Thursday, June 30, 2022

There was a man sent by God, whose name was John....

John the Baptist is a person of considerable importance. According to Mark's Gospel, King Herod, and some of the common people thought that Jesus was a resurrected John. Well into Jesus's own ministry, people were asking him "So why do your disciples do such-and-such a thing differently from John's?" In Jesus's last week, long after John's death, "all the people" in Jerusalem still remember him as a prophet. According to Matthew, Jesus identified John the Baptist with Elijah. And even in the book of Acts, when the disciples are preaching a resurrected Jesus, there are still a few people who can be described as "disciples of John".

But we are told surprisingly little about him. He baptises people; he baptises Jesus; and then he drops out of the story. He is almost definitely an historical figure. "Ceasar-real" as the Apocrypals would put it. [SEE NOTE 1]. The secular Jewish historian Josephus (writing around 100 CE) says that he existed; that he was a preacher; that he told the Jews to be more virtuous; that he practiced baptism and that he was executed by King Herod. Josephus does not mention the River Jordan, and he doesn't connect John with Jesus. 

Mark's Gospel begins with two Old Testament prophecies which he thinks apply to John: 

Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, 
which shall prepare thy way before thee.

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

He tells us that John baptised, and that his baptism was "a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins". He tells us that John dressed like a wild man. But he repeats only one actual thing which John  said: 

"There cometh one mightier than I after me
the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
I indeed have baptised you with water
but he shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost."

We are not told if John ever knew that Jesus was his successor. The fact that he continued to preach and baptise; and continued to have disciples of his own rather implies that he didn't. 

That pretty much exhausts what Mark has to say about John the Baptist. He baptised; he said someone else was coming after him; he baptised Jesus. His death is reported, in what feels very much like a folk-tale. That's the whole story.

It would be the height of bad taste to say that Matthew and Luke are Mark Fan Fiction. But they certainly tell the same story: rehearsing Mark's text with additions of their own. And I am happy to go along with Mr Occam and say that when Matthew and Luke have things in common with each other, but not with Mark, they must be quoting from a second, lost document called Q. (Q is German for Second Lost Document.) I have probably already made the joke about the Fifth Gospel which left before they became famous.

I know that some clever people, including Mr Enoch Powell, used to think that it was the other way round: Mark was a good-parts summary of Matthew. And some very clever people, including C.S Lewis's friend Austen Farrer, thought that Luke had never read Mark but was simply revising Matthew, which would eliminate the need for Q. And some lunatics presumably think that the three of them just happened to tell the same stories in the same words, or, more surprisingly, different stories in the same words. But the standard model -- Matthew and Luke, editing Mark, supplementing him from Q and adding some original material of their own -- works for the kind of broad-brush-stroke comparison I want to make. I am sure I am attributing more conscious agency and intention to the redactors than is strictly plausible.

Yes: as a matter of fact last month I was making the same kind of argument about different versions of Star Wars. Want to make something of it?

Matthew and Luke both stick extensive and very famous prologues on the front of Mark. Matthew begins with the famous story of the wise-men and the star of Bethlehem and the baby-murdering Herod: Luke has the famous story of the shepherds and the angels and Jesus's visit to the temple as a baby and an adolescent. He goes so far as to provide an origin story for John; making him Jesus's cousin. But when they get to their main story, they both start in the same place that Mark does. 

Mark begins: 

John did baptize in the wilderness,
and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
and there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem,
and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.

Matthew begins:

In those days came John the Baptist
preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying,
"Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias,
saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight...."
....Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea,
and all the region round about Jordan,
And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.

Matthew has only changed Mark a little bit. He has taken the quotations which Mark says are about John, and put them into John's own mouth. This is not very surprising. He has taken Mark's summary of what John said and turned it into a direct quote from John. This is not very remarkable either. 

But the words he gives to John "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" are the exact same words which Mark gives to Jesus himself, the first word's Mark's Jesus speaks. This is a little surprising. It implies a simple continuity between forerunner and successor: Jesus continues to proclaim a Kingdom that was already being announced by John.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees 
come to his baptism, he said unto them,
"O generation of vipers,
who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come
Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
And think not to say within yourselves,
We have Abraham to our father: 
for I say unto you,
that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees:
therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down,
and cast into the fire.
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance:
but he that cometh after me is mightier than I,
whose shoes I am not worthy to bear:
he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor,
and gather his wheat into the garner;
but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

Matthew -- like any good fan-fiction writer -- sets about filling in two major plot-holes. Mark says that everyone in Judea came to John and had their sins cleansed. And later, Mark says that all the people in Jerusalem considered John to be a prophet. In which case, a reasonable person might ask, why are some of the Judeans Jesus's enemies? Did John's baptism not take? Can you have your sins dipped away and yet still not spot a Messiah when he shows up? 

Matthew's solution is that Mark must have left something out. All the people from Judea and Jerusalem did indeed come to John. Mark wasn't fibbing. But as a matter of fact, John sent some of them away with a locust in their air. When the Pharisees and the Sadducees came, instead of baptising them, John harangued them and pronounced judgement on them. Presumably their repentance was not sincere. Possibly they thought that just being Jewish ("we have Abraham as our father") was good enough. [SEE NOTE 2]

The line that Mark attributes directly to John -- that he will have a successor, and that the successor will baptise with the Spirit -- Matthew buries in the middle of this rant. And he changes it a little bit. Where Mark has "I indeed have baptised you with water but he shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost", Matthew has "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance....he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire." So what in Mark is a promise -- "great news! there's an even holier baptiser on the way!" -- Matthew turns into a threat. "I'm here to baptise -- but I warn you, the next guy will be here to execute judgement. I use water to clean you up -- but he'll use fire to destroy you."

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
But John forbad him, saying,
"I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?"
And Jesus answering said unto him,
"Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness."
Then he suffered him.

