Monday, January 13, 2020

Jesus and the Samaritan woman (Notes on John 4:1-26)

Woman at the Well, Carl Heinrich Bloch
[1] When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, [2] (Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,) [3] He left Judaea, and departed again into Galilee.
This may be the first reference in this Gospel to Jesus as "the Lord," though some manuscripts say "Jesus" instead.

The use of "Jesus" (rather than "he") for the second reference strikes me as highly unnatural -- borderline-ungrammatical in English, though I can't be sure about Greek. My first thought was that this probably indicated that the text had been tampered with, that the first reference to Jesus had been added later, that perhaps the original was something like "When therefore the Pharisees had heard . . ." -- but that would leave the "he" in v. 3 without a plausible antecedent. All in all, I think the most defensible reading is to imagine quotation marks around "Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John." This was, apparently, a quasi-proverbial statement that was going around -- roughly analogous to "Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands" -- and which the Pharisees had heard. Since John's name was synonymous with baptism, "baptized more than John" would have an effect similar to "more Catholic than the Pope."

Did Jesus actually baptize anyone? Although John 4:2 says he did not, John 3:22 says he did: "After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized." Given the parenthesis in John 4:2, I think we are to understand that "Jesus baptized" only in the same loose sense in which we might say "Khufu built the Great Pyramid" or "Scipio destroyed Carthage" -- in other words, that those who did the actual baptizing did so under his direction.

Another possibility is that "and baptized" in John 3:22 is an interpolation, and that the rumor the Pharisees had heard was incorrect. (After all, in none of the other Gospels do Jesus or his disciples baptize anyone at all during his mortal ministry,  although both Matthew and the longer version of Mark have him instructing his disciples to go out and baptize after his resurrection.) Under this interpretation, Jesus' disciples were baptizing of their own initiative (unsurprisingly, given how many of them had been disciples of John), and while Jesus must have at least tacitly approved of this, it was not something that he was personally doing or promoting.

Apropos of this, it is also interesting to note that the Fourth is the only Gospel that never uses John's title "the Baptist." There are several ways to interpret this fact. It could be because Jesus is also a "baptist" in this Gospel, so that the title is no longer unique to John, or it could be because the apostle called John does not appear in this Gospel, making the disambiguating title unnecessary -- but another possibility is that the omission of the conventional title is a way of de-emphasizing baptism, just as St. James is rarely referred to as "the Moor-slayer" now that Moor-slaying has gone out of fashion. It may be for similar reasons that the Fourth Gospel (uniquely) omits any direct reference to Jesus' being baptized by John.

Why did Jesus leave Judaea as soon as he became aware of the rumors that he "baptized more than John"? Apparently to get off the Baptist's turf and avoid the appearance of competing with him. Jesus did not want to interfere with John's ministry, as they had complementary roles. Perhaps that is what we are to understand from the fact that his disciples baptized -- that these disciples of John continued to practice his teachings even after they became disciples of Jesus, because Jesus saw no conflict or contradiction between John's movement and his own. Once he realized that he might be stealing John's thunder, he decided to do his preaching elsewhere.

[4] And he must needs go through Samaria.
Samaria was not a political division in the time of Christ, but constituted the northern part of the Roman province of Judaea. It corresponded roughly to the ancient territories of Ephraim and Manasseh west of the Jordan (the modern West Bank). Judaea proper was to the south, corresponding to ancient Judah and Benjamin; while Galilee consisted roughly of the lands formerly belonging to the northern tribes of Naphtali, Issachar, and Zebulun. Thus the need to pass through Samaria to get from the one place to the other.

[5] Then cometh he to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.
Joseph was the father of Manasseh and Ephraim, whose ancestral lands later became Samaria. Most Samaritans were, or believed themselves to be, members of the (otherwise "lost") Tribe of Manasseh.

Sychar has not been conclusively identified, and the language ("a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar") suggests that it was not an important or well-known place.

[6] Now Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour.
The Old Testament account of Jacob does not connect him with any particular well. This was an oral tradition.

Though he apparently had paranormal powers, Jesus was not Superman. After walking a long distance, he was tired and had to sit down and rest. He didn't just stop to let the disciples rest; he himself was tired, too. Whatever we mean when we say he was "God," we don't mean that he was superhuman in any absolute sense. His powers had limits. He may have been able to walk on water on occasion, but even his ability to walk in the ordinary way only went so far.

Hours were counted from dawn, so the sixth hour was around midday.

