Sunday, January 31, 2021

Witnesses to Jesus (Notes on John 5:31-47)

Notes on the text

For reasons given in the previous post in this series (qv), I view John 5:19-47 with a certain degree of suspicion because it appears to have been inserted into the text where it does not belong. That does not necessarily mean it is not authentic material about Jesus, though.


[31] If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true. [32] There is another that beareth witness of me; and I know that the witness which he witnesseth of me is true.

What Jesus says in v. 31 is not his own idea; he is referring to a maxim generally accepted by the Jews of his time. In John 8:13, it is the Pharisees who say it: "Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true" -- and Jesus' reply shows that he himself does not accept that princple: "Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true" (8:14). We should therefore think of John 5:31 as being prefaced with an implied "Perhaps you will say . . . ." Jesus is anticipating an objection from his audience.

Here, as in Chapter 8, the substance of Jesus' response is that, while his testimony alone may be deemed untrustworthy, it is corroborated by the testimony of others. In John 8:17, he cites the Torah in his defense: "It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true," perhaps alluding to these verses of Deuteronomy.

At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death (Deut. 17:6).

One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established (Deut. 19:15).

While the Torah never says in so many words "that the testimony of two men is true," that is certainly what is implied by these verses. Jesus himself seems to have believed that the testimony of one man is in some cases sufficient to establish truth, but he accepted as valid the demand for multiple witnesses.


[33] Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth. [34] But I receive not testimony from man: but these things I say, that ye might be saved. [35] He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.

Jesus is presumably referring to the incident recorded in John 3:22-30, when there was a dispute "about purifying" between John's disciples and "the Jews" and they went to John himself to have it resolved. At that time, John reaffirmed his earlier statement (that Jesus was "the Lamb of God") and strongly implied that Jesus was the Messiah.

Again, Jesus is responding to his audience's anticipated demand for multiple human witnesses, though he himself does not accept the necessity of such. John did indeed testify of him, but that sort of testimony should not be considered necessary or sufficient.

The reference to John in the past tense implies that by this time John had already been executed. The statement that the Jews "were willing for a season to rejoice in his light" may mean that many who had accepted John as a prophet, and as possibly being the Prophet, later abandoned him, perhaps when he was cast into prison for accusing Herod Antipas of incest.


[36] But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me.

Jesus' own actions are a stronger witness to his identity than the testimony of John or anyone else could be. Jesus may be thinking of his miracles, or perhaps of his exemplary behavior. Both of these mark him as an extraordinary person, though I would think not necessarily as the Son of God. I suppose something like C. S. Lewis's trilemma is implied here. If you claim to be the Son of God, and you are observably a good person with extraordinary powers, then "Lord" is probably a better bet than "liar" or "lunatic."


[37] And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape. [38] And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not.

What does Jesus mean by saying that the Father himself has borne witness of him? The Fourth Gospel does record one instance (in John 12:28-30) of Jesus addressing the Father in prayer and being answered by a voice from heaven.

[28] "Father, glorify thy name."

Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again."

[29] The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.

[30] Jesus answered and said, "This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes."

The Father does not directly bear witness of Jesus here -- does not say "This man is my Son and the Messiah" or anything like that -- but obviously an audible voice from heaven answering his prayer would tend to confirm his status as Someone Very Special. But of course this incident did not occur until near the end of his life and cannot be what he is referring to here.

The Synoptics record that at Jesus' baptism "there came a voice from heaven, saying, 'Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'" (Mark 1:11, Luke 3:2; Matt. 3:17 has "This is my beloved Son"), and that at the transfiguration "a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 'This is my beloved Son: hear him'" (Mark 9:7, Luke 9:5, Matt. 17:5). Neither of these events is mentioned in the Fourth Gospel, which indeed does not directly mention Jesus' baptism or transfiguration at all. Jesus could still be referring to one or both of those incidents, though; we have already seen how this author often assumes the reader has a certain amount of background knowledge and does not always state everything explicitly.

If we assume Jesus is referring to one of these "voice from heaven" incidents, though, why does he say "Ye have neither heard [the Father's] voice at any time, nor seen his shape"? Well, if John 12:29 is any indication, these voices from heaven were not always heard as such; some people heard, or thought they heard, only thunder. Or perhaps the people Jesus is talking to here were not among those present at his baptism and know of the voice only secondhand.

More likely, though, Jesus means that he is not talking about voices or apparitions at all when he says the Father has borne witness of him. He says that those who disbelieve in him do so because they "have not [the Father's] word [λόγον] abiding in" them. He also says, in 12:30, that voices from heaven are, like the witness of John, concessions to people's expectations and are ultimately unnecessary. Jesus himself knows he is God's son, not because John told him so or because he heard a voice, but because of the divine Logos abiding in his heart. In my notes on John 1, I proposed that "the creative Word is the combined Primary Thinking of God himself and of all those who think in harmony with him." Those who participate in the Word, whose thinking is (at times, and imperfectly) in harmony with the divine, can recognize divinity when they encounter it. Having that, no other witness is necessary. Lacking that, no other witness is sufficient, and even an actual voice from heaven is likely to be explained-away as thunder.


[39] Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

I find this to be a very curious statement. In what sense did the Jews think they had eternal life "in the scriptures"? What does that even mean? "Eternal life" in the Christian sense was not and is not really a Jewish doctrine. I am open to correction on this, but I believe the only unambiguous reference in the Old Testament to human beings receiving eternal life is in Daniel 12 -- where, interestingly, it is connected with an unidentified "book."

[1] And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.

