Tuesday, July 14, 2020

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

References to God as Father in the Old Testament

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 7, 2020

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

From a video of this episode by the CJCLDS

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

⁂ 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 6, 2020

Distinctive vocabulary of each of the four Gospels

A reader has provided me with a spreadsheet of all the words in the King James Version of the New Testament, with the number of occurrences of each word in each book. Using this data, I have put together these lists of the most distinctive words in each Gospel.

To be included in the list for a given Gospel, a word had to (1) occur at least 10 times in that Gospel and (2) have a frequency (per 1000 words) at least twice as high as its frequency in any of the other three Gospels.

  • Matthew: begat, deliver, end, field, gather, heaven, hypocrites, multitudes, O, prison, reward, righteous, talents, think, wherefore, wise
  • Mark: asked, began, hands, immediately, James, looked, ship, straightway, such, themselves, unclean
  • Luke: angel, certain, company, named, pass, returned, rich, sight, ten, years, Zacharias
  • John: abide, am, answered, bear, because, beginning, believe, believed, believeth, born, die, disciple, doeth, ever, except, Father, feast, flesh, glorified, greater, hast, honour, I, Jews, judge, keep, knew, know, known, Lazarus, life, lifted, light, love, loved, me, might, mine, myself, now, Philip, record, scripture, seek, seen, seeth, sent, sheep, Simon, sin, true, truth, verily, water, whence, whither, whom, witness, words, work, world, yet

There's obviously a lot of noise here, but one can still see the familiar areas of emphasis of each Gospel. Matthew is the most moralistic (righteous, hypocrites, reward, prison). Mark is the fastest-paced (immediately, straightway) and has a special focus on exorcism (unclean spirits). Nothing in particular stands out about Luke. John is, of course, the most distinctive; aside from the familiar themes (believe, know, life, light, love, truth), we can see that it is the Gospel in which Jesus talks the most about himself (I, me, mine, myself, am). It is interesting to note that sin (singular) occurs almost exclusively in John, while sins and sinners are more typical of the Synoptics. This is consistent with the idea (see here) that John means something else by sin than "moral transgression."


It can also be interesting to look at the words that meet the converse requirements: (1) occurring at least 10 times in each of the other three Gospels and (2) being no more than half as frequent in the target gospel as in any of the other three. No words meet these requirements for the Gospel of Matthew, but here are the lists for the other three.

  • Mark: hast, law, light, nor, prophet, then
  • Luke: answered, disciples, king, saith, sea, verily
  • John: against, began, children, devils, enter, fell, great, house, kingdom, multitude, or, over, pass, scribes, their, upon, wife

We can see here how John differs from the Synoptics in hardly mentioning the kingdom of God, which (with its Matthean variant kingdom of heaven) seems in the Synoptics to be the center of Jesus' whole message. The complete absence of devils (plural; the devil is mentioned about equally in all the Gospels) reflects the fact that there are, uniquely, no exorcisms in the Fourth Gospel.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

"Hyper-Johannine" vocabulary in the First Epistle of John

One of the things that has come to my attention in the process of my ongoing examination of the Fourth Gospel ("of John") is how much of its distinctive vocabulary is shared by the First Epistle of John, leading me to state in a recent post that the two works are "almost certainly" by the same author. In this post I attempt to quantify that similarity.

I began (somewhat unscientifically, I must admit) by making a list of words that I think of as "typically Johannine" -- that is, as being typical of the Fourth Gospel as opposed to the Synoptics. One of these, comforter, was excluded from consideration because it occurs only in the Fourth Gospel and thus cannot be used to compare that book's style to those of other New Testament books. The remaining 10 words were: begotten, born, eternal, father, know, life, light, love, truth, and world.

Though this list of words was derived from my own impressions rather than by any quantitative process, quantitative measures back up those impressions: each of the 10 words does in fact occur significantly more frequently in the Fourth Gospel than in any of the Synoptics.

The charts below show the occurrence of each of the 10 target strings in each of the four Gospels and in the First Epistle of John. The numbers indicate what percentage of verses in each book contains the target string. Words that include the target string are included in the count; so, for example, instances of knoweth, knowledge, etc. count as instances of the string know. I have used the King James Version for convenience. The numbers would of course be somewhat different in the original Greek, but the overall patterns would presumably be similar.


