Saturday, September 18, 2021

The feeding of the five thousand echoes one of Elisha's miracles

I just listened to this story in 2 Kings (4:38, 42-44).

And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; . . . 

And there came a man from Baalshalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof.

And [Elisha] said, "Give unto the people, that they may eat."

And his servitor said, "What, should I set this before an hundred men?" 

He said again, "Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the Lord, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof."

So he set it before them, and they did eat, and left thereof, according to the word of the Lord.

Someone gives the prophet a small number of barley loaves to feed a large number of people. The prophet's servant expresses incredulity, but the prophet insists. The people eat, and miraculously it is enough and to spare. Compare this to the feeding of the 5,000, the only miracle apart from the Resurrection to appear in all four Gospels (John 6:5-13, Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9:12-17, Matt. 14:15-21).

Although the four accounts of the miracle are very similar, there are two ways in which the Fourth Gospel's version more closely echoes the story of Elisha.

First, Elisha's bread was provided by a single person, "a man from Baalshalisha"; and this man offered it unsolicited, without being asked by the prophet. In all three Synoptics, the bread and fish are provided by the disciples collectively; and in Matthew and Mark, Jesus directly asks them to do so. In John, though, the food is volunteered by a single person, as in the Elisha story.

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, saith unto him, "There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?" (John 6:8-9).

Second, only the Fourth Gospel specifies that they are barley loaves. In fact, 2 Kings 4 and John 6 are the only two places in the entire Bible where barley loaves are mentioned.

Elisha fed 100 people with 20 loaves -- five people per loaf -- which, depending on how big the loaves were, hardly seems like a miracle at all. (A modern loaf of bread typically has about 20 slices; Elisha's must have been much smaller.) Jesus fed 5,000 people with just five loaves -- 1,000 people per loaf -- a feat 200 times as miraculous as Elisha's. Also, while those who ate Elisha's bread "left thereof," those who ate Jesus' left enough crumbs to fill 12 baskets -- surely much more than the original volume of the bread.

Luke's account may contain a subtle reference to Jesus' feeding 50 times as many people as Elisha. Before feeding the multitude, "he said to his disciples, 'Make them sit down by fifties in a company'" (Luke 9:14). Elisha fed 100 people, but Jesus fed 100 companies of people.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

The "fake Jew" question

I'm never one to shy away from controversy. This post is not for the easily triggered.


In my original Notes on John 1, I confessed to being somewhat perplexed by the way Jesus greeted Nathanael: "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" (John 1:47) Even the use of the term Israelite seemed odd. "Did people still call themselves Israelites in Jesus' time?" I wrote. "The term strikes me as an archaism even the first century. Weren't they all Samaritans and Jews by then?"

A few verses later, Jesus is promising that Nathanael will see "the angels of God ascending and descending" (John 1:51; cf. Gen. 28:12), a very obvious reference to the story of Jacob's Ladder. My tentative interpretation of this was that Nathanael was a true Israelite -- a man like Jacob, who is Israel -- but one who (unlike the cunning deceiver Jacob) was "without guile."

Looking at Jesus' curious statement again, though, I don't see anything implying a but. The more natural reading is to see "in whom is no guile" as emphasizing "indeed." Jesus is saying, in effect, "Behold a true Israelite, not a deceiver" -- i.e., not a fake Israelite. He was identifying Nathanael as one truly of the blood of Israel, in contrast to others who lyingly claimed Israelite descent.

This interpretation sheds some light on the otherwise puzzling exchange that follows. Nathanael asks how Jesus knows him, Jesus says he saw him under a fig tree, and Nathanael replies with, "Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel" (John 1:48-49). Isn't that a bizarre response? Jesus himself jokes, "Because I said unto thee, 'I saw thee under the fig tree,' believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these" (John 1:50).