But there's a much bigger plot hole. Baptism is about repentance. Being sorry for your sins and having them washed away. Getting cleaned up. So what on earth is Jesus doing asking to be baptised? Matthew doesn't answer the question, but he does lampshade the problem: John says that Jesus ought to be baptising him, and Jesus says "Let's do it this way, to keep it on a legal footing." [SEE NOTE 3]

How does John know that he needs to be baptised by Jesus? Does Jesus already have a reputation, or are we supposed to think that one of John's superpowers is that he innately spots Messiahs as soon as they come to him? (In Luke's origin story, the unborn John worships the unborn Jesus!) But I feel it rather spoils the logic of the piece if John spots who Jesus is before God's big announcement. 

This is a built in problem with any fan-fic or reboot. The writer and the reader already know the story: and it is terribly easy to forget that that characters in the story do not. If everyone has know for a century that the kid from Kansas is vulnerable to glowing rocks or the guy who rents the nice W1 flat solves crimes for a hobby, it is hard to keep in your head that this is a complete surprise to the characters. 

I think that something similar is going on in these religious texts. They are written to be read out to people who already believe a whole set of credal statements about Jesus. So people in the story sometimes forget to be surprised the first time they hear expressions like "son of God." Matthew believes that Jesus was perfect and doesn't need to repent, so he assumes that John the Baptist does as well. 

In Mark, the divine voice from heaven speaks to Jesus.

And straightway coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens opened,
and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
And there came a voice from heaven, saying,
"Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

This is crucial: in Mark's Gospel Jesus's identity is a secret. Peter works out he is the Messiah towards the end of the story, and the voice of God reveals the deeper truth to the Top Three disciples on the Mountain of Metamorphosis. ("This is my beloved Son: hear him.") But Matthew places the secret in the public domain from the get-go.

And Jesus, when he was baptized
went up straightway out of the water:
and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and lighting upon him
and lo a voice from heaven, saying,
"This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

Now, Luke also seems to have used Mark as a pattern. He makes more changes than Matthew does, but you can still see the Markan shape underneath. Luke is interested in history, or apparent history, so Mark's simple "John did baptise" becomes

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar
Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea
and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee
and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis
and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene
Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests,
the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness
and he came into all the country about Jordan
preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins

All of Mark's eleven verses are there: the Old Testament quotes; John's baptism for forgiveness; his comment about not undoing his successor's shoelaces and the spirit coming down on Jesus. The one verse Luke omits, curiously, is the description of John's way-out clothing.

Luke inserts the same fire-and-brimstone speech that Matthew does: but where Matthew directs it specifically at the religious leaders, Luke directs it to the people in general:

Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him
"O generation of vipers, 
who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance....."

This is a small but significant change of tone. Matthew says, in effect "John forgave and baptised the common people; but he condemned and prophesied judgement on the religious leaders." Luke says "John preached a judgement and condemnation on everybody: but the ordinary people asked him what they needed to do to avoid it." 

And the people asked him, saying,
"What shall we do then?
He answereth and saith unto them,
He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none;
and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
Then came also publicans to be baptized,
and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?
And he said unto them,
Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, 
And what shall we do?
And he said unto them,
Do violence to no man,
neither accuse any falsely;
and be content with your wages."

John's injunctions are quite modest; in fact there is almost an element of bathos. 

"God is going to reign down fire and burn all the sinners down!" 

"What shall we do?" 

"Try and do a bit less sinning." 

If you have got more than you need, give some of it away. If you are one of the fascist occupiers, or someone who collaborates with them, don't be more of a bastard than you need to be.

Luke retains Mark's words about John's successor. But unlike Matthew, he doesn't but it in the middle of the "vipers" speech: it is part of a completely different conversation. [NOTE 4]

And as the people were in expectation
and all men mused in their hearts of John
whether he were the Christ, or not;
John answered, saying unto them all,
"I indeed baptize you with water;
but one mightier than I cometh,
the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose
he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire"

Mark says that John said that he would have a much more important successor. Matthew says that he said these same words as part of a judgement on the Pharisees. Luke says that he said them as part of an explicit denial that he was the Messiah.

This seems to me to be another example of the writer forgetting that the people in the story haven't read the book. In Mark, no-one remotely said that John was the Messiah, although some people said that Jesus was John. And no-one thinks that Jesus is the Messiah until Peter blurts it out in Chapter 9. It's a secret. But for Luke, the very first thing which occurs to people when someone comes along saying "Try sinning a bit less" is "Maybe he's the Messiah!"

The meanings of words depend on their contexts. To create a new context is to create a new meaning. I don't think that Matthew and Luke are fraudulently creating false narratives about John; I don't even think they are creating what used to be called "pious fictions". But I do think that they are retelling the story in order to explain what they think Mark's story means. Luke is very clear that John spoke about untying Jesus' shoelaces in order to expressly deny his own Christhood. You may think that Luke wouldn't be taking quite so much trouble to show that John was not the Messiah if there were not quite a lot of people who thought that he was.

It must have been quite galling for John to have had followers who thought he was the Messiah when he was quite certain that he wasn't. Has anyone ever created a comedy film on that premise?

John's Gospel also starts with John the Baptist. But it is immediately clear that we are in a completely different world from Matthew, Mark or Luke....



[1] There are three categories of "real": Caesar real; Robin Hood real and Santa Claus real. 

[2] Note that the "generation of vipers" section, being in both Matthew and Luke would be regarded as coming from the Lost Fifth Gospel, Q. The words are the same, so our writers must have got them from somewhere; but the context is different, so they can't have copied them from each other.

