Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Bread of Life (Notes on John 6:26-58)

Jesus is speaking to the crowd that has been following him back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. He has recently fed 5,000 of them miraculously in the Golan Heights and encounters them again in Capernaum. Not knowing that he got there by walking on water, they ask, "Rabbi, when camest thou hither?"

[26] Jesus answered them and said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.

This seems unfair. These people had already been following Jesus around for some time before he fed them, and many of them very likely came from as far away as Jerusalem. We are told that originally they "followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased" (John 6:2; emphasis mine) and it seems unlikely that their motivation changed after the feeding of the 5,000. If they just wanted bread, surely there were easier ways of getting it than following Jesus around, over seas and up mountains, in the hope that he would happen to work that particular miracle.

What did Jesus mean to convey by making what, taken literally, is an unjust accusation? I suppose his purpose was to make the people ask themselves why they were following Jesus around. They started following him after seeing him effect paranormal healings, but why? It seems unlikely that any of them literally thought, "This guy can heal the sick; I bet he can produce food out of thin air, too!" but perhaps they were thinking something like that. Perhaps some were sick and wanted to be healed. Perhaps some had sick relatives or friends and wanted them to be healed. Perhaps others, seeing that Jesus had preternatural powers, hoped that he would be able to grant them some other material benefit. They were interested in the miracle-worker, not because the miracles were evidence of his divinity, but because they hoped to be the beneficiaries of some particular miracle. In essence, Jesus is asking whether their following of him is disinterested.

How many of us do follow Jesus disinterestedly, at least in the beginning? Don't people generally turn to God because of some urgent need? Not in my own case, I think. I was quite happy as an atheist and have embraced Christianity only because I find it interesting and true. Oddly, I feel a little bad about saying that, as if it could only be a pose, as if I must really have some deep need that I am ashamed to admit. Or, if it is true, how dare I not need religion? How dare I take up Christianity as if it were geometry or something? Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst! Nevertheless, here I am, with such motives as I have. God knows if they deserve credit or blame.


[27] Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed."

As always in the King James Version, meat means "food," not specifically animal flesh. No material benefit lasts and is thus not worth working for; only eternal life is of ultimate consequence. This may also prefigure the references to manna which follow, as manna was proverbially perishable.

The "son of man" is, as usual, spoken of in the third person, but Jesus makes it fairly clear later in this chapter that he is referring to himself: "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life" (vv. 53-54).

This is the only occurrence of the phrase "God the Father" in the Gospels.

What is meant by the statement that God has "sealed" the Son of Man? There are no other references to people being "sealed" in the Gospels or in the Old Testament, though the expression does occur in some of the Epistles of Paul and, most famously, in the Revelation of John. (In Mormon usage, sealing refers to ceremonially making familial or spousal relationships permanent, but it is hard to read the Bible as using the word in that sense.)

Paul writes that Abraham "received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised" (Rom. 4:9). Apparently this means that circumcision was outward or visible sign "certifying" Abraham as faithful and righteous, just as an official seal serves to certify the validity of a legal document. Elsewhere, Paul writes "Am I am not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord? If I be not an apostle unto others, yet doubtless I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord" (1 Cor. 1:9). Again, seal seems to refer to a sign or certification. Paul's status as an apostle is disputed, but the Christians of Corinth -- apparently taught and led by Paul -- are living proof that his claim to the title is legitimate. In both of these instances, seal seems to mean something like "visible proof."

Elsewhere, Paul speaks of God sealing people, coming closer to the language of Jesus: "Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God; Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts" (2 Cor. 1:21-22). The meaning of sealed is not entirely clear here, but "marked us as his own" (as if with his signet ring) seems a probable reading.

This connection between sealing and the "earnest of the Spirit" (earnest meaning something like "down payment" or "security deposit") occurs again in Ephesians. "Christ . . . in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory" (Eph. 1:12-14). "And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption" (Eph. 4:30). These passages suggest that when 2 Cor. says "sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit," the meaning is "sealed us, that is to say, given the earnest of the Spirit." The expression "sealed unto the day of redemption" possibly alludes to Daniel: "But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end" (Dan. 12:4). However, if so, there must be some shift in meaning; Daniel is speaking of sealing a scroll (with sealing wax) so that it cannot be opened until "the time of the end," and it does not make much sense to apply that to a person. What Paul appears to be saying is that God has marked us as his own by putting his Spirit in our hearts, and that this is a sign that we will be saved in the end.

