Monday, February 15, 2021

Walking on water (Notes on John 6:15-25)

Yongsung Kim, Walking on Water

He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

 -- William Cowper, "Light Shining out of Darkness"

I mentioned in my last post that the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle to show up in all four gospels. However, Jesus' most iconic miracle is perhaps the one that follows: walking on water. (Luke is the only gospel to omit this one.) Even today, if we want to express the idea that someone is saintly and can do the impossible, we don't say he can raise the dead or turn water to wine, but that he can walk on water. The lizard Basiliscus basiliscus is commonly known as the Jesus Christ lizard -- because it can run across water, and because walking on water is one of the most salient connotations of the name Jesus Christ.

The Fourth Gospel often contrasts Jesus with his greatest predecessor, Moses of Egypt. Moses turned water to blood; Jesus turned water to wine. Moses brought plagues; Jesus healed. Moses produced water from a stone and manna from heaven; Jesus offered living water and the bread of life. And what is Moses' most iconic miracle? Parting the Red Sea.

Chosen as instantly recognizable examples of miracles
(Two of them really happened!)

This parallel and contrast -- that Moses and Jesus both miraculously crossed the sea on foot, but in strikingly different ways -- has to be part of the meaning of this episode in the Gospel and must be borne in mind as we attempt an interpretation.

And here we go.


[15] When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.

Ironically, they wanted to make him a king because they recognized him as the Prophet like unto Moses (considered by many to be the same person as the Messiah) -- and so Jesus went and made the Moses parallels even stronger by going up into a mountain by himself! They must have expected him to return carrying two stone tables.

Can you force someone to be a king? Well, yes, I suppose you can. If everyone's following you, then you're their leader whether you like it or not.

What would "making him a king" have entailed? Assuming the Jews would have done things by the book, it would mean taking him to Jerusalem to be anointed (the equivalent of being crowned) by the high priest. They were apparently confident that the high priest would be willing to do this, so they must have thought they had rock-solid proof that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Of course, openly declaring a King of the Jews would invite immediate and merciless reprisal from the Romans, so they must have been confident that Jesus could defeat them. This is further evidence that the feeding of the five thousand was not the "miracle" of everyone sharing their food but rather a miracle in the strict sense of an apparent violation of the laws of nature. After seeing it, they believed that Jesus could do anything -- including calling down fire from heaven on the Roman forces or whatever should turn out to be necessary. They thought he was unstoppable.


[16] And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea, [17] And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them.

Apparently they waited for several hours for Jesus to come down the mountain -- and when he didn't, they just left without him! Why did no one go up into the mountain to look for him? Superstitious dread, I would assume. When Moses -- or a second Moses, which amounts to the same thing -- goes up a mountain and tells you not to follow him, you don't follow him. Just leaving seems strange, too, but what else could they do? Sleep there in the open air, with no food and no magical loaf-multiplier? And for all they knew, Jesus was going to be up on that mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. So they went home.


[18] And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.

[19] So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid.

The distance they had rowed from the shore was about three or four miles. The Sea of Galilee is 13 miles long and 8 miles wide -- so, depending on the direction they were going, they may have been near the center of the sea, as far from shore as possible.

The "great wind" mentioned in v. 18 must be kept in mind. Jesus was not walking across a calm sea as across a frozen lake but was negotiating an ever-changing landscape of churning waves. Even with a magical ability to walk on water without breaking the surface, this would have been extremely difficult. Think of covering three or four miles that way!

The question is why Jesus chose to travel in this extraordinary way. Why not fly? Why not teleport? For that matter, why not just take a boat like a normal person? Why work a miracle at all? It seems out of character for Jesus to work a miracle for his own convenience, one that seemingly helps no one but himself. Therefore, it wasn't for his own convenience and was for the benefit of others. This is confirmed by the fact that he didn't just walk across the sea to Capernaum but to the ship where his disciples were. The whole point was for them to see him walking on water. This wasn't just Jesus using his super powers to devise a more efficient means of transportation; this was "prophetic theater" in the tradition of his great Hebrew predecessors. Walking on water was symbolic. It meant something. And, as I have said, what it meant surely had some reference to Moses and the parting of the Red Sea.

So what did the parting of the Red Sea mean? It must have symbolized the Creation, as told by Moses himself.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. . . . And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. . . . And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so (Genesis 1:2, 6, 9).

Moses' Creation story drew on -- and radically reinterpreted -- the Mesopotamian creation myth, in which Marduk fought and triumphed over the salt sea, personified as the monster Tiamat (cognate with Hebrew tehom, "the deep," and cousin to the biblical monsters Rahab and Leviathan). After defeating Tiamat, he "split her in two like a dried fish" (Enuma Elish IV.137) and divided the waters from the waters, creating a space between them where men and cattle and creeping things could live.

The salt sea, for the Mesopotamians as for all ancient peoples, represented pure chaos. Marduk created a space in the midst of this chaos where order could be established. This triumph of order over chaos is taken to its logical conclusion in Revelation 21, where John of Patmos sees the New Jerusalem descend from heaven in the form of a crystalline cube, spotless and geometrically perfect, to a purified earth where "there was no more sea" (21:1).

"The earth is full of thy riches," sings the Psalmist. "So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein" (Ps. 104:24-26). For Jesus' other great forerunner, King David, the great sea-monster of chaos was not necessarily something to be killed and filleted.

"Man," says Jesus as Luke (12:14) tells it, "who made me . . . a divider?"

I've read a fair bit of kooky channeled material in my day, and one of these books -- I believe it was, ahem, Pleiadian Perspectives on Human Evolution by the late Amorah Quan Yin -- featured the arresting image of Jesus and Mary, during their sojourn in Egypt, crossing the Nile by walking across the backs of swimming crocodiles. Moses never did that! Neither, of course, did Jesus, but the image captures some of the inner meaning of walking on the sea.

Jesus was at home on the sea, had no quarrel with Tiamat. He walked, sure-footed, across the living flux of Creation. He embodied "the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart" (2 Cor. 3:3). Doesn't this image of him walking calmly across the raging waves capture succinctly the difference between him and Moses, and how incomparably greater than Moses he was and is?


[20] But he saith unto them, "It is I; be not afraid."

[21] Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.

They had been between four and ten miles from their destination, but after Jesus entered the ship, they were there immediately.

Is this just a hyperbolic way of saying that the remainder of the voyage went quickly and smoothly, that they reached their destination "in no time"?

Did Jesus magically make the ship move with preternatural speed, or even teleport? If so, it underscores my point that walking on water was prophetic theater, not Jesus' most efficient way of getting from Point A to Point B.

Or was this something more along the lines of the "missing time" phenomenon reported by those who have had close encounters? They let Jesus into the ship, and the next thing they knew, there they were at their destination, with no conscious memory of what had occurred in the intervening time. How like a dream it had been! And yet there they were, on the other side, and Jesus was with them.


[22] The day following, when the people which stood on the other side of the sea saw that there was none other boat there, save that one whereinto his disciples were entered, and that Jesus went not with his disciples into the boat, but that his disciples were gone away alone; [23] (Howbeit there came other boats from Tiberias nigh unto the place where they did eat bread, after that the Lord had given thanks:)

[24] When the people therefore saw that Jesus was not there, neither his disciples, they also took shipping, and came to Capernaum, seeking for Jesus.

[25] And when they had found him on the other side of the sea, they said unto him, "Rabbi, when camest thou hither?"

