Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An Interview with Sherri Brown: Gift Upon Gift: Covenant Through Word in the Gospel of John: Part II

Sherri Brown, author of Gift Upon Gift: Covenant through Word in the Gospel of John (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 144; Pickwick 2010) and professor at Niagra University, answers more of my questions regarding her revised dissertation under the supervision of Francis Moloney at the Catholic University of America (2007) in the second part of a two-part interview.  For the first installment click here.
Sherri Brown (center), with students on the Rabbi steps in Jerusalem.

1.       Could you discuss the dual roles Jesus plays as both plaintiff and judge in his heated exchange with the “Jews” in 8:31-59?

As a literary piece, John 7–8 is one of the most difficult movements in all of the gospel narratives. When the dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders and the crowds in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles reaches its climax (8:31–59), it is the most passionate, and even vitriolic, conflict narrated in the Gospels. Both sides of this encounter are very heated: “the Jews” accuse Jesus of having a demon (v. 48), and Jesus calls them children of the devil, the father of lies (vv. 42–47). The entire encounter brings the people (and the readers) to a crisis, to a point where they are forced to begin to make decisions about where they stand in the mounting christological conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.
The gulf separating Jesus and “the Jews” that he encounters at the feast of Tabernacles is a profound closedness. Readers of John 7–8 have the prologue resonating in their ears as they listen to Jesus’ teaching in this most heated segment of his public ministry. They have been given information about Jesus and the glory of God’s action in and for the sake of the world. Thus, when readers experience Jesus verbalizing what God is doing through him in the tenor of his own voice, there is room for his word. “The Jews,” who stand outside the world of the prologue, are ultimately not open to hearing and seeing God the Father in the voice and person of Jesus the Son.  Although many can come to a partial faith in the messianic mission of Jesus when it rings familiar to their long-standing religious system, they cannot take root and abide in his word when he reveals the full implications of the life-giving truth of his messiahship. They cannot appreciate nor participate in the openness of the very figures of their religious history to which they appeal. Thus, even as authentic progeny, they choose to remain outside the covenantal realm of the children of God. The covenantal challenge given by Jesus to “the Jews” in the setting of the feast of Tabernacles is initially taken up in part by “many of the Jews” (v. 30). However, when the full messianic implication of abiding in the word of Jesus is revealed, they ultimately reject the covenantal gift to become children of God.

For his part, Jesus stands in the temple area in the midst of the feast of Tabernacles that celebrates the experience of God’s care for the children of Israel in the wilderness at Sinai and presents himself as the covenantal mediation of the experience of God’s life-giving care now and forever. As the one challenging what his opponents think they “know,” Jesus serves as the plaintiff in this symbolic covenant lawsuit.  However, at the same moment the participants in the Tabernacles celebration relive their ancestors’ experience of God through rituals of water and light, Jesus shows himself to be the living water and true light that reveals God to all who would open themselves to him and take root in his word, thus empowering them to become the covenantal children of God.  In this way he is also the ultimate judge.  In the dialogue of Tabernacles, Jesus reveals that all that is accomplished in that annual feast is perfected in him through the covenantal love between the true Son and the living Father, now and forever.

