John field notes 12(b)(2): What the thunder said

‘Now my soul is in turmoil, and what am I to say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this that I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.’ A voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing by said it was thunder they heard, while others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus replied, ‘This voice spoke for your sake, not mine.’ (John 12:27 – 30, REB)

Jesus looks over his audience. Philip and Andrew have just introduced him to the first large contingent of Greeks he has run into during his three-year ministry. These pilgrims have come for Passover but also to see Jesus. There they are, standing together.

Just behind them in the west, the sky begins to darken.

Jesus draws his audience in, as a hen might her chicks from an approaching storm, with his confidential reflections. “What am I to say?” he booms. Looking straight into the darkening sky, he concludes: “Father, glorify your name.” He stares upwards for a minute, then he climbs off the rock, which was serving as an informal dais.

Continue reading

John field notes 12(b)(1): What the thunder said

‘Now my soul is in turmoil, and what am I to say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this that I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.’ A voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing by said it was thunder they heard, while others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus replied, ‘This voice spoke for your sake, not mine.’ (John 12:27 – 30, REB)

Jesus confides in his disciples, shares his inner turmoil with them. Then he sighs, wonders out loud how he should pray, and resolves on a resigned, ejaculatory prayer: “Father, glorify your name.” Just then it thunders.

To encourage him, some of Jesus’ disciples suggest the thunder answers his prayer. “God must be saying, ‘I will,'” Peter says.

“The thunder rolled on too long,” Matthew counters, brightening. He hopes the group’s new mood, brought on by the fortuitous empyrean event, will continue. “I think God is saying, ‘I have glorified it.'”

Continue reading

John field notes 12a: A second stone, and the overlapping ripples

Six random observations about this Holy Week incident:

Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Gentiles. They approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we should like to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew, and the two of them went to tell Jesus. Jesus replied: ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. In very truth I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest. Whoever loves himself is lost, but he who hates himself in this world will be kept safe for eternal life. If anyone is to serve me, he must follow me; where I am, there will my servant be. Whoever serves me will be honoured by the Father. (John 12:20 – 26, REB)

1. This elaborate description of how some Gentiles were introduced to Jesus (assuming they were!) reflects the outer and inner circles surrounding Jesus in John chapter 2. The circles aren’t impenetrable, and they don’t seem to circumscribe different levels of understanding and relationship to the same extent as they do in chapter 2. But they seem to connect the time just before Jesus’ crucifixion (John 12) with the beginning of his ministry (John 2). Circles as echoes: it’s as if another stone has been thrown into the pond, and the ripples overlap.

Continue reading

John field notes 14a: Mixing the modes

“For I am going to prepare a place for you.” Is Jesus getting around to answering Peter’s question in John 13:36 – “Lord, where are you going?” It took me a number of readings before I considered this possibility. In my own defense, the question and the answer are separated by a change in tone, and almost a change in mode. Only the question and answer seem to hold the text together, it seems to me now. But John uses the tension between the dialog and the changes in tone and mode to communicate meaning beyond what the words alone carry. So here’s the text:

Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus replied, ‘I am going where you cannot follow me now, but one day you will.’  Peter said, ‘Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’  Jesus answered, ‘Will you really lay down your life for me? In very truth I tell you, before the cock crows you will have denied me three times.

‘Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me.  There are many dwelling-places in my Father’s house; if it were not so I should have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I shall come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also. [John 13:36 – 14:3, REB]

The chapter break, a long-after-the-fact construct that I have designated above with a paragraph break, seems appropriate here. Chapter 14 breaks away in tone, and seemingly in subject matter, from the drama of Peter’s protestations and Jesus’ dire prediction that end chapter 13. Jesus shifts from addressing Peter alone to addressing all of the apostles. We move also from the Passover Seder interaction — more of a narrative mode — to something like instruction, applicable to all people at all times, and we stay chiefly in this mode through chapter 16 with only brief interruptions by the questioning apostles, Greek style, to remind us that Jesus’ disquisitions are also dialogs.

Continue reading

John field notes 13c: Shakespeare’s sop to global warming

The sop as prophecy. Matthew, Mark, and Luke use the sop at the Last Supper to show how a disciple’s betrayal fulfills Scriptural prophecy. And John has Jesus use the same sop as a means of prophesying that Judas will be that betrayer.

Shakespeare foresaw the melting of the polar ice caps:

. . . the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe

(From Act 1, Scene 3 of Troilus and Cressida.)

Interesting, though, that like the gospel writers, Shakespeare prophesies with a sop.

John field notes 13b: Seder place tags

Every Seder table I’ve sat down to since childhood has had place tags. Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s don’t, though. In the Synoptic Gospels’ Last Suppers, everyone hears everything said by anyone. But John restores my place tags.

