John 12:9-19, 34
The episode of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem directly precedes the discourse in Jn 12:20-36 (discussed in the previous daily notes), and so, from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative, the crowd-setting of the discourse (vv. 29, 34) must be read with the earlier episode in mind. It perhaps should be understood as a rather large crowd, given the detail in vv. 9ff. The notoriety of the raising of Lazarus (chap. 11) apparently caused a significant number of people to be drawn to Jesus; in the Gospel of John, the crowd’s reaction is explained as the result, primarily, of the Lazarus miracle (verse 12, following vv. 9-11). If the narrative setting assumes that the discourse in vv. 20-36 took place not long after Jesus’ entry into the city, then it is likely that a considerable crowd was gathered around him (perhaps this explains the difficulty the Greeks had in reaching Jesus, v. 20f).
The response by the crowd to Jesus’ words, in verse 34 (discussed briefly in a prior note), involves the identity of Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Messiah), and the Triumphal Entry scene holds an important place within the Gospel Tradition in this regard. In the Synoptic Narrative, the first half of the Gospel is focused on Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and, in this part of the Tradition, Jesus was identified primarily as an Anointed (Messianic) Prophet, according to the type-pattern of Elijah (and Moses), or of the Anointed herald in Isaiah 61:1ff. By contrast, during his time in Jerusalem, and all through the Passion narrative, it is the Royal Messiah, the Davidic ruler figure-type that is in view, and this association begins with the Triumphal Entry scene (Mark 11:1-10 par). All of the details in the Synoptic narrative bear this out:
- The spreading of the garments, etc, indicating the welcome for royalty (Mk 11:8 par)
- The citation of Psalm 118:25-26 (Mk 11:9 par), with its original context of the victorious king returning from battle
- The references to David and the kingship/kingdom (Mk 11:10 par)
- The allusion to Zech 9:9ff (cited in Matt 21:4-5)
- The climactic appearance in the Temple (Mk 11:11ff), cf. again the context of the royal procession in Psalm 118:19-27
The Johannine version contains all of these same elements, with the exception of the Temple scene (the Temple “cleansing” episode occurring at a different point in the Gospel narrative, 2:12-22). However, this Gospel deals with the Messianic identity of Jesus somewhat differently, introducing the royal (Davidic) aspect as part of the Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6; indeed, there is a formal parallel:
- Historical tradition (miracle):
—Feeding the multitude (6:1-13)
—Raising of Lazarus (chap. 11)
- Reaction of the People (Jesus as the Messiah)
— “Truly this is the Prophet…”, attempt to make Jesus king (6:14-15, 22ff)
—The Triumphal Entry (12:9-19)
- Discourse, with Passion elements, in the context of a key Son of Man saying:
—Allusion to the Eucharistic bread and cup (6:51-58, v. 53)
—Reference to the “hour” of suffering/death, and of his prayer to God (12:23, 27, cp. Mk 14:35-36)
- Historical tradition (miracle):
Perhaps even more than in the Synoptic tradition, the Johannine version of the Triumphal Entry scene brings out the nationalistic hope of the people for a Davidic (royal) Messiah—a king who would deliver the people from foreign (Roman) rule. The specific detail of the palm-branches, found only in John’s version (and the basis for the “Palm Sunday” label), is unmistakable in this regard:
“…they took the twigs/branches of the foi=nic [i.e. palm] (tree) and went out unto (the) u(pa/nthsi$ with him, and cried (out)…” (12:13a)
The noun u(pa/nthsi$, difficult to translate literally in English, refers to a face-to-face meeting with someone, coming opposite to them. It was used as a technical political term for the representatives of a city who would go out to meet/greet an arriving king (cf. Josephus Antiquities 11.327; Wars 7.100). The nationalistic implications of the palm-branches derives from the Maccabean uprising (and the rededication of the Temple)—cf. 1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 2:7—and was used again during the bar-Kokhba revolt (appearing on coins, A.D. 132-135). Cf. also the symbolism in Testament of Naphtali 5:4 (Brown, p. 461). All of this suggests that the crowds regard Jesus as a victorious king, a Messianic deliverer who will again establish an independent Israelite/Jewish kingdom, centered at Jerusalem.
How does this relate to the discourse that follows in vv. 20-36? Let us consider again the response by the crowd in verse 34:
“…We (have) heard out of the Law that ‘the Anointed (One) remains into the Age’, and (so) how (can) you say that ‘it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to be lifted high’? Who is this Son of Man?”
The confusion stems from Jesus’ use of the expression “the Son of Man”, as well as the somewhat cryptic reference to his death/departure. Apparently, the crowd understood the idea that Jesus was speaking of his departure from the world, before the (Messianic) kingdom of the New Age would be established. In any case, this was the very point of difficulty for early Christians who identified Jesus as the royal/Davidic Messiah—how could the Messiah die and leave the earth without fulfilling the traditional end-time role expected of him?
This idea is clear enough in the phrase “the Anointed One remains into the Age [i.e. the New Age to Come]”, even if it is unclear exactly where this is to be found in the Law (the Torah/Pentateuch, or, more broadly, the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole). The closest passage would seem to be Psalm 89:36, in which it is stated that the seed (ur^z#, i.e. offspring/descendant) of David will continue to exist “(in)to the distant (future)”; the Greek version (LXX) reads: “his seed remains [me/nei] into the Age”, wording that is quite close to that of the crowd here in v. 34. The belief is that the Davidic Messiah will be present into the Age to Come, and will remain as ruler during the New Age.
Adding to the confusion is the peculiar way that Jesus uses the expression “the Son of Man” as a self-reference; two types of such sayings were especially difficult: (1) those referring to his impending suffering and death, and (2) the eschatological sayings, of the Son of Man’s appearance (from heaven) at the end-time. For more detail, consult my earlier series on the “Son of Man Sayings of Jesus”. If it is not feasible for Jesus (as the Messiah) to die/depart without establishing the Kingdom, then perhaps he is referring (in vv. 23 and 32, cp. 3:14; 8:28) to someone else? This seems to be the sense of the question “Who is this Son of Man?” —is Jesus speaking of himself, or someone else?
Again, it must emphasized that for early Christians—and especially for the disciples and other early Jewish believers—the death of Jesus posed a serious problem for their identification of him as the Messiah. So acute was the problem that the Gospels and Acts repeatedly stress the importance of demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah, and that his suffering and death was foretold in the Law and the Prophets. For more, cf. the article on the “Suffering and Death of the Messiah” in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
There is a parallel in the Synoptic Tradition, centered on Peter’s famous confession (Mk 8:27-30ff). After the declaration identifying Jesus as the Messiah (v. 29), we find the first of the three Son of Man sayings by Jesus (v. 31), in which he announces/predicts his upcoming suffering and death. Clearly, this was difficult for Peter to accept (v. 32), and his reaction generally represents that of all the disciples (and believers) of the time. The reaction of the crowd in Jn 12:34 is comparable, and fully in keeping with the early Gospel tradition.
In the next few daily notes, during Holy Week, I will be exploring other key passages and references in the Passion Narrative of the Gospel of John, giving further study to the uniquely Johannine portrait of Jesus as the Messiah. The uniqueness of this portrait can be seen in the answer Jesus gives (in vv. 35-36) to the question by the crowd (discussed in the previous note). The traditional Messianic expectation gives way to a powerful Christological statement—Jesus the Son as an eternal manifestation of God the Father. This Christology is developed throughout the Johannine Passion Narrative.