Finally, there is the famous sealing of the 144,000 in Revelation: "And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, 'Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads'" (Rev. 7:2-3). The context suggests that seals are to mark the faithful, much as lamb's blood marked the doorposts of Moses' people, so that they may be spared the destruction about to be unleashed on the world.

If Paul and John of Patmos are any guide, then, Jesus likely means that God has marked him as his own, possibly (but not necessarily) in some way that would be visible to others. Given the context, in which Jesus seems to say that the people should have sought him simply because he worked miracles (rather than for the results of those miracles), it may be that Jesus' miracles are the "seal" referred to. By miraculously effecting physical healings and multiplying physical bread, Jesus demonstrated that he had the power of God and could therefore do far more significant things than that.


[28] Then said they unto him, "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?"

[29] Jesus answered and said unto them, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent."

Jesus has just told the crowd to "labour . . . for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life" (v. 27). When they ask how they might "work the works of God," they are using the same Greek word -- which Thayer says "is opposite to inactivity or idleness."

Jesus answers that the work of God is to believe in Jesus. How is that work, though? We think of belief as the passive having-of-opinions, scarcely "opposite to inactivity or idleness." Real belief involves thinking, though, and that is work, as the painter Joshua Reynolds said in his 1784 address to the Royal Academy:

In the practice of art, as well as in morals, it is necessary to keep a watchful and jealous eye over ourselves; idleness, assuming the specious disguise of industry, will lull to sleep all suspicion of our want of an active exertion of strength. A provision of endless apparatus, a bustle of infinite enquiry and research, or even the mere mechanical labour of copying, may be employed, to evade and shuffle off real labour, -- the real labour of thinking.

(Ironic, isn't it, that I should present Reynolds's words here undigested, by means of "the mere mechanical labour of copying"!)

Jesus calls us to active, not passive, belief. (See Bruce Charlton's post on this subject.) That is the work of God.


[30] They said therefore unto him, "What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? [31] Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"

Wait, "What sign shewest thou?"? Seriously? Aren't they following him because they've already seen him work miraculous healings in Jerusalem and then magically feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread? I wasn't exaggerating when I wrote (and the end of this post) that the Jews and Samaritans had a very specific set of expectations, above and beyond a generic demand for "miracles." The Prophet like unto Moses was supposed to "produce the omer of manna which our fathers ate, while in the wilderness, for forty years," and if Jesus couldn't do that, he wasn't the Prophet. Sure, sure, lots of nice miracles, very impressive, but where's the manna?

Manna was, as I have said, proverbially perishable, which was part of the point of this promised miracle. As a Samaritan high priest of the early 20th century put it, "When our ancestors, in the days when manna used to fall, would keep some of it till the morrow, it would become rotten and wormy. Therefore, it would be a proof none could deny if it should appear sound after this long interval and remain in its sound state."

The scripture they refer to about "bread from heaven" could be Nehemiah 9:15 or Psalm 105:40, both of which refer poetically to manna in that way. Real manna was not much like bread at all, but is described as being "like coriander seed, white" (Ex. 16: 31), "a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground" (Ex. 16:14). Various theories as to its identity exist, many of them involving insects.


[32] Then Jesus said unto them, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. [33] For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world."

[34] Then said they unto him, "Lord, evermore give us this bread."

Jesus is telling them that he's not going to do what Moses did, except in an ad hoc metaphorical sense. While he poetically appropriates the Messianic prophecies and draws some of his key metaphors from them (the good shepherd, for example), Jesus fundamentally offers new wine in new bottles and is not interested in shoehorning himself into a precast role. Those who seek to validate his mission by ticking fulfilled prophecies off a checklist are sure to be disappointed, and those who fight this disappointment will drift further and further from the path of intellectual honesty.

In the King James Version, Jesus seems to be saying clearly that the "bread of God" is a person ("he which cometh down"), implicitly himself, which makes the response ("give us this bread") sound stupid, but the original Greek does not imply that the bread is a person and can also be translated as "that which cometh down." The people's response shows that they still understand Jesus to be talking about some improved Manna 2.0 he's going to produce, not about himself. He hasn't dropped that bombshell yet.

