Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Further evidence that Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus ends with John 3:12

Below is John 3:1-21, traditionally considered together as a single "Jesus and Nicodemus" pericope. I have highlighted all first- and second-person pronouns and all occurrences of the verbs say, tell, speak, and answer.


Doesn't this make it easy to tell at a glance where the reported dialogue ends and the author's commentary begins? The dividing line is between vv. 12 and 13, the same point I had previously identified, based on entirely different textual evidence, in this post.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Notes on John 3:9-12

Rembrandt, Head of Christ (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

When I first began writing about John 3, I had planned to divide my comments into three posts -- covering, respectively, Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus about being born again (vv. 1-10), Jesus' words to Nicodemus on other subjects (vv. 11-21), and the bit about John the Baptist (vv. 22-36).

After further rereading and thought, I would now divide up the chapter differently:

  1. Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus (vv. 1-12); see this post for my reasons for thinking the conversation ends with that verse
  2. Commentary by the author (vv. 13-21)
  3. John the Baptist's statement about Jesus (vv. 22-30)
  4. Further commentary by the author (vv. 31-36)
However, I've already written a post about vv. 1-10 (qv), so now I need to tie up loose ends with a few notes on vv. 11-12 before moving on to the next major section of the chapter. I include vv. 9-10 as well, as necessary context, and take the opportunity of adding some additional notes on those verses.

[9] Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
[10] Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
In English, "master of Israel" would seem to be a reference to the earlier characterization of Nicodemus as a "rule of the Jews," but in fact the word translated master is διδάσκαλος, "teacher" -- the same word used in John 1:38 to gloss the Hebrew term rabbi. Nicodemus is a rabbi, as were all members of the Sanhedrin.

"These things" refers to Jesus' earlier statements about being born again (or born from above), being born of water and the Spirit, etc. Why does Jesus expect that a rabbi, by virtue of being a rabbi, should be familiar with the concept of being "born again"? Should exposure to that concept have been part of a first-century rabbi's education?

Jesus' presumption that a rabbi should already know about being "born again" has led biblical commentators to look for the concept in the Old Testament. Several passages have been proposed. In 1 Samuel 10:6, Samuel tells Saul, "the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with [the prophets], and shalt be turned into another man." In Ezekiel 37, the Lord breathes new life into dry bones. In Job 33:25, Elihu says of the repentant sinner that "his flesh shall be fresher than a child's; he shall return to the days of his youth." While these are all suggestive, I don't think we can really say that the concept of being "born again" is explicitly present in the Old Testament.

The Talmud comes closer, stating in several places that a convert to Judaism is like a newborn child. For example, in the Yevamot tractate, which deals with questions regarding levirate marriage, it is repeatedly stated, by four different rabbis, that "a man who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born" (and is therefore permitted to enter into what would otherwise be considered an incestuous marriage, since all pre-conversion family ties have been dissolved). While the Talmud did not yet exist in the time of Christ, many of its doctrines were presumably already current as oral traditions, so Nicodemus might have been expected to be familiar with the idea of conversion as a "new birth." However, it seems pretty clear in context that, whatever Jesus may have meant by being "born again," he certainly didn't mean conversion to Judaism! (Nicodemus was already a Jew, and in any case Jesus seems not to have had a very high opinion of Jewish proselytism; see Matthew 23:15.)

All in all, I don't think Jesus is finding fault with Nicodemus's education or implying that being born again is something he should have read about. Rather, he means that, as a teacher of religion, Nicodemus should have been the sort of person who could intuitively grasp the (new) concept of being born again when it was presented to him, and that his obtuseness in this matter implies that he is not spiritually qualified to be a rabbi.

[11] Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
When Jesus says, "We speak that we do know," he may be speaking of himself and his disciples, or perhaps he means something like "we prophets," alluding to Israel's history of rejecting prophetic messages. ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee . . . ." Matt. 23:37.) As always in the King James Version, the words ye and you are plural (see this post for details), so Jesus is not reproaching Nicodemus personally with unbelief but rather speaking of a group to which Nicodemus belongs -- presumably "the Jews," or perhaps more specifically the Pharisees or the Sanhedrin. As far as we can tell, Nicodemus himself does believe in Jesus.

Nevertheless, something in what Jesus says here must be applicable to Nicodemus himself. Perhaps he understood Nicodemus's question, "How can these things be?" as an expression of skepticism rather than a request for explanation.

[12] If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
This curious statement implies at least the following:
  1. Jesus has thus far taught "earthly things" to Nicodemus and to those like him. (The word you is plural.)
  2. He has not heretofore taught "heavenly things" (except perhaps to Nicodemus just now?).
  3. Earthly things are easier to believe, such that those prepared to believe heavenly things can be expected to be a subset of those prepared to believe earthly things.
What distinction does Jesus intend when he speaks of "earthly things" and "heavenly things"? Pretty clearly not the familiar distinction between the secular and the sacred, since Jesus was a spiritual teacher from the beginning and did not impart secular learning. Unfortunately, the Gospel provides very little information about the content of Jesus' public teachings up to this point, so we can only speculate as to what he taught and in what sense it was "earthly." John 2:13-22 provides the only relevant data.

We know that Jesus taught that business transactions ought not to be carried out in the Temple. This could be considered an "earthly" teaching because it has to do with worldly commerce in a physical building -- or, more generally, because it refers to the contingent details of a particular (soon to be superseded) religious cultus and in that sense has little to do with what goes on in Heaven.

We also know that he made the enigmatic statement, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." His audience at the time understood him to be speaking literally, in which case this is again an "earthly" teaching about the fate of a particular physical building. After the Resurrection, the disciples reinterpreted this utterance as having been a reference to that event -- something not so readily classified as "earthly."  Perhaps it could be thus characterized because it describes resurrection only in the simplest physical terms -- kill me, and I will come back to life -- without getting into how post-resurrection life differs from mortal life?

What about what Jesus has just now taught Nicodemus, about being "born again"? Is this also included under the heading of "earthly things"? Both answers to that question seem defensible. In the one case, Jesus would be reacting to Nicodemus's apparent skepticism by saying, "See, even when I teach you earthly things like this, you don't believe, so I won't even bother trying to teach you heavenly things." In the other, he would be saying, "I should have known you wouldn't believe heavenly things like this; after all, you didn't even believe the earthly things I taught before." Being born again could be considered an earthly thing because it takes place during earthly (or anyway pre-Heavenly) life, Heaven being for those who have already been born again. Alternatively, it could be considered a heavenly thing because of its spiritual nature, especially as contrasted with teachings about business and the Temple cultus.

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

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