But suppose Nathanael was a true Israelite by blood, that this was not common knowledge, and that most of his fellow countrymen were fake Israelites. When Jesus declared him "an Israelite indeed," and said he knew it just by looking at Nathanael sitting under a fig tree, he was demonstrating a supernatural ability to discern true Israelites just by looking at them, without any knowledge of their family background. The "King of Israel" knew his own people by intuition -- and they him, as Nathanael's response shows.

Isn't this a rather farfetched interpretation, though? I mean, fake Israelites? And real Israelites whose identity as such was a carefully guarded secret? Bear with me.


The clearest reference to fake Israelites in the Bible is not in the Fourth Gospel but in the Revelation of John of Patmos -- a work which obviously has some connection to the Fourth Gospel, although I do not accept the traditional idea that they are the work of the same author.

In Revelation 2:9, Jesus is made to say to the angel of the church in Smyrna, "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan." The theme is revisited in the same verse of the next chapter, addressing the angel of the church in Philadelphia: "Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee."

I had always interpreted "Jews" in these verses in religious terms, as "practitioners of Judaism," because the contrast is not with the goyim but with the "synagogue of Satan." However, I don't think this really works. The primary meaning of Jew, in Greek as in English, is ethnic rather than religious. Here's something no one would ever say: "Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud said they were Jews, but they lied; they were atheists." A Christian who becomes an atheist is no longer a Christian, but a Jew who becomes an atheist -- or even a Satanist -- is still a Jew.

In Galatians 2, ethnic Jews who have converted to Christianity are still referred to as Jews. Paul says to Simon Peter, "If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?" (Gal. 2:14). Peter is still clearly considered to be a Jew even though he "lives after the manner of Gentiles" -- that is, no longer practices the Jewish religion.

With this in mind, I think we have to interpret Rev. 2:9 and 3:9 ethnically -- as referring to those who falsely claim to be Jewish by blood. The "blasphemy" in this, I suppose, has to do with the Jews' special status as God's covenant people.


In John 8:31-44, the fake Jew question comes up again.

They [the Jews] answered him, "We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, 'Ye shall be made free?'"

Jesus answered them, " . . . I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father."

They answered and said unto him, "Abraham is our father."

Jesus saith unto them, "If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father."

Then said they to him, "We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God."

Jesus said unto them, "If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it."

Talk about hard sayings! Although Jesus does, confusingly, concede "I know that ye are Abraham's seed," in the rest of his speech he seems to say that the father of his interlocutors is neither Abraham nor God, but the devil. The reference to their father being "a murderer from the beginning" seems to allude to Cain -- who, according to Jewish tradition, was the son of Satan or of a fallen angel and thus only half-brother to Abel.

1 John 3:10-12 (probably by the author of the Fourth Gospel) also connects Cain with the idea of being a child of the devil.

In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother.


If many of the "Jews" of New Testament times were not really Jews at all, then what were they? Roger Hathaway proposes that they were Idumaeans, or Edomites -- that is, descendants of Jacob's brother Esau.

Edom’s descendants settled a region south of the Dead Sea, whose capital was Petra, and whose famous mountain was named Mt. Seir. About 312 BC, the Nabateans evicted the Edomites from that region, so they migrated not very far to the region of Idumea (named after Edom, also) which was in southern Judea (the land of the tribe of Judah). The Edomites created such problems for the Judeans that in 132 BC, the king of Judea, John Hyrcanus, compelled them to be circumcised and join the Jerusalem Temple religion of Judaism. They responded enthusiastically. In less that a century the Edomites had taken political control of Judea under their own Herod (appointed by Rome in 47BC), and they took over the Jerusalem Temple. They oppressed the Israelite Judeans and forced many into suburbs of poverty and small nearby towns. When Jesus was born, it was Edomites who ran the Temple and the priesthood and the entire political scene.

It was the Edomite oppression that the true Israelites from Galilee (Jesus’ home) and Samaria complained about. The word Judean is translated into English Bibles as Jews. The Edomites became the Judeans, and by following Jesus, the true Israelite sheep became Christians, never to be called Judeans again.