[7] There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink. [8] (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.) 
[9] Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.
Samaritans were (and are; there are still a few hundred around) Israelite schismatics with a smaller Bible (Torah only) and a different holy site (Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem). They and the Jews went their separate ways either (according to the Jews) during the reign of Artaxerxes I or (according to the Samaritans themselves) centuries earlier, in the time of the biblical judge Eli. Samaritans were not considered Jews, and Matthew 10:5-6 implicitly excludes them even from "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" even though they certainly were Israelites. Elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel, "Samaritan" seems to be used as a general-purpose insult: "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?" (John 8:48). All in all, I think we would not be far wrong to say that the Jews of Jesus' time viewed Samaritans in much the same way that Christians have often viewed Jews.

I suppose that "for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans" is a parenthetical explanation by the author, not something the woman herself said. Such an explanation (like the author's explanations of the terms "rabbi" and "Messiah" elsewhere in the Gospel) would not have been necessary for Jews, which suggests that the author had gentile readers in mind. This in turn suggests that the Gospel was written at a time when gentiles had begun to convert to Christianity in large numbers -- and thus not shortly after Christ's ascension. (Alternatively, of course, the parenthetical explanations for non-Jews could have been added by later editors.)

[10] Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. 
[11] The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? [12] Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?
The woman's response (much like Nicodemus's "Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb?") makes her seem stupidly literal-minded. It's irrelevant that Jesus has nothing to draw with and that the well is deep because, whatever he might mean by "living water," he obviously can't be offering to give her water from the same well he just asked her to give him water from! The fact that Nicodemus, a highly educated man, makes the same sort of seemingly-stupid response suggests that this was simply an accepted way of speaking at that time and place, and that it means, in essence, "Well, you obviously can't mean what you seem to be saying, so what do you mean?"

Notice that the woman does not say, "Living water? How can water be alive?" She seems to take the concept for granted. I strongly suspect (although no translation I've seen seems to back me up on this) that "living water" was a common way of referring to running water, as opposed to the still water of a well or cistern. (It is in the same spirit that mercury is called "quick," or living, silver.) That's why she asks if he thinks he's greater than Jacob. Just digging another well, as Jacob had done before him, would not require him to be greater. But Jesus is apparently offering to produce a river, or at least a fountain. The implied subtext of her question is, "Who do you think you are -- Moses?"

[13] Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: [14] But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
[15] The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.
This brief exchange is all that is said about the living water. After v. 15, the subject is dropped and never returned to. Understanding what Jesus is talking about here is, then, a matter of guesswork or direct inspiration, as not much can be extracted from the text itself. He seems to be talking about resurrected life -- "a well of water springing up into everlasting life" -- and yet he has told the woman (in v. 10) that if she had asked, he would have given her this water, and resurrection is not very well something he could give to someone who is still alive.

The woman's response again seems stupidly literal-minded. Obviously Jesus can't be talking about literal water and literal thirst. He himself is thirsty and has asked the woman for water, so he clearly doesn't have the power to make drinking water forever unnecessary. I think we must again think of this as simply an accepted way of speaking, perhaps tinged with gentle sarcasm.

[16] Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither.
[17] The woman answered and said, I have no husband.
Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: [18] For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.
The interpretation of this little exchange hinges on whether we think Jesus already knew the woman's rather irregular marital situation when he said, "Go, call thy husband" -- which, in turn, depends on whether and in what sense we think Jesus, as fully divine, "knew everything."

If Jesus already knew the woman had no husband, his question must have been, I don't know, a test of her honesty or something. She apparently was in a relationship with some man she was not married to ("he whom thou now hast is not thy husband"), so she could have produced this man and presented him to Jesus as her husband had she been so inclined.

I tend to think, though, that Jesus did not "know everything" during his mortal life, at least not in any straightforward sense. After all, this chapter begins with "When therefore the Lord knew . . ." -- implying that he found out something he had not known before. I tend to think that Jesus simply assumed the woman had a husband and made his request in good faith, and that only when she had said "I have no husband" did he see everything. This strange mixture of normal ignorance and supernormal insight is in fact typical of "psychics," as anyone with any experience in that field will know. My impression is that Jesus knew everything only potentially. If he looked, he could see, but he had to look.

Why, then, did he respond to the woman's request for living water by asking her to bring her husband? Apparently the living water, whatever it was, was something that could only be given to a married couple, not to an individual.

[19] The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.
This is a much stronger statement coming from a Samaritan than from a Jew, as the Samaritans acknowledged only one prophet, Moses -- with a second one (or perhaps a return of the first) to come in the future. This was the Taheb, the prophet like unto Moses whose coming is prophesied in Deuteronomy 18, and belief in whom was a pillar of the Samaritan religion. (The Taheb was supposed to be a descendant of Joseph. Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, but perhaps the fact that his father's name was Joseph made him a possible claimant.) I would thus suggest the reading, "I perceive that thou art the prophet" -- which, while not a literal translation, perhaps does better justice to what this sentence would imply coming from the lips of a Samaritan, whose creed was "One God, one prophet, one holy book, one holy site."