[3] Some scholars take this passage as very strong evidence that the historical Jesus really was baptised by the historical John. Matthew clearly regards the story as problematic: and the only reason to continue to tell a problematic story is because you think it is true. You don't make up something which is harmful to your argument. (Similarly, we can be fairly sure that the historical Jesus said that the world would end in the lifetime of the disciples, because that is obviously a massively embarrassing thing for him to have said.) Pseudo-historians and conspiracy theorists often mis-use this kind of argument, to turn weak evidence or a lack of evidence into final and clinching proofs. "The UFO photo must be real, because a forger wouldn't have used something which looked so obviously like a hub cap.!" But of course, it is never applied in reverse "That's a really convincing fairy photograph, which is evidence that it is a forgery, because trying to look convincing is exactly what a forgery would do." 

[4] This is another reason for thinking that Matthew and Luke independently copied Mark as opposed to copying each other. It is not very odd that two adaptors would take the same passage and make up two different settings for it. It would be quite odd to imagine Luke taking one line out of a speech in Matthew and making up a new discourse to go around it. The cut-and-paste function on your average scroll wasn't that advanced.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Why I Am Not Going To Write About The Gospel Of John (3)

for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life
for God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world
but that the world through him might be saved.

When I mentioned Proverbs 13:34, you probably had to look it up. I know I did. But you almost certainly knew the chapter and verse of this passage. The Gospel According To Saint John, The Third Chapter, The Sixteenth Verse. 

For very many people of an evangelical bent Christianity is reducible to John's Gospel, and John's Gospel is reducible to its third chapter; and the third chapter is reducible to this verse. The Bible in a nutshell, they call it, very frequently. Some of them have it on teeshirts or tattooed on their arms. One American fellow used to show up at football matches with the reference -- not the quotation, just the reference -- on a placard. There's someone in Bristol right now fly-posting it on lamp-posts.

JOHN 3:16

Evangelicalism makes a very big deal out of the Bible. But in practice it all comes down to one Gospel, and one chapter of one Gospel and one verse of this one chapter. Advanced students probably added one verse of one chapter of one Epistle as well. But John 3:16 and Romans 3:23 is pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.

The idea appeals to me very much. I like the idea of reducing complicated ideas to simple frames. The Hero's Journey. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. We hold these truths to be self-evident. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Forty-two.

That's how we managed to convince ourselves that everything in the Old Testament was really about Jesus. Medieval exegetes thought that since loving God and loving your neighbour was the heart of the Law, it followed that any Old Testament passage could, by definition, be twisted so it either advocated Love or condemned Hate. They used a lot of allegory in this regard. We were equally sure that everything in the Bible pointed to John 3:16. Daniel rescued from the lions' den? That's to remind us that anyone who believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life. Noah and his family rescued from the big flood? People who believe in Jesus will not perish. Chapter after chapter of rules about Jewish temple ritual? It's there to remind us that God gave his only begotten son. The sheep and the goats are kind of like Jesus, in the same way that the metal snake is kind of like Jesus.

This was what my friend in the study group was thinking about, all those years ago when she wanted to abandon our study of Solomon and turn to John instead. John 3 was her faith. Proverbs 13, not so much. And in a way she wasn't wrong. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. If you believe that, why would you want to spend your study hour thinking about a three thousand year old Jewish King who thought that good people eat to their heart's content while the stomach of the wicked goes hungry? (Which is not, incidentally, true.) Why would you particularly care who rebelled against King David and what he did about it? Why, if it comes to it, would you need to listen to Paul going on and on about the miscellaneous shortcomings of the churches in Corinth and Rome and wherever it is that Colossians come from?

I think that the dividing line between evangelical -- or, if you prefer, born-again -- Christians and liberal or modernist Christians is very probably this verse. Do you see Jesus as a saviour, or is he a teacher, an example, and an all around good chap. Some hyper-modernist clergy -- the kind who write columns in the Guardian -- seem to think that "God so loved the world" was foisted on this quite admirable Jewish rabbi by nasty Roman Emperors and even nastier American radio hosts. My whole infatuation with Aslan, C.S Lewis and Jesus (in, I am very much afraid, that order) came about because the idea of a God who loved the world so much in such a way that he gave his only son is a central, mystical, intuitive, self-contradictory lens through which everything else seems to make sense. If you take away the nasty-Constantinian-death-cult aspect, you are not left with a liberal, reformed version of Christianity: you are left with a void. In a funny way, I am more inclined to defend the Bishop of Woolworths (as C.S Lewis called the author of Honest to God) than I am the modern historical-Jesus-hyper-liberals. He at least appeared to recognise that if you took out God So Loved The World out of Christianity, there wasn't really very much left. And he did see that as a problem. Reducing the Bible to one verse is a childish, simplistic, cliche. But in another way, it is blatantly obviously right. If that verse isn't the heart of the Bible, then what is?

And that's why I don't feel I can write about John: not in the way that I wrote about Mark. 

John is altogether too religious. When I hear the first chapter of Mark, I see a desert, and water, and a man in a rough loincloth, and another man walking through the desert to meet him. (There may, for all I know, also have been sand-worms and jawas.) When I hear the first chapter of John, I smell candle wax. I hear a piping choir boy singing Once In Royal David's City and a booming clergyman saying John Expoundeth The Mystery of the Incarnation.

When I think of John I think of big black Bibles. No, it's much worse than that. I am sorry to have to keep admitting this stuff, but what I really think of when I think of John is a glossy colour tract we used to give out in the Christian Union, called something like LIVING WATER FROM JOHN, with a little number before every verse, and photos of sunsets and doves and lambs on every page, to be given to the un-evangelised because it contained everything they needed to know to be Saved. (I think they had to be predestined to be saved first, but my theology on that point has always been rather shaky.) We also gave out one called LIVING WATER FROM ROMANS which must have baffled them even more.

