/sa$] (to God), he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said, ‘Take (it)—this is my body'”

The only difference is that there, instead of the verb katakla/w (kataklᜠ“break down”), the simple verb kla/w (klᜠ“break”) is used, as in Matthew’s account of the feeding of the five thousand (cf. above). As I pointed out in an earlier note, the same sequence of four verbs also is used in the Emmaus scene, when the disciples finally recognize the presence of Jesus in their midst:

Lk 24:30: “And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labw/n] the bread he gave good account [i.e. blessed eu)lo/ghsen] and, breaking [kla/sa$] (it), he gave [e)pedi/dou] (it) to them…”

2. Textual evidence from the Feeding of the Four Thousand

In some ways, the wording in the Markan account of the feeding of the Four thousand (Mk 8:1-9, v. 6) is even closer to that of Jesus’ acts of institution at the Last Supper:

“And taking [labw\n] the seven bread-loaves (and) giving (words of) good favor [i.e. giving thanks eu)xaristh/sa$] (over it), he broke [e)kla/sen] (them) and gave [e)di/dou] (them) to [his] learners [i.e. disciples] to set alongside (the people)…”

The parallel version in Matthew (Matt 15:32-39, v. 36) differs little. Interestingly, in Mark 8:7, in Jesus’ handling of the fish, there is a textual variant—some manuscripts read eu)xariste/w, others read eu)loge/w. The verb eu)xariste/w (eucharistéœ, “give/grant good favor, give thanks, be thankful/grateful”) also appears in Jesus’ acts of institution as recorded by Luke (Lk 22:17, 19) and Paul (1 Cor 11:24); it is also used in John’s account of miraculous feeding (Jn 6:11).

3. The Context in the Gospel of John

If we compare the wording in Jn 6:11

“Therefore Yeshua took [e&laben] the bread-loaves and giving (words of) good favor [i.e. giving thanks, eu)xaristh/sa$] (over it), he gave throughout [die/dwken] to the ones (having) lain back [i.e. lain/sat down]…

it is noteworthy that we do not find nearly so close a parallel to Jesus actions at the Last Supper. Noticeably missing is any mention of breaking the bread (though “broken pieces” [kla/smata] are mentioned in v. 12). This may well be an indication that John has inherited an early form of the tradition which was not yet shaped to fit the eucharistic imagery to the same extent (as we see it preserved in the Synoptics). However, the Johannine form of the narrative would have a considerable influence on Eucharistic formulae and imagery in the early Church, as we shall see below.

The miraculous feeding episode in John serves as the basic setting for the great “Bread of Life” discourse which follows in Jn 6:22-59, a discourse in which most commentators find at least some reference to the Eucharist (especially in vv. 53-58). This will be discussed in the next daily note.

4. Early Christian tradition

Here I will limit discussion to several points and one or two references which show that early Christians understood a definite Eucharistic aspect or element to the miraculous feeding episode.

  1. The Johannine context. As mentioned above, the miraculous feeding is followed by the Bread of Life discourse, which has certain eucharistic elements. While the extent to which the eucharistic aspect applies to the meaning and intent of Jesus’ original words may be debated, there can be no doubt that Christians early on made the association. The Gospel of John is best dated somewhere between 70-90, and may include a late (c. 90-95) redaction.
  2. As discussed in an earlier note, the “breaking (of) bread” appears to have served as a kind of shorthand reference to the Eucharist. In virtually every instance in the New Testament where the breaking of bread is mentioned, there appears to be some connection to the Lord’s Supper. By way of “catch-word (or catch-image) bonding”, any occurrence of breaking bread in the narrative would likely have been associated with the Eucharist from a very early time on.
  3. The use of the verb eu)xariste/w in John’s account (as in the Synoptic feeding of the four thousand) may have helped to increase the use of the verb in association with the Eucharist (a word which, of course, derives from a transliteration of the related noun eu)xaristi/a [eucharistía]).
  4. There are a number of parallels between John’s account of the miraculous feeding and references to the Eucharist in the so-called Didache (or “Teaching” [of the Twelve Apostles]).
  • The Bread is simply called kla/sma (plur. kla/smata), “broken (piece[s])” in Didache 9:3-4 as in the feeding miracle (cf. Jn 6:12)
  • Note especially the prayer in Did 9:4:

“As this broken (bread) was scattered throughout up above (on) the mountains and was brought together (and) became one, thus may your called-out (people) [i.e. church/ekklesia] be brought together from the ends/limits of the earth into your Kingdom…”

With the following details:

  • The bread scattered on the mountains (the mountain setting in Jn 6:3 [cf. also Matt 15:29]).
  • The verb translated “brought together” (suna/gw) is the same used in Jn 6:12-13 for the gathering up of the fragments (kla/smata). The same verb is also used in a Eucharistic setting in Did 14:1. The image of the (twelve) disciples gathering up the twelve baskets of fragments “so that nothing might be lost” [Jn 6:12b] was a suitable symbol of Church Unity, as the Didache clearly indicates.
  • The mention of the Kingdom (of God/Christ); perhaps coincidentally, John’s account is the only one which makes any reference to a king (v. 14f).
  • Note the three relevant details in succession in Didache 14:1:

“having been brought together [sunaxqe/nte$], break bread [kla/sate a&rton] and give good favor [eu)xaristh/sate—i.e. technically ‘celebrate the thanksgiving/eucharist‘]

Despite the name ascribed to the writing, the Didache is almost certainly not a product of the Apostles. It is typically dated sometime between 125-150 A.D., but may possibly preserve earlier tradition. It is a “church manual” of sorts, and provides at least a partial glimpse of what early Christianity may have been like in the first half of the second century (a generation or two after the later writings of the New Testament).

Saturday Series: John 1:18 (continued)

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Last week I looked at John 1:18, and the three textual variants (or variant readings) in the verse: monogen¢s theos, monogen¢s huios, and monogen¢s . A consideration of these different readings is essential for a correct understanding of this key verse, which is the climactic declaration of the Prologue of John, 1:1-18. But which reading is most likely to be the original? We can probably eliminate monogen¢s alone as a candidate. While attractive as an explanation for the rise of the other two readings, the lack of manuscript support makes it difficult to accept as original. This would leave the readings which include theos (“God”) or huios (“Son”). As I indicated last week, there is strong evidence for each of these.

In textual criticism, there are two aspects which must be considered: (1) the external evidence for a reading, and (2) the internal evidence. By “external evidence” is meant the actual documents in which the particular reading appears (especially the earliest Greek manuscripts). By “internal evidence” we mean all of the various factors which make a particular reading more or less likely to be original. There are three main factors to be considered: (a) transcriptional probability (that is, the tendencies of copyists), (b) the overall style of the author, and (c) the context of the particular passage. The external evidence for these two readings is fairly evenly divided:

  • monogen¢s huios (“only Son“) is read by the majority of manuscripts and versions, etc, spanning a wide (geographic) range by the 3rd century A.D., and including several of the major (early) manuscripts.
  • monogen¢s theos (“only God [born?]”) is the reading of some the “earliest and best” Greek manuscripts, including the Bodmer Papyri (66 and 75).

So, we turn to the three main kinds of internal evidence:

a. Transcriptional probability. When considering the tendencies of copyists, the question must be asked whether a change from one form of the text to another—i.e. from “God” to “Son” or vice versa—occurred by accident or was intentional. For those interested, I have posted a special note discussing the possibility of an accidental change. However, if the change was conscious and/or intentional, we must ask in which direction this most likely occurred. Here, too, the evidence is divided:

  • On the one hand, copyists were more likely to “correct” the text from the rare/difficult reading to one which is more familiar or easier to understand. Here, the choice is obvious: monogen¢s huios (i.e. “only son”) is by far the more natural and straightforward expression, while monogen¢s theos (“only [born?] God”) is quite unusual and rather difficult to interpret.
  • On the other hand, Christian scribes were always much more likely to alter the text to present a more exalted view of Christ, rather than the other way around. From this standpoint, a change from “Son” to “God” is more probable than from “God” to “Son”.

