John field notes 2c: Never said

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.

Acclimated by my own conjectures and misapprehension through Jesus’ interactions with Nathanael and then with his mother, I can sympathize with the Jews here.  That sympathy feels uncomfortable.

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.]


  1. I think one of my primary, uneducated responses to the gospels is dismay and distrust at the frequent moments when Jesus is, according to the text, willing to let people misunderstand things. Not when they’re being mulish or arrogant, just when they’ve made a common simple human misunderstanding. It gives me the feeling that salvation is a matter of chance, or — even worse — of being good at trivia games. I’m supposed to hit the buzzer and call out, “What is Jacob’s ladder!”

    I have to remind myself that prophecy and its fulfillment are fundamental to Jewish culture, it’s hardly something that Jesus or the gospel-writers invented, and that without fulfilled, misunderstood-at-the-time prophecies, Jesus wouldn’t have ranked with his audience as a real prophet (= spiritual authority) at all. But it still bothers me.

  2. Game shows, yes! I long held a view of the Bible made me think that saying the right words would get me to heaven. I liked what you described! (Jeopardy! would be an upgrade to my former view: at least I have to ask the right questions; no answers are permitted.) Thanks, Dale. I can see what you mean . . .

  3. May I throw a few thoughts into the pot, to see what might emerge after a little simmering? This article is specifically looking at the rather lovely St. John’s Gospel which is, of course, about the ministry of one particular man, Jesus.
    To take a broader look at those times, Jesus would not have been unique in his background and form of teaching. Whether or not he was an Essene is a point I will not debate here, but undoubtedly he seems to have been in contact with and affected by that particular teaching. Also, as a Jew who was well versed in Jewish theology, well enough to debate serious issues with the priests in the temple, he clearly knew his Kabalah. In short, he was a product of the mystery religion tradition, which often sought to hide the truth and let a person find out that truth for themselves, rather than having it handed to them on a plate. “Seek, and you shall find.” That is seek within yourself.
    I do not think the quoted note actually reveals a simple, honest mistake, a misapprehension. Rather, it seems to reveal a lack of knowledge and understanding. Were the religious leaders of those days any different from those of today? I think perhaps not. Like moderns, they sought to explain inner truths by inappropriately projecting them on to the outside world. Like moderns, they may have failed to give thought or maybe credence to the esoteric nature of Jesus’ teachings.
    Just a few thoughts………..

  4. Tom, thanks. I’d love for this to turn into stew. (Maybe chili. I’m in the mood for chili.)

    I love where metaphor slams into the literal minded. I slow down metaphor so my ninth graders can watch themselves experience it. I teach three stages of experiencing metaphor: confusion, realization (that we’re dealing with a metaphor), and greater understanding.

    I use this Tango Clear ad in which the viewer goes through the three stages: 1. Confusion (the appearance of the fireman, the islander, the Eskimo, etc.), 2. Realization (“It’s just a metaphor”), and 3. Greater understanding (Tango Clear is refreshing).

    Then we experience Sylvia Plath’s poem “Metaphors” together, realizing that we’re going through the same three stages.

    I think this text in John slows down and examines the same three stages. It’s like the Tango Clear ad because each character is at a different stage of experiencing metaphor. The Jews never learn that “temple” is a metaphor for body. The disciples are like the slow-to-understand boss in the ad. And Mary and Nathanael in the surrounding stories who get Jesus’ unclear referents are like the Tango Clear coworker: “Nice metaphor.”

    I think the ad shares one effective attribute with John’s gospel: the viewer isn’t exactly represented by any of the characters. We’re not a clueless as the boss or as tuned in as the coworker. Similarly, we’re not as clueless as the Jews, but we don’t grapple with the text over years like the disciples. It all comes so easily for the viewer and the reader. Or does it? That’s what haunts me about John. It never speaks to me directly. The text itself hides the truth as fast as it purports to testify to it. East meets West.

    And I don’t know enough about Essene thought to contribute anything, but I’m glad to learn about it.

    Anyway, if grammar is a reflection of morality, as I was implicitly taught growing up, then maybe metaphor is a matter of spiritual insight.

    Because I agree with you that the misapprehension here doesn’t reflect a simple mistake. Instead, it’s like a quick brushstroke that suggests a more deep-seated spiritual problem. I just love the way it all turns on a word’s meaning, just as other quick portraits in John turn on an allusion to a fig tree (Nathanael) or on a Hebrew idiom (Jesus’ mother at the wedding).

    Though I guess the Jews in this passage would have understood the reference to the body as a temple. I guess they didn’t connect the old with the new, didn’t connect their understanding of the body as a temple as applicable here. And maybe that says something about them.

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