2.      During Jesus’ trial, explain how Pilate’s dismissive question, “What is truth?” (18:38) closes the door on his opportunity to be in covenant with God.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, is the only new character introduced in the passion narrative.  Because he is a character just introduced to this Gospel narrative and his assumed authority renders his action decisive for the remainder to the story, it behooves readers to pay particular attention to his role in this act of the passion drama. Pilate’s interaction with “the Jews” outside the praetorium is openly hostile and the two parties stand in clear opposition. However, his interaction with Jesus inside the praetorium is more complex. When Jesus’ interactions with his dialogue partners across the Gospel are also considered, we must clarify not only how Pilate’s dialogues with Jesus affect Jesus and where he stands in the Gospel narrative, but also how they affect Pilate and where he stands in relation to the gift of truth that forms the basis for the entire Gospel story.
In their first dialogue inside the praetorium (18:33–38a), Jesus reveals himself as a king whose kingdom is not of the world, but is nonetheless in the world (v. 36). Jesus’ role in establishing this kingdom is testifying to the truth so that all those who are of the truth may hear his voice and enter into and abide in relationship with him (v. 37; see 10:1–21; 13–17). He gives the gift of truth by giving himself both in his revelatory dialogues with those he encounters and, the reader has come to understand, in the giving of his life. According to the prologue, those who receive him (who are of the truth) are empowered to become children of God (1:12).  This self-revelation of Jesus to Pilate and the implicit gift of truth that accompanies it constitute an offer of covenant to Pilate. Pilate has come in to question Jesus openly, and as Jesus does in every encounter across the Gospel, he engages Pilate in a dialogue in which he offers himself as the gift of truth. By responding to Jesus the way Pilate does, with the brusque rhetorical question, “What is truth?” followed by an immediate exit (19:38), Pilate dismisses Jesus’ challenge. Further, he shows that he does not really understand the question, i.e., the truth of relationship in covenant with God that is at stake. By not being open to the revelation of Jesus and the offer of truth, Pilate fails to recognize the gift of truth that is standing in front of him. Therefore his attempts to remain neutral, to act as if the person and fate of Jesus has nothing to with him, also fail (18:38b—19:8). Eventually even his appeals to his own power before Jesus and his attempts to act decisively before “the Jews” fail as well (19:9–15).
The sheep that are of Jesus’ fold hear his voice of truth and enter into abiding covenantal relationship with him as empowered children of God. There are others who, when challenged by Jesus’ revelation of this gift of truth, not only reject the offer of relationship in covenant, but also use all human means to rid themselves of the perceived threat his person and offer constitute.  Pilate, then, constitutes a third possible response to Jesus as the questioner who is given the revelation of truth and the challenge to accept relationship as a child of God that Jesus’ offers.  In the end he proves himself to be so committed to human endeavor and the powers of this world (including his own) that he cannot understand what is really being asked of him. He fails to see the truth when it is standing before him and thus, despite all efforts to exert his own will, hands the Truth over to its enemies to be crucified.

3.      You see John 21 as an epilogue to the rest of the Gospel. How does the treatment of Peter and the beloved disciple instruct the Johannine community to continue to live as covenant-abiding “children of God” (1:12)?

I suggest that John 21 can be understood as an epilogue insofar as it brings the Gospel story beyond its conclusion into the time of its readers and clarifies the form and mission of the community it engenders.  Further, this narrative episode can be contextualized in terms of the problems emerging with the Johannine letters. Broadly speaking, the covenant relationship made possible by Jesus in the Gospel of John leaves its community of readers with only two commands: to love and to believe. However completely these truths are revealed, living through them as a community can become problematic over time when members differ on what exactly to love and to believe. The resulting issues can be summarized as an ecclesial problem and an authority problem.  The former is handled in the first part of John 21 (vv. 1–14), and the latter in the second part (vv. 15–25).  Who is to be included in the community? Everyone.  Who is the authority?  The second part of the epilogue and the reconstitution of Peter suggest the Johannine community should follow the mainstream authority of Peter.  However, the Beloved Disciple is still put forth as the model disciple.  He is the one the community should continue to turn to for a guide to living and loving in the new covenant as children of God.  The narrator closes by describing the unique mandate of the Beloved Disciple (vv. 21–25). He is the paradigmatic disciple and witness. Already in the first century of the church, there is a concern for the recognition of the pastoral role in authority and the testimonial role of discipleship. These roles do not have to be incorporated in one person. They can be, but they usually are not. The best disciple is not necessarily the best shepherd of the community. Therefore, in this Gospel these roles are embodied in two separate characters, Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The narrator then concludes his story by attesting to its limitless nature (v. 25). He speaks in the first person and sends his readers into the world and their shared future as the new covenant community of God as children living in the love and faith of Jesus.

4.      Could you discuss some other projects that you are working on now?

I have several articles recently out or in the pipeline.  I had a great time working with long-time friends Chris Skinner and Kelly Iverson who edited a volume in honor of our Professor and friend, Frank Matera who recently retired.  They presented it to him at the CBA at the end of June in honor of his 70th birthday.  The book is called Unity and Diversity in the Gospels and Paul: Essays in Honor of FrankJ. Matera and my article explores Paul’s theology and is called “Faith, Christ, and Paul's Theology of Salvation History.”  The other two articles in the pipeline have me returning to John, this time exploring characterization.  One of them focuses on John the Baptist and will appear in another volume edited by Chris Skinner and will come out in the spring of 2013 in the Library of New Testament series.  The other focuses on the role of the Greeks in the Gospel and will appear in a massive volume that explores all the characters in the Gospel.  It will also likely come out in early 2013.  At the moment my writing focus is entirely on an introductory level textbook on the Gospel and Letters of John.  It will follow the reading I established in the Giftupon Gift text but be aimed at an undergraduate/parish level. It has been a fun challenge this summer and will likely carry me through the academic year as well.  Further down the road Chris Skinner and I are now talking about editing a volume on virtue in John’s Gospel.  So there is always more to explore and more fun to be had!  Thanks for your interest in my work!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An Interview with Sherri Brown: Gift Upon Gift: Covenant through Word in the Gospel of John: Part I

In a provocative and well-written dissertation (Gift Upon Gift: Covenant through Word in the Gospel of John; Princeton Theological Monograph Series 144; Pickwick, 2010), Sherri Brown argues for the concept of the Old Testament covenant metaphor as the key to understanding the narrative of Jesus as portrayed by the Fourth Evangelist. Brown, who is currently a professor at Niagara University, completed this doctoral work under the expert supervision of Francis Moloney at the Catholic University of America in 2007. Recently, I had the good fortune of interviewing Sherri about her work. Part I of a two-part interview is below. Enjoy!

Sherri Brown standing outside the Temple Mount.

1.       In your Preface (viii.) you mention the origin of your now revised dissertation, Gift Upon Gift. Could you recount the seminar and the project you undertook that lead eventually to this book?

This is an interesting experience for me to recount because sometimes it can be remarkable to look back and see something providential occurring when you didn’t necessarily experience it that way at the time.  We found out the previous spring that Frank Moloney was going to offer a seminar the next fall on John 1-6, and since I had been looking forward to this, I registered.  The department then gathered for an end-of-the year cookout at my house (I was always finding reasons to have a party, but that’s another story).  I remember telling Frank then that I really wanted to work on Cana.  It wasn’t something that I had been planning, I was just certain at that moment that I wanted to do my seminar paper on John 2:1-12.  The next fall when the class met and we chose our passages, I was so eager that Frank just said something like, “we know, we know, you want Cana…”
We had a great seminar and everyone did interesting work.  I was just so compelled to “figure out” this strange dialogue between Jesus and his mother.  I had never been convinced by the work of others and felt sure the symbolism was prominent.  That said, I gladly built on the work of others, including Frank’s own insights on the symbolism of Pentecost across John 1-2, and found myself focusing on the concept of covenant and how the mother becomes a model of how to respond to Jesus’ often enigmatic and provocative words.  After my presentation, and with Frank’s support, we began to talk about how this approach could be extended across the Gospel and, of course, how I could write a dissertation on such a topic.  The rest, as they say, is history...

2.      Talk about the reticence of scholars to embrace the notion of covenant in John’s Gospel, and two, discuss some of the more recent works of Rekha Chennattu, Sandra Schneiders, and Jo-Ann Brant that help lay the groundwork for your own study.

The reluctance of scholars to embrace the presence of covenant imagery and symbolism in the Gospel of John is generally the result of a strict adherence to a historical-critical philological standard whereby if a word does not appear than the corresponding concept cannot be present.  Now, in other parts of our lives we are perfectly willing to accept that we can make a point without ever stating the primary term or concept on our minds.  We even do this purposefully on occasion for effect.  But the concern for eisegesis and general overreaching has led many scholars to refuse to accept this tactic on the part of our biblical authors.  Recently, more literary-oriented commentators like the ones you mention that I reviewed in my book have begun to lay the ground work for recognizing the more nuanced storytelling techniques of the biblical authors in general and the evangelists in particular.  Their work on John spurred me to take the next step and make the somewhat bold claim that not only is the covenant metaphor present in John, it is woven through the very fabric of his rich symbolic world.

3.      You state in your review of the concept of covenant in the OT, that it “…is the guiding literary and theological paradigm of the entire Hebrew Bible” (29). Later in the chapter, you mention that the concepts of “knowledge” and “truth” recall God’s covenants with Israel in the Prophets. How do these and other themes help illumine a covenantal reading of John’s Gospel?