Tiberias was in Galilee, on the west side of the sea, but some distance to the south of Capernaum.

Verse 23 may also be translated, "Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks" (NRSV, emphasis mine). The people saw the disciples leave in the only boat (or ship; the author seems not to distinguish very clearly between the two), without Jesus, and yet they couldn't find Jesus, either. So later, when some ships from Tiberias arrived, they took those ships to Capernaum.

It's interesting that the site of the feeding of the five thousand is referred to as "The place where they did eat bread, after that the Lord had given thanks" -- as if his giving thanks were the most salient aspect of the whole story!

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The feeding of the five thousand (Notes on John 6:1-14)

The feeding of the five thousand is, with the exception of the resurrection itself, the only miracle that is recorded in all four gospels. Apparently there was general agreement that the story illustrates something essential about Jesus, that no account of his life could omit it. I admit to being somewhat puzzled as to its significance, but perhaps the process of writing these notes will clear things up for me a bit.

[1] After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.

The last we have been told (John 5:1), Jesus was in Jerusalem, nowhere near the Sea of Galilee. Later, in v. 17, the disciples get in a ship and go back "over the sea toward Capernaum." Since Capernaum was on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, we might assume that where he went in v. 1 was to the opposite shore. That would have put him most likely somewhere in the Tetrarchy of Philip -- at any rate, no longer in Galilee.

[2] And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased.

All of the healing miracles recorded up to this point in the Gospel have been in and around Jerusalem, which is also the last place the Gospel mentions Jesus being before this episode. Had the multitude followed him from there? Is it possible that Jesus crossed over the Sea of Galilee for the express purpose of shaking off some of these camp followers, but to no avail?

[3] And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples.

This would perhaps have been in what is now called the Golan Heights. Going up into the mountain was perhaps another attempt to escape the crowd.


[4] And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.

Why is this mentioned here? No further mention of the Passover is made, and the feast plays no explicit role in the story that follows. Is the purpose just to tell us approximately what time of year this episode took place? Elsewhere in this Gospel, feasts of the Jews are mentioned to explain why Jesus is visiting Jerusalem, and certainly it would have been normal to go to Jerusalem for the Passover. In John 7:1, we are told, "After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him" -- but that is after the events described in John 6 and seems to be explaining why he hesitated to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, six months after Passover.

Just how nigh is "nigh"? Are we to understand that the events recorded in John 6 took place during Passover, and that Jesus and a multitude of Jews neglected to observe that feast, staying instead in the mountains of the Golan region? Or did the events of John 6 all take place before Passover, and is John 7:1 explaining why Jesus could not very well go to Jerusalem for Passover after that?


[5] When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, "Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?"

[6] And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do.

[7] Philip answered him, "Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little."

Mark (8:2-3) and Matthew (15:32) both say that the multitude had been with Jesus for three days, eating nothing during that time, and that his motive for working a miracle was that he would "not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way" (Matt. 15:32). Here, in contrast, it appears that the multitude has just recently arrived -- he "lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him." But perhaps there is no inconsistency. Jesus already knew that this multitude had followed him from Judaea to Galilee, and then followed him across the sea. He sees now that, surprise, surprise, they have followed him up the mountain as well. He wants to send them away but, knowing they have been following him around for some time now, feels he ought to give them a square meal first.

A "penny," or denarius, was apparently a day's wages for a farm laborer (see Matt. 20:2), not that the exact figure is important. Philip just meant that it would cost much more money than they had at hand.

Did Jesus really say this to test Philip? If so, what was the test? When Philip replied that it would cost a great deal of money to buy bread for everyone in the crowd, did he pass or fail? I guess we should assume he failed, since his response is pretty much what any normal person would have said in the same situation; if that counts as passing, it's not much of a test. What would have been a "passing" answer? To suggest that Jesus work some miracle? To say, "Man shall not live by bread alone?" Jesus says nothing to Philip in reply, either to commend him for his solid grasp of economics or to ye-of-little-faith him, so this supposed testing of Philip doesn't seem to play any important role in the story as we have it. I suspect that v. 6 is either guesswork by the author or a gloss by a later hand, its purpose being to explain why Jesus would ask such a seemingly foolish question.

Another possibility is that Jesus' original plan was to send Philip to buy whatever amount of bread they could afford, even though it would plainly be insufficient, and that Philip's willingness to go and do so anyway would constitute "passing the test." Jesus would then magically multiply the loaves and show that Philip's faith had been justified -- but this plan changed when Andrew informed him that they already had a few loaves and fishes, making the shopping trip superfluous.


[8] One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, saith unto him, [9] "There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?"

[10] And Jesus said, "Make the men sit down."

 Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.

The Golan Heights are still grassy today -- not what one typically thinks of as a Middle Eastern landscape.


Five thousand is about the size of a full Roman legion -- a lot of people, especially for that time and place. (In the time of Jesus, Jerusalem -- "the great city" -- had a population of perhaps 75,000, and Nazareth almost certainly fewer than 2,000.) And this is the number of people who were with him after he had crossed the Sea of Galilee and climbed a mountain -- that is, deliberately made it difficult for people to follow him. If, as seems likely, most of them had followed him all the way from Jerusalem, the number is even more impressive.


[11] And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would.

[12] When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.

[13] Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.

It's really hard to imagine how this was experienced. As is typical, no account is given of the working of the miracle itself, only the result. Somehow, in the end, everyone was full, and they had gathered up 12 baskets of crumbs.

Was everyone's hunger magically satisfied after eating only a tiny amount of bread? But the 12 baskets of fragments make it clear that it was not that simple, that the bread itself had been multiplied. Did the disciples keep tearing pieces off their loaves, only to find that the loaves were no smaller than before? Did the pieces that were torn off grow? Perhaps each time a piece of bread was torn in half, each of the two halves was magically enlarged just a bit in a way that was not readily perceptible, but the bread was torn so many times -- each loaf was torn into 1,000 pieces -- that the cumulative effect of all these slight enlargements was something that was, after the fact, obviously a miracle.

A "naturalistic" explanation I have seen proposed is that the lad's generosity in sharing his small stash of food inspired the others in the crowd to do the same -- something along the lines of the Stone Soup folktale -- and that no actual magic was involved. However, the crowd certainly reacted as if something literally miraculous had occurred.


Whatever the mechanics of the miracle, I think the significant thing is that Jesus (in some way) multiplied food provided by one of the members of the crowd -- rather than, say, turning stones into bread (as, according to Matthew, the devil had once tempted him to do) or causing manna to rain down from the sky. The miracle was not a pure deus ex machina, but was an amplification of human effort.

Seeing a crowd of 5,000 hungry people, the lad offered to share his obviously inadequate loaves and fishes, and Philip passed this offer on to Jesus -- and Jesus said, Okay, let's do it. He accepted the paltry offering, gave thanks for it, had the disciples distribute it to the multitude -- and somehow or other (we are not told how, probably because it's not the point), it was enough, enough and to spare.

I think the moral here is that we are to do what we can, offer what we can -- even if it seems laughably inadequate, even if it seems as if it could not possibly have any real effect or "change the world" -- and leave the results to the Lord.

Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.

And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls (Alma 37:6-7).