What distinguishes the True Bread from mere manna is that the former "giveth life unto the world." Moses' manna gave life, or sustained it anyway, so the distinguishing feature seems to be that "unto the world" bit.


[35] And Jesus said unto them, "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

This clearly ties in to Jesus' statement to the Samaritan woman at the well, "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" (John 4:14).

In that earlier episode, Jesus never explains what this "living water" is, instead changing the subject and never returning to it. Here, he seems to say that "drinking of the water" Jesus gives means believing in Jesus himself, and that he himself is the living water, a title that apparently has the same significance as "bread of life."

Drink the living water, and it will become a well inside you; that's why you will never need water from an external source again. In the parable of the sower in Mark 4, "the sower soweth the word" (v. 14), symbolized as corn. Those who receive this corn do not eat it, though, but plant it in their hearts, where it grows up to "bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred" (v. 20). This directly parallels the water that becomes a wellspring in the one who receives it. In Mark, what is sown is "the word" -- which can mean either Jesus' teaching or (as in John 1) Jesus himself as the embodied Logos. Elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus says, "He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me" (John 13:20), but the Greek word translated as whomsoever does not necessarily refer to a person; whatsoever would also be a possible translation.

Those who truly receive Jesus do not merely accept him as an authority and give passive assent to his pronouncements. They do the work of believing -- the work of God. They internalize Jesus' word and thereby Jesus himself. They receive the Holy Ghost. Instead of merely eating the bread and drinking the water they are given, they create within themselves a field of corn and a well.


[36] But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not.

As I have already noted, the Gospel is rather unclear on whether and to what extent these people did believe in Jesus. We are told that they started following him because of the miracles he worked, and Jesus accuses them of being after a free meal, hoping for a repeat performance of the feeding of the 5,000. They seem to view him as a religious authority, asking "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?" -- but when Jesus answers that the work of God is to believe in him, Jesus, they say, "What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee?"

It is to this ("that we may see, and believe thee") that Jesus is perhaps responding here: "Ye have seen, and yet believe not." Although they have seen him work miracles, they still demand further signs -- some proof that will overwhelm them and make doubt impossible. They are passively waiting to be wowed. Although they "believe" in a sense, it is not the sort of belief Jesus is trying to elicit, the sort that -- precisely because it is active and not passive -- he called "the work of God."


[37] All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.

Jesus' followers are those who actively come to him -- and yet in the same breath, they are also described as being passively given to him by the Father. Both divine grace and the personal exercise of free will play a role. Choosing to follow Jesus is sufficient; no one who makes that choice will be rejected.

[38] For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. [39] And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. [40] And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day."

I'm not why such emphasis is put on this distinction between Jesus' own will and that of the Father who sent him. Surely they want the same things?

The expression "the last day" is unique to this Gospel (with the exception of Nehemiah 8:18, where it refers to the last day of a seven-day feast), and the intended meaning is not obvious. Does it mean the end of the world? Each individual's dying day? Does it just mean "in the end," a generic way of referring to the final result?

Most of the "last day" references are here, in the Bread of Life discourse, but another prominent occurrence is in this dialogue between Jesus and Martha, in the lead-up to the raising of Lazarus (John 11:23-26):

[23] Jesus saith unto her, "Thy brother shall rise again."

[24] Martha saith unto him, "I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day."

[25] Jesus said unto her, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: [26] And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?"

[27] She saith unto him, "Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world."

The most natural reading of this is that Martha misunderstood Jesus' first statement as a reference to the Jewish belief that the dead will be raised in the future, when the Messiah comes. (According to Acts 23, this was accepted by the Pharisees but not the Sadducees. Later it became a universal Jewish tenet and was included in the Jewish "creed" formulated by Maimonides.) This is reinforced when Jesus says, "I am the resurrection," and she replies, "Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ" -- the beginning of a dawning realization that Jesus is the Messiah, that this is the Messianic age, and that the resurrection of Lazarus can occur now.

But if "the last day" is used by Martha to mean the future Messianic age, and if Jesus corrects her and points out that their own time is the Messianic age, then what can the expression mean here, in John 6? Is this a reference to the "second coming" (a doctrine of which I am skeptical, and which I do not find clearly expressed in this Gospel) or to the end of the world?