Already the Samaritan woman has recognized in Jesus' offer of "living water" a pretension to Moses-like status. Now, with this statement, we see the next step in her dawning realization that the man with whom she has been conversing may be the Taheb himself.

[20] Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. 
[21] Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.
[22] Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.
[23] But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. [24] God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
Realizing that this man -- a Jew, not a Samaritan -- may be the promised Taheb, the woman very naturally asks him about one of the points of disagreement between those two creeds. And Jesus, as we would expect, takes a stance that transcends the parochial: True worship takes place neither on Mt. Gerizim nor in the Jerusalem Temple, but in the heart of the individual believer.

In this context, v. 22, where Jesus takes sides and says Judaism is better than Samaritanism, feels like an interpolation. If it is in fact an authentic saying of Jesus, it is not clear what he meant by it. After all, the Samaritans worshiped Yahweh as revealed by Moses in the Torah, just as the Jews did. Perhaps he felt that later prophets (not accepted by the Samaritans) had revealed God's character more fully than Moses had done.

By the way, v. 24 is a common anti-Mormon proof text, familiar to me from my missionary days, because it seems to contradict the Mormon doctrine that God has a body of flesh and bone. The standard (and, I think, rather clever) response is that God is indeed a spirit -- housed in a body -- and that the verse goes on to say "they that worship him must worship him in spirit," obviously not meaning that our spirits must leave our bodies in order to worship God. What this really shows is that the Bible won't read itself, and that even as straightforward as statement as "God is a Spirit" is subject to interpretation based on metaphysical assumptions.

[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.
This can only mean the Taheb, since the Samaritans did not believe in a "Messiah" as such. Remember that their Bible was limited to the five books of Moses and did not include the prophetic books and psalms from which the idea of the Messiah arose. The basic idea of the Messiah was that he would be a second King David, and the titles Messiah and Christ both refer to the anointing that was part of a Hebrew king's coronation ceremony. (Robert Graves was not wrong to translate "Jesus Christ" as "King Jesus.") The Samaritans, who (according to their own history) separated from the Jews in the days of the judges, before David or any of the other kings, had never been David's people and were not anticipating the coming of a second David.

While Christians believe that the Messiah and the prophet like unto Moses are one and the same, the Jews of Jesus' time did not. In John 1:25, for example, they say that John is "not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet" -- clearly understanding these to be three different figures. The Samaritans anticipated the coming of the Taheb, the prophet like unto Moses. The Jews did, too, and they also anticipated the coming of two other figures: Elijah and the Messiah. So while we today might naturally describe the Taheb as "the Samaritan Messiah," it seems unlikely that a first-century Samaritan would have drawn that equivalence. She would have known that "Messiah" was not just the Jewish way of referring to the Taheb but referred to (what the Jews believed to be) a separate figure.

Or perhaps she wouldn't. If Jews and Samaritans really had no dealings with each other, their mutual understanding of one another's beliefs would naturally be quite limited. Perhaps she thought that Jews and Samaritans were awaiting the coming of the same person but that the Jews used a different name, Messiah, for him. Her use of the Jewish lingo, then, would have been a conscious attempt to transcend cultural and religious differences and address her interlocutor on his own terms -- a bit like if a Christian were to use the word "Allah" instead of "God" when explaining his own beliefs to a Muslim.

Another possibility is that the woman actually said "Taheb," and that this was amended by the author or by a later editor on the grounds that it would be easier for most readers to understand, and that the two are (for Christians) the same figure anyway. Against this interpretation, we have the references to "that prophet" (i.e., the prophet like unto Moses, or the Taheb) in John 1, which were not edited out.

Yet another possibility is that the Samaritans really did use "Messiah" as a title of their Taheb. I know that the Jews were later to call him "Messiah ben Joseph" (as contrasted with the "Messiah ben David," or the Messiah properly so called). I consider Samaritan use of this designation to be unlikely, because Messiah properly means "king" -- David's title, not Moses's -- but who knows.

UPDATE: For further information on this question, see my post "The Samaritan understanding of the Messiah."

[26] Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.
But the woman already knows this by this point in their conversation, which is why she brought up the "Messiah" in the first place. Jesus is just confirming what she has already deduced.

This is this Gospel's first record of Jesus' making a direct claim to be the Messiah, and it is interesting that this momentous declaration was made in an isolated place, with no witnesses, to a Samaritan who may have had a very different understanding of what "Messiah" meant. In context, Jesus is not here claiming to be the Messiah of the Psalms and prophetic writings but rather the prophet like unto Moses. He would later repeat this claim publicly, in the Jerusalem Temple: "For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me" (John 5:46).

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