Study for Easter Sunday (John 11:50-52)

For the three days of Easter (Sunday-Monday-Tuesday) I will be posting three daily notes each day—morning, afternoon, and evening. The morning note will continue (and conclude) the current series of daily notes on the “Son of Man Sayings of Jesus”. The afternoon note will provide a brief study on one of the post-resurrection appearance episodes in the Gospels of Luke and John. The evening note will examine key passages in the Gospel of John involving the theme of resurrection.

In the liturgical tradition, Easter celebration begins with the night office (or service) on Saturday evening, set in the time of darkness (symbolizing the death and burial of Jesus) prior to coming light (of Jesus’ resurrection) on Sunday morning. This evening service on Holy Saturday is known as the Easter Vigil, as believers keep watch (as in the parable of the virgins, Matt 25:1-13, etc), waiting for the moment commemorating the return to life of Jesus our Savior.

Today, on Saturday evening, I wish to offer a short study that deals with the death of Jesus.

John 11:50-52

On this Easter Sunday, in celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, I will be looking at what I have always considered one of the most extraordinary passages in the Gospels dealing with the salvific effect of Jesus’ sacrificial death. It is found in John 11:45-54, especially the prophetic statement(s) made by the High Priest Caiaphas in verses 50-52. It is an example of supreme irony in the Gospel narrative—the words of Jesus’ enemies unwittingly become a prophecy of the true effect and result of Jesus’ death.

This tradition is found in no other Gospel, and critical commentators would tend to question its historicity. However, there is some basis for the idea that High Priest could, and would, utter prophecies regarding events that would take place during the year—cf. Josephus, Antiquities 11.327, 13.299. As an anointed figure, in the service, ideally, of God and the Israelite/Jewish religion, the prophetic gift was a natural characteristic of the Priesthood, in terms of the phenomenology of religion. Whether or not the Gospel writer would recognize this gift in Caiaphas, he interprets the High Priest’s words ultimately as prophetic, though in a way, and at a level of meaning, different than Caiaphas intended.

We should distinguish between the statement by Caiaphas in verse 50, and the explanation by the Gospel writer in vv. 51-52 which summarizes an earlier prophecy. The setting of the utterance in v. 50 involves the effect of Jesus’ miracles on the people, which is especially significant in the context of the raising of Lazarus (vv. 1-44). The concern expressed by the Jewish Council in verse 48 is that people will come to trust in Jesus in greater numbers because of these miraculous signs (cf. 7:31; 10:25-26, 37-38; 12:18-19, etc). Regarding Jesus as a miracle-working Messianic Prophet, the popular support could easily create such disturbance and prove a sufficient threat to Roman authority that it would cause the Romans to act. Josephus describes a number of such would-be Messianic figures in the 1st century prior to the war of 66-70 (Antiquities 18.85; 20.97, 169-72; War 7.437ff; cf. also Acts 5:36; 21:38; Mark 13:5-6, 21-22 par). In the face of such danger, Caiaphas gives his advice in verse 50—

“and you do not take account [i.e. consider, realize] that it bears together (well) for us that one man should die away over [i.e. on behalf of] the people, and (that) the whole nation should not be destroyed”

i.e., it is better for one man to die rather than the entire nation. The wording suggests a kind of substitution—sacrifice this one would-be Messiah for the good of the nation. This is straightforward enough, but what follows in vv. 51-52 gives much greater scope to this saying. The explanation (presumably by the Gospel writer) refers to a prophecy given by Caiaphas in his role as High Priest that year. According the narrative, he prophesied

“that Yeshua was about to die away over [i.e. on behalf of] the nation—and not over the nation [i.e. Judea] only, but (so) that even the offspring of God having been [i.e. which had been] scattered he might bring together into one”

According to this amazing prophecy, Jesus’ death would somehow result in the entire Jewish people—including those in the Diaspora—being reunited. It is impossible to recover the precise meaning of this historical tradition, i.e. the prophecy as Caiaphas might have uttered it. Early Christian tradition, as represented by the Gospel of John, interprets it in terms of Jesus’ death, in a new and unique way. Let us examine briefly the key words and phrases in vv. 51-52.

Dying “over” [u(pe/r] the people/nation. We find this idea essentially in the Gospel tradition, in Jesus’ words of institution at the Last Supper (Mark 14:24; par Lk 22:19-20 MT):

“This is my blood of the agreement [i.e. covenant] th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many”

A similar idea expressed in Mk 10:45 uses the preposition a)nti/ (i.e. “in exchange for”) instead of u(pe/r. The preposition u(pe/r should be understood both in its literal sense (blood poured over/upon people) and in the figurative sense (i.e. “on behalf of”). Jesus’ death is presented as a sacrificial offering comparable to that by which the (old) Covenant was established in Exod 24:5-8. The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ death similarly in terms of a sacrificial offering over people—cf. 2:9; 5:1; 6:20; 7:25, 27; 9:7, 24; 10:12—specifically an offering on behalf of sin.

In the Gospel of John we also find the expression in the context of Jesus’ sacrificial death—i.e. 6:51; 10:11, 15; and the associated tradition that believers should follow his example (13:37-38; 15:13). The closest parallel to Caiaphas’ prophecy is the illustrative language used by Jesus in 10:11, 15 (cf. below).

“Offspring of God” [te/kna qeou=]. While Caiaphas presumably would have used this expression to refer to Israelites/Jews as the “children of God”, for the Gospel writer (and other early Christians) it had a deeper meaning, as we see clearly in Jn 1:12. It is used specifically as a title of believers, indicating their spiritual status, in the first Johannine letter (3:1-2, 10; 5:2), and similarly in the Pauline writings (Rom 8:16, 21; 9:8; Phil 2:15, cf. also Eph 5:1, 8).

The verbs diaskorpi/zw and suna/gw. These two verbs must be taken in tandem, whereby Jesus’ death will “bring together” (vb. suna/gw) the ones who have been “scattered throughout” (vb. diaskorpi/zw). Caiaphas certainly means this in the sense of reuniting the Jewish people (Israel) that has been scattered throughout the Greco-Roman world (and other nation)—i.e. the Diaspora or “Dispersion”. The Old Testament Prophetic background for this can be found in passages such as Isa 11:12; Mic 2:12; Jer 23:3; 31:8-11; Ezek 34:16, etc. While early Christian thought retained something of this theme (cf. Acts 1-2), it is understood in terms of Israelites and Jews responding to the Gospel and coming to faith in Jesus. Yet, the mission to the Gentiles also meant that the concept had to be extended—to all believers throughout the world, Jew and Gentile both.

In the Gospel tradition, the verb diaskorpi/zw occurs once in connection with Jesus’ death—in Mk 14:27 par (citing Zech 13:7), referring to the persecution which the disciples will face following his death (cp. Acts 5:37). The verb suna/gw (from which the noun sunagwgh/, “synagogue” is derived) occurs elsewhere in the Gospel of John at 4:36, and, most notably, in the miraculous Feeding episode (6:12-13). In particular, the motif of the gathering together of the fragments came to be interpreted by early Christians as a distinct sacramental (Eucharistic) image expressing the unity of believers. This is clear in Didache 9:4, which seems to contain an allusion to Jn 11:52:

“Just as this broken (bread) was scattered throughout [dieskorpisme/non] upon the mountains above, and (then) was brought together [sunaxqe/n] and came to be one [e%n], so may your ekklesia [i.e. Church] be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom”

Thus, we may say that the true meaning of Caiaphas’ prophecy is that Jesus’ sacrificial death will bring all believers together, at a level of fundamental and essential unity.

“One” [ei!$, e%n]. This aspect of unity is confirmed by the last word of the prophecy—literally, “one” (ei!$, n. e%n). While it may be understood in the simple sense of a people united as a community, it has a far deeper (theological) meaning in the Gospel of John. There are two interrelated themes in the Gospel: (1) the unity of believers in Christ, and (2) our spiritual participation in the unity shared by the Son (Jesus) and the Father. Both themes are prevalent throughout the Fourth Gospel (esp. the Last Discourse, chapters 14-17), and involve use of the specific word ei!$ (“one”):

    1. Unity of Believers in Christ—Jn 10:16; 17:11, 21-23
    2. Unity of Father and Son (and Spirit)—1:3; 10:30; cf. also 1 Jn 5:8

Perhaps Jesus’ statement in 10:14-16 best approximates the essential message of Caiaphas’ prophecy (verbal parallels in bold italics):

“I am the excellent (Shep)herd, and I know the (sheep that are) mine and the (ones that are) mine know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I set down my soul [i.e. lay down my life] over the sheep. And I hold other sheep which are not out of this (sheep)fold, and it is necessary for me to bring them (also), and they will hear my voice—and there will come to be one herd [i.e. flock] (of sheep) and one (Shep)herd.”