Two generalizations are immediately apparent:

1. Every one of the target strings occurs much more frequently both in the Fourth Gospel and in the First Epistle of John than in any of the Synoptics.

2. With two exceptions (begotten and father), the frequency of a given string in the First Epistle is not similar to its frequency in the Fourth Gospel but is rather much, much higher. For example, love occurs in about 1% of Synoptic verses, in about 4% of the verses in the Fourth Gospel, and in nearly 25% of the verses in the First Epistle!

There are two possible interpretations of this second fact. One possibility is that the differing frequencies are due to the presence of a great deal of narrative material in the Gospel, whereas the Epistle is more or less entirely theological in character. If this is true, then removing the narrative portions of the Gospel from consideration should yield frequencies more in line with those found in the Epistle.

The other possibility is that the stylistic differences are real, and that they show the Epistle to be written in an exaggerated caricature of the Johannine style. This would imply that the Epistle was not written by the author of the Gospel but rather by someone making a conscious effort to imitate his style.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Jesus in Samaria (Notes on John 4:27-42)

Continuing on from the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman:
[27] And upon this came his disciples, and marvelled that he talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest thou? or, Why talkest thou with her?
Since none of the disciples witnessed Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the account in the Gospel must be based on information from either Jesus or the woman, or else on hearsay. Since the disciples were astonished to see Jesus conversing with a Samaritan, we can assume that they themselves would never do such a thing, and that the Gospel account is therefore not based on a direct interview with the woman. We are also told here that the disciples didn't ask Jesus any questions about his conversation with the woman. It's possible that Jesus later told them the whole story, but it seems more likely that the account we have is hearsay, based on rumors circulating in Samaria about how he "told her everything that ever she did." Some of the more sensational details, then, such as the five husbands, may be nothing more than rumor, but I would assume that the author of the Gospel, who knew Jesus and his ideas well, would have captured the latter fairly accurately in his record. Whether or not the actual conversation was much like the Gospel account, I think we can be fairly confident that the statements about living water, Mt. Gerizim and Jerusalem, etc. represent actual teachings of Jesus.

[28] The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men, [29] Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? 
[30] Then they went out of the city, and came unto him.
Remember that the Samaritans acknowledged no prophets other than Moses and the Messiah (Taheb), and many held that even the Messiah would not be a second prophet but would be the second coming of Moses himself. From the Samaritan point of view, if Jesus was a prophet -- as his paranormal knowledge of the woman's life would suggest -- he could only be the prophet, the Messiah himself.

I have discussed elsewhere the Samaritan expectation that the Messiah would "tell us all things" -- which apparently derives from an alternative reading of Deuteronomy 18:18.

[31] In the mean while his disciples prayed him, saying, Master, eat.
[32] But he said unto them, I have meat to eat that ye know not of.
[33] Therefore said the disciples one to another, Hath any man brought him ought to eat?
[34] Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.
"Meat" here just means food, with no connotation of animal flesh.

Was Jesus really like this in conversation? It seems like it would have been rather maddening! I guess the justification for this mode of discourse -- deliberately confusing his interlocutors, letting them talk among themselves for a minute trying to figure out what he mean, and then explaining -- is that it would have engaged the disciples' attention more fully and made the final epigram more memorable.

The characterization of the Father as "he that sent me" is distinctively Johannine. The string "sent me" occurs 34 times in the Fourth Gospel and only 7 times in the other three Gospels combined.

Finishing God's work sounds like a once-and-for-all thing -- but Jesus calls it his food. Eating food is not the grand culmination of one's life's work; it is something we have to do again and again, day after day, for as long as we live. It is interesting to juxtapose this saying with the prayer, attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics, "Give us this day our daily bread"; also with the line from Deuteronomy supposedly quoted by Jesus when tempted by Satan, "man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live."