John brings his layers of proximity to the Last Supper, which for John also means layers of intimacy and understanding. Just as John assigns the master of the feast, the servants, the reader, and Mary to different circles when Jesus turns the water into wine, he assigns the disciples to different positions at the Seder table, and therefore to different levels of relationship and intimacy.

John places his own personae (always “the disciple whom Jesus loved”) next to Jesus. John even uses the Seder tradition of reclining at table — the perogative of a free man, thanks to the exodus from Egypt — to suggest John’s inner-circle status. The Revised English Bible has John “reclining close beside Jesus,” but the King James declares that John was “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” Peter, who is not next to Jesus or John, has to signal John to have him ask Jesus a question. Judas is within arm’s length of Jesus, presumably: Jesus gives him a sop after he dips it in the wine.

John’s Seder is more like a real Seder or like any meal with a dozen or more people present. Not everyone hears everything. The volume goes up and down. Conversations happen simultaneously at times. John’s Last Supper is therefore more like modern theater than the Synoptic Gospels’ Last Supper, but it’s still John’s theater. The stage directions, the intimacy, even the dramatic conversations itself point to layers of relationship and understanding.

John’s drama centers on the sop. The Synoptic Gospels use the sop as a generalization, a means of turning a specific question into an indication that Scripture is being fulfilled. Here’s Mark’s version:

They began to be grieved and to say to Him one by one, “Surely not I?”  And He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who dips with Me in the bowl. (Mark 14:19-20)

The New American Standard notes suggest that “one” may also be read “the one.” This ambiguity is as close as the three gospels come to using the sop as the means of identifying Jesus’ betrayer. Jesus doesn’t answer the disciples’ question directly in the Synoptic Gospels; that is, he doesn’t make the sop a means of identifying Judas. He simply paraphrases Psalms, making the verse prophetic of their last meal together. Here’s the verse Jesus alludes to:

Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me. (Psalm 41:9, NNAS)

But John transforms the sop into the means of identifying the betrayer. How? Here’s the King James Version of the text:

When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.  Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.  Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.  He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it?  Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.  And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly. Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him.  For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, Buy those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor.  He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night. (John 13:21-30, KJV)

First, Jesus here doesn’t use the sop as an allusion to Scripture. It simply is a means of designating to one of his closest disciples who is betrayer is: “He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it.”

Second, Jesus’ remark about the sop isn’t spoken to everyone at table but only to John. Peter’s need to signal John suggests that not everyone can hear everything. Peter’s signaling also suggests that, if Peter has his way, only he and John will know who the betrayer is. We know that no one but John hears the sop remark since “no man at the table knew” why Jesus says, “That thou doest, do quickly.” The sop remark would have made the meaning of Jesus’ remark to Judas evident. It’s not clear if Peter learns the significance of Jesus’ remark to Judas, but I like to think John makes it clear to him after supper.

Peter and John have a special role with respect to the Seder in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels, too. Mark says that Jesus sent “two of his disciples” to secure a room for the Seder (Mark 14:13). Luke makes clear that the two disciples sent are Peter and John (Luke 22:8). Mark and Luke therefore designate Peter and John as intimates by what they do. Consistent with the rest of his gospel, however, John designates Peter and John as intimates by what they know.

[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 concerning John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

John field notes 5a: The rules of evidence

In the latter part of John 5, John’s earlier undercurrent of legal language (testimony, evidence, witness) flows to the surface.  John 5:30 – 47 is a virtual hornbook on John’s law of evidence. Here are some of its rules:

Rule 1: Jesus’ testimony about himself would be invalid if unaccompanied by other evidence (John 5:31).

His language suggests, however, that his testimony about himself is invalid, period: “If I testify on my own behalf, that testimony is not valid” (Id., REB). Later, the Pharisees use this strict reading of Jesus’ rule against him:

The Pharisees said to him, ‘You are witness in your own cause; your testimony is not valid.’ (John 8:13, REB)

Jesus seems to reverse himself but argues in the alternative that Deuteronomy 19:15 applies:

In your own law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. (John 8:17, REB)

The second witness, of course, is God the Father.

Rule 2: Human testimony is not essential but is provided as a concession.

Jesus reminds his listeners of John the Baptist’s testimony, and he points out that they sent messengers to John and “rejoiced in his light” for a little while (John 5:33 – 35). Jesus suggests, then, that the Jews implicitly recognized John’s authority as a witness.

Jesus seems to have an ambivalent attitude towards John’s testimony.  He validates it for a reason similar to the one he says Moses permitted divorce: “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:7-9, KJV).