After all, if I didn't believe something like that, why would I even be writing this? Why bother with these notes of mine that are read by a few hundred of the billions of people in the world and probably taken to heart by far fewer than that? Why bother doing anything at all, we who are not destined to be movers and shakers? Trying to guess the probable (and probably insignificant) consequences of our actions is a trap. Just do good things and leave the rest to God. That is the moral of the story of the feeding of the five thousand.


[14] Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.

Modern readers will probably take this in a general sense -- he worked a miracle, he must be the Messiah -- but the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus' time had a very specific set of expectations.

"That prophet" refers to the Prophet like unto Moses, called by the Samaritans the Taheb, whose coming is prophesied in Deuteronomy 18. If the beliefs of early 20th-century Samaritans are any indication, this Prophet was to prove his identity by means of three signs, the greatest of which was to be that he would "produce the omer of manna which our fathers ate, while in the wilderness, for forty years." This is perhaps what the people had in mind when they concluded Jesus was the Prophet after seeing him miraculously provide food in the wilderness -- not manna exactly, but perhaps they considered it close enough. This connection is strengthened by the references to manna in the "Bread of Life" discourse that follows.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Witnesses to Jesus (Notes on John 5:31-47)

Notes on the text

For reasons given in the previous post in this series (qv), I view John 5:19-47 with a certain degree of suspicion because it appears to have been inserted into the text where it does not belong. That does not necessarily mean it is not authentic material about Jesus, though.


[31] If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true. [32] There is another that beareth witness of me; and I know that the witness which he witnesseth of me is true.

What Jesus says in v. 31 is not his own idea; he is referring to a maxim generally accepted by the Jews of his time. In John 8:13, it is the Pharisees who say it: "Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true" -- and Jesus' reply shows that he himself does not accept that princple: "Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true" (8:14). We should therefore think of John 5:31 as being prefaced with an implied "Perhaps you will say . . . ." Jesus is anticipating an objection from his audience.

Here, as in Chapter 8, the substance of Jesus' response is that, while his testimony alone may be deemed untrustworthy, it is corroborated by the testimony of others. In John 8:17, he cites the Torah in his defense: "It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true," perhaps alluding to these verses of Deuteronomy.

At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death (Deut. 17:6).

One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established (Deut. 19:15).

While the Torah never says in so many words "that the testimony of two men is true," that is certainly what is implied by these verses. Jesus himself seems to have believed that the testimony of one man is in some cases sufficient to establish truth, but he accepted as valid the demand for multiple witnesses.


[33] Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth. [34] But I receive not testimony from man: but these things I say, that ye might be saved. [35] He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.

Jesus is presumably referring to the incident recorded in John 3:22-30, when there was a dispute "about purifying" between John's disciples and "the Jews" and they went to John himself to have it resolved. At that time, John reaffirmed his earlier statement (that Jesus was "the Lamb of God") and strongly implied that Jesus was the Messiah.

Again, Jesus is responding to his audience's anticipated demand for multiple human witnesses, though he himself does not accept the necessity of such. John did indeed testify of him, but that sort of testimony should not be considered necessary or sufficient.

The reference to John in the past tense implies that by this time John had already been executed. The statement that the Jews "were willing for a season to rejoice in his light" may mean that many who had accepted John as a prophet, and as possibly being the Prophet, later abandoned him, perhaps when he was cast into prison for accusing Herod Antipas of incest.


[36] But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me.

Jesus' own actions are a stronger witness to his identity than the testimony of John or anyone else could be. Jesus may be thinking of his miracles, or perhaps of his exemplary behavior. Both of these mark him as an extraordinary person, though I would think not necessarily as the Son of God. I suppose something like C. S. Lewis's trilemma is implied here. If you claim to be the Son of God, and you are observably a good person with extraordinary powers, then "Lord" is probably a better bet than "liar" or "lunatic."


[37] And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape. [38] And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not.

What does Jesus mean by saying that the Father himself has borne witness of him? The Fourth Gospel does record one instance (in John 12:28-30) of Jesus addressing the Father in prayer and being answered by a voice from heaven.

[28] "Father, glorify thy name."

Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again."

[29] The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.

[30] Jesus answered and said, "This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes."

The Father does not directly bear witness of Jesus here -- does not say "This man is my Son and the Messiah" or anything like that -- but obviously an audible voice from heaven answering his prayer would tend to confirm his status as Someone Very Special. But of course this incident did not occur until near the end of his life and cannot be what he is referring to here.

The Synoptics record that at Jesus' baptism "there came a voice from heaven, saying, 'Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'" (Mark 1:11, Luke 3:2; Matt. 3:17 has "This is my beloved Son"), and that at the transfiguration "a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 'This is my beloved Son: hear him'" (Mark 9:7, Luke 9:5, Matt. 17:5). Neither of these events is mentioned in the Fourth Gospel, which indeed does not directly mention Jesus' baptism or transfiguration at all. Jesus could still be referring to one or both of those incidents, though; we have already seen how this author often assumes the reader has a certain amount of background knowledge and does not always state everything explicitly.

If we assume Jesus is referring to one of these "voice from heaven" incidents, though, why does he say "Ye have neither heard [the Father's] voice at any time, nor seen his shape"? Well, if John 12:29 is any indication, these voices from heaven were not always heard as such; some people heard, or thought they heard, only thunder. Or perhaps the people Jesus is talking to here were not among those present at his baptism and know of the voice only secondhand.

More likely, though, Jesus means that he is not talking about voices or apparitions at all when he says the Father has borne witness of him. He says that those who disbelieve in him do so because they "have not [the Father's] word [λόγον] abiding in" them. He also says, in 12:30, that voices from heaven are, like the witness of John, concessions to people's expectations and are ultimately unnecessary. Jesus himself knows he is God's son, not because John told him so or because he heard a voice, but because of the divine Logos abiding in his heart. In my notes on John 1, I proposed that "the creative Word is the combined Primary Thinking of God himself and of all those who think in harmony with him." Those who participate in the Word, whose thinking is (at times, and imperfectly) in harmony with the divine, can recognize divinity when they encounter it. Having that, no other witness is necessary. Lacking that, no other witness is sufficient, and even an actual voice from heaven is likely to be explained-away as thunder.


[39] Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

I find this to be a very curious statement. In what sense did the Jews think they had eternal life "in the scriptures"? What does that even mean? "Eternal life" in the Christian sense was not and is not really a Jewish doctrine. I am open to correction on this, but I believe the only unambiguous reference in the Old Testament to human beings receiving eternal life is in Daniel 12 -- where, interestingly, it is connected with an unidentified "book."

[1] And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.

[2] And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

[3] And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.

[4] But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.

Although the reference is to "the book," as if we should know which book is intended, nothing in the immediate context makes this clear. However, there are intriguing references to books elsewhere in Daniel. In Chapter 9, Daniel recounts his dream of the four beasts. After the beasts, he sees the Ancient of Days and then the Son of Man.

[9] I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

[10] A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

This "Ancient of Days" is typically understood (in the Revelation of John, for example) to be God himself, but Joseph Smith associated the title with someone else: "Michael, or Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days" (D&C 27:11). Smith believed that Michael the archangel had lived on earth as Adam, and it is because of his status as the first man that he is called the Ancient of Days. This is interesting because Michael is also mentioned in the "everlasting life" passage in Daniel.

In Daniel 10, Daniel is visited by someone who is apparently an angel, and who again associates books or "scripture" with Michael: "But I will shew thee that which is noted in the scripture of truth: and there is none that holdeth with me in these things, but Michael your prince" (Dan. 10:21). This is in fact the only occurrence of the word scripture in the King James Version of the Old Testament.