Elsewhere in the Gospel it is suggested that God's work can be "finished" more than once. Shortly before his execution (apparently at the "Last Supper") Jesus says "I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do" (John 17:4), even though few would be willing to say Jesus had already finished his work before his death. Later, on the cross, his last words are "It is finished" (19:30), but I think it's safe to say his work wasn't really finished until the resurrection -- or, for those who expect a Second Coming, not until then. Come to think of it, if we believe Moses, God's work had already been pronounced "finished" long before the time of Jesus: "the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work" (Genesis 2:1-2). The belief that, pace Moses, God's work wasn't really finished until the resurrection is probably what underlies the longstanding Christian custom of keeping Sabbath on Sunday rather than on the seventh day.

Is the work of God ever really finished? The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi criticizes those who would say, "behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work" (2 Nephi 28:5). "There is no God today" is rather a striking way of putting it -- Joseph Smith anticipated Nietzsche's famous statement "God is dead" by some 50 years -- but isn't a God who is done, who is never going to do anything ever again, world without end, the functional equivalent of one who no longer exists?

If the work of God can ever be completely finished, what then? An eternity of nothing to do, of hanging around, of resting on laurels? But on the other hand, supposing the work of God can't ever be finished, doesn't that reduce everything to a sort of Sisyphean futility? The only solution that works for me comes from combining the Book of Mormon with Spinoza: "Men are that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25), and "Joy is man's passage from a lesser to a greater perfection" (Ethics, 3, defs. 2 & 3). There is no endpoint of absolute perfection such as the Classical Theist imagines God to enjoy, but the lack of a finish line does not make the race an exercise in futility, since the joy in the passage to a greater perfection, not in the static enjoyment of absolute perfection. Another way of expressing the same point is to say that God's definitive role is not "Supreme Being" but rather Creator -- characterized not by static perfection but by continuous making-things-better. "The knowledge and power of God are expanding," says a Mormon hymn to which many a Christian might object. But of course they are; otherwise, how could he have joy?

[35] Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest. [36] And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together. [37] And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth. [38] I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours.
The harvest of wheat and barley (the crops being alluded to by "the fields are white") was typically in April or May, so this episode apparently took place four months earlier, in December or January.

This was a favorite passage of Joseph Smith's, alluded to again and again in the Doctrine & Covenants, apparently with reference to the work of proclaiming the gospel and "harvesting" converts. It's hard to be sure whether or not that was also the meaning originally intended by Jesus.

[39] And many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did. [40] So when the Samaritans were come unto him, they besought him that he would tarry with them: and he abode there two days.
[41] And many more believed because of his own word; [42] And said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.
This is one of only two places in the Bible where the title "Saviour of the world" is used; the other is in the anonymous First Epistle of John (4:14) -- called "of John" because it is almost certainly by the author of the Fourth Gospel, for whom the name John has become conventional. It seems highly likely that the author is here putting his own ideas in the mouths of the Samaritans. Neither the Jews nor the Samaritans were anticipating a savior of the world; the Taheb and the Messiah were only expected to save Israel.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Matthew's Messiah is the most "Davidic"; John's, the most "Samaritan"

As discussed elsewhere on this blog, Jews and Samaritans had different understandings of what sort of person the Messiah was supposed to be. The entire Messianic tradition of the Samaritans is derived from the 18th chapter of Deuteronomy. Their Messiah is a prophet like Moses -- the only prophet besides Moses, in fact -- who will tell us all things. The Jews, on the other hand, added to this the Messianic writings of the prophets, in which David has largely eclipsed Moses as the Messiah's most important precursor. If the Samaritan Messiah is essentially a prophet like Moses, his Jewish counterpart is primarily a king like David. The two visions are not mutually exclusive -- both peoples expected the Messiah to be both a prophet and a king -- but they represent very marked differences in emphasis.

Corresponding differences in emphasis are found in the Four Gospels. A writer with a more "Samaritan" idea of the Messiah might be expected to mention Moses more often, and to give the Samaritans themselves a more prominent role in the Gospel story. A writer whose views were more traditionally "Jewish," on the other hand, would mention David more often and speak more of kings and kingdoms.

I searched each of the Gospels for the strings "Moses," "Samari-," "David," and "king-." (Why not also "Jew" and "prophet" to contrast with "Samaritan" and "king"? Well, naturally most of Jesus' story takes place among the Jews, so of course every Gospel will mention them a lot. "Prophet" is also not useful for distinguishing between the two Messianic visions, since the Samaritans see the Messiah as being primarily a prophet, while the Jewish Messiah is based on the writings of the prophets.) Here are the results.

