Notes on Prayer: John 17:1-5

Continuing the post-Easter celebration of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, during the upcoming weeks (through Pentecost) in this Monday Notes on Prayer feature, I will be examining the great prayer (or prayer-discourse) of Jesus in John 17. This prayer is unique due to its form and position within the Gospel of John. Like other instances of Jesus’ sayings and teachings in the Gospel Tradition, as they are adapted and included in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ words here reflect a distinctive Johannine discourse format. Indeed, chapter 17 represents the last of the great discourses of Jesus—it serves as fitting conclusion, not only to the Last Discourse sequence of 13:31-16:33, but to all of the prior discourses as well. Many of the words, images, and themes from the earlier discourses are recapitulated and restated here. It is thus proper and fitting to refer to chapter 17 by the term “prayer-discourse”. Even though it is technically a monologue, with Jesus addressing God the Father, certain structural and formal attributes of the discourses can be detected. This discernable literary style, so distinct to the Gospel of John (and absent from the Synoptics), of course, raises questions as to the relationship between chapter 17 as we have it, and the original/authentic words of Jesus. However, this is a question which applies to all of the discourses in John and cannot be limited to Jesus’ Prayer in chap. 17; I will, for the most part, not be addressing it in these notes.

The Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17 is extremely rich and complex, and may be outlined or divided numerous ways. At several points, I will offer my own structural analysis; to begin with, it would seem that verses 1-5 have a clear chiastic structure, and can be treated as a unit:

    • Request for the Father to give honor/glory to the Son (v. 1)
      • Jesus’ authority over all the Father has given to him (v. 2)
        • Statement on “eternal life” in relation to the Son and Father (v. 3)
      • Jesus’ work involving all the Father has given to him (v. 4)
    • Request for the Father to give honor/glory to the Son (v. 5)

John 17:1-5

Verse 1

The narrative introduction (v. 1a) to the Prayer-Discourse, with the action/gesture of Jesus described, is similar to the moment of prayer in the Lazarus scene (11:41), and also reflects the earlier episode in 12:27-28ff (see below). The language and imagery, however, is traditional, and can be seen elsewhere in the Gospels, as for example in the miraculous feeding episode (Mark 6:41 par; cf. John 6:5). Overall, in the Johannine context, these simple words take on added meaning:

“Yeshua spoke these (thing)s and, lifting up his eyes unto heaven, said…”

Three details, distinct to the theological (and Christological) language of the Johannine discourses, can be noted here:

    1. On the surface, and at the narrative level, the verb “spoke” (e)la/lhsen) simply refers to Jesus’ words to his disciples after the ‘Last Supper’ (13:31-16:33). However, throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly makes the point that everything he “speaks” (vb. lale/w) or says comes from what he (as the Son) has heard God (the Father) say to him. It is part of the wider Johannine theme of Jesus’ intimate relationship to, and identification with, God the Father. The most relevant passages in this regard are: 3:31-34; 5:30ff; 7:16-18; 8:26-29, 38-40ff; 12:49; 14:10, 24ff; 15:15; cf. also 6:63; 16:13.
    2. Here the verb “lift up” (e)pai/rw) refers to Jesus’ reverent gesture of raising his eyes upward during prayer. However, again, the verb ai&rw (“take [up], lift, carry”), along with others related to “raising, lifting, etc” (a)nabai/nw, u(yo/w), features prominently in the Johannine Discourses. The image of Jesus being “lifted up” has a two-fold meaning: (1) his death on the cross, and (2) his return to the Father—both aspects inform the idea of his being “glorified” (cf. below). Some of the most significant passages are: (a) for ai&rw, 1:29; 10:18, 24, and the resurrection context of 11:39, 41; (b) for u(yo/w, 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 24; (c) for a)nabai/nw, 1:51; 3:13; 6:62; 20:17, and note the contrastive play on words in 7:8ff; 12:20, etc.
    3. Jesus’ act of looking up toward heaven also has special meaning in the Johannine context. The entire thrust of the Last Discourse relates to Jesus’ impending departure, his return back to the Father (in Heaven). Thus the simple gesture of looking up here becomes a theological picture that, in a sense, summarizes the entire setting of the Last Discourse. For this referential point of “heaven” as Jesus’ place of origin and return, cf. 1:51; 3:13, 27, 31; 6:31-58; 12:28.

Jesus’ initial statement, or invocation, in v. 1b, likewise can be divided into three parts—three distinct phrases, from a syntactical standpoint; they can be understood as a step-chain of relation:

    • “Father, the hour has come” (Pa/ter, e)lh/luqen h( w%ra)
      • “may you give honor to your Son” (do/caso/n sou to\n ui(o/n)
        • “(so) that the Son might give honor to you” (i%na o( ui(o\$ doca/sh| se/)

Certainly, the last two phrases form a clause-pair marked by the coordinating particle i%na (“[so] that”). The initial phrase more properly serves as the prayer invocation and could stand apart; however, I prefer to keep the sequential chain intact throughout the entirety of vv. 1-5. Indeed, the temporal statement at the beginning (“the hour has come”) can be seen as parallel to the time indication at the close of v. 5: “before the world(‘s coming) to be”. This demonstrates the stark difference between the Johannine and Synoptic handling of this tradition—i.e. Jesus’ saying that his “hour” (w%ra) has come. In the Synoptic tradition, it refers specifically to his Passion, to the moment of his arrest which marks the beginning of his suffering (and death). It is foreshadowed in Jesus’ prayer to Father (Mark 14:35, cf. also v. 37 par); but the declaration comes in verse 41 par:

“…the hour came [i.e. has come]! See—the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)!”

The Matthean version uses a different verb, but has the perfect tense in common with Jn 17:1:

“…See—the hour has come near [h&ggiken] and the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)!” (Matt 26:45)

In Luke, the tables are turned and the emphasis is not on Jesus’ hour (i.e. his passion/suffering), but on the evil character of the moment (esp. of Judas and those who take him captive):

“…but this is your hour and the authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness!” (cf. also 4:13, and note a similar sort of contrast in John 7:6-7)

How different is the feel of the Johannine statement by Jesus in John 17:1! It shares with the Synoptic tradition a Last Supper setting, and, as such, is certainly related to the idea of his impending death, but there is little sense of that in the immediate context of chapter 17. Interestingly, the Gospel of John does retain the traditional association of the expression with Jesus’ Passion (suffering and death), but in a different location, at an earlier point in the narrative (12:23ff):

“The hour has come [e)lh/luqen] that the Son of Man should be given honor [docasqh=|].”

Note the similarity of wording to 17:1, especially the important use of the verb doca/zw; the reference to his suffering and death comes in the illustration (v. 24) and sayings on discipleship (vv. 25-26) which follow. The Gospel of John has nothing like the Synoptic Prayer/Passion scene in the Garden, but Jesus’ declaration in 12:27ff in many ways is similar to it and takes its place. Again, it differs markedly from the Synoptic tradition in two respects: (1) the use of the verb doca/zw gives it a significance beyond the basic idea of his suffering/death, and (2) it includes the Johannine emphasis on the relationship between Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father). Both of these points are central to the setting of the Prayer-Discourse in chapter 17. Thus, even though Jesus’ suffering and death is not principally in view in 17:1, it is still an important component to the idea of Jesus’ being “given honor” or glorified by the Father. It is this that we will explore next week as we examine verses 1-5 in greater detail.

April 15 (2): Acts 7:55-56

This is the last in the series of daily notes for Easter Season, during which we have explored the Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and John. Today’s note is on Acts 7:55-56—the last Son of Man verse in Luke-Acts, and one of only four occurrences of the expression “Son of Man” outside of the Gospels (the others being Heb 2:6 [quoting Ps 8:4ff] and Rev 1:13; 14:14 [referring to Dan 7:13]).

Acts 7:55-56

Most of the Son of Man sayings in Luke relate either to: (1) Jesus’ suffering and death, or (2) his exaltation to Glory (and future return in Judgment). As I have previously discussed, the use of “son of man” in the first instance would seem to identify Jesus specifically with humankind in its mortality (weakness, suffering and death); in the second, he identifies himself as the Divine/Heavenly figure (of Daniel 7:13ff) who will appear at the end-time Judgment by God. These two aspects of the expression “Son of Man” are present during the night of Jesus’ arrest and “trial” before the Sanhedrin (Lk 22:22, 48 and Lk 22:69), and also in the Angelic announcement of Lk 24:7 where the predictions of Jesus’ Passion (Lk 9:22, 44-45; 18:31-33) are connected with the Resurrection.