When I began writing about Saint Mark, I tried to imagine a context. I pictured a man in a toga surrounded by eager children in sandals. "Well, since you ask me about Jesus of Nazareth, let me tell you what Peter told me..." As I read a bit more, that mental image changed. The idea that Mark's Gospel is literally the Memoirs of Peter -- or at any rate an unmediated account of a first century Galilean tradition -- is hopelessly romantic. Clearly what I was reading was stories; stories which follow an identifiable pattern. The technical word for that is Form Criticism. A lot of scholars think that the stories of Jesus circulated as oral tales before they were collected into gospels. They think that by studying the structures of these stories, and comparing them with what we know about other oral traditions, it is possible to make educated guesses about who first told them, and to whom, and why. I don't know anything about that. But it became much more useful to picture "Mark" going into taverns and market places and saying "Hey -- I've got a new Jesus story -- want to hear it?" than as a Homeric figure narrating a sacred saga from beginning to end.

How on earth am I to imagine John? A starry eye prophet, I suppose, on a rock, or by the beach, staring into the middle distance, chanting? The disciple who Jesus particularly loved; the one who the first Christians literally thought was going to live forever. Maybe the same fella who witnessed the end of the universe on Patmos. 

None of that really helps. One can only picture John as "the person who wrote the book of John". It is pure text without context. It is the book which is most easily thought of as "inspired scripture" in the naive sense. A book written by God, with some first century human as the conduit. I don't think that Muslims see Mohammed's personality going into the Koran: he is the favoured human who Allah chose to transmit it through.  

Mark begins with a man eating sticky insects with a bit of cloth to cover his modesty. John begins with cosmic light and platonic paradoxes. His first word is an allusion to the first word in the Bible. His second word is a piece of untranslatable jargon. Douglas Adams began the second volume of the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy thus: "The story so far: in the beginning the Universe was created...." One feels that John is doing the same thing. In the beginning was the word...

And there's the problem. Having pictured Mark as a story teller in a tavern or a market place I feel quite free to be frivolous. To pretend I think his Gospel is a bit like Star Wars. One can be frivolous, I hope, without being flippant; and one can be disrespectful without showing disrespect. At any rate one can disrespect the story without disrespecting the Story. But drawing an analogy between Saint John the Evangelist, Beloved Disciple; Lofty Eagle of the Apocalypse and a quite funny radio writer feels sacrilegious. Cheap. Even analysing John Three Sixteen with a solemn face on still feels like stabbing at the heart and essence of Christianity. Of the whole universe. L'amor che move I sole e 'lalre stelle. (I bet I got it right.)

There is an online film of David Suchet reading the whole of Mark's Gospel at St Pauls's Cathedral. (Suchet has actually done live readings of the whole Bible, poor chap.) The clergyman who introduces him says that Mark's gospel is the story of a "man who changed the world". And I think that that is what I expected before doing my walk through the text. Mark, the earliest Gospel, I thought, presented Jesus as a super-duper holy teacher-man; whereas John, the latest, re-invented him as a divine being. The holy preacher man who tells human beings about God becomes God working undercover in the body of a human being. The proclaimer, as a very wise man whose name currently escapes me said, becomes the proclaimed.

But this could hardly be wronger. 

As a matter of fact, I do think that Mark was probably an Adoptionist. He thinks -- or writes as if he thinks -- that Jesus had an ordinary birth and an ordinary human life but that he became God after he was baptised by John (the baptist). And he thinks -- or writes as if he thinks -- that Jesus was exalted to the highest point in the universe as a consequence of his crucifixion. And I do think that John (the gospel writer) believes -- or writes as if he believes -- in something much closer to what later became formalised as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Jesus had the quality of God-ish-ness before he was baptised; before he was born; before, indeed, the creation of the universe. In the BEGINNING was the word, and the WORD was with God and the Word WAS God. In the Authorised Version it rolls nicely off the tongue. The word BECAME flesh and camped out on earth, temporarily. Certainly, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in the voice of an outsider. "No-one's ever been up to heaven except the the person who came down from heaven -- and who was that? This guy: who's still in heaven right now."

But it is entirely misleading to talk in terms of High Christologies and Low Christologies and much more misleading to say that what Mark is describing is simply a very influential man. In a sense, Mark's Jesus is God in a more straightforward sense than John's. Because what Mark gives us is mythology. The sky rips open. God flaps down to earth in the form of a pigeon and perches on Jesus. The founders of Judaism come down from heaven and chat with him. God joins them on the mountaintop. The guy from the obscure village has God inside him. To all intents and purposes, he is God. And we go forward on that assumption. God is sleeping in the fisherman's spare room; God is giving orders to Satan; God is telling the weather to stop being naughty. Everyone in the town, the country and eventually the world is magnetically drawn to wherever God happens to be at that moment.

What if God were one us us? What would he be like? (A stroppy, pedantic rabbi.) Who would his friends be? (Sinners. Collaborators. Fishermen.) Who would he not get on with? (Religious people. Obviously.) What would happen if he went to the place where God is supposed to live? (He'd start smashing it up. Obviously.) What would happen in the end? (The Jews and the Pagans would have a temporary truce and do away with him.) Would that be the end...?

John seems to be struggling to fit all that into a philosophical formula. How can we describe a God-Bloke without it sounding like nonsense? How can we talk about it without resorting to holes in the sky and magic birds? Well... God's teaching was always there. And God's teaching is God. So what if God's teaching turned into a person and stayed on earth for bit?

What if God were one of us? Well, he'd been a mysterious, other-worldly sage, who spoke elliptically about the great truth that God has become one of us...

I am confused and exasperated and puzzled by Mark's Jesus. I think that is because Mark intends him to be confusing and exasperating and puzzling. I think Mark intends you to wrestle with his Jesus: to chew on the parables and think "What did he mean by that?" Wrestling with God is a good thing to do. (I have Kirby's drawing of Jacob and the Angel above my writing desk. The Angel looks like a Celestial, as you would expect.) You can't wrestle with John's Jesus. You can't argue with him, and it would would be the height of lèse-majesté to find him exasperating. Asking what he means is beside the point. The only thing you can do is sit at his feet.

