Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Notes on John 1

Geschrieben steht: »Im Anfang war das Wort!«
Hier stock' ich schon! Wer hilft mir weiter fort?

— Goethe's Faust

"In the beginning was the Word," I read.
Already stymied! How can I proceed?

— my translation

I've always found the Fourth Gospel to be the least accessible of the four — feeling, with Faust, my understanding blocked from the very first sentence. However, as the only one of the Gospels which even claims to be an eyewitness account, it is obviously the most important text in the Bible and must be confronted sooner or later. Recently I have been going through it very slowly, transcribing it by hand in a notebook and brooding as I go. So far I have to admit that, to coin a phrase, "the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not." Nevertheless I am publishing here my notes, such as they are, in the hope that my thoughts will be clarified by the writing process, as they so often are, and that the post might attract helpful comments from those whose understanding is deeper than my own.

For convenience, I shall refer to the Fourth Gospel and its author by the conventional name "John," though I do not think it there are any very good reasons for identifying its anonymous author (known only as "the disciple whom Jesus loved") with the apostle called John in the Synoptics or with the author of the Apocalypse.

The text of John 1 is in purple; everything else is my notes.

The Prologue

The authority of the Fourth Gospel lies in the fact (or claim, anyway) that the author's reports of the sayings and doings of Jesus Christ are those of an eyewitness — and of a particularly valuable eyewitness: one who was present when most of the other disciples were not (at the crucifixion, for instance) and who, as one of those who was closest to Jesus ("whom Jesus loved"), would be more likely than others to have understood Jesus and reported his teachings with a minimum of distortion.

The prologue to John, constituting the first 18 verses, is theology presented in the author's own voice rather than a report of the teachings of Christ. The author's credentials as an eyewitness are thus not directly relevant to this passage, which should therefore be considered somewhat less authoritative than the rest of the Gospel. It represents the author's own understanding of who Jesus was and what he was about — and, as I have said, the author likely understood Jesus as well as anybody.

[1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] The same was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

This seems needlessly repetitive. The second verse adds nothing to the first, and the second clause of v. 3 simply rephrases the first clause. I suppose that what we are reading here is poetry, and specifically poetry in the classical Hebrew style (though of course it is written in Greek). The poetic technique of parallelism, where each line is followed by a slight rewording of the same underlying thought, will be familiar to readers of Isaiah and some of the other Hebrew prophets. This suggests to me that the author (no matter how "Greek" he sometimes seems!) was likely an educated, Bible-reading Jew. This is consistent with the Gospel's internal claim that its author was one of Jesus' original disciples (i.e., a Jew) and that he "was known unto the high priest" (John 18:16) and thus presumably of the upper class and perhaps a priest himself. It is not terribly consistent with the traditional identification of the author as an illiterate Galilean fisherman.

There is an obvious allusion to the opening of Genesis here — again, implying that the author knew the Hebrew Bible well.

[1] In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. [2] 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. [3] And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. [4] And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:1-4).

The parallels are even clearer if the original Greek is compared with the Greek (Septuagint) version of Genesis. "In the beginning" is the same (ἐν ἀρχῇ) in both passages, and "all things were made by him" (πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο) uses the same Greek verb as "there was light" (ἐγένετο φῶς) — literally, "all things came into being through it/him [the word]" and "light came into being."

The key word λόγος ("word") does not occur in the Genesis passage, but the idea that all things came into being through God's word is clearly there. Light comes into being because God says, "Let there be light," and the same is true of the other things he creates. This Mosaic idea of creating-by-speaking is perhaps so familiar that we take it for granted, but it's actually fairly unique. In most creation myths, the gods create either by pro-creating (as in Hesiod) or by physically doing things. It can be instructive to compare Genesis 1 with its most important predecessor, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš, in this regard. For example, in the latter text, Marduk physically slices the sea (Tiamat) in two "like a dried fish"  and stretches half out as the heavens — whereas the corresponding point in Moses' version of the story has God simply say, "Let there be a firmament, and let it divide the waters from the waters," and it is so.

What did Moses (and John) mean by having God create through his word? One possible interpretation — presupposing an animistic universe in which even the elements are possessed of some measure of intelligence and free will — is that God is literally commanding the heretofore chaotically arranged particles to assume particular ordered configurations and that they — out of love, or respect for his authority, or the simple tendency of weaker wills to bend to a stronger — obey him. Jesus' power over nature is described in similar terms in the Synoptic Gospels: "he commandeth even the winds and water, and they obey him" (Luke 8:25). This reading presupposes that creation was preceded by chaos rather than by absolute nothingness and thus runs afoul of what is called "classical" (i.e., Hellenized) theology, but I do not consider that to be any great point against it.

It is also possible to interpret God's "saying" as thinking rather than commanding. The same Hebrew verb (אָמַר) is used in both "God said, Let there be light" and "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God," showing that biblical "saying" can refer to internal thought as well as to communication. (The Greek λόγος can of course also refer to thought as well as to its verbal expression.) God thinks the world into being, because thinking in its purest form just is creative.

I find the latter interpretation more likely, at least as far as John is concerned, because of the assertion that "the Word was God." That God's thoughts constitute God himself, that God just is his thoughts — surely that is more intelligible than identifying God's commands to the elements with God himself.

This leads us into the difficult but essential concept of Primary Thinking, as formulated by Bruce Charlton. (Part of my correspondence with Bruce on this topic can be read online here.) I shall take the liberty of quoting myself rather extensively.

