March 31: John 3:36

John 3:36

“The (one) trusting in the Son holds (the) life of the ages, but the (one) being without trust in the Son shall not see life—rather, the anger of God remains upon him.”

Verse 36 is the final verse of our passage (vv. 31-36), and marks the conclusion of the chapter 3 Discourse, as well as the end of chapters 1-3 as a division in the Gospel. As noted previously, vv. 31-36 have a summarizing function and character similar to that of 12:44-50. The verses summarize and recapitulate many of the key themes of chaps. 1-3. In particular, as noted, they reproduce the thematic sequence of the exposition by Jesus (vv. 11-21) in the Nicodemus Discourse. Verses 31-33 reprise the theme of Jesus as the one coming from heaven (vv. 12-13), while vv. 34-35 focus on Jesus as the Son sent by God the Father (vv. 16-17). Verse 36, in turn, emphasizes how trust in Jesus (as the Son) leads to eternal life for the believer, and (correspondingly) judgment for the unbeliever; this is the key theme of vv. 18-21, being already introduced in vv. 15-17.

The believer and unbeliever are each defined, grammatically, through the typical Johannine idiom, using an articular verbal noun (participle) as a substantive descriptor of the person. For the believer, this is o( pisteu/wn, “the (one) trusting” (cf. vv. 16, 18; 1:12, etc), while, for the unbeliever, it is o( a)peiqw=n, which essentially means “the (one) being without trust” (the a)– prefix is privative, indicating being without something). The contrast thus is trust (in Jesus) vs. being without trust, even though the two verbs used are different. pisteu/w does have the fundamental meaning “trust”; however, the second verb, a)peiqe/w, properly means “being without persuasion,” i.e., being unpersuaded (the root verb pei/qw meaning “persuade”). In the theological context of the Johannine Gospel, this means that the unbeliever is a person who is unpersuaded by the witness of who Jesus is, and thus is without trust in him.

The focus of this trust (or lack-of-trust) is Christological in nature—that is, it relates specifically to Jesus’ identity as the Divine/heavenly Son of God. The trust is explicitly “in the Son” —i.e., in Jesus as the Son of God. Grammatically, this is expressed two ways: first, by the prepositional expression ei)$ to\n ui(o/n (lit. “into/unto the Son”), and, second, through the dative case (without preposition), tw=| ui(w=|, “(in) the Son”. In the latter expression, the specific preposition e)n may be implied. Both modes of expression are common among early Christians, and can be found used in the Gospel of John; the expression with the preposition ei)$ is more typical, and is used earlier in vv. 16 and 18 (also in 1:12), but the expression with e)n also occurs (e.g., 20:31).

The virtually the same contrast occurred earlier in verse 18, except that the idea of unbelief is expressed there through the specific negation of trust (using the negative particle mh/):

    • “The (one) trusting [pisteu/wn] in him is not judged
    • but the (one) not trusting [mh\ pisteu/wn] already has been judged”

The contrasting fates of these persons is expressed in terms of being judged by God (with the end-time/afterlife Judgment principally in mind); while, here in v. 36, the focus is on a person having/experiencing eternal life:

    • “is not judged” = “holds eternal life”
    • “has already been judged” = “shall not see life”

In the Gospel of John, the word zwh/ (“life”) almost always refers to the Divine (i.e., eternal) Life possessed by God. Jesus (as the Son) holds this same Life, and is able to communicate it to believers, through the Spirit. The fundamental association between eternal life and the Spirit is only alluded to here (through the context of vv. 5-8 and 34f), but elsewhere in the Gospel it is made more explicit, such as in 4:14ff (cp. 7:38-39) and 6:63. Both of these references will be discussed in upcoming notes in this series. From the Johannine standpoint, one “holds” (vb e&xw) eternal life through holding the Spirit within—the signification being essentially the same. I regard this as a fundamental principle of Johannine spiritualism, which will be further established as we continue in our study.

March 30: John 3:35

John 3:35

Our examination of verse 34 (cf. the previous note) raises several important interpretive questions, both Christological nature and related to the Johannine understanding of the Spirit. A careful study of the passage is thus vital toward establishing a clear sense of Johannine spiritualism.

First, it is necessary to consider verse 34 in relation to the following v. 35:

34For the (one) whom God sent forth speaks the utterances of God, for (it is) not out of a measure (that) He gives the Spirit. 35The Father loves the Son and has given all (thing)s in(to) his hand.”

When the two verses are read in tandem, it becomes clear that vv. 34-35 is an expression of the distinctive Johannine theology, emphasizing the chain of relationship whereby the Father gives to the Son, and the Son, in turn, gives the same to believers. This giving is essential to the Father-Son relationship, and is the result of Father’s love for His Son (v. 16; cf. also 5:20; 15:9ff; 17:23-26). This is the first of the two statements in v. 35, the second being the consequence of the first:

    • “The Father loves the Son…
    • …and has given all (thing)s in(to) his hand”

The Spirit certainly is to be included among “all things” (pa/nta) that the Father gives to Jesus; indeed, it is the principal and foremost thing the Father gives him.