Mark's parables engage our brain. John's mysticism washes over us. Mark gives us teaching. John sometimes feels like spiritual mood-music.

At times, I almost want to abandon the idea that John's Jesus is a person. 

We are told that when John says "in the beginning was the logos" he is talking about some difficult, neo-Platonic concept. (The neo-Platonists had mostly read John.) Well, maybe. But so far as I can see, the New Testament mostly uses logos in a straightforward, non philosophical sense. It can mean report ("this logos was widely circulated among the Jews to this day.") It can mean statement ("let your logos be yes, yes, or no, no.) It can mean language or speech. ("Don't use harmful logos, but helpful logos.") It can mean news or tidings ("the logos about them reached the ears of the Church in Jerusalem.") The one thing it practically never means is "word" in a grammatical sense. But most often it means preaching or teaching: the Word of God. The sower in Mark's parable sows the logos; when the disciples gather around Jesus in Peter's house, he speaks the logos to them.

So "the Word became flesh" needs to be taken at some level at face value. God's teaching wrapped itself in a human form. 

Luke begins his story of Jesus' ministry by saying that in such-and-such a year "the Word of God came to John [the baptist] in the Wilderness." Can we entertain the possibility that John is using a literary device -- allegory, personification -- to show us that occurrence?

Perhaps when John talks about The Light he means enlightenment and goodness. Perhaps when he says that people hate the Light and run away from the Light he means that people prefer ignorance to knowledge and wickedness to virtue. But he personifies that as the rejection of a character called Jesus. He describes the Judeans turning against Jesus; but he means that religious people reject virtue and truth. He shows Nicodemus failing to understand Jesus: that's to show that the Pharisees don't understand the word of God. Perhaps he is not presenting a person who, in a metaphysical sense is the incarnation of the divine teaching: perhaps he is pretending that the divine teaching is a person for literary and didactic effect. Perhaps, in fact, he is doing the same kind of thing that Solomon did when he imagined Wisdom as a person in the market place. No-one supposes that Solomon was going to point to some actual lady at the vegetable stall and say "Look, there's that Wisdom person I was talking about -- follow her!" 

I don't think this reading, Jesus-as-symbol works. Not consistently, in any case. In a disconcerting way there are passages where John is much more naturalistic than Mark. But it conveys something of my difficulty. Mark's Jesus is a person. John's Jesus is an idea. Mark says "This is what God would be like if he were a man". John says "This is what God is like." 

Perhaps he was influenced by those gnaughty gnostics, who resolved the difficulty of God walking around in the body of a carpenter by dropping the "in the body" part altogether. Their Jesus is a force-ghost whose feet never touch the ground; a symbol of the secret knowledge but not in any sense a guy. But John goes to some lengths to make it clear that that's not what he believes.

Mark's Jesus is more dangerous than John's. More shocking. John's Jesus is very much what we would expect the Son of God to be like. Mark's decidedly isn't. 

Mark's Jesus fits into my headspace. Granted a flat earth with heaven upstairs and hell downstairs and the sky in the middle, I know what it means to say that God crashed through a hole in the sky and came down to earth in the form of a Holy Dove. I don't know what it means to say that God was God's teaching and God's teaching was God and that God's teaching was turned into meat and set up a tent on earth. I can affirm it, but I can't imagine it. Except in some banal way: "Jesus lived such a jolly good life and he was such a jolly good example of all the things that God approves of that Jesus' life itself is better than any number of sermons." And that clearly isn't what John is saying. It would be a very circuitous rout to get to "Jesus is a very good example of how to live." And in any case, he isn't. Not particularly. John's Jesus doesn't do works of charity in the conventional sense. Mostly he talks about himself. The Logos incarnates to tell us the glad tidings that the Logos has incarnated.

We don't believe in three tier universes and sky-domes any more. Not even in Texas. But we can imagine them. John's version we can't imagine. We just have to piously attend to it. God was the Word. The Word was God. The Word became flesh. Perhaps, if we just say John Three Sixteen, John Three Sixteen over and over again the phos and the logos and the gnosis will kind of seep into us. Perhaps that's what being born of water and air means. Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare. 

I am not trying to set Mark up above John. I am not trying to say that we should read Mark instead of John. I am not saying that Mark has it right and John has it wrong. I am not saying that Mark has, as the scholars say, priority. The aforementioned Bishop of Woolworths thought John was the more historical of the two. I am saying that Mark is telling a story. And I know how to talk about stories. And what John seems offer is an exposition of Mark's story. And when you have expounded it, it ceases to be a story. If I try to talk about John I am at worst expounding an exposition; and at best, setting my exposition up against the one the Church canonised. Which feels rude. And that pushes me into a style of writing that I don't feel comfortable with. I am just not sure that I can do it. I am not sure that I ought to. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Why I Am Not Going To Write About The Gospel of Saint John (2)

there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus 
a ruler of the Jews.
the same came to Jesus by night,
and said unto him,

"Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God
for no man can do these miracles that thou doest
except God be with him"

Jesus answered and said unto him,

"Verily, verily, I say unto thee,
Except a man be born again,
he cannot see the kingdom of God"

An eminent Jew comes to Jesus "by night" to ask him questions. The pharisee, Nicodemus, speaks in prose: Jesus speaks in a kind of mystical poetry. The answers don't seem to have much to do with the questions: that's one thing John's Jesus definitely has in common with Mark's version. It isn't clear which sections of the text ought to be printed in black and which sections ought to be printed in red. Are all the poetic bits supposed to be words which Jesus actually spoke? Or are some of them commentary: things which the narrator, "John" is telling us about Jesus? And isn't it more than a little suspicious that it is so hard to tell one from the other?

Nicodemus thinks Jesus is a prophet because of all the miracles he has been doing. But John has, in fact, only mentioned one miracle at this stage: a private one, at a wedding, in Galilee, to which Judean pharisees were presumably not invited. 

