Thursday, July 07, 2022

There was a man sent by God whose name was John (2)

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

"John came as a witness, to testify about the light....

"John testified about [Jesus] saying....

"Now, this is John's testimony...."

It is incredibly confusing that the book we know as John's Gospel attaches such central importance to a man named John. A naive reader -- me for example -- could easily run away with the idea that the book we are reading is John the Baptist's testimony: that "The Good News According To John" is "The Good News Proclaimed By John the Baptist."

That's not what the title means. The text claims to have been written by a figure called "the disciple who Jesus loved". Indeed, the Fourth Gospel is the only "life of Jesus" that directly claims to have been written by someone who was there.

There have been way-out theories suggesting that this Beloved Disciple was Lazarus or Thomas or Peter or (inevitably) Mary Magdalene. But everyone sensible has always taken it to mean John the brother of James. There is reasonably good historical evidence for thinking that this John was still alive at the end of the first century: we have texts by people who knew him, or who knew people who knew him. By the end of the second century, lists of approved Christian texts were referring to this fourth Gospel as The Book Of John. [NOTE 1]

So: why attach so much importance to John the Baptist? Mary and Peter and Thomas and Lazarus and the Beloved Disciple are all going to appear in John's book. They all knew Jesus and witnessed miracles and encountered him after the Resurrection. What makes John the Baptist's witness statement so crucial?

SPOILER: I don't know. 

John, like Matthew and Luke, gives us a prologue before he starts to tell the story of John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke go back thirty years and tell us about the birth and childhood of Jesus. John starts a good deal further back.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him
and without him was not any thing made that was made
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness;
and the darkness comprehended it not.

"In the beginning" [en arche] are, of course, the first words of the book of Genesis. "In-the-beginning" is the Hebrew title of that book. In the first creation story, God speaks the universe into being, and as everyone knows, his first creative words are "Let there be light." It is hard not to think that John is drawing a connection between the word which God spoke, the light which God created and the life which came from it. And it is impossible not to understand that in spiritual terms. There is no way of saying "light" without also saying "knowledge" and "goodness"; there is no way of saying "darkness" without also saying "ignorance" and "evil". [NOTE 2]

We probably don't need to over-think whether "In the beginning was the Word" means "The Word, like God, has always existed" or "When God created the universe, the very first thing he cared was the Word"-- although if you are in the habit of opening the door to Jehovah's Witnesses it is helpful to have a strong opinion on that point. English translations offer "When all things began, the Word already was", "Before the World was created, the Word already existed", and "The Word was first" as improvements.

Our lovely lilting Authorised Version says "The light shineth in darknness, and the darkness comprehended it not": but the Greek seems to say something more like "the darkness didn't capture it" or "the darkness didn't overcome it". It's the word used when the evil spirit took hold of the possessed man and slammed him against the wall; and when the authorities took a woman in the act of adultery. The New English Bible is uncharacteristically helpful in proposing "the darkness has never mastered it". "Grasped" might be another possibility.

So, there is John's prologue. First comes God; then comes God's word; then comes life; then comes light. And then, rather surprisingly and skipping over quite a lot of history, comes John the Baptist.

There was a man sent from God,
whose name was John.
the same came for a witness
to bear witness of the Light
that all men through him might believe
he was not that Light,
but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

I remember, some time ago, Ship of Fools (an irreverent Anglican magazine) pointed out a fundamentalist website that laid out the entire "Biblical" history of the universe, from its creation in 6004 BC to the end of the world, real soon now, as a time line. Ship of Fools noted wryly that between the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 absolutely nothing happened. I can't help thinking that John has done something similar here. God creates the logos. The logos creates the universe. From the logos comes life and light. There's a battle between light and dark, but dark can never win. And then a man in a rough loincloth turns up in the desert and starts shouting at people.

For Mark, John is the forerunner of Jesus, no more, no less. For Matthew, he is the proclaimer of the Kingdom and the foreteller of future judgement. For Luke, he's a preacher of sound morals. That's what he is in Josephus, as well: a preacher of righteousness. 

But in John...

In John he's the biggest thing, almost the only thing, to have happened since God created the universe. He is the means by which the human race perceives the Divine Light.

I can't see any other way of reading it. There is a cosmic light, which shines on everyone, but we are only aware of it because of John the Baptist. Even if we tone it down a bit, it is hardly less shocking. 
The only reason we know that Jesus, in some way, is the cosmic light is because of John's testimony. 

"First there was the Teaching. The Teaching created the Universe. The Teaching contained Life. Life contained Light. The Dark Side couldn't understand The Light, or put it out. Then this guy John arrives, in order to tell people about the cosmic Light and allow people to believe in it. And get this -- keep this very straight -- whatever you may have heard, that guy was not the Cosmic Light that preceded the creation of the universe. Definitely not. What he definitely was was the one who revealed the cosmic Light. Because of him, everyone in the world is able to perceive it."