In verse 35, the perfect tense is used (de/dwken, “has given”), while in v. 34 it is the present tense (di/dwsin, “gives”). When referring to the Father’s action toward Jesus, the Gospel writer tends to use the perfect or aorist tense (cf. Brown, p. 158); this has led commentators to view Jesus as the principal subject of v. 34b. I.e., God the Father has given the Spirit to Jesus, and Jesus now gives it to believers. This theological construct is certainly implicit within vv. 31-36—as, indeed, it is present virtually throughout the entire Gospel; however, the main point here in vv. 34-35, I believe, is on what God the Father gives to Jesus.

Given the strong pre-existence aspect to Johannine Christology, it is rather strange that there little specific indication of how Jesus’ relationship to the Spirit ought to be understood in light of the Son’s pre-existence. As I noted previously, the Gospel of John presents the Spirit-references within the traditional Gospel-framework that begins with the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism. Yet, surely, the pre-existent Son would have had access to the Spirit of God even before his appearance on earth. Nowhere in the Johannine writings—nor anywhere else in the New Testament, for that matter—is this Christological issue discussed or mentioned with any clarity. It is only by inference that we may assume the Gospel writer would have understood that the Son, in his Divine pre-existence, was given the Spirit.

For example, by combining vv. 34-35 here with the later statement by Jesus in the Great Prayer-Discourse (17:24), the chain of logic can be established:

    • The Father loved the Son before the foundation (creation) of the world {and}
      • His love for the Son entails giving him the Spirit {therefore} =>
        • The Son was given the Spirit before the foundation of the world

A second question we may ask is: do believers also receive the Spirit “without measure” (from Jesus), or is it only the Son (Jesus) who receives the Spirit “without measure” from the Father? The answer to this question goes beyond the scope of these notes on vv. 31-36. However, in terms of the Johannine theological framework, I would say that the prevailing idea is that the Son (Jesus) gives to believers precisely what the Father has given to him. This does not necessarily mean that Jesus gives to believers everything (“all things”) that he received from the Father, but what he does give is the same that he received from the Father. This would mean that believers do, in fact, receive the Spirit, from Jesus, “without measure”. It is possible to define this theological-spiritual principle more precisely, but it will require a thorough examination of the remaining Johannine Spirit-passages.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the final verse (v. 36) of our current passage.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).

March 29: John 3:34

John 3:34

“For the (one) whom God sent forth speaks the utterances of God, for (it is) not out of a measure (that) he gives the Spirit.”

Verses 31-33 dealt with the theme of Jesus as the one ‘coming from heaven’, with the result that he is a witness of heavenly things. This corresponds to the theme of vv. 11-13 in the exposition of the Nicodemus Discourse. Now in vv. 34-35 we find an echo of vv. 16-17, with the identification of Jesus as the Son sent by God the Father. The same verb a)poste/llw, “set forth/away from,” i.e., “send forth”, is used in v. 17 and here in v. 34. It occurs with some frequency in the Gospel of John, often in relation to the specific idea that Jesus (the Son) was sent by God the Father, as His representative, to fulfill a specific mission. Only in a secondary sense, does a)poste/llw refer to the corresponding sending of the disciples by Jesus (see esp. 20:21).

Here, the mission for which the Father sent the Son involves speaking (vb lale/w), a continuation of the thought in vv. 31ff, and following the key word-witness theme that runs through the entire Gospel (and the Johannine writings as a whole). Jesus is a witness of God the Father in heaven (vv. 31c-33), testifying to what he sees and hears the Father saying and doing. In the previous note, I mentioned the other places in the Gospel where this seminal theological-Christological principle is expressed—they are, again, 1:18; 5:19-20ff, 30-31ff; 6:46; 7:16-18; 8:26, 38, 40ff, 47; 17:8ff. The first clause of v. 34 expresses this as well:

“the (one) whom God sent forth speaks the utterances [r(hmata] of God”

The noun r(h=ma, derived from the verb r(e/w, denotes something spoken, i.e. a spoken word or saying. It is a theological keyword in the Gospel of John, used along with lo/go$ (“word, account”), but always in the plural, and always in the specific context of things said by Jesus. The implication is that Jesus’ words, spoken by him to his disciples (and to other people), are not ordinary human words—they are Divine/heavenly in nature, and communicate the very word[s] of God.

Nor, in this regard, can the “words” spoken by Jesus be delimited by the actual (human) discourse—that is, the literal words as spoken and transmitted. Rather, they communicate the reality of God Himself. This helps to explain the sudden reference to the Spirit that follows in v. 34b, by which speaking the “words of God” is set parallel with giving the Spirit:

“for (it is) not out of a measure (that) he gives the Spirit”

The same words-Spirit association is found in the famous saying in 6:63, which we will examine in an upcoming note.

There are two key interpretive questions regarding the clause in v. 34b. First, who is that gives the Spirit in this specific context—Jesus or God the Father? Second, what is the meaning and significance of the expression “not out of a measure”? Let us deal with the second question first.

The noun me/tron (“measure”) is relatively rare in the New Testament, occurring just 14 times. Elsewhere in the Synoptic Gospels, it is used in several sayings/teachings of Jesus, in a religious-ethical context, referring to the just reward (or punishment) that people will receive (from God) based on their conduct (Mk 4:24; Matt 7:2; 23:32; Lk 6:38 [2]). The prepositional expressions e)n me/trw| (“with/by a measure”) or ei)$ me/tron (“unto a [certain] measure”) would seem to be more common. However, here in v. 34, e)k me/trou (“out of a measure”) is used, governed by the negative particle ou). Literally, the expression is “not out of a measure” (ou) e)k me/trou), which is quite awkward in English (and is also peculiar Greek); most translations render this “without measure”, suggesting something that has no limit.

In terms of the idea of giving the Spirit “without measure,” it is worth pointing out an interesting Rabbinic parallel, a statement attributed to Rabbi Aµa in the Great Midrash (Midrash Rabbah) on Lev 15:2: “The Holy Spirit rested on the prophets by measure” (Brown, p. 158 [his translation]). The point may be that the situation with Jesus is categorically different from that of the Prophets: they received the Spirit only partially, by a certain measure, while Jesus receives it fully and completely, without measure.

This also suggests an answer to the first question, confirmed by the context of vv. 34-35. The clause in v. 34b is best understood as providing an explanation for the statement in v. 34a—explaining how it is that Jesus, having been sent to earth from the Father (in heaven), is able to speak the “words of God”. The answer: it is because he is given the Spirit without measure. That God the Father is the subject of the clause ought to be indicated in the translation (using “He” instead of “he”):

“…for (it is) not out of a measure (that) He gives the Spirit”

Though not stated here, the Johannine Christological outlook would imply that this receiving of the Spirit is a fundamental and intrinsic feature of the Divine Sonship of Jesus. This will be considered further in the next daily note, as our discussion is extended to include verse 35.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).

March 28: John 3:31-33

John 3:31c-33

“The (one) coming out of heaven [is up above all]; what he has seen and heard, (to) this he gives witness, and (yet) his witness no one receives. The (one) receiving his witness (has) sealed that God is true.”

Regardless of whether the words in square brackets are original (cf. the discussion in the previous note), verse 31c syntactically belongs with v. 32f, rather than with v. 31ab. Indeed, the statements in v. 31a & c are parallel and essentially identical:

    • The (one) coming from above is up above all
    • The (one) coming out of heaven [is up above all]

The expression “out of heaven” (e)k tou= ou)ranou=) has the same meaning as the adverb “from above” (a&nwqen). The prepositional expression, however, forms a more precise contrastive parallel with “out of the earth” (e)k th=$ gh=$) in v. 31b.

There is a contrast between the two figures in v. 31ab, whereas in vv. 31c-32 the parallelism is synthetic—that is, the second statement builds upon the first. The same person “coming from heaven” (v. 31c) is described in v. 32f. The point of contrast, rather, is between the descriptions of the one “out of the earth” (31b) and the one “out of heaven” (v. 32). In particular, the contrast involves the way that they speak. The one who is “of the earth” simply speaks (vb lale/w) out of his/her earthly nature (“out of the earth”). By contrast, the one coming “out of heaven” speaks in a heavenly manner, and speaks of heavenly things (cf. verse 12).

This idea of ‘heavenly speaking’ is expressed through the Johannine motif of witness (ma/rtu$/marturi/a). Jesus, as the one coming from heaven, bears witness to the heavenly reality. This is understood primarily in relation to God the Father. Jesus, as the dutiful Son, pays close attention to the Father’s example—everything that he sees and hears the Father doing and saying. This is a fundamental component of the Johannine Christology and portrait of Jesus. The point is made a number of times throughout the Gospel—cf. 1:18; 5:19-20ff, 30-31ff; 6:46; 7:16-18; 8:26, 38, 40ff, 47; 17:8ff.

It is quite likely that the wording in v. 32 continues the thematic contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist (cf. the discussion in the previous note). John and Jesus both bear witness to the Divine truth, testifying to Jesus’ identity as the Son sent by the Father. John, however, makes this witness in an “earthly” manner, based on the visionary experience of what he has actually seen and heard through his senses (1:32-34). By contrast, Jesus, having come from the Father in heaven, is a direct witness of God, and his witness is thus heavenly and spiritual in nature. As previously noted, John the Baptist as a witness is a key theme of chapters 1-3, beginning with the prologue (1:6-8).

Jesus gives witness (vb marture/w) to “that which he has seen and heard” (o^ e(w/raken kai\ h&kousen). The wording of this phrase, utilizing the relative (neuter) pronoun, very much reflects the Johannine style and theological idiom. This is clearly illustrated by the opening words of 1 John:

“That which [o^] was from the beginning, which we have seen [o^ a)khko/amen], which we have heard [o^ e(wra/kamen]…about the word [lo/go$] of life” (1:1)

The (Gospel) message, about who Jesus is, is a truthful witness that reflects what Jesus himself manifested to us on earth through his own incarnate person.