This more or less checks out. It is true that the Edomites were forcibly converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus in 132 BC, and it is true that the Herods were an Edomite family. It is certainly possible that a large percentage of the "Jews" of Jesus' time were at least partly of Edomite ancestry.

If what Jesus meant in John 8 was that his "Jewish" interlocutors were in fact Edomites, there remains the question of why he would say that they were not the children of Abraham, since Esau/Edom was no less a grandson of Abraham than his twin brother Jacob/Israel. The Edomites would be less purely Abrahamic than the Israelites, though, since Esau married foreign wives, while Jacob married within the Abrahamic family. Well, Jesus did concede, "I know that ye are Abrahams' seed," while maintaining that they were more truly the sons of their other ancestor, the devil (presumably by way of Cain).

Roger Hathaway speculates that Esau's foreign wives were of Cainite descent, but I think there is a case to be made that Esau himself may have been the son of a Cainite, and perhaps even of Cain himself. Certainly Jacob and Esau were very different physically, suggesting that they were only half brothers. When Esau was born, he "came out red all over like an hairy garment" (Gen. 25:25). Later, when Jacob wished to disguise himself as Esau in order to steal his blessing from their blind father Isaac, he faced the problem that "Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man" (Gen. 27:11) -- a problem he solved by covering parts of his body with hairy goatskin.

There is a persistent legend -- I had thought it peculiar to Mormonism until I encountered it in the Divine Comedy also! -- that Cain was cursed to be "a fugitive and a vagabond" forever and that he still lives today. Most Mormons will have heard the story of early Mormon apostle David Patten's 1835 encounter in Tennessee

with a very remarkable personage who had represented himself as being Cain who had murdered his brother Abel. I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me for about two miles. His head was about even with my shoulders as I sat in my saddle. He wore no clothing but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark … He said he had no home, that he was a wanderer of the Earth. He said he was a very miserable creature, that he earnestly sought death, but could not die and his mission was to destroy the souls of men … I rebuked him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the virtue of the Holy Priesthood and commanded him to go hence and he immediately departed out of my sight.

From this story -- quoted by Spencer W. Kimball in the once widely read Miracle of Forgiveness -- comes the Mormon folk belief that Bigfoot is Cain. I do not believe that Patten made up the story. If he had, he would have described Cain rather differently, in keeping with the then-current belief that Cain was the ancestor of the Negroes. Although Patten does say that "his skin was very dark," being "covered with hair" is scarcely a feature one associates with that race. (As Joe Biden famously pointed out, black kids find "hairy legs" something of a novelty!)


Coming back to Nathanael, I have said that one interpretation of his conversation with Jesus in John 1 is that Nathanael's identity as "an Israelite indeed" was a secret, and that Jesus' seemingly supernatural ability to discern Nathanael's ancestry is what convinced Nathanael that Jesus was the Son of God and the King of Israel.

I have discussed a similar case, of Israelite ancestry as a carefully guarded secret, in my 2014 post "Lehi's people." In the Book of Mormon, the patriarch Lehi does not know his own ancestry until he obtains the brass plates from Laban. So important are these brass plates that Lehi's son Nephi eventually resorts to murder to obtain them. Here is the secret they contain:

And it came to pass that my father, Lehi, also found upon the plates of brass a genealogy of his fathers; wherefore he knew that he was a descendant of Joseph; yea, even that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt, and who was preserved by the hand of the Lord, that he might preserve his father, Jacob, and all his household from perishing with famine.

And they were also led out of captivity and out of the land of Egypt, by that same God who had preserved them.

And thus my father, Lehi, did discover the genealogy of his fathers. And Laban also was a descendant of Joseph, wherefore he and his fathers had kept the records (1 Ne. 5:14-16).