Anyway, whatever time frame is intended by "at the last day," the thrust of this passage is that all those who believe in Jesus will be resurrected, because they have been "given" to him by the Father. I am not sure what exactly this "giving" refers to, or what the Father's role in this is.


[41] The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, "I am the bread which came down from heaven." [42] And they said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, 'I came down from heaven?'" 

 [43] Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, "Murmur not among yourselves. 

There is no hint of a virgin birth in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus is simply "the son of Joseph."

What is the answer to this question of the Jews'? If Jesus was born in the ordinary human way, why did he say he "came down from heaven"?

Well, if you accept the doctrine of the premortal life (as I do), then every human being is a spirit which came down from "heaven" to incarnate in a mortal body. Perhaps Jesus had gained access those premortal memories and remembered coming down from heaven.

Another possibility is that this has to do with John's statement that "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him" (John 1:32). If a Spirit from heaven came down and remained on Jesus, permanently, becoming part of him, then there was an aspect of him that came down from heaven rather than being born.

Jesus' only response to this is "Murmur not among yourselves," and then he goes right back to what he was saying, offering no answer at all to their question. He is being deliberately provocative here, saying things that sound impossible and refusing to explain himself. (This will become even more obvious shortly, when starts talking about cannibalism and alienates even many of his own followers!) The method appears to be akin to that of a Zen master, whose koans -- seemingly absurd riddles -- force the student to engage his own thinking and intuition rather than passively accepting the pronouncements of the teacher.


[44] No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. [45] It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall be all taught of God.' Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.

Again, no response to the "murmuring." Jesus picks right up where he had left off at the end of v. 40.

The quotation, attributed only to "the prophets," is apparently a paraphrase of Isaiah 54:13, "And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children." In both texts, the use of of in the King James is archaic and potentially confusing. The meaning is not "taught about God" but rather "taught by God." Similarly, "hath learned of the Father" means "has learned from the Father."

Those who come to Jesus have been "taught" to do so by God himself (perhaps because it is the divine spark within that responds to Jesus?). Therefore they have been "given" to Jesus by the Father, and Jesus cannot reject them.


[46] Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father.

This reads like an interpolation -- or rather two successive interpolations -- added to grind theological axes that were not Jesus' own.


[47] Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. [48] I am that bread of life. [49] Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. [50] This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. [51] I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."

[52] The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

[53] Then Jesus said unto them, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. [54] Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. [55] For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

The "bread of life" metaphor becomes more graphic and upsetting now, as Jesus tells people they must eat his flesh. When the Jews ask, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Jesus offers no explanation and makes no concession to their sensibilities, instead repeating the offending statement and adding that they must also drink his blood!

I don't have any deep insight at this point on the intended meaning of this symbolism. It's easy to say it refers to Communion, but that's not really an answer. What does the symbolism of Communion really mean? (Also note that there is no Last Supper in the Fourth Gospel.)


[56] He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

If you eat and drink Jesus, then Jesus is in you -- but why are you also in Jesus? This has the same paradoxical nature as a couplet attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 7):

Blessed is the lion which a man eats, making the lion human.
Cursed is the man which a lion eats, making the lion human.

If a man eats a lion, the lion becomes human, because the matter that had been part of a lion is now part of a man instead. If a lion eats a man, the lion also becomes human, because human matter is now incorporated into the body of the lion.

By the same logic, if you eat Jesus, you are transformed by incorporating Jesus into yourself, and Jesus is transformed by becoming part of you. (Or Jesus could eat you, of course -- but assuming Jesus is the "lion" of the Thomas saying, this Soviet-Russia version of Communion is to be avoided.)

⁂ 

[57] As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. [58] This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever."

This seems to refer back to Jesus' earlier statement, "My food is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work" (John 4:34). Does "eating" Jesus just mean doing his will, then, and finishing his work? Certainly I think we are meant to connect these two passages, especially given the reference in vv. 38-40 to Jesus' doing the Father's will.

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.

The Bread of Life (Notes on John 6:26-58)

Jesus is speaking to the crowd that has been following him back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. He has recently fed 5,000 of them mira...