John field notes 2d: Unrequited trust

In a certain way, John’s centuries-later chapter divisions work, and the underlying tension in chapters 1 and 2 — the disturbing polyphony of private settings and unclear referents playing above a plainchant of trial-court language (testimony and witnesses) — resolves in a single, diatonic chord: a juxtaposition between Jesus and his new followers:

While he was in Jerusalem for Passover many put their trust in him when they saw the signs that he performed. But Jesus for his part would not trust himself to them. He knew them all, and had no need of evidence from others about anyone, for he himself could tell what was in people. (John 2:23 – 25, REB)

The many needed evidence; Jesus didn’t.  The many put their trust in Jesus, but Jesus would not trust himself to them.

John’s Jesus’ mission is an introvert’s outreach, roughly speaking. Field note speaking.

Each stop in Jesus’ campaign so far has sorted people in unexpected ways: by what one knew (Nathanael and the reader), by how one understood an ambiguity (the Jews and disciples), by what room one was in (the wedding). The wedding in Cana alone involves four circles of intimacy: the master of the feast who celebrates Jesus’ miracle without knowing that a miracle has occurred, the servants who know of the miracle but not of Jesus’ conversation with his mother, and his mother, whose sketchy colloquy with Jesus demonstrates she knows all.  I am in a fourth circle, closer to the center than the master of the feast and the servants but less intimate than Mary since the text’s first read shuts me out. I inhabit an uneasy ring between the inner and outer rings.

And now, at the end of chapter 2, this policy of concealment is revealed. When Jesus is direct in the other gospels, it’s often only by a disciple’s request. The requesting disciple also risked a reproof for his lack of understanding. Likewise this text of John’s, which describes itself as testimony, feels most reluctant when that testimony is clear. And what does that say about me, the reader?

John 2 feels like the melismatic high Middle Ages resolving into the vocal articulation of the Renaissance.  It feels like the isorhythmic novels of Sterne and Fielding resolving into the thick-plotted Victorian novel.  It feels like a concession — something that must be said to move on.

[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 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.]

John field notes 1e: I saw you

Or maybe “I saw you” outweighs “under the fig tree” for Nathanael (John 1:48-51). Maybe it outweighs the subsequent “you will see”‘s for Nathaniel, too, though probably not in the long run.

Evangelicals put such emphasis on knowing the Lord.  Yet

No longer need they teach one another, neighbour or brother, to know the Lord; all of them, high and low alike, will know me, says the Lord, for I shall forgive their wrongdoing, and their sin I shall call to mind no more.  (Jeremiah 31:34, REB)

The Bible seems to put a bigger emphasis on God seeing or knowing us:

O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways. (Psalm 139:1-3, NNAS)

When the day comes, many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Out of my sight; your deeds are evil!” (Matthew 7:22-23 – REB)

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God… (Galatians 4:9 – NNAS)

Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13:12 – KJV)

If anyone fancies that he has some kind of knowledge, he does not yet know in the true sense of knowing. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:3 – REB)

Maybe, like Nathanael, I must be seen so I can see or even start to want to see. Perhaps I must be known so I can know.

John field notes 2b: The Gospel of Mary and John

My evidence:

  1. Mary (Jesus’ mother) and John (Jesus’ disciple and the gospel’s author) make only brief appearances in John’s gospel.
  2. When Mary and John do appear, they seem quite intimate with Jesus.  Mary knows Jesus is about to perform a miracle though he has never done so before and vehemently denies he will now.  John leans on Jesus’ breast at the last supper and hears Jesus say things that others there miss.
  3. Neither Mary nor John is named in John’s gospel.  Mary is only “Jesus’ mother.” John is only “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John’s and Mary’s names are used only for others. The only John in John is John the Baptist.  John never even bothers to say “John the Baptist” or “John Baptist” to distinguish him from himself as the other gospels do.  In fact, the word “Baptist” isn’t found in John at all.  And the Marys in John are always Mary Magdala, Mary wife of Clopas, Mary of Mary and Martha, etc. Never Mother Mary.
  4. Hanging on the cross, Jesus puts Mary and John together: “Seeing his mother, with the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, Jesus said to her, ‘Mother, there is your son’;  and to the disciple, ‘There is your mother’; and from that moment the disciple took her into his home.” (John 19:26 – 27, REB)

Just saying.  She could have helped him write it.

John field notes 2a: What to me and to you?

John is as arid and sketchy in its way as Genesis.  To me, the wedding at Cana-of-galilee feels like Abraham and God negotiating over Sodom:

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee and Jesus’ mother was there.  Jesus and his disciples had been invited to the wedding too and when wine ran short Jesus’ mother said to him “They’re out of wine.”

Jesus said to her “What’s that to me and you, woman?  My hour hasn’t come.”

His mother said to the servants “Just do what he tells you.”

Now six stone jars for the Jews’ washing cutom were standing there.  Each could hold twenty or thirty gallons.

Jesus said to them “Fill the jars with water.”

The filled them to the top.

He said to them “Now draw some and take it to the head servant.”

They took it.

When the head servant tasted the water turned to wine, not knowing where it came from — though the servants knew, the ones who’d drawn the water — the head servant called the bridegroom and said to him “Everybody brings out the good wine first and once the guests are drunk brings out the poor stuff. You’ve kept the good wine till now.”

Jesus did this the start of his signs in Cana in Galilee and showed his glory. (John 2:1-11, Reynolds Price, Three Gospels.)

Just as with Nathaniel and Jesus in the preceding conversation, we hear the words, but we don’t have the history.  The when and where are only here and now for Jesus and his mother, and not for us. Jesus, you might say, tests his mother  (“My hour hasn’t come”) just as he tests, say, the Canaanite woman (“It is not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs.” Matthew 15:26).  But how does she know?  Jesus’ vociferous response to her simple statement suggests also that he knew she knew, too. And how does he know she knows?

So much depends upon an Hebrew idiom translated into Greek and then (for me) into English.  The New American Standard translates it literally as “What to me and to you?” What is Jesus’ and his mother’s me and you? Jesus and his mother’s short conversation suggests much about them and their relationship, and it also says little.

I know as much as the servants who draw the water, no more.

John to me, again: get yours.

John field notes 1d: I am not. I am not. No.

John’s first discourse, and John the Baptist’s I-am-ness:

This is the testimony John gave when the Jews of Jerusalem sent a deputation of priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He readily acknowledged, ‘I am not the Messiah.’

‘What then? Are you Elijah?’

‘I am not,’ he replied.

‘Are you the Prophet?’

‘No,’ he said.

‘Then who are you?’ they asked. ‘We must give an answer to those who sent us. What account do you give of yourself?’

He answered in the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘I am a voice crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way for the Lord.”’ (John 1:19 – 23, REB)

When the deputation asked John the Baptist who he was, he answered who he was not.

Three times.

When they changed the question, he answered who he was: a voice.

The first three questions went to his essence, the Orthodox might say, so he answered in an apophatic manner: I am not, I am not, No.

Then the deputation changed the question slightly: What do you say about yourself? The new question emphasized John’s energies instead of his essence. What is your account of yourself? What is your story?

Now, he answers, I am (a voice).

One can see this same distinction between essence and energies widen into two gods in early gnosticism:

Some early Gnostic sects spoke of two Gods, “a God beyond the cosmos and a lesser, creator God, the Demiurge, who has fashioned this world and who rules over it.  The highest God, the supreme reality, is variously characterized as the “Fore-Beginning,” the “Inconceivable,” the “Beyond-Being,” etc.  The Demiurge, on the other hand, is a working principle. (Needleman, Lost Christianity 196)

I find the Orthodox view helpful: God is both negative and positive, essence and energy, dwelling in darkness and light. And I am essence and energies: I am not, I am not, No. I am.

John field notes 1c

Does John posit then and there on the text as an afterthought? I read a book years ago that overlaid place and time on a sermon in an effort to make it more palatable.  Bits of narrative breaks in: He sipped his tea, he smiled, etc. Awful.

John may seem a bit like that.  Or like the Gospel of Thomas — a discourse set outside of place and time.

Or maybe John makes place and time a private matter, available to the book’s characters but not to its readers.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said, ‘Here is an Israelite worthy of the name; there is nothing false in him.’

Nathanael asked him, ‘How is it you know me?’

Jesus replied, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip spoke to you.’

‘Rabbi,’ said Nathanael, ‘you are the Son of God; you are king of Israel.’

Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe this because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than that.’  (John 1:47-50, REB)

What happened then and there, under the fig tree? I can read the text, but I can’t intrude.  I am not Nathaniel.  I am not Jesus.  I can’t relate.  Not enough to matter.

Funny to hear L. share from her book this morning: Claim your own I-am-ness.

My kind of story.

John field notes 1b

Field notes are high risk, high reward.  When George Washington first returned from the French, England published his field notes, and Washington became famous.  When Washington next returned from the French, France published his confiscated field notes, and Washington became infamous.

John field notes 1a

John’s not like the other gospels or like most stories or novels you read.  They start somewhere and sometime.

Even Genesis starts sometime.  In the beginning God created.

John starts before the beginning: In the beginning the Word already was (REB). Or it starts at the beginning about somewhere before.

Genesis starts transitive: God created.  Its beginning is the settings of settings.

John starts intransitive. Weak verb, teachers say: was.

No setting at all.

The first time John the Baptist appears, he does so outside of time and place.

There was

a man sent from God

whose name was John (1:6, KJV).

There was [or, came into being] (NNAS)

There appeared

a man named John (REB).

John pivots from John the Baptist to Jesus so fast you have to track the “light” motif to know whom he’s talking about:

He was sent from God, and came as a witness to testify to the light, so that through him all might become believers. He was not himself the light; he came to bear witness to the light. The true light which gives light to everyone was even then coming into the world. (1:6-9 REB)

Outside of time and place, motifs lift more.

Jesus was coming even then!

Even when? When John was born? Jesus was in the womb then, Luke says (elsewhere).

Or even when John was witnessing and testifying?

Even then.

When John the Baptist appears again, he speaks (1:15). Echoes of the first verse: Before I was born, he already was (REB).

Was even then coming

and already was.

Now (when? verse 19) we learn where we are not: Jerusalem.  John is responding to a deputation sent by the Jews of Jerusalem.

Everyone there is sent. Jesus was even then coming and already was is not there, and the Jews in Jerusalem are not there.  Just the sent there – John and the deputation – are there.  Where?

John concludes, I am [weak verb] a voice, and we believe it. John’s not there because there is [weak verb] no there.

And John pivots to Jesus a second time.  The deputation is confused. They take John for the Messiah.  But John is not the Messiah.  The Messiah stands among you.

When the first discourse ends, place and time begin:

This took place at Bethany beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.  The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him. (1:28 – 29, REB)

This is the third pivot from John to Jesus.  The first pivot was. The second said. And the evening and the morning: the first day: The third happens the first next day.  Jesus was even then coming and already was and stands among you is coming towards him.


Reading this 1791 letter from Benjamin Banneker, the son of a former slave, to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson makes me understand Jefferson better.  How could someone who penned the lines Banneker quoted and who received the letter Banneker wrote not be, as Jefferson’s enemy Hamilton kindly put it, “a man of sublimated and paradoxical imagination”?