If primary thinking is certainly true (not just hypothesis), and if it is free, then it seems to follow that it is literally creative. If it is free, it need not conform itself to the world; but if it is true, then there is nevertheless a correspondence between what is thought and what actually exists. There can be no necessary correspondence without some sort of causal relationship, and if primary thinking is not caused by external facts, then the inescapable conclusion (if, given what I have just said about the freedom of thought, I may be permitted the phrase) is that the causation runs the other way: external facts conform themselves to thoughts. Primary thinking creates the world.

My first thought was to call that a reductio ad absurdum and reject the whole "primary thinking" model, but on second thought I think it has to be accepted. After all, theism requires some such concept in order to make sense of God's role as creator. We can hardly imagine that God created the world by physically moving matter around with some kind of construction equipment; rather, he created everything by his "word" or logos. And what is possible for God is possible in a general sense — and, if we are his children, possible for us.

[In Mormon doctrine, it is said] that Adam helped create the earth, but that when he entered mortality he forgot that fact. And when Adam fell, the earth fell with him. Did God deliberately wreck his own creation as a way of punishing Adam — or was the world in some way directly dependent on Adam's thoughts, Adam's state of mind? The knowledge of evil came first, and the existence of evil followed. And of course Adam, the prototypical man whose name simply means "Man," represents all of us.

(Is "faith" primary thinking? It, too, is supposed to be both free and true. In the New Testament, faith can make you whole, enable you to walk on water, and cast mountains into the sea — in other words, the external world changes to conform itself to true faith.)

One problem with this idea is that it threatens to destroy the re-ality ("thingishness") of the world by making it wholly dependent on thought — a hallucination, essentially. Without something that exists independently of our own thoughts there is, it seems, no world. Another problem is the question of how the thoughts of potentially billions of different primary-thinkers interact to create the one world we presumably share — and what it is about God's thoughts that make them uniquely powerful, making him "the" creator. But I suppose the second problem offers a solution to the first. The reality of the world comes from its being the production of many minds, and not of mine alone.

[. . . ]

I lean toward thinking of the world of raw, meaningless phenomena as being an effect, rather than a precondition, of primary thinking. The "raw" world may be meaningless in the same sense that a hundred different voices speaking simultaneously produce a meaningless cacophony. The unintended interaction of various meaningful primary thoughts may yield a meaningless hodgepodge. Forging this into a harmony (not a unison!) is the work of creation.

If, as I assume above, creative Primary Thinking is something all thinking beings are potentially capable of, and if beings other than God therefore participated in the creation of the world, that suggests a possible interpretation of "the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (The word translated as "with" here is πρὸς, which most literally means "toward.") The creative Word is the combined Primary Thinking of God himself and of all those who think in harmony with him.

[4] In him was life; and the life was the light of men. [5] And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Moses' creation story opens with darkness, and with God's word creating light; and the newly created light is separated from the darkness, which continues to exist. Likewise, John has the Word produce a light which shines in the darkness without eliminating it or being comprehended (or, as it may also be translated, overpowered, absorbed, or appropriated) by it.

Light as the first creation is an intriguing concept. Light is, literally and metaphorically, what allows us to see (perceive, know) everything else. It illuminates the world and makes it knowable. But when God says, "Let there be light," there is nothing to illuminate, nothing to see, nothing to know. What light can be shed, in any meaningful sense, on pure chaos, on the primordial tohu wa-bohu? When you turn on the light in a completely featureless space, what do you see? How is it any different for being illuminated? Moses tells us what God saw: simply the light itself. "And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness." Even after light had been created, it took a separate divine act to divide it from darkness, the difference between the two not being immediately obvious in the absence of anything to illuminate.

Joseph Smith in his Book of Abraham has an interesting variant on Moses' text: "And they (the Gods) comprehended the light, for it was bright; and they divided the light, or caused it to be divided, from the darkness" — interesting here because its use of the verb comprehend constitutes an implicit reference to John as well as to Genesis. The darkness does not comprehend the light, but the Gods do. ("The Gods" = the Word that was with God, and was God.)

As mentioned in the discussion of Primary Thinking above, in the story of the Fall, Adam comes to know evil while he is still in paradise — that is, before there is any evil for him to know. In much the same way, God creates light by which to see the world before there is any world to see. This is because, at the deepest level, thought gives rise to the world rather than the other way round. To shine a light on chaos — to think about it — is to begin the process of transforming it into a cosmos.

When Descartes wrote "I think, therefore I am," he meant "therefore" in the epistemic sense: the premise "I think" entails the conclusion "I am." In the Primary Thinking model, though, it is true in the causative sense: I think, and as a result I exist. We each think ourselves into being and collectively think the cosmos into being. Thinking which is both free and true (i.e., Primary Thinking) is by its nature an uncaused cause. As Joseph Smith put it, "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence" (D&C 93:29-30).

What does the first thinker think of, before any objects for thought exist? On what is the light of the first day shed? On itself, and on the implied possibility of that which is not-itself. "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). "And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness" (Genesis 1:4).

John identifies the light with life: "In him was life, and the life was the light of men." The same connection is made again later in the same Gospel: "I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12).

What does it mean to say that the life of God's Word is the light of men? If life is left out of the equation, "God's word is the light of men" is clear enough: Men are enlightened by communications from God, by revelation. But John emphasizes what it is about the Word that allows it to serve as a light to men: "In [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men." It is those who "have the light of life" that "shall not walk in darkness."