Is this what Jesus is alluding to? Did the Jews of his day understand the "book" of Daniel 12:1 to be the Bible and believe that they would have eternal life if they were somehow "written in the book"? Obviously most people's names are not literally written in the Bible, but the Bible contains many descriptions of "the righteous" and so on, and perhaps conforming one's life to those descriptions would qualify one as being "written in the book." One obvious problem with this interpretation is that in Daniel 12:4 the prophet is commanded to "seal the book, even to the time of the end" -- implying that the book referred to is not the Bible but rather a different book which cannot be read by anyone until "the end."

(There is obviously much that could be written about how the author of Revelation adapts and interprets this material from Daniel, but it is not directly to our purpose, since we are concerned with the beliefs of the Jews before Revelation was written.)

In any case, whatever belief about scripture and eternal life is being referenced here, Jesus seems to distance himself from it -- "in them ye think ye have eternal life."


[40] And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life. [41] I receive not honour from men. [42] But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. [43] I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive. [44] How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?

I think the point of this passage is that Jesus was rejected specifically because he claimed to be God's son and representative. If he had made no claim to divinity but simply "come in his own name" as a rabbi, he would have been more warmly received.


[45] Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. [46] For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. [47] But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

Jesus again claims to be the Taheb, the prophet like unto Moses whose coming is prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. This idea that those who do not believe Moses will not believe Jesus either also occurs in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16.

[29] Abraham saith unto him, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them."

[30] And he said, "Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent."

[31] And he said unto him, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."


A somewhat-related digression

The main thrust of this passage in John 5 is that whatever evidence people require that Jesus is who is is, God provides -- even though none of it is necessary and none of it can ever be sufficient. You want the testimony of holy men? Miracles? Voices from heaven? The words of the prophets? The words of Moses himself, the man of God? Granted, all granted -- but the only true ground for belief is the divine Logos abiding in you.

It is hard not to be reminded of this wonderfully lyrical episode from the Book of Kings (1 Kgs. 19:9-12).

[9] And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, "What doest thou here, Elijah?"

[10] And he said, "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."

[11] And he said, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord."

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind:

and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

[12] And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire:

and after the fire a still small voice.

It is worth keeping in mind that this statement, "the Lord was not in the fire," comes shortly after the famous episode in which, having first challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to do the same, Elijah calls down fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones of the altar. "And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God" (1 Kgs. 18:29). Well, we see how long that lasted! In the very next chapter, Elijah is once more all alone in his faith and is praying for the Lord to take away his life. The Lord, despite the people's immediate reaction to the miracle, was not in the fire.

"The Lord was not in the wind" -- but he was, wasn't he? "The Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord." The text is not saying that the wind had nothing to do with the Lord -- it was apparently caused by him, directly and miraculously, just like the fire from heaven that consumed the altar. But it was not him; he was not in it -- and those who saw it did not really see him and were not really converted. I discussed this in my notes on John 1, commenting on the seemingly false statement that "no man hath seen God at any time."

God as such cannot be seen even in principle, because divinity has nothing whatever to do with being a physical object that produces or reflects light. Even those who saw Jesus Christ face to face saw just that: his face, and other parts of his physical body. That is, they may have seen directly that he was a man, but they could not have seen, in the same direct sense, that he was God. That in him which made him God could not be seen. Even those who saw him work miracles saw only that: a man with paranormal powers, which is not at all the same thing as God. . . . No conceivable sort of empirical observation could ever, even in principle, amount to an observation of God qua God.

"He be not far from every one of us . . . for we are also his offspring" (Acts 17:27-28). "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation . . . for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21). We can know God as God only because -- and only to the extent that -- his nature resonates with something in our own, with the spark of divinity within. "He called them gods, unto whom the word of God came" (John 10:35), because ultimately the divine Logos can come to none other. "Deep calleth unto deep . . . and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life" (Ps. 42:7-8).

William Blake alludes to 1 Kings 19 in the dedication of The Ghost of Abel -- a dedication that cut me to the quick when I first read it years ago, back when I was a bloviating atheist, because the phrase "Lord Byron in the Wilderness" punctured with voodoo-doll precision the rather ridiculous self-image I was then entertaining.

To Lord Byron in the Wilderness:

WHAT doest thou here, Elijah?
Can a Poet doubt the Visions of Jehovah? Nature has no Outline,
But Imagination has. Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has.
Nature has no Supernatural, and dissolves: Imagination is Eternity.

William Blake was always right. Change my mind.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Father and the Son (Notes on John 5:19-30)

The background is that Jesus is in Jerusalem for a feast, perhaps Pentecost. He is speaking to "the Jews," who want to kill him for the two crimes of breaking the sabbath (healing a man on that day and then asking him to carry his bed) and of "making himself equal with God" by calling him his Father.

I have to say at the outset that I consider this whole section (John 5:19-47) to be of dubious authenticity. It does not seem plausible that Jesus would have responded to people who were trying to kill him with this long theological discourse, and by the time the discourse has ended, the author seems to have forgotten the whole setting of Jesus confronting his would-be murderers in Jerusalem. Nothing is said about how they responded, what happened next, how Jesus escaped death, or anything like that. Instead, the narrative jumps directly to "After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias" (John 6:1) -- a stage direction which is totally out of place, as the Sea of Galilee is nowhere near Jerusalem. Something is obviously amiss with the text as we have it, so we must proceed with caution.

I find this whole passage confusing and self-contradictory, and any interpretations and conclusions I present here are even more tentative than usual. (I thought seriously about just skipping this whole section but in the end decided I should soldier on.)


[19] Then answered Jesus and said unto them, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

When accused of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus said, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work" -- in other words, God doesn't take a break on the seventh day, and so neither does Jesus. Here Jesus continues that thought: He only does what he sees the Father do.

Mormons make much of this verse, drawing from it the conclusion that God the Father once lived as a mortal man (because Jesus did, and he can only do what his Father has done) and even that he was the "savior" of his world, undergoing something analogous to Jesus' execution by the Romans as a sacrifice for sin. (This is not an official CJCLDS doctrine but is widely believed.)

To me this verse suggests almost a Homeric view of the world -- in which human beings can do nothing of themselves, and to explain something like the Trojan war in terms of humans and their motivations is to display a laughable naïveté as to what is really going on. While it would be hard to overstate the depth of my respect for Homer and his vision, I do not think that it is a Christian vision or that it can readily be reconciled with Jesus' larger message.

If Jesus were really just doing things that had already been done by the Father, there would have been no need for him. The necessity of Jesus' mission -- surely a sine qua non of Christianity -- implies that Jesus was doing something that God the Father did not, and could not, do.


[20] For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth: and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may marvel. [21] For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will.

This seems to be saying that even resurrection -- the centerpiece of Jesus' mission -- was not something new, but yet another instance of his copying something the Father had already done. I don't think this can possibly be right. "For as the Father raiseth up the dead" -- but when did the Father ever resurrect anybody before Jesus? And if he did -- if resurrections were already being carried out before the Resurrection -- then wherein lies the unique importance of Jesus?