Yeshua the Anointed: Conclusion

Throughout this series we have explored the various aspects of Messianic thought which would have been current in Judaism at the time of Jesus and the New Testament. In the period c. 150 B.C. to 100 A.D., as we have seen, there was not a single fixed idea of the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ); rather the term and title could refer to several different conceptions of a Messianic figure. Here, in this concluding article of the series, I will summarize each of the main figure-types which have been discussed, and how they relate to Jesus.

Prophet

In the Gospel Tradition, especially in the Synoptic Gospels, during the period of his early life and ministry (in Galilee), Jesus is identified primarily with the figure of Anointed Prophet. Indeed, where the title “the Anointed (One)” [o( xristo/$] is used in these passages, it may be that a Prophet was originally in mind. There were three different Prophetic figure-types attested in Jewish writings of the period—(1) Elijah, (2) Moses, and (3) the Anointed herald/prophet of Isaiah 61; for more, cf. Part 2.

  1. The association of an eschatological/Messianic Prophet with Elijah comes primarily from Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6. The Gospels and early Christian tradition ultimately identified John the Baptist with this Elijah who is to come (o( e)rxome/no$). However, there is some indication that, in the earliest strands of Gospel tradition, Jesus was identified with this figure. The miracles of Jesus seem to reflect the Elijah/Elisha traditions. For the relevant passages, see the discussion in Part 3 and the supplemental note. The most relevant text from Qumran in this regard is 4Q521, which appears to combine aspects of the Elijah-tradition with the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61.
  2. The Moses-tradition stems directly from the promise in Deuteronomy 18:15-19, regarding the rise of a “Prophet like Moses” (cf. also Deut 34:10ff). By the 1st century B.C., this passage had come to be interpreted in an eschatological sense; the Qumran Community expected the appearance of an end-time Prophet, according to the Moses-tradition. Deut 18:15-19 is applied directly to Jesus in Acts 3:22-23, and there are other associations with Moses in early Christian tradition as well (cf. in Part 3). The Moses-figure emphasizes teaching and instruction in the Law (cf. below).
  3. It is the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61:1ff that Jesus specifically identifies himself with in the Synoptic Gospels (Luke 4:18-20; 7:19-23 par). There are distinctive Messianic parallels in the Qumran texts 4Q521 and 11QMelch(izedek) [11Q13]. In some ways, this figure combines aspects of the Elijah and Moses types—miracles and teaching/proclamation.

It is perhaps the Transfiguration scene which best illustrates Jesus’ fulfillment of the Anointed Prophet figure, as he stands between Elijah and Moses—the two greatest Prophetic figures of the Old Testament and Israelite history. In many ways, the Transfiguration episode marks the conclusion of the period of Jesus’ (Galilean) ministry, and the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem, according to the Synoptic narrative. It also follows directly after Peter’s confession (“You are the Anointed One…”). In another way, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem fulfills Malachi 3:1, in its original context, where the “Messenger” was not a human prophet, but a Divine/Heavenly being representing YHWH (“the Lord”) himself.

Teacher

The idea of an eschatological Teacher is especially prominent in the Qumran texts. The leading/founding figure of the Community was called “the Teacher of Righteousness”, and the (priestly) leaders in the Community follow his teaching and example. There was also the expectation for another “Teacher of Righteousness”, a Messianic figure who would appear at the end-time. This figure is likely identical with the “Interpreter of the Law”—the authoritative teaching in the Community being more or less synonymous with instruction in the Torah. The role of this figure overlaps with that of two other Messianic figure-types—the Prophet like Moses, and the Anointed Priest (cf. below). Apart from a number of interesting parallels between the historical Teacher of Righteousness and Jesus, the Gospels clearly record that a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ ministry was his teaching. The best compendium of Jesus’ teaching in the (Synoptic) Gospels is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, par Luke 6:20-49), which includes, as a central feature, instruction regarding the Law (Matt 5:17-48), and so also in a number of other passages. Also with Messianic implications is Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom (of God). For more regarding these themes, cf. Parts 4 and 5. Perhaps the most relevant text from Qumran, which offers a Messianic parallel with Jesus, is 4Q541 (see esp. fragment 9).

King (Davidic Ruler)

It was the idea of a future King/Ruler from the line of David, who would appear at the end-time, which came to dominate Messianic thought, eventually becoming synonymous with the title “Anointed One” (Messiah) in Jewish tradition. This figure type ultimately derives from expressions in the Old Testament of God’s covenant with David, and the promise that the kingship will remain with his descendants (2 Sam 7:11-17; Psalms 89, 132; Isa 9:7; 11:1-9, etc), which was transformed during the exile into a future hope and expectation (Jer 23:5-6; 33:14-22; Ezek 34:23-24; 37:24-25). By the 1st century B.C., we find clearly expressed the idea of a coming Davidic Ruler who will subdue and judge the nations (using language from Psalm 2 and Isa 11:1-9) and restore the people of Israel, establishing the Kingdom (of God) on earth. This is best seen in the 17th and 18th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon, but the essential matrix of images and ideas is found in numerous texts from Qumran as well as other Jewish writings from the 1st century B.C./A.D (e.g., 2 Baruch, 2/4 Esdras). For more on the Old Testament and Jewish background, cf. Part 6.

Interestingly, there is some ambiguity in the application of this Messianic figure to Jesus in the Gospels and early Christian tradition. To begin with, it does not appear prominently at all in the Gospel record of the period of Jesus’ ministry (cf. above). Only with the journey to Jerusalem, and specifically, the “Triumphal Entry” into the city, does the idea of Jesus as King and Davidic Ruler come clearly into view. Throughout the Passion narrative, the title “Anointed One” unquestionably refers to a Messianic King, and there are numerous allusions to David (and the Davidic Psalms) in the fabric of the narrative. Ultimately Jesus was executed as “King of the Jews”—that is, for claiming to be a king, though there is little evidence in the Gospels that he ever did so. His responses to the Sanhedrin and Pilate, as they have come down to us, are ambiguous (cf. esp. Lk 23:67ff; Jn 18:33-37), though his answer to the High Priest’s question in Mark 14:60ff would indicate an affirmative claim. Only in the Triumphal Entry scene do we see Jesus in anything like the role of a king, but even there it is the surrounding crowds and the Gospel narrator(s) who make the specific associations with Psalm 118:25-26 and Zech 9:9ff. For more detail on these passages, cf. Part 7.

The idea of Jesus as the Anointed Davidic Ruler and the “Son of David” came to be prominent in the earliest Christian tradition, as expressed in (1) the Infancy narratives, Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2, and (2) the preaching/proclamation of the Gospel in the book of Acts. Cf. also Romans 1:3, and the discussion in Part 8. Gradually, however, the specific identification began to disappear from Christian tradition; Jesus continued to be thought of as an exalted (Divine) King who would also appear at the end-time to judge the world, but the association with David is not emphasized much in the New Testament writings outside of the Gospels and Acts (cf. 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 3:7; 5:5; 22:16).

Priest

The figure of an Anointed Priest is known mainly from the Qumran texts, but is also attested (or implied) in several other Jewish writings of the 1st century B.C./A.D. It would seem that the Qumran Community was originally founded by priests, and that priests continued to serve the primarily leadership role. The historical Teacher of Righteousness was a priest, and doubtless this was understood of the eschatological Teacher/Interpreter as well (cf. above). In several passages, especially in the Community rule documents, we see expressed the idea(l) of dual-leadership, including the eschatological framework of and Anointed Priest along with an Anointed King/Prince. It was the Priest who had priority at Qumran, and this may partly reflect a reaction against the assumption of the High Priesthood by the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers in the 2nd century B.C. Several texts also suggest the tradition of a single (Messianic) Priest-King, and, in at least one document (11QMelch [11Q13]), Melchizedek serves as an eschatological and Messianic figure.

There is some evidence for priestly images and symbolism being applied to Jesus in the Gospels and early Christian tradition, but it is relatively slight. Indeed, there are only a handful of passages in the Gospels which could be said to depict Jesus in the role of a priest. The Temple “cleansing” scene, along with several of Jesus’ sayings regarding the Temple, may also be understood in a priestly context. More common is the image of Jesus as a sacrificial offering, especially the Passover Lamb in the Gospel of John (cf. also 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19). Only in the Letter to the Hebrews, do we find a developed conception of Jesus as a High Priest, who offers himself (his own blood) as sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people, drawing primarily upon the imagery associated with the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). Hebrews also draws heavily upon the figure of Melchizedek, who probably was understood as a divine/heavenly being, using him as the type or example, establishing the basis for the Priesthood of Jesus. For more on the subject, see throughout Part 9 as well as the supplemental study on Hebrews. In addition to 11QMelch, the text from Qumran which offers the most relevant parallels to Jesus is perhaps 4Q541.