The implication is that those who walk in darkness are lacking in life. Not that they are dead exactly (else how could they walk at all?), but that they are sleepwalking — that they are robots, zombies, on autopilot. Light and life represent consciousness, will, action. Walking in darkness represents habit, automatism, mere happening. Christ, as the supreme example of conscious will, is able to awaken the same in others — to serve as "the light of men."

But not of all men — of very few, in fact. For the most part, the light shines on the uncomprehending darkness of blind habit. To spiritual sleepwalkers (typified by the Pharisees and Sadducees), trapped in their Plato's-cave of laws and traditions and what-is-done, Christ is simply incomprehensible. He can be seen only as a disruptive force — as annoying as bright lights generally are to sleepers — that must be neutralized.

Serendipity saw to it that just after writing the above notes I read two quite different works: the Shakespeare play Pericles, Prince of Tyre and Frank Herbert's novel The Godmakers.

In Pericles, Thaisa describes the arms of the various knights who are competing in a tournament for her hand in marriage. The first is a knight from Sparta,

And the device he bears upon his shield
Is a black Ethiop reaching at the sun;
The word: Lux tua vita mihi (2.2.19-21).

The Latin motto, meaning "Thy light is my life" (presumably spoken by the Ethiopian to the sun) is the reverse of John's "In him was life, and the life was the light of men" — and reminds us that the Johannine version (which would have men saying to the divine Word, "Vita tua lux nobis") is a somewhat counterintuitive reversal of the more natural metaphor. God's Word, like the light of the sun, gives us life; "by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live" (Deuteronomy 8:3). John's is not this natural metaphor of a life-giving light, but rather that of a light-giving life.

In Herbert's novel I read the following.

Life, as we understand it, represents a bridge between Order and Chaos. We define Chaos as raw energy, untamed, available to anything that can subdue it and bring it into some form of Order. In this sense, Life becomes stored Chaos. [. . .] To restate the situation, Life feeds on Chaos, but must exist within Order. Chaos represents a background against which Life knows itself (p. 138-139).

This fits very nicely with the role of the Word, characterized by life, in the creation of the cosmos from chaos — and with the continued existence of darkness/chaos even after creation.

[6] There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. [7] The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

John's role is "to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe." The implication is that John's endorsement would lead people to believe in Christ who might not otherwise have believed.  The Synoptics tell us that "all men" (excepting the chief priests, scribes, and elders) regarded John as a prophet, so when John said something people would have sat up and taken notice. Still, it's a little unclear why this should have been necessary.  John clearly came from outside the established religious hierarchy, and indeed was rejected by that hierarchy, so whatever authority he had in the eyes of the people would have been charismatic in nature. But precisely the same was true of Jesus himself. It scarcely seems that those who would have rejected Christ himself without John's endorsement would have been inclined to believe in John in the first place. In fact, Christ's self-validating charismatic authority must surely have been stronger than John's. The whole idea that someone needs to "bear witness" to a light "that lighteneth every man" is a strange one. If the sun is shining, you scarcely need someone to point it out to you; if you can't see the sun itself, what can you see?

Perhaps John's witness was important and effective because his message was less revolutionary than Jesus', representing less of a break with Judaism as his contemporaries knew it. This is speculation, since the Fourth Gospel gives little indication of the content of John's preaching (apart from his endorsement of Jesus), but it is generally held that he was more-or-less a prophet in the Old Testament mold. He was apparently unorthodox enough to be unacceptable to the chief priests and elders, yet still conventional enough to be universally accepted by the people as a whole. Fewer people would have been able to hear and accept Jesus without accepting John as an intermediary step.

This passage also introduces what will become a persistent theme in this gospel: the idea that what Christ wants above all is for people to believe in him — an idea which has since been rendered familiar by Christianity but is nevertheless rather strange. Naturally, anyone with a message to deliver wants people to believe that message, so that they may act accordingly, but in the Fourth Gospel belief itself often seems to be the whole point. "What shall we do," Jesus is later asked, "that we may work the works of God?" His answer: "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent" (John 6:28-29).

Forms of the word believe occur (in the King James Version) 11 times in Matthew, 17 times in Mark, and 11 times in Luke — but 102 times in John. No other book in the Bible reaches even half that figure. In fact, the Fourth Gospel accounts for nearly one-third of all occurrences of believe in the entire Bible.

[8] He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

The author apparently thinks his readers might have thought that John the Baptist was himself the Light of God's Word, suggesting that he is writing for disciples of John. (However, elsewhere in the Gospel he seems to assume that his readers have little familiarity with Judaism, since he feels the need to supply glosses for such basic terms as rabbi and Messiah.)

[9] That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

There's some syntactic ambiguity here in the Greek. In the King James reading, the relative clause "that cometh into the world" clearly modifies "man," but the majority of modern translations (qv) read it as modifying "Light." A typical example is the New Revised Standard Version: "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." However, several versions do follow the KJV interpretation, or at least mention it in footnotes, so I gather that both are defensible readings of the Greek.

The difference makes a difference. In the KJV reading, every man that comes into the world — including, implicitly, those who lived and died before the coming of Christ — is enlightened by the true Light. (This reading has been codified in Mormon doctrine, where the "light of Christ" essentially refers to each person's conscience or intuition, considered as a universal gift originating in Christ.) In the NRSV reading, something new is coming into the world, presumably to enlighten those who had not theretofore been so enlightened. All in all, I lean toward the latter reading.