In recent conversations with colleagues who work in the OT, I have learned that many of OT scholars are moving away from the metaphor of covenant as a historically unifying concept in Israel.  Nonetheless, as I tried to show in my work, and as many others have done before and after me, on the literary level the metaphor of covenant can be traced across the story of Israel from beginning to end.  As we read through the narrative we see Israel’s relationship with God grow and the covenant that forms the basis of this relationship develop and deepen.  Once we get to the 8th c. prophets, especially Isaiah and Hosea, we see the challenge to Israel by way of the accusation of breach of covenant. This is all based on the concepts of knowledge and truth.  Knowing God and relating to God in truth is right relationship, whereas failing to know God and not living in truth is breach of covenant.  These ideas permeate the prophets even though they rarely use the term covenant.  We see much of these same ideas in John.  Across this Gospel the Evangelist wants to show that Jesus challenges people and what they think they “know.”  Every time one of Jesus’ dialogue partners claims to “know” something from within a closed religious system, Jesus pushes them to see the truth of God’s action in the world.  Sometimes they respond positively, sometimes negatively, and sometimes they take some time to come around, like Nicodemus.  To live in the truth of the love and knowledge of God, then, is the fundamental purpose and the overarching hope of the OT covenant relationship.  John presents Jesus as the new gift of truth, if only those he encounters can see it and hear his words. This is, of course, is how John can use the symbolism and imagery of covenant without ever using the word.

4.      Could you describe how the dialogues, particular to John’s Gospel, help manifest the underpinnings of the concept of covenant, for instance, in the case of the wedding feast at Cana (2.1-12)?

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus teaches primarily through parables, we all observe that John’s Gospel presents Jesus as teaching through long discourses, most of which begin as dialogues.  In this way, Jesus encounters people and begins to converse with them where they are, but it isn’t long before he begins to push them past their comfort level and begins to challenge their ideas about how God works in the world.  At the wedding feast in Cana, we see the ground laid for how this is going to play out, though this first dialogue is quite brief and the mother of Jesus responds completely positively.  The festive scene is set and all the characters come together, but are immediately faced with a potentially shameful situation.  The mother of Jesus brings it to him and they have a brief, highly symbolic dialogue during which she responds by telling the servants (and readers) to do whatever he says. 
An overview of the covenant narrative of Israel’s scriptures produces five fundamental characteristics of the essence of biblical covenant texts and the covenantal relationship these texts emanate. The first and most basic characteristic is the aspect of chosenness. The second element characteristic of the OT covenant relationship is the offer of covenantal promises. Those chosen by God to participate in covenant relationship are made promises as part and parcel of establishing that particular obligation. The third characteristic that manifests is the corollary human response to the first two covenantal moves on God’s part: covenantal obedience in action. The first three characteristics of the OT covenant relationship each build upon the former to establish the relationship itself. Taken together, these three characteristics and the resultant relationship they form make possible the fourth characteristic: the abiding presence of God in creation and in the lives of those who accept the covenantal offer. Articulating the final characteristic of the OT covenant relationship in many ways brings us to the purpose of the entire activity: making God known in creation. The fifth basic characteristic is thus the knowledge of God. This knowledge includes understanding God’s binding loyalty (in terms of steadfast covenant love) and faithfulness (in terms of truth) in kinship with his people (see Hos 4:1–3).   The flourishing of this knowledge of God through the dynamic of daily living in covenantal obedience breathes life into the relationship between God and his people. Likewise, however, the failure or wearing out of this knowledge (see Isa 5:13) threatens the very existence of the covenantal relationship. This is the essence of this relationship and when these characteristics are overwhelmingly present in this literature, then the underlying fabric is covenant even if the term is not used by the biblical author.
The wedding scene at Cana is filled with the language and symbolism of covenant and even the backdrop of Pentecost.  The mother of Jesus becomes the model for how to respond to Jesus and her response becomes the one against which all others can be measured as Jesus’ ministry proceeds.  The ensuing dialogues become lengthier, more complex, and more intense, but they work in this same way.