The only somewhat coherent reading of this that I can come up with -- assuming that the text is not simply corrupt -- is that for the Father to show the Son what he (the Father) is doing, and for the Son to do that thing, are somehow the same thing. "He [the Father] will shew him [Jesus] greater works than these, that ye [the Jews] may marvel" -- why would the Father showing something to Jesus cause the Jews to marvel, unless that "showing" entailed Jesus' acting in some way that the Jews could observe? This implies that the Father acts through the agency of the Son in such a direct way that, for Jesus, "I healed a man" and "The Father showed me that he was healing a man" are two ways of saying the same thing. "For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38).

This is metaphysically complex and conflicts somewhat with my current understanding of agency, individuality, and the relationship between God and man. I need to think about it more and decide whether it's something I can understand and agree with.

The referent of "he" is ambiguous in the last sentence, and I think this is also true in the original Greek (where the pronoun doesn't actually appear but is implied by the form of the verb). It could mean that the Son quickens (gives life to) whom the Father will, or whom he himself will. The next verse seems to imply that the latter is the proper reading.


[22] For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son:

(This line always makes me think of John C. Wright's conversion story, which is worth a read.)

Coming right after "the Son quickeneth whom he will," this seems to be saying that Jesus, not the Father, decides who will be "quickened," or resurrected -- although it could of course also refer to judgment in a broader sense. This seems to conflict with the preceding statement that the Son can only do what he sees the Father do, since the Son judges but the Father does not.

There's also the question of why all judgment has been committed to the Son. There would be no point in the Father's deferring to the Son's judgment unless the Son would judge differently from -- and better than -- the Father. (Of course such a thing would be impossible if we assumed a strictly omniscient Supergod, but we don't.) I would guess that the Son's superior ability to judge men has to do with his direct experience of being a man and understanding the mortal condition from the inside (which in turn implies that the Mormons are wrong to assume that the Father also began his career as a man; this is something that distinguishes the Son from the Father).


[23] That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him.

The Son should be honored even as the Father. A deified man is not a "god with a small g" -- a formulation popular among those suffering from Residual Unresolved Monotheism -- but a God in the fullest sense, the same sort of being as the Father.


[24] Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. [25] Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.

[26] For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself;

The Father hath life. God is alive -- an organism, not an abstraction -- or at least more like the former than like the latter.

That the Father has life in himself presumably means that, unlike a biological organism, he is able to stay "alive" without requiring anything outside himself. He is an uncaused cause, who exists because he wills himself to exist.

What, then, can it mean to say that the Father has given to the Son to have life in himself? If the Son has truly has life in himself -- owes his life to himself alone -- how can he also owe it to the Father? How can the Father give the Son what he (the Son) has of himself? I don't have an answer to this; I simply raise the question.


[27] And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.

Son of man has two possible meanings. Its primary meaning is simply "man" -- the singular form of the familiar biblical expression "children of men." The more restricted sense, referring to a Messiah-like figure, comes from the apocalyptic dream recorded in Daniel 7. In his dream, Daniel sees four successive beasts -- a lion, a bear, a four-headed leopard, and a monster with ten horns -- representing pagan kingdoms. (The beast of Revelation with its seven heads and ten horns, is a combination of these four.) The Ancient of Days appears and destroys these kingdoms, after which Daniel sees "one like the son of man" -- meaning a human being, in contrast to the beasts he had seen before -- descending from heaven. This son of man is given a kingdom which shall never be destroyed. While the text of Daniel itself seems to identify this son of man as a symbol of "the saints of the Most High," later Judaism sometimes saw him as an individual -- either the Messiah, or a separate figure who would come after the Messiah.

So, why has Jesus been given authority to execute judgment? Is it because he is the figure foreseen by Daniel, or simply because he is a man? I lean toward the latter interpretation for two reasons. First, the definite article is not present in the Greek; it literally reads "because he is a son of man." Second, v. 22 emphasizes that judgment belongs to the Son rather than to the Father. We should therefore be looking not at what distinguishes Jesus from other men (e.g. his role as the apocalyptic Son of Man) but at what distinguishes him from the Father (namely, his being a man, a son of Adam).

The implication is, again, that God as such is not fully qualified to judge men, never having walked a mile in our moccasins. Jesus can judge us because, in addition to being divine, he is one of us. (How do you square this with God's omniscience? Well, you can't, and I don't. I don't believe in Supergod.)

Alma 7:12-13 in the Book of Mormon seems relevant here.

[12] And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

[13] Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

While there is a nod to the traditional doctrine of omniscience, Alma nevertheless insists on the necessity of Son's experiencing human life and death firsthand "that he may know according to the flesh." This is a deeper, truer sort of knowing, above and beyond the abstract sense in which it may be said that "the Spirit knoweth all things."

Even Jesus, though, hasn't lived every human life -- only his own, very specific life -- and so even his "knowing according to the flesh" is not absolute. He has firsthand knowledge of "the human condition" in general, but not of every individual human condition. Your experience is your own, and through it you come to know things that even the Gods themselves don't really know, not "according to the flesh." We are, each of us, genuine unknown quantities, exploring uncharted waters, and "it doth not yet appear what we shall be" (1 John 3:2). Some may find this frightening -- the whole "existential angst" thing -- but it is what makes a meaningful life possible.

From this I must conclude that even Jesus' role as judge is limited. Ultimately, we can only judge ourselves.


[28] Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, [29] And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.

This is the first and only mention of a "resurrection of damnation" (or, as it may also be translated, "of judgment"). It is also the first reference in this Gospel to the idea that dead will be judged according to whether they have "done good" or "done evil" -- rather than, as in vv. 24-25 and elsewhere, according to whether they have heard and believed Jesus.

What is the point if this "resurrection of damnation"? Why raise someone from the dead only to damn him? Why not just leave him as a shade in Hades? A few possibilities come to mind:
  1. Even the resurrection of damnation is preferable to Hades. These people are being given the best they are able or willing to receive.
  2. The resurrection of damnation is worse than Hades, but God respects the free will of those who choose it anyway.
  3. The damnation spoken of is not final, and those who are resurrected to it are resurrected because they are still salvable.
  4. The resurrection of damnation is reincarnation.
  5. The text is corrupt. There is no resurrection of damnation.
I have no idea which, if any, of these possibilities reflects the real situation. I'm just throwing out ideas.


[30] I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

The word because implies that Jesus' judgment would not be just if he sought his own will -- that he himself does not will justice in the same way that the Father does. But at the same time, Jesus' judgment must be more just than the Father's own, or else the Father would not have delegated the task of judgment to him. Each of them must contribute something to the judgment process. In keeping with my speculations above, I would say that the best judgment occurs when the Father's will (which is more impersonally just, because he is not a man) is informed by Jesus' "knowledge according to the flesh" (which is truer and deeper, because he is a man).


I repeat again that everything I have written here is highly speculative, and that in the last analysis I don't trust this part of the Gospel. Nevertheless, I don't feel that I can dismiss it without doing the hard work of trying to understand what it is saying.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

References to God as Father in the Old Testament

In my recently posted notes on John 5:1-18, I said, "I do not believe the Old Testament contains a single unambiguous reference to God as the Father." Having now done the tedious work of checking every single occurrence of the word "father" in the Old Testament, I find that this is a bit of an overstatement. There are possibly as many as 13 (but in my judgment only 11) verses in the Old Testament which call God "father."