[10] He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. [11] He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

I'm not sure whether to read "his own" broadly or narrowly here. The immediate context suggests that "coming unto his own" means coming into the world he himself had created, among human beings, God's children, his spiritual conspecifics. The narrower, and more traditional, reading is that he came specifically to the Jews — who, this reading implies, were "his own" people in a special sense even prior to his incarnation as one of them.

My uncertainty as to how to read John here reflects an underlying uncertainty regarding the purported uniqueness of the Hebrews. Did Christ choose to incarnate among them because they, alone among all the peoples of the earth, had the one true religion and worshiped the one true God? Certainly he was seen by his followers as being the Jewish Messiah, the successor to Moses and the prophets, and the son of Judaism's one true God. On the other hand, there seems to be little in Christ's message that was specifically Jewish. He deemphasized — and often deliberately broke — the Law of Moses which is at the heart of that religion, and his claim to be God's fully divine Son is hardly consistent with Mosaic monotheism. Nor, except in a vague metaphorical sense, did he do what the Messiah was expected to do. Paul would later say that the Law of Moses "was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ" — but as Christianity spread among the gentiles, and indeed became much more successful among them than it ever had been among the Jews, it became clear that other schoolmasters, most notably Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, could do that job just as well.

While we should obviously assume that Christ chose the most suitable time, place, and religious milieu in which to incarnate, I tend toward the view that Judaism, while quantitatively the most suitable foundation on which to build Christianity, was not absolutely superior to other schools of religion and philosophy — was not the "one true religion" until Christ retroactively made it so. In its standard Chinese translation, the Fourth Gospel begins with "In the beginning was the Tao" and refers to God as Shangdi. I suspect that Christ could have incarnated in China, incorporated the local religious vocabulary and concepts, quoted that country's inspired writers instead of the Hebrew prophets, and established Christianity without the benefit of the Old Testament. The Chinese would then in retrospect seem to have had the one true religion all along. Of course I cannot be sure to what extent what I have just written is true, but I do think we tend to overestimate the essential Jewishness of Christ and his message.

If "his own" does mean the Jews, then the author is implicitly saying that Christ's message was received primarily by the gentiles rather than the Jews, which implies he is writing at a late enough date to have observed that happen.

[12] But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

Jesus is not — or at least may not always be — the only son of God. Those who receive him have the power to become the sons of God as well. It also implies that one is not born a son of God but becomes one — which presumably applies to Jesus himself as much as to those who receive him. The Fourth Gospel has no story of a virgin birth, and Jesus is twice referred to as the "son of Joseph" without anything corresponding to the parenthetical "as was supposed" added by Luke (3:23).

I have already mentioned the Fourth Gospel's emphasis on believing. Believing on Jesus' name is an even more characteristically Johannine concept, occurring three times in the Fourth Gospel, three times in the First Epistle of John, and nowhere else in the entire Bible. What exactly does it mean? The fact that the actual name "Jesus" is not even mentioned in this passage suggests that John is not literally proposing some Hare-Krishna-style focus on the name itself. Is it just a figure of speech, with "his name" simply meaning "him"? If so, it perhaps serves to emphasize that, for the Fourth Gospel, believing in Jesus as a person is more important than assenting to any particular doctrinal propositions that he taught.

Another possibility is that name is being used in the sense of "reputation" — the point being that even those who never met Jesus in person can still believe in him through secondhand reports (such as the Gospel itself) and thereby become sons of God. The Gospel itself states that it was "written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:31).

[13] Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

I suppose that being "born . . . of blood" signifies ordinary biological procreation and heredity (as we speak of bloodlines, blood relatives, etc.). The sons of God are not his literal biological sons (obviously, else how could those who receive Christ become sons of God?). The "will of the flesh" presumably refers to sexual desire and is thus making the same point: that the sonship in question has nothing to do with sexual reproduction. The "will of man" could be synonymous with the "will of the flesh," or it could mean that divine sonship is not something that can be achieved deliberately, by making an effort.

The expression translated "born . . . of God" is "ἐκ Θεοῦ ἐγεννήθησαν." Thayer's lexicon says that this verb is properly used "of men begetting children . . . followed by ἐκ with the genitive of the mother" — but John has ἐκ with the genitive of "God"; in other words, the Greek does literally say "born of God," as if God were the mother, not "begotten by God" as father. This usage is, according to Thayer, peculiar to the Gospel and First Epistle of John and not to be found elsewhere.

(Already the textual evidence seems quite strong that the First Epistle of John was indeed written by the same author as the Gospel.)

[14] And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

If, as I have proposed above, the Word indicated "the combined Primary Thinking of God himself and of all those who think in harmony with him," then presumably what is meant by Jesus' being "the Word made flesh" is that his thoughts were entirely in harmony with those of God and thus embodied the creative Word.

The use of "only begotten" here (rather than, say "firstborn") seems to imply, contra v. 12, that Jesus is unique in his divine sonship. On the other hand, it does say that his glory was as that of the only begotten, not that he actually was the only begotten.

[15] John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.

"He was before me" implies that, while Jesus "was in the beginning with God," John the Baptist was not — contradicting my assumption that all thinking beings are coeternal with God. Or perhaps he means something else. After all, merely being older than John hardly seems sufficient grounds for being preferred before him.

