Sunday, April 2, 2023

The scourging of Jesus was interrogation, not punishment

James Tissot, La flagellation de dos (1886-1894)

This is from the Passion narrative in John 18:38-19:6.

[38] Pilate . . . went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, "I find in him no fault at all. [39] But ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the passover: will ye therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews?"

[40] Then cried they all again, saying, "Not this man, but Barabbas." 
Now Barabbas was a robber.

[19:1] Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. [2] And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe, [3] and said, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and they smote him with their hands.

[4] Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, "Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him."

[5] Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, "Behold the man!"

[6] When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, "Crucify him, crucify him." 
Pilate saith unto them, "Take ye him, and crucify him [yourselves]: for I find no fault in him."

Pilate presents a Jesus who has visibly just undergone brutal physical punishment and says he is showing the Jews this "that ye may know that I find no fault in him."

This only makes sense if the scourging, the crown of thorns, and the other abuse from the soldiers was a form of interrogation by torture, not a first round of preliminary punishments prior to the crucifixion itself. Pilate is saying, in effect, "Look: We beat him, we mocked and provoked him, we gave him forty stripes save one -- and he still didn't confess to anything. This is an innocent man."

Pilate had been expecting to elicit either a confession or some seditious threat -- something along the lines of Paul's "God shall smite thee, thou whited wall!" -- but Jesus didn't give him anything.

Monday, March 27, 2023

There wasn't originally supposed to be a King of the Jews.

"Rabbi, thou art the son of God; thou art the King of Israel" (John 1:49). So said Nathanael when he recognized Jesus as the Messiah, because that's what Messiah meant: King, heir to the throne of David.

When Jesus appeared before the Roman governor Pilate, they had this interesting exchange regarding his status as King of the Jews (John 18:22-29):

Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, "Art thou the King of the Jews?"

Jesus answered him, "Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?"

Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?"

Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence."

Pilate therefore said unto him, "Art thou a king then?"

Jesus answered, "Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice."

Pilate saith unto him, "What is truth?"

And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, "I find in him no fault at all. But ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the passover: will ye therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews?"

"Thou sayest" is ambiguous and has been interpreted variously as a confirmation ("You said it!") or as a disavowal ("That's what you say!"). On balance I would say that Jesus probably does in some sense accept the title King of the Jews, but one thing he makes tolerably clear in this passage is that, whether he accepts the title or not, he didn't come up with it. "Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?" -- Pilate is the one giving him this title, and he most likely got it from the Jews.

From this point on, Pilate keeps pushing this King of the Jews idea -- perhaps somewhat sarcastically, but nevertheless persistently: "Behold your King! . . . Shall I crucify your King?" (John 19:14-15). The Jews respond that they have no king but -- no, they don't say "God"; they say "Caesar."

Pilate puts a sign on the Cross identifying Jesus as the King of the Jews.

Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, "Write not, 'The King of the Jews'; but that he said, 'I am King of the Jews.'"

Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written" (John 19:21-22)

Pilate was right, and the priests were wrong; their proposed modification of the sign would have been a lie. Jesus isn't the one who said he was the King of the Jews. He appears to have accepted the title -- he said nothing to contradict Nathanael, or the crowds on Palm Sunday who hailed him as "the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord" (John 12:13) -- but he repeatedly made it clear that it wasn't his idea.

If we go back in the Old Testament to the origin of the office of King of Israel, we find a strikingly similar story: that it was definitely not God's idea, but that in the end he decided to go along with it.

When the prophet-judge Samuel was getting old, and his sons were not seen as worthy heirs, the Israelites asked him to appoint a king.

But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, "Give us a king to judge us." And Samuel prayed unto the Lord.

And the Lord said unto Samuel, "Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. . . . Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them."

And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king (1 Sam. 8:6-10).

Samuel tries to dissuade the people, telling them how a king would tax and oppress them, but they insist.

And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the Lord.

And the Lord said to Samuel, "Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king" (1 Sam. 8:21-22). 

Samuel installs Saul as king, telling the people,

And ye have this day rejected your God, who himself saved you out of all your adversities and your tribulations; and ye have said unto him, Nay, but set a king over us. Now therefore . . . see ye him whom the Lord hath chosen" (1 Sam. 10:19, 24).

I find this fascinating. It is very clear that neither Samuel nor the Lord wants the people to have a king. When they insist, the Lord says through Samuel, "Fine, have it your way" -- but does not leave them to their own devices. Instead, the Lord himself chooses who the king will be and reveals it to Samuel. From then on, King Saul is simultaneously "the Lord's anointed" (i.e. messiah, 1 Sam. 24:6, 10) and someone accepted by the people in defiance of the will of the Lord. The Lord never wanted the Israelites to have a king, but once they did have a king, those who followed that king were "men whose hearts God had touched," while those who were skeptical or contemptuous of the new monarch were "children of Belial" (1 Sam. 10:26-27).

Later, Samuel gives a speech in which he again emphasizes (a) that asking for a king was wrong and was an affront to the Lord, (b) that the king was nevertheless set over them by the Lord himself, and (c) that despite their repentance, the plan is now to go forward with a king, in accordance with their wrong choice.

"And when ye saw that Nahash the king of the children of Ammon came against you, ye said unto me, 'Nay; but a king shall reign over us': when the Lord your God was your king. Now therefore behold the king whom ye have chosen, and whom ye have desired! and, behold, the Lord hath set a king over you.

"If ye will fear the Lord, and serve him, and obey his voice, and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then shall both ye and also the king that reigneth over you continue following the Lord your God: But if ye will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then shall the hand of the Lord be against you, as it was against your fathers. . . ."

And all the people said unto Samuel, "Pray for thy servants unto the Lord thy God, that we die not: for we have added unto all our sins this evil, to ask us a king."

And Samuel said unto the people, "Fear not: ye have done all this wickedness: yet turn not aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart" (1 Sam 12:12-15, 19-20).

Saul quickly became an unsatisfactory king. First he began encroaching on the priestly authority of Samuel, and eventually he became mentally unstable and unpredictably violent. This would have been a perfect time for the Lord to say, "See, this is what it's like having a king. Do you see now why it was the wrong choice? Let's go back to the old system we had when Samuel was in charge."

But the Lord doesn't do that. Instead, he appoints them a new king to replace Saul. And that king is David -- the central figure of the Old Testament, second only to Jesus in terms of how often he is mentioned in the Bible. And David, this great king chosen by God, became the prototype for the Messiah; the Messiah's primary role, as anticipated by the prophets, was to be a second David. The Synoptic Gospels have Jesus repeatedly hailed as the "son of David" and even present him as the literal descendant of David and heir to the throne of Israel -- even though God had never originally intended for there to be a throne of Israel.

What to conclude from all this? That "God's plan" is flexible and responds to the free choices of men -- even when it comes to something as fundamental as the Messiah. What is true of David is true also of the other main figure on whom the idea of the Messiah was based: Moses. The career of Moses would have been impossible, or incalculably different, if Joseph's brothers had never sold him into slavery. As Joseph later told his brothers, "ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good" (Gen. 50:20) -- not that having Joseph sold into slavery was God's plan all along, but that the plan is adaptable and responds to human freedom. Even a choice that is unambiguously the wrong choice -- and Samuel makes it very clear that asking for a king was such a choice -- can be exapted to the very highest ends.

I mean, it has to be that way, right? Otherwise, either (a) human misdeeds could frustrate and bring to nought the plans of God or else (b) God could achieve his purposes only by undoing the wrong choices of men, making human freedom meaningless. The Israelites got a king because they chose to have a king, and God respected that choice and eventually turned it to good. Ideally, Creation is, as an American politician once said of life, "the art of drawing without an eraser."