God as the father of the Israelites
  • "Do ye thus requite the Lord, O foolish people and unwise? is not he thy father that hath bought thee? hath he not made thee, and established thee?" (Deut. 32:6).
  • "Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting" (Isaiah 63:16).
  • "But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand" (Isaiah 64:8).
  • "Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, My father, thou art the guide of my youth?" (Jeremiah 3:4).
  • "They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn" (Jeremiah 31:9).
  • "But I said, How shall I put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of nations? and I said, Thou shalt call me, My father; and shalt not turn away from me" (Jeremiah 3:19).
God as the father of Solomon
  • "He shall build me an house, and I will stablish his throne for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son: and I will not take my mercy away from him, as I took it from him that was before thee" (1 Chronicles 17:12-13).
  • "He shall build an house for my name; and he shall be my son, and I will be his father; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel for ever" (1 Chronicles 22:10).
  • "And he said unto me, Solomon thy son, he shall build my house and my courts: for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father" (1 Chronicles 28:6).
God as the father of the fatherless
  • "A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in his holy habitation" (Psalm 68:5).
God as the father of David
  • "He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation. Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth" (Psalm 89:26-27).
Other possible references that I reject
  • "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). This is not a direct reference to God but the prophetic name given to a child: Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom. The elements el and abi mean "God" and "father," respectively, but the name hardly amounts to an assertion that God is the Father. (There are also two minor biblical characters named Abiel, "my father is God"; I don't consider their names to be theological claims, either.)
  • "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?" (Malachi 2:10). Malachi is condemning the priests for showing partiality in their ministry. I read him as saying that partiality is inappropriate for two reasons: we all have one father (i.e., we are all Israelites, descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and one God has created us all. There immediately follows a reference to "the covenant of our fathers," confirming that he is talking about human ancestors rather than God.

So references to God as father do occur in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, I consider Jesus' use of "Father" to be both quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything in the Old Testament.

The quantitative difference is glaringly obvious. God is called "father" just 11 times in the whole 23,145 verses of the Old Testament. In contrast, the Fourth Gospel alone (879 verses) calls God "Father" 122 times -- and "God" only 83 times.

The qualitative difference is that the Old Testament never uses "Father" the way it uses "God" or "Lord," as a straightforward name/title for the Deity. There are in the Old Testament such statements as "God is my rock" and "the Lord is my light" -- but these are nonce metaphors; they're not what God is called. We don't see any expressions like "keep the commandments of the Light" or "the Rock spake unto Moses" or anything like that. "Father," as used in the Old Testament, is no different in this way from "light" or "rock" or any of the other figurative designations which may from time to time be applied to God, and the King James translation reflects this by not capitalizing "father" even when it is referring to God (except in Isaiah 9:6, where the translators are confused). In the New Testament, on the other hand, "Father" is capitalized because it is what God is called -- particularly in the Fourth Gospel (122 uses of "Father" for God, vs. 67 in the other three Gospels combined).

Sunday, June 7, 2020

The healing at Bethesda (Notes on John 5:1-18)

From a video of this episode by the CJCLDS

[1] After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

The text does not specify which feast it was, but the fact that Jesus went up to Jerusalem suggests that it was one of the three festivals -- Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles -- for which the Israelites were expected to made pilgrimages -- the Samaritans to Mount Gerizim, and the Jews to their own holy site, the Temple in Jerusalem. Since this Gospel elsewhere mentions by name "the Jews' passover" (John 2:13) and "the Jew's feast of tabernacles" (John 7:2), we might tentatively guess that this unspecified "feast of the Jews" was the other one, Pentecost. Pentecost is also the next festival after Passover, which fits the narrative. Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover, stayed for a while after the feast, went back to Galilee for an apparently brief stay, and then returned to Jerusalem for another feast. Pentecost, so called because it is the 50th day after Passover, seems to fit this chronology.

The fact that the author doesn't bother to name the festival, and the constant reminders that these were all festivals "of the Jews," would seem to suggest that he was writing for an audience that was not particularly Jewish. (The author himself, on the other hand, plainly was Jewish and knew the Hebrew Bible inside and out.)


[2] Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. [3] In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. [4] For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

The passage I have italicized (vv. 3b-4) is widely considered to be an interpolation. It is absent from some of the Greek manuscripts and from the Vulgate, and many modern English translations relegate it to a footnote. However, most of the content of this interpolated passage is implied by v. 7, where we learn that the paralyzed man thought he would be healed if someone put him in the pool "when the water is troubled," but only if no one else got into the pool before he did. The only thing that v. 4 adds to this is that the troubling of the water was caused by "an angel."

What was really going on here? Judging among the possibilities is largely a matter of guesswork, but some seem more plausible than others. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind.

First, the archaeological consensus is that this pool was a manmade reservoir, fed by rainwater, which would seem to rule out hot-spring activity as the cause of the troublings and healings, and would also make it less likely that any sort of nature spirit was involved.

Second, the fact that the blind, lame, and paralyzed all confidently expected to be healed here strongly suggests that something more potent than minerals or the placebo effect was at work.

Third, the "rule" -- that only the first person to enter the water after it is troubled gets healed -- sounds like something out of a fairy tail and smacks more of the economy of faerie and the pagan world than of Heaven. To me this counts as evidence against the hypothesis that the healings were the work of an "angel" in any conventional sense of that word. (There is apparently some archaeological evidence that the pool was associated with a temple of Aesculapius -- in Jerusalem! -- which sounds about right to me.) Alternatively, this "last one in is a rotten egg" rule could just be a bit of ignorant folklore. Apparently there were scads of invalids hanging about just waiting for the waters to be troubled, so it seems likely that there would normally be several people entering the waters roughly simultaneously. If a given person was healed, he would take that to mean he had been first; if not, that someone else must have entered just a split-second before him. This would give God (or the angel, or whomever) considerable leeway to choose whom to heal while still maintaining the pool's reputation for working every time.


[5] And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

[6] When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, "Wilt thou be made whole?"

[7] The impotent man answered him, "Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me."

Jesus' question means something like, "Don't you want to be healed?"

The nature of the man's infirmity is not specified, but he apparently had some limited mobility. When he later takes up his bed and walks, this means he has been healed; but even before being healed, he was able to enter the pool unassisted, albeit not quickly enough.

It seems strange that the man was at the pool alone. Did he stagger or crawl there himself from wherever his home was? Did someone bring him there and then just leave him? Or was he attended after all, but by someone (a wife, children, elderly parents) who lacked the physical strength to put him into the water?


[8] Jesus saith unto him, "Rise, take up thy bed, and walk."

[9] And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.

[10] The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, "It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed."

[11] He answered them, "He that made me whole, the same said unto me, 'Take up thy bed, and walk.'"

[12] Then asked they him, "What man is that which said unto thee, 'Take up thy bed, and walk?'"

[13] And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place.

It is interesting, and surely deliberate, that the healing pool so carefully established as the backdrop for this episode plays no role at all in the healing, and that Jesus never so much as mentions it. Part of the message of this episode is that whatever was going on in that pool -- whether angels or Aesculapius or just good old-fashioned superstition -- it had been superseded by Jesus and was no longer relevant.

"Bear no burden on the sabbath day" (Jeremiah 17:21). It seems pretty clear that Jesus broke the sabbath deliberately, and for no pressing reason. This man had been suffering from his condition for 38 years. What possible difference could it have made if his healing had been delayed one more day out of respect for the Law? Or Jesus could even have healed him then and there, on the sabbath, and then told him to come back for his bed the next day. Is it possible that Jesus just didn't think about the fact that it was the sabbath? He was, after all, from "Galilee of the gentiles," where they must have been less strict about such things. This seems highly unlikely to me. It's not like it was his first time in Jerusalem or interacting with "the Jews." He knew exactly what he was doing. He deliberately told the man he had healed to break the sabbath, knowing that this was a capital offense under the Mosaic law.