To control for the varying lengths of the Gospels, the numbers indicate
what percentage of verses in each Gospel contain the target string.

The pattern is clear, and confirms the impression I already had. The Fourth Gospel ("of John") emphasizes Moses and the Samaritans, while downplaying David and Jesus' role as king; Matthew shows the opposite pattern; and Mark and Luke are intermediate.

I should mention that it is already my opinion, for reasons unrelated to this issue, that the Fourth is the most trustworthy of the Gospels and that Matthew is the least so.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Why was the Messiah expected to "tell us all things"?

Having completed my survey of Messianic prophecies and their applicability to Jesus (qv), I notice that I appear to have missed one of the Messianic expectations recorded in the Fourth Gospel. Look back at the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4.
[25] The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.
[26] Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he. . . .
[28] The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men, [29] Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?
The Samaritans had been expecting the Messiah to prove his identity by specific signs: by producing the ark of the covenant, the rod of Moses, and the omer of manna -- things that would prove that he was quite literally a "prophet like unto Moses" -- but the Samaritan woman said nothing about any of that. Her proof was simple: he "told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?"

In John 1, it is strongly implied that the Jews, too, expected the Messiah to be someone who could tell them things no one else could know.
[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.
Jesus knew, apparently by supernormal means, Nathanael's character and whatever it was that happened to him under the fig tree -- and that was enough to prove to Nathanael that he was the Messiah.

Nowhere in the prophecies I looked at is there anything that says the Messiah will be distinguished by his supernormal knowledge or his ability to "tell us all things," and yet both Nathanael and the Samaritan woman seem to take this for granted as a sign of the Messiah.

There is of course a sense in which any sufficiently impressive miracle would show that Jesus was someone very special and thus perhaps the Messiah. We could easily imagine someone seeing him walk on water and concluding that he must be the Messiah, even in the absence of any specific prophecy that the Messiah would do anything like that. This perhaps suffices to explain Nathanael's reaction, but not that of the Samaritan woman, who said, "I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things." This implies a specific prophecy. No one would have said, for example, "I know that when Messias is come, he will walk on water."

Now my survey of Messianic prophecies was not exhaustive. As I have explained in other posts, I wanted to find those few prophecies that define the Messiah -- that tell us what the claim "I am the Messiah" means -- not every single Old Testament passage that might conceivably be about the Messiah. My first thought, then, was to go back and comb through the prophetic books once again looking for this elusive "tell us all things" prophecy -- but then I remembered that this was the expectation of a Samaritan, which makes things much simpler. The Samaritans' only prophet is Moses, their only scripture is the Torah, and their only Messianic prophecy is in the 18th chapter of Deuteronomy. Nothing Isaiah or Zechariah or any other Jewish prophet may have written is of any relevance.

Sure enough, that chapter turns out to be the probable source of this prophecy. Here is Deuteronomy 18:18 as it reads in the King James Version:
I [God] will raise them [Israel] up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee [Moses], and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.
I propose that the bolded passage is the source of the prophecy alluded to by the Samaritan woman. English grammar requires that "that I shall command him" be a restrictive relative clause, so in English this cannot mean that the Prophet will tell them everything, but only everything-that-God-commands. But what if the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers is less clear-cut in Hebrew than in English? What if the passage in question could also be translated as "he shall speak unto them all, as I shall command him"? If the relative clause does not restrict the scope of reference of the word "all," then here is our prophecy of a Messiah who "will tell us all things."

How grammatically defensible is this reading? Speaking as a linguist who is almost entirely ignorant of Hebrew, I have no idea. Setting those professional scruples to one side, though, and speaking as a Bible reader, I feel quite confident that the Samaritans simply must have read Deuteronomy this way. Where else could the prophecy have come from?

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Jesus and the Messianic prophecies: Summary and conclusions

Having surveyed what I understand to be the main Messianic prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Micah and Zechariah, as well as the Deuteronomy-based Samaritan Messiah, I shall now attempt to summarize what I have found and draw some conclusions.