[16] And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.

This is no longer John the Baptist speaking, but the author.

"Of his fulness" means "from his fullness." We have not received his fullness, but what we have received comes from that fullness.

"Grace for grace" (χάριν ἀντί χάριτος) is probably meant in the sense of "grace taking the place of grace" — i.e., one grace succeeding upon another, one grace after another.

Does "all we" mean "all we Christians" or "all we human beings"? I assume the latter, and that this is a reference to the "light that lighteneth every man"

[17] For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

Finally Jesus Christ is mentioned by name.

We have already been told that Christ was "full of grace and truth." Here the author adds (or very strongly implies) that neither grace nor truth were provided by Moses or the Mosaic law.

"Grace" (χάρις), according to Thayer, is "properly, that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness"; and secondarily "good-will, loving-kindness, favor," particularly "kindness which bestows upon one what he has not deserved." That grace, in the sense of undeserved favor, came not through the law is a commonplace. If God's favor is dependent upon obedience to law — if he bestows it on those who follow his checklist of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots and withholds it from those who do not — then it is not grace in the fullest sense. (Nor, I might add, pace the Psalmist, is it easy to imagine the harsh and persnickety law of Moses having been a source of "joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness.") All this is so familiar as to be almost trite.

It is a bit more surprising to see it implied that Moses did not even give the people truth — that (what else can it mean?) the Torah is not true! Obviously this can be understood in several different ways, and just as obviously it does not amount to a complete rejection of Moses and his message, which Jesus appears to endorse elsewhere in the Gospel: "For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?" (John 5:46-47). The Mosaic writings are here presented as fit objects of belief — as, in a word, true. So truth did come by Moses. We must assume, then, that while Moses brought some truth, a partial truth, Jesus brought more truth, the full truth. But what additional truth did he bring? As I recall from past readings of John (and I may later modify this impression as I continue this project of going through it with a fine-tooth comb), the Johannine Jesus is not much of a propounder of truths and indeed scarcely seems to preach any doctrine at all, beyond his own identity and the importance of love.

My own understanding is that Mosaic "truth" was limited by its character as a set of laws — that is, generalizations derived by abstraction and implemented by ignoring most of the specific details of any given situation. Laws as such can only aspire to be rough approximations of the truth, which is ultimately individual, specific, personal. Christ — at least the Johannine Christ — brought both grace and truth by transcending law. The Christ of the Synoptics added lots of new laws ("Ye have heard it said, thou shalt not do such-and-such, but I say unto you, thou shalt not do lots of other things as well"), but there is nothing corresponding to this in John.

In what certainly seems like an ironical commentary by the synchronicity fairies, just minutes after writing the above paragraph about Christ transcending law, I happened to read the following passage.

For the wise man, there are no such things as laws. Since all laws are subject to errors or exceptions, it is for the wise man to judge for himself whether he shall obey them or break them.

The irony is that I read it in Colin Wilson's Criminal History of Mankind, and it is a quotation from a letter written from death row by the 19th-century French murderer known as Prado. Wilson adds, "His comments about the ‘wise man' make him sound like a criminal Marcus Aurelius; we have to remind ourselves that he is in court merely for slitting the throat of a prostitute."

[18] No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

This is a surprisingly categorical statement, given that the Old Testament mentions several people having seen God. It is doubly surprising given that John has identified Jesus (who was seen by innumerable people) as the incarnate Word, which is God, and identified him as God again in this very verse. (The original Greek has μονογενὴς Θεὸς, "the only begotten God.") But John does not even say that God has been seen in the person of his fully divine Son; only that the Son hath declared him.

Moses is not mentioned by name in this verse, but he is the most obvious counterexample of someone who is said to have seen God, and perhaps this verse should be seen as a continuation of the Moses-Jesus contrast begun in v. 17. Moses brought the law, but Jesus brought grace and truth; Moses "saw God" (but didn't really see him, since no one has), but Jesus explained God.

Here's what I think this means. 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.

The same goes for God the Father, even if we assume (as Mormons do) that he has a physical body which can be, and has been, seen. To see a body, no matter whose, is not to see God. To see one sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, his train filling the temple and six-winged seraphim flying above him crying "Holy, holy, holy" is not to see God. No conceivable sort of empirical observation could ever, even in principle, amount to an observation of God qua God. The kingdom of God cometh not with observation, and the same can be said of God himself.

John's ministry before meeting Christ

[19] And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? [20] And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.

Levites were assistant priests, descended from Levi but not from Aaron. (Moses and Aaron were descendants of Levi.)

When John is asked "Who art thou?" he apparently takes it to mean "Are you the Messiah?" The author also wants to make it clear that John was not a false Messiah — that, in fact, he never even claimed to be the Messiah. Clearly there was widespread speculation that John was the Messiah.

[21] And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.

Matthew 11:14 has Jesus say that John the Baptist is Elias. To harmonize these conflicting statements, I've seen it proposed that John was the reincarnation of Elijah but did not know it, so that he answered the question honestly but not correctly — the idea being that, after all, most people have little or no memory of any past lives they may have lived. Elijah is a bit of a special case, though, since he ascended to heaven bodily instead of dying; his return would thus not have been a reincarnation in the usual sense and would presumably not be accompanied by a loss of memory. Other possibilities are that John was Elijah only metaphorically, or that (as so often) Matthew's report is unreliable.