So: John's listeners can't be hearing this story for the first time. They already know of Jesus as a miracle-worker; they take it for granted that it he has been doing miracles "off-stage" and that learned Pharisees would be expected to have heard of them. 

Nicodemus's word for miracle, incidentally, is semeion, "a sign", where Mark generally uses dunamis "a (work of) power".

Nicodemus says that Jesus must have come from God and that God must be with him with him. Jesus answer seems to contradict him. You say that I am a teacher sent from God; you say that I am a miracle worker because God is with me. But you are mistaken. No mere teacher can be said to have been sent from God and no mere man can be said to have God with him. The Kingdom of God is something which no human can see. He says "no man has the power to see it". 

No human being can perceive the reign of God. Unless...

Unless that person has been "born from above"; "born all over again". 

Even if you have never heard of Nicodemus, you know that Christians have a thing about being born again. People used to talk about "born-again-Christians" as if they were a specific sub-class. The term doesn't seem to have existed before 1970, but by 1980, being a bornagainChristian was the in-thing. When I first came across the expression, I took it to mean a person who was raised in a Christian community, fell away from his faith, but re-embraced it as an adult, at a deeper and more committed level. Copywriters took it to mean "with a renewed interest in": he's a born again comic book reader, a born again whiskey drinker. A lot of people simply used it to mean "a religious person who makes a great deal of fuss about it." Catholics are devout; protestants are staunch; Christians are born again. Jews are observant. I don't know what Muslims are: fanatical, I suppose. When Cliff Richard told one of his musical associates that he was a born again Christian they replied "So what? I'm a born again Jew -- bubala.

But this is clearly not what John means. On no possible view is Jesus telling Nicodemus to re-embrace his faith at a more committed level. 

William Blake mentions the story of Nicodemus in his rambling poem the Everlasting Gospel. He takes John to be contrasting Jesus's anarchic spirituality with that of the rule-bound Pharisee. He puts John's story alongside Luke's about the boy Jesus disobeying his parents. See how much Jesus cared about rule-following?

When the rich learned pharisee
Came to consult him secretly
Upon his heart with iron pen
He wrote Ye Must Be Born Again.

I don't know where the "iron pen" came from. I suppose not that many things rhyme with Again. Not many things rhyme with Jesus, either: Blake is one of only two poets I can think of to go with "please us". [*]

Nicodemus saith unto him,
"How can a man be born when he is old?
Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb
and be born?"

Jesus answered,
"Verily, verily, I say unto thee,
except a man be born of water and of the Spirit,
he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh;
and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, 
Ye must be born again."

"Marvel not." Don't be surprised. I haven't said anything very remarkable.

Nicodemus doesn't know what Jesus means. He double-checks that he isn't talking literally. "A person can't go back into his Mummy's tummy, can he?" This happens a lot in John: Jesus says something obscure and esoteric, and his listeners take him grotesquely literally. 

Jesus seems, at some level, to be talking about baptism. Mark's John the Baptist said that he baptised with water; but that his successor would baptise with the holy spirit. (Matthew says "with the holy spirit and fire".) I think we are supposed to remember this when Jesus talks about being born of water and the spirit.

But John the Baptist's baptism was about washing: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus appears to be talking about procreation: to perceive the rule of God you need to be born of water and spirit. Evangelical Christians do tend to see baptism in this way: initiation, rebirth -- being born-again. That is why they prefer total-immersion to sprinkling. Being pushed under the water and coming up out of it works pretty well as a birth-symbol; sprinkling water on someone's head feels much more like cleaning all the bad stuff away. But maybe "getting spiritually cleaned up" and "being born all over again" are different ways of saying the same thing?

John's Jesus doesn't seem to be particularly interested in cleaning Nicodemus up; he doesn't talk about his sins. He seems to be saying that there are, or are going to be, two distinct kinds of human: the ones made of flesh (because their mothers were made of flesh) and the ones made of spirit (because their mothers were made of spirit). And only these spirit children can see, or perceive, or understand this thing called the kingdom, or reign, of God. Perhaps when Nicodemus goes for the literal, physical, and rather silly meaning of "born again" as opposed to a deeper, metaphysical, spiritual one is what shows that he can't yet perceive God's kingdom? 

"The wind bloweth where it listeth
and thou hearest the sound thereof
but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth:
so is every one that is born of the Spirit."

The same Greek word, we have to keep reminding ourselves, does for air, breath, spirit and wind. It is astonishingly unhelpful of our Bibles to translate pneumas as "wind" at the beginning of the sentence and "spirit" at the end: because it introduces an unnecessary non-sequitur into the saying. The wind blows where it wants: that's what people whose parents are the wind are like. The spirit breathes where it wants: that's what people whose parents are the spirit are like.

Mark's Jesus talked in parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a careless farmer throwing seeds around without caring where they land. And it's also like a man who dropped seeds outside his house and was surprised when plants appeared. And it's also like mighty giant redwoods growing out of tiny, powdery seeds. The disciples don't always grok the meaning, but they understand that they are parables. They never say "So you want us to quit fishing and go into agriculture?"

John's Jesus certainly uses figures of speech: but they work quite differently from Mark's parables. You could imagine something called the Parable of the Air: "The Kingdom of God is like this: a man heard the wind blowing around -- but he didn't know where it had come from or where it was going." But it would be quite a different thing from what Jesus actually says to Nicodemus. He isn't drawing an analogy: "The children of the spirit are in this one particular respect like the wind". He isn't using the the wind as a teaching aid, an illustration -- "if you want to get your head round the idea of the children of the spirit, then thinking about the wind might help you." He isn't painting a grotesque and exaggerated picture so the message sticks in the listener's mind. He seems to be pointing out a connection which really exists; showing how things actually are. Looking through a physical phenomenon and seeing an eternal truth behind it. 

Of course the spirit-children are wind-like. That's their nature.