b. The Author’s style and usage. The word monogen¢s, “only (one born)” occurs three other times in the Gospel of John; twice in the discourse of chapter 3:

  • “For God loved the world this (way): so (that) he (even) gave his only Son…” (Jn 3:16)
  • “…the one not trusting has already been judged, (in) that [i.e. because] he has not trusted in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18)

In these two references, monogen¢s is used together with huios (“son”), in order to refer to Jesus as the “only Son” of God (i.e. God’s only Son). The other occurrence also comes from the Prologue (1:14):

“And the Word [Logos] came to be flesh and put down a tent [i.e. dwelt] among us, and we looked/gazed (upon) his splendor—(the) splendor as of (the) only (born Son) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth”

Here monogen¢s is used alone, as a kind of substantive—”the only (one)”, “the only (son)”. The reference to “a father” (or “the Father”), would seem to indicate that the word “Son” is implied in context. If there were better manuscript support for monogen¢s alone in verse 18 (see above), it might be confirmed by this usage in v. 14.

We should also note 1 John 4:9, similar in thought and wording to Jn 3:16, which uses huios (“son”) with monogen¢s. Elsewhere in the New Testament, monogen¢s likewise occurs with “son” (or “daughter”)—Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38.

From this standpoint, the internal evidence would overwhelmingly favor monogen¢s huios (“only Son”) in 1:18.

c. The context of Jn 1:1-18. Finally, we must consider carefully the context of the Prologue as a whole. Its basic theme is theological and Christological—identifying Jesus as the eternal, pre-existent Word (Logos) of God (v. 1) who comes to be flesh (v. 14), that is to say, he is born as a human being. The basic structure of the Prologue may be outlined as follows:

  • Vv. 1-4—Christ as the divine, eternal Word and Light; the symmetry of this section may summarized:
    • The Word (v. 1)
      —the life-giving creative power [of God] (vv. 2-3)
    • The Light (v. 4)
  • Vv. 9-13—The Light comes into the World, among his own (people)
  • Vv. 14-17—The Word comes to be (born) as flesh (a human being), dwelling among his people
  • V. 18—Christ as the only Son who reveals the Father

Verses 2-17 certainly describe a process—of revelation (and incarnation)—which becomes increasingly more specific. This is indicated by the distinctive use of three verbs:

  • The divine Word/Light is (eimi [verb of being])—vv. 1-4
  • He comes (erchomai) into the world—vv. 9-13
  • He comes to be [born] (ginomai) as a human being—vv. 14-17
    (Note the same three verbs used in sequence in vv. 15, 30)

The word monogen¢s is first used in v. 14, which clearly refers to Christ (the Word) coming to be born (as a human being). But what is the precise sense of monogen¢s here? There would seem to be two options:

  1. The emphasis is on God being born, i.e. as a Son. This would assume that the fundamental etymology of monogen¢s—as the only one (who has) come to be (born)—is in view.
  2. What is emphasized is Jesus as the only/unique (Son) of God. This is the more natural/common meaning of monogen¢s.

The second is to be preferred. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as “the Son”, in relation to the Father. It is an essential relationship, which is not necessarily determined by his time on earth (as a human being). We can fairly assume that the same meaning of monogen¢s is in view in verse 18. However, first consider the way verses 14-17 are framed (note the words in italics):

  • “The Word came to be flesh…and we looked upon his splendor [i.e. like Moses looked upon God], the splendor as of an only (Son) of the Father, full of favor and truth” (v. 14)
  • “…we have received out of his fullness…for the Law was given through Moses [i.e. who looked upon God’s splendor], but favor and truth came to be through Jesus Christ” (v. 17)

This is a powerful dual-statement regarding how the glory and truth of God have been manifest (revealed) in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. So now we come to the concluding declaration of verse 18, which I take to be parallel with verses 1-4. I we may discern a certain kind of relationship with verse 1 in particular:

  • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with [literally, toward] God, and the Word was God” (v. 1)
  • “…the only [Son/God]—the one being in [literally, into] the lap of the Father—that (one) brought him out to us” (v. 18)

The first portion of verse 18 (“No one has ever seen God”) connects immediately back to vv. 16-17 and the motifs of Moses and the possibility of seeing/beholding the glory of God. The remainder of v. 18 may be intended to mirror v. 1; I suggest the possible parallels:

  • The Word was in the beginning (with God)
    —The Word was facing/looking toward God
    ——The Word was God
    ——The Only Son (of God), i.e. the reflection of the Father
    —The Son is facing[?] into the lap of the Father (i.e. essential Sonship)
  • The Son brings out (reveals) the Father to us.

There is no way to decide with absolute certainty, but, all factors considered, I would give a slight edge to monogen¢s huios (“Only Son“) as the original reading of verse 18. It is possible that monogen¢s theos (“Only God“) may have been introduced as an attempt to explain (ho) monogen¢s huios in context, much like the conflated reading ho monogen¢s huios theos (“God [who is] the Only Son”). However, one cannot be dogmatic about such things. Indeed, I suggest it is important to keep both readings in mind when you study this extraordinary passage. It is almost as if the declaration in verse 18 is too momentous and powerful to be contained by a single form of the text. The Gospel (and Prologue) of John expresses clearly that Jesus is both God and the Son (of God). Can these two truths ever really be separated from one another?

I would ask that you continue to study and meditate upon this passage, and at the same time, begin to consider the next verse—also from the first chapter of John—which we will be studying in this Series. It is the declaration by the Baptist in Jn 1:34, and, again, an important variant reading is involved:

  • “and I have seen and have given witness that this (man) is…”
    • “…the Son of God” (ho huios tou theou)
    • “…the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” (ho eklektos tou theou)

I recommend you continue reading carefully, from the Prologue all the way through to 1:34… and I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 1:18

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This is the first installment of the the new Saturday Series on this site. Each Saturday I will focus on a specific Scripture passage or area of study, with the intention of providing guidance for those who wish to learn the value of an in-depth critical-exegetical approach to studying Scripture, and how one might begin to go about it. As previously mentioned in the introduction to this Series, it is necessary to begin with the original text of Scripture—in the case of the New Testament, this means the original Greek. However, before one can do that, one must first know just what that text is. As you may be aware, no two manuscripts (hand-copies) of the New Testament are exactly alike; the copies contain many differences between each other. Most of these differences are slight and rather insignificant—i.e., variations of spelling, obvious copying mistakes, etc. However, others are more substantial, and some genuinely affect the meaning of a passage. In such cases, it is necessary to determine, as far as one is able, what the most likely original form or version of the text is.

This part of Biblical study (criticism) is called Textual Criticism—analysis of the text, its variants (differences) and determination of the original form (when possible). I have devoted an introductory article, in three parts, to this subject, which I recommend you read; it is entitled “Learning the Language” (Parts 1, 2, 3). In most English Bible translations (the reputable ones), substantial differences, or variant readings in the text are indicated by footnotes. The most likely original reading (according to the translators) appears in the main portion, while other known readings are given in the footnotes. Unfortunately, people tend to ignore or gloss over these textual footnotes; but I would urge you to get in the habit of paying attention to them and examining them. This is one of the first steps toward an in-depth study of the Scriptures.

Occasionally a situation arises where the evidence in favor of certain textual variants (variant readings) is more evenly divided. In such cases, it can be most difficult to determine which form of the text is more likely to be original. Here the student and commentator of Scripture (let us begin with the New Testament) must proceed carefully, considering all of the possibilities. To demonstrate this, I will use two examples from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. I like to use the Gospel of John, and the first chapter especially, because it tends to make the theological significance of the textual variants more readily apparent.

John 1:18

The first example comes from the famous “Prologue” to the Gospel (1:1-18)—indeed, from the climactic final statement in it. Here is verse 18, in a literal rendering, followed by a more conventional English translation:

“No one has ever yet seen God; (but) the only <..> (who has) come to be—the (one) being in the lap of the Father—that (one) has brought Him out (to us).”