Another thing to learn from this is that there is no contradiction in saying that a given thing was inspired, chosen, and directed by God -- but that it wasn't what God really wanted. Saul was the Lord's anointed, the king chosen by God -- but also God didn't want them to have a king at all. What else might this be true of? The Catholic (or some other) Church is God's true church -- but also an institutional church was never what God wanted. The U.S. Constitution was inspired by God -- but also systems based on voting are bad. I'm not asserting either of those things, just pointing out that they are possibilities.

This applies to our personal lives as well. Perhaps you have made some serious misstep in life -- chosen the wrong career, married the wrong person, whatever -- but, be that as it may, God's plans for you now very likely involve working through those originally-wrong choices and turning them to good, not trying to undo them and make them as if they had never been.

Fear not. Ye have done all this wickedness, yet turn not aside from following the Lord.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Earth accuses earth: The Pericope Adulterae (Notes on John 7:53-8:11)

I have been ruminating over this passage for quite a long time without reaching any very firm conclusions, but I think it's time I posted what I have, in the hope that others may have some useful comments, and so that I can move on with the rest of the Gospel.

Since this is a narratively simple episode, best discussed as a gestalt, I shall depart from my usual practice of interspersing the text with my commentary. Instead, the text is reproduced at the beginning for the reader's convenience, and my commentary, organized by topic rather than by verse, follows.

The text

[53] And every man went unto his own house.

[8:1] Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.

[2] And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

[3] And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, [4] they say unto him, "Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. [5] Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?"

[6] This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.

But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

[7] So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."

[8] And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

[9] And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

[10] When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, "Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?"

[11] She said, "No man, Lord."

And Jesus said unto her, "Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more."

Does this episode belong in the Fourth Gospel?

This passage is of dubious authenticity. A very large number of the oldest manuscripts exclude it entirely, while many others mark it as questionable. Some include 7:53-8:2 but exclude 8:3-11, or vice versa. A handful relocate it to a different part of the Fourth Gospel (after 7:36, 8:12, or 21:25) or even to the Gospel of Luke (after 21:38 or 24:53). The broad consensus of scholars is that it was not part of the original text of the Fourth Gospel, though it may still be an authentic story about Jesus. Of course, another possible explanation for its inclusion in some manuscripts but not others is that it was in the original but was removed by later editors.

I will say first of all that John 7-8 flows better if this pericope is not included. In 7:14, Jesus appears in the Temple and begins to teach; in 8:59, he leaves the Temple. The text between those two verse is presented as a sort of dialogue, with Jesus' teachings interspersed with reactions from the Pharisees and others. Right in the middle of this we have the Pericope Adulterae. The Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus, but in the end they all leave, one by one, until "Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst" (8:9). He then tells the woman to "go, and sin no more" (v. 11), and so she apparently leaves as well. So now Jesus is all alone in the Temple, but the very next verse begins, "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying . . ." Okay, so maybe it was only the Pharisee accusers who left, not the other people in the Temple -- but in v. 13 Jesus is immediately answered by "the Pharisees," and the dialogue continues! It would almost make more sense if 7:52-8:2 (where everyone goes home, Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives, and they meet again at the Temple the next morning) were placed after 8:3-11 rather than before it, but no manuscript has this, and anyway in 8:20 Jesus is still in the Temple, not on the Mount of Olives.

Placing the pericope after John 8:12 is even worse, since v.13 not only has the Pharisees responding (after they had all just left) but pretty clearly responding to what Jesus said in v. 12. Those manuscripts that put the pericope at the very end of the Gospel, after the epilogue, are obviously including it as a sort of appendix ("here's one more story about Jesus we found") rather than as part of the text itself. The only attested Fourth Gospel position for the pericope that seems to work fine textually is after 7:36 -- but there is virtually no support for this placing, which occurs only in a single manuscript dated 1192.

As for the content of the pericope, I find it to be more Synoptic than Johannine in nature.

For example, the story begins (for unclear reasons, since nothing happens there!) with a reference to Jesus going to the Mount of Olives -- a place mentioned three times each in Matthew and Mark, and four times in Luke, but nowhere else in the Fourth Gospel. In all three Synoptics, for example, the Mount of Olives is where Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested; in the Fourth Gospel, this takes place "over the brook Cedron, where was a garden" (John 18:1). Since Jer. 31:40 specifies that the brook Kidron was in a valley, these are not two ways of referring to the same place, despite the tradition of conflating them into a non-biblical "Garden of Gethsemane." (Only the Fourth Gospel mentions a garden; Gethsemane is a "place" on the Mount of Olives, mentioned in Mark and Matthew.)

This is also the only place in the Fourth Gospel where we read of the Pharisees "tempting" Jesus (cf. Matt. 16:1, 19:3, 22:18, 22:35; Mark 8:11, 10:2, 12:15; Luke 10:25, 11:16, 20:23) "that they might have to accuse him" (cf. Matt. 12:10; Mark 3:2; Luke 6:7, 11:54). This is clearly more of a Synoptic trope, as is the portrayal of the Pharisees as "hypocrites" (a word that does not appear in the Fourth Gospel) who accuse others of sin without being sinless themselves. The refusal to punish the adulteress is also broadly consistent with the "resist not evil" morality of Matthew. In contrast, the only arguably "Johannine" content I can find in this episode is limited to the expressions "Moses in the law" (cf. John 1:45) and "sin no more" (cf. John 5:14).

Based on these considerations, I would assume that this pericope does not really belong to the Fourth Gospel and should be treated the way we treat material from the Synoptics or the non-canonical Gospels -- accepting it only tentatively, and only to the extent that we judge it to be consistent with the message of the Fourth Gospel. I take the other Gospels seriously and consider them valuable -- traditions about Jesus must have come from somewhere, and the default hypothesis is that they came from things Jesus really said and did -- but they must be interpreted in light of what the Fourth Gospel tells us was Jesus' central message. I obviously do not read the Fourth Gospel "in isolation" as Bruce Charlton does in Lazarus Writes -- but I do, per my blog title, insist on putting it first.

The nature of the Pharisees' test

Moses said that "the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death" (Lev. 20:10) but did not technically specify stoning as the method of execution. That was the form the Mosaic death penalty generally took, though, and can be inferred in this case, too.

What was the catch-22 here? If Jesus had disagreed with Moses, that would obviously make him a heretic and a false prophet -- but if he had agreed to have the woman stoned? I don't think the first-century public would have found that shockingly cruel or anything; rather, the plan was to get Jesus into trouble with the Romans.

When Jesus was taken to Pilate, Pilate said, "Take ye him, and judge him according to your law," to which the Jews replied, "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death" (John 18:31). When Pilate finds Jesus not guilty and declines to execute him, the Jews protest, "We have a law, and by our law he ought to die" (John 19:17). Therefore, when they said it was "not lawful" for them to execute anyone, they were referring to Roman law, not the Law of Moses. The Romans gave the Jewish leaders some authority to govern and police their own, but they did not have the right to impose the death penalty. The scribes and Pharisees were trying to goad Jesus into defying Roman law. (This again marks this episode as belonging more to the Synoptic tradition, with its "Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?" stories, than to the Fourth Gospel.)

Jesus' options (as intended by the Pharisees) were (1) to stone the woman in defiance of Rome, in which case the Jews would report him and have him arrested; (2) to let her go unpunished, or with some lesser punishment, in which case he could be accused of not following Moses; or (3) to accuse her before the Romans, in which case he could be accused of collaborating with the pagan occupiers. This third may not even have been a real option, since the Romans did not generally punish adultery with death anyway. Honor killings by family members were permitted in some circumstances, but courts typically punished adultery with fines or exile; perhaps non-citizens would have been treated differently, though.

But if this was a catch-22 for Jesus, why would it be less so for the Jewish authorities? How did they deal with cases of adultery? I would assume that, not wanting to anger the Romans, they went with option two and let it go unpunished or with a lesser punishment. The handful of references to stoning in the Gospels (Luke 20:6; John 8:59, 10:31-33) suggest that it was a sort of mob violence, not a punishment formally imposed by the Jewish leaders, although Jewish leaders did participate in the attempted stoning of Paul and Barnabas at Iconium (Acts 14:5). Subject to Roman compulsion, they had no choice but to let certain aspects of the Mosaic Law go unenforced. Why was this okay for them but not for Jesus? Why couldn't he just throw the question right back at them and ask whether they thought the woman ought to be stoned?

Because he was supposed to be the Messiah, and they weren't. The Messiah was supposed to throw off the Roman yoke and make the Law of Moses once more the law of the land. Faced with the same question they posed to Jesus, the Pharisees could say that the Roman occupation regrettably made it impossible to implement the teachings of Moses as fully as they should like, but that all this would be rectified when the Messiah came and assumed the Throne of David. For Jesus to say anything like that, though, would be tantamount to admitting he was not the Messiah.

"This they said tempting him," the author writes, meaning testing him. It is possible that this was, at least to some extent and for some of the Pharisees, a genuine test proposed in good faith. The real Messiah would not be afraid of the Romans but would fearlessly execute the law of Moses. So, was Jesus the real Messiah?

The meaning of Jesus' writing on the ground

"As though he heard them not" is not in the original text but was considered by the King James translators to be implied by the context.

What did he write? Why did he write it instead of saying it? Why does the Gospel not tell us what he wrote? The medium must in some important way have been the message here; the fact of his writing on the ground with his finger was at least as important as the content of what he wrote.

A extremely clever, though of course entirely speculative, medieval tradition holds that he wrote, "Earth accuses earth." 

Jesus writing "Terra terram accusat" (Codex Egberti, 10th century)

This is such a perfect proposal that I wish I had thought of it myself! First, it succinctly expresses one of the main meanings of the pericope: the hypocrisy of those who accuse others of being what they themselves are -- in this case, mortal men and sinners, "of the earth, earthy." Second, by writing it on the ground instead of saying it, Jesus figuratively makes the earth itself accuse them of this hypocrisy. Earth accuses earth -- Heaven, represented by the Son of God, will not. Finally, the story ends when each of the accusers "being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one." Jesus had accused no one of sin; each accused himself. Earth accuses earth.

One hesitates to argue with perfection by proposing anything else that Jesus may have written instead -- but, well, rushing in where angels fear to tread is pretty much what we do on this blog, isn't it? I have no hope of coming up with anything as lapidary as "Earth accuses earth," but I'm not going to let that stop me from exploring the question.

"Earth accuses earth" focuses on the fact that Jesus wrote his message on the ground, but the other relevant point is that he wrote it with his finger. Doesn't that call to mind the "two tables of stone written with the finger of God" (Deut. 9:10, Ex. 31:18), the very source of the commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery"? Was Jesus' action meant to remind them of this? Was he subtly claiming to be the very God who gave Moses the Law? Is it possible that Jesus wrote on the ground, "Thou shalt not commit adultery," endorsing the Mosaic precept while simultaneously claiming to be its Author, at whose discretion it is enforced?

Also of possible relevance is Jeremiah 17:13.

O Lord, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.

The juxtaposition of "written in the earth" with "the fountain of living waters" is very interesting because in the Fourth Gospel as we have it now, the Pericope Adulterae comes just a few verses after Jesus says, "He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:38). This is evidence that the story does belong here after all.

The most common interpretation of Jeremiah's "written in the earth" is that it refers to impermanence -- that those who forsake the Lord will disappear like words written in the dust. A minority view is that it means "recorded in the underworld" or "listed among the dead." Whatever the precise meaning of the phrase, the point is that those who are "written in the earth" are those who "have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters." The Pharisees knew the prophetic literature very, very well and would surely have understood the allusion, particularly if Jesus had just recently been talking about rivers of living water. Could he have written the names of the Pharisee accusers in the earth -- with all Jeremiah had made that imply?

"Written in the earth" also contrasts with "written in stone" -- the latter expression meaning, with reference to the stone tables of Moses, that something is fixed, unalterable, and non-negotiable. What is "written in the earth," in contrast, can be read now but will have disappeared by tomorrow. This may be a reference to the idea that "the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). As I said of this passage in my notes on John 1:

Mosaic "truth" was limited by its character as a set of laws -- that is, generalizations derived by abstraction and implemented by ignoring most of the specific details of any given situation. Laws as such can only aspire to be rough approximations of the truth, which is ultimately individual, specific, personal. Christ -- at least the Johannine Christ -- brought both grace and truth by transcending law.

Jesus' choice to respond to the Pharisees' question by writing in a medium designed to be temporary and ephemeral may have meant that he did not intend to establish a law or set a precedent to be followed rigorously in all future cases.

More generally, this episode highlights the fact that Jesus was able to write but, unlike a Moses or a Muhammad, chose not to deliver his message in the form of a new sacred text. "New Moses" though he may have been, he had no interest in producing Torah 2.0. The fact that we have multiple Gospels, all of uncertain authorship, all somewhat mutually contradictory, may have been something Jesus positively intended, a feature rather than a bug. Like Socrates, who also famously left no written works, Jesus brought not a new body of doctrine to be accepted on authority, but a new way of thinking and living -- written, as Paul of Tarsus would later put it, "not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart" (2 Cor. 3:3). It is ironic that mainstream Christendom has nevertheless come to treat four of the Gospels, and even the epistles of Paul, precisely as the Pharisees treated the carved-in-stone pronouncements of Moses. (Socrates was spared this fate, which instead fell to his grand-disciple Aristotle.)

Jesus' response as a rhetorical riposte

Considered only as a clever way of getting out of the trap that had been set for him, Jesus' response is pretty good. In theory, he is endorsing the Mosaic punishment and calling for it to be executed -- but the way in which he calls for it ensures that no stoning will actually take place, and thus no trouble with the Romans. Furthermore, he pretty much forces the accusers to admit that they themselves are sinners and unworthy judges. I'm sure the real reason many of them left was that they were afraid of the legal consequences if they took it upon themselves to carry out a vigilante execution -- but after what Jesus had said, it could only look as if they had left due to their guilty conscience. Rhetorically, this was a successful move.

A possible rejoinder from the Pharisees would have been to ask why Moses allowed sinners to cast the first stone. But perhaps he didn't. At a time when sin was strictly defined by 613 highly specific commandments, there may have been quite a few people who could say they were "without sin" -- just as many of us today can honestly say we have no criminal record. Jesus' rhetorical demand that a sinless person cast the first stone served to highlight how Man's understanding of sin had changed and deepened since the days of Moses -- yes, even among the legalistic Pharisees. In Mosaic times, when sin and crime were interchangeable, it would have been perfectly reasonable to insist that the law be enforced by those who were not themselves criminals. But to the people of Jesus' time, who understood that everyone was a sinner, the Mosaic approach no longer made sense.

Going by our stereotype of the Pharisees, we would expect one of them to have confidently stepped forward and said, "I keep all 613 commandments faithfully and even tithe mint, anise, and cumin. Hand me a stone." Why didn't they? Two reasons, both of which I have already mentioned.

First, they were afraid to defy Rome by carrying out a vigilante execution. Second, they really were "convicted by their own conscience"; human consciousness had changed a lot since the days of Moses, and even the Pharisees -- living after Isaiah and all the others -- realized that sin was something deeper and broader than the Mosaic list of thou-shalt-nots. Even the rich young man who confidently said of the Mosaic commandments, "All these things have I kept from my youth up," immediately added, "What lack I yet?" (Matt. 19:20). People understood that sin was universal, that no one could claim to be morally perfect. If nothing else, some of the Pharisees must have realized that being unwilling to defy Caesar to obey Moses -- fearing man more than God -- was itself a sin.

One possible weakness of Jesus' answer, as a rhetorical strategy, is that after inviting the one without sin to cast the first stone, he himself didn't cast the first stone, either. Wouldn't the Pharisees have used this against him, saying that Jesus had implicitly admitted to being a sinner and could therefore not be the Messiah? In theory, they could have, but they obviously didn't. If they wanted to argue that Jesus was a sinner, it was much easier and less embarrassing to bring up his Sabbath-breaking and such, rather than this episode.

Jesus' response as a precept of criminal justice

I have said that Jesus' writing in the earth may have been meant to show that he was not proposing some timeless principle to be applied in all cases. Nevertheless, we never expect Jesus to engage in mere rhetorical tricks; he must also have been teaching and exemplifying some concept of more general applicability -- but the message he appears to have been conveying is a difficult one to accept: that only those who are themselves "without sin" have the right to punish criminals -- meaning that no one has the right to punish criminals, except God, who generally refrains from doing so in this life, as does Jesus in this story. This is a hard saying; who can hear it? It is certainly understandable why the pericope has been so controversial. It is in broad harmony with Jesus' other teachings in the Synoptics and particularly Matthew -- resist not evil, turn the other cheek, give to him that asketh thee, put up again thy sword into his place, do good to them that despitefully use and persecute you -- but how could human society function if people lived by such a maxim? We have all heard a million times how all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing; and how we first pity, then endure, then embrace -- and many of us have observed in real time what happens when laws are not enforced, and just how swiftly the seeds of decriminalization and tolerance blossom into mandatory celebration and moral inversion.

To be clear, Jesus is certainly not saying that adultery is not blameworthy -- his "neither do I condemn thee" is immediately followed up with "sin no more," implying that the woman is guilty of sin -- but, human nature being what it is, wouldn't a policy of not punishing adultery encourage people to think that adultery is acceptable? It is not practical or desirable for all sins to be criminalized and punished, whether by society at large or by the Church -- but this naturally leads into the trap of paying less attention to sins that are not formally "against the rules," or thinking of them as not really being sins. This is analogous to the tendency of methodological naturalism in science to slide into metaphysical naturalism: We begin by excluding something from consideration for a particular practical purpose and end by excluding it from consideration altogether. Haven't we seen how hard it is for people to distinguish between "You will not be punished" and "You have done nothing wrong," between tolerance in the sense of mercy and tolerance in the sense of "diversity is our strength"? I mean, look what a slippery slope the decriminalization of sodomy turned out to be!

I don't have an answer to this. It is an observed fact that God, with very few exceptions, does nothing to stop people from doing bad things. That is to say, God does not enforce a moral law. (He seems to have done so more in the past, whether by direct intervention or indirectly through the Mosaic theocracy, but this is no longer the case and was already no longer the case in the time of Christ.) One possible interpretation of this is that we should imitate God in this -- "that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matt. 5:45). Another is that God doesn't enforce laws for the same reason that he doesn't provide food, shelter, and clothing for us: because he expects us to do it ourselves. Jesus' initial silence in response to the Pharisees could be interpreted as supporting the latter view: Don't ask me how or whether to punish adultery; that's for you mortals to work out. His later, verbal reply, though, seems to imply the opposite: that for mortals to pass judgment on mortals is hypocritical and unjust.

Jesus' response as a spiritual precept

Most of us to whom the Gospel has come are not political or religious authorities in a position to punish or pardon sins, and so we are inclined to interpret "let him who is without sin cast the first stone" figuratively, as being about psychological attitudes of condemnation and forgiveness and about "being judgmental."

When the story is approached in this way, I think it is best understood in conjunction with the very similar saying about the mote and the beam (Matt. 7:3-4, Luke 6:41-42). "First cast out the beam out of thine own eye" -- not because it's "not fair" for one sinner to pass judgment on another, but because "then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." This matter of seeing clearly is the central point of the mote-and-beam saying, and is why sin is referred to with the rather unusual metaphor of having something in your eye. Judgment, condemnation, and punishment may in many cases be right, necessary, and good -- but the human desire to punish is very rarely pure. Adultery is wrong and should have consequences, but those who pounce on one of their fellow sinners, haul her before the authorities, and howl for her blood are very rarely motivated by love, or even by a lofty passion for justice in the abstract. Their -- our -- vindictiveness much more often flows from a half-conscious congeries of insecurities, projections, overcompensations, and other such psychological phenomena for which we have the benefit of a much richer technical vocabulary than did Jesus' contemporaries, and they -- we -- desire the punishment of the sinner not so much despite as because of their -- our -- own guilty conscience.

This is not to say that stones must never be cast -- not at all -- but that the more sinful we are, the less we can see clearly when they should be, and at what targets -- and those who can see clearly see, as often as not, that stone-casting is not the answer. Overall, any enthusiasm for casting stones is a symptom and tends to disqualify one to do so.

Jesus lived and taught during the reign of Tiberius, and -- well, so do we. That is, we, too, live in a time of grotesque wickedness and depravity in high places, and not only in high places; and dwelling on the moral horrors all around us, and on precisely what those people deserve, is a constant temptation. Even when our moral judgments are right -- as the condemnation of adultery is right -- the thoughts, and the emotions that drive them, often do us little credit. "I hate them that hate thee, O Lord, . . . with perfect hatred" (Ps. 139:21-22) is an Old Testament stance. Jesus, we are told in the Gospel of Thomas, said rather, "Become passersby."

I once had a colleague who had a maddening but ultimately very helpful habit. Any time I made any negative comment on the behavior or character of anyone else, he would always say, "Yes, you're absolutely right. In fact, he's just like you that way!" and then, unfailingly, come up with some specific example of something I had once done that was in some way similar to what I was complaining about. He was remarkably, almost supernaturally, good at this, and you can imagine how annoying it was! He never did this when he himself was criticized, only when people criticized others to him. And he never actually defended the person; he would always enthusiastically agree: "Wow, what an asshole! It reminds me of that time you . . . ." And he could always think of something, something specific and true. I don't know if that means we tend to complain most about the things that remind us of our own faults, or if it just means that pretty much everyone has the same sorts of failings, differing only in degree, but at any rate his skill at finding such parallels was remarkable and remarkably infuriating. He never volunteered criticisms, either, except in response to hearing someone else criticized; he was like a living, breathing embodiment of "Judge not that ye be not judged" (Matt. 7:1).

Matt -- I'll call him Matt -- obviously didn't win any friends this way, but he did influence people. As you might imagine, I quickly learned to check myself before criticizing anyone else in his presence. At first I'd just think, "No, I'd better not say that, or he'll say something about me," but soon enough I was doing Matt's work for him and imagining specifically what he might say. In other words, I developed the habit of, before criticizing anyone else, thinking about the question of how I myself might be guilty of something similar. I may have gotten a little rusty in the years since I worked with Matt, but I think it was a worthwhile habit to develop. The Rosary prayers serve as a sort of reminder, with all their first person plural pleas for mercy: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" -- "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners" -- "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of hell; lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy." That last is particularly effective: praying for "those in most need of thy mercy" -- those one is naturally inclined to "hate with perfect hatred" -- but to word it as a prayer for us rather than for them. After all, we're only ordinary men.

When someone we know falls gravely ill or dies, our thoughts naturally turn to our own mortality and to the shortness and unpredictability of life. We should have a similar reaction when someone is "taken in adultery, in the very act," or anything similar. Rather than being occasion for gloating or vindictiveness, such incidents should turn our thoughts to our universal human frailty and remind us to "consider your ways. . . . Thus saith the Lord of hosts, consider your ways" (Hag. 1:5, 7).

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Revisionist speculations about the “doubting Thomas” story

This is extremely speculative, and it casts more doubt on the straightforward reading of the Fourth Gospel than my notes usually do, but I wanted to put it out there and see what people think. The idea came to me quite suddenly as a sort of epiphany, which is why I’m posting it now rather than saving it for my notes on John 20.

One of the strange things about the “doubting Thomas” episode is that Thomas insists specifically on touching Jesus’ crucifixion wounds before he will believe. Isn’t that weird? Wouldn’t you take it for granted that the body of a resurrected person would be restored to its perfect condition, with no wounds? Herod Antipas reportedly believed that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead — even though John had been beheaded, and Jesus presumably had his head firmly attached, without so much as a scar around his neck. And I’m sure it never occurred to Herod to see that as evidence against his belief. People rising from the dead still wounded or maimed as they were when they died — with all due respect to St. Denis of Paris, that’s really more the stuff of zombie movies than of divine miracles.

What I was taught in church (the Mormon Church, but I suppose other churches must say something similar) was that in general people are resurrected with perfect bodies, but that Jesus himself was an exception. He chose to keep the wounds from his execution so that he could show them to his disciples as a sign. Isn’t that still weird, though? Why would they need or expect such a sign? Again, Herod didn’t expect the risen John to have decapitation wounds. If Thomas had seen and touched the risen Jesus, but a risen Jesus whose wounds had been healed, would he really have refused to believe? On what grounds?

Well, suppose Jesus had an identical twin brother. Then Thomas’s request would make sense. The wounds would be the proof that this was really Jesus who was crucified, not his never-crucified brother who looked just like him. Well, as it happens, there are (non-canonical) stories about Jesus having a twin brother! Does that explain Thomas’s request? Well, no, not in any straightforward way, because the identity of this possible twin is none other than Thomas himself! I believe this is made explicit only in the Gnostic Book of Thomas the Contender, but we can connect the dots in other sources as well.

For starters, Thomas isn’t actually a name but the Aramaic word for “twin”; the Fourth Gospel adds that he was also called Didymus, which is “twin” in Greek. Now that is definitely not a normal nickname; twins come in pairs, making “the Twin” a uselessly ambiguous designation. It might work, though, if the other twin were someone extremely famous and important — like, oh, I don’t know, Jesus Christ.

What was his real name, then, if it wasn’t Thomas? The canonical Bible doesn’t say, but both the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas say that his name was Judas. And what do you know, both Mark and Matthew say that Jesus had a brother named Judas. In the Fourth Gospel, “Judas, not Iscariot” is considered a sufficiently clear descriptor, so apparently there were only two Judases among Jesus’ close associates, and Thomas must have been one of them. (Against this, we have Luke's list of the Twelve Apostles, which includes both Thomas and two other Judases.)

Okay, so let’s tentatively accept as a working hypothesis that Thomas was Jesus’ twin brother Judas. How do we reconcile that with what I was saying before, about how Thomas may have been demanding proof that Jesus was Jesus and not his twin? This is where I had my eureka moment.

In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples, “but Thomas . . . was not with them when Jesus came” (20:24). Jesus therefore appears again, when Thomas is among those present, and lets him touch his wounds. In Matthew, in contrast, we are told that the eleven remaining disciples (the twelfth, Judas Iscariot having hanged himself) all “saw him [and] worshipped him, but some doubted” (28:17).

In the Fourth Gospel, it’s clear enough why Thomas doubts: because Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared. In the Matthew account, though, even some of the disciples who saw Jesus doubted. Why? Same reason: Because Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared. Without seeing them both in the same room, they couldn’t be sure that this seemingly risen Jesus wasn’t really just Judas the Twin. Jesus resolved this problem by appearing again and letting them touch his wounds, proving that he was the crucified twin and not the uncrucified one.

Now imagine that this story gets passed on — that Jesus appeared to his disciples but some doubted because Thomas wasn’t there — but at some point the key fact that Thomas was Jesus’ twin brother is lost. Wouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world for people to assume that Thomas, the one who wasn't there, was the one who doubted, and for the story to morph into the form in which we now have it in the Fourth Gospel?

The next question to ask, then, is why Thomas wasn’t there. Was he just busy that day? Had a bar mitzvah to go to or something? It's possible, I guess, but it doesn't seem likely. Note, though, that Matthew specifies that only eleven of the twelve disciples were present, and that the one who was absent was a fellow named Judas. We have been assuming that Judas the Twin, a.k.a. Thomas, was the disciple the Fourth Gospel calls "Judas not Iscariot" -- but supposing he were the other one? What if Judas Thomas were that Judas, and Jesus was betrayed by his own twin brother? That would certainly put a new spin on John 7:1-5, where Jesus' brothers seem to be pushing him to go to Judaea and be killed by the Jews.

One obvious objection to the proposal that Jesus and Judas Iscariot were twin brothers is that the Fourth Gospel repeatedly refers to the latter as "Judas Iscariot, Simon's son." Jesus' father wasn't called Simon, which would seem to rule out the two men's being brothers. This objection is easily dealt with, though. In every case, the Greek says Ἰούδας Σίμωνος Ἰσκαριώτου, "Judas of Simon Iscariot," and the assumption that the genitive means "son of" in this case is only an assumption. In Acts 1:13 and Luke 6:16, the grammatically parallel Ἰούδας Ἰακώβου, "Judas of James," is rendered "Judas the brother of James" in the King James Version and many other translations, although some translations go with the "son of" reading. And the same passages in Mark and Matthew (Mark 6:3, Matt. 13:55) that tell us Jesus had a brother named Judas also tell us that he had another brother called Simon. So "Judas of Simon" could well have been Jesus' brother.

I'm not sure yet how far I want to entertain this line of speculation -- it's a departure from my usual practice of taking the Fourth Gospel pretty much at face value -- but I'll be keeping it in the back of my mind for a while and seeing if it sheds light on anything else.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Trust the experts (Notes on John 7:40-52)

On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus has just stood up and cried, "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:37-38). We pick up the story with the people's reactions.

[40] Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, "Of a truth this is the Prophet."

"The Prophet" means the Taheb, the prophet like unto Moses, whose coming is promised in Deut. 18. I assume the people reacted this way because providing "living" (i.e. running) water was one of the miracles of Moses, and there was a general expectation that the Taheb would do what Moses did.

As I mentioned in "The Samaritan understanding of the Messiah," one of the three signs by which the Samaritans were to identify the Taheb was that he "will produce, at his hand, the staff" of Moses "in order that miracles be performed thereby." In Exodus 17:1-7, the people come to Moses saying, "Give us water that we may drink," and the Lord instructs him to smite a rock with his rod, causing water to flow out.

Jesus didn't literally have Moses' rod, and thus would not qualify as the Taheb by the standards of early 20th-century Samaritans, but there is no reason to assume that first-century Judaeans had the same specific (and extra-biblical) list of requirements. The promise of "rivers of living water" is distinctly Mosaic, and in the context of Jesus' other teachings and miracles, it may have been enough to convince many people that he was the Taheb.

[41] Others said, "This is the Christ."

We know from the Fourth Gospel itself that some people understood the Taheb and the Messiah to be two separate figures (see John 1:25), while others equated the two (see John 1:45). Since I know of no prophecies that would specifically connect the Messiah with living water, I assume these people are saying that Jesus is not only the Taheb but also -- in light of the other things he has said and done -- the Messiah.

But some said, "Shall Christ come out of Galilee? [42] Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?"

The Taheb had no specified birthplace or ancestry (aside from being an Israelite) and was in fact often expected to come from the Northern Kingdom (including what later became Galilee). The Messiah, though, was to be a descendant of David, and thus a Judaean. The more specific expectation that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem is based on Micah 5:2.

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, of course, tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, though the details are different. In Matthew 2, Jesus is born in Bethlehem because that's where his parents live, but the family has to flee to Egypt shortly after he is born; when they return from Egypt, Joseph is warned in a dream not to return to Judaea but to go to Galilee. In Luke 1-2, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth, but they have to go to Bethlehem for a census, and Jesus is born while they are there.

If the author of the Fourth Gospel also knew that "Jesus of Nazareth" had actually been born in Bethlehem, it seems almost certain that he would have mentioned it here, but he doesn't. It therefore seems most likely to me that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, but that, due to the widespread understanding that the Messiah must be born there, various stories to that effect began circulating, two of which made it into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (See my post "The parentage and birth of Jesus in the four Gospels" for more details.)

[43] So there was a division among the people because of him.

Some thought he was both Taheb and Messiah, some thought he was Messiah only, and I'm sure some thought he was neither.

[44] And some of them would have taken him; but no man laid hands on him.

[45] Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, "Why have ye not brought him?"

[46] The officers answered, "Never man spake like this man."

This is referring back to v. 32, where, hearing that the people were entertaining the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, "the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take him." This apparently means to arrest him. As we can see in John 18:31, the chief priests enjoyed some degree of autonomy under Roman rule and were allowed to enforce their law, though not to execute the death penalty.

"Would have" means "wanted to," so v. 44 in isolation makes it sound as though someone attempted to arrest Jesus but were unable to do so -- because he escaped, was miraculously protected, etc. In the following verses, though, we see that the officers didn't even attempt to arrest him, being impressed by his words and thinking that he might really be the Messiah after all. So those who "would have taken him" are the Pharisees and chief priests, and they failed to do so because the officers they sent were unwilling to carry out their orders.

[47] Then answered them the Pharisees, "Are ye also deceived? [48] Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? [49] But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed."

For ordinary people, Jesus' miracles, teachings, and air of authority made it obvious that he was someone very special -- the prophet like unto Moses, or perhaps even the Messiah. The Pharisees, with their detailed knowledge of the Law (meaning not only the Torah of Moses but also the prophetic writings and, for Pharisees, the "Oral Torah" of tradition), knew that, despite his impressiveness, Jesus didn't actually fulfill the Messianic prophecies. And they were right; he didn't -- except in their broadest, most figurative sense. (See my post "Jesus and the Messianic prophecies: Summary and conclusions.")

"Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?" -- the first-century equivalent of our "Trust the experts!" Have you got any peer-reviewed papers to back that up? Any reliable sources? Rather than discern for themselves based on firsthand experience of Jesus, ordinary people were expected to defer to the spiritual "experts." And these experts in turn, rather than using their discernment, were primarily concerned with how well Jesus measured up against their bulleted list of Messiah Rules -- consisting of assorted lines of prophetic poetry (for all Old Testament prophecy is poetic in form) plucked from their context and collated to form a checklist.

These are the people who rejected Jesus, and this is why they rejected him. These are the people who were so blinded by the narrow specificity of their expectations that they could ask -- immediately after witnessing the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 -- "What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee?" (John 6:30). These are the people who dismissed one miraculous healing after another because, in the opinion of all the most respected Torah scholars, the mighty works had been performed on the wrong day of the week.

Those who believed in Jesus, in contrast, acknowledged such problems but trusted their own experience and discernment first. Pushed to condemn the man who had healed him as a sabbath-breaker, the man born blind said, "He is a prophet. . . . Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see" (John 9:17, 25). Faced with some of Jesus' shocking and seemingly unacceptable statements, Simon Peter's reaction was, "This is an hard saying; who can hear it? . . . [But] to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God" (John 6:60, 68-69).

Jesus' sabbath-breaking, his cryptic and deliberately provocative statements, his general failure to do what the Messiah was supposed to do -- one of the purposes of all this was surely to force this very separation of the sheep from the goats, to force people to choose to defer to authority and respectability or else to trust in their own direct experience of God. "It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes" (Ps. 118:8-9).

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:22-24).

Against the confident dismissal of the Torah-thumpers with their Messianic checklist, Nicodemus diffidently suggests that gaining some direct knowledge of who Jesus is (as he has already secretly done himself) might be in order before passing judgment.

[50] Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) [51] "Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?"

Can we judge a man without even bothering to find out what he says or does? And the answer is: Yes, as a matter of fact we can. All we need to know is that he's from Galilee.

[52] They answered and said unto him, "Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet."

Now to be clear, nowhere in the Bible does it say there will never be any prophets from Galilee, and the canonical prophets came from various places and were not all even Israelites. In fact, if Nicodemus had followed the rhetorical suggestion that he "search, and look" in the prophecies for references to a Galilean prophet, he might have found one. Matthew did, at any rate:

And leaving Nazareth, [Jesus] came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, 'The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; the people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up' (Matt. 4:13-16, quoting Isa. 9:1-2).

Nazareth itself is not coastal ("by way of the sea"), which is why Matthew, alone among the Gospels, has Jesus living in the coastal Galilean town of Capernaum for a while -- just as, to fulfill another "prophecy," he has him live in Egypt for a time. Matthew's reading of Isaiah is extremely dubious. In context, Isaiah 8-9 prophesies that Assyria will invade Judah (8:7-7), bringing "trouble and darkness" (8:22), but that this darkness will not be so severe as it was when the Assyrians invaded Galilee (9:1, this earlier invasion is recounted in 2 Kgs. 15:29) and will be followed by the "great light" Matthew cites. Whatever the merits of his (mis)readings of the prophets, though, Matthew uses the Pharisaic "prophecy checklist" method to support belief in Jesus and thereby demonstrates that sympathetic Pharisees like Nicodemus could have done the same. But they didn't, because that's not what their belief in Jesus was based on.

It's interesting that the mere absence of any positive prophecy of a Galilean prophet was taken as proof that no such prophet would arise. Must every prophet be himself the subject of prophecy? Was anything about the careers of Elijah, Isaiah, and the other biblical prophets foretold in advance? It appears that the Pharisees believed that Malachi was the last prophet with the three exceptions foretold in scripture: Elijah, the Taheb, and the Messiah. We can see this in their reaction to John: "Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?" (John 1:25). The possibility that John, or Jesus, might just be a prophet, not one of the prophets whose coming was foretold, does not seem to have occurred to them. The Messiah comes from Bethlehem, Elijah comes from heaven, and the Taheb was generally expected to be either a Levite or from one of the tribes of Joseph -- ergo, no Galilean prophet.

Several religions have taught that their founder was the Last Prophet until the coming of the very last prophet. For the Samaritans, Moses is the last prophet until the New Moses, the Taheb. For Muslims, Muhammad is the last prophet until the Mahdi. For many Christians, Jesus is the last prophet until just before the Second Coming (when, according to the Apocalypse he will be preceded by two prophets playing Elijah- and Moses-like roles). Moses, Jesus, Muhammad -- these all make sense in the role of Ultimate Prophet -- but Malachi? A minor prophet who doesn't even get his own book in the Jewish version of the Bible? It appears as if prophecy just sort of petered out among the Hebrews, and at some point, after a sufficiently long time had passed with no plausible claimants to the title, it was retroactively decided that Malachi had been the last (except for the prophesied trio of Elijah, Taheb, and Messiah). Christians seem to have agreed with this assessment for the most part; in the King James Bible, it says "The end of the Prophets" after the last verse of Malachi; and John and Jesus are not exceptions, but were understood to be, respectively, Elijah and Taheb/Messiah. It's very curious, and I wonder how and when it was decided that there would be no ordinary prophets after Malachi. (Something roughly similar can be seen in the "end of the Apostolic Era" in Christianity. Jesus' own disciples were not the last, since Paul is accepted as an Apostle, but at some point after that the role of Apostle just quietly disappeared.)

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Living water, the Holy Ghost, and Jesus as Elisha (Notes on John 7:37-39)

Jesus is in Jerusalem during the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles. His attendance at the feast was a surprise -- he had told his brothers he wasn't going to attend, let the Judaeans spend a few days asking, "Where is he?" and then finally made a public appearance on or around the fourth day. Now, on the seventh and last day of the feast, he makes another appearance.

[37] In the last day, that great day of the feast,

The seventh and last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) is Hoshana Rabbah, the Great Supplication. On this day (according to Mishnah Sukkah 4:5-6), worshipers would circle the altar seven times, to the accompaniment of trumpet blasts, and recite Psalm 118:25, "Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord: O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity." This was supposed to recall the miraculous fall of the walls of Jericho, and also the seven Hebrew words of Psalm 26:6, "I will wash mine hands in innocency: So will I compass [i.e., circle] thine altar, O Lord." Furthermore, "There was a unique custom on the seventh day. They would bring palm branches to the Temple and place them on the ground at the sides of the altar, and that seventh day of Sukkot was called: The day of the placing of palm branches."

I mention all this by way of background, in case it should turn out to have any symbolic relevance to Jesus' words and actions on this day.

Jesus stood and cried, saying, "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. [38] He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."

No passage in the Old Testament says anything about living water flowing from the belly of the believer, so what is Jesus referring to here? Well, the lack of punctuation in the Greek original allows for quite a few different readings.

Reading A: "'If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink,' he that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said. Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."

Reading B: "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. 'He that believeth on me,' as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."

Reading C: "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink, he that believeth on me. As the scripture hath said, 'Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.'"

In Reading A, the "scripture" Jesus is referring to is presumably Isaiah 55:1 -- "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters" -- of which v. 37 is a tolerably close paraphrase.

In Reading B, the scripture reference is simply "he that believeth on me," which could be a paraphrase of any number of Old Testament passages. If Jesus had one in particular in mind, my best guess would be Jeremiah 17:5-8, which says that those who trust in men will be thirsty, but those who trust in the Lord will have plenty of water.

Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited.

Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.

Readings A and B, as well as the King James reading, say that it is from the believer's belly that the living water will flow. Reading C allows for the possibility that Jesus is quoting a scripture about himself: "The scripture says that 'out of his (the Messiah's) belly shall flow rivers of living water.' Therefore, anyone who is thirsty can come to me (the Messiah) and drink." I can't find any scripture that actually says that, though, and overall I think we should understand the living water to be flowing from the believer himself. This is consistent with John 4:14:

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

As here in John 7, the water first comes from Jesus ("If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink") but thereafter flows from within the believer himself ("He that believeth in me . . . out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."). This idea is also present to a certain extent in the Old Testament, where those who follow the Lord will be "like a spring of water, whose waters fail not" (Isa. 58:11).

[39] (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)

This is the author's interpretation of what Jesus meant, but I think it is a plausible one. As I have said, both Chapter 4 and Chapter 7 portray the living water as something that comes from Jesus first but thereafter flows from within the believer. In the same way, the Holy Ghost comes from God but then dwells in the Christian's heart and becomes an internal source of guidance and inspiration.

This idea that the Holy Ghost could not be given until after Jesus was "glorified" (resurrected and ascended) is based on something Jesus himself says later in the Gospel:

Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you (John 16:7).

Was the Holy Ghost something new that was given after Jesus "departed" and was "glorified," or was it the return of something old that was paused during Jesus' mortal life? Does the Holy Ghost appear in the Old Testament? There are only two occurrences of "holy spirit" in the OT. The first is Psalm 51:11, quoted below in its poetic context (vv. 10-12).

Create in me a clean heart, O God;
    and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence;
    and take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation;
    and uphold me with thy free spirit.

I think it is tolerably clear in context that "thy holy spirit" is parallel with "a right spirit" and "thy free spirit," and that none of these refers to the Holy Ghost in anything like the Christian conception. The penitent (for this is one of the Penitential Psalms) is asking the Lord to make him a good person, to put a good spirit in him -- "thy" spirit because it comes from God, but still the Psalmist's own spirit, not the literal indwelling Spirit of God himself. This was apparently the understanding of the King James translators as well, as they left "holy spirit" uncapitalized.

The second reference is in Isaiah 63:10-12, which is also poetry.

But they rebelled,
    and vexed his holy Spirit:
therefore he was turned to be their enemy,
    and he fought against them.
Then he remembered the days of old,
    Moses, and his people, saying,
Where is he that brought them up out of the sea
    with the shepherd of his flock?
where is he that put his holy Spirit within him?
That led them by the right hand of Moses
    with his glorious arm,
dividing the water before them,
    to make himself an everlasting name?

In the first reference, "his holy Spirit" pretty clearly refers to God. The pronouns in the second reference are a bit ambiguous, but the most likely reading is "he (God) that put his (God's) holy Spirit within him (either Moses or Israel)."

If we include references that don't use the word "holy," we can find references to the "spirit of God" or "spirit of the Lord" entering or "coming upon" Joseph (Gen. 41:38), Bezaleel (Ex. 31:3; 35:31), Balaam (Num. 24:2), Othniel (Judg. 3:10), Gideon (Judg. 6:34), Jephthah (Judg. 11:29), Samson (Judg. 14:6, 19; 15:14), Saul (1 Sam. 10:6, 10; 11:6; 19:23), David (1 Sam. 16:13), Saul's messengers (1 Sam. 19:20), Azariah (2 Chron. 15:1), Jahaziel (2 Chron. 20:14), Zechariah (2 Chron. 24:20), and probably several others. (I have excluded ambiguous references, such as those in Job and Isaiah.)

In the Gospel of Luke, the Holy Ghost "falls upon" or "fills" John the Baptist (1:15), Mary (1:35), Elisabeth (1:41), Zacharias (1:67), Simeon (2:25-26) -- all technically before the birth of Jesus, and so consistent with the idea that the activity of the Holy Ghost was suspended during his mortal life. John the Baptist is almost certainly an exception, though. An angel tells John's father that John "shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb." This would be a strange thing to say if the Holy Ghost were going to leave John as soon as Jesus was born -- especially given that John was only about six months older than Jesus!

And of course the most obvious exception to "no Holy Ghost during Christ's mortality" is Christ himself. Luke says this most explicitly: At Jesus' baptism, "the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him . . . and Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness" (Luke 3:22, 4:1). In the other Gospels, what fell on Jesus at his baptism is called the "Spirit of God" (Matt. 3:16) or just "the Spirit" (Mark 1:10, John 1:32-33).

Only the Fourth Gospel explicitly says that the Holy Ghost could not be given until after Jesus' death and glorification, but the other three Gospels are more or less consistent with this. Acts (a continuation of Luke) relates how the disciples received the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, shortly after the Ascension -- and it is implied, if not stated directly, that this was something new, which they had not received during Jesus' mortal ministry.

