How much John packs into a short, sketchy interaction. Here’s the first of Jesus’ many discourses with the Jews:
The Jews challenged Jesus: ‘What sign can you show to justify your action?’
‘Destroy this temple,’ Jesus replied, ‘and in three days I will raise it up again.’
The Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple. Are you going to raise it up again in three days?’
But the temple he was speaking of was his body.
After his resurrection his disciples recalled what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:18 – 22, REB)
The discourse turns on a misapprehension. What are we to understand about the Jews who misunderstand Jesus’ reference to “this temple”? What are we to understand about Jesus who doesn’t clear up the ambiguity? About the disciples and what they might have understood of the interaction before Jesus’ death and resurrection? Why does the text feel free to jump briefly ahead to a time after Jesus’ resurrection? Why did the disciples’ understanding, apparently three years in coming, have such a strong effect on them then? Is the book itself — is community itself — in part a kind of collective memory? And so on.
John’s revelations are evanescent. I feel as if I’m asked to skate on ice always forming just ahead of me and melting just where I lift my back foot.
How different is a similar story in Matthew:
At this some of the scribes and the Pharisees said, ‘Teacher, we would like you to show us a sign.’ He answered: ‘It is a wicked, godless generation that asks for a sign, and the only sign that will be given it is the sign of the prophet Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the sea monster’s belly for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the bowels of the earth. (Matthew 12:38 – 40, REB)
As he does in John, Jesus responds here to a request for a sign with a veiled reference to his death and resurrection. Matthew likes to show how Jesus fulfills scripture readers may not otherwise realize is prophetic of anything, and John likes to do this as well. (At the end of his conversation with Nathanael, for instance, Jesus tells him he will see “angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man” — a clear suggestion that Jesus is the ladder from earth to heaven in Jacob’s famous dream.) But Matthew houses none of the quick, playful complication among Jesus, the Jews, and the disciples that John dwells in. Nothing of the never said.
In the world of John’s gospel, insight is a precious and fleeting gift, and misunderstandings and unclear referents are quick ways to size up who gets it and who doesn’t. John’s brief anecdotes play above a plainchant of legal references (testimony, witness) that adds a kind of tension to the anecdotes’ unclear referents. John is a mesmerizing and disturbing organum.
[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]