5.      How does the Fourth Evangelist treatment of the feasts in 5-10, relate to the Johannine community?

In biblical literature, the feasts of Israel are presented as cultic celebrations that recall God’s saving action in the past and render that action present in the current community. The celebration of these festivals was also intimately connected with the experience of God’s covenantal action in and with creation.  If the Johannine Christians were indeed being expelled from the synagogues (see 9:22; 12:42; 16:2), they were not simply being excluded from these celebrations (a social experience), they may have felt that they were losing contact with the God of creation and God’s covenantal saving action in history (a religious experience).  As believers in the saving action of the Christ event, they were taught that covenantal relationship with God is engendered through the Word of Jesus.  But this still presents a problem: what about these feasts and the experience of God’s presence they facilitate?  Not only does the Fourth Evangelist have to care for the community members pastorally because they are no longer in that world, he also has to show God’s fidelity to them and God’s continuing presence in their lives as members of the new covenantal community.   This reshaping of the experience of God in the life of the community is the background for the indications of the feasts of Judaism in the Gospel (see 5:9b; 6:4; 7:2; 10:22).   The evangelist renders christological the feasts of Judaism.  It is Jesus the Christ who is now the perfection of Jewish liturgy and theology.   It is Jesus the Christ who reveals God’s presence in the ongoing lives of the community.  John 5–10 is the focus of the evangelist’s teaching on this topic as he describes Jesus’ actions and teaching during two major festivals of Judaism, Passover and Tabernacles, as well as during the feasts of Sabbath and Dedication.  The climax of John 10 is the revelation that Jesus and God are one.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Knowing in John 3: Jesus and Nicodemus Part II

For the previous two posts in this series, click here.

On the last post, we highlighted how Nicodemus, via his titles for Jesus ('Rabbi', 'teacher') and his language of 'knowing', demonstrated, ironically, just the opposite. If Nicodemus, a Pharisee, knows anything in his opening salvo to Jesus, his language betrays only a partial understanding at best (3:2).

Jesus' reply and the subsequent dialogue will be highlighted in the remainder of these posts (3:3-15). (I will save John 3:16 ff for another time.) Jesus responds to Nicodemus' statement with a statement of his own. "Very truly I tell you no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit" (3:3). What is translated, 'Very truly' (ἀμὴν ἀμὴν) is known as the double-Amen formula, unique to John's Jesus and seen previously in Jesus' response to Nathanael in 1:51. Another connection back to the Nathanael episode, is the fact, that both the former (Nathanael; 1:49) and the latter (Nicodemus; 3:2) both refer to Jesus as 'Rabbi,' demonstrating their insufficient knowledge of his identity. Thus far in John's narrative the 'kingdom of God' (τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ), has yet to appear, and Jesus' reference to being "born again/above" should recall to the reader/hearer the language of "the children of God" in 1:12,13. Those who do become "children of God" do so because they have "believed in his name" (1:12), in direct contrast to those who operate in darkness (1:5, 10-11). Once again, the metaphorical language Jesus is using here mirrors the dialogue Jesus has with 'the Jews' after the temple-clearing incident in 2:18-21. There 'the Jews' after asking for 'a sign' (σημεῖον) understand Jesus' metaphorical language at the literal level (2:20). Deepening the connection between these two dialogues is evinced by Nicodemus mention of 'signs'(τὰ σημεῖα), as a descriptor of who he believes Jesus to be. A seen in 2:18, 23-25, signs are insufficient in of themselves for knowing Jesus. If the reader/hearer keeps these details in mind, one can anticipate Nicodemus' response will be one of misunderstanding to Jesus' statement in 3:3.