What about the man who was healed? Why was he so ready to obey and take up his bed? Wasn't he afraid to openly break the sabbath in the heart of Pharisee country? Perhaps he was a gentile, in Jerusalem for the (possibly pagan) healing pool rather than for Pentecost. His response to his Jewish accusers was simply that the one who had healed him had also told him to carry his bed; as an outsider, he would have assumed that whatever a Jewish holy man had told him to do would obviously not be in violation of the Jewish law. It is also suggestive that the Jews did not try to kill this man for the crime of bearing a burden on the sabbath, but they did later try to kill Jesus for telling him to do so. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the man was a gentile and pardonable in his ignorance, whereas Jesus clearly knew better.


[14] Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, "Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee."

[15] The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.

The fact that Jesus found the man "in the temple" does not disprove my suggestion that he may have been a gentile. The atrium gentium, open to non-Jews, was considered to be part of the Temple.

We are not given enough information to guess the nature of the man's sin or its connection with his healing. Some commentators have taken Jesus' admonition as implying that the man's original ailment had been the result of sin. (Syphilis can cause partial paralysis, but it had not yet been brought to the Old World in Jesus' time.) I don't think any such inference is necessary, though. Jesus was simply saying that, now that his body had been made whole, it was high time he turned his attention to the state of his soul.

The man's departing and immediately reporting Jesus to "the Jews" seems like the action of an ingrate and informer. I suppose it is possible that he wanted to spread the word about this great holy man, Jesus, but in context it seems much more likely that his primary aim was to deflect the blame for sabbath-breaking to Jesus and away from himself. Perhaps his anger at being called a sinner played a role in this decision.


[16] And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.

While it is true that Moses decreed the death penalty for sabbath-breaking, the Jews of Jesus' time had no authority to execute that penalty. Judaea was under Roman rule, and only the Romans could put a man to death. (That is why later, when Jesus was executed, the sentence had to be pronounced by the Roman governor Pilate.) If the Jews nevertheless "sought to slay him," that could mean they attempted to murder him, in the sort of religious vigilantism one today associates with Islam, or that they attempted to convince the Roman authorities that he should be executed. Since it is hard for me to imagine anyone thinking the Romans would agree to execute a man for the "crime" of telling someone else to carry a bed on Saturday, I would tend to favor the former possibility.

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[17] But Jesus answered them, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work."

This is perhaps not the sort of defense we might have expected. Jesus does not say that carrying a "bed" (probably just a mat) hardly counts as "bearing a burden" and is not a violation of the sabbath. He does not say that, while keeping the sabbath is important, healing a man who needs healing is even more important. Instead, he says, "God is still working, and so am I." God, contrary to what Moses said, never rested from his labors, and neither should we. Rather than argue that his apparent sabbath-breaking was justified in this particular case, Jesus denies the whole idea of the sabbath.

If you search the Gospels, I think you will find not a single instance of Jesus keeping the sabbath or encouraging anyone else to do so. Even when he rattles off some of the Ten Commandments in response to the rich young ruler's query (Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20), he is careful to omit that one. The only time the sabbath ever comes up in connection with Jesus is when he is breaking it, which he does repeatedly and deliberately. 


[18] Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.

Centuries of Christianity have made it so natural to think of God as "Our Father" that it is easy to forget that the fatherhood of God is not a Jewish doctrine and was among Jesus' more controversial teachings. Although I am open to correction on this point, I do not believe the Old Testament contains a single unambiguous reference to God as the Father. (Update: see details and partial retraction here.)

There's Malachi 2:10: "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?" But in context, I think the "one father" refers to Abraham or Israel, not to God.

There's also Isaiah 63:16: "Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting." But again this is accompanied by references to Abraham and Israel, and God is poetically playing their role; the identification is no more literal than when Elkanah said to Hannah, "Am I not better to thee than ten sons?"

It may seem a small thing to say "Father" rather than "Creator," but I think Jesus' would-be murderers were right to regard it as revolutionary and to equate it with "making himself equal with God." If a man builds a house, the house is never going to be anything like the man who created it -- but begetting a son is another thing entirely. A son is fundamentally the same sort of being as his father and is destined to become like him. To call God one's Father is to make an astonishing claim about oneself, and the Jews are not to be faulted for finding it shocking in the extreme.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A healing in Galilee (Notes on John 4:43-54)

As we resume our story, Jesus has just passed through Samaria en route from Judaea to his homeland of Galilee.
[43] Now after two days he departed thence, and went into Galilee. [44] For Jesus himself testified, that a prophet hath no honour in his own country. [45] Then when he was come into Galilee, the Galilaeans received him, having seen all the things that he did at Jerusalem at the feast: for they also went unto the feast.
Mark (6:1-5; cf. Matthew 13:54-58) also quotes Jesus as saying, "A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country," but does so in a context that makes more sense.
[1] And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him.
[2] And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, "From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? [3] Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?" And they were offended at him. 
[4] But Jesus, said unto them, "A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house." 
[5] And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.
In Mark, Jesus says this just after being dismissed by the people of his own country, and we are then told that he could do few miracles there ("because of their unbelief," Matthew adds). In John, there is no such context, and no indication that his countrymen were dismissive; on the contrary, it appears that they welcomed him as a known worker of miracles. (They had seen him work miracles at the Passover in Jerusalem, as mentioned in John 2:23.)

In John, v. 44 reads at first like a non sequitur. Jesus went into Galilee, for he said a prophet has no honor in his own country -- for? Is that bit about a prophet having no honor supposed to be the reason he went into Galilee? At first I found this so puzzling that I was almost ready to assume that something had been excised from the text between vv. 43 and 44, but on second thought it actually makes sense.

Why was Jesus traveling from Judaea to Galilee? According to John 4:1-3, it was because he "knew how the Pharisees [in Judaea] had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John." Jesus had become too famous in Judaea and was apparently trying to escape from that. One might have supposed he would have been left in peace in Samaria, where the locals had no dealings with the Jews and had stubbornly rejected every prophet since Moses -- but even there he unexpectedly became a celebrity, proclaimed the Messiah even by the unbelieving Samaritans. Then he passed on into Galilee. Surely there he would not be welcomed as the Messiah, since Jesus himself had said that a prophet has no honor in his own country. No such luck, though. The Galilaeans had been at the feast at Jerusalem and seen his miracles, and so his fame had preceded him.

Why was Jesus running from his fame, trying to find a place where the people would not enthusiastically welcome him as the Messiah? Didn't he want people to "believe on his name"? We can only speculate as to his reasons. Perhaps, as I suggested in my notes on John 4:1-26 (qv), he left Judaea so as not to appear to be competing with John the Baptist. Perhaps he was ambivalent about being received as the Messiah because he knew he wasn't the Messiah, not really, not the Davidic figure the Jews were expecting. (See my post on Jesus and the Messianic prophecies.) Perhaps, as suggested in John 2:23-25, he was not interested in attracting disciples whose "faith" went no deeper than a capacity to be wowed by miracles. Certainly he wanted to avoid becoming the center of a political movement. Anyway, whatever his reasons, Jesus' desire to keep a low profile is attested in all four Gospels, most particularly in Mark, where the secrecy of Jesus' Messianic mission is a central theme.