When we turn to the book of Acts, the theme of Jesus’ suffering (and death) continues—both with regard to the message that is proclaimed by the disciples (Acts 1:16; 2:23ff; 3:13-15, 17-18; 4:10, 27-28; 5:30 etc), and as a pattern for their own experience of suffering and persecution (cf. throughout chapters 3-7), predicted by Jesus himself (Lk 12:11-12; 21:12-19). So also the theme of Jesus’ exaltation (cf. below). Acts 7:55-56 represents the climactic moment of the Stephen narrative, which spans chapters 6-7:

  • 6:1-7: Introduction, setting the stage for the conflict
  • 6:8-15: The conflict with Stephen, including his arrest and appearance before the Sanhedrin
  • 7:1-60: The Sermon-Speech and Execution of Stephen
    • 7:1: The question of the High Priest to Stephen, which serves as the immediate narrative introduction to the Speech
    • 7:2-53: The Sermon-Speech of Stephen
    • 7:54-60: The response to the Speech and Execution of Stephen
  • 8:1a: Transitional verse, mentioning Saul/Paul’s role in the execution
  • 8:1b-4: Narrative summary describing the onset of Persecution (led by Saul)

Of the three major scenes in Acts which show the early believers in conflict with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42), it is the Stephen narrative which most clearly follows the pattern of Jesus’ Passion. The parallels (some more precise than others) may be outlined as follows:

  • Stephen was “full of faith/trust and the Holy Spirit” and “full of the favor (of God) and power” (Acts 6:5, 8)
    —Jesus likewise, at the beginning of his ministry (Lk 4:1), was said to be “full of the Holy Spirit”; cf. also Lk 4:14 and Lk 1:15, 17; 2:40.
  • Stephen did “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8)
    —Cf. especially the notice of Jesus’ miracles in Acts 2:22
  • It is stated that Stephen’s opponents “did not have strength to stand against the wisdom and the Spirit in which he spoke” (Acts 6:10)
    —Cf. Luke 20:26, etc; 21:15
  • The accusation of blasphemy (i.e. insult/slander against God) (Acts 6:11)
    —The declaration of the High Priest (Mark 14:64 par), implied in Lk 22:71
  • Stephen’s opponents “stirred together” the crowds etc. against him (Acts 6:12)
    —The Jewish authorities “shook up” the crowds against Jesus (Mark 15:11, not in Luke)
  • “They seized him and led him into the Sanhedrin” (Acts 6:12b)
    —Cf. Luke 22:52, 54, 66; 23:1, also the specific mention of “Elders and Scribes” (Lk 22:66)
  • False witnesses give testimony, involving the Temple (Acts 6:13)
    —False witnesses against Jesus rel. to the “Temple-saying” (Mark 14:57-59 par, not in Luke)
  • The claim that Jesus would destroy the Temple (Acts 6:14)
  • Stephen stands in the middle of the Council (cf. Luke 22:66)
  • The question by the High Priest regarding the truth of the accusations (Acts 7:1)
    —The specific question in Mark 14:60 par (not in Luke); cf. also Mk 14:61 par; Lk 22:67, 70
  • Stephen’s vision of the Son of Man (Acts 7:55-56)
    —Jesus’ answer to the Council regarding the Son of Man (Lk 22:69 par; in Matt/Mark, seeing the Son of Man)
  • The reaction of the Council (including tearing their garments) (Acts 7:52; Mark 14:63-64 par, cf. Lk 22:71)
  • Stephen is taken outside of the city to be put to death (Acts 7:58, cf. Lk 23:26, 33)
  • Stephen’s dying words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59)
    —Jesus’ dying words: “Father, into your hands I place [i.e. give] along my spirit” (Lk 23:46)
  • Stephen asks God to forgive those putting him to death: “Do not hold up this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)
    —Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the cross (Lk 23:34 [not in some MSS])
  • After Stephen’s death “there came to be… a great persecution upon the Church” (Acts 8:1)
    —After Jesus’ death “there came to be darkness upon the whole land” (Luke 23:44)

From a narrative standpoint, these parallels illustrate vividly the disciple following in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the point of death (Lk 5:11, 27-28; 9:23, 57-62; 18:22, 28; 21:12-19; 22:39, 54; 23:27, 49 pars; cf. also Mk 10:38-40, etc). Let us compare specifically the Son of Man parallel:

Jesus’ saying (Lk 22:69):

“From now on, the Son of Man will be sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the power of God”

The formula in Mark/Matthew is:

“[From now] you will see the Son of Man sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the Power, and coming with/upon the clouds of Heaven

The declaration by Stephen (in Acts 7:56) is:

“I behold the heavens opening through and the Son of Man standing out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of God

The preceding narrative in verse 55 adds the following details: (1) he saw the glory of God, and (2) Jesus is specifically identified as the Son of Man (“Jesus standing at the right hand of God”).

The use of the verb dianoi/gw (“open through[out], open thoroughly”) is interesting, as it appears to be a favorite of Luke’s—7 of the 8 occurrences in the New Testament are in Luke-Acts, and five of these refer to the knowledge and awareness of Jesus, and of coming to faith, etc. Note:

    • Luke 24:31—”and their eyes were opened through [dihnoi/xqhsan] and they knew upon [i.e. recognized] him…”
    • Luke 24:32—”Were our hearts not burning [i.e. being set on fire] [in us] as he spoke with us in the way, as he opened through [dih/noigen] to us the Writings [i.e. Scriptures]?”
    • Luke 24:45—”Then he [i.e. Jesus] opened through [dih/noicen] their mind for th(eir) bringing together the Writings [i.e. understanding the Scriptures]”
    • Acts 16:14—”a certain woman {Lydia}… of whom the Lord opened through [dih/noicen] (her) heart”
    • Acts 17:3—Paul gathered through [i.e. discussed, argued] with them from the Scriptures, “opening through [dianoi/gwn]…that it was necessary for the Anointed (One) to suffer and stand up (again) out of the dead, and that this Yeshua is the Anointed (One)…” (cf. Luke 9:22; 24:7, 26, 46)

The early chapters of Acts (chs. 1-7) are still connected in many ways with the Gospel narrative, so it is fitting perhaps that they close with this vision by Stephen of the Son of Man, a fulfillment of the sayings by Jesus such as that in Luke 22:69. His vision confirms the reality of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of God) and of his identity as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. Christ’s presence in heaven at God’s right hand was a common motif in early Christian tradition (Acts 2:25, 33ff; 5:31; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22; Heb 1:3, etc), largely influenced by Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:34; Heb 1:13). The remainder of the book (chapters 8-28), on the other hand, narrates the spread of Christianity outside of Judea, out into the wider Greco-Roman world, and thus focuses more precisely on the message (the Gospel) of Jesus, and how people respond to it. If Stephen saw a vision of heaven “opened”, that is, the revelation of God in the person of Jesus, so also do believers have their hearts and minds “opened” to the truth, and, in turn, proclaim the message of Christ to others, “opening” and explaining the Scriptures.

April 14 (1): John 1:51

In today’s note for the third day of Easter (Easter Tuesday), I continue the study of the Son of Man saying in John 1:51, begun yesterday (for more on the Son of Man sayings in John, cf. the earlier note). Here I will be looking more specifically at the meaning of the saying in the context of the Gospel narrative.

John 1:51

“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon the Son of Man”

In the previous note, I explored four images or traditions which seem to be especially relevant for an interpretation of the saying, based on similarities in language and concept: (1) the baptism of Jesus, (2) the resurrection/ascension, (3) his (future) coming in glory, and (4) the dream-vision of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:12. It must be admitted, however, that none of these are sufficient, nor do they entirely fit the position and context of the saying in John. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the narrative and thematic structure of the Gospel, in order to gain a better understanding of the ultimate significance of the saying. I will proceed, briefly, according to the following outline:

    1. The location of the saying, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
    2. Its connection with the other Son of Man sayings in John
    3. Its possible purpose as a comprehensive symbol

1. The Location of the Saying

After the hymnic prologue of Jn 1:1-18, the first main section of the Gospel is Jn 1:19-51, which has, as its primary theme, the testimony of John the Baptist regarding Jesus. The section may be divided as follows:

    • vv. 19-28—the Baptist’s testimony regarding himself (“I am not…”)
    • vv. 29-34—the Baptist’s testimony regarding Jesus
      • account of the Baptism (vv. 31-33)
    • vv. 35-42—disciples respond to the Baptist’s testimony and follow Jesus
      • a disciple (Peter)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 41-42)
      • saying of Jesus (v. 42)
    • vv. 43-51—disciples respond to the testimony of other (disciple)s and follow Jesus
      • a disciple (Nathanael)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47-51)
      • saying of Jesus (v. 51)

The saying in Jn 1:51 thus concludes this opening section of the Gospel. In the previous note, I mentioned several parallels with the Baptism of Jesus, and, given the position of the saying in relation to the Baptism (and the Baptist’s testimony) in this section, it is likely that some sort of allusion is intended. Interestingly, and altogether typical of John’s Gospel, the Baptism is not narrated as something that people observe directly—it is only “seen” through the verbal account (or word) of the Baptist. Similarly, throughout this section “seeing” Jesus is intimately connected with hearing and responding to the message of the Baptist and the first disciples (vv. 34, 36, 39, 46). In Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47ff), he also “sees” based on what Jesus says to him; note, in particular, the wording:

“Jesus responded and said to him, ‘(In) that [i.e. because] I said to you that I saw you underneath the fig-tree, you trust (in me)? (Thing)s greater than these you will see!” (v. 50)

This interplay between “seeing” and “saying” should caution us against the simple assumption that a concrete visible event is intended in v. 51. That the saying concludes the first section (1:19-51) means that it also marks the beginning of the next—that is to say, the core narrative of the Gospel spanning chapters 2-20. Commentators typically divide this into two main parts:

    1. Chapters 2-12, sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”, in which the narrative alternates between accounts of miracles and teaching (discourses) by Jesus—the miracle (sign) often serving as the basis and starting point for the discourse which follows (cf. especially in chapters 5, 6, and 9). All but the first and last of the Son of Man sayings are found in these chapters.
    2. Chapters 13-20, which narrate the Passion (and Resurrection) of Jesus—chapter 13 (a Last Supper scene similar to that in the Synoptic tradition) leads into the great Discourses in 13:31-16:33, concluding with the remarkable Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17.

The last Son of Man saying in John (13:31) opens the Discourses which are set at the beginning of the last major section of the Gospel (chs 13-20). It seems likely that the first Son of Man saying (1:51) is meant to have a similar transitional role in the structure of the Gospel narrative.

2. The other Son of Man Sayings

For a survey of the other Son of Man sayings in John, cf. my earlier note. As mentioned above, all but the first and last sayings occur in chapters 2-12, which is significant for two reasons:

    • They are part of the Discourses of Jesus in these chapters, marked by a unique style of teaching—a statement or action by Jesus is misunderstood by the audience, leading to a pointed question, and the subsequent response (and exposition) by Jesus, answering the question at a deeper level of meaning. This process of redirection and reformulation always involves Jesus’ identity—his Person and Teaching—as the Son in relation to God the Father. Where they occur, the Son of Man sayings (esp. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 32, 34) are central and climactic to the Discourse.
    • They point toward the death and exaltation (resurrection, return to the Father) of Jesus described in chapters 13-20. Indeed, the principal sayings all have a dual-meaning, centered on Jesus’ death/resurrection. The sayings which refer to the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) or being “glorified” (Jn 12:23; also 13:31) have both aspects in mind.

The dualism of these sayings is best demonstrated in those which use the verbs katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw (“step down”, “step up”), as in Jn 1:51. The saying in 3:13 is followed by that of v. 14 (which speaks of the Son of Man “lifted high”); the sayings in Jn 6:27, 53, 62 have a more complex reference matrix, as part of the great Bread of Life discourse (6:25-66). In schematic form, we might outline the dualism as follows:

  • With the Father in Heaven (Divine Pre-existence)
    • Descent (“stepping down”) from Heaven (Incarnation)
      • Death—being “lifted up” on the cross
        • Glorified—Life—Father-Son (Jn 13:31)
      • Resurrection—lifted/raised from the dead
    • Ascent (“stepping up”) into Heaven (Exaltation)
  • Return to the Father in Heaven

According to this outline, the last Son of Man saying (Jn 13:31) reflects the central, inner dynamic of the Father-Son relationship and identity, governed by the verb doca/zw (“give honor/esteem/glory”, i.e. “glorify”). If this is correct, then it is not unreasonable to assume that the first of the Son of Man sayings (Jn 1:51) is parallel to this in some way, and may reflect the outer dynamic—the ascent/descent. Again, this would seem to be correct considering the use of the verbs katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw in 1:51. However, in that first saying, it is not the Son of Man descending/ascending, but rather of Angels (“Messengers of God”) ascending/descending on the Son of Man.

3. A Comprehensive Symbol?

I am very much inclined to the view that the saying of John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:

    • The clear parallels with the Baptism (cf. the previous note), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation); the location of Jn 1:51 also strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
    • Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
    • Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (esp. in the Synoptic tradition); however, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (i.e. divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent (cf. above).
    • The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel, expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involving parallel confessions:
      Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
      Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
      It is possible that these confessions themselves together form a bracketing chiasm:
      “Son of God” (in a Messianic context)
      —”King of Israel” (i.e. Anointed Davidic Ruler)
      —”My Lord” (Jesus as Messiah/Lord, cf. Ps 110:1)
      “My God” (Deity)
      Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
    • In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (o&yesqe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. This, of course, is also related to “seeing” the Son in terms of being with him, in his presence, as other instances of the verb o)pta/nomai, o&ptomai/o&yomai would indicate (esp. Jn 16:16-17, 19, 22). As a concluding observation that “seeing” in Jn 1:51 signifies something more than a concrete vision, note the parallel with 20:29:
      • “because I said to you that I saw [ei@don] you… you trust?
        you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God… upon the Son of Man” (1:51)
      • “because you have seen [e(w/raka$] me you trust?
        Happy/blessed are the ones not seeing [i)do/nte$] and (yet) trusting!” (20:29)

In both Jn 1:51 and 20:29, the eventual seeing by the believer is contrasted with the disciple believing on the basis of an extraordinary or miraculous experience. Even the concrete evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (in the case of Thomas) should not be relied upon as the basis for faith and trust in Christ, but rather the word that bears witness to him and the Spirit that draws us to him.

April 13 (1): John 1:51

Today, for the second day of Easter (Easter Monday), and following the theme of these seasonal daily notes, I will be examining the Son of Man saying in John 1:51. In an earlier note (for Holy Saturday), I surveyed all of the Son of Man sayings in John, noting three main categories:

    • Sayings which speak of the Son of Man being “lifted high” (using the verb u(yo/w)—Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34
    • Sayings involving the descent/ascent of the Son of Man (verbs katabai/nw, a)nabai/nw)—Jn 3:13; 6:22, 53, 62
    • Sayings which refer to the Son of Man being glorified (vb. doca/zw)—Jn 12:23, 31

John 1:51 generally belongs to the second category. All of these sayings refer in some way to Jesus’ death, and also relate to the two-fold sense in which the Son is “lifted up”, according to the symbolism and imagery in John—(1) his death on the cross, and (2) his exaltation (resurrection and return to the Father).

John 1:51

“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon [e)pi] the Son of Man”

This saying has proven sufficiently difficult and obscure for commentators throughout the years, resulting in a wide range of possible interpretations. A fundamental question is whether the saying should be taken as a concrete prediction, or a symbolic picture. If the former, then one must ask to which specific event or episode it refers; there are three possibilities—(1) a supernatural event witnessed by the disciples (similar to the Transfiguration), but otherwise unrecorded, (2) the resurrection and/or ascension, or (3) the future/end-time appearance of Christ. Given the similarities with key eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics, the third option makes most sense; however, it does not especially seem to fit the context where the saying is set in John. If we are to understand the saying primarily as a symbolic picture—whether by the Gospel writer or Jesus himself—then there a number of possible associations or allusions which may be in mind. I summarize the most relevant and important of these here (cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29, pp. 89-91):

The Baptism—There are two details in the (Synoptic) account of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10 par) which are especially relevant:

    • The Holy Spirit, in the form/shape of a dove, descends [lit. “steps down”] upon Jesus, using the same verb (katabai/nw) as in Jn 1:51. Also, the versions in Matthew/Luke specifically use the preposition e)pi (“upon”) and narrate the episode as something observable by all the people (in contrast with Mark’s account). John does not narrate Jesus’ baptism as such, but provides a comparable (indirect) description as part of the Baptist’s testimony (cf. Jn 1:32).
    • In the descent of the Spirit, the heavens are said to separate; in Matthew/Luke (Matt 3:16; Lk 3:21), the verb used is a)noi/gw (“open up”) as in Jn 1:51.

Matthew 16:27-28 par—Matthew’s version of a core Son of Man saying in Synoptic tradition (Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26) begins: “For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his Messengers [i.e. Angels]…” and concludes with the specific formulation:

“…there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not taste death (themselves) until they should see [i&dwsin] the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” (note the parallel in Lk 9:27: “…until they should see the Kingdom of God”, and also Lk 23:42 v.l.)

Several points should be made about the context and significance of this passage:

    • The reference is to the end-time Judgment, and (in the developed Gospel tradition) to the parousia (or second coming) of Jesus.
    • It is positioned directly between Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration (a vision of Jesus in glory witnessed by several of the disciples). Moreover, in both Synoptic tradition and Jn 1:19-51, the Son of Man saying follows soon after Jesus gives Peter his new name (Matt 16:18; Jn 1:42).
    • The Son of Man is associated with Angels in a number of sayings, all eschatological and emphasizing the end-time Judgment—Matt 13:41ff; 16:27 par; 24:30-31 par; 25:31; Luke 12:8-9; cf. also Matt 4:6 par; 26:53.

The Resurrection/Ascension—Note especially the following:

    • In Mark 16:4 of the Old Latin MS Bobiensis (k), it is narrated that angels descend to Jesus and ascend with him (cf. also the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter §§36-40).
    • The appearance of Angels in the Synoptic tradition, associated with the Resurrection (variously described, Mk 16:5-7; Matt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7) and the Ascension (Acts 1:10-11) of Jesus. In Matthew 28:2, it is stated that the Angel “stepped down” out of heaven, using the same verb (katabai/nw) as in Jn 1:51 (cf. above).
    • John does not record a visible ascension of Jesus, but note Jn 20:17: “…I step up [a)nabai/nw] toward my Father”.

An allusion to Genesis 28:12—In Jacob’s dream-vision at Bethel, he sees Angels ascending and descending on the ladder; in the LXX “ascending and descending” uses the same verbs (a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw) as Jn 1:51.

    • There is a traditional Jewish interpretation which understands the Angels ascending/descending on him (i.e. Jacob), cf. Genesis Rabbah 69:3 (in 68:12 Jacob is seen as being simultaneously in heaven).
    • The Targums (cf. Onkelos) express the idea that the shekinah—the visible manifestation and/or personification of God’s glory—was on the ladder. In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (mid-2nd century A.D.), we find the earliest evidence for the interpretation that Christ was on the ladder (86:2).
    • Bethel as the “House of God”, i.e. the rock/stone which symbolizes the Temple and its foundation. In Jn 2:19ff (not long after the saying in 1:51), the Temple is identified with Jesus’ own person (and body), specifically in connection with his death and resurrection.

These are the most plausible associations with Jn 1:51, based on similarities of language and imagery—(1) the account of Jesus’ baptism, (2) his resurrection/ascension, (3) his return in glory at the end-time Judgment, and (4) the theophanic dream-vision of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:12. In the next note I will look a bit more closely at Jn 1:51 in terms of its likely meaning and purpose within the context and structure of the Gospel narrative.

April 12 (1): Luke 24:6-7

Luke 24:6-7

The last occurrence of the expression “the Son of Man” in the Gospel of Luke is found in the Resurrection narrative (Luke 24), as part of the Angelic announcement (vv. 5-7) to the women on Easter morning. Luke follows the early Gospel tradition of women (including Mary Magdalene) being the first to witness the empty tomb, and the authenticity of this tradition would seem to be quite secure (on entirely objective grounds). The Synoptics also record the presence of Angels at the tomb who announce the resurrection, but here the specific details vary considerably between the three accounts. Most notable is the difference in the announcement itself (cp. with Mark 16:6-7), which includes similar points of reference (in italics):

“Do not be astonished! You seek Yeshua the Nazarean, the (one) put to the stake [i.e. crucified], but he has been raised—he is not here!” (Mk 16:6)
“(For) what [i.e. why] do you seek the living (one) with the dead (ones)? [He is not here, but has been raised!]” (Lk 24:5b-6a)

So also in the second half of the declaration:

“but go under [i.e. go back] and say to his learners [i.e. disciples] and to ‘Rock’ {Peter} that he goes before you into the Galîl {Galilee}—there you will see him, even as he said to you” (Mk 16:7)
“remember how he spoke to you while he was yet in the Galîl {Galilee}, saying… (Lk 24:6)

In Luke, the context and direction of the Angelic announcement has changed significantly—instead of referring ahead to the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus in Galilee (cf. Matt 28:16-20), it refers back to the Passion predictions by Jesus (Lk 9:22, 43-45; 18:31-34 par) while he and his disciples were still in Galilee. As discussed in previous notes, these Passion predictions all involve the identification of Jesus as the “Son of Man”. Let us compare the formula here in verse 7 with the three earlier statements by Jesus:

Lk 24:7

“saying (of) the Son of Man that it is necessary (for him) to be given along into the hands of sinful men and to be put to the stake [i.e. crucified], and to stand up [i.e. rise] (again) on the third day”

Lk 9:22

it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to suffer many (thing)s and to be removed from examination [i.e. rejected] from [i.e. by] the Elders and Chief Sacred-officials [i.e. Priests] and Writers [i.e. Scribes], and to be killed off [i.e. put to death], and to be raised on the third day

Lk 9:44

“For the Son of Man is about to be given along into the hands of men

Lk 18:31b-33

“…and all the (thing)s written through the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] about the Son of Man will be completed: for he will be given along into (the hands of) the nations, and he will be treated in a childish (way) and will be abused and will be spat on, and whipping (him) they kill him off [i.e. put him to death], and he will stand up [i.e. rise] (again) on the third day.