Which prophecies I considered and why

First of all, I should perhaps say something about the apparent spottiness of my survey, which has excluded a great many passages commonly thought of by Christians as Messianic prophecies. Some few of these, such as the famous Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, I reject entirely as manifestly having nothing to do with the Messiah or with Jesus. Many others, though, such as the "suffering servant" prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah, may well have been intended as Messianic prophecies and may well have been fulfilled by Jesus, but have nevertheless been excluded from my survey. This is because my purpose has not been to list every single prophecy that may be about the Messiah or about Jesus, but rather to collect the prophecies that define the Messiah -- those that can tell us what exactly Jesus and his disciples were claiming when they claimed he was the Messiah.

Take Isaiah 53, for example, universally regarded by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus' atonement for sin ("he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: . . . and with his stripes we are healed"). It may well be just that -- but what it is not is one of the passages that help to define the idea of the Messiah. "Jesus is the Messiah" does not mean that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions and so on. Isaiah's "suffering servant" is not clearly and explicitly a Messianic figure. Rashi takes him to be a symbolic representation of the nation of Israel. The Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 asks Philip about Isaiah 53, "I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?" So far is this chapter from being explicitly Messianic that his first thought was that it was about Isaiah himself!

I believe that the prophecies I included in my survey, in contrast, do define the Messiah. In other words, when Jesus said he was the Messiah, he was saying that he was the person referred to in these prophecies.



The centrality of the Messiah

I was impressed to discover just how major a theme the Messiah is in both the Old and New Testaments. All the major prophets and several of the minor ones wrote about the Messiah. If we include all the prophecies about the Messiah's work (the restoration of Israel), even those that do not focus on the Messiah as an individual, they account for an even larger percentage of the Bible's prophetic material. I have sometimes been tempted to think of the Messiah as being something like Hanukkah -- a relatively minor aspect of Judaism, the importance of which has been exaggerated as a result of Christian influence -- but that was a mistake. The centrality of the Messiah to the Old Testament is a manifest fact, not, as I have sometimes thought, an artifact of reading the book through the lens of Christianity.

Jesus and the writers of the New Testament were very, very familiar with these prophecies -- not just with the general idea of the Messiah, but with the detailed content of the Messianic writings -- and made numerous specific allusions to them, many of which would not be noticed by most modern readers (including myself before undertaking the present project). This has confirmed to me the importance of facing this issue head-on. Jesus Christ is first and foremost Jesus Christ, a Messiah claimant, and believing in him while at the same time sidelining the whole Messiah business is simply not an honest option.


David and Moses

The three most-mentioned personal names in the Bible are Jesus, David, and Moses, in that order. That fact in itself confirms what I have said about the centrality of the Messiah. The Jews were expecting the coming of a new David and a new Moses, and Jesus claimed to be both.

Among Jesus' contemporaries, opinion seems to have been divided regarding whether the new David and the new Moses -- the Messiah and the Prophet -- were to be two people or one. I come down on the latter side of the controversy. From the point of view of Old Testament prophecy, the Messiah ben David cannot be separated from the Prophet like unto Moses. The same things that make him a second David also make him a second Moses.

David ruled over a united and independent nation of Israel. The northern tribes seceded under the reign of his grandson Rehoboam, and this northern kingdom was destroyed and scattered by the Assyrians circa 722 BC. The Davidic dynasty continued to rule the southern kingdom of Judah until the conquest of Judah by Babylon in 597-586 BC. At that time, most of the Jews were deported to Babylon and lived in exile there; they would later return to their homeland, but not as a free and independent nation. The new David -- David's legitimate successor -- was to restore Israel to the situation it had enjoyed under David. That is, he was to bring the exiles (meaning the Ten Lost Tribes and, for prophets who wrote during that period, the Jews in Babylon) back to their homeland, free Israel from the rule of foreign nations (Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome), and establish himself as sovereign king of Israel.