In 3:4, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, like "the Jews" before him (2:20) take Jesus' statement literally, again, revealing ignorance. Jesus' response continues, veiled in metaphorical language (vv.5-8). One can almost hear the exasperation in Nicodemus' voice as he asks, "How can this be?"(3:9). Jesus' response is biting (vv.10-15). First, he calls, Nicodemus "Israel's teacher" (ὁ διδάσκαλος τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ). One should notice the irony here. Jesus, the one who has complete knowledge of all things, simultaneously rejects Nicodemus' insufficient title of 'Rabbi' and 'teacher' in 3:2, while affirming he knows Nicodemus' character, much like he knows Nathanael's in 1:47. Next, "...and you do not understand (οὐ γινώσκεις) these things?" recalls themes in the prologue 1:5,10, and recalls those who do not recognize Jesus' identity in 1:26; 2:9. Jesus goes on to say, "we speak of what we know (οἴδαμεν; 1:18,26,48;2:9,24) and we testify (1:7-8,15,32; 2:25) to what we have seen (ἑωράκαμεν; 1:18, 32-34,36,39,48.48b,50-51;2:23) but still you do not accept our testimony" (1:11,15,32-34;2:25). Once more, Jesus asserts his knowledge (3:11) over Nicodemus' perceived knowledge (3:2). Jesus highlights Nicodemus' imperception by using the famed Jewish form of argumentation, qal wahomer (lesser-to-greater), arguing that if Nicodemus doesn't understand Jesus' earthly argument he will not understand his heavenly one (3:12). In verse 13, Jesus proceeds to state that no has ever entered heaven "except the one who came from heaven- the Son of Man", similar to statements found in the prologue (1:14) and in Jesus quotation of Gen 28:12 in John 1:51, with particular reference to Jesus' preferred designation, 'Son of Man.'

Finally to conclude this post Jesus quotes Numbers 21:8,9 by recalling Moses' 'lifting up' of the snake in the wilderness, will be akin to Jesus ('Son of Man'; 1:51; 3:13) being 'lifted up' (ὑψωθῆναι) so that "everyone who believes in him (πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ; cf. 1:12-13) may have eternal life" (3:15). This 'lifting up' means both exaltation and a reference to the physical lifting up on the cross.

Conclusions: Jesus exposes Nicodemus' presumed knowledge of him to be insufficient at best. He rejects his inadequate titles ('Rabbi', teacher') in favor of his own ('Son of Man'), while demonstrating his complete knowledge of Nicodemus' character ('teacher of Israel). Nicodemus links Jesus' performance of 'signs' as to his identity as 'sent from God' (3:2). Jesus is 'sent from God' (1:1b) and as the one who makes God known (1:18) is still rejected by Nicodemus and those like him (1:10,11). It is telling that as the Light, (1:4-5; 9) Nicodemus approaches him under the veil of darkness (3:2), exemplifying those who do not recognize Jesus (1:10c) and those who reject him (1:11).


Saturday, September 8, 2012

'Knowing' in John 3: Jesus and Nicodemus Part I

This is the second in a series of posts that I am writing as I prepare for my John class. Again, these notes are based on my observations and not secondary literature. Also I am refraining from reading ahead in order to let the narrative set the pace for these thoughts. For my initial foray into the subject of 'knowledge' in John's Gospel click here.

One of the most famous episodes in John's Gospel and certainly of the dialogues that take place in the narrative, is Jesus' encounter with the Pharisee, Nicodemus at the beginning of chapter 3. The reader/ hearer has just been told at the end of chapter 2 that Jesus, while attending the Passover festival, performed many 'signs' (τὰ σημεῖα; cf. 2.11 ) that the people saw (θεωροῦντες; cf. 1.32) and as a result they 'believed in his name' (ἐπίστευσαν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ; 2.23; cf. 1.12). Surprisingly the reader/hearer is told that "Jesus would not entrust himself to them (ἐπίστευεν αὐτὸν αὐτοῖς), for he knew (τὸ αὐτὸν γινώσκειν)all people (2.24). He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew all people (ἐγίνωσκεν; 2.25). The knowledge of Jesus based purely on his performance of signs is clearly not enough.

In steps Nicodemus, a Pharisee (3.1). This marks the third confrontation that a Jewish leader has had with either John the Baptist (1.19 ff.) or Jesus (2.18 ff.). He comes to Jesus at night (νυκτὸς; 3.2). The reader should be aware of the significance of Nicodemus' timing. The prologue mentions that the light shines in the darkness (ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ) and the darkness (ἡ σκοτία) has not overcome/understood (καταλαμβάνω; 1.5). So, if one is sensitive to John's literary cue, one can imagine what might happen next. Next, Nicodemus' statement to Jesus in 3.2 is so dense with symbolic import, I will take a moment to unpack it bit by bit on what has transpired in the previous two chapters.

  1. "Rabbi": Nicodemus' first word to Jesus reveals his insufficient knowledge of Jesus. Formerly, two of John's disciples, one unnamed and the other Andrew address Jesus with this title of respect in 1.38. Also, Nathanael does the same in 1.49. I argued in the previous post, that these titles reveal insufficient knowledge of who Jesus is.
  2. "we know" (οἴδαμεν): Thus far, Jesus is the only one who really 'knows', as he reveals God (1.18), renames Simon (1.42); identifies Nathanael's character (1.47), understands the nature of the people at the Passover where he performed 'signs' (2.24). Those who do not know at different points in the narrative are John the Baptist (1.33), who doesn't know who Jesus is until God reveals it to him, the disciples whose subsequent attempts to give Jesus honorific titles based on their knowledge are only partial, at best (1.38, 41, 45, 49), and the Jewish leaders (1.26; 2.18-21). In Nicodemus' first few words, he has revealed his ignorance.
  3. "that you are a teacher..." (see notes above.)
  4. "For no one could perform the signs" (τὰ σημεῖα): The first of Jesus' signs that are performed is at the Wedding at Cana (2.1-11). The first hint of a somewhat negative emphasis on 'signs' occurs when "the Jews" confront Jesus after he clears out the Temple, demanding 'a sign' to verify his actions (2.18). The third time we hear of 'signs' are when Jesus performs them at the end of chapter 2, where belief based on his 'signs' is insufficient causing Jesus to distrust the crowds loyalties (2.23-25).
  5. "...if God were not with him. ": The reader already knows that God is with Jesus, i.e. the 'Word' based on 1:1b: "The Word was with God" (καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν). This makes Nicodemus' words full of irony.
Conclusion: In his opening statement, Nicodemus displays a level of knowledge of Jesus that is at best, partial. This continues a theme already established to this point in John's narrative that complete knowledge of Jesus' identity continues to be elusive to the characters in the narrative, with the exception of possibly, John the Baptist.

The next post will examine the remainder of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus (3.3ff.).

Friday, September 7, 2012

Friday's with Focant Postponed this Week

My normally scheduled Friday's with Focant series has been postponed for this week. I will be resuming activities next week with this series. Until then...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Notice: William Varner's new James commentary: EEC

Those of you who visit this blog may recall that I have discussed the new commentary series from Logos, The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, in the past.

Well, the latest release in the series, the contribution of William Varner on James looks to join the ranks of stellar contributions by Moo, McKnight, and Davids. I confess that I have not had much time to look at this contribution, but Varner has already piqued my interest with how James interacts with the thoughts of the philosophers of his time (i.e. Seneca, Epictetus, Philo, etc.).

I plan on dipping into this commentary in the near future to see what Varner says about some of the more controversial Jacobean passages.

Monday, September 3, 2012

'Knowledge' In John 1-2

(I have purposely refrained from consulting any secondary literature to this point, and these are merely to be regarded as observations..)

In preparation for The Gospel of John class that I am teaching at my church, I have begun writing annotated notes that I will fill-out more completely with the secondary literature as I go. I am also refraining from reading ahead, as I want to sort out the flow of the text as it was heard or performed for those hearing it for the first time. So, connections that occur later in the text will not be made here.

With those caveats aside, I was struck by the references to knowledge in the Gospel's opening chapters (1-2). Here are some of those observations:

1) The Word (ὁ λόγος) as the 'light' (τὸ φῶς) shines in the darkness, but paradoxically, the darkness does not 'overcome/understand it' (καταλαμβάνω; 1.5).

2) John is sent in part, to testify concerning the light, so all may believe (πάντες πιστεύσωσιν; 1.7)

3)  Even though the Word created the world (1.3, 10), the world did not 'recognize' (form of γινώσκω; 1.10) him, nor did they 'receive' him (1.11).

4) For those who do receive the Word, however, by 'believing in his name' (τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ; 1.12; cf. 2.23), they are given the privilege of becoming 'children of God'.

5) Jesus, identified as the Word in 1.17, himself God, makes God known (form of ἐξηγέομαι; 1.18).