The idea that “no one” (ou)dei/$) receives Jesus’ witness is general and categorical, reflecting the basic theme that the “world” (ko/smo$), as a whole, is dominated by darkness and evil, and is unable/unwilling to accept the Divine truth and revelation that Jesus brings from heaven. As is clear from verse 11 earlier in the Discourse, and echoing the foundational statement in the Gospel prologue (1:11), even the most learned and religiously devout among his own people (e.g., Nicodemus) are unable to receive this witness. Indeed, it is not possible to receive it, to “see” the kingdom of God (v. 3), unless one is first “born from above” —that is, born of the Spirit.

The statements here in vv. 32-33 are indeed similar to those in 1:11-12 of the Prologue:

    • “and his witness no one receives [vb lamba/nw]” (v. 32b)
      “and his own (people) did not receive [vb paralamba/nw] him” (v. 11b)
    • “the (one) receiving his witness…” (v. 33a)
      “but as (many) as received him…” (v. 12a)

No one belonging to the world receives his witness, only those belonging to God. Every one belonging to God, who is drawn to the truth (by His Spirit), receives the witness of Jesus (through trust); then, having been born “from above” (i.e., of the Spirit), such a person is able to hear and understand the heavenly witness of Jesus. This recognition by the believer essentially seals the truth (and truthfulness) of God (v. 33b).

In the next daily note, we will turn our attention to verse 34, which contains the important Spirit-reference.

March 27: John 3:31

John 3:31-36

This set of notes is supplemental to the current article (on John 3:3-8ff) in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament. The focus is principally on the Spirit-statement in verse 34; this is a key reference to the Spirit in the Gospel, but also one of the most difficult. It must be understood, of course, in the immediate context of vv. 31-36, but also in relation to the Discourse of chapter 3 as a whole, as well as within the wider framework of chapters 1-3 as unit/division in the Gospel.

Nearly every commentator has noted the close similarity, in thought and expression, between vv. 31-36 and the Nicodemus Discourse in vv. 1-21. Indeed, vv. 31-36 appear very much to be part of the same Discourse, and yet the intervening Baptist episode (vv. 22-30) seems to create a problem in this regard. No change of speaker is indicated at v. 31, so, at least on the surface, John the Baptist would still seem to be speaking (from v. 30). This is unlikely, though it is possible that the author may intend to depict the Baptist as echoing Jesus’ earlier words, confirming, on the earthly plane, the heavenly witness of Jesus (cf. below).

I believe that vv. 31-36 can be better understood by a formal comparison with 12:44-50, a passage which, by all accounts, marks the end of a major division of the Gospel. In those verses, Jesus is abruptly presented as speaking, with no sense of any specific context. The mini-discourse in 12:44-50 serves to summarize and recapitulate many key themes and ideas from the prior chapters. Essentially the same thing is going on in 3:31-36, even though Jesus is not specifically identified as the speaker. Cf. Brown, p. 160.

Verses 31-36 summarize, not only the exposition in vv. 11-21, but also the broader thematic framework of chapters 1-3. This also explains the inclusion of the historical-traditional Baptist material in vv. 22-30, as it serves to continue—and bring to a climax—the Jesus/John comparison (and contrast) that runs throughout chapters 1-3. This contrast begins in the Prologue (1:6-8, 15), and continues in the narrative episodes of chapter 1 (vv. 19-28, 29-34, 35ff). It is alluded to again through the water-Spirit juxtaposition in 3:5-8, before concluding with the episode in vv. 22-30. Three principal Johannine themes are involved:

    • The contrast between John and Jesus, emphasizing the superiority (and Messianic identity) of Jesus
    • John the Baptist as a witness (ma/rtu$/marturi/a) to Jesus’ identity—a witness that is dependent upon the presence of the Spirit (1:32-34) to declare the truth
    • Jesus’ giving of the Spirit—i.e., baptizing “in the Spirit” (1:33), contrasted with John’s water-baptism (1:26)—is explained in terms of believers being “born” of the Spirit (as children of God, cf. 1:12-13)

When we turn to 3:31-36 as a specific summary of the Discourse-exposition in vv. 11-21, the similarities in thought and language are rather obvious (cf. Brown, p. 159f, for a convenient outline). More to the point, however, is that the two sections share the same thematic sequence:

    • A heavenly/earthly contrast, with Jesus identified as the heavenly Son (from above)—v. 31f / 12-13
    • Jesus as the Son sent by the Father—v. 34f / 16-17
    • Trust in the Son leads to eternal life, with judgment for those who do not trust—v. 36 / 18-19ff
Verse 31ab

aThe (one) coming from above is up above all; b(but) the (one) being out of the earth is (indeed) out of the earth, and speaks out of the earth.”

There is a textual difficulty that relates to establishing the syntax (and thus the precise interpretation) of vv. 31-32. The portion translated above (designated v. 31a-b) is followed by:

cThe (one) coming out of heaven [is up above all]”

The manuscript evidence is rather evenly divided as to the presence/absence of the bracketed words—

    • presence: Ë75 a* D f1 565 pc it syrc sah
    • absence: Ë36vid,66 a2 A B L f13 33 lat syrs,p,h boh ª etc

and good arguments can be made on both sides. However one judges the matter, I do not believe that it affects substantially the structure of the passage. Verse 31c is meant as a synonymous parallel to 31a, with v. 31b essentially corresponding to v. 32f (as an antithetic/contrastive parallel).

The basic contrast, developing the theme from vv. 12-13, is as follows:

    • “The (one) coming from above
      • is above all”
    • “The (one) being out of the earth
      • is out of the earth”

Two different people are described here: one coming “from above” (i.e. heavenly), and the other being “of the earth”. It is possible that this is meant to be a specific contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist, continue the line of contrast throughout chaps. 1-3 (cf. above). However, more likely it is meant to emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus—juxtaposing him, as the only one coming from heaven (and the only Son, cf. 1:14, 18) with everyone else.

The use of a&nwqen here confirms that the proper and principal meaning of the adverb in v. 5 is “from above” (rather than “again”). The adjective “heavenly” (e)poura/nio$, v. 12) is certainly implied, with the contrast being “out of the earth” (i.e., below). There is also a different in the verb (participle) used in each case:

    • “the one coming [e)rxo/meno$] from above”
    • “the one being [w&n] out of the earth”

Jesus comes to earth from above, having a heavenly origin, while all other people are earthly beings. There is a similar contrast in the predication for each of these persons:

    • one “is up above all”
    • the other “is out of the earth”

This confirms Jesus’ Divine/heavenly nature (as the pre-existent Son of God), while affirming that all other earthly beings are simply that: earthly beings (“out of the earth”). The preposition e)pa/nw (“up above”), a compound form of simple a&nw (“above”), is related to the adverb a&nqen (“from above”), and has essentially the same meaning. This is part of the fundamental Johannine dualism, expressed in spatial terms. Being “above” (a&nw) is explicitly contrasted with “below” (ka/tw), with a harsher negative/pejorative connotation, in 8:23.

Earthly beings also “speak out of the earth” —that is, out of their earthly nature. It is not possible for them to speak in a heavenly manner, unless they first come to be “born from above” (vv. 5ff); this means, of course, being “born of the Spirit.” Once they are born of the Spirit, then they, like Jesus, are “from above”; and, while he remains the unique Son, they also come to be children of God (1:12-13). This is a fundamental Johannine theme, and we will examine how it is developed in the Johannine writings as we proceed through these studies.

In the next daily note, we will examine the parallel contrast in vv. 31c-32.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: Jn 3:3-8ff

John 3:3-8ff

Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John (cf. the Introduction), with its important Spirit-theme, is divided as follows:

    • Nicodemus Discourse (vv. 1-21)
    • Historical tradition: Jesus and John the Baptist (vv. 22-30)
    • Exposition (vv. 31-36)

The summary exposition in vv. 31-36 follows the exposition (in the main discourse) by Jesus in vv. 11-21, reiterating many of the same themes and ideas. Those verses are best viewed in relation to the main exposition in the Discourse, echoing and summarizing Jesus’ words. The Discourse proper (vv. 1-21) follows the basic pattern of the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, the dialogue/discourse format being—

    • Saying of Jesus
    • Reaction/question by the people, indicating some level of misunderstanding
    • Explanation/Exposition by Jesus

I would outline the Discourse as follows:

    • Introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • Saying by Jesus (v. 3)
    • Reaction/Question by Nicodemus (v. 4)
    • Explanation by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
    • Second Question by Nicodemus (v. 9)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 10-21), in two parts:
      • The heavenly nature of the Son (vv. 11-15)
      • Eternal life through the Son (vv. 16-21)

The initial saying by Jesus (v. 3) has a spiritualistic tone to it:

“…if one should not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.”

This suggests that the kingdom of God is invisible, and can only be ‘seen’ in a spiritual way, which Jesus here describes in terms of a heavenly birth (“from above”, a&nwqen). The realm of God is “above” (a&nw), while that of the world is “below” (ka/tw); this is a representation, in spatial-relational terms, of the stark dualism that runs throughout the Gospel (cf. 8:23). The misunderstanding of Nicodemus (v. 4) is based on the dual-meaning of a&nwqen, which can mean either “from above”, or in the temporal sense of “again”; Nicodemus understands Jesus’ words in the latter sense. But this point of misunderstanding simply sets the stage for the explanation by Jesus in vv. 5-8:

“…if one should not come to be (born) out of water and (out of the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

The statement in v. 5 is formally identical with the saying in v. 3, and it is not immediately obvious how it explains the initial saying. However, the closeness in form actual allows us to discern the points of exposition, which are two:

    • being born “from above” (and born “again”) means born “out of water and the Spirit”
    • to “see” the kingdom of God is essentially the same as “coming into” it

On the first point, the question is whether “water and the Spirit” is complementary or indicates a contrast. Many commentators have assumed the former, but the latter is almost certainly correct (cf. my earlier note on vv. 5-8). What follows in verse 6 confirms (rather clearly, I think) that Jesus is contrasting water and the Spirit:

“The (thing) having come to be (born) out of (the) flesh is flesh, and the (thing) having come to be (born) out of (the) Spirit is spirit.”

Water has the same contrastive position as “(the) flesh” in v. 6. Thus, to be born “out of water” refers to a natural human birth (i.e., from the flesh); physiologically, it would relate to the child coming out from the water in the mother’s womb (v. 4). Such a water-Spirit contrast had already been established earlier in the Gospel, alluding to the Spirit-saying by the Baptist (Mark 1:8 par), split apart in the Johannine presentation (1:26, 33). This is central to the Jesus-John contrast that runs throughout chapters 1-3, and finds its climax in vv. 22-30ff here.

In verse 7, Jesus makes clear that to be “born of the Spirit” indeed means the same as “born from above” (or “born again”):

“You should not wonder that I said to you (that) it is necessary for you to come to be (born) from above…”

He further expounds what such a spiritual birth means, with an illustration, in v. 8:

“The pneu=ma blows [pnei=] where it wishes, and you hear the voice [i.e. sound] of it, but you have not seen from where it comes, and to where it leads under [i.e. goes away]—so is every(one) having come to be (born) out of the Pneu=ma.

The noun pneu=ma literally denotes something blowing (or breathing), and can thus variously be translated “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit,” depending on the context. Jesus is making use (in Greek) of a bit of wordplay, by comparing the Spirit (pneu=ma) with the wind (pneu=ma) that blows (vb pne/w). The point of the illustration is that the Spirit is invisible and can not be seen, though one can hear its “voice”. This is an important, but somewhat overlooked, principle of Johannine spiritualism.  

The follow-up question by Nicodemus in verse 9 is general in expression: “How is it possible (for) these (thing)s to come to be?” There is perhaps another bit of wordplay here, as the verb gi/nomai (“come to be”) is closely related to genna/w (“come to be [born]”), used by Jesus in vv. 3-8. In terms of the message and purpose of the Discourse, the question means: how does a person come to be born “from above” —that is, born of the Spirit?

As is often the case in the Johannine Discourses, Jesus never answers the question directly. From the literary standpoint, the question serves as the springboard for Jesus’ exposition of his prior saying/teaching.

Important Johannine themes are expressed through this exposition, beginning (vv. 10-12) with a contrast between the “earthly” (e)pi/geio$) and the “heavenly” (e)poura/nio$), a variation of the essential Johannine dualism, presented in spatial terms (i.e., below/above). In referring to “the (thing)s upon the earth” (ta\ e)pi/geia, i.e. earthly things), Jesus presumably has in mind the immediate illustration (from the natural world) in v. 8 (cf. above). However, the terminology also represents an entire way of thinking and speaking, embodied in the religious-cultural mindset of Nicodemus, including the manner in which he views Jesus (as a prophetic teacher, v. 2). At the same time, John the Baptist is also an example of a witness (to Jesus) who speaks on the earthly plane (v. 31, etc), but giving a more accurate testimony as to Jesus’ identity. If one cannot accept the basic testimony regarding who Jesus is (v. 11), it will not be possible to understand deeper spiritual truths.

In the remainder of the discourse, Jesus comes closer to answering Nicodemus’ question. The “earthly” witness indeed reflects (and points to) the “heavenly” reality, defined in Christological terms. Jesus identifies himself as the (pre-existent) Son who comes from God (the Father) in heaven. He is thus “heavenly” and represents the “heavenly things”. In verses 13-15, this is expressed, in more traditional terms, through the expression “Son of Man”, referring to a heavenly (Messianic) figure who comes to earth as an end-time redeemer/deliverer for God’s people. On this Messianic figure-type, derived principally from Daniel 7:13-14, cf. my earlier article (and note) in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

In verses 16-21, Jesus is identified more precisely as the “Son of God”, sent (from heaven) to earth by God the Father. The expression “Son of God”, while still having Messianic import (cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), also carries a deeper theological meaning, particularly in the context of the Johannine Christology.

The answer to Nicodemus’ question is that a person is “born of the Spirit” when one trusts (vb pisteu/w) in Jesus’ identity as the Son (of God) sent by the Father. This is the message in the second part of the exposition (vv. 16-21), while, in the first part (vv. 13-15), this same message is expressed in terms of ‘seeing’ (i.e. recognizing) the nature and identity of Jesus in his being “lifted up” (i.e., his death, resurrection, and exaltation).