[2] And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

[3] And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.

[4] But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.

Although the reference is to "the book," as if we should know which book is intended, nothing in the immediate context makes this clear. However, there are intriguing references to books elsewhere in Daniel. In Chapter 9, Daniel recounts his dream of the four beasts. After the beasts, he sees the Ancient of Days and then the Son of Man.

[9] I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

[10] A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

This "Ancient of Days" is typically understood (in the Revelation of John, for example) to be God himself, but Joseph Smith associated the title with someone else: "Michael, or Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days" (D&C 27:11). Smith believed that Michael the archangel had lived on earth as Adam, and it is because of his status as the first man that he is called the Ancient of Days. This is interesting because Michael is also mentioned in the "everlasting life" passage in Daniel.

In Daniel 10, Daniel is visited by someone who is apparently an angel, and who again associates books or "scripture" with Michael: "But I will shew thee that which is noted in the scripture of truth: and there is none that holdeth with me in these things, but Michael your prince" (Dan. 10:21). This is in fact the only occurrence of the word scripture in the King James Version of the Old Testament.

Is this what Jesus is alluding to? Did the Jews of his day understand the "book" of Daniel 12:1 to be the Bible and believe that they would have eternal life if they were somehow "written in the book"? Obviously most people's names are not literally written in the Bible, but the Bible contains many descriptions of "the righteous" and so on, and perhaps conforming one's life to those descriptions would qualify one as being "written in the book." One obvious problem with this interpretation is that in Daniel 12:4 the prophet is commanded to "seal the book, even to the time of the end" -- implying that the book referred to is not the Bible but rather a different book which cannot be read by anyone until "the end."

(There is obviously much that could be written about how the author of Revelation adapts and interprets this material from Daniel, but it is not directly to our purpose, since we are concerned with the beliefs of the Jews before Revelation was written.)

In any case, whatever belief about scripture and eternal life is being referenced here, Jesus seems to distance himself from it -- "in them ye think ye have eternal life."


[40] And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life. [41] I receive not honour from men. [42] But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. [43] I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive. [44] How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?

I think the point of this passage is that Jesus was rejected specifically because he claimed to be God's son and representative. If he had made no claim to divinity but simply "come in his own name" as a rabbi, he would have been more warmly received.


[45] Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. [46] For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. [47] But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

Jesus again claims to be the Taheb, the prophet like unto Moses whose coming is prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. This idea that those who do not believe Moses will not believe Jesus either also occurs in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16.

[29] Abraham saith unto him, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them."

[30] And he said, "Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent."

[31] And he said unto him, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."


A somewhat-related digression

The main thrust of this passage in John 5 is that whatever evidence people require that Jesus is who is is, God provides -- even though none of it is necessary and none of it can ever be sufficient. You want the testimony of holy men? Miracles? Voices from heaven? The words of the prophets? The words of Moses himself, the man of God? Granted, all granted -- but the only true ground for belief is the divine Logos abiding in you.

It is hard not to be reminded of this wonderfully lyrical episode from the Book of Kings (1 Kgs. 19:9-12).

[9] And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, "What doest thou here, Elijah?"

[10] And he said, "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."

[11] And he said, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord."

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind:

and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

[12] And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire:

and after the fire a still small voice.

It is worth keeping in mind that this statement, "the Lord was not in the fire," comes shortly after the famous episode in which, having first challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to do the same, Elijah calls down fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones of the altar. "And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God" (1 Kgs. 18:29). Well, we see how long that lasted! In the very next chapter, Elijah is once more all alone in his faith and is praying for the Lord to take away his life. The Lord, despite the people's immediate reaction to the miracle, was not in the fire.

"The Lord was not in the wind" -- but he was, wasn't he? "The Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord." The text is not saying that the wind had nothing to do with the Lord -- it was apparently caused by him, directly and miraculously, just like the fire from heaven that consumed the altar. But it was not him; he was not in it -- and those who saw it did not really see him and were not really converted. I discussed this in my notes on John 1, commenting on the seemingly false statement that "no man hath seen God at any time."

God as such cannot be seen even in principle, because divinity has nothing whatever to do with being a physical object that produces or reflects light. Even those who saw Jesus Christ face to face saw just that: his face, and other parts of his physical body. That is, they may have seen directly that he was a man, but they could not have seen, in the same direct sense, that he was God. That in him which made him God could not be seen. Even those who saw him work miracles saw only that: a man with paranormal powers, which is not at all the same thing as God. . . . No conceivable sort of empirical observation could ever, even in principle, amount to an observation of God qua God.

"He be not far from every one of us . . . for we are also his offspring" (Acts 17:27-28). "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation . . . for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21). We can know God as God only because -- and only to the extent that -- his nature resonates with something in our own, with the spark of divinity within. "He called them gods, unto whom the word of God came" (John 10:35), because ultimately the divine Logos can come to none other. "Deep calleth unto deep . . . and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life" (Ps. 42:7-8).

William Blake alludes to 1 Kings 19 in the dedication of The Ghost of Abel -- a dedication that cut me to the quick when I first read it years ago, back when I was a bloviating atheist, because the phrase "Lord Byron in the Wilderness" punctured with voodoo-doll precision the rather ridiculous self-image I was then entertaining.

To Lord Byron in the Wilderness:

WHAT doest thou here, Elijah?
Can a Poet doubt the Visions of Jehovah? Nature has no Outline,
But Imagination has. Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has.
Nature has no Supernatural, and dissolves: Imagination is Eternity.

William Blake was always right. Change my mind.

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

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