6) The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem send priests and Levites to question Jesus, and after John's negative responses to their questions, he tells them, "...among you stands one you do not know" (οὐκ οἴδατε; 1.26)

7) Ironically, John claims that he himself did not know (οὐκ ᾔδειν 1.31,33) who Jesus was until after God instructs exactly what will happen during Jesus' baptism (1.33-34). Interestingly, here, 'sight' is connected with knowledge ( 'I saw[τεθέαμαι] the Spirit come down...' [1.32]; 'The man on whom you see [form of εἶδον]the Spirit come down...' [1.33]) Also, of interest here is John's double designation of Jesus as 'the Lamb of God' (vv.29, 35), after 'seeing' Jesus.

8) Jesus 'sees' John's disciples, asks them, 'What do you want?' When they respond, 'Where are you staying?, ' his response is 'Come, and you will see' (1.37-39).

9) Andrew summons his brother, Simon Peter, tells him that he has found the Messiah, with the other unnamed disciple (vv.41-42), and when Jesus 'looks' at Peter, he renames him, indicating intimate knowledge of his character (v.42)

10) After Nathanael skeptically asks, Philip, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Philip responds just as Jesus' does to John's two disciples in 1.39, 'Come and see' (1.46b). Jesus identifies  Nathanael, keeping in step with what the reader knows to this point of the Word in the prologue (1.3,10,18). When Nathanael incredulously asks Jesus how he 'knows' (γινώσκω; v.48) him, Jesus responds by telling him 'he saw' (εἶδον) him under the fig tree before Philip found him (v.48).  : Nathanael responds by giving Jesus three appellations: 'Rabbi' (cf. 1.38), 'Son of God' (cf. 1.14,18), and 'King of Israel'. This naming is also making an implicit claim on the part of Nathanael, that he 'knows' who Jesus is.

11) Jesus' response to Nathanael is telling: "You will see (εἶδον) greater things than that. will see (ὄψεσθε) heaven open, and the angles of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (1.51, quoting Gen 28.12).
What is telling about this verse, is that in the previous Nathanael, thinks he knows Jesus when he gives him the three titles, but Jesus in essence, tells him that he has seen nothing yet, and instead of adopting one of Nathanael's titles, gives himself the title 'Son of Man' (cf. Daniel 7.14).

In chapter 2, the narrative begins with the first sign (2.11) that Jesus performs, namely, the wedding at Cana (2.1-12). After Jesus instructs the servants of the wedding to fill the six stone jars with water (2.7), he then asks them to pour some out and take it to the master of the banquet (2.8).  Next, the master tastes the water turned to wine, and the narrator states: "he did not realize (οὐκ ᾔδει; cf. 1.10) where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew" (ᾔδεισαν; 2.9).

Skipping down to the end of chapter two, while at the Passover festival, Jesus performed many 'signs' (τὰ σημεῖα; cf. 2.11 ) that the people saw (θεωροῦντες; cf. 1.32) and believed in his name (ἐπίστευσαν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ; 2.23; cf. 1.12). With this language recalling the privilege of being called children of God ringing in the readers ears, along with similar language found at the conclusion of his first 'sign' affecting his disciples (2.11; cf. 1.12-14), one would expect the next two verses to be a positive in Jesus' nascent ministry. Instead, the narrator shocks the reader, by stating that "Jesus would not entrust himself to them (ἐπίστευεν αὐτὸν αὐτοῖς), for he knew (τὸ αὐτὸν γινώσκειν)all people (2.24). He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew all people (ἐγίνωσκεν; 2.25).

Concluding observations: So what does all of this 'knowing' language point to in the first two chapters of John's Gospel? So far, a few things are evident. First, only God's Son really knows anything. Jesus reveals God, making him known (1.18), renames Simon Peter (1.42), identifies Nathanael's character (1.47), while revealing intimate knowledge of his actions (1.48), knows the intentions of those who believe in him solely due to his miracles (i.e. 'signs'; 2.24-25).

The Jewish leaders are presented as those who abide in darkness and do not recognize or receive Jesus (1.19-27; 2.18-21; cf. 1.5; 10-11). Even those on the inside, namely, John (1.33), Andrew (1.41), Philip (1.44), Nathanael (1.49) all have incomplete knowledge of him at best. Those who follow his signs, including his disciples (2.11; 2.23) have missed knowing Jesus truly and completely.