It is not immediately clear that this relates back to the specific idea of being born of the Spirit. However, the Gospel writer returns to this theme, in vv. 31-36, following the inclusion of the historical-traditional Baptist material in vv. 22-30. This literary arrangement has long puzzled commentators, but I believe that it is a product of the thematic framework that governs chapters 1-3 as a unit in the Gospel. In order to obtain a proper understanding, it is necessary to continue our discussion through a set of exegetical (daily) notes on vv. 31-36.

Spiritualism and the New Testament: John: Introduction

The Johannine Writings

Having thoroughly examined the key Pauline passages, it is now time to turn our attention to the Johannine writings. The Johannine view of the nature and role of the Spirit is distinctive, representing a unique development of early Christian pneumatology. Moreover, spiritualistic tendencies would seem to be rather more prominent in the Johannine writings than elsewhere in the New Testament; and there is some evidence that spiritualism governed the Johannine churches in a way that goes beyond what we know of other 1st-century congregations (based on the New Testament writings). In speaking of the ‘Johannine’ churches, it has become common to use the expression “Johannine Community”. I will discuss the usefulness of this expression when we come to the passages in 1 John.

There are more references to the Spirit in the Gospel of John than any other Gospel. In many ways, the emphasis on the Spirit is just as prominent in Luke, anticipating as it does the central role of the Spirit in the Acts narratives. However, I find little evidence of spiritualism in Luke-Acts. By contrast, there are a number of passages in John that could be characterized as spiritualistic. These will be examined in some detail.

Interestingly, the references to the Spirit in the Gospel of John, for all their distinctiveness, are presented within the confines of a traditional Gospel framework, such as we find in the Synoptics. The Spirit is first mentioned in the context of Jesus’ baptism (1:32-34; cp. Mk 1:8-12), and the Gospel concludes with the idea of the glorified Jesus having access to the Spirit, and able to communicate it to his disciples (20:22f; cp. Lk 24:49; cf. also Matt 28:18; Mk [16:15-17ff]).

The sequence in the Johannine narrative, on the surface, seems straightforward: Jesus receives the Spirit at his baptism, possesses it throughout his earthly ministry, and then gives it to his disciples at the end. However, at least two features in the Gospel complicate this picture. The first is the prologue (1:1-18), with its emphasis on the Divine pre-existence of the Son; the second is the traditional theme of the glorified Jesus receiving the Spirit upon his exaltation to heaven (cf. 16:5-7ff; 20:17), and only then giving it to believers.

On the one hand, the pre-existence Christology that runs through the Gospel creates certain problems for the traditional framework; for, surely, the pre-existent Son would have had access to God’s Spirit before it descended upon him at the baptism. Yet this theological point is scarcely addressed in the Gospel, except, perhaps, in an allusive and roundabout way. As far as the traditional exaltation Christology is concerned, if fits uneasily within the Johannine narrative. Apparently, Jesus ascends to the Father prior to his final departure (the traditional Ascension), so that he is able to give the Spirit to his disciples. In the book of Acts, by contrast, the Spirit is sent to the disciples only after Jesus’ final departure, when he is at God’s right hand in heaven (cf. Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4, 8ff; 2:1-4ff; 7:55-56).

John 1:32-34

Originally, in the early Gospel tradition, the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, marking the beginning of his public ministry, was a sign of his prophetic empowerment. It is after the coming of the Spirit that Jesus endures Satanic temptation, and begins to preach and work miracles throughout Galilee (Mk 1:12-15, 21-28 par). Luke especially emphasizes the role of the Spirit in this regard (4:1, 14ff). A second theme that developed, at a very early point in the tradition, is the presence of the Spirit as a sign of Jesus’ special identity as a Messianic prophet. The anointed servant of Isa 42:1ff and the herald of Isa 61:1ff are the principal Messianic figures in this regard; the former passage, in particular, seems to have influenced the baptism narrative (cf. my recent study on Isa 42:1ff). Again, Luke gives special emphasis to this aspect, focusing on the association between the baptism and Isa 61:1ff (4:17-19ff).

The empowerment theme is almost entirely absent from the Gospel of John; there is virtually no connection, for example, between the Spirit and the miracles of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. With regard to Jesus’ Messianic identity, the Johannine Gospel does preserve a number of early traditional elements, clustered around the baptism-scene and the figure of John the Baptist. In particular, the Johannine line of tradition emphasizes two key aspects:  (1) the superiority of Jesus over John the Baptist, and (2) the Baptist (and the baptism-scene) as a Christological witness. Let us consider how these themes relate to the Spirit-reference in 1:32-34.

First, the references to the Baptist in the prologue (1:6-8, 15) combine both of these themes—i.e., John the Baptist as a witness (marturi/a), and the superiority of Jesus. Then, in the opening scene of the narrative (1:19-28), the John-Jesus relationship centers around Messianic identity. The Baptist denies any such identity for himself, reserving all Messianic roles for Jesus. If, as is likely, the author was aware of the Spirit-saying by the Baptist (Mark 1:8), he splits it apart, first alluding to it by having the Baptist say “I dunk you in water…” —the implicit (but unstated) contrast being that Jesus will ‘baptize’ people in the Spirit. The second part of the saying is held back until verse 33 (cf. below). There is a strong water-Spirit association that runs throughout the Johannine writings, a point that will be discussed repeatedly in these studies.