Heavenly Judge/Deliverer (Son of Man)

The last Messianic figure-type is that of Heavenly Deliverer (and Judge), which parallels in many ways the Davidic Ruler type (cf. above); however, it derives from a separate tradition, that of Daniel 7:13-14, and similar thought underlying much of the book of Daniel. There divine/heavenly beings (i.e. Angels) serve in the role of end-time Ruler/Protector of the people of God. Two figures in particular stand out: (1) Michael the archangel (Dan 12:1, etc), and (2) the “one like a son of man” in Dan 7:13-14. On this latter passage, which proved to be so influential on Messianic thought in Judaism and early Christianity, cf. the supplemental study. The book of Daniel had a prominent place in the Qumran Community, and inspired a number of apocalyptic, eschatological “Pseudo-Daniel” texts. The most notable of these is the Aramaic document 4Q246, which was clearly influenced by Daniel 7; it describes the rise of a ruler (usually understood as a Messianic figure), using language and titles that have a remarkable correspondence to those applied to Jesus in Luke 1:32-35. Heavenly beings (Angels), particularly leaders such as Michael and/or the “Prince of Light”, played an important role in the eschatological and identity of the Qumran Community, which viewed itself as the righteous and holy ones on earth, parallel to the Holy Ones in heaven.

Daniel 7:13-14 and the title “Son of Man” were uniquely combined in the sayings and teachings of Jesus as preserved in the Gospel Tradition. On the study of these difficult and complex Son of Man sayings, cf. the supplemental note, as well as my series of Easter season notes. In terms of Jesus as the Messiah, there are three relevant strands of tradition represented by these Son of Man sayings:

    1. Sayings in which Jesus refers to his suffering, death (and resurrection), where, to some extent, “Son of Man” came to be treated as synonymous with “the Anointed (One)”
    2. The eschatological sayings of Jesus, where he identifies himself with a divine/heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”) who will appear at the end-time Judgment
    3. The early Christian tradition of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of God) following the resurrection

All three of these strands were woven into early Christian thought, and into the Christology of the New Testament. There are only two other writings from 1st century B.C./A.D. which evince a comparable Messianic figure either called “the Son of Man” or drawn clearly from Dan 7:13-14—the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71, early 1st c. A.D.?) and chapters 11-13 of the deutero-canonical 2/4 Esdras (late 1st c. A.D.). The Similitudes provide the closest parallel to Jesus, in that we find blended the idea of a (pre-existent) heavenly being (Son of Man, also called Anointed One, Elect One, Righteous One), and the ascension/exaltation of a human being (the righteous Enoch) to a heavenly position. For more on this subject, cf. Part 10.

The Christian Development of Messianic Thought

Despite the numerous parallels with the Qumran texts and other Jewish writings of the period, there was an altogether unique and original development of Messianic thought in early Christianity, centered on the person of Jesus. This must be seen by a careful study of all the relevant passages, as presented in the articles and notes throughout this series. Here, I would summarize the dynamic according to following points:

  • By at least the early 50s A.D., Jesus had come to be identified as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) so completely that it ceased to function as a distinct title and was rather assimilated as part of his name—i.e., “Yeshua Anointed” (Jesus Christ), “Anointed Yeshua” (Christ Jesus), or even simply “Anointed” (Christ).
  • Along with this, by the same time (50s A.D.), the association with a specific and traditional Messianic figure-type, especially that of Davidic Ruler, had generally disappeared from Christian thought. Similarly, the two other figure-types attested in the Gospel Tradition—Anointed Prophet, and Son of Man—disappeared almost completely from early Christianity. In particular, the title “Son of Man” virtually does not occur in the New Testament outside of Jesus’ own words in the Gospels.
  • Jesus’ identity as Messiah (Anointed One) came to be understood almost entirely in terms of his (sacrificial) death and resurrection. Rather than deliverance of Israel from the wicked nations (i.e. the traditional role of Messianic Ruler/Judge), the imagery is transformed to emphasize salvation from sin (and the Judgment to come). Apart from the possible parallels in the Qumran texts 11Q13 and 4Q541, it is hard to find anything quite like this in Jewish writings of the period. Paul deals extensively with the death of Jesus and its atoning/saving power, but generally without traditional Messianic language and symbolism. Of all the New Testament letters, it is perhaps Hebrews which best preserves these aspects of Messianic thought, though synthesized and expressed in a highly developed Christological framework. There is a similar blending of many Messianic symbols in the book of Revelation as well. For more on Jesus’ death and resurrection, cf. Part 11.
  • Jesus’ identity as the Messiah was utterly transformed by the increasing recognition and belief in his pre-existent Deity. Probably the earliest expression of this (by c. 60 A.D.) is the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 (cf. also Col 1:15-20), but the idea is found and/or suggested in a number of places in Paul’s letters (cf. also 1 Pet 1:20, etc). Hebrews brings together the (earlier) idea of Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God following the resurrection, with a belief in his pre-existent position as God’s Son, balancing the two concepts (see esp. Heb 1:1-4; 2:5-18; 5:5-10, etc). The pre-existence of Jesus, and his identity as God’s Son, is most prominent in the Gospel and First Letter of John. The Prologue to the Gospel (Jn 1:1-18) is probably the most sophisticated and developed Christological passage in the New Testament; however, the same basic ideas are expressed throughout the Gospel, especially in the great Discourses of Jesus. The Son of Man sayings in the Gospel of John draw upon the twin aspects of descent (incarnation and sacrificial death) and ascent (glorification through death and resurrection, return to the Father); for more on these sayings, cf. my recent note. For more on Jesus (and the Messiah) as Son of God, cf. Part 12.

Even though much traditional Messianic thought and language, which had once been applied to Jesus, gradually disappeared, or was transformed by the belief and theology of the early Church, the older forms were not entirely forgotten. Nor should they be by believers today. Indeed, a careful study of the Jewish writings of the period, along with an examination of the ways in which the ideas and symbols in them relate to Jesus and the development of the Gospel tradition, can be extremely valuable, providing insight into the New Testament writings and the beliefs of the earliest Christians. This need not change or alter our own beliefs about Jesus; rather, when approached with an open mind and heart, such study will certainly enhance and affirm true belief. It is hoped that this series of article has been, and may continue to be, of benefit of all who seek to study and understand the New Testament and the person of Christ.

Yeshua the Anointed: Suffering and Death of the Messiah

One final topic remains to be discussed in this series, in light of Jesus’ death—the idea of that the Messiah would suffer and be put to death. This was of vital importance to the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah, and appears to have been an entirely original Christian development of Messianic thought and belief. However, given the centrality of Jesus’ death in the early Gospel proclamation, to his identity as the “Anointed One”, as well as to the Christology of the New Testament as a whole, it is worth examining this aspect in relation to Messianic expectation of the period.

Fundamental to the Gospel Tradition are the three Passion predictions by Jesus, the first of which begins “it is necessary [dei=] for the Son of Man to suffer many things…” (Mark 8:31 par). In these, and other similar sayings by Jesus, he uses the expression “the Son of Man” in referring to himself; however, in Luke 24:26, 46, after the resurrection, this changes and “the Anointed (One) [o( xristo/$]” is used instead. Luke’s version of the 3rd Passion prediction includes the important addition—”all the (thing)s written through the Foretellers {Prophets} (regarding) the Son of Man will be completed”. This is the first occurrence in the Synoptic Tradition of the theme that Jesus’ death and resurrection has been foretold and/or prefigured in Scripture. It is found again (by Jesus) in Mark 9:13; 14:21, 49 pars; Matt 26:54; Luke 22:37, as well as being implied by the citations from Scripture in the Passion narrative—Mark 12:10; 14:27 pars; Matt 27:9-10; John 13:18; 15:25; 17:12; 19:24, 28, 36-37; 20:9; cf. also Mark 14:34 par and John 2:22. This becomes an important element of the early Christian witness, as recorded in Luke-Acts—cf. Luke 24:25-27, 44-49; Acts 1:16, 20; 3:18-24; 8:32-35; 10:39-43; 13:29-37; 17:2-3; 26:22-23.

The Scriptural Evidence

Where exactly was it foretold that the “Anointed One” (Messiah) would suffer and be put to death? We are not told which Scriptures Jesus “opened up” to his disciples (Lk 24:25-27, 44-46ff), but in an earlier note I provided a list of the most relevant candidates, based on evidence from the New Testament and early Christian tradition (cf. “He opened up to us the Scriptures”, soon to be posted here). It must be admitted, however, that it is difficult to find passages which clearly refer to the suffering and/or death of a Messianic figure. The only conceivable passage which actually uses the term “Anointed (one)” [j^yv!m*] is Daniel 9:26, where it is said that “(the) anointed (one) will be cut off and (there will be) nothing/no-one for him”. I have discussed this reference as part of a detailed note on Dan 9:24-27. It is by no means certain that j^yv!m* in vv. 25-26 denotes a Messiah as typically understood (cf. the introduction to this series for a definition); it is better to read it in the general sense of the person (king and/or high priest) who is serving as leader of the (Israelite/Jewish) people. However, there can be no doubt that, by the 1st century A.D., the prophecy of Dan 9:20-27 was being interpreted in an eschatological and Messianic sense (cf. the Qumran text 11QMelch [11Q13]), and that early Christians certainly would have applied it to Jesus, particularly in light of the allusion to Dan 9:27 in the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (Mark 13:14 par), even though the passage is not otherwise attested in the New Testament writings (but cf. 2 Thess 2:1-12). I find only two other Scriptures which could fairly be understood as referring to a Messianic figure:

  • Zechariah 12:10, interpreted as referring to the death (crucifixion) of Jesus in John 19:37; Rev 1:7, and see also Matthew’s version of the Son of Man saying in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Matt 24:30). In the original context, however, it is by no means clear that this refers to anything like a Messianic figure; also he was “stabbed/pierced” (rqd) more likely refers to someone slain by the sword, i.e. in battle, etc. Cf. below on the later Jewish tradition.
  • Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the famous “Suffering Servant” passage, which early on was interpreted by believers as referring to the suffering and death of Jesus, cf. the famous episode recorded in Acts 8:32-35 (and note the interesting critical question by the Ethiopian official in v. 34). In the Gospels, it is cited directly only at Matt 8:17, in the context of Jesus’ miracles, not his death; however, the Isaian passage likely influenced the way that the Passion narrative was told and understood, corresponding (rather clearly) in certain details to Isa 53:3-9. The identity of this Servant figure in Isaiah, in terms of its original context, continues to be debated by scholars and commentators.

It should be pointed out that neither of these passages appears to have been used or cited in the texts from Qumran; the surviving portions of the Commentary (pesher) on Isaiah do not cover 52:13-53:12. Nor would there seem to be any evidence for these Scriptures being interpreted in a Messianic sense prior to their use in the New Testament. as noted, there is an allusion to Dan 9:25 in 11QMelch, but with no suggestion of a Messianic figure suffering or dying; rather, it is the people who suffer, being held captive by the forces of wickedness (Belial), waiting for the announcement of salvation and deliverance by the “Anointed” One.

Jewish Tradition

Indeed, as most commentators today will admit, there does not appear to be any evidence for a suffering/dying Messiah in Jewish tradition before the time of Jesus and the New Testament writings. The earliest witness is probably to be found in the Dialogue with Trypho by Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century A.D.): §68, 90.1 (alluding to Isa 53:7), cf. also 36.1, 39.7. Scholars are, however, skeptical regarding the extent to which this “Trypho” accurately represents Jewish thought of the period. The theme is not really attested in Jewish writings until the later Rabbinic period (cf. the references in Strack-Billerbeck II.273-299), where two Messiahs are distinguished—a Messiah ben-David, and a Messiah ben-Joseph (or ben-Ephraim). In some passages the Messiah ben-David is said to suffer, but he does not die; it is the Messiah ben-Joseph who is said to die (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 1565-6). In the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sukkah 52), Zechariah 12:10 is interpreted as referring to the death of Messiah ben-Joseph, who is killed in battle. It has been suggested that this tradition is related to the defeat and death of the quasi-Messianic leader Bar-Kokhba during the second Jewish Revolt (132-135 A.D.), cf. Collins, p. 126. In the Aramaic Targum (Pseudo-)Jonathan, the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isa 52:13-53:12 is given a Messianic interpretation, though in such a way, it would seem, as to contrast with the typical Christian understanding—the sufferings of the Messiah represent the suffering of Israel. For more on this subject, cf. J. Klausner, The Messianic Idea in Israel (Allen and Unwin: 1956), esp. pages 483-501.

Occasionally, scholars have suggested that the idea of suffering/dying Messiah figure may be found (or at least implied) in several of the Qumran texts, e.g.:

  • 4Q285—In fragment 5, line 4 the text (partially restored) reads: […dywd j]mx hduh aycn wtymhw, which was originally understood by some scholars as “they will put to death the Prince of the Congregation, the Branc[h of David…]”. However, today there is virtually unanimous agreement that this is incorrect, and that it should be rendered “the Prince of the Congregation, the Branc[h of David] will put him to death…”. In other words, it is not the Messianic figure who is put to death, but rather he is the one who puts to death the leader of the Kittim—this is the most natural identification based on the context. The Kittim represent the (wicked) nations, and typically serves as a cipher for the Roman Empire. This text is now considered to be part of the War Scroll (1QM, 4QM); the passage in fragment 5 provides an interpretation of Isaiah 10:34-11:1ff (cf. 4QpIsa [4Q161] 8-10:2-9).
  • 4Q541—This text seems to refer to a Priestly figure. In fragment 9, it is said that “he will atone for all the children of his generation…”, which could easily be interpreted from a Christian standpoint; however, this does not reflect the sacrificial death of a Messiah, but rather the work of an ideal eschatological/Messianic Priest. It is primarily his word and teaching which “will burn in all the ends of the earth…” and cause darkness to “vanish from the earth”. Lines 5-7 indicate suffering of a sort, in terms of lying and disparaging opposition to his teaching. This very likely reflects the history and experience of the Qumran Community. There is a difficult and obscure section in fragment 24, which has been translated (as one of several possible renderings) “…do not afflict the weak by wasting or hanging… [Let] not the nail approach him” (cf. Collins, p. 125). It has been suggested that “the nail” is a reference to crucifixion, but even if this is correct, the passage scarcely refers to the crucifixion of a Messiah.
  • A number of “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot) are thought to have been composed by, or written from the standpoint of, the Teacher of Righteousness, and possibly describe sufferings that he experienced (cf. 1QH 7:10; 8:26-27, 35-36; 9). These hymns are written using a style and language similar to that of the Old Testament Psalmist; given that a number of OT Psalms were understood by Christians as Messianic, interpreted and applied to Jesus’ suffering and death (esp. Pss 22, 41, 69), it is not surprising that commentators might interpret the hymns in a similar manner in relation to the Teacher of Righteousness. Several other texts speak of persecution and opposition to the Teacher (and the Community), especially by the “Wicked Priest” and the “Man of the Lie”.

Outside of the New Testament, the only passage from the 1st century B.C./A.D. which refers to the Messiah dying is 2/4 Esdras 7:28-29. The core of this deutero-canonical text (chaps. 3-14) is Jewish, dating from the late 1st century A.D. However, there is no indication whatever that the Messiah suffers or is put to death; it seems to be a natural death, along with a return to heaven following his 400-year reign on earth (cf. also 2 Baruch 30:1). After his departure, there will be seven days of silence, followed by the resurrection and Last Judgment (vv. 30-43). There is, perhaps, a general parallel to Jesus, in his ascension (and subsequent return), and to the idea of a Messianic Kingdom on earth (Rev 20:1-6).

Somewhat more common in Jewish writings of the period is the idea that the sufferings of the righteous have a vicarious aspect, which may bring salvation and atonement to the people. This is expressed in passages such as 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 7:27-30; 17:19-22; among the passages from the Qumran texts that might be cited, note 1QS 5:6; 8:3f, 10; 9:4 (cf. H. Anderson, “4 Maccabees”, OTP 2:539). Messianic figures are often depicted as representatives or types of the righteous on earth, with roots going back into the Old Testament and ancient Israelite tradition, where the Anointed King (or Priest), who represents the people, and the righteous of Israel collectively, could both be referred to as God’s “Son”. Note also the precise parallel between the “Son of Man” and the people of God in Daniel 7:13ff, which proved to be so influential on Messianic thought. In the Similitudes of Enoch (1 En 37-71), the Messianic and heavenly Son of Man (also called the Righteous One), is the archetype for the righteous on earth.

Evidence from Jesus and the GospelS

If there were any doubt that the idea of a suffering/dying Messiah was generally unknown in the time of Jesus, one needs to look no further than the New Testament itself. I note the following evidence from the Gospels:

    • Peter’s reaction to the first Passion prediction by Jesus
    • Passages which indicate that the disciples did not understand that Jesus (the Son of Man, Messiah) had to suffer and die and then rise from the dead—Mark 9:32; Lk 9:45; 18:34; Jn 2:21-22; 12:16; 20:9
    • The confusion expressed by Jesus’ audience in John 12:33-34—note especially the expectation that the Anointed One (Messiah) will remain “into the Age” (i.e. forever).
    • Other passages in John which show confusion regarding the idea that Jesus must go away—Jn 8:21ff; 14:1-5; 16:16-19.
    • The taunts leveled at Jesus while on the cross, implying that the Messiah would not be allowed (or would not allow himself) to die that way—Mark 15:29-32 par; Matt 27:43; Luke 23:39ff.

More important is the way that Jesus emphasizes repeatedly, that was necessary for the Messiah (Jesus, the Son of Man) to suffer and die, and that this was foretold in the ScripturesMark 8:31 par; Mark 9:13; 14:21, 49 pars; Matt 26:54; Luke 22:37; 24:26, 46. The disciples do not seem to have been aware of this; even after the resurrection, they do not seem to have understood or expected it (Lk 24:19-25; Jn 20:9, etc), until Jesus himself explains it to them, “opening up” the Scriptures (and their minds). The two key passages are Luke 24:25-27 and 24:44-49:

“…all the things which the Foretellers spoke—was it not necessary (for) the Anointed (One) to suffer and to come into his honor/glory?” And beginning from Moshe and from all the Foretellers, he explained to them throughout the (thing)s about him in all the Writings. (24:25-27)
…and they said, “Was our heart not (set) on fire [in us] as he spoke with us on the way, as he opened the Writings through to us?” (v. 32)
“…it is necessary to be fulfilled all the (thing)s written about me in the Law of Moshe, and the Foretellers {Prophets} and Odes {Psalms} .” Then he opened their mind through to put together [i.e. understand] the Writings; and he said to them, “Thus it has been written (that it was necessary for) the Anointed (One) to suffer and to stand up out of the dead on the third day…” (24:44-46)

The idea that the Messiah would suffer, die and rise again was so unusual that it required special explanation (and revelation) by Jesus, with examination of the Scriptures in the light of his teaching. We find much the same dynamic at work in the book of Acts—the death of the Messiah had to be emphasized specially, and demonstrated from the Scriptures. The key references are Acts 3:18-24; 8:32-35; 10:39-43; 13:29-37; 17:2-3; 26:22-23. Moreover, it can be fairly well inferred that this would have been central to the instances where the early Christians are recorded as arguing and demonstrating that Jesus is the Anointed One (Acts 2:36; 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28). So contrary would the suffering and death (crucifixion) of the Messiah have been to the expectation of Jews at the time that it absolutely required a good deal of explanation and proof that the idea could be found in Scripture.

References above marked “Collins” are to J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]: 1995).
References marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer’s Commentary on Luke in the Anchor Bible [AB], Volume 28A (1985).
References marked “OTP” are to The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. by J. H. Charlesworth, 2 volumes (Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]: 1983, 1985).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 6 (Jn 19:16b-37)

John 19:16b-37

With John’s version of the Crucifixion scene, we come to the conclusion of this study on the Passion Narrative in the series Jesus and the Gospel Tradition. Throughout we have seen that the Gospel of John draws upon a separate line of tradition from the Synoptic, often developing it considerably, in creative ways, and in light of its distinctive theology. At the same time, both John and the Synoptics share core historical traditions which stem from the earliest period of Gospel formation. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Passion Narrative. Consider the final episode—the Crucifixion/Death of Jesus—as it is presented in the Fourth Gospel; I give an outline below:

    • The Crucifixion Scene—Vv. 16b-25a
      —Introduction, vv. 16b-18
      —The Inscription, vv. 19-22
      —The Garment of Jesus, vv. 23-25a
    • Jesus on the Cross—Vv. 25b-30
      —Jesus and his Mother, vv. 25b-27
      —The Death of Jesus, vv. 28-30
    • The Body of Jesus—Vv. 31-37
      —Removal from the Cross, v. 31
      —The Bones unbroken, vv. 32-33
      —The Blood and water, vv. 34-35
      —Fulfillment of Scripture, vv. 36-37

The first two scenes are relatively close in outline to the Synoptic version, with two main differences: (a) the dialogue between Pilate and the Jewish leaders regarding the inscription on the cross (vv. 19-22), and (b) the exchange involving Jesus’ Mother (Mary) and the Beloved Disciple (vv. 25b-27). Other significant differences are worth noting. For example, in John’s account, Jesus carries his own cross to the place of execution (v. 17), whereas in the Synoptics this done by the passerby Simon the Cyrenian (Mk 15:21 par). If the Gospel writer was aware of the Simon tradition, he has omitted it, perhaps to convey the sense that Jesus is fulfilling his destiny, the work given him by the Father to accomplish, from beginning to end (cf. the introduction to the Passion narrative in 13:1). It may also be meant to illustrate the words of Jesus, e.g. in 10:15, 18—that he lays down his life willingly, by himself.

Below I examine briefly the most distinctive features and elements in John’s version.

1. Pilate and the Inscription (vv. 19-22)

The dialogue exchange between Pilate and the Jewish leaders over the inscription is unique to John’s account, and is certainly meant to echo the earlier trial/interrogation scene in 18:28-19:16a, introducing the theme of kingship and Jesus’ identity (cf. the supplemental note on this passage). Jesus effectively denied being “King of the Jews” in the ordinary ethnic/political sense; now, the Jewish leaders are saying the same thing, but from a very different point of view. For the last time in the Gospel, we see the motif of misunderstanding and double-meaning which characterizes the great Discourses.

2. The Garment of Jesus (vv. 23-25a)

Apart from making the association with Psalm 22:18 explicit, John’s version of the soldiers dividing Jesus’ garments differs from the Synoptic account in one significant detail: the reference to Jesus’ tunic (shirt/undergarment). It is described as made of a single piece (“without seam”), woven throughout from the top (to the bottom). This may seem like a small, incidental detail, but here in the Gospel it has special symbolic and theological meaning. It is hard to avoid a comparison with the Synoptic tradition of the Temple curtain, which was split from top to bottom at the death of Jesus (Mk 15:38 par). By contrast, Jesus’ tunic—the garment closest to his body—is not split this way, as the soldiers declare: “let us not split it…” (v. 24). The parallel would seem to be appropriate, for two reasons. First, both traditions involve the specific words a&nwqen (“from above”, i.e. from the top) and the verb sxi/zw (“split, divide”). Second, in Jn 2:19ff, Jesus’ own body is identified, in a symbolic/spiritual sense, with the Temple, specifically in the context of his death (and resurrection).

3. The scene with Mary and the Beloved Disciple (vv. 25b-27)

This evocative scene is totally unique to John’s account, almost certainly deriving from (historical) traditions related to the “Beloved Disciple”. Critical commentators are naturally skeptical; if Mary were present at the cross in the original historical tradition, how/why would this have been left out by the other Gospels? Historical questions aside, we must consider what the significance of this scene was for the Gospel writer, and why it was included at this point. In my view, it represents the end, the completion of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. The only other appearance of Mary in the Fourth Gospel was in the Cana miracle episode of 2:1-11—that is, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Now she appears again, at the very end of it. This parallelism is confirmed by the way Jesus addresses his mother (“Woman…”) in both scenes. A secondary interpretation involves the role of the “Beloved Disciple”. Clearly, a kind of substitution is involved—the Beloved Disciple takes Jesus’ place as Mary’s son; in a similar way, Jesus’ own disciples (i.e. believers), represented and symbolized by “the disciple Jesus loved”, take his place on earth, continuing his work and witness. Jesus remains present with them, through the Holy Spirit, but the mission is carried on by them. For more on this, read carefully the Last Discourses (chaps. 14-17) and note the final commission in 20:21-22.

4. Jesus’ dying words (v. 30)

Here we are able to trace something of the development of the Gospel tradition in situ. Consider all four versions in sequence:

    • In Mark, Jesus’ death is described this way:
      “And Yeshua, releasing a great voice [i.e. cry], breathed out [i.e. gave out his last breath]” (Mk 15:37)
    • There is sign of development in Matthew, in the wording of the narrative:
      “An Yeshua, again crying (out) with a great voice, released the spirit [i.e. his breath]” (Matt 27:49b)
    • In Luke, what is described in Matthew, is given form in Jesus’ own (dying) words (quoting Psalm 31:5):
      “And giving voice [i.e. crying] with a great voice, Yeshua said, ‘Father, into your hands I set [i.e. give] along my spirit‘. And saying this, he breathed out [i.e. breathed his last].” (Lk 23:46)
    • John’s version reads as follows:
      “Yeshua said, ‘It has been accomplished’, and, bending his head, he gave along the spirit.” (Jn 19:30)

Notice the common motif of releasing/giving out the breath/spirit (words in italics above). In the ordinary sense of the narrative, in John the words “he gave along the spirit” simply mean that Jesus gave out his last breath, i.e. his “spirit” (pneu=ma) which literally is the life-breath. However, in the context of Johannine theology, there is almost certainly a double meaning here. Jesus’ sacrificial death, followed by his resurrection and return to the Father, also results in his giving the (Holy) Spirit (Pneu=ma) along to his disciples (believers).

5. Jesus’ bones unbroken (vv. 32-33) and the Scriptures in vv. 36-37

The details and traditions in verses 31-37 are unique to John’s account, and it must be said that, interesting as they are as historical data regarding Jesus’ death, they carry deeper symbolic and theological significance in the Gospel. The action taken in vv. 31-32 is seen as a fulfillment of the Scripture cited in v. 36, which is best identified with Psalm 34:20. However, there can be little doubt that the reference is also to the instruction regarding the Passover lamb in Exod 12:10, 46 and Num 9:12. The chronology of the Passion narrative, and the Crucifixion specifically, in John is meant to identify Jesus with the Passover lamb—which is to be slaughtered at the time, on the very day, Jesus is on the cross (cf. Jn 18:28; 19:14, 31). His death thus coincides with the Passover sacrifice. This association had been established already at the beginning of the Gospel (1:29, 36).

The second Scripture (Zech 12:10) in verse 37 is more difficult to interpret. Its placement at the end of the episode would indicate that it is meant to summarize the crucifixion scene, both in terms of the imagery (i.e. the piercing of Jesus), and the public observation of his death. The Johannine book of Revelation (1:7) also cites Zech 12:10, in an eschatological context, emphasizing the coming Judgment which will take place at Jesus’ return. This does not appear to be the meaning given to the Scripture in the Gospel. Rather, the context suggests that the people (i.e. the soldiers, etc) look upon Jesus (the one they pierced) without realizing his true identity. In a way, of course, this relates to the Judgment that comes on humankind (3:18-21, etc), both now and at the end-time.

6. The Blood and Water (vv. 34-35)

Commentators continue to debate the significance and meaning of this particular detail. My own explanation is two-fold:

First, as was previously noted, the Gospel of John does not record the institution of the Lord’s Supper as part of the Last Supper narrative, though there is a parallel of sorts in the Eucharistic language used by Jesus in 6:51-58 (on this, cf. the supplemental note). Paradoxically, John is also the only one of the Gospels which actually depicts Jesus blood being ‘poured out’ at his death. The essence of what Jesus communicates in the words of institution is described visually.

Second, and more importantly, the blood and water which comes out symbolizes the giving forth of the Spirit, along with the spiritual effect of Jesus’ sacrificial death. This is not readily apparent here in the narrative itself, but is confirmed, and can be supported, I believe, from several other passages in the Gospel, along with 1 John 5:6-8. I will be discussing this in detail in an upcoming note on the Holy Spirit in early Christian tradition and theology.

For more on John 19:34-35 and 37, cf. the earlier daily note for Holy Saturday in Easter Week.

April 11 (3): John 19:34, 37

In celebration of Holy Saturday, I will be discussing one of the few events narrated in the Gospels following Jesus’ death, that of the soldier ‘piercing’ Jesus’ side in John 19:34ff. The Gospel of John records two details, each of which is tied to an Old Testament Scripture:

    1. The soldiers are ordered to break the legs of the crucified victims (in order to hasten death), but when they come to Jesus they see that he is already dead (19:31-33). The Scripture indicated in verse 36 is not absolutely certain; it may be Exodus 12:46 [cf. 12:10 LXX] or Num 9:12 (neither is cited verbatim, cf. also Psalm 34:20). The identification would seem to be with Jesus as the slain Passover Lamb—see the context of Jn 19:14; also Jn 1:29, 36.
    2. A soldier ‘pierces’ Jesus side (19:34, 37), discussed below.

John 19:34 reads:

a)ll’ ei!$ tw=n stratiwtw=n lo/gxh| au)tou= th\n pleura\n e&nucen kai\ e)ch=lqen eu)qu\$ ai!ma kai\ u%dwr
“but one of the soldiers jabbed his side with a spear-tip and straightway [i.e. right away] came out blood and water”

The verb often translated “pierce” (nu/ssw, nússœ) would be more accurately rendered “jab, stab”, perhaps implying here that the soldier’s action was not intended to produce a wound, but rather to check that Jesus was dead (in spite of verse 33). Christian tradition was quick to fill out some of the details: for example, the soldier’s name was identified as Longinus, after lo/gxh (lónch¢, “spear/lance”, technically the spear head or tip), and the wound was naturally enough specified as on the right side (see the Ethiopic version, and so typically in Christian art). The spear itself became a powerful symbol, especially in Eastern Orthodox tradition, where it was related typologically with the Angel’s sword that barred the way to Paradise (Gen 3:24)—i.e., Christ’s death opened the way for us to Paradise again (a popular theme in the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, etc). Later, the spear would play a role in the rich Grail traditions of the West (see down below).

Two elements here should be looked at in greater detail: first, the blood and water that came out from Jesus’ side (v. 34b); and second, the Scripture citation from Zechariah 12:10 (v. 37).

The Blood and Water

“…and right away came out blood and water” —there have been many attempts to explain this enigmatic detail; especially popular in modern times have been the various medical theories (treating it as a realistic phyisiological detail) which try to explain what may have occurred (cf. the standard Commentaries). These are interesting, but, I would say, somewhat misplaced. At the historical-traditional level, “blood and water” more than likely simply represent a common popular understanding of human (internal) physiology—the two obvious fluid elements contained in the human body, which for a healthy person, ought to be evenly balanced; see, for example, the Jewish tradition in the Midrash Rabbah (15.2) on Lev 13:2ff. The Synoptic tradition might have more emphasized blood coming out—see Mark 14:24 (and par) “this is my blood of the testament th(at) is poured out over many”. However, in the Gospel of John, the mention of water here alongside blood is especially significant. Apart from this verse, “blood” (ai!ma) is mentioned only two other places: in Jn 1:13 and Jn 6:53-56. The first passage contrasts those who come to be born “out of” (that is, from/by) blood (plural), the will of flesh, or the will of man with those who come to be born out of God (from the Spirit, cf. Jn 3:3-8). The second passage is part of the “Bread of Life” discourse; I have discussed these verses in an earlier post, see also here below.

Water is a more prevalent symbol in the Gospel of John. There are four (or five) principal passages:

    • The miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine (Jn 2:1-11)
    • The first portion of the discourse with Nicodemus, regarding being born “from above”, identified with being born “out of [i.e. from/by] the Spirit” (Jn 3:3-8)
    • The discourse with the Samaritan Woman, where Jesus contrasts water from the well with the “living water” he gives (Jn 4:7-15ff)
    • The saying of Jn 7:37-38, part of the discourse[s] Jesus spoke during the Feast of Booths (ch. 7-8), again emphasizing “living water” for those who believe (drink from) Jesus.
    • [One should probably add the foot-washing episode and discourse in Jn 13:1-15ff].

It is possible, I think, to connect the passages involving water and blood according to the theology of the Gospel, and so to glimpse what significance the two motifs together might have in Jn 19:34:

    • Identification of water and wine—miracle at Cana (2:7-9ff)
    • Identification of wine and blood implied—the Eucharistic nuance of Jn 6:53-58 (cf. Mark 14:24 par). Note also the theme in Jn 6:35ff of coming to (and believing in) Jesus, which is parallel to the eating (his flesh) and drinking (his blood) in vv. 51ff.
    • These two passages, taken together, effectively connect, at the symbolic level, water and blood.
    • Coming to (and believing in) Jesus is also symbolized by drinking “living water” in Jn 4:7ff and 7:37-38
    • Water is identified with the Spirit in Jn 3:3-8.
    • Blood is essentially connected with the Spirit as well in Jn 6:60ff (esp. verse 63).
    • The passages in John 3 and 6, taken as a whole, demonstrate a Spiritual interpretation and presence for both Baptism (water) and the Eucharist (blood).
    • Blood and water also both cleanse the believer—see the foot-washing scene in Jn 13:1-15ff, for this same idea with blood, cf. 1 John 1:7.

The first Epistle of John is generally understood as coming from the same basic school of thought (if not the same author) as the Gospel—it uses much common language and style, and shares many theological concepts. In addition to 1 John 1:7, we should also consult 1 Jn 5:6-8, where we see the same triad—water-blood-Spirit—which can be distilled from the Gospel passages mentioned above. It would perhaps be better to view the equation as: water-blood + Spirit. Verse 6 states that Jesus is “the one who came through water and blood“, which I take to be primarily a reference to the Incarnation, and is presumably meant to emphasize the reality of Jesus’ human nature (against early “docetic” views of Christ). If so, then we should probably view the “blood and water” of Jn 19:34 in the same light; only here it is sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death that is most prominent (note the order “blood and water” instead of “water and blood”). 1 Jn 5:7 adds the Spirit to blood-water as part of the “witness”, and, I believe, it is appropriate to add the Spirit, by way of interpretation, to Jn 19:34 as well. It should perhaps be understood in relation to the “living water” that flows from Jesus, which the believer receives within by faith (and the power of the Spirit). Jesus’ sacrificial death releases this cleansing and life-giving power to us—when we drink of it (by faith and the Spirit), the same life comes to be in us.

The Citation from Zechariah 12:10

In Jn 19:37, the Gospel writer explains the ‘piercing’ described in v. 34 as a fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10, which is cited thus:

o&yontai ei)$ o^n e)ceke/nthsan
“they will look with (open) eyes unto the (one) whom they pierced”

The Hebrew Masoretic text reads “and they will look unto me the (one) whom they struck through [i.e. pierced]”. The first person pronominal suffix (“me”) would suggest that God is the referent, but this is admittedly difficult in context, and a number of MSS instead read “him”. Verses 10-14 have primarily the theme of mourning, and the association with verses 1-9 (describing a great war and judgment against the nations) may indicate that the people who remain in the land are mourning those who have been killed (i.e., as martyrs), and as a result the people turn and look to God. This is more or less the approach taken by many Jewish commentators; however, in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 52a), we find an example of a messianic interpretation (by R. Dosa)—it is the Messiah (ben Joseph) who is pierced, and the people mourn for him. The most common early Christian interpretation is that it refers to Jesus’ return (parousia)—the people (Jews and Gentiles), especially those who are responsible for his death, will look upon him as he comes in glory. This is certainly the way the verse is used in the Johannine book of Revelation (Rev 1:7); cf. also Justin Martyr’s First Apology §52. However, I suspect that there is a deeper, spiritual meaning here in the Gospel. Consider, for example, the thematic signficance of seeing/looking, especially the way that the verb o)pta/nomai is used—Jn 1:39, 50-51; 3:36; 11:40; 16:16-19. In these passages the emphasis is primarily upon believers seeing/beholding Jesus (and his glory); elsewhere in the Gospel we find the familiar message that those who see Jesus also see the Father—this seeing is parallel with (and corresponds to) knowing, and is salvific. Nowhere is this more clear than in the sayings regarding the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). As I discussed in an earlier post, this “lifting high” reflects both Jesus’ sacrificial death and his exaltation/glorification; by looking on this symbol, we also see the Father, and are drawn to Christ; in turn, we are led by him to the Father.

There is perhaps no better image for meditation and contemplation on the eve of Easter than Christ, the one pierced, who has poured out his blood and water (his “soul unto death”, Isa 53:12), lifted high above us, where we can all look upon him with open eyes.

The spear that pierced Jesus’ side took on a surprisingly important role in medieval Grail lore, as part of a complex of images. It was paired with the cup from the Last Supper, which caught the blood which came out after Jesus was pierced. In the Grail romances, pagan religious beliefs and mythology blend together with Christian symbols and sacramental thought. The cup (eventually identified as the “Grail”) and spear both became magical-sacred objects in these tales, housed in the mysterious Grail castle. In the middle Ages, these were not necessarily idle myths—the Grail (and related Arthurian) legends could be used as a powerful expression of Christian spirituality, as we find in the 13th century Quest for the Holy Grail. In later centuries, they continued to exert a strong artistic influence, perhaps best exemplified in Richard Wagner’s ultimate musical opera Parsifal.

Join me each Saturday for an introduction to the methods and principles of Biblical criticism. These Saturday studies attempt to illustrate the importance of a sound critical-exegetical approach to Scripture, and to demonstrate how it works in practice. If you are interested in going deeper into the text of the Scriptures, but are perhaps intimidated by the idea of studying the original Greek and Hebrew, then these Saturday studies are especially for you.

April 11 (2): Luke 23:44-45

In commemoration of Holy Saturday, I offer brief meditations on two interesting details which occurred at the time of Jesus’ death: (1) the darkness which covered the land, and (2) the veil of the Temple which was torn in two. Both of these details appear in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:45, 51; Mark 15:33, 38; Luke 23:44-45), but I will be commenting specifically on Luke’s account.

1. The Darkness

Luke 23:44 states: kai\ h@n h&dh w(sei\ w&ra e%kth kai\ sko/to$ e)ge/neto e)f’ o%lhn th\n gh=n e%w$ w%ra$ e)na/th$ (“and it was now as if [i.e. about] the sixth hour and darkness came to be upon the whole earth until the ninth hour”), which differs only slightly from the wording in Matthew and Mark. However Luke adds: tou= h(li/ou e)klipo/nto$ (“[at] the sun’s leaving out [its light]”); this is the best reading, but some manuscripts instead have kai\ e)skoti/sqe o( h%lio$ (“and the sun was darkened”). I translate here e)klei/pw literally as “leave out”, but it has the general sense of “be deficient, lack, fade, fail”; many versions translate “for the sun’s [light] failed”, or something similar. On the historical level, this may have been a simple natural phenomenon (such as an eclipse, see below); however, it seems clear that in the Gospel tradition, the darkness has a symbolic import, in connection with Jesus on the cross. In the Gospel of Mark and Matthew, it occurs right before Jesus’ cry of dereliction (quoting Psalm 22, with transliterated Hebrew/Aramaic preserved): “My God, my God, for what have you left me behind?”—here the darkness may be taken to symbolize God’s forsaking of Jesus, a sense of sheer abandonment (in Matthew/Mark, these are Jesus’ only words spoken from the cross). The Greek translated “left behind” is an intensive form of katalei/pw, related to the very word Luke uses for the failing [“leaving out”] of the sun. Interestingly, Luke records no such cry: rather, Jesus cries out [lit. “gives voice”] with a loud voice (quoting a different Psalm 31), “Father, into your hands I set alongside my breath [i.e. spirit]”. Here there is no specific sense of abandonment; indeed, Jesus’ words suggest the opposite!

In Luke’s account, the darkness could be understood principally one of two ways: (a) a sign of the (temporary) dominance of sin/evil/suffering, or (b) a sign of judgment against the land (and people). The only other mention of “darkness” (sko/to$) in this context in Luke is from the scene of Jesus’ arrest (22:53): “this is your hour and the authority of the darkness”, which would suggest (a). Jesus’ two-fold mention of peirasmo/$ (“testing”) in the earlier Passion episode (22:40, 46) may also have eschatological overtones involving darkness, signs in the sun and moon etc. (cf. the apocalyptic language of Luke 21:25ff and par.), which could fit either (a) or (b). The fact that Luke records the tearing of the Temple veil (see below), right after the darkness (and before Jesus’ actual death), suggests more strongly the motif of darkness as judgment.

From early times, commentators have thought that Luke is specifically referring to a (solar) eclipse. This is possible, of course, at the historical level; but, I think, totally irrelevant to Luke’s narrative. However, it is worth mentioning the archetypal symbolism which was occasionally applied to the crucifixion scene in Christian art: where the sun and moon appear on either side of the cross, flanking Jesus, in parallel to the “good” and “wicked” thief—the sun associated with the good side, moon with the bad. In this regard, I am reminded of the Sefirotic Tree structure of Jewish mystical tradition (Kabbalah)—loving-kindness and mercy (dsj) on the right side, strength and judgment (/d/hrwbg) on the left, with beauty (trapt) in the center column. Are not the two “sides” even represented by the two separate cries of Jesus (Matthew/Mark and Luke)?—one, a cry in the face of judgment and desolation, the other, a cry of loving trust in God. An ancient form of this archetypal symbolism depicted two eyes on either side of the central panel: would not the “eclipse” be the juxtaposition of these two?—one eye, in the Person of Christ, shining in the darkness.

2. The Temple Veil

In Luke 23:45 we read: e)sxi/sqe de\ to\ katape/tasma tou= naou= me/son (“and the spread of the shrine was split in the middle”); Matthew and Mark differ slighting in stating/adding that it was split “in two from above and downward [i.e. below]”. katape/tasma (lit. something “spread downward”) is used here of the Temple curtain (veil), of which especially there were two: one guarding off the holy place (the shrine or sanctuary [nao$] proper), and the other the innermost shrine (the “holy of holies”). Which curtain is meant? This would seem to depend on the overall context of the scene; there are three main possibilities:

a) Soteriological: the rending of the temple curtain allows for access into the holiest place (where God dwells), cf. Hebrews 9
b) Covenantal: the rending of the curtain symbolizes the ‘end’ of the old covenant (with the Temple) and the beginning of the new (in the Person of Christ)
c) Apocalyptic: the rending of the curtain represents a time of (Divine) Judgment on the land, in which even the Temple will not be spared (cf. Luke 21:5-6 par.)

It is possible that the symbolism involves all three aspects; the fact that Luke connects rending of the veil with the darkness over the land suggests that (b) and/or (c) are more likely for his account. Mark and Matthew only mention the rending of the veil after Jesus’ death, which might imply (b). If an Apocalyptic symbol (c) is involved, then it is probably the curtain of the holy place that is meant, for it was decorated, according to Josephus, as “a kind of image of the universe” (Jewish War 5 §212).

There is an interesting parallel in John’s account: though he does not mention the rending of the veil, it is worth noting his description of the dividing of Jesus’ garments (John 19:23-24). He states that the soldiers “made four parts” (divided four ways among them) of his garments, but when they came to Jesus’ tunic/shirt (xitw/n) they noticed it was “without seam” and woven “from above” (a&nwqen) “through the whole” (i.e. downward to the bottom); and they said “let us not split (sxi/swmen) it”.  This language echoes the account of the rending of the veil (especially in Matthew/Mark). Is it too much for one to consider Jesus’ seamless tunic as a symbol of his own Body (or at least of its curtain/garment)? While the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, the garment of his Body remained whole.

April 11 (1): John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, etc

Today for Holy Saturday and the Vigil of Easter, I am moving away from the Gospel of Luke to explore the Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John. In examining the expression “Son of Man” in Luke (and the Synoptic tradition), we have seen it used by Jesus four different ways—(1) as a self-reference, a substitute for “I”; (2) to identify himself as a human being or with the human condition, especially in terms of weakness, suffering and death; (3) in reference to his Passion; and (4) as a heavenly being who will come (again) to judge the world at the end-time. In some ways, all four uses are interrelated or connected in the Synoptics, and so also in the Gospel of John; however the sayings in John tend to have a more specific Christological emphasis, and may be grouped into three main categories:

1. The Son of Man “lifted high”—Here the verb used is u(yo/w (“make/place high”, i.e. “raise, lift up”):

    • John 3:14: “so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai]”—the comparison is with the ‘fiery’ copper/bronze serpent lifted by Moses (on a pole) which brought healing (from the burning snakebite) to all who looked at it (Num 21:9); the reference is primarily to Jesus’ death (on the stake/cross), but almost certainly has his resurrection and exaltation in mind as well (cf. below). This is described in terms of salvation: “…so that every one trusting in him might have (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]”.
    • John 8:28: “when you (have) lifted high [u(yw/shte] the Son of Man…”—the formulation here (“when you…”) indicates more precisely Jesus being put to death (on the stake/cross), but again the subsequent exaltation is also in view. Throughout the discourse(s) of chapters 7-8, Jesus has been expressing, in various ways, his relationship to (and identification with) God the Father; here specifically Jesus states that when they have lifted up the Son of Man “…then you will know that I am, and I do nothing from myself, but just as the Father taught me, (so) I speak these things”. In verse 26, this is also described in terms of judgment, which is associated with the eschatological Son of Man figure of many of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptics.
    • John 12:32: “and if I am lifted high [u(ywqw=] I will drag all (people/things) toward me”—this is related to the previous sayings (especially 3:14), as well as to the Son of Man saying in 12:23 (cf. below). The context is specifically that of Jesus’ impending death (and resurrection), again relating to the promise of salvation and eternal life (vv. 24-25, 27-28, 33, 36).
    • John 12:34: “you say that it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high…”—this is part of a question to Jesus from the crowd, referring (in context) to verse 32, but more properly it cites the saying in 3:14 (above). There is a clear connection with the “Anointed (One)”, and expresses some confusion on the part of the people in the crowd as to just what Jesus means by the expression Son of Man—”…who is this ‘Son of Man’?”

These are the only instances of the verb in John; for similar usage elsewhere, cf. Acts 2:33; 5:31.

2. The Son of Man “descending and ascending”—The verbs involved are katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw (literally “step down” and “step up”), and are commonly used in the Gospel narrative (“go up” etc), especially a)nabai/nw for “going up” to Jerusalem. However, they take on an important theological/Christological connotation in John; apart from these Son of Man sayings, cf. Jn 1:32-33; 20:17, and the play on words in Jn 2:12-13; 6:16; 7:8, 10, 14; 10:1; 11:55; 12:20.

    • John 1:51: “You will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man”—on this saying, cf. below.
    • John 3:13: “no one has stepped up into heaven if not the one stepping down out of heaven, the Son of Man”—this saying is obviously related to that of verse 14 (cf. above); it identifies/contrasts a person being raised/exalted to heavenly status with one who has (first) come down out of heaven. The implication is that Jesus is not simply a human being who has been (or will be) raised to a heavenly/divine position, but was previously in heaven (with God) before coming to earth. This, of course, is stated clearly in the Prologue of John (1:1ff) and indicated throughout the Gospel by Jesus; in precise theological terms, it refers to the (divine) pre-existence of Jesus. This is made even more definite in the manuscripts which read “…the Son of Man, the (one) being in Heaven”.
    • John 6:27: “work…for the food th(at) remains in the Life of Ages [i.e. eternal life], which the Son of Man will give to you”
      John 6:53: “if you do not consume the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not hold Life in yourself”
      John 6:62: “then (what) if you should behold the Son of Man stepping up [a)nabai/nonta] (to) where he was (at) the first?”
      These sayings are part of the great Bread of Life discourse in John 6:27-71, which I have discussed in considerable detail in prior articles. Especially noteworthy are the references to the bread that has come down (lit “stepped down”) from Heaven (vv. 33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58), which in context clearly symbolizes Jesus (the Son of Man) who has stepped down from Heaven (i.e. the incarnation), and who will soon step back up into Heaven (back to the Father) from whence he came (v. 62). As in 3:13 (above), this indicates a pre-existent, heavenly status in relationship to God, and must be understood in light of the many references throughout the Gospel—especially in the discourses of chapters 13-17—where Jesus speaks of the Son coming from and going (back) to the Father. There is, of course, eucharistic symbolism in the bread—broken down into the dual image of eating his body and drinking his blood—which connects these sayings specifically with Jesus’ sacrificial death.

3. The Son of Man “glorified”—These sayings (using the verb doca/zw, “esteem, honor”, i.e. “give glory, glorify”) combine elements of categories 1 and 2 above, and also unite more precisely the two aspects of the Son of man being lifted up—(a) his death (on the cross), and (b) his exaltation (resurrection/ascension) and return to the Father:

    • John 12:23: “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified [docasqh=]”—as indicated above, the primary context in this passage is to Jesus’ upcoming death.
    • John 13:31: “Now the Son of Man is glorified [e)doca/sqh], and the Father is glorified in him”—this saying effectively begins the great Discourses of chapters 13-17, and is tied throughout to the idea that Son is about to go away: a dual-layered reference to his death and his return to the Father. Similarly, Jesus’ coming again (and the disciples’ seeing him again) should be understood on these two levels—i.e., (1) of his appearance after the resurrection, and (2) his future (and permanent) appearance, either in terms of the coming of the Spirit/Paraclete or Jesus’ own end-time/future return (or both).

For additional occurrences of the verb doca/zw in reference to Jesus (or the Son) being glorified, cf. John 7:39; 8:54; 11:4; 12:16; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1, 4-5, 10.

There are only two other Son of Man sayings in the Gospel of John:

    • John 5:26-27: “For (even) as the Father holds life in himself, so also he gave the Son to hold life in himself; and he [i.e. the Father] gave him authority [e)cousi/a] to make judgment, (in) that [i.e. because] he is the Son of Man”
    • John 9:35: “Do you trust in the Son of Man?” (other manuscripts read “…in the Son of God“)

Both of these are set in the context of healing miracles, and thus are perhaps closer to the Son of Man sayings which occur in the Synoptics (from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative) during the period of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The first saying draws on the on the figure of Son of Man as Divine/Heavenly Judge, familiar from a number of the Synoptic sayings (in Luke) we have been examining during this series. The second saying also has a reference to Jesus’ role in judgment (vv. 39-41), but overall the emphasis is on his healing/saving power.

Finally, we must mention John 1:51, which is almost certainly the most difficult of all these sayings:

“You will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man”

There have been many and varied attempts at interpreting this apparently ambiguous utterance by Jesus. Because of its important position as the first Son of Man saying in John, and because, in my view, it is meant (by the Gospel writer) as a specific image that frames/binds the start of Jesus’ ministry (chapter 2) with the end of it (his Passion/Resurrection/Exaltation), I will be commenting on it in detail in an upcoming note (during the three days of Easter).