But this is also a summary of what Moses did: He freed Israel from subjection to a foreign power (Egypt), and he led them back to the ancestral homeland from which they had been exiled -- well, almost brought them back. As we know, Moses himself died just before entering the promised land, and so the work of the exodus was completed by his successor Joshua -- or, to use the Greek form of his name, Jesus. Thus Jesus' very name has prophetic significance, suggesting one who would succeed Moses and complete Moses' unfinished mission of liberation and restoration. It also seems significant that his father's name was Joseph; in the Old Testament, it is Joseph who brings the Israelites into Egypt in the first place and Joshua/Jesus who finally brings them back to their own land. (Mary, for her part, has the same name as Moses' sister Miriam, the only woman to play a prominent role in the exodus.)

Who is the Messiah? The Messiah is a new David and a new Moses. This is the central unifying concept that underlies all the Messianic prophecies.


A summary of the Messiah's mission

The Messiah will, above all, reestablish the throne of David and rule on it forever. All the tribes of Israel will return to their ancient homeland and be reestablished as a single united kingdom, no more to be subject to foreign powers. The Messiah will be full of the spirit of the Lord and will rule with wisdom and justice.

Besides ruling specifically over Israel, the Messiah will also have dominion over the whole earth. He will bring peace, either by destroying the heathen nations (often referred to metaphorically as wild beasts) or by rendering them peaceful and harmless. He will abolish war and weapons of war. Israel will live in safety and have nothing to fear. He will also bring material prosperity, favorable weather, and an end to hunger.

The Messiah will rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and reestablish the Levitical cult of animal sacrifice. The tabernacle of Moses may also be restored alongside the Temple. One prophecy speaks of the Messiah himself being a priest.

The Messiah will be a prophet like Moses. He will put an end to idolatry and cleanse Israel of their sins, and he will spread knowledge of the Lord over the whole earth.


A second coming?

There is not the slightest hint in Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah will come twice. His is a "second coming" all right, but a second coming of David.

I tend therefore to think of the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming as something of a cop-out, an facile way of dealing with Jesus' apparent failure to do what the Messiah was expected to do. Either Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies, or he didn't. If he did, we must come up with some non-obvious but convincing interpretation of those prophecies, since if they are taken at face value he did not fulfill them. If he did not fulfill the prophecies, then he was not the Messiah, and the real Messiah is either still to come in the future or else was a delusion all along.

To my mind, to posit a Second Coming is simply to say that the Messiah has yet to come -- but that when he does come, he will be a second Jesus as well as a second David and a second Moses.


Jesus as the Messiah

Let's start with the easy part. Jesus was a undeniably a prophet, and a prophet of Mosaic and more-than-Mosaic stature. Like Moses, he led the way out of Egyptian slavery (though, ironically, the Egyptian to whom the people of his day were enslaved was -- Moses!). This aspect of the Messiah's mission fits Jesus perfectly.

As for putting an end to idolatry and spreading knowledge of the Lord over the whole earth, it can be argued that that process was set in motion by Jesus. The spread of Christianity put an end to the "idolatrous" pagan religions of the Roman Empire, and today "non-idolators" (comprising Christians, Muslims, Jews, and the non-religious) comprise some 70% of the world population. Even among those who do not profess to worship the God of Abraham, some degree of knowledge of that God is virtually universal. Christianity, if not Jesus personally, did "speak peace to the heathen," successfully assimilating the Roman Empire (not without some regrettable assimilation in the other direction!) and rendering the heathens nations no longer a threat.

As for the Davidic part of the Messiah's mission, Jesus certainly did not accomplish it in any literal sense. He did not gather Israel. The Jews were already living in their homeland in his time, though most of them had been driven out by the end of the 2nd century and did not return in large numbers until modern times. The Ten Lost Tribes remain lost. Jesus did not free Israel from foreign rule; it continued to be ruled by the Romans, and later the Arabs and the British. Israel is now an independent country again, but that did not happen until many centuries after Jesus, and its sovereignty over Jerusalem is still contested. Jesus did not restore David's throne, and the new Israel was founded as a modern democratic state with no king. Jesus did not rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, which had already been rebuilt centuries before and was still standing in his day. This Second Temple was destroyed in AD 70 and has never been rebuilt.

