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.]