“No one has ever yet seen God; (but) the only[-born] <..>, who is in the lap of the father, he has revealed him (to us).”

The words in parentheses technically are not in the text, but have been added to fill out the passage to make it more readable and intelligible in English. The angle brackets represent the point where the key textual variant occurs. There are three versions of this textual unit (in italics above):

  • monogen¢s theos (monogenh\$ qeo/$)
  • monogen¢s huios (monogenh\$ ui(o/$)
  • monogen¢s (monogenh/$)

All three versions contain the word monogen¢s, which happens to be quite tricky to translate. Literally, it means something like “(the) only one (who has) come to be”. Sometimes this specifically refers to a person coming to be born (i.e. a child or son); but often it means simply “only one, unique, one-of-a-kind”, or the like. The second version above is the most straightforward, as it essentially means “only son”, i.e. the only son born (to a mother/parent). This is presumably also the meaning where monogen¢s is used alone—”only (son)”. The first version above is more difficult, and has been translated three different ways:

  • monogen¢s theos =
    • “(the) only/unique God”
    • “(the) only-born [or only-begotten] God”
    • “God the only(-born) Son”

Which reading more likely represents the original text? And is there any significant difference between them? Let us address the first question, considering the arguments in favor of each reading, in reverse order from how they are listed above.

  • monogen¢s (monogenh/$)—”only (one) [born]”
    There is essentially no Greek manuscript support for this reading; it is attested in the writings of several early Church Fathers (commentators/theologians such as Origen, Epiphanius, and Cyril of Alexandria). However, it is attractive as a way to explain the other two readings (with “God” or “Son”). If the text originally read just monogen¢s, scribes (copyists) and commentators would have been inclined to explain it, expanding the text, more likely (and often) by adding “Son” as the natural meaning in context (“[the] only Son [born]”).
  • monogen¢s huios (monogenh\$ ui(o/$)—”only Son [born]”
    This is the most common and widespread reading, including that of some important early manuscripts (such Codex Alexandrinus [A]). It also happens to make the most sense. Jesus refers to himself (or is referred to) as “(the) Son [huios, ui(o/$]” quite often in the Gospel of John, and almost always in relation to (God) the Father. The word monogen¢s is used in this context earlier in the prologue (verse 14); moreover, elsewhere in the New Testament it is almost always used in combination with “son” (or “daughter”)—see Luke 7:12; 8:42; John 3:16, 18; Heb 11:17; 1 John 4:9.
  • monogen¢s theos (monogenh\$ qeo/$)—”only God [born]” or “God the only [born Son?]”
    This is the reading of some of “the earliest and best” manuscripts, including the early (Bodmer) papyri 66 and 75, Codex Vaticanus [B] and the original copyist of Codex Sinaiticus [a]. It must also be considered the most difficult reading—what exactly does the expression “only (born) God [theos, qeo/$]” mean? An important principle in textual criticism follows the saying difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is preferred”). The idea is that copyists would be more likely to change the text (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to a reading that was easier to understand or which made more sense. As noted above, “only (born) Son” is a much more natural expression.

I would ask you to consider and to meditate upon these three different readings, in the context of John 1:18 (and the Prologue as a whole—read through it carefully). Do you see any difference in meaning or emphasis, in terms of what the author may be trying to convey? If so, what are the differences? Next Saturday I will follow up on this discussion, by examining briefly certain details in verse 18 which I believe are essential to a proper understanding of the passage. At the same time, we will consider our second example from the Gospel of John.

Help from PC Study Bible
If you are a user of the PC (and Mac) Study Bible programs, and wish to learn more about a critical study of Scripture, and of Textual Criticism, in particular, Biblesoft offers a number of resources dealing with the subject, including two introductory textbooks you may find helpful:

A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis: Taking the Fear Out of the Critical Method, by Richard J. Erickson

A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, by Paul D. Wegner

If you own a OneTouch Professional Series or Professional Reference Library (Version 5), you already have these two resources at your fingertips!