We are not told how closely related Lehi and Laban were, only that they were both descendants of Joseph -- something that Laban knew but Lehi did not. It appears that Laban's family had kept genealogical records not only for their own line of descent from Joseph, but for other branches of the family as well. They knew Lehi's ancestry better than Lehi himself did -- and were willing to go to extreme measures to keep that information out Lehi's hands!

And [Lehi's son Laman] desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father.

And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee (1 Ne. 3:12-13).

Just as Laban was willing to kill to keep the secret out of Lehi's hands, so were Lehi's children willing to kill to obtain it. In one of the most shocking scenes in the Book of Mormon, Nephi decapitates the unconscious Laban and steals the plates, believing that God has justified him in so doing.

In my post about Lehi, I point to evidence that both he and Laban were Egyptians, descendants of the half-Egyptian sons of Joseph, and that their ancestors were left behind in the Exodus. Lehi's family apparently later converted to Judaism without realizing that they were Israelites by blood, whereas Laban's family had kept careful records and knew who they were and who their kinsmen were. Lehi's family would have remained ignorant had Lehi not had a dream from the Lord telling him that Laban had a record of their ancestors and that they needed to obtain it.

All this happened about 600 years before Christ, centuries before the forced conversion of the Edomites, and in that way is not directly relevant to Nathanael's situation. Still, the similarities are striking. Nathanael, like Laban, seemed to be privy to secret information about his own Israelite ancestry.

Why would Israelite ancestry need to be kept secret? And why, like Laban, attempt to keep the secret even from fellow Israelites? And does it really matter that much who's an Israelite by blood and who isn't? I don't have answers to those questions, but they're certainly worth thinking about.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Repentance, forgiveness, and damnation in the Fourth Gospel

No form of the word repent, forgive, or mercy occurs anywhere in the Fourth Gospel.

Confess is used only with reference to confessing that Jesus is the Christ, and to John's confessing that he himself was not the Christ. It is never used in the context of confessing sins.

The word sinner is used only by the Pharisees.

Condemn is used only to say that Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it, and that those who believe are not condemned.

Hell does not occur.

There is only one reference to damnation: "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" (John 5:29).

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Hard sayings (Notes on John 6:59-71)

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."
Abe said, "Man, you must be puttin' me on!"

-- Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"

Jesus has just announced, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you" (John 6:53). Since the most basic meaning of son of man is just "man" (the singular of children of men), this essentially means, "Except ye eat human flesh and drink human blood . . . ." That he later clarified that he meant himself, not just any old human, doesn't really make this statement any less disturbing. He concludes, "he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: . . . he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever" (John 6:57-58).

[59] These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum. [60] Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, "This is an hard saying; who can hear it?"

When I started this blog, I actually considered "Hard Sayings" as a possible name.

The disciples' complaint could be translated as, "This is difficult; who can understand it?" or, "This is offensive; who can listen to it?" The latter seems a more likely reading to me. As Mark Twain famously quipped, "It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand." Cannibalism, even as a metaphor for something spiritual, is pretty shocking -- and let's not forget that for much of Christendom even today, it's not a metaphor at all; that many of the faithful participate in a ceremony in which they believe they are literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus of Nazareth.

Even Jesus' own disciples balk at such an outrageous statement -- as he must have known they would. And, as usual, Jesus makes no attempt to explain himself or to couch his teachings in more acceptable terms. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was intentionally being offensive and confusing, that these "hard sayings" were a sort of test -- not nearly as extreme as God's commanding Abraham to murder his own son (Gen. 22) or Nephi to decapitate an unconscious man (1 Ne. 4), but not really qualitatively different. His disciples face a stark choice: accept the unacceptable, or stop following Jesus.

Nephi actually committed the commanded murder; Abraham was spared by a last-minute "just kidding" from God. Had the angel not stopped him, would Abraham have gone through with it? Should he have? I don't want to rewrite Fear and Trembling here, but these are extremely important questions. Trying to put myself in the sandals of Jesus' early disciples, I can think of five possible reactions.