To which one is inclined to say, a trifle irreverently -- you what? 

The other three Gospels all agree that John the Baptist said that he would have a successor, and that that successor would be greater than him. John clearly recognises the centrality of this saying. It's a single verse that stands for the whole of John the Baptist's teaching. It is so important that, like the Bellman, he quotes it three times.

John bare witness of him, and cried, saying,
"This was he of whom I spake,
He that cometh after me is preferred before me:
for he was before me."

John answered them, saying,
"I baptize with water:
but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not.
He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me,
whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose."

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith...
"This is he of whom I said,
After me cometh a man which is preferred before me:
for he was before me....
....the same is he that baptiseth with the Holy Ghost"

It's quite an odd technique. First he tells us that John's words applied to Jesus. Then he tells the story of how John first spoke these words. And finally he tells the story of how John first said that the words applied to Jesus.

"Who was Jesus?" "The one John was talking about when he said his successor would surpass him."

"What did John say?" "He said that his successor would surpass him".

"What did John say about Jesus?" "He said 'This is who I meant when I said my successor would surpass me'".

This really only makes sense if John the Baptist's prophecy was pretty well-known when John was writing, but Jesus's identity was still a mystery -- or at any rate, the subject of some controversy.

"Remember what John said? The prophecy about the successor, and the spirit baptism, and the shoelaces? Well, hold on to your hats: I am going to tell you who he was talking about....."

I think we can safely say that "he that cometh after me is preferred before me" is a simple paraphrase of "after me cometh one mightier than I". Perhaps John didn't like the word mighty. Too much like physical strength. Maybe he just remembered it differently, or something got lost in translation. 

But the "for he was before me" part is unique to this Gospel. It links John the Baptist's saying back to John's prologue. 

Is John adding "he was before me" as a commentary? "John was right to say that Jesus is more important than him, because, as I've shown, Jesus existed before he was even born?" 

Or is John remembering something that John the Baptist actually said? In which case John's prologue could be the result of many years pondering what on earth he could have meant.

And this is the record of John,
when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him,
'Who art thou? '
And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, "I am not the Christ."
And they asked him, "What then? Art thou Elias?"
And he saith, "I am not."
"Art thou that prophet?"
And he answered, "No."
Then said they unto him, "Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? "
He said, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias."
And they which were sent were of the Pharisees.
And they asked him, and said unto him,
"Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?"
John answered them, saying, "I baptize with water:
but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not;
He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me,
whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose."

Matthew says that Pharisees came to be baptised by John the Baptist; but John the Baptist yelled at them and sent them away. Luke says that the ordinary people wondered if John was the Messiah. John conflates the two stories. The Pharisees do indeed come to John the Baptist; but to ask him questions, not to be dipped. John the Baptist is fairly polite to them. But the question they ask is the one the Common People asked in Luke: "Are you the Messiah".

Again: in Mark's Gospel is doesn't immediately occur to anyone that Jesus could be the Messiah. It's a secret. In John, its the very first thing which occurs to the Pharisees: if someone is preaching and dipping, they are probably the Messiah. (And if he's not the Messiah, then maybe he's a very naughty the Prophet Elijah, or some other Prophet: which are the same things which the People thought that Jesus might be.) [NOTE 3]

In Luke, the conversation goes:

"Are you the Messiah?"
"I'm baptising with water, but there's someone coming much greater than me."

In John it is slightly different:

"Are you the Messiah?"
"Definitely not."
"Who are you then?"
"I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness."
"In that case, why are you baptising"
"I'm baptising with water, but there's someone else who's much greater than me."

"I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness..." and "I'm baptising with water..." are both direct quotes from Mark. But John has again changed the context and modulated their meaning. John the Baptist quoted Isiah in response to a question about whether he was the Messiah. John the Baptist said he wasn't fit to tie Jesus shoes in response to a question about whether he was the Messiah.

The focus is narrowing. If John knows that John the Baptist told soldiers to make do with their pay and that he chastised the King for marrying the wrong lady, he doesn't mention it. Not being the Messiah is the whole point of John. 

[NOTE 1] As we have established, Greek had a number of different words for 'love': and 'the disciple who Jesus loved' is definitely not 'the disciple who Jesus was in love with'. Did you know that the writer of Holy Blood and Holy Grail also created the Yeti?

[NOTE 2]  As we have established, the name of the first woman was Hawwa, which we have corrupted to Eve. The name literally means "life", and some texts have given her the Greek name Zoe.

[NOTE 3] Mark and Luke think that Jesus strongly implied that John the Baptist was Elijah. Matthew says that he said so directly. John seems to say that the true Elijah denies his Elijahood.

No comments: