Saturday Series: John 8:21-30

John 8:21-40ff

In our previous studies on the subject of sin in the Johannine writings, we saw how the initial references to sin in the Gospel (in 1:29 and 5:14 [discussed along with 9:2-3])—using the verb hamartánœ and/or the noun hamartîa—refer to sin either in the general or the conventional ethical-religious sense. That is to say, the references are to wrongs that people do, either against others or against God, including moral failings, inappropriate behavior, and so forth. The terms can apply to humankind collectively (1:29), or to specific individuals (5:14; 9:2-3; cf. also 8:7, 11).

However, at several points in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, a somewhat different understanding of sin begins to emerge. The first sin-references of this sort are found in the great Sukkot Discourse that covers chapters 7-8 (excluding 7:53-8:11). It is so-named because of its setting in Jerusalem during the Sukkot festival (7:2), the Hebrew term s¥kkô¾ (toKs%) being translated loosely as “booths”, i.e., festival of Booths (older translations often used the rather inappropriate rendering “Tabernacles”).

The Sukkot Discourse is better described as a Discourse-complex, containing a number of different Discourse-units, each of which generally follows the literary pattern of the Johannine Discourses. These Discourse-units are interrelated and interlocking, with common themes and motifs, built up into a single dramatic narrative; however, each unit also has its own structure, dramatic arc, and thematic emphasis. Each unit is punctuated by a narrative statement or interlude. I will be discussing the Discourse-complex of chapters 7-8 in detail as part of an upcoming set of articles dealing with the Sukkot/Booths festival.

The sin references come from the final two Discourse units 8:21-30 and 31-59. Let us consider the first of these passages.

John 8:21-30

The Gospel Discourses tend to begin with a statement or saying by Jesus, the true meaning of which is misunderstood by his listeners. For the Discourse-unit of 8:21-30, this occurs in verse 21:

“I (am about to) lead (myself) under [i.e. go away], and you will seek me, and (yet) you will die off in your sin; for (the) place to which I lead (myself) under, you are not able to come (there).”

The verb hypágœ basically means “go off, go away”, but recognition of the more fundamental meaning, “lead (oneself) under”, is important for preserving the idea that Jesus is about to disappear from view, and will no longer be seen by the people. Ultimately, this reference is to his exaltation—that is, to his death, resurrection, and departure back to the Father (in heaven)—but his audience cannot possibly understand this. This typical Discourse-feature of misunderstanding is expressed here by the response of Jesus’ audience (designated “the Judeans/Jews”) in verse 22. Again, following the typical Discourse-pattern, the question (reflecting a basic misunderstanding) prompts a further explanatory statement by Jesus:

“You are of the (thing)s below, (but) I am of the (thing)s above; you are of this world, (but) I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die off in your sins; for, if you should not trust that I am, (then) you shall die off in your sins.” (vv. 23-24)

Within the literary framework of the Discourses, it is in these expository statements by Jesus that the distinctive Johannine theology (and Christology) is expressed. That is to say, the true (and deeper) meaning of Jesus’ words, which his audience does not (or cannot) understand, is of a theological and Christological nature—focusing on the truth of who Jesus is.

This Christology, already expressed throughout the earlier Discourses (and in the opening chapters 1-2), affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, sent to earth (from heaven) by God the Father. Here, the same fundamental message is framed by way of two distinctive idioms that are basic to the Johannine theology:

    • The contrast between what is above (i.e., God in heaven) and what is below (i.e., in the world), using the contrastive pair of adverbs kátœ (“below”) and ánœ (“above”).
    • The specific use of the term kósmos (“world-order, world”) to designate the domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus frequently contrasts himself (and his disciples/believers) with the world.

In additional to these two theological components, vv. 23-24 also feature two important bits of syntax that are similarly used to express the Johannine theology and Christology:

    • The use of the preposition ek (“out of”), which carries two principal (and related) meanings: (a) origin (i.e., coming from somewhere or someone), and (b) the characteristic of belonging to someone (or something). The Johannine theology alternates between these meanings, sometimes playing on both in the same reference. A specific nuance of (a) utilizes ek in the context of birth—often using the verb of becoming (gennáœ), i.e., coming to be born out of someone.
    • The essential predication, utilizing the verb of being (eimi); as spoken by Jesus, in the first person, these are the famous “I am” (egœ eimi) declarations that run throughout the Gospel. This essential predication is theological—that is, it applies to God, implying a Divine subject. The very use of the expression egœ eimi (“I am”) by Jesus thus implies his identity as the Son of God.

All four of these theological elements occur in verse 23:

    • Above/below contrast: “you are of the (thing)s below [kátœ], (but) I am of the (thing)s above [ánœ]”
    • Contrastive use of kósmos: “you are of this world, (but) I am not of this world”
    • Use of the preposition ek: “you are of [ek] the (thing)s below…you are of [ek] this world…”
    • Essential predication (“I am”): “…I am of the (thing)s above…I am not of this world…. if you should not trust that I am, then…”

Thus, what his audience cannot understand is that Jesus is speaking here of his identity as the Son sent from God the Father. Interestingly, when “the Jews” respond by asking him directly, “who are you?” (v. 25a), he seems to evade the question with an ambiguous answer (v. 25b). This, however, is simply a furthering of the Discourse-motif of people misunderstanding the meaning of Jesus’ words. Translations tend to obscure this aspect, and even many commentators do not seem to grasp exactly what the author (and Jesus as the speaker) is doing, through some subtle syntactical wordplay. Consider, for example, how the audience’s question matches the essential predication (see above) built into Jesus’ statement:

    • Statement: “I am [egœ¡ eimi]”
    • Question: “Who are you [sý … eí]”?

Jesus’ seemingly evasive response to this question is equally pregnant with theological meaning. On the surface, he tells them (with a hint of impatience), “What I have been saying to you from the beginning!” However, one must pay special attention to the syntax here; a literal rendering of the Greek, following the Greek word order, would be:

“(From) the beginning, which I have even been saying to you.”

Read in this literal way, Jesus’ hidden answer to the question “Who are you?” is “(from) the beginning” (t¢¡n arch¢¡n). From the standpoint of the Johannine theology, this can only mean “the one who is from the beginning”, i.e., Jesus as the eternal (and pre-existent) Son of God. There are numerous references or allusions to this special theological use of the noun arch¢¡ in the Johannine writings—most notably, in the Gospel Prologue (Jn 1:1-2), and in 1 John 1:1; 2:13-14. Jesus’ further exposition in vv. 26-29 only confirms this theological emphasis, and his identity as the Son sent by the Father.

How does all of this relate to the Johannine understanding of sin? Consider again the principal saying in this Discourse-unit (in v. 21) and its exposition (in vv. 23-24):

    • “…you shall seek me, and (yet) you will die off in your sin; (for) the place to which I go away, you cannot come (there)”
    • “you are of the (thing)s below, (but) I am of the (thing)s above…if you do not trust that I am, (then) you will die off in your sins”

The seeking of Jesus (and not finding him) by the people is explained as not trusting in his identity as the Son of God (designated by the essential predication “I am”). And the people cannot trust in him this way because they belong to “the things below” and to “this world”, while Jesus the Son belongs to the realm of God the Father above. Thus, they are lost in their sin and will “die off” in it.

Two key interpretive questions must be addressed, in order to gain a clearer sense of how the Gospel understands the idea of sin. First, we must ask: how does the Christological emphasis in vv. 21-30 relate to the earlier statement in 1:29? The Discourse-unit here clearly connects the idea of people dying in their sin with a failure to trust in Jesus (as the Son of God). It stands to reason that this dynamic was alluded to earlier in the “lamb of God” declaration in 1:29, and we must explore this connection further.

Second, there are two parallel forms of the sin-reference here in Jesus’ saying (8:21) and its exposition (vv. 23-24). In the first, the singular of the noun hamartía (“sin”) is used, while, in the second, the plural is used (“sins”). Is this a distinction without any real difference, or does the singular and plural carry a deeper meaning that needs to be drawn out? I believe that the latter is definitely the case, but the point requires some explanation.

In next week’s study, each of these two questions will be addressed, even as we begin to turn to the next of the sin-references, in 8:34ff.

Saturday Series: John 5:14; 9:2-3ff

It will be worth pausing to consider some conclusions that may be drawn from the previous two weeks’ studies (1, 2) regarding the declaration in Jn 1:29:

“See, the lamb of God—the (one) taking up the sin of the world!”

The expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós toú Theoú) is best understood in relation to the tradition of the Passover lamb. The traditional designation of the Passover lamb as a sacrifice (ze»aµ, see Exod 12:27) likely led early Christians to associate it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, including the offerings for sin and, for example, the expiatory offerings related to the Day of Atonement (see Hebrews 8-10). Moreover, it was shown (based on evidence from Josephus’ Antiquities) that there were Jews of the period who attributed to the blood of the Passover lamb the power to purify the devout worshiper. These factors would have fit well with the developing Christian concept of Jesus’ blood cleansing believers from sin (see 1 John 1:7). It is certain that the Gospel writer applied the motif of the Passover lamb particularly to the sacrificial death of Jesus (19:14, 33-36).

The use of the verb aírœ (“take/lift up”) should be understood primarily in the sense of “take away”, referring to the removal of sin. The verb in 1 John 3:5 is used in precisely this context, and is confirmed by the verb’s overall use throughout the Gospel. At the same time, the influence of Isa 53:7ff on the “lamb of God” concept allows for the secondary meaning of “bear, carry”, with the idea that Jesus (the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isa 52:13-53:12, see Acts 8:32-33ff) takes upon himself the burden of the people’s sin, interceding with God on their behalf. The Hebrew verb for this in verse 12 is n¹´¹°, which has a meaning comparable to Greek aírœ, even though the Septuagint (LXX) translates n¹´¹° there with a different verb (anaphérœ, “bring up, bear, carry”).

The use of a substantive verbal noun (participle) with a definite article is rather typical of Johannine style, as a way of indicating a vital characteristic of an individual or group. Here the participle aírœn (“taking up”) is presented as a fundamental characteristic of Jesus, under the symbolic motif of the “lamb of God”, declaring him to be “the (one) taking up [ho aírœn] the sin of the world”. As the statement in 1 John 3:5 makes clear, the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth, and thus a central function of his earthly ministry (including his death), was to take away sin (see also verse 8b). This same emphasis is expressed in Jn 1:29 by the use of the substantive participle.

The sin that Jesus “takes away” through his death (as the slain “lamb”) is qualified as being “of the world”. This genitive formulation can be explained as adjectival, in two possible ways:

    • Possessive—i.e., the sin is something belonging to the world, which it possesses.
    • Descriptive—referring to an attribute or characteristic, i.e., the world as sinful.

The noun kósmos (“world-order, world”) is used two different, but related, ways in the Johannine writings: (1) in the neutral sense of the inhabited world (i.e., the places on earth where people dwell, and those people themselves), and (2) in the negative sense as a domain of darkness and evil that is opposed to God. The negative meaning of the word tends to dominate in the Gospel and Letters of John, in a way that is quite distinctive among early Christians. While the negative aspect may be present in 1:29, through the genitival relationship to the head noun “sin” (hamartía), indicating sin as a basic characteristic of the world, primarily the neuter aspect is in view. The “world” here refers to humankind generally—i.e., to all the people in the inhabited world; compare the usage in 3:16-17.

In this regard, it would be natural to explain the use of the singular noun hamartía as referring to sin either in a general or collective sense. That is, it either refers to the sinfulness of the world (i.e., humankind) or to all of its sins taken collectively. I would not wish to make a more precise interpretation until we have examined the remaining sin-references in the Gospel. However, it is worth noting that the sin attributed to the world (or humankind) as a whole finds its counterpart in a number of instances where sins/wrongs committed by individuals are mentioned. Two, in particular, stand out, contained within similar healing-miracle stories—in chapters 5 and 9, respectively.

In the story of the healing of the paralytic man (5:1-9ff), at the conclusion of the narrative (verse 14), Jesus locates the man who was healed and warns him: “you must not sin any (more), (so) that there should not come to be any(thing) worse (happening) to you.” The apparent implication is that the man’s prior disabled condition was the result of sin. And yet, this very connection, so common in the ancient ways of thinking, is explicitly denied by Jesus in the case of the blind man (in the chapter 9 episode):

“And his learners [i.e. disciples] asked him, saying: ‘Rabbi, who sinned—this man or his parents—that he came to be (born) blind?’ Yeshua gave forth (the answer): ‘This man did not sin, nor (did) his parents, but (rather it was so) that the works of God might be made to shine (forth) in him.'” (vv. 2-3)

The theme of sinning runs as a thread throughout this narrative, and I will be examining it in more detail in an upcoming study. However, for the moment, it is important to focus on the traditional-conventional understanding of sin that is reflected in these historical traditions (of the two healing miracles). Two details, in particular, may be highlighted: (i) the verb hamartánœ (“do wrong, err, sin,” lit. “miss [the mark]”) is associated with a common (and expected) standard of ethical and religious behavior; and (ii) that “doing wrong” in this way can have decidedly negative/harmful effects on a person’s life and health. The same conventional use of the verb hamartánœ can be seen in the famous episode of the woman caught in adultery (7:53-8:11 [vv. 7, 11]), which, though it most likely was not part of the original Johannine Gospel, presumably reflects an historical tradition comparable to that of the healing miracles in chaps. 5 and 9.

This conventional religious-ethical view of sin is important, in large part, because of the backdrop it provides for the deeper understanding expressed elsewhere in the Gospel Discourses of Jesus. Next week, we will begin exploring the passage where the concept of sin (and sin references) are most prominent—the Sukkot Discourse-complex of chapters 7-8 (esp. 8:21-47).

Saturday Series: John 1:29 (continued)

John 1:29, continued

Today, we continue with our previous study from last week, on John 1:29, the first sin-reference in the Gospel of John. It was mentioned that the text of this verse is secure, and yet a precise interpretation has proven somewhat difficult for commentators. In this study, I wish to focus on two areas of interpretation: (1) the expression “the lamb of God”, and (2) the force of the verb aírœ. It will be necessary to adopt an historical-critical (and intertextual) approach to these topics, looking at the historical background to the language used by the Gospel writer (and John the Baptist as speaker).

“Lamb of God”

Commentators have struggled to determine precisely the origins and significance of the expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós tou Theoú), which occurs only here (being repeated in verse 36) in the Scriptures. A number of sources of influence have been proposed and discussed, with commentators differing on their relative plausibility. There has, however, come to be something of an emerging consensus that the two main sources are: (a) the figure of the Passover lamb, and (b) the reference to the Servant-figure in the Isa 52:13-53:12 Servant Song as a lamb (53:7). The relatively recent article by Jesper Tang Nielsen, “The Lamb of God: The Cognitive Structure of a Johannine Metaphor” (published in Imagery in the Gospel of John: Terms, Forms, Themes, and Theology of Johannine Figurative Language, eds. Jörg Frey, Jan G. van der Watt, and Ruben Zimmermann, WUNT 200 [Mohr Siebeck: 2006], pp. 217-56) discusses the conceptual blending of these two specific background-aspects of the expression (I refer to this study below as “Nielsen”).

1. The Passover lamb

Some commentators have argued that the Isaiah 53:7 reference is primary for the expression “the lamb of God” in Jn 1:29. I would strongly disagree; in my view, the Passover lamb represents the principal point of reference. This seems to be quite clear, based on two points of evidence. First, we have the specific identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in 19:14, 36, where the lamb-identification is made in the context of Jesus’ death—being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. Second, the foreshadowing of this moment in the reference to the ‘bronze serpent’ tradition (Numbers 21:9) in 3:14-15 strongly suggests the parallel of the lamb, once it has been ‘lifted up’, giving life-saving healing to all those who look at (i.e., believe in) it.

And yet, as many commentators have noted, there is no indication, either in the Old Testament or in later Jewish tradition, of a direct connection between the Passover lamb and sin. In particular, there is no evidence that the Passover lamb (or the ritual as a whole) was ever thought to take away sin (see on the verb aírœ below). I have discussed the Passover tradition in several recent articles, and will here only mention three aspects of its significance that seem relevant to the sin-association in Jn 1:29:

    • The apotropaic function of the Passover lamb’s blood in the original Exodus-tradition (Exod 12, esp. vv. 7, 13, 22-23), as protection against death.
    • The idea that those participating in the ritual must purify themselves in preparation—represented primarily through the symbolism of the leaven that is removed (see vv. 14-20, and compare Paul’s interpretation in 1 Cor 5:7); note also the purity regulations in Numbers 9.
    • The symbolism of the historical context of the Passover—the Exodus as freedom from bondage (in Egypt).

One can see how each of these aspects could be related to the removal of sin (and its effects); yet were any of these particularly in view for the Gospel writer, or did they specifically influence the sin-association in Jn 1:29? Philo of Alexandria, in his allegorical interpretation of the Passover tradition, blends together the second and third aspects in a unique way. In his work On the Special Laws, in the section on the Passover (2.145-149), the festival is interpreted as figuratively representing the purification of the soul. He utilizes the wordplay between the Hebrew word for the festival, pesaµ (transliterated in Greek as páscha), explained as deriving from the root psµ I (“pass over”), and the Greek verb páschœ (“suffer”, i.e., being affected, specifically by the passions), so as to explain the Passover as symbolizing the “passing over” of the soul, away from the body and its passions (2.147).

An even closer parallel can perhaps be found in Josephus’ brief discussion of Passover in Antiquities 2.311-14 (see Nielsen, p. 238). Josephus shifts the meaning of the lamb’s blood somewhat. Instead of its apotropaic function (see above), with the blood being applied to the house of the Israelite family (thus protecting the people inside), a spiritualizing ethical interpretation is given, whereby the blood actually purifies (vb hagnízœ) the individual who faithfully observes the ritual. This concept of the purification of the devout/faithful Israelite by the lamb’s blood is not that far removed from the Christian idea of Jesus’ blood cleansing the believer from sin (1 John 1:7).

Already in the Exodus tradition (Exod 12:27), the Passover (lamb) is referred to as a sacrificial offering (ze»aµ)—that is, an animal that is ritually slain as an offering (to God). In Israelite and Jewish tradition, the Passover would increasingly be recognized as a kind of sacrifice. It clearly is not an offering for sin; it has much more in common with the šelem offering (Leviticus 3), in which the worshiper eats the meat of the animal as part of a ritual meal. Even so, the traditional conception of the Passover as a sacrifice may well have led early Christians to connect it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, such as the offerings for sin—including the expiatory offerings of the Day of Atonement festival (Leviticus 16), which involved the ritual/symbolic removal of sin. That early Christians did, in fact, associate the Day of Atonement offerings with the person of Jesus (and his sacrificial death) is clear from Hebrews 8-10. It would not be unreasonable for an early Christian to blend this sin offering imagery together with the motif of Jesus as a Passover lamb that is slain, bringing life and salvation to those who believe.

2. The lamb in Isaiah 53:7

(I discuss Isa 52:13-53:12 at length in an earlier article and set of notes; see the note on 53:7)

The “Suffering Servant” figure in this famous Isaian Servant Song (52:13-53:12) is compared, in verse 7, to a lamb brought along to the slaughter. This is one of the very few Old Testament passages that could be cited by early Christians as prophesying the suffering and death of Jesus. As the repeated references in Luke-Acts make clear, it was vitally important for the early (Jewish) Christian missionaries to demonstrate (for their fellow Jews) that Jesus was the Messiah, even though his suffering and shameful/painful death made such an identification difficult. They sought to prove from the Scriptures that it was necessary for the Messiah to be put to death (see Lk 18:31ff; 24:25-26, 46; Acts 3:18; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23), and Isa 53:7ff is one of the few passages that could reasonably be quoted in support of this.

Indeed, Isa 53:7-8 is specifically cited in Acts 8:32-33ff, applied to the suffering and death of Jesus. Since the lamb in John 1:29 also is connected with Jesus’ death (as the slain Passover lamb, see the discussion above), it would be natural for the lamb in Isa 53:7f to be similarly applied to Jesus by the Gospel writer.

In the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 53:7, the Hebrew nouns ´eh and r¹µel (referring to a male and female sheep, respectively) are translated by the Greek nouns próbaton and amnós. The noun próbaton is a descriptive term that denotes a quadruped animal that “walks forward”, referring particularly to sheep or goats; amnós, the word used in Jn 1:29, properly designates a young sheep (lamb).

The LXX of Isa 53:7-8ff seems, in particular, to have influenced the Johannine use of the lamb-motif (see Nielsen, pp. 231-3). First, there is the idea of the Servant being “taken up” from the earth (v. 8), using the same verb (aírœ) as here in 1:29 (see below). Beyond this, in 52:13-15, and again at the end of the passage (53:10-12), there is an emphasis on the glorification of the Servant, tying his vicarious suffering/death to his exaltation. Of particular note is the occurrence of the noun dóxa and the related verb doxázœ (twice) in the LXX of 52:13-14, which is significant, given the importance of these words in relation to the “lifting up” of Jesus (death-exaltation) in the Gospel of John (12:23, 28; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4-5, 22, 24; see also 7:39; 12:16).

In Isa 53:10, the suffering of the Servant is specifically connected with the idea of a sin offering, helping to explain the sin-association that is notably absent from the background of the Passover lamb (as mentioned above). The vicarious nature of this offering is clear from verse 12, where it is stated that the Servant “lifted up” (vb n¹´¹° ac*n`) the sins of many people, bearing them himself, in a way that intercedes (vb p¹ga±) for the people (on their behalf) before God. In the LXX, this is expressed in a way that better fits the vicarious suffering of Jesus: “and he (himself) brought up [i.e. carried] the sins of many, and he was given over through [i.e. because of] their sins”.

The use of the noun amnós can serve as further evidence that Isa 53:7 is in view here in Jn 1:29, since different nouns (ar¢¡n, próbaton) are used in the LXX for the Passover lamb. As I have noted, it seems likely that the Passover lamb is the main point of reference in Jn 1:29, but that the nuances of meaning from Isa 53:7ff have also shaped the “lamb of God” concept. This Johannine lamb-tradition continues in the book of Revelation, where the noun arníon (diminutive of ar¢¡n) is used for Jesus as the lamb that was slain (and now has an exalted status in heaven). The noun amnós, by contrast, is rather rare in the New Testament; apart from here in Jn 1:29 (and 36), it occurs only in Acts 8:32 (citing Isa 53:7, see above), and in 1 Peter 1:19, where the Passover lamb (with its unblemished character) may also be in view.

The noun amnós is used in Exod 29:38-41 for the lamb that is presented as a twice-daily burnt offering, while próbaton is used in Leviticus for the various sacrificial offerings (sin offering, 5:6ff, etc). Thus there is some precedence in the tradition for understanding an amnós-lamb as a sacrificial offering; and, as mentioned above, it would have been natural for Christians to extend this association, when applied to the person of Christ, to include offerings for sin as well.

The use of the verb aírœ

John 1:29 uses the verb aírœ (ai&rw), which has the basic meaning “take up”. It is a common verb, used without any special meaning in many of the Gospel references (2:16; 5:8-12; 8:59, etc). There are two possible ways of understanding its meaning here: (a) take away (i.e. remove), or (b) the act of lifting up (i.e., bear/carry). The verb is used both ways in the Gospel, equally for lifting/carrying (5:8-12) and removing (e.g., 11:39, 41). What is the principal emphasis here? Does Jesus, as the “lamb of God”, remove sin, or does he bear/carry it?

If, as I discuss above, Isa 53:7ff is an important influence on Jn 1:29, then we might assume the latter. In verse 12, it is clearly stated that the Servant, in his suffering, “lifted up” (i.e., carried) the sins of many. In Hebrew, the verb n¹´¹° is used, which certainly could be translated in Greek by the verb aírœ, even though in the LXX of v. 12 it is the more concrete verb anaphérœ (“bring up”) that is used, denoting an act of lifting/bearing/carrying. The verb aírœ does occur in LXX Isa 53:8, but in reference to the death of the Servant—i.e., his being “taken up/away” from the earth. However, since the death of Jesus is also in view in Jn 1:29 (see the discussion above), and as the departure of the Son (Jesus) from the earth (back to God the Father) is a key Johannine theme, Isa 53:8 could very well be influencing the use of aírœ here (compare the use of aírœ in a similar Passion context, 19:15; 20:13ff; see also 16:22; 17:15).

At the same time, the idea of the removal of sin is also found throughout the Johannine writings, most notably in 1 John 1:7, where it is stated that the blood of Jesus (i.e., through his death as the slain ‘lamb’) cleanses the believer from sin. Perhaps the strongest argument for this meaning of aírœ here in Jn 1:29 comes from 1 John 3:5, where it is indicated the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth was to “take away” sin (“…that he might take away [ár¢] sin”).

The most significant (and relevant) use of aírœ elsewhere in the Gospel occurs in the Shepherd-discourse of chapter 10. The context of Jesus’ death, as a self-sacrifice, is clearly indicated:

“Through this, the Father loves me, (in) that [i.e. because] I set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life], (so) that I might take it (up) again. No one takes [aírei] it away from me, but (rather) I set it (down) from myself; I hold (the) authority to set it (down), and I (also) hold (the) authority to take it (up) again—this (is) the charge (laid) on (me) to complete (that) I received (from) alongside my Father.” (10:17-18)

The verb aírœ is used in the sense of Jesus’ life being “taken away”; however, when he speaks of his actual death, as a self-sacrifice, he uses the verb pair “set/lay (down)” (títh¢mi) and “take (up)” (lambánœ). No one “takes away” his life; rather, he himself sets it down (dies) and takes it back up again (returning to life). This use of aírœ , paired with the Johannine references in 1 Jn 1:7; 3:5, seems to confirm that the principal aspect of meaning for aírœ in 1:29 is the removal (“taking away”) of sin.

In next week’s study, some concluding comments and observations on 1:29 will be made, along with a brief examination of the context of the second sin-reference in the Gospel (5:14).

Saturday Series: John 1:29

A careful critical study of Scripture is essential for establishing the theology of early Christians, as recorded and represented in the New Testament. Beyond this, it is important to realize that the theology of the New Testament is actually comprised of a number of distinct theologies—tied to the thought and expression of different individuals and communities. There are at least two major Communities represented by the New Testament Scriptures; these may be labeled the Pauline and Johannine. The first refers to the congregations founded by Paul during his missionary work, and to his influence over them; the second refers to the churches among which the Gospel and Letters of John were first written and distributed.

As with Paul and the Pauline churches, there was a shaping influence over the Johannine congregations, attributable either to the writer of the Gospel and letters (if the same person) or to a Johannine ‘school’ of thought and expression shared by a number of individuals. In the Saturday Series studies for September-October, I will be exploring one particular area of Johannine theology: the concept and understanding of sin. In the technical parlance of systematic theology, this area of study is referred to as hamartiology.

Each reference to “sin”, where either the Greek noun hamartía (a(marti/a) or verb hamartánœ (a(marta/nw) is used, in the Gospel and Letters of John, will be carefully examined. The result of this critical and exegetical study will allow us to gain a relatively clear and accurate picture of the Johannine understanding of sin. This will also serve as a demonstration of how New Testament Criticism helps us to establish New Testament theology. Different areas of Biblical Criticism—textual, historical, literary, etc—will be touched upon in our study.

John 1:29

We begin with the first occurrence of the hamart– (a(mart-) word-group in the Gospel of John. This verse is part of the first major section of the Gospel, following the Prologue (1:1-18). A brief consideration of the narrative structure of this section, from a literary-critical standpoint, will help us understand verse 29 in context.

The section 1:19-51 is structured as a sequence of four episodes, narrated as four “days”, during which the focus shifts from John the Baptist to Jesus (see Jn 3:30):

    • 1:19-28—The testimony of John the Baptist regarding his own identity
    • 1:29-34—The testimony of John regarding the identity of Jesus
    • 1:35-42—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of John’s witness
    • 1:43-51—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of his (and other disciples’) witness

This structure is discerned from the wording used to demarcate the three sections of vv. 29-51, each of which begins with the phrase t¢¡ epaúrion, “upon the (morning) air” (i.e. “upon the morrow”, in conventional English, “the next day, next morning”). Here is the precise wording in verse 29:

“Upon the (morning) air [t¢¡ epaúrion], he [i.e. John] looks [blépei] (at) Yeshua coming toward him, and says…”

It will be useful to outline this first ‘day’ covered by vv. 29-34. Structurally and thematically, it is best represented as a chiasmus, in which statements by the Baptist, regarding the true identity of Jesus, are enclosed by a pair of declarations given in more traditional (and symbolic) language:

    • Witness of John the Baptist—Jesus coming toward [erchómenon prós] him (“See, the Lamb of God…”), v. 29
      • Statement of John the Baptist concerning the true nature and superiority of Jesus (v. 30); his baptizing reveals Jesus to Israel (v. 31)
      • Statement of John the Baptist (v. 32); Jesus’ true nature (and superiority) revealed in John’s baptizing (v. 33)—descent of the Spirit & Divine announcement (baptism of Jesus implied)
    • Witness of John the Baptist— “This (one) is the Son of God”, v. 34

This outline can be expanded with a bit more detail, in terms of the action of the scene:

    • Declaration 1— “See! the Lamb of God…” (v. 29)
      • Jesus coming toward John (vv. 29-30)
      • John came to baptize (Jesus) (vv. 31, 33)
        [The Baptism of Jesus, as described by John]
      • The Spirit stepping down (i.e. coming down) and remaining on Jesus (vv. 32-33)
      • Before this, John had not seen/known Jesus (i.e. recognized his identity) (vv. 31, 33)
    • Declaration 2— “This is the Son of God” (v. 34)
      [Note: Some MSS read “this is the Elect/Chosen (One) of God”]

As noted above, over these four ‘days’, the focus shifts from John the Baptist to Jesus. This is part of a wider theme that runs through chapters 1-3, contrasting John the Baptist with Jesus. This contrast is established in the Prologue (vv. 6-8, 15), and then developed in the remainder of the chapter. On the first ‘day’ of the opening narrative (vv. 19-28), John the Baptist explicitly denies that he is the Messiah. Three different Messianic figure-types are mentioned (vv. 20-21, 25), on which see my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Then, by contrast, throughout the rest of the narrative, a sequence of Messianic titles is applied to Jesus, indicating that he (and not the Baptist) is the Messiah. The narrative concludes with the visionary “Son of Man” saying by Jesus in verse 51, introducing the important Johannine theme of Jesus’ heavenly origin (as the Son), utilizing the idiom of descent/ascent (literally, “stepping down/up”, expressed by the verb pair katabaínœ / anabaínœ).

Another key Johannine theme is of John the Baptist as a witness (martyría, vb martyréœ) to Jesus’ Messianic identity (and Divine/heavenly origin as God’s Son). Again, this theme is established in the Prologue (vv. 7-8, 15), and then developed in the narrative—focused in the first two ‘days’ (vv. 19-28, 29-34). The Baptist’s declaration in verse 29 is part of this witness:

“Upon the morrow he looks (at) Yeshua coming toward him and says: ‘See—the lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sin [t¢¡n hamartían] of the world!'”

Jesus is specifically identified by the expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós toú Theoú). The text of this verse is quite secure, but the precise interpretation has proven something of a challenge for commentators. What, exactly, is the significance of the expression “the lamb of God”? Before considering this question, let us look at how the noun hamartía is used here. First, a note on the hamart– word-group.

The basic meaning of the verb hamartánœ (a(marta/nw) is “miss (the mark)”, i.e., fail to hit the target. From this concrete meaning, it came to be used in the more general sense of “fail (to do something)”, and then in the ethical-religious sense of “fail to do (what is right),” i.e., do wrong. In the Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, hamartánœ frequently translates the verb µ¹‰¹° (af*j*), which has a comparable range of meaning, and tends to be used in the ethical-religious sense of “do wrong”, i.e., sin. The singular noun hamartía (a(marti/a) can refer: (a) to a single/particular sin, (b) sins collectively, or (c) to sin in a general sense (or as a concept).

In verse 29, the singular noun is used, with the definite article—literally, “the sin” (in the accusative case, t¢¡n hamartían). The expression is “the sin of the world”, where the noun kósmos (“world-order, world”) is used in the general/neutral sense of the entire inhabited world, i.e., all human beings (on earth). Since all of humankind is involved, the singular hamartía is clearly being used either in sense (b) or (c) above—that is, of sins taken collectively, or of sin understood in the general sense. Both meanings would apply—i.e., to any and all sins committed by human beings. It is also possible to view the genitive expression (“…of the world”) as reflecting the nature and character of the world (and of human beings in it)—that it is fundamentally sinful, characterized by sin. This is very much in keeping with the negative use of the word kósmos in the Johannine writings, referring to the “world” as the domain of darkness and evil, which is opposed to the light and truth of God.

Next week, we will look specifically, and in some detail, at the expression “the lamb of God” in verse 29 (repeated in v. 35), noting how it relates to “the sin of the world”.

Saturday Series: Acts 2:1-13

Acts 2:1-13

In the Pentecost narrative proper (Acts 2:1-13), the author of Acts begins to develop a number of important themes that will carry through the book. These were established in the opening sections, beginning with the prologue (1:1-5, see the prior study), and presented more clearly in the opening narrative of 1:6ff (see last week’s study). Indeed, the central theme of Acts is stated in 1:6-8, with the brief exchange between Jesus and his disciples. Through this exchange, and Jesus’ answer (vv. 7-8) to the disciples’ question (v. 6), the author introduces the idea that the kingdom of God on earth, previously identified with the kingdom of God’s people Israel, is now to be identified with the early Christian mission, realized through two main aspects: (1) the coming of the Holy Spirit on believers (v. 8a), and (2) the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world (v. 8b).

Continuing this literary-critical study, let us consider how this theme is developed in the Pentecost narrative—the narrative of the sending of the Spirit during Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), which inaugurates the Christian mission. I divide this section as follows:

    1. Introductory statement (unity of the Disciples), verse 1.
    2. Manifestation of the Spirit, verses 2-4.
    3. Reaction of Jews in Jerusalem (united voice of the crowds), verses 5-13.

Let us examine each of these in turn.

1. Introductory statement (unity of the Disciples), Acts 2:1:

As I did for Acts 1:14 in the previous study, I break out the specific words of this short verse:

    • kaí (“and”)
    • en tœ¡ sumpl¢roústhai (“in the being filled up” [syn as intensive prefix, i.e. “filled completely”]—but here as a temporal clause = “when it was completely filled”)
    • t¢¡n h¢méran t¢¡s pentekost¢¡s (“the Fiftieth day”)
    • ¢¡san (“they [i.e. the Disciples] were”)
    • pántes (“all”—all of them, together)
    • homoú (“as one” or “at one”, i.e., together, the same; see the similar homothymadón [“of one impulse”] in 1:14)
    • epí tó autó (“upon the [same] thing” —this phrase occurs repeatedly in the early chapters of Acts, though somewhat obscured by conventional translations; it is indicative of the unity of the believers)

Here is the verse in literal translation:

“And in the Fiftieth day’s being filled completely, they were all at one upon the (same) thing [or, place]”

And in a more conventional translation:

“And when the Fiftieth day had been fufilled, they were all together in the same place.”
[As C. C. Torrey and other scholars have noted, the Greek may reflect an Aramaic expression “when the Weeks had been fulfilled” (e.g., û»mišlam š¹»û±ayy¹°), which is more intelligible]

The “Fiftieth” day (usually transliterated as “Pentecost”), is the festival of Weeks (š¹»¥±ô¾) in Israelite and Jewish tradition (cf. Lev. 23:9-22; Deut. 16:9-12). Fifty days (seven weeks) are counted from the offering of the firstfruit sheaf of grain at the time of Passover. Traditionally, it was also the time associated with the Sinai theophany and giving of the Law (Ex. 19:1ff). In the Exodus narrative, the entire camp of Israel was gathered together beneath the mountain “to meet God” (Ex. 19:17). Here, the disciples, too are gathered together in the same place and will “meet God”. Elements of the Sinai theophany also have their parallel in the manifestation of the Spirit, as we shall see.

2. Manifestation of the Spirit, Acts 2:2-4:

Here the manifestation of the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) is recorded in dramatic fashion, in the language and imagery of Theophany. Since the manifestation of God at Sinai (occurring at Pentecost, by tradition) was mentioned above, it is worth looking at elements of that theophany:

    • Thunders (lit. “voices”) and lightnings (19:16)
    • A thick cloud
    • Fire went down upon the mountain; smoke (as of a furnace) went up from it (19:18), perhaps parallel to the cloud in v. 16.
    • The mountain “trembled” (or “quaked”); in v. 16 it is said the people trembled (same verb)
    • The sound (lit. “voice”) of a horn (shofar) (19:19, also mentioned in v. 16), which sounded long and grew louder

Consider also the theophany to Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12):

    • A great and strong wind (or “breath”, “spirit” rûaµ = Grk pneúma) which swept through and tore at the mountain
    • An earthquake (“quaking”, “shaking” ra±aš)
    • Fire (°¢š)

all of which occur as God (YHWH) is “passing over” (or “passing by” ±œ»¢r), but God Himself is not in (b) the wind, quaking or fire. Then comes a quiet, thin voice.

Here is the manifestation of the Spirit as recorded in Acts (note the theophanic details in italics, with specific parallels in bold):

    1. “And suddenly there came to be out of the heaven a sound as of a violent wind [pno¢¡] being carried (along) and it filled the whole house (in) which they were sitting” (2:2)
    2. “And there was seen [i.e. appeared] unto them tongues as if of fire divided through(out), and it sat upon each one of them” (2:3)
    3. “And they all were filled of/by (the) holy Spirit [pneúma] and began to speak in other tongues even as the Spirit gave (to) them to utter forth” (2:4)

Clearly, there is wordplay with “tongues (as if) of fire” [glœ¡ssai hœseí pyrós] anticipating “with other tongues” [hetérais glœ¡ssais] in v. 4. There is at least one other occurrence of the phrase “tongues of fire” from roughly the same period in a Qumran text (represented by fragments of 1Q29 and 4Q376: these with 4Q375 and 1Q22 may all be part of the same work). 1Q29 fragment 1 can be restored on the basis of 4Q376 (ellipses indicate gaps [lacunae] in the text):

“…the stone, like… they will provide you with light and he will go out with it with tongues of fire [blšwnwt °š]; the stone which is at its left side will shine to the eyes of all the assembly until the priest finishes speaking. And after it [the cloud?] has been removed… and you shall keep and do all that he tells you. And the prophet … … who speaks apostasy … … YHWH, God of …”

Another tiny fragment reads: “… the right stone when the priest leaves … … three tongues of fire … … And after he shall go up and remove his shoes ….” (translations taken from García Martínez & Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, Brill/Eerdmans 1997/2000, vol. 1 pp. 108-9). The words (possibly spoken by Moses) refer to an anointed Priest; the stones on the right and left (urim and thummim?) are associated both with light and the voice of the Priest as he addresses the assembly. It is possible the “three tongues” are also “divided out”, one over each stone, and one directly over the Priest in the middle.

There is some uncertainty whether the “other tongues” refer to an ecstatic ‘heavenly’ language or ‘earthly’ foreign languages. Other New Testament references (Acts 10:46; 19:6, and those in 1 Cor. 12-14) suggest the former, while the context here (cf. Acts 2:11) indicates the latter. Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional, in order to reflect both: (a) heavenly origin, and (b) the languages of the nations. Returning to the Sinai theophany, there is an old Jewish tradition that as the Torah (each word of God) went forth it was split into the seventy languages of the nations (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 88b); that is, each nation could hear the voice of God (the “thunderings”) in its own language (cf. Exodus Rabbah V.9). A tradition along these lines seems to be at least as old as Philo of Alexandria (On the Decalogue §46), and so nearly contemporary with the book of Acts.

3. Reaction of Jews in Jerusalem (united voice of the Crowd), Acts 2:5-13:

The following outline indicates the main elements of this section:

    • Jews “come together” in Jerusalem (v. 5, 6a)
    • Response of the crowd (vv. 6b-11) in two aspects:
      1) Each person hears in his/her own language
      2) Nations respond in a (symbolic) united voice
    • Confusion (v. 12, see also in vv. 6-7)— “What does this wish to be?”

The mocking retort in v. 13 serves as a lead-in to Peter’s address in vv. 14-40. Let us look at each element in a little more detail:

a. Jews “come together” in Jerusalem (v. 5, 6a)

The mention of “Jews” (Ioudaíoi) being in Jerusalem may seem unnecessary, but it is significant for at least two reasons: (1) to emphasize the underlying religious and cultural unity of the ‘nations’ present in the city, and (2) it draws attention to the (post-exilic) reality of the current situation. When Israel, and particularly the southern kingdom of Judah (centered at Jerusalem), was taken into exile, the people were dispersed among the nations; and it was in the “dispersion” (diaspora) that a distinctly Jewish identity developed. It is generally assumed that these Jews are sojourning in Jerusalem for the festival of Weeks (Pentecost); the verb katoikéœ often implies a more permanent residence, but here may simply mean generally “to dwell”. These Jews are “from every nation under heaven”, and have come together in the city (for the festival). At the coming-to-be of “this voice” (t¢¡ phœn¢¡), again Jews, symbolized as a specific crowd (pl¢¡thos), “come together” (sunérchomai) in confusion (being “stirred together” [sungchéœ]). It is interesting that, just in the tradition regarding the Sinai theophany, the multitudes are hearing different languages but one voice.

b. Response of the Crowd (v. 6b-11)

V. 6b and 7a reprise the confusion—they “stood out of (their minds)” and “wondered” in amazement as they heard the disciples speaking. It is unnecessary to ask just how, when, or where these people heard the disciples—and altogether beside the point. The author has crafted a marvelous dramatic scene, with events (at the historical level) certainly having been compressed together into a single moment. Similarly, it is rather unlikely that a single person or group of persons in the crowd would have said precisely what the crowd is recorded as saying here. Instead, various reactions and responses are represented by one voice. This is important thematically, and, one might say, theologically as well. Often a creative literary device conveys far more truth than a ‘sober’ record of events. Consider several of the themes inherent in the crowd’s response:

    • The reference to the disciples as “Galileans” (Galilaíoi), while serving to emphasize the wonder of the situation, also creates a subtle shift stressing ethnic (and geographic) identity. Most of the disciples, and certainly the Twelve were Galileans (“men of Galilee”, 1:11). The early Christian mission began in Galilee (cf. 1:1-2), is centered in Jerusalem (by the united community of the Disciples), and will spread from there into all nations (1:8).
    • Two key references to hearing the voices speaking “in our own language” (t¢¡ idía dialéktœ h¢mœ¡n, v. 8, see also v. 6) and “in our tongues” (taís h¢metérais glœ¡ssais, v. 11) bracket the list of nations in vv. 9-11a. The importance of this description should by now be apparent. It may be useful to consider the qualifying phrase accompanying each reference:
      (1) V. 8: “in our own language in which we came to be born” [en h¢¡ egenn¢¡th¢men]
      (2) V. 11: “(hear speaking) in our tongues the great (work)s of God” [tá megaleía toú Theoú]
      The first phrase clearly indicates ethnic sense; the second echoes Old Testament language whereby news of the great and glorious deeds of God is spread into the surrounding nations (cf. Ex. 15:11ff, and many others)—geographic sense.
    • The list of nations (vv. 9-11) has been a source of some confusion, as indicated by the number of textual variants and proposed emendations. However, much of the difficulty disappears when its literary nature is recognized, rather than simply being a list rattled off by someone in the crowd. The inclusion of “Judea” has seemed strange (since Jews are speaking, and they are already in Judea!) as well as its position, leading to many suggested emendations; however, as a separate geographical list it actually makes sense—moving from East (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia) to West (Anatolian/Asian provinces, Egypt, Lybia, Cyrene and Italy) with Judea in the middle. While still a bit uneven (the final two, Cretans and Arabs, don’t fit in order as well) and not without difficulties, its significance as a list of the (known and relevant) surrounding nations is obvious.
c. Confusion (v. 12, cf. also vv. 6-7)

The confusion of the crowd is re-iterated, stating that they all were beside themselves (again exíst¢mi, lit. “stand out of [one’s mind]” v. 7) and “thoroughly at a loss” (diaporéœ). Their summary response is: tí thélei toúto eínai; (literally “what does this wish to be?”), often translated more conventionally as “what does this mean?” —however a more literal rendering preserves better a sense of the strange, dynamic nature of the situation in which the crowd finds itself: events almost seem to have a will of their own! The ironic, mocking retort that closes the crowd’s response (“they are filled with sweet [wine]!”), of course, serves to lead into Peter’s great Pentecost speech (vv. 14-40). The disciples are indeed “filled” (pl¢¡thœ) with the Spirit (v. 4), rather than “filled” (mestóœ, a somewhat cruder verb which can indicate “stuffed”, “intoxicated”) with ordinary wine.

In conclusion, it is perhaps worth considering again the theme of the “restoration of Israel” in light of the Pentecost narrative:

    • The disciples have returned (turned back) to Jerusalem
      • The Twelve have been reconstituted and are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place
        • Jews from all nations (the Dispersion) also are gathered together in Jerusalem
      • They again hear the voice (word of God) in the languages of the nations, spoken by the Twelve and other disciples (echo of the Sinai theophany)
    • The disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)

Saturday Series: Acts 1:6-11ff

The first two chapters of the book of Acts are important for establishing all of the main themes that will be developed throughout the narrative. These sections also illustrate the distinctive way that the author develops the historical traditions related to the early Christian mission. There is thus much to explore in these chapters from a literary-critical and historical-critical standpoint. In this particular study, I will be focusing on the literary-critical aspects.

The role of the Spirit is central to this narrative, beginning with the prologue (see the discussion in last week’s study), and continuing through the Pentecost narrative of chapter 2. In order to gain a proper sense of the way that the themes are established, and the traditions utilized, in the Pentecost narrative, it is most helpful to keep in mind the context and structure of the early chapters, which I outline as follows:

    1. Lukan Introduction (1:1-5)—a long, complex and difficult sentence (cf. Luke 1:1-4), which turns into an historical summary (vv. 2-4a) and concludes with a direct address of Jesus to his disciples (vv. 4b-5).
    2. The Ascension (1:6-11), comprising:
      (a) the question regarding the Kingdom and Jesus’ reply to his disciples(vv. 6-8),
      (b) the visible ascension with theophanic/apocalyptic imagery (v. 9),
      (c) appearance of the (Heavenly) men and their address to the disciples
    3. A summary narrative (1:12-14) recording the return of the disciples to Jerusalem, and their united presence in the Upper Room (the Twelve [minus Judas Iscariot], some women, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers). This summary parallels Luke 24:52-53, and is an important bridge between the Ascension and the following narrative.
    4. The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26)—two key parts, both of which act as seminal motifs for the remainder of the book:
      a) Peter’s speech (vv. 15-22)—the first of many such speeches in Acts, centering on quotation/interpretation of Scripture (a tradition regarding Judas Iscariot has been inserted parenthetically, vv. 18-19)
      b) The selection/commission of a disciple (Matthias) for (apostolic) ministry (vv. 23-26)
    5. The Pentecost Narrative (chapter 2)
      5a. Narrative of the coming of the Spirit (2:1-13)
      5b. Peter’s Speech (2:14-40), again centered on quotation/interpretation of Scripture.
      5c. Historical/editorial summary (2:41-47).

This same structure will be carried out through much of Acts; for example, in the next two chapters:

    • Main historical narrative, including notable ministry work, miracles, etc. (“Acts”) of the Apostles (3:1-11; 4:1-22)
    • Speech (or intercourse), centered on a passage (or passages) of Scripture, and containing early Gospel proclamation (kerygma) (3:12-26; 4:23-30)
    • Historical/editorial summary (none in ch. 3; 4:31)

Each of sections 1-4 (which make up Acts 1) is important thematically for an understanding of the Pentecost Narrative. Here I summarize some key notes:

Section 1: Lukan Introduction (Acts 1:1-5):

  • The historical summary (vv. 2-4a), we we looked in the previous study, has at its heart the double phrase:
    hoís kaí parést¢sen heautón zœ¡nta metá tó patheín autón en polloís tekm¢ríois, di’ h¢merœ¡n tesserákonta optanómenos autoís kaí légœn tá perí t¢¡s basileías toú theoú
    “…and to whom [i.e. the disciples] he stood himself alongside [i.e. presented himself] alive after his suffering in many fixed marks [i.e. signs/proofs], through forty days being seen by them and recounting/relating the (things) about the kingdom of God”
    We can break down chiastically the elements of this phrase:

Living presence of God/Christ in his disciples
[to whom he stood himself alongside alive…]
— Demonstration that He is the Messiah and Son of the Living God
[…after his suffering in many fixed marks/signs]
— Ministry and proclamation
[through days being seen by them and recounting/relating…]
The Kingdom of God
[…the things about the Kingdom of God]

These are all seminal themes and motifs of the Book of Acts, and, one might say, form the core of the Gospel message.

    • The narration continues in v. 4a and blends into an address (in direct speech) of Jesus to his disciples. Again note the key elements:

a. Stay in (do not depart from) Jerusalem (see Luke 24:52; Acts 1:12)
b. Remain about (i.e. wait) for the promise of the Father (Luke 24:49) which you have heard from me (see Acts 1:13-14, also Luke 24:53)
c. Reprise of John’s testimony:
“(On the one hand), John dunked in water, but (on the other hand), you will be dunked in the Holy Spirit after not many (of) these days”

Section 2: The Ascension (Acts 1:6-11):

Note again how one can break this passage down chiastically:

    • Question regarding the Kingdom of God with Jesus’ reply, including a reiteration of the promise of the Holy Spirit (vv. 6-8)
      • The Ascension of Jesus (v. 9)
        —At their seeing/looking
        — He was raised up(on)
        — A cloud took him under
        —Away from their eyes
    • Angelic appearance and eschatological announcement about Christ’s return (vv. 10-11)

The theme of the Kingdom—shorthand for “Kingdom of God (or Heaven)”—is most significant; I have discussed it in some detail in earlier notes and articles. One can, I think, outline four principal ways of understanding the phrase:

    1. As the Eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
    2. As an eschatological (Messianic) Kingdom, on earth, the establishment of which will involve:
      (a) judgment/defeat of the nations and enemies of God, and
      (b) restoration of the Davidic inheritance to Israel.
    3. In the person and work of Jesus—the miracles, teaching, foundation of the church, atoning death and resurrection, etc.
    4. As the (spiritual) presence and power of God in the heart, mind, and lives of believers.

Other interpretations are possible, but they likely will end up being a variation on one of the above. These four meanings can be found in the New Testament—even, I think, in Jesus’ own teaching on the Kingdom—but probably #1 and 4 are most common. The thorniest question scholars raise is to what extent #2 is part of Jesus’ teaching. It is likely that his proclamation “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15 par.) would have been understood in this manner—of eschatological/Messianic expectation—by his contemporaries; and this certainly seems to be what the disciples have in mind here at Acts 1:6.

Let us briefly examine the disciples’ question:

Kýrie, ei en tœ¡ chronœ¡ toútœ apokathistáneis t¢¡n basileían tœ¡ Isra¢¡l;
“Lord, in this time will you set down again the kingdom to Israel?”

A more literal rendering of apokathist¢¡nai would indicate setting the Kingdom down from (apó) where it is currently, back to its former condition; conventionally, we could translate “reconstitute” or “restore”.

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts: first—

“It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has set in (his) own exousía

The word exousía (from éxestin), almost impossible to translate literally, has the sense of “ability” or “authority” to do something. Jesus effectively dispenses with their question, without necessarily denying its validity—however, the brusque response may suggest a misunderstanding on their part. Earlier it is stated that Jesus, during the days following his resurrection, related to his disciples “the things concerning the Kingdom of God” (v. 3). Almost certainly this involved more than the sort of eschatological Messianic kingdom (meaning #2 above) common in popular religious thought. Yet this is what they ask about here. If the first part of Jesus’ reply does away with their question, the second part, in some sense re-establishes it:

“But you shall receive (the) power of the holy Spirit (which is) coming upon you, and you shall be my witnesses (both) in Jerusalem, and [in] all Judea and Samaria, and unto the end of the earth.”

Indeed, I would maintain that the idea of the “restoration of the kingdom”, or, one may say, the “restoration of Israel” is an important idea both in Jesus’ teaching and in the book of Acts.

Section 3: Summary narrative (1:12-14):

I have already mentioned a couple of themes found in this short passage; but, to reiterate, in light of the above comments:

    • The disciples “return (or turn back) into Jerusalem”, v. 12. On the surface this is a simple description; however, consider the language in light of the implied motif of the “restoration” of Israel:
      a) The dispersed Israelites will return to the land, and to Jerusalem
      b) The restoration of Israel is often tied to repentance (turning back)
    • The Twelve disciples are gathered together in one place (upper room), v. 13. If the Twelve represent Israel (see below), then here we also have an image of the twelve tribes gathered together again.
    • The initial words of v. 14 contain a number of related, seminal motifs:
      • hoútoi (“these” —the twelve, along with the other disciples)
      • pántes (“all” —that is, all of them, together)
      • ¢¡san proskarteroúntes (“were being strong” [sense of “endurance”, “patience”] “toward” their purpose/goal)
      • homothymadón (“with one impulse” —a key phrase that occurs throughout Acts, cf. 2:46; 4:24, et al. thymós is often translated as “soul”, “mind” [“with one mind”], but also as “passion”, “desire”; the primal sense of the word was something like a “[violent] stirring”)
      • t¢¡ proseuch¢¡ (“in prayer”)

Does this not seem a beautiful, concise image of what one might call the “kingdom of God” on earth?

Section 4: The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26):

Here it is important to emphasis again the theme of the Twelve. On purely objective grounds, the Twelve represent one of the earliest Christian traditions—a fixed tradition and symbol, separate, it would seem, from much of the actual historical detail. This appears clearly enough from passages such as 1 Cor. 15:5 and Matthew 19:28, where “the Twelve” are mentioned, even though only eleven disciples could be involved (Judas being dead or disqualified). Also, note the variant lists of the Twelve (Matt. 10:1-14; Mark 3:14-19; and Luke 6:13-16 / Acts 1:13). Most likely the Twelve were chosen (by Jesus) in part to represent the tribes of Israel. This is not stated directly, but note Matthew 19:28 (and the Lukan parallel 22:30) and the sending out of the Twelve in Matthew 10:5f. It is possible too, at least in early Christian tradition, that the twelve baskets in the miraculous feeding came to be thought of as symbolic of Israel re-gathered, as well as an image of Church unity (see Didache 9:4 on the Eucharist). In the book of Revelation 21:12-14, the twelve apostles are also identified in terms of the twelve tribes.

So here, in Acts, the choosing of a twelfth apostle, to take the place of Judas Iscariot, takes on great significance. According to the logic of the narrative, Israel (the Twelve tribes) cannot be restored until the Twelve are reconstituted. This may seem strange to modern thinking, but the symbolism was powerful indeed to early Christians, for whom Israel and “the Church” were closely connected.

This sets the stage for the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1-14ff) which I will discuss in detail next week, continuing our literary-critical study of the early chapters of the book of Acts.

Saturday Series: Acts 1:1-2ff

After a brief hiatus this Spring, the Saturday Series returns. Beginning here with the weekend of Pentecost, I will be presenting a series of studies dealing with some important critical issues in the Book of Acts, focusing especially on passages dealing with the Holy Spirit.

One cannot conduct a critical analysis of the Book of Acts without having to grapple with the two different versions, or recensions, that exist for this work. On the one hand, there is the Majority version, reflected in most critical editions of the Greek text, as well as nearly all English translations. The Majority version, in its ancient form, is represented by the Papyri 45 and 74 (Ë45 Ë74), the uncial manuscripts a A B C Y, and the minuscules 33 81 104 326 1175. It is typically referred to as the Alexandrian version. Then, on the other hand, there is the minority or ‘Western’ version, represented principally by the Codex Bezae (D), the fragmentary Papyri Ë29 Ë38 Ë48, the Old Latin MS h, the marked/marginal readings of the Harclean Syriac version, and by quotations in the Latin authors Cyprian and Augustine. For a good introduction, see Metzger, pp. 222-236.

Acts 1:1-2ff

As an example of the different recensions of the text of Acts, we can consider the prologue/introduction in 1:1-5. There is no real difference in the opening verse, but there are noticeable differences in verse 2. Here is a translation of the Alexandrian/Majority version, as reprented by the Nestle-Aland (NA) critical text:

1The first account I made (was) about all (the) things, O Friend-of-God, which Yeshua began to do and also to teach, 2until which day, (hav)ing laid a duty to complete on the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles], through the holy Spirit, (those) whom he (had) gathered out [i.e. chosen], he was taken up

Here is the Greek of verse 2 (including transliteration):

a&xri h!$ h(me/ra$ e)nteila/meno$ toi=$ a)posto/loi$ dia\ pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou ou^$ e)cele/cato a)nelh/mfqh
áchri h¢¡s h¢méras enteilámenos toís apostólois diá pneúmatos hagíou hoús exeléxato anel¢¡mphth¢

Now, here is a translation of vv. 1-2 in the Codex Bezae (D):

1The first account I made (was) about all (the) things, O Friend-of-God, which Yeshua began to do and also to teach, 2until which day he was taken up, (hav)ing laid a duty to complete on the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles], through the holy Spirit, (those) whom he (had) gathered out [i.e. chosen], and ordered (them) to proclaim the good message

The points of difference with the Alexandrian/Majority version are indicated in italics above: (1) the verb form a)nelh/mfqh (anel¢¡mphth¢, “he was taken up”) occurs at an earlier point in the verse, making for a somewhat smoother syntax, and (2) the inclusion of an additional clause:

kai\ e)ke/leuse khru/ssein to\ eu)agge/lion
kaí ekéleuse k¢rýssein tó euangélion
“and ordered (them) to proclaim the good message”

Both of the points of difference can be explained as improvements to the text, and thus would argue in favor of the Alexandrian version as being more original (based on the principle lectio difficilor potior, “the more difficult reading is to be preferred”). As mentioned above, the placement of “he was taken up” (anel¢¡mphth¢) in that earlier position makes for a smoother (and less awkward) syntax. As for the additional clause, it serves to clarify the charge/duty Jesus laid on the disciples (vb entéllomai)—namely, that it was to proclaim the Gospel. While this, of course, is central to the narrative of Acts (Acts 1:8; see Lk 24:47), it is worth noting that the noun euaggélion (“good message,” i.e. Gospel) is actually quite rare in Luke-Acts, never being used in the Gospel of Luke and only twice in Acts (15:7; 20:24); see Fitzmyer, p. 197. These factors tend to confirm the secondary character of the ‘Western’ version.

In several ‘Western’ witnesses (gig, quotations in Augustine and Vigilius), there is no reference to the ascension of Jesus in v. 2, with the Latin equivalent of anel¢¡mphth¢ (“he was taken up”) being absent (or omitted). It is possible that the word was omitted to avoid any possible contradiction with Luke 24:51, where it seems that Jesus ascends on the same day as his resurrection appearance. As it happens, the words kaí anephéreto eis tón ouranón (“and he was carried up into the heaven”) are also absent from some key Western manuscripts (D, Old Latin a b d e ff2 l, and the Sinaitic Syriac); the shorter reading is also found in the Georgian version (group 1) and the original hand of Codex Sinaiticus (a*). For further discussion on this particular textual issue, see my earlier article “Where Did Jesus Go? Critical Notes on the Ascension”.

Several scholars (e.g., F. Blass, J. H. Ropes) have, in the past, attempted to reconstruct an original Greek version that underlies the Latin variants of the ‘Western’ text of verse 2. The following has been proposed (see Metzger, p. 238):

e)n th=| h(me/ra| tou\$ a)posto/lou$ e)cele/cato dia\ pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou kai\ e)ke/leusen khru/ssein to\ eu)agge/lion
“…on the day (when) he gathered out [i.e. chose] the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles] through the holy Spirit, and ordered (them) to proclaim the good message”

In many ways, this syntax is far superior to that of the Alexandrian/Majority version, being much clearer and more straightforward. In this case, the phrase “through the holy Spirit” refers to Jesus’ choosing of the apostles, rather than his instruction of them. The place of the same phrase in the Alexandrian/Majority version is less clear. Given the thematic role of the Spirit in Luke-Acts, we would perhaps expect that the phrase is to be connected here specifically with the verb entéllomai, and the duty/mission of the apostles (to preach the Gospel), i.e., “(hav)ing laid on (them) a duty to complete…through the holy Spirit” (see verse 8).

The textual and syntactical issues surrounding verse 2 are further complicated by the fact that verses 1-5 essentially read as a single long sentence (compare the Gospel prologue, 1:1-4). The placement of the verb anel¢¡mphth¢ (“he was taken up”) at an earlier point in the verse certainly helps to alleviate the cumbersome syntax. Below, I continue the translation of the Alexandrian/Majority version, but with the ‘Western’ modification of the repositioned anel¢¡mphth¢:

1The first account I made (was) about all (the) things, O Friend-of-God, which Yeshua began to do and also to teach, 2until which day he was taken up, (hav)ing laid a duty to complete on the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles], through the holy Spirit, (those) whom he (had) gathered out [i.e. chosen], 3to whom also he stood [i.e. presented] himself alongside, living, after his suffering, with many (sure) marks, (hav)ing been seen by them through(out) forty days, and giving account (of) the (thing)s about the kingdom of God; 4and, being gathered with (them), he gave along a message to them (that they were) not to make space away from Yerushalaim, but (were) to “remain about (for) the announced (promise) of the Father, which you (have) heard of [i.e. from] me, 5(how) that Yohanan dunked in water, but you will be dunked in (the) holy Spirit (after) not many (of) these days”.

Most English translations naturally break up vv. 1-5 into a number of shorter sentences. However, I think it is worth retaining a sense of the continuity of narration intended by the author. Note, in particular, the way that he shifts from the opening point of the prologue-sentence, where he (the author) is speaking to Theophilus (“Friend-of-God”, “Dear-to-God”), to the end point, where Jesus is now speaking to his disciples. In its own way, the shift is a deft and clever literary achievement.

With the prologue still firmly in mind, next week we will turn to consider the place of verses 6-8 as marking the beginning of the Book of Acts proper. There are a number of significant historical and literary-critical issues that must be discussed. I hope that you will join me in this study next Saturday.

 

The Passion Narrative: Episode 6 (Jn 19:16b-37)

Episode 6: The Death of Jesus

John 19:16b-37

With John’s version of the Crucifixion scene, we come to the conclusion of this study on the Passion Narrative. 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 (see the introduction to the Passion narrative in 13:1). It may also be meant to illustrate the words of Jesus, for example 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 (see the earlier study [Episode 5] 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 ánœthen (“from above”, i.e. from the top) and the verb schízœ (“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: “And 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” (pneúma) 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 (Pneúma) 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, cf. my note on this verse) 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 earlier discussion). 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 a series of notes this upcoming week.

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

The Passion Narrative: Episode 6 (Lk 23:26-49)

Episode 6: The DEath of Jesus

Luke 23:26-49

While Luke’s account of the Death of Jesus follows the basic Synoptic tradition (see part 1 of this study), there are significant differences, as well as signs of development in the tradition, which must be examined. To begin with, there is a substantial difference in the overall tone of the episode, in terms of Jesus’ Passion. In the earlier Gethsemane scene, we previously noted that, if one regards 22:43-44 as secondary to the original text (a view that is probably correct), then Luke has eliminated the sense of Jesus’ distress and anguish which is otherwise found in the Synoptic version of the Prayer scene (compare Lk 22:39-46 [omitting 43-44] with Mark 14:32-42 par). In a similar fashion, Luke seems to have removed (or at least downplays) the suffering of Jesus in the crucifixion episode. Consider that there is no reference to Jesus’ being whipped/scourged (to be inferred only from v. 22). Jesus’ great cry to God (Mk 15:34f par, citing Psalm 22:1), with its sense of anguish and despair, is also omitted. Throughout the episode Jesus appears to be calm and in control, offering instruction, exhortation and comfort to others, even as he hangs from the cross (see below). Luke retains the loud cry of Jesus at the moment of death, but without the parallel to the first cry of anguish, it comes across as more of a forceful command or declaration, all the more considering the words which Luke records.

In terms of the structure of the narrative, the Gospel writer has expanded the core episode with additional material, and, as a result, it is comprised of three distinct parts:

    1. The Way to the Cross—vv. 26-31
    2. Jesus on the Cross—vv. 32-43, which can also be divided into three portions:
      a. The scene of the crucifixion (vv. 32-34)
      b. The mocking of the Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers (vv. 35-38)
      c. The dialogue of the two criminals with Jesus (vv. 39-43)
    3. The Death of Jesus—vv. 44-49

Each of these scenes has been modified in some way, compared with the Synoptic version in Mark/Matthew.

1. The Way to the Cross (Lk 23:26-31)

In the main Synoptic version, this is limited to the (historical) traditions surrounding Simon the Cyrenian who carries Jesus’ cross-piece to the place of execution (Mk 15:21), and the reference to the name of the location (“Golgotha, (the) Skull”, Mk 15:22). Luke includes both details, with little modification (vv. 26, 33), but adds a separate tradition involving the crowd of onlookers as Jesus proceeds on the way to the Cross (vv. 27-31). Among the crowd are specified certain women who were “cutting/beating [i.e. their breasts] and wailing” —apparently according to the manner of professional mourners. Their actions prompt a response by Jesus:

“Daughters of Yerushalaim, you must not weep upon [i.e. for] me—(all the) more upon yourselves you should weep, and upon your offspring” (v. 28)

Their apparent concern over his fate is directed away, back to their own situation as “daughters of Jerusalem”. This expression, derived from Old Testament tradition (2 Kings 19:21; Isa 4:4; 10:32; 37:22; 52:2; Lam 2:10, 13, 15; Mic 4:8; Zeph 3:14; Zech 9:9, also Song of Songs 1:5; 2:7, etc), is a poetic figure for the city, the land (and its people) as a whole. In other words, the women represent the city of Jerusalem and the land of Judea. This is clear from the prophecy which follows in verses 29-30, echoing the eschatological suffering and distress announced by Jesus in Mark 13 par (especially verses 14-20). For women and children, such suffering will be particularly acute; indeed, frequently the suffering of women and children (especially women in labor) is used to symbolize the experience of a people’s collective suffering. One of the most difficult aspects of New Testament interpretation is the question of whether the terrible events predicted by Jesus in Mark 13 (par Luke 21) should be understood in terms of the Jewish war (66-70 A.D.), distant future events, or both. Luke specifically sets Jesus’ prediction of suffering (corresponding to Mk 13:14-20) in the context of the siege of Jerusalem (21:20ff). A similar siege description is part of Jesus’ prophecy-lament for Jerusalem in 19:41-44. If the Gospel of Luke is to be dated c. 70 A.D., as believed by many commentators, then it is likely that these 1st century events are foremost in the Gospel writer’s mind.

The precise meaning of the illustration in verse 31 is not entirely clear. Most likely the sense would be—if people do these things when conditions are not so bad (as they will be soon in the future), how will they act during the dry/severe time of tribulation that is to come?

2. Jesus on the Cross (Lk 23:32-43)

Several distinct Lukan features and details in this scene should be discussed.

The saying of Jesus in v. 34—Among the details of the crucifixion scene in Luke is a saying by Jesus, presumably just after he has been put upon the cross:

o( de )Ihsou=$ e&legen: pa/ter, a&fe$ au)toi=$, ou) gar oi&dasin ti/ poiou=sin.
“And Jesus said, ‘Father, release [i.e. forgive] them, for they know not what they are doing.'”

This verse is absent in a wide range of manuscripts and versions (Ë75, ac, B, D*, W, Q, 0124, 579, 1241, and some Syriac and Coptic translations), including the early Bodmer papyrus (Ë75). At the same time, it is found in the majority text, including both family 1 & 13 MSS, and the entire later Koine text tradition, along with key early manuscripts (a*, C, Dc, L, G, D, 0117) and many early translations. Thus the manuscript evidence is fairly evenly divided, perhaps with a slight edge to the shorter reading. Even if secondary, the verse may well represent an authentic saying by Jesus that was inserted in this location by early scribes; certainly it is accord with the teaching and example of Jesus expressed elsewhere in the Gospels. I disagree with scholars who claim that it is easier to explain the omission of this saying than its insertion. Orthodox scribes, on the whole, appear to have been reluctant to delete Christologically significant sayings or details, and were more likely to add or preserve them.

The context of the narrative indicates that this prayer by Jesus—whether original or secondary to the Gospel—refers to the Jewish leaders who were primarily responsible for arranging his death. On this motif of ignorance, cf. Acts 3:17; 13:27; 17:30). Note also the similar prayer by Stephen in Acts 7:60b.

The Mocking of Jesus (vv. 36-38)—In Mark 15:29-32, first the people passing by generally (vv. 29-30), and then the Chief Priests and Scribes specifically (vv. 31-32), mock Jesus, taunting him to “come down” from the cross if he is the miracle-working “Anointed One, King of Israel”. As I discussed in part 1 of this study, this parallels the Sanhedrin interrogation scene closely (see Mk 14:57-61ff par). Luke would seem to have modified this considerably. First, while people do pass by, it is only the religious leaders (“the chief [ruler]s”) who mock Jesus this way (v. 35). Second, they are joined in the taunts by Roman soldiers (vv. 36-37), a detail unique to Luke’s account. Both modifications would appear to be intentional and with a distinct narrative (and theological) purpose. This is confirmed by the fact that there is a similar modification in the earlier Roman “trial” scene. In Mark/Matthew, a crowd of the (Jewish) people demands Jesus’ death, while in Luke, it is only the group of Jewish leaders presenting the case to Pilate who are involved. The entire Roman trial scene in Luke has been composed in relation to Psalm 2:1-2 (see Acts 4:25-28). The Jewish and Roman leaders—i.e. Herod and Pilate, the Chief Priests etc and Roman soldiers—are the ones arranging and carrying out Jesus’ death. While they represent the people, it is not the people (as a whole) who are directly responsible.

Luke thus has a different sort of parallelism in this scene, which comes out especially when we examine the taunts directed at Jesus by the Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers, respectively:

    • Jewish leaders (v. 35): “He saved others—(so) let him save himself, if this (man) is the Anointed (One) of God, the (One) gathered out [i.e. Chosen One]!”
    • Roman soldiers (v. 37): “If you are the King of the Yehudeans {Jews}, save yourself!”

These two titles “Anointed One” (Messiah) and “King of the Jews” were combined together in Mk 15:31 par, as they also are in the charge against Jesus presented to Pilate in Luke 23:2. They reflect the Messianic figure-type of the coming (end-time) ruler from the line of David (cf. Parts 6-8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). It is the latter title (“King of the Jews”), with its more obvious political implications, which features in the Trial and Crucifixion scenes, as emphasized in the inscription on the cross (v. 38 par).

The title “Chosen One” (eklektós, lit. “[one] gathered out”) is a different sort of Messianic title, being drawn primarily from Isaiah 42:1ff. The substantive adjective, along with the related verb (eklégomai), only rarely occurs in the New Testament as a title or description of Jesus. Most often it is used as a title for believers. However, there is an important occurrence of the title in Luke 9:35, uttered by the heavenly voice at the Transfiguration scene: “This is my Son, the One (I have) gathered out [i.e. my Chosen One]” (compare Mark 9:7 par). The same substantive adjective form used here in v. 35 is also uttered by John the Baptist (in relation to the Baptism of Jesus) in Jn 1:34 v.l.

The Dialogue with the Two Criminals (vv. 39-43)—In the Synoptic tradition, both of the criminals being crucified on either side of Jesus join in the taunts (Mk 15:32b). In Luke’s version, however, only one of the criminals acts this way, his words being recorded in v. 39. The other criminal rebukes him, and offers a declaration (confession) of Jesus’ innocence: “…this man has performed [i.e. done] nothing out of place” (v. 41). The entire dialogue is unique to Luke’s version, and concludes with the famous and moving exchange between the “good thief” and Jesus:

    • “Yeshua, remember me when you should come into your kingdom” (v. 42)
    • “Amen, I say to you (that) today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43)

On the textual issue in verse 42, see the critical discussion in a prior article.

This is a good example of the way that a simple historical tradition (Mk 15:27, 32b) is expanded and developed.

3. The Death of Jesus (Lk 23:44-49)

In this portion, Luke follows the Synoptic tradition in Mark/Matthew more closely, but with a number of small (yet significant) differences:

    • Jesus’ “cry of dereliction” (citing Psalm 22:1) is omitted
    • The darkness over the land is described in terms of an eclipse(?) of the sun (v. 45a)
    • The splitting of the Temple curtain takes place prior to Jesus’ death (v. 45b)
    • The final cry of Jesus before death is accompanied by the words: “Father, into your hands I set along my spirit” (v. 46)
    • The climactic declaration by the centurion is entirely different (v. 47, see below)
    • The action of the onlookers in v. 48 parallels that of the women following Jesus in v. 27 (see above); note also the reference to women followers of Jesus in v. 49 (compare 8:2-3).

On the omission of the Synoptic cry of distress, see the discussion above. Instead of the quotation from Psalm 22:1, there is a different Scriptural quotation by Jesus in the cry prior to his death—from Psalm 31:5. It is possible that v. 45a is a creative reworking, in some fashion, of the tradition in Mk 15:34 par; note the points of similarity:

    • Elwiegkate/lipe/$ me
      elœiengkatelipes me
      “Eloi [My God]…(why have) you left me down (behind)?
    • tou\ h(li/ou e)klipo/nto$
      tou ¢liou eklipontos
      “at the sun’s being left out…”

If wordplay of this sort was intended, later scribes, unable to understand it, would have found the expression strange and been inclined to modify it to something like “and the sun was darkened,” which we see in a number of manuscripts. It is possible that, in terms of the natural phenomenon involved, Luke is referring to the occurrence of a solar eclipse.