C.S. Lewis's friend Owen Barfield thought that the linguistic unity of pneumas pointed to a conceptual unity. There was a time when humans perceived breath as being the same as air and air as being the same as spirit. So pneumas doesn't sometimes mean breath and sometimes mean spirit: it always means breath-air-spirit-wind. The breath-air-spirit-wind blows where it chooses: that's what it's like for people whose parents are the spirit-wind-air-breath. Flesh gives birth to flesh; breath-wind-air-spirit gives birth to breath-wind-air-spirit. Unless you are born of water and breath-air-wind-spirit you can't perceive God. 

What are people whose mothers are the spirit, the air, the breath like? 

The answer, my friends....

Nicodemus answered and said unto him,
"How can these things be?"

Jesus answered and said unto him,
"Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
Verily, verily, I say unto thee
We speak that we do know,
and testify that we have seen;
and ye receive not our witness.

If I have told you earthly things,
and ye believe not,
how shall ye believe,
if I tell you of heavenly things?

And no man hath ascended up to heaven,
but he that came down from heaven,
even the Son of man which is in heaven."

"How can these things happen?" asks Nicodemus: how do these things have the power (that word again) to be done. These things must refer to what Jesus has been talking about in the previous paragraph. How can people possibly be born all over again? How can people possibly become children of the spirit with the attributes of the wind?

I find these verses quite perplexing. It isn't clear in what sense Jesus has told Nicodemus, or anyone else, of purely terrestrial matters; and it isn't clear in what sense Nicodemus has not believed them. It would make more sense to say "I have spoken of heavenly things and you crassly assumed I was talking about earthly things." And that isn't what he says. It is hard to understand why Jesus is surprised by Nicodemus's incredulity. All this talk of rebirth and spiritual children is, on any view, highly esoteric and novel: can Jesus really be implying that a learned Pharisee ought to know it already?

The clue may possibly be in the fact that the first "ye" is plural: the New International Version helpfully renders it as "you people". "WE speak of what we know and testify to what WE have seen, but YOU PEOPLE do not hear our message." My first thought is that Jesus is treating Nicodemus as representative of the Pharisees, or of the Judeans in general. This knowledge is available, in your scriptures, but you Pharisees have been entirely unable to perceive the deeper meaning. But the logic of the passage makes me think that "we" refers to "we children of the spirit" and "you people" refers to "you children of the flesh." Jesus is not saying "Come on, you're a teacher, you should know this stuff already." It's more like "No; you flesh children don't understand this stuff. Only we spirit children can understand it." There is an earthly, fleshly way of understanding things; and you haven't even grasped that properly; so when I tell you the deeper, heavenly truths they are going to blow your mind.

I think Jesus must be saying something along these lines. Because in answer to Nicodemus actual question he takes an obscure passage in the book of Numbers and reveals that it has a hidden meaning. 

"and as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness
even so must the Son of Man be lifted up
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish
but have eternal life"

The Isrealites are wandering in the Wilderness. They have fallen out with God, again. God is cross with them, again. He sends a plague of snakes to wipe them out, again. YHWH spends a lot of the first five books of the Bible nearly wiping out the chosen people. To smooth things over, Moses makes a big metal snake and hangs it on a pole. As one does. He declares that people who look at the toy snake will be cured of snake bite. 

It sounds worryingly like sympathetic magic: the kind of thing Pharoah's wizards would have got up to. Some seven hundred years later the snake itself was destroyed by King Hezekiah when he rediscovered the Torah, and banned idol worship. Apparently some people had been worshiping it. These Jews, eh?

So: the magic snake-bite curing snake is, at some level, Jesus. (He says Son of Man, but I don't think that we can be in any doubt that son-of-the-human is an oblique way of talking about himself.) Specifically, the act of looking at the snake is like the act of believing in Jesus. People who looked at the snake didn't die of snakebite. People who believe in Jesus don't die, full stop. 

Mark gradually reveals a Messianic Secret. Jesus talks about kingdom, and the Gospel, and the Son of Man, and leaves us surprised and confused when his tomb seems to be empty. John lays Jesus Unique Selling Point on the first page. Clergyman love to tell us that "eternal life" is something spiritual, that "eternal" describes the quality of life, not its duration. But King James was right to go with "everlasting". What people who believe in the raised up Son of Man get is zoen aionion: life-perpetual. 

Step right up, folks. Believe in Jesus and you will live forever.

The "lifting up" of the bronze snake -- putting it on a pole -- is meant to make us think of the "lifting up" of Jesus -- putting him on a cross. You occasionally see religious paintings of crucified serpents for that reason. But it also means "lifted up" in the sense of "exalted" and "set on high". It is quite possible to push the allegory further. The Israelites disobedience to God in the desert represents Adam and Eve's disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden. The deadly snakes represent the punishment meted out on Adam. Mortality: lost access to the Tree of Life. So looking at Jesus on the cross represents the removal of the consequences of Adam's sin. The snake itself doesn't excuse the Israelites bad behaviour. But being sorry doesn't remove the consequence. First the Israelites repent; then Moses exalts the bronze artwork to defang the real snakes.

But I should be inclined to keep things simpler than that. The snake and Jesus are both examples of amazing supernatural saving-things. The original question was "What does it mean to be born again? How on earth can someone become a child of the Spirit." And the answer seems to be "Remember the story about how Moses saved all the people who were dying of poison with a magic snake? That's how."

And then comes the biggie. It isn't clear if Jesus is speaking, or if John is amplifying what he just said. And it probably doesn't matter very much, either.

for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life
for God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world
but that the world through him might be saved.



Blake: "Had he been anti-Christ, aping Jesus, he'd have done anything to please us."

Leon Rosselson: "Why don't you sing something to please us, nothing nasty about Jesus".