Rule 3: God the Father testifies about Jesus through the work he has Jesus do (John 5:36).

This “work,” we learn elsewhere in John, includes the signs (miracles) Jesus performs as well as his crucifixion.

Rule 4: God the Father’s other means of witness are unavailable to his listeners because of the nature of God (invisible form, inaudible voice) and the state of his listeners’ hearts (unwilling to accept the scripture’s testimony about Jesus) (John 5:36-40).

Rule 5: A juror will remain unpersuaded of any evidence if he wants honor from others instead of from God (John 5:41-544).

Rule 6: Belief in what Moses said about Jesus is a precondition to belief in what Jesus says about himself (John 5:45-47).

There are two more aspects to John’s gospel’s courtroom underpinnings I’ll explore in later notes. One is the separate, later trial Jesus frequently alludes to. Jesus accepts that he’s being judged by his listeners; in fact, most of the legal language in John involves that trial. But he suggests that the tables will be turned one day, and that the subsequent trial will turn on how his listeners judge him during the first trial.

The second aspect I’d like to explore is how John’s gospel ranks the different forms of evidence it addresses. And why it does: sometimes (as one would expect) as a guide to the strength of various forms of evidence, but more often to suggest the relative receptivity of different people to different forms of evidence and, through it, the relative merit they deserve.

[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 concerning John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

John field notes 3i: Porous borders

In John, the speakers sometimes bleed into one another as if possessed by the same spirit.  It’s the Greek chorus or the long, amazed monologues towards the end of many Faulkner novels, monologues that blend with the narration and almost break character.

For the space of six verses at the end of John 3, for instance, the English translations can’t agree on who’s talking.

The New American Standard thinks that in verses 31 through 36 the speaker is John the Baptist, but the New Revised Standard and the Revised English Bible think the text has switched from John the Baptist to John the narrator.  But even the New Revised Standard acknowledges in a note that “some interpreters hold that the quotation continues through verse 36,” making the speaker John the Baptist.

Here’s the exact intersection of John the Baptist’s words (first sentence) with what might be John the narrator’s words (second sentence):

He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. (John 3:30-31, NNAS)

Things that don’t matter in John the way they need to matter in other books, even other gospels: where, when, and now who. The words at the end of John chapter 3 could have come from Jesus, John the Baptist, or John the narrator. The porous borders certainly highlight the message but, oddly, not at the expense of characterization, at least in a deeper (or John would say, higher) sense because the words point back to identity. Who is behind words is a central concern in John. Even in the contested six verses, the central issue is the words’ sources:

He who comes from above is above all others; he who is from the earth belongs to the earth and uses earthly speech. He who comes from heaven bears witness to what he has seen and heard, even though no one accepts his witness. To accept his witness is to affirm that God speaks the truth;  for he whom God sent utters the words of God, so measureless is God’s gift of the Spirit. (John 3:31-34, REB)

While the reader is trying to figure out who’s speaking, John is telling us how to tell who’s really speaking. My inquiry (i.e., who is speaking) belongs to the earth, but John uses the terms of my inquiry to point to a higher level. He has done this to me earlier in the book, just as he has done it to the Jews and to Nicodemus.

In John, the reader as unspoken character never evanesces for long.

[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.]

John field notes 13a: Periodic irony

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. (John 13:3-4, KJV)

Periodic sentences are usually dramatic, but John employs that syntax here to create a kind of dramatic irony.  The immediate irony, of course, is the grandeur of the phrases followed by the servility of the clause. Jesus’ grand knowledge followed by his servile act. Luke achieves the same immediate irony in a periodic sentence:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2, KJV)

Luke’s periodic sentence sets John the Baptist’s humble introduction in a time defined by all of the grand layers of government to which John was subject. John’s very introduction, then, foreshadows his later problems with the authorities. Anyway, Luke’s periodic sentence, like John’s, leads us from grandeur to humility.  And as in John, the phrases are the clause’s foil.

I like this definition of dramatic irony:

Dramatic irony is when the words and actions of the characters of a work of literature have a different meaning for the reader than they do for the characters. This is the result of the reader having a greater knowledge than the characters themselves.

In John’s periodic sentence, we finally learn the extent of what Jesus understands about himself. But in the sentence’s clause, Jesus acts contrary to it.  When John unveils, we find a veil. Luke’s periodic sentence, as deftly as it introduces the tension of John the Baptist’s life, doesn’t pull off what John does here.

John’s surface irony (grandeur/servility) points to a greater dramatic irony, and an inverted one: the reader has a lesser, not greater, “knowledge than the characters themselves.” Therefore, the reader remains the unknown character, maybe more than in a Calvino novel.

[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.]