The formulation in Luke 24:7 blends elements from all three predictions, as indicated by the italicized portions above. The phrase “into the hands of sinful men” comes from the second prediction (Lk 9:44), but without the qualifying adjective “sinful” (cf. Mark 14:41 par). The phrase “be put to the stake” simply specifies the manner in which he is to be “killed off”, i.e. put to death (cf. Matt 20:19). The Lukan version of the third prediction (Lk 18:31-33) includes the detail that the suffering, death and resurrection of the Son of Man (Jesus) is a fulfillment of Scripture (“the things written by the Prophets”). This becomes an important point of emphasis in the remainder of Luke 24, and subsequently throughout the book of Acts. Indeed, each of the three episodes in the Resurrection narrative includes a comparable statement regarding Jesus’ Passion in this manner:

    • Lk 24:1-12: The Disciples at the empty tomb — the Angels’ announcement (v. 7, cf. above)
    • Lk 24:13-35: The Appearance to Disciples on the road to Emmaus (v. 26)
    • Lk 24:36-49: The Appearance to the Disciples in Jerusalem (v. 46)

As discussed above, the first statement (echoing the Passion predictions) uses “Son of Man”, while the last two (by Jesus) instead use “the Anointed (One)” (o( xristo/$):

    • Lk 24:26: “Was it not necessary for the Anointed (One) to suffer these (thing)s and to come into his glory?”—Jesus is said to demonstrate this, explaining the Scripture passages in “Moses and all the Prophets” (v. 27)
    • Lk 24:46: “…thus it has been written (that it is necessary) for the Anointed (One) to suffer and to stand up out of the dead on the third day”—this also was explained to his disciples from passages “in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms” (vv. 44-45)

The last of these statements, in particular, echoes verses 6-7 and the earlier Passion predictions, especially if we include Jesus’ words from v. 44:

“These are the words which I spoke to you, being yet [i.e. while I was] with you, that it is necessary to be fulfilled all the (thing)s written about me in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms….”

The declarations by Jesus in 24:26 and 44-46 make two points which are fundamental to the early Christian Gospel preaching (as recorded in the book of Acts):

    1. That Jesus is the Anointed One (o( Xristo/$), and in a sense rather different from the type-figure of Anointed Davidic Ruler (as typically understood in Messianic thought of the period). Cf. my current series “Yeshua the Anointed”, esp. Parts 68.
    2. That the suffering and death (and resurrection) of Jesus—that is, of the Anointed One—was prefigured and foretold in the Scriptures. This means that it can be demonstrated by a study and exposition of the relevant Scripture passages; Luke never indicates just what these are, but for a list of likely candidates, cf. the article “He opened to us the Scriptures“.

Of the numerous references in the narrative of Acts which indicate the importance of this theme, cf. especially Acts 1:16; 2:31ff; 3:18, 20; 8:32-35; 9:22; 10:43; 13:27; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 26:22-23; 28:23.

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

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

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

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

John 11:50-52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 19:16b-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Jesus’ dying words (v. 30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 6 (Lk 23:26-49)

Luke 23:26-49

While Luke’s account of the Death of Jesus follows the basic Synoptic tradition (cf. the previous note), 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 [om. 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 (cf. 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 (esp. 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 (corr. 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 the previous note, this parallels the Sanhedrin interrogation scene closely (cf. 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 (cf. 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” (e)klekto/$, 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 (e)kle/gomai), 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]” (cp. 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, cf. 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, cf. below)
    • The action of the onlookers in v. 48 parallels that of the women following Jesus in v. 27 (cf. above); note also the reference to women followers of Jesus in v. 49 (cp. 8:2-3).

On the omission of the Synoptic cry of distress, cf. 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 the previous note, 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 [di/kaio$]” (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.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 6 (Mk 15:21-41; Matt 27:32-56)

The Death of Jesus

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. Cf. 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 (cf. 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 (cf. 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 (cf. 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 (katape/tasma), 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”), cf. 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 (e)sxi/sqe, “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 sxi/zw) 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 (cf. 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.