Monday, June 27, 2022

Why I Am Not Going To Write About The Gospel of Saint John (i)

I went to college to study English Literature. I spent most of my time attending Christian Union Bible Study groups and playing Dungeons & Dragons.

This was rather ironic. Some of the Christian Union thought that Dungeons & Dragons players were Satanists. Most of the Dungeons & Dragons players thought the Christian Union were annoying holy rollers. Many of the Christian Union quite liked having bona fide devil worshippers on their corridors: it presented a bit of a challenge. Quite a lot of the Dungeons & Dragons players rather liked being accused of Satanism: it made us feel less nerdy and more edgy. I had a foot in both camps: one of the C.U once said that I was salt-like. 

The two groups had more in common than either of them would have cared to admit. Earnest young people, squashed into college rooms, neglecting their degrees, sitting on beds or on the floor; fighting forces of evil which no-one else believed in. With a healthy respect for Clerics. A facilitator, nose pressed into a sacred text, directing the exploration, trying to give everyone a fair chance to contribute. Cold mugs of instant coffee. Arguments about minor points of interpretation. Bitterness and schisms.

Spiritual warfare, the whole armour of god, that old dragon Satan. The literal Holy Grail, the Sword of the Spirit. Actual Super-Powers. I am surprised that the Geek/Evangelical axis was not more pronounced. Tolkien of course was himself a Christian. Or, at any rate, a Catholic. I am not sure if that counted.

A Bible study group is a very particular thing. But then, an English literature seminar is a very particular thing as well. A Level English was a kind of bird-watching expedition, in which you explored a Text and crossed similes and metaphors and onomatopoeias off your check list, before stalking the Fully Rounded Character. (Does that make it more like train spotting?) I am told that school children today hunt rarer birds called Fronted Adverbials. Degree English was more about themes and structures and approaches to the text. You are supposed to be interested in what other people have said about a book rather than your own response to it. College English could be defined as the study of books about books: Critical Theory is of course the study of books about books about books. 

Bible Study Groups had their own approach to the Canon. You take a whole chapter of the Bible: a chapter, preferably, of a fairly obscure book. (If you've been in the Christian Union you certainly know your Colossians from your Nehemiah.) You take it in turns to read one verse out loud. And then each member of the group is encouraged to say what they think the passage meant to the people who read it first ("Jews" is the polite term.) And then what it means for Us-As-Christians. (This often involved stretching Old Testament texts so they are really about Jesus. Everything in the Bible is really about Jesus.) Then you tried to say how we should apply the passage to Our Lives Today. And finally you prayed, out loud and specifically, about what you had just read. I never got the hang of that bit. I would have had no particular problem with publicly confessing my sins, but the whole father-god-please-bless-the-meeting-and-watch-over-our-sister-with-flu thing I found (and find) mortifying.

I am rather on board with C.S Lewis who said that his great spiritual moments were more likely to come when studying a difficult theological tome, dictionary or concordance on his desk, cup of tea in his hand, pipe between his teeth. 

I named a Dungeons & Dragons fanzine after one of C.S Lewis's characters. You probably knew that.

I don't know if English Literature teachers thought that writing "irony" in the margins helped one understand Miss Austen's stories; or if Miss Austen wrote stories mainly so students could write "irony" in the margins of them. I think that some Christian Union cell group facilitators really did think that the main reason Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations was so that the Christian Union could have a bible study group about it. One or two Dungeons & Dragons players honestly thought that fighting 2D6 1D8HP Orcs (AC 4) was a way of interacting with Jungian archetypes; channelling the power of Story, descending into the pit of purgatory and confronting our dark sides. Come to think of it, this was probably what the Christian Union had in mind when they said we were Satanists. They actually probably had a point. 

But the process was more important than the object. Writing good lit crit was more important than enjoying Troilus and Cressida. Fortunately. Having a powerful Bible Study Meeting was more important that actually understanding the book of Ezekiel. And pushing metal figures around sheets of squared paper was obviously the most important thing in the world. 

The activities were good improving uplifting civilising spiritualising things to do. The texts themselves were only a prop.

I hardly ever played actual D&D, incidentally, but most of the punters won't have heard of CoC or Jorune. By no means all the Christian Union believed in the Satanic Panic, although some undoubtedly did. Some of them definitely thought that C.S Lewis wasn't a true Christian because of the Emeth thing. 

But this next bit is true. 

One week, the subject of our Bible study group was the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs is in the Old Testament. It is supposed to have been written by Solomon. Who was Wise. 

When we think of Solomon being Wise we probably think of the story of the baby. He's shrewd; he's clever; he second guesses the two mothers; he tricks the infiltrator into giving herself away; but he understands what it means to be a Mum. However, in the Ancient World, wisdom seems primarily to mean Common Sense. The wisdom of Solomon consists of thirty one chapters of common sense, and it's excruciating. Walk with the wise and become wise; walk with fools and become foolish. A wicked messenger brings trouble but an honest envoy brings healing. A wise son hears his father's instructions; a foolish one ignores his father's rebukes. Very true, doubtless, but not very inspiring to base a guided meditation on. 

So we are struggling a bit to find out how any of this Applies To Our Life today and in what way it is really all about Jesus. "Wisdom" does appear as a personified figure at the beginning of the book; calling out to people in markets and "the chief place of concourse" and complaining that people "set at nought all my counsel and would know of my reproof". So maybe Wisdom is Jesus, and Jesus is therefore the subject of the book? But Solomon annoyingly presents Wisdom as female, which would have taken us down paths we probably wanted to avoid. I was very much hoping that the study hour would be up before we needed to hear everyone's detailed opinion on 13:24.

And then one of the people in the group: a very nice, open faced young Caribbean woman who was approximately seventy six times more pious, spiritual and Jesus-like than I am ever likely to be, volunteered. 

"Oh, this is all very well, but can't we do something more spiritual? Maybe we could all read John 3 instead?"

Which is why I don't think I could ever write about John's Gospel.