I assume that "that prophet" refers to the prophet like unto Moses, whose coming is prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15.  Christians later came to believe that Jesus was both the Messiah and the Prophet (and the Son of Man to boot), but his contemporaries assumed these would be separate figures.

The fact that John's questioners were unsure as to which of these prophesied figures (Messiah, Elijah, Prophet) he was supposed to be suggests that the evangelist is correct in saying that John never claimed to be any of them. People, then, must have just assumed that John was Something Big on the strength of his personal charisma, air of authority, etc.

[22] Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? [23] He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.

The quotation is from Isaiah 40.

[3] The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. [4] Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: [5] And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

Based on the normal patterns of Hebrew poetic parallelism, I think John (and the KJV translators) have parsed Isaiah incorrectly. It should be "The voice of him that crieth, In the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." The wilderness is where the way is to be prepared, not where the voice is crying. Perhaps the Hebrew is legitimately ambiguous and John's reading is possible (I don't know enough Hebrew grammar to pass judgment on that), but it is surely not the reading Isaiah intended.

John the Baptist, unlike the author of this Gospel, is not an educated, Bible-reading Jew. He is misquoting from memory something he has heard read aloud in the synagogue.

The Fourth Gospel does not focus on the supposed fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies to the extent that some of the others (most notably Matthew) do, but there are still a few passages like this, forcing us to deal  with the question of how to understand the relationship between Old Testament writings and New Testament events.

At the one extreme is the idea that OT prophets consciously foresaw many specific details surrounding the ministry of Jesus Christ and recorded that precognitive information in their writings — that, for example, Isaiah knew that God would come in the person of Jesus Christ, knew all about John the Baptist and the role he would play in paving the way for Jesus, and had John specifically in mind when he wrote the verses quoted above. I find this very unlikely. Although of course I can't prove that it's not true, it's certainly not the impression I get when I read Isaiah.

An intermediate possibility is that precognitive information about John did play a role in Isaiah's writings, but that Isaiah did not consciously know that. This is how I would tend to interpret some of Nostradamus's more impressive prophecies, such as that of the death of Henry II. I don't think he saw the future clearly and then deliberately scrambled the message by dressing it up in cryptic verses; I think he wrote in a trance state, in which he more or less unconsciously "picked up" free-floating words and images without understanding their meaning or context in any detail. This would be more or less the sort of garbled, not-consciously-understood precognition seen in the experiments of J. W. Dunne. If Isaiah also prophesied in a trance state (as we know prophets in Saul's time did), it would be surprising if this sort of thing (I think of it as the "Edgar Cayce effect") did not happen.

At the other extreme, we could assume that Isaiah's writings have nothing specifically to do with Jesus or John, but that John quoted lines which just happened to fit him and his situation — just as we might quote the Bible or Shakespeare or Monty Python apropos of our own situations, with no idea of implying that what we are quoting was written with us in mind. In this particular case, I find that quite plausible. John doesn't say anything like "I am he of whom Isaiah spake . . . ." He just quotes Isaiah (loosely) and cites his source. In just the same way, I might say, "I'm the kind of guy who reads poetry for the grammar, as one of Iris Murdoch's characters puts it" — obviously not meaning to suggest that I was the intended subject of the Murdoch quip.

Less charitably, we could assume that Isaiah never wrote about John, but that John (delusionally) thought he had, in much the same way that Charles Manson thought all the Beatles' lyrics were about him. I don't see any reason to interpret this passage in that way, though.

[24] And they which were sent were of the Pharisees. [25] And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet? [26] John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; [27] He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose.

The author has not mentioned until now that John was baptizing people. Obviously he takes it for granted that his readers pretty much know who John was and what he was doing. Also omitted, though obviously implied in what comes later (and by "I baptize with water"), is John's statement that the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Ghost.

It's not clear why they associated baptizing with prophesied figures such as the Messiah, Elijah, and the Prophet. I can't think of any Old Testament prophecy that makes such a connection. Then again, they were Pharisees and as such believed in the "oral Torah" of tradition as well as the Bible proper.

John doesn't answer the question "Why baptizest thou?" but the answer he does give implies that his questioners are right to associate baptism with the Messiah or some similar figure. In essence, he says, "Yes, you're right that real baptism is the prerogative of the Messiah. My baptism in mere water is just a prelude to the real thing."

Update: Googling "Why did the Pharisees think the Messiah would baptize?" led me to a post by one James Duncan, a Presbyterian Sunday school teacher,  called "What the Pharisees taught me about baptism." He finds several references to sprinkling in various Old Testament passages generally understood to be Messianic prophecies. These apparently slipped under my radar because of my unexamined assumption that biblical baptism was by immersion (that being the normal meaning of the Greek word). The following references are all from Mr. Duncan.

We are told of Isaiah's suffering servant (often identified with the Messiah), "So shall he sprinkle many nations" (Isaiah 52:15).

A passage in Ezekiel 36 is perhaps especially relevant because it provides a possible connection between water baptism (or sprinkling, anyway) and the Holy Ghost.

[25] Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. [26] A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. [27] And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.

The "I" in the Ezekiel passage is the Lord himself, so putting the Christian perspective aside, I'm not sure the Pharisees would have read it as a prophecy of the Messiah (whom they understood to be a human king, not the Lord incarnate).

As for the Elijah connection, in Malachi 3:1-3 we are told that the Lord's messenger (later, in Malachi 4:5, identified as Elijah) "shall purify the sons of Levi." In Numbers 8, the rite for purifying the sons of Levi is described.

[5] And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them. [7] And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purifying upon them . . .

Interestingly, the Gospel has priests and Levites (priests being a subset of Levites) coming to ask John who he is. Perhaps the implied thrust of their questions was, "Are you the one coming to purify us Levites? Do we need to be sprinkled by you?"

The one who originally purified the sons of Levi was Moses himself — so here we have biblical links between baptism-by-sprinkling and all three of the figures the Pharisees asked about: the Messiah, Elijah, and (the Prophet like unto) Moses. Pretty impressive! Almost thou persuadest me that John was a Sprinkler rather than a Baptist properly so called.

[28] These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Some manuscripts of this Gospel have John baptizing in Bethany instead of Bethabara. If "Bethany" is the correct reading, it would have to be a different place from the Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived. The Bethany of Lazarus was about two miles from Jerusalem (John 11:18), but John was baptizing "beyond" (i.e., east of) the Jordan.

Again we have some attachment ambiguity here, at least in English. I have read "where John was baptizing" as modifying "Bethabara/Bethany beyond Jordan," but it could also be read as modifying "Jordan" alone.

John identifies the Lamb of God

[29] The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

This Gospel does not mention the actual event of Jesus' baptism by John (again, he obviously assumed his readers knew the story), so it is not clear whether John said this before or after Jesus' baptism. "John seeth Jesus coming unto him" suggests that this is Jesus coming to be baptized, and that John identified him as the Lamb of God before he was baptized and before he saw the Spirit descending on him like a dove. In that case, the baptism presumably takes place between verses 31 and 32.

The other possibility is that Jesus' baptism took place before v. 29, and that it was the sign of the dove that convinced John that Jesus was the Lamb of God.

This verse is the first indication in the Fourth Gospel that Jesus' role is analogous to that of a sacrificial animal slaughtered for the expiation of sins. According to the regulations laid out in Leviticus 4 for sin offerings (presumably what is being alluded to), a bullock is offered if a priest or the whole congregation has sinned; a male kid if the ruler has sinner; and a female kid or lamb if a commoner has sinned. In no case is a male lamb offered as a sin offering, and even a female lamb seems to be a sort of second option if a kid is not available. Why then did John choose a lamb? Why did he not call Jesus the Bullock of God (the closest fit for taking away the sins of the world) or the Kid of God?

[30] This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. [31] And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.

"I knew him not" seems to contradict the Lukan story that Jesus and John were first cousins and that John recognized Jesus and leaped for joy while they were both still in the womb!

It's interesting that John says the whole purpose of his baptizing was to identify the Messiah. I wonder if he stopped baptizing after finding Jesus.

[32] And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. [33] And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. [34] And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.

Bruce Charlton has this interpretation:

John the Baptist is saying that before he met Jesus he was ‘merely' baptising with water – so during baptism the spirit would descend and touch – then leave the baptised person; which only affected this life: the spirit affected them but did not make them divine. But when John baptised Jesus, the spirit abode on him, that is – Jesus became divine. John cannot make anyone divine, but Jesus can.

Because Jesus is now divine, he can ‘baptise' Men with the Holy Ghost – can make Men divine. But we are told elsewhere in this Gospel that Jesus did not literally baptise anyone (by immersion in water, only his disciples did this), so the implication is that when Jesus ‘baptises' it means something not-literal. What it means is that Jesus transforms us to become divine by our own death and resurrection (born again); as Jesus was thus transformed at the baptism by John.

The suggestion is that Jesus became fully divine at his baptism, when the Spirit of God entered him permanently. In the Synoptic version, the descent of the Spirit is accompanied by a voice from heaven saying "Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11). This seems to me to echo Psalm 2:7: "the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee" (i.e., you were not my Son in the full sense before), and indeed this line is quoted elsewhere in the New Testament, in Acts and Hebrews, and applied to Jesus.

The idea that Jesus was not born the fully divine Son of God, but became such at his baptism, can also be found in the Mormon scriptures, in Section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

[12] And I, John [the Baptist], saw that he [Jesus] received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; [13] And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; [14] And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.

[15] And I, John, bear record, and lo, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove, and sat upon him, and there came a voice out of heaven saying: This is my beloved Son. [16] And I, John, bear record that he received a fulness of the glory of the Father; [17] And he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him.

I find this interpretation compelling, at least within the context of the Fourth Gospel. Matthew and Luke have (two completely different) nativity stories in which Jesus is the Son of God in something like the literal sense, having been born without a mortal father, but John has nothing like that. Instead it introduces John the Baptist almost immediately and implies by juxtaposition that he had an important role in the process of the Word becoming flesh.

Why is the Spirit represented as, or compared to, a dove? I mentioned in my post on the Rider-Waite Magician that it is probably an antitype of two different biblical scenes: that of the spirit of God hovering over the primordial waters of Tiamat at the beginning of the Creation, and that of the dove of Noah flying out over the Flood waters and finally, after failing a few times and having to return to the ark, finding a place to land (just as, in Bruce's interpretation, the Spirit descended from heaven and returned again several times before finally coming to rest on Jesus). The Flood was a symbolic baptism of the earth (a metaphor which works regardless of the mode of baptism, since a flood caused by rainfall involves both sprinkling and immersion). If, as discussed above, Jesus' baptism was the moment when the Word became flesh, when the true light that lighteth every man came into the world, that moment is also typified by the opening of the Genesis story: the spirit of God hovering over the water, and then, "Let there be light."