Luke’s location of the Temple curtain event is curious, setting it prior to Jesus’ death. He may simply wish to connect it directly with the darkness over the land; as I discussed in part 1 of this study, both events are symbols of God’s Judgment upon the land (and its people). The reordering also has the effect of setting Jesus’ cry to the Father in a more climactic position.

Most difficult of all is the confession of the centurion, which has a form in Luke so very different from that of Mark/Matthew:

    • “Truly this man was (the) Son of God” (Mk)
    • “This man really was just/righteous [díkaios]” (Lk)

The different in formula—and also emphasis—is striking indeed, so much so that is necessary to address the issue briefly in a separate note.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 6 (Mk 15:21-41; Matt 27:32-56)

The Death of Jesus

Episode 6

The sixth and final episode of the Passion Narrative is the death (crucifixion) of Jesus. There is a core historical tradition which all four Gospels have inherited, including the following details:

    • The reference to the Aramaic name of the location of the crucifixion—gûlgalt¹° (Greek Golgoqa, Golgotha), “(Place of the) Skull”
    • Two others were crucified along with Jesus, one on either side
    • The inscription placed upon the cross, reading variously:
      “The King of the Jews” (Mk 15:26)
      “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38)
      “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matt 27:37)
      “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19)
    • The soldiers casting lots and dividing Jesus’ clothes
    • Jesus given sour wine to drink while on the cross
Mark 15:21-41; Matthew 27:32-56

The Synoptic version of this episode, as represented by Mark’s account, is divided simply into two halves:

    • Narrative introduction—the man (Simon) standing nearby (v. 21)
      —He follows Jesus, carrying the cross (cf. Mk 8:34 par)
    • The Crucifixion and Mocking of Jesus (vv. 22-32)
    • The Suffering and Death of Jesus (vv. 33-39)
    • Conclusion—the women (Mary and the others) standing nearby (vv. 40-41)
      —They are followers of Jesus (cp. Lk 8:2-3)

The symmetry of this account is quite apparent, the two scenes being framed by narrative descriptions involving the theme of discipleship (following and suffering with Jesus). The historical notice regarding the passerby Simon (v. 21) has all the marks of authenticity, and yet would appear to be contradicted by Jn 19:17 where Jesus carries his own cross to the place of execution. Let us examine each of the principal scenes, considering the differences in Matthew’s version, which otherwise follows Mark closely (as it does throughout the Passion Narrative).

1. The Crucifixion and Mocking of Jesus (Mk 15:22-32 par)
Time: 3rd to 6th hour

If we look at the events and traditional details as they are presented, it is possible again to divide them into two parts:

    • Details surrounding the Crucifixion (vv. 22-25)
      The King of the Jews [inscription on the cross]
      (v. 26)
    • The Mocking of Jesus on the cross (vv. 27-32)

The main detail in vv. 22-25 is the description of people (i.e. soldiers) dividing Jesus’ garments and casting lots for them (v. 24). While not specified by Mark, this is doubtless included as an indication of the fulfillment of prophecy (Psalm 22:18), a point made specific in Jn 19:24. The central element of the scene is the reference to the inscription on the cross (v. 26); Mark states it as follows:

“And the writing of the cause (for death) written upon (the sign above) was ‘The King of the Jews'”

As noted above, each of the Gospels records this same tradition, but the exact wording of the inscription differs in each case. Matthew specifically mentions that the inscription was over Jesus’ head on the cross, which may be parallel with his emphatic version of the inscription— “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (27:37). The official charge against Jesus, and the cause for his execution, involves the title (“King of the Jews”) featured in the earlier interrogation scene with Pilate (v. 2). It is a title more meaningful, in political terms, than the corresponding “Anointed One” (Messiah) used by the High Priest in the Sanhedrin scene (14:61), though in Jewish thought they both refer to the same fundamental Messianic idea (cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). This is confirmed in the mocking of Jesus which follows, paralleling the Sanhedrin interrogation scene:

    • Report of the Temple-saying—14:58 / 15:29f
    • “Are you the Anointed One…?” —14:61
      “Let the Anointed One, the ‘King of Israel’ step down…” —15:32

The challenge in v. 32 is made by the Chief Priests and Scribes (i.e. members of the Council), just as the question to Jesus in 14:61 was made by the Chief (High) Priest.

2. The Suffering and Death of Jesus (Mk 15:33-39 par) Time: 6th to 9th hour

Before proceeding to the main points in the second scene, it is worth considering the symmetry of this episode:

    • Darkness over the whole land (v. 33)
      • Jesus cries out with a great voice (v. 34)
        • Mocking: “See, he calls (for) Elijah” (v. 35)
        • Mocking: “Let us see if Elijah comes…” (v. 36)
      • Jesus releases a great voice [i.e. cry] (v. 37)
    • The curtain of the Temple is torn, from top to bottom (v. 38)

With this structure in mind, I will briefly examine each element of the scene.

a. The Darkness (v. 33)— “darkness came to be upon the whole land” (Matthew: “all the land”). This is an essential image of God’s judgment against the earth—against this particular land and its people. See Exodus 10:21-23 and the motif common in the Prophets—Jer 33:19-21; Amos 8:9-10; Zeph 1:15; Joel 2:2, 10, 31, etc. Often the reference is to the eschatological “Day of YHWH”, a day of judgment/darkness, which can be expressed in terms of the day becoming like night (see Deut 28:29, etc). In the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter 15, this motif is more explicit in the description of the crucifixion scene—i.e. darkness held Judea at mid-day.

b. Jesus’ loud cry (vv. 34, 37)—The first loud cry (lit. “great voice”) by Jesus is accompanied by a quotation from Psalm 22:1 [2]. Here the historical tradition in the Gospel has preserved the Aramaic (or Aramaic-Hebrew mix) of Jesus’ quotation. It is given a reasonably literal translation in Greek: “My God, my God, unto what [i.e. for what purpose, why] have you left me down (behind) [i.e. forsaken me]?” Many attempts have been made to interpret Jesus’ words, often reading in theological and Christological aspects which are essentially foreign to the Gospel tradition here. The natural explanation is that Jesus, in his suffering, pain and distress, is identifying with the sentiment and feeling expressed by the Psalmist. Indeed, the entire Crucifixion scene alludes to Psalm 22—not only the cry echoing verse 1, but also the mocking taunts of the onlookers (vv. 7-8), the dividing of the garments (v. 18), and the overall crucifixion setting (v. 16).

The words of the cry, with the sentiment expressed, is similar to Jesus’ prayer in the earlier Gethsemane scene (Mk 14:34-36ff par). The second loud cry at the moment of his death echoes this first cry, as he breathes out his last breath. It is a simple and powerful evocation of a human being experiencing the moment of death in the midst of extreme pain and suffering. It is hard to imagine a more direct testimony to Jesus’ own identification with the human condition (see Hebrews 5:5-8ff).

c. The association with Elijah (vv. 35-36)—In the context of the narrative, the historical tradition involves wordplay between the underlying Aramaic °E~l¹hî (“My God”) and °E~lîy¹hû (“Elijah”). Critical scholars have found certain historical and linguistic difficulties with this, but there can be no doubt that the Gospel tradition draws upon it for the important Messianic association with Elijah that is reflected throughout the early tradition. It is related to the identity both of John the Baptist and Jesus. The principal Scriptural reference underlying the Messianic tradition is Malachi 4:5 [3:23], a passage which establishes the connection between Elijah and the coming Judgment. The mocking by the crowd, parallel to that in the prior scene (see above), could indicate that Jesus was recognized by some as a Messianic Prophet in the manner of Elijah. The figure of Elijah was especially associated with the working of miracles, including the raising of the dead, and the crowd’s taunt calls on Jesus to work a miracles and to “come down” from the cross. For more on Elijah, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

d. The Temple curtain (v. 37)—The rending of the Temple curtain (katapétasma), like the darkness, symbolizes the Judgment by God—only from a religious standpoint, as it involves the sacred Place (the Temple) in Jerusalem. Probably this refers to the curtain at the entrance to the innermost shrine (“Holy of Holies”), see Hebrews 6:19; 9:3; 10:20. The motif of Judgment would seem to be confirmed by the structural parallel with the darkness (cf. the outline above)—darkness over the whole land, the curtain torn from top to bottom. The passive form of the verb (eschísthe, “was split”) should be understood as a divine passive, with God as the implied actor. For Old Testament and Jewish parallels, cf. the departure of YHWH’s glory from the Temple in Ezekiel 10, also the imagery e.g., in 2 Baruch 6:7; 8:2, and Testament of Levi 10:3. Possibly there is here an allusion to the act of tearing one’s clothes in mourning (2 Kings 2:12); such an act is associated with the destruction of the Temple in the Talmud (b. Mo’ed Qatan 25b).

The letter to the Hebrews allows for a different sort of interpretation to the motif. Through his sacrificial death, Jesus (as High Priest) gives believers access, in a symbolic/spiritual sense, into the innermost shrine of God, effectively ‘splitting’ or removing the curtain (Heb 6:19-20; 9:3ff; 10:19-20). This makes for a beautiful application of the tearing of the curtain in the Passion narrative, but there is no real indication that such was in the mind of the Gospel writers. A more likely allusion, in the context of the Gospel narrative, is to the splitting of the heavens (using the same verb schízœ) at the Baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:10 par), when the Spirit (of God) comes unto/into/upon Jesus at the Baptism. In a similar manner, the Temple curtain is split at the time of Jesus’ death, when his own spirit (i.e. life breath) goes out of him (15:37b).

e. The Centurion’s words (v. 39)—The declaration by the centurion (“Truly this man was [the] Son of God”) is the climactic moment of the entire Passion Narrative. It is parallel to the question by the High Priest (14:61 par), and must be understood here in the context of the Judgment on the land (see above). A certain kind of irony is contained in this verse—a Gentile Roman confesses what the Jewish religious leaders are unwilling (or unable) to accept. Indeed, the centurion’s confession stands in stark contrast to the mocking taunts of the Jewish people and leaders at the scene (vv. 29-32). Occasionally commentators have tried to determine, at the historical level, what such a confession might have meant for such a Gentile Roman—that is, in what sense he might have understood the expression “Son of God”. While this is interesting speculation, it is generally irrelevant to the purpose of his confession in the context of the Gospel narrative. For the writer and his readers, as well as for all Christians today, the declaration is understood as a confession of belief in Christ’s true identity as Messiah and Son of God.

For several of the references given above, and for a detailed critical analysis of this episode in the Passion Narrative, cf. R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1994), pp. 1031-1198.