[46] So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he made the water wine. And there was a certain nobleman, whose son was sick at Capernaum. [47] When he heard that Jesus was come out of Judaea into Galilee, he went unto him, and besought him that he would come down, and heal his son: for he was at the point of death. 
[48] Then said Jesus unto him, "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe."
What first crossed my mind when I read this was Herod's song from Jesus Christ Superstar (the scriptural basis for which is Luke 23:8): "So you are the Christ / You're the great Jesus Christ / Prove to me that you're divine / Change my water into wine / That's all you need do / And I'll know it's all true / C'mon, King of the Jews!"

Why did that, of all things, come to mind? Because that's the sort of request Jesus seems to think he's responding to. A desperate father comes to beg him to save his son's life, and Jesus responds as if he'd said, "Prove to me that you're no fool / Walk across my swimming pool." It seems almost narcissistic of Jesus to assume that the request is about his proving himself rather than about saving the child. It's as if a physician were to say to a distraught patient, "What, now I've got to cure leukemia to prove I'm a competent doctor? You people!"

Could Jesus really have responded like this to a heartfelt plea for help? Be it far from thee, Lord! Something else must be going on here.

Is it possible that the nobleman's request really was an attempt to put Jesus to the test, or even an expression of idle curiosity, and that his son's illness was just a convenient pretext? That seems highly unlikely. He made a special trip from Capernaum to Cana -- about 24 miles one way (or so; the exact location of Cana is disputed) -- just to see Jesus, leaving behind his son who "was at the point of death." It's hard to imagine what but sincere desperation could have motivated such a trip under such circumstances.

Is it possible that by "signs and wonders" Jesus meant not the anticipated healing but rather the unspecified miracles he had wrought in Judaea at the Passover? The Galilaeans, we are told, had been at the feast and seen those miracles, and that is why this time around they "received him." Last time he was in Cana, people certainly weren't coming from far and wide to request healings -- but now, after witnessing signs and wonders in Judaea, suddenly everyone's a believer. It still seems like an unnecessarily sarcastic thing to say, but at least it would not be questioning the sincerity of the nobleman's request.

Is it possible, even though the Gospel reads "Then said Jesus unto him," that Jesus' comment was actually intended more for onlookers than for the nobleman himself? He did use ye, a pronoun which in the King James Bible is always plural. Perhaps we may imagine that a crowd of sign-seekers had gathered around the two of them, waiting to see if and how this Messiah claimant would rise to the challenge of healing a terminally ill child. And perhaps he intentionally gave the nobleman what he wanted, by healing the child, while at the same time refusing to give the crowd what they wanted, by carrying out the healing in the least showy, most plausibly-deniable way possible -- just "Go home, your son will be fine," with no hocus pocus.

Finally, is it possible that Jesus' statement was not criticism or sarcasm at all, but a simple statement of fact and an explanation of why he agreed to work the requested miracle? He perceived that the nobleman would believe if he saw a miracle, and wouldn't if he didn't, and so he healed his son -- not for the sake of healing him, but in order that the father might believe. People tend to be dismissive of the idea that genuine faith might be occasioned by something as crass as a miracle, but it does happen. And it must be kept in mind that Jesus' mission was spiritual, not medical, in nature. He presumably could have snapped his fingers and healed everyone in the world if that had been what he wanted to accomplish -- but apparently it wasn't.

We rarely ask why Jesus healed people, taking it for granted that of course that's what a good and loving person would do -- but if you think about it, it's fairly obvious that if God didn't want anyone to get sick or die, he would have created a very different sort of world from the one he did in fact create. Sickness and premature death are apparently not always (net) bad things from God's point of view, so Jesus presumably did not want to heal as many people as possible just for the sake of healing. He healed when, and only when, that would lead to the best result -- "best" by spiritual, not necessarily medical, criteria.

In short, perhaps Jesus' statement was not meant to imply that this nobleman was just like the Pharisees, or like Herod in the song, but precisely that he was not like them. The Pharisees would not have been converted by a miraculous sign, but would have explained it away or latched onto how it was a violation of the Sabbath or whatever, and so Jesus generally did not perform signs for them. This nobleman, in contrast, was the sort of person who could be -- and, as it turned out, was -- converted by a sign, and so Jesus gave him one. I find this an attractive reading; the only thing that makes me unsure about it is Jesus' use of the plural pronoun ye, implying that he was generalizing about a group rather than talking about the nobleman as an individual.

[49] The nobleman saith unto him, "Sir, come down ere my child die."
[50] Jesus saith unto him, "Go thy way; thy son liveth." 
And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way.
"Come down" because Capernaum was a low-elevation town on the Sea of Galilee, whereas Cana was up in the hills.

Whatever was intended by Jesus' comment about not believing without signs and wonders, the nobleman does not engage with it at all but simply asks Jesus again to heal his child -- and Jesus does, simple as that, and sends him on his way. Nothing else is needed, not so much as a "Thy faith hath made him whole." And so, after walking 24 miles to Cana and having this maybe 15-second conversation with Jesus, the nobleman turns right around and walks the 24 miles back to Capernaum (or maybe not; see below).

[51] And as he was now going down, his servants met him, and told him, saying, "Thy son liveth." 
[52] Then enquired he of them the hour when he began to amend.
And they said unto him, "Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him."
[53] So the father knew that it was at the same hour, in the which Jesus said unto him, "Thy son liveth": and himself believed, and his whole house.
The son's recovery was apparently sudden enough that an exact hour could be pinpointed. The nobleman's desire to know the exact time is understandable. If his son had recovered before the conversation with Jesus, Jesus' statement would be evidence only of paranormal knowledge ("remote viewing") rather than healing ability. The coincidence of times makes it more probable (but of course does not prove) that Jesus somehow caused the son's recovery rather than merely reporting it.

Hours were counted from dawn, so the conversation with Jesus took place at approximately 1:00 in the afternoon. The nobleman must have arisen before the sun and begun his journey to Cana very early in the morning in order to arrive so early in the day. Understandably, he would have wanted to avoid traveling in the heat of the afternoon. He did not meet his servants on the road until the next day, so he apparently did not after all head back to Capernaum immediately. He must have stayed in Cana at least to wait out the hottest part of the day, and he probably spent the night there as well.

Given that the nobleman apparently did not set out for home immediately, I find it curious that he "went his way" directly after the brief conversation with Jesus. Since he had some time to kill in Cana, and since Jesus' visit was probably about the most interesting thing going on in that little village, and since he apparently already believed that Jesus had miraculously healed his son -- wouldn't it have been more natural for him to stick around, hear what Jesus had to say, and try to find out a bit more about this extraordinary person? I wonder what he did instead.

[54] This is again the second miracle that Jesus did, when he was come out of Judaea into Galilee.
I'm not sure why the miracles are being counted in this way. This is not the second miracle that Jesus did, since we know that he performed several miracles in Judaea during the Passover. Neither is it the second miracle that he did after coming out of Judaea into Galilee, since his first miracle in Galilee (turning water into wine, also in Cana) was performed before the trip to Jerusalem. At any rate, it is the second of the seven miracles that this Gospel chooses to emphasize, and perhaps that is all that matters.

Walking on water (Notes on John 6:15-25)

Yongsung Kim, Walking on Water He plants his footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.  -- William Cowper, "Light Shining out of ...