(As a side note, Noah's dove is preceded by a raven — the bird of Elijah. Coincidence?)

When John says, "he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me . . . ," I wonder if he is describing a direct communication from God himself, or John had some human master or teacher out in the desert, lost to history, who gave him these instructions.

John's disciples follow Jesus

[35] Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; [36] And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! [37] And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. [38] Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou? [39] He saith unto them, Come and see. They came and saw where he dwelt, and abode with him that day: for it was about the tenth hour. [40] One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother.

Only one of these two disciples, Andrew, is named, inviting the inference that the other, the anonymous one, is none other than our anonymous author.

Apparently "they followed Jesus" is meant entirely literally here — not that they became his followers or disciples, but that they actually started following him, shadowing him, apparently hoping to find out where he lived. Some time later he turned around, noticed them, and asked them what they wanted.

This strikes me as very strange behavior on the part of the two disciples. Why would they just start following him silently, rather than approaching him and speaking to him? To me, this only makes sense if Jesus was not alone, but was already surrounded by a sizable group of followers, such that unobtrusively falling in with the group would have been easier than approaching him directly. They presumably had no prior knowledge of Jesus and yet called him rabbi ("teacher"), again suggesting that he already had a group of students. If Andrew and his fellow disciple were not Jesus' first followers, why are they the first mentioned? Perhaps because the author would have had only limited information about Jesus' circle before he himself had joined it.

Against these inferences is that fact that this all seems to take place just one day after the baptism that marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry — scarcely enough time to have acquired many disciples, I would have thought!

[41] He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. [42] And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.

I don't know why the King James translators call Simon's father Jona. In Greek it is precisely the same name that is translated as "John" when it refers to the Baptist (compare "ὁ υἱὸς Ἰωάννου," KJV "the son of Jona," and "ἡ μαρτυρία τοῦ Ἰωάννου," KJV "the record of John").

Cephas is Aramaic (כֵּיפָא, with the Greek -s ending added, as in Messias); and Πέτρος (translated as "a stone" here and as "Peter" hereafter) is Greek, both refering to a rock. Reference works seem to be divided on the question of whether the Greek refers most properly to a small stone or a large one, with suggested translations ranging from "pebble" to "boulder," but they are more or less agreed that it refers to a rock — an isolated piece of stone — rather than the rock face of a cliff or mountain. As for the significance of the nickname, Thayer says it is "used metaphorically of a soul hard and unyielding, and so resembling a rock" and cites Sophocles and Euripides in his support.

The calling of Philip and Nathanael

[43] The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me. [44] Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.

Bethsaida is on the Sea of Galilee, very far from the area where John was baptizing. Andrew had traveled quite some distance to follow his master. Apparently Andrew went and found Peter while they were still in the Bethabara area, before Jesus went to Galilee, so we might infer that Peter had also been a disciple of John.

Perhaps the same is true of Philip. When it says "Jesus would [i.e., wanted to] go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me," I think the most natural reading is that Jesus found Philip while they were still in the Bethabara area, and Jesus said something like, "We're going back to Galilee. Want to come with us?"

Simon (Simeon) is a Hebrew name, but Andrew and Philip are both Greek. Galilee was only partly Jewish — cf. "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Matthew 4:15). It's a bit surprising that even in one family, one brother would have a Hebrew name and another a Greek one. It suggests a level of cultural mixing almost comparable to that of modern America.

[45] Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

It's not clear if he found Nathanael in Judaea, or in Galilee after they went back. (We read in John 21:2 that Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine.)

Philip is here identifying Jesus as both the Prophet whose coming was predicted in the Torah (in Deuteronomy) and the Messiah written of in the prophetic books.

Jesus is described, even by someone who believes he is the Messiah, as the son of Joseph — with no suggestion of a virgin birth.

[46] And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.

Did Nazareth have such a bad reputation? Or does Nathanael just mean that there are no prophecies about the Messiah or the Prophet coming from Nazareth. Matthew claims that it "was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene" (Matthew 2:23), but it's hard to imagine which prophecy he has in mind.

[47] Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! [48] Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. [49] Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. [50] Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.

This whole episode is pretty obscure! Why on earth would he accept Jesus as the Messiah on the strength of his having seen him under a fig tree? There must be some untold story behind this; something must have happened under that fig tree which only Nathanael and God could have known about — perhaps something related to his being "an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile." (Did people still call themselves Israelites in Jesus' time? The term strikes me as an archaism even the first century. Weren't they all Samaritans and Jews by then?)

Why would John have recorded this story, then, if only Nathanael himself could understand its meaning? Perhaps something has been lost from the text.

[51] And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

"The angels of God ascending and descending" certainly sounds like a reference to Jacob's dream — "And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it" (Genesis 28:12) — with the Son of man playing the role of the ladder.

Could this possibly be related to "an Israelite indeed" (i.e., a true descendant of Jacob) "in whom is no guile"? Jacob was notorious for his guile.

After Jacob awoke from his dream, he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not" (Genesis 28:16). The angels of God had been there all along, but he had been unaware of it until his dream opened heaven to him. Perhaps Nathanael is being promised that he, too, will be enabled to see what was there all along. Is it because of his guilelessness? (Jacob could only see the angels when his habitual guile had been silenced by sleep.) Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

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...