If, then, we wish to maintain that Jesus was the Messiah and accomplished the Messiah's mission, all this must be interpreted figuratively. Jesus was figuratively a king. He figuratively reunited the tribes of Israel in their homeland and freed them from foreign oppression. He figuratively rebuilt the Temple.

Jesus himself clearly claimed to be a king only in a figurative sense. Once, when a crowd of would-be subjects "would come and take him by force, to make him a king," he ran away from them and hid in the mountains (John 6:14-15). When questioned by Pilate about his pretensions as "King of the Jews," he said, "My kingdom is not of this world," and, "Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice." Jesus' kingdom is the kingdom of truth, and his subjects are all those who are "of the truth." Certainly it makes sense to say that Jesus is a leader, that he has authority -- and he holds that authority not by force like a tyrant, nor because it has been delegated to him by the people like a consul, but rather as a legitimate monarch, who has authority because of who he is -- and who his Father is.

Building the Temple of the Lord is also relatively easy to interpret figuratively, with reference to Jesus' role as what might loosely be called a religious reformer, as someone who brought humanity into a new relationship with God. Every Temple, every religious edifice, is sooner or later desecrated or destroyed, or is simply outgrown by new developments in human consciousness, and so people like Moses, David, Jesus, and Joseph Smith are necessary -- builders of temples -- people who, although they respect and build-upon existing foundations, fundamentally offer new wine in new bottles. By putting Jesus in a list with others, I in no way mean to imply that he was not absolutely unique -- but it was Jesus himself who, by calling himself the Messiah, claimed to be in some sense the same sort of thing that Moses and David were, and who also said there would be others like them to come. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive to put King David in the same category as Moses and Jesus, but I think it is justifiable. The great Psalmist introduced into the law-based religion of Moses something personal and conscious and lyrical -- almost "Romantic" avant le lettre -- and it was on this foundation, even more than on the stone tables of Moses, that Jesus was to build his Temple.

That leaves the gathering of Israel, the hardest aspect of the Messianic mission to apply to Jesus, even figuratively. My best guess is that it has to do with the establishment of Christianity as a universal religion, transcending the ethnic religion of Judaism. The Lost Tribes were thought of as being scattered throughout all the nations of the earth, and the Messiah was to set up an ensign to the nations that would draw God's people from every corner of the world. When Jesus said his disciples were to be "fishers of men," he was alluding to Jeremiah's account of the gathering of Israel -- first by fishers casting out their nets and drawing in the catch en masse, and then (the phase we are in now?) by hunters who would "hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks." We may see in the idea of the Lost Tribes a symbolic expression of the fact that God's people, or those who have the potential to become such, are not confined to one nation.


What did the prophets know?

I have given my understanding of what Jesus may have meant when he called himself the Messiah. Is it also what the prophets meant when they said that the Messiah was coming? There are several possible answers to that question, listed here in descending order of orthodoxy.

  1. God revealed Jesus' life and mission to the prophets. They knew who he was and what he would do, but they wrote about it in figurative language, which was later misunderstood by the Jews.
  2. God revealed to the prophets more or less what we see in the prophetic books -- that a new David was coming to gather Israel, rebuild the Temple, etc. God meant this all figuratively, and was in fact referring to Jesus, but the prophets themselves did not know that and wrote in the expectation that their prophecies would be fulfilled in a more literal manner.
  3. The prophets had only a vague knowledge that a "savior" was coming, an idea which they elaborated on based on their own beliefs and expectations, perhaps supplemented by a handful of specific but ill-understood precognitions.
  4. The prophets had no truly prophetic knowledge of Jesus at all. They wrote what they wrote for their own reasons, and were "inspired" to some degree, but Jesus and his mission played no causal role at all in the production of the prophetic books. Jesus, born among people who were expecting a Messiah, decided to cast himself in that role and to reinterpret the Messianic prophecies as references to himself. Had he been born in a different culture, he would have assumed the role of the Saoshyant or or the Mahdi or Maitreya Buddha or whatever, and would have read his own mission into those prophecies.
I consider option 1 to be clearly wrong. It is just not plausible that so many different prophets would have couched their prophecies of Jesus in the same, rather non-obvious, figurative terms. I tend to think that the truth lies somewhere between options 3 and 4, but really I'm not at all sure.

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...