  1. Jesus has already shown himself to be good and trustworthy. Therefore, if he says cannibalism is good, cannibalism is good. Pass the human blood.
  2. Jesus has already shown himself to be good and trustworthy. Therefore, he can't possibly mean what he appears to mean here. I can continue to follow him, confident that he will never really ask me to eat his flesh or drink his blood.
  3. Cannibalism is so obviously evil that this proves Jesus was a fraud all along and that his "miracles" were from the devil. I should stop following him immediately.
  4. This shows that Jesus is a complex character, capable of both great good and great evil. I can still learn what I can from him but clearly need to take everything with a grain of salt.
  5. This shows that Jesus is beyond good and evil, embodying the extremes of both -- and that's, like deep.

Option 1 is exemplified by Nephi and perhaps Abraham.

Option 2 is generally how I have been approaching Jesus and his teachings on this blog. If the Gospel represents him saying or doing anything clearly wrong, I assume that I have misunderstood or that the text is corrupt.

Option 3 is my usual approach to contemporary religious leaders and institutions. Say or do as much good as you like, but you fail one litmus test and I'm writing you off as a servant of Satan.

Option 4 is my attitude to certain historical figures such as Moses, David, and Joseph Smith.

In my hot youth, when George the Third was king, I would have found Option 5 dangerously attractive. I remember how fascinated I was, when I started reading Stephen King's The Green Mile, by the character of John Coffey -- a seemingly gentle man who had mysterious healing powers but was, equally mysteriously, capable of murdering children -- and how disappointing it was to discover that Coffey was innocent and that the murders had actually been committed by the novel's least relatable character. (It was extremely naïve not to have seen that coming a green mile away.) That was my first and last Stephen King novel. I felt cheated. I think Judas Iscariot may have been an Option 5 guy.

It seems clear, then, that there is no "rule" for dealing with hard sayings; they call for spiritual discernment on a case-by-case basis. That was perhaps Jesus' purpose in saying such things: to jolt his listeners out of their respective dogmatic slumbers and force them to exercise their spiritual discernment.

[61] When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, "Doth this offend you? [62] What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? [63] It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.

Jesus' retort -- "What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?" -- reminds us that the murmurers have been saying not only, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (v. 52) but also, "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?'" (v. 42).

Jesus then proceeds to flatly contradict his other hard saying. He has just said, "If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh" (v. 51) and, "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man . . . ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh . . . hath eternal life" (vv. 53-54). Now he says, "It is the spirit that quickeneth [i.e. gives life]; the flesh profiteth nothing."

Is Jesus explaining his hard saying? One way of interpreting v. 63 would be, "I obviously didn't mean flesh literally, since it is the spirit that gives life. The words that I speak are spirit and life, so when I said 'eat my flesh' I really just meant 'hear my words.'"

But then why mention flesh in the first place? If all he wanted to say was that his words, not the manna of Moses, had the power to give life, why not just say so? He could have quoted Deuteronomy, as Matthew (4:4) and Luke (4:4) say he did when tempted by the devil:

And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live (Deut. 8:3).

Again, Jesus is deliberately being offensive and hard to understand, and his purpose is apparently to challenge his disciples. He is demonstrating what he had said earlier (John 6:29): that believing the messenger of God is work and requires active thinking and wrestling, not mere passive assent. Again, one thinks of a Zen master propounding koans.

"To live forever," said the Master, "you must eat my flesh and drink my blood."

"Eat your flesh!" said the student. "But how can we do that?"

"And why would you want to?" said the Master. "Only spirit can make you live forever. Flesh is useless."

At that moment, the student was enlightened.

I'm not enlightened yet, at least not about this.

Another thought: Is Jesus' confusing statement in v. 63 -- about flesh, spirit, life, and his words -- related to the prologue to this Gospel (1:14) -- "the Word was made flesh"? Not that that really clears anything up.

[64] "But there are some of you that believe not." For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him. [65] And he said, "Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father."

The assertion that Jesus knew from the beginning who would betray him is the author's inference, not something Jesus himself said. Judas was not, I think, one of those "that believed not."

Again Jesus emphasizes that only God -- only the divine spark in man, intuiting and responding to the divine in Jesus, deep calling to deep -- can cause a man to follow him. These hard sayings -- offensive, self-contradictory nonsense by any human standard -- are proof of that. Anyone who had been following Jesus for empirical or intellectual reasons ("the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom") would have been put off by them, leaving only those guided by spiritual intuition.

[66] From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

[67] Then said Jesus unto the twelve, "Will ye also go away?"

This is the first mention in this Gospel of "the Twelve," who are introduced without explanation. As so often, the reader is assumed to have basic background information about Jesus. Since there is no explanation, we are left to guess what made the Twelve different from the other disciples.

Mark says that "he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils" (Mark 3:14-15), and Matthew and Luke say essentially the same thing. The Fourth Gospel says nothing like this. One possible reading of vv. 66-67 is simply that almost all of his disciples left him, so that only twelve remained.

[68] Then Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. [69] And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God."

[70] Jesus answered them, "Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?"

[71] He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.

Ignore v. 71 for a moment, since it is the author's interpretation of what was said. Jesus asks the Twelve a question, one of them (Simon Peter) answers, and Jesus' reply is, "Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?" The most Gricean interpretation of this would be that Jesus is referring to Peter, not Judas, and presumably expressing disapproval of his answer. If it seems fantastic that Jesus would have called one of his closest disciples "a devil," keep in mind that the Synoptics record the same thing: "But he turned, and said unto Peter, 'Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me, for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men'" (Matt. 16:23, see also Mark 8:33). The author, writing with the benefit of hindsight after Judas's betrayal, may have read into Jesus' remark a meaning that was not intended.

There is a similar ambiguity in John 13:10-11, when Jesus says to the Twelve, "Ye are clean, but not all [of you]"; the author offers the gloss, "For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, 'Ye are not all clean'" -- but Jesus was once again responding to Simon Peter and not to Judas.

Or the author may have been right, and Jesus may have been referring to Judas in these two instances. After all, it's hard to find anything offensive or "Satanic" in what Peter says in vv. 68-69. I merely bring it up as a possible alternative reading.

Whether or not Jesus had Judas in mind, Judas himself would certainly have understood it that way. In fact, I would assume that each of the Twelve would be thinking to himself, as at the Last Supper, "Lord, is it I?" (Matt. 26:22). This is what I was getting at earlier when I said "Judas Iscariot may have been an Option 5 guy" -- that is, may have embraced Jesus' hard sayings because of their shocking nature. Judas may have heard, "You are a devil, Judas, but I have chosen you. Yes, I have knowingly chosen a devil as one of my associates, for devils too have their role to play in the work of God."

Could Jesus actually have meant that? No, I don't think so. While Jesus certainly needed to die in order to complete his work, I don't believe it was necessary for him to die in the precise manner that he did, and so I don't believe Judas was in any sense doing the work of God by betraying him. What did he mean, then? Well, this may have been one more hard saying, one more unanswerable riddle for the disciples to chew on. I think it's possible that Jesus had no particular disciple in mind at all, but that the purpose of his statement was to make each of the disciples suspect himself as the "devil" and do a little soul searching.

I wonder also what the author -- the unnamed "beloved disciple," apparently one of the Twelve -- thought at the time. Did he think, "Oh, he probably means Judas. I never liked that guy" -- or did he think, "Lord, is it I?"

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.

The feeding of the five thousand echoes one of Elisha's miracles

I just listened to this story in 2 Kings (4:38, 42-44). And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; . . .  And ther...