Friday, July 08, 2022

There was a man sent by God, whose name was John.... (3)

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him
and saith, "Behold the Lamb of God,
which taketh away the sin of the world.
This is he of whom I said,
After me cometh a man which is preferred before me
for he was before me.
And I knew him not
but that he should be made manifest to Israel
therefore am I come baptizing with water."

And John bare record, saying,
"I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove,
and it abode upon him.
And I knew him not:
but he that sent me to baptize with water
the same said unto me,
Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending
and remaining on him
the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.
And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God."

Mark doesn't tell us if John the Baptist ever knew that Jesus was his successor. Matthew and Luke say directly that he wasn't quite sure. But John is clear that he knew him the moment he set eyes on him. John's says in his prologue that John the Baptist makes it possible for everyone in the world to believe in the Light of God. John the Baptist himself now says that the purpose of his ministry was to make Jesus manifest. If not for the Baptiser, Jesus would be invisible. Hidden. Secret.

John says that Jesus is the one who will outrank him. He says he is the one who baptises with the spirit, and that he is the Son of God. And he adds a new title, not used by anyone else: he calls Jesus God's lamb.

The point of lambs is not that they are meek and mild. The point of lambs is not that they follow small girls to school even if it is against the rules. The point of lambs is not that you can snip nice wool off them. The point of lambs is that they get slaughtered. Specifically, the point of lambs is that they are slaughtered on alters. "Behold the lamb of God" means "Look, God's sacrificial victim." It doesn't mean anything else.

In Mark, the descent of the dove is a mythological event, as a result of which, at some level, Jesus becomes the Son of God. But for John, it is a signal, which tips-off John the Baptist to Jesus's identity. And there is no divine announcement. There doesn't need to be. God has already told John that the person who the dove lands on is the One. The dove and the divine voice have become the same thing. It is possible, that with all the talk of the Word of God, John thinks it would be confusing to have God speaking actual words.

So. God gave John a secret sign. John knows who Jesus is. But does anyone else?

again the next day after John stood
and two of his disciples;
and looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, "Behold the Lamb of God!"
and the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.

Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them,
"What seek ye?"
They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,)
"Where dwellest thou?"
He saith unto them, "Come and see".
They came and saw where he dwelt
and abode with him that day
for it was about the tenth hour.
One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him,
was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother.
He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him,
"We have found the Messias" which is, being interpreted, the Christ.
And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said,
"Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas," which is by interpretation, A stone.

The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee
and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, "Follow me."
Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.
Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him,
"We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write,
Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."
And Nathanael said unto him,
"Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?"
Philip saith unto him, "Come and see."
Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him,
"Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!"
Nathanael saith unto him, "Whence knowest thou me?"
Jesus answered and said unto him,
"Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee."
Nathanael answered and saith unto him,
"Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel."
Jesus answered and said unto him,
"Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou?
thou shalt see greater things than these."
And he saith unto him,
"Verily, verily, I say unto you,
Hereafter ye shall see heaven open,
and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man"

Everyone who likes Beatle music knows the story about how John Lennon met Paul McCartney. Lennon's ramshackle skiffle band persuaded the local vicar to let them do a set at the church fete; fifteen year old McCartney was in the audience; and approached Lennon in the hall after the show; Lennon was impressed that McCartney knew the chords and the words of all the rock and roll songs, and invited him to join the band.

Very sadly, Mark Lewisohn, who has spoken to everyone who ever knew a Beatle and has read every interview ever published is pretty certain this isn't true. McCartney was at the fete, certainly, but he knew Lennon already and was aware of the band.

In a sense, though, it doesn't matter. When John met Paul is still a momentous moment in the history of popular culture, and the village fete myth encapsulates it. But "two lads from the same town who both liked the same things bumped into each other a few times" is much more how things happen in the world.

Everyone knows the story about how Jesus met Peter and Andrew, and James and John. It's the story that Mark tells. Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist. He goes into the wilderness and spends forty days fasting and being tempted. Then he heads home to Galilee. He sees four fishermen by the lake: two of them mending their nets, two of them actually fishing. Out of the blue, and without preamble, he tells then to follow him; and they do.

It's a good story. It sets up the Galilean scene. It sticks in the mind. It works quite well as a metaphor -- catching fish, evangelising lost souls. 

But, says John, it didn't happen like that at all.

According to John, what actually happened is that the day after Jesus's baptism, John the Baptist points Jesus out to Andrew -- and to someone else as well. Andrew and the Other Person spend the day with Jesus; and then Andrew goes and tells his brother Simon about him. Simon comes and meets Jesus; and Jesus gives him the nickname Peter. Then Jesus finds someone called Phillip for himself, and Phillip goes and tells someone called Nathaniel. Nathaniel doesn't believe that Messiahs come from Nazareth and Jesus compliments him on his frankness. This is enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus is the Messiah after all. There's a kind of warm humour in this passage; one of the few times we hear Jesus's ordinary voice. It has a kind of ironic twinkle, doesn't it? "You don't think I'm the Messiah because of where I come from, and aren't afraid to say so! Well, good for you!" "Is that all it took for you to change your mind? Well, you ain't seen nothing yet!"

There is no possible ambiguity here: John is telling a different story. Andrew and the Other One are not fishermen: not at the time they meet Jesus. In fact, no-one mentions fishing until the very last chapter of the book. They are introduced to us as disciples of John.

The action takes place on the day after Jesus's baptism, and then on the following day. Jesus has certainly not been fasting for forty days. There is no wiggle room: Mark says that the Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. To make matters worse, Mark says that Jesus headed out to Galilee after that John was put in prison; John specifically says that at the time of Jesus interview with Nicodemus in Chapter 3 John was not yet cast into prison.

It takes place in the Judean wilderness, where John has been baptising. Jesus has been there for a while: long enough to have something that can be referred to as a dwelling-place. We are told that after the calling of the initial five disciples, Jesus is planning to "set out" to Galilee. The next chapter begins with the famous wedding at Cana-of-Galilee: it takes then three days to get there, which is about right. Nathaniel, the fifth disciple, is later said to come from Cana himself: maybe it was his invite and Jesus was the plus-one. But everyone is back in Judea in Chapter 3. [NOTE 1]

John's version is, on the face of it, more believable than Mark's. More messy. Some of John the Baptist's followers break away from his group and become the core of the new Jesus movement. John the Baptist introduces Jesus to Andrew and Andrew introduces him to Simon. Word gets round. Billy Graham used to encourage people to bring members of their family to his revival meetings: he called this Operation Andrew. The Scottish Tourist Board says that Andrew going and finding his brother represents a sort of pro-active, go-getting attitude which you'd expect from their Patron Saint.

Now, bear with me. There is a really tiny, picky point which may possibly give us the clue to what is going on.

John takes the trouble to tell us that John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to two of his disciples. He tells us that one of them had the very good name Andrew. But he does not tell us the name of the other one.

Now, as we have seen, John's Gospel is written by (or based closely on the testimony of) "the disciple who Jesus loved in the highest and deepest sense". Nearly everyone agrees that the particularly beloved disciple was John. But John is never mentioned by name in the Gospel.

So is it not highly probable that the Other Disciple is John himself?

But if that is true, note what follows.

God arranged a secret signal so John the Baptist would know who the Messiah was. John does indeed see the signal: he -- and so far only he -- knows who Jesus is.

Who does John the Baptist tell?

He tells two disciples: Andrew and the Other One.

And The Other One is now telling the story. And the place he starts from is the Testimony of John the Baptist. He starts by saying that if not for John, we wouldn't know who Jesus was.

We know that in Mark's Gospel, Jesus's identity is a secret. I have speculated that, when Mark was writing, it was still a matter of conjecture and controversy. Mark's Gospel starts by throwing down a theological gauntlet. Not John, not a prophet, not Elijah. Here is the good news that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.

Just suppose...

Just suppose that John's Gospel was speaking to that same world. A world in which the meaning of Jesus's ministry and the catastrophe of the crucifixion was still hotly contested. A world in which claims of prophet-hood and Messiah-hood and Elijah-hood hovered around both Jesus and John.

And let's also suppose that Matthew has acknowledged a very real problem. John's baptism of Jesus could have a very clear, very non-theological meaning. 

Perhaps Jesus came after John the Baptist in a very literal sense. Perhaps he was one of John the Baptist's followers; one of this disciples. A prominent one. One that people had heard of. One who formed a breakaway group with a core of five of John the Baptist's disciples. But still a follower.

Mark says that Peter discovered the great secret; and that God confirmed it, up on the mountain, to three about of twelve disciples, and forbad them from talking about it while Jesus was alive.

What if John is making a similar claim?

You remember John the Baptist? The very famous baptiser who lost his head? And Jesus, his follower, who came to an even worse end? Well, I'm going to tell you what John the Baptist told me about Jesus. And once you know what John the Baptist told me, we can attend to the life of Jesus, and it will make sense. But it wouldn't make sense without John the Baptist.

That's why the story has to start with John the Baptist. No-one else knew. It was a secret. But John the Baptist let the dove out of the bag. He told John the Evangelist. And now John the Evangelist is telling us.

[NOTE 1] This is your periodic reminder that Judea, Samaria and Galilee are three separate provinces; and although the inhabitants are all descendants of Jacob and believers in the Torah, when the text talks about Jews, it means specifically Judeans.

No comments: