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.]

By Peter

After stints as a trial lawyer and a church worker, Peter Stephens has settled in as a Virginia high school English teacher. Peter has read several books and poems. He wrote none of the posts below filed under "Passages." Click the link at the end of each post to see it in the context of the author's original post.