Nowhere is it said that anyone other than Jesus himself received the Holy Ghost during Jesus' mortal life -- but John, having received it in the womb, before Jesus was born, presumably retained it even while Jesus was alive. Can it be a coincidence, then, that Jesus received the Holy Ghost when he was baptized by John? Was John, prior to baptizing Jesus, "full of the Holy Ghost" in some unique and unprecedented way? ("A prophet?" Jesus had said of him. "Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet." What did that "much more" mean?) And at Jesus' baptism, did this unique gift pass from John into Jesus? ("He must increase, but I must decrease.") Jesus said that John was in some sense Elijah, and one of the things Elijah is famous for is passing on "a double portion of his spirit" to his successor, Elisha (see 2 Kgs. 2) -- and this even took place at the River Jordan, the very place where Jesus was baptized! The names Elisha and Jesus have the same meaning, except that a different name of God is used. (Elisha means "My God is salvation"; Jesus means "Yahweh is salvation." Elijah, very neatly, means "My God is Yahweh.") 

The author of the Fourth Gospel writes of Jesus that "God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand" (John 3:34-35). Is this a subtle reference to Elisha's "double portion" of prophetic spirit? Elisha received a double portion of the spirit that had been in Elijah, but Jesus received the whole -- an infinitely greater portion -- of the Holy Spirit that had been in the new Elijah, John. And could that somehow be the reason that the Holy Ghost was not available to anyone else while Jesus was alive -- that he had "all of it"? This is a strange thought, as we are not accustomed to thinking of God as being limited in such ways, but it seems like a possibility worth exploring.

We are in the habit of seeing Jesus as a new Moses and a new David. A "new Elisha" is not an idea that comes readily to mind, partly because Elisha, despite supposedly receiving a double portion of Elijah's spirit, didn't really outshine Elijah in anything like the way that Jesus outshone John, and therefore seems like a relatively minor prophet. It makes perfect sense, though, that Jesus would symbolically be Elisha to John's Elijah, and I have already noted that the feeding of the five thousand, particularly as told in the Fourth Gospel, alludes unmistakably to that prophet.

I'm not sure yet where this line of thinking is going to lead. I'm just throwing out ideas and trying to connect some dots.

I was going to do the rest of Chapter 7, but I think this post is long enough as it is.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Was Jesus acting as King of the Jews during the Feast of Tabernacles?

In John 7:14-15, we are told that "about the midst of the feast [of Tabernacles] Jesus went up into the temple, and taught. And the Jews marvelled, saying, 'How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?'" From the reaction, it is clear that Jesus' teaching involved reading from the scriptures, and I have argued that the passage he read was likely Malachi 2:1-3:1.

Today I became aware of another possibility: Every seven years, during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), the king -- when there was a king -- was supposed to stand up in the temple and read from Deuteronomy. We are told in Mishnah Sotah 7:8 that Herod Agrippa (who reigned AD 41-44, just after the time of Christ) did this.

How is the portion of the Torah that is read by the king recited at the assembly, when all the Jewish people would assemble? At the conclusion of the first day of the festival of Sukkot, on the eighth, after the conclusion of the Sabbatical Year, they make a wooden platform for the king in the Temple courtyard, and he sits on it, as it is stated: “At the end of every seven years, in the Festival of the Sabbatical Year” (Deuteronomy 31:10).

The synagogue attendant takes a Torah scroll and gives it to the head of the synagogue that stands on the Temple Mount. And the head of the synagogue gives it to the deputy High Priest, and the deputy High Priest gives it to the High Priest, and the High priest gives it to the king. And the king stands, and receives the Torah scroll, and reads from it while sitting.

King Agrippa arose, and received the Torah scroll, and read from it while standing, and the Sages praised him for this. And when Agrippa arrived at the verse in the portion read by the king that states: “You may not appoint a foreigner over you” (Deuteronomy 17:15), tears flowed from his eyes, because he was a descendant of the house of Herod and was not of Jewish origin. The entire nation said to him: Fear not, Agrippa. You are our brother, you are our brother.

And the king reads from the beginning of Deuteronomy, from the verse that states: “And these are the words” (Deuteronomy 1:1), until the words: “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And he then reads the sections beginning with: “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4–9), “And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken” (Deuteronomy 11:13–21), “You shall tithe” (Deuteronomy 14:22–29), “When you have made an end of the tithing” (Deuteronomy 26:12–15), and the passage concerning the appointment of a king (Deuteronomy 17:14–20), and the blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 28), until he finishes the entire portion.

The same blessings that the High Priest recites on Yom Kippur, the king recites at this ceremony, but he delivers a blessing concerning the Festivals in place of the blessing concerning forgiveness for iniquity.

Is it possible that Jesus read from Deuteronomy in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, thus implicitly taking on the role of King of the Jews?

The first thing is to consider is the date. Was it a Sabbatical Year when Jesus taught in the Temple? Well, John 2:20 tells us that the first Passover of Jesus ministry was the 46th year of the construction of the Temple of Herod, which historians estimate to be around AD 27-29. This was after Jesus was baptized by John, and Luke 3:1-2 tells us that John didn't begin baptizing until the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, which year began in September of AD 28. Passover is in March or April, so the best estimate for the first Passover of Jesus' ministry would be AD 29. After that, one more Passover is mentioned (John 6:4) and then the Feast of Tabernacles we are presently considering. Assuming there were no other intervening Passovers left unmentioned by the author, we can estimate that Jesus preached in the Temple in the fall of AD 30.

The Sabbatical Year in Agrippa's reign ended in AD 42, so the previous two Sabbatical Years would have ended in AD 35 and AD 28. Thus, based on such (admittedly spotty) chronological information as we have, it was not a Sabbatical Year when Jesus preached in the Temple.

Turning to the details in the Mishnah, we are told, rather confusingly, that the Torah reading took place "at the conclusion of the first day of the festival of Sukkot, on the eighth." What does "on the eighth" mean here? Sukkot is a seven-day festival, running from 15 to 21 Tishrei, so there is no eighth day of Sukkot, and no day of Sukkot is on the eighth of the month. And in any case, how could the eighth come "at the conclusion of the first day"? Anyway, we are told that Jesus appeared in the Temple "about the midst of the feast" -- and whatever the Mishnah is trying to say, it pretty clearly isn't talking about the middle of the festival. So even if it had been the right year for the king to read from Deuteronomy, it wasn't the right day.

Finally, the Mishnah describes a rather elaborate ceremony: The attendant gives the Torah scroll to the deputy high priest, who gives it to the high priest, who gives it to the king. In the absence of a king, some other "leader of the Jews" (someone of Nicodemus's class) would do the honors. It seems highly unlikely that some random Galilean rabbi would have been able to waltz in, take the Torah scroll, and read -- at least not on this special day.

I'm not sure how access to the scrolls would have been managed on other days. The Jews' surprise at discovering that Jesus is literate makes sense only if he has just read from the scriptures. Quoting bits of scripture from memory -- well, any Jew could do that, even John the Baptist, who lived in the desert and ate bugs.

In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus stands up in a synagogue, and "there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias," from which he proceeds to read. This was a local synagogue in Nazareth, though, and even there someone had to "deliver" the scroll to him. Would it have been as easy as that in the Temple itself, during a major festival? I guess the answer to that must be yes, since Jesus did read from the scriptures in the Temple. Perhaps during the less important middle days of the feast, the scrolls were made available to any rabbi who wished to preach.

All in all, I think Jesus' reading from the scriptures in the Temple during Sukkot was supposed to hint at his identity as Messiah -- but only in a broad way. Since it was not the correct year, nor the correct day, I don't think there would be any need for him to read from the correct book, Deuteronomy. I therefore stand by my earlier proposal that the book he read from was Malachi.

The scourging of Jesus was interrogation, not punishment

James Tissot, La flagellation de dos  (1886-1894) This is from the Passion narrative in John 18:38-19:6. [38] Pilate . . . went out again un...