Finally, the Baptism of Jesus is narrated in vv. 29-34, but only in an indirect way, as a description given by the Baptist (i.e., the Baptist as a witness to who Jesus is). This important theme of witness is presented several different ways:

    • The Baptist’s announcement of Jesus’ presence, declaring him to be “the Lamb of God” (v. 29, repeated in v. 35)
    • The declaration of Jesus’ identity (“this one” [ou!to$]) as the Messiah, using the designation “the one coming” —a traditional Baptist-saying (Mk 1:7 par) given a uniquely Johannine theological formulation, alluding to Jesus’ Divine pre-existence (v. 30, par v. 15)
    • The Baptist states that his baptism ministry was for the this moment of Jesus’ revelatory appearance, for the purpose of making Jesus “shine forth” to Israel (v. 31)
    • The words that follow in vv. 32-34 are specifically said to be the Baptist’s witness (vb marture/w) to Jesus (“And Yohanan gave witness, saying…”)

The actual description of the Spirit’s descent (in vv. 32-33) follows the early Gospel tradition. The verb katabai/nw (“step down”), though it has special theological significance in the Gospel of John, is also used in the Synoptic version, and was doubtless part of the early tradition. The verb me/nw (“remain”), however, does not occur in the Synoptic version, and is almost certainly a Johannine addition:

    • (John speaking) “…I looked at the Spirit stepping [i.e. coming] down, as a dove, out of heaven, and it remained [e&meinen] upon him” (v. 32)
    • (John’s prophetic report of God the Father speaking) “the (one) upon whom you would see the Spirit stepping down and remaining [me/non] upon him, this (one) is the (one) dunking in (the) holy Spirit.” (v. 33)

The verb me/nw is relatively rare in the Synoptics, occurring 12 times in the three Gospels combined; by contrast, it occurs 40 times in the Gospel of John, and almost always with special theological (and Christological) significance. It is used another 27 times in the Letters of John (24 in 1 John, 3 in 2 John), so it is very much a Johannine term.

In the closing verse 34, the Baptist’s witness essentially takes the shape of a Johannine Christological formula:

“And I (myself) have seen, and have witnessed, that this (one) is the Son of God.”
[On the textual issue in this verse, cf. my earlier note.]

Though the Baptist is an important witness in the Gospel (5:33-36ff), even his witness is dependent upon the presence of the Spirit. He is only able to make the declaration of who Jesus is because he sees the presence of the Spirit remaining on Jesus. From the standpoint of Johannine writings (and the Johannine churches), the Spirit is the ultimate witness for believers.

John 3

The next Spirit-references in the Gospel John occur in chapter 3. The chapter as a whole represents the first great Johannine Discourse of Jesus. Some would limit the discourse to vv. 1-21 (or even 1-16); however, it is best to view vv. 22-36 in relation to the Nicodemus discourse in vv. 1-16ff. This will be discussed further in a special set of notes on vv. 31-36. However, I believe that the historical tradition(s) in vv. 22-30 were included at this point as a way of further expounding the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus—emphasizing the traditional contrast, given deeper meaning in the Johannine Gospel, between John’s water baptism and baptism in the Spirit. Jesus’ words in verse 5 bring out this important contrast:

“…if one should not come to be (born) out of water and (out of the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God.”

And, as if to drive the point home, he says:

“the (thing) having come to be (born) out of the flesh is flesh, and the (thing) having come to be (born) out of the Spirit is spirit.” (v. 6)

The water/Spirit contrast in v. 5 is thus essentially the same as the flesh/Spirit contrast in v. 6, and is a central principle of Johannine spiritualism. Because of the importance of this seminal passage for a proper understanding of our subject, it is necessary to devote a separate article to a study of the John 3 Discourse.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 1 (Jn 12:1-8)

Episode 1: The Anointing of JEsus

John 12:1-8

Having discussed the Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) and Lukan versions of the Anointing of Jesus (parts 1 and 2 of this study), it now remains to examine the version in John (12:1-8). Anyone who studies these three versions carefully will immediately recognize how close John’s version is to the Synoptic account (especially that of Mark, 14:3-9). Indeed, the similarities far outweigh the differences. This marks the (Bethany) Anointing tradition as both early and authentic (on objective grounds), having been preserved in two distinct lines of Gospel tradition (John and the Synoptic). However, there are several significant differences in John’s account:

    • John’s episode is set six days before Passover (v. 1), compared with two days before in the Synoptic version (Mk 14:1 par).
    • The woman who anoints Jesus is identified as Mary, sister of Lazarus (v. 3, see verse 2 and 11:1ff). In the Synoptics, the woman is unnamed (Mk 14:3 par).
    • She anoints the feet of Jesus (v. 3), rather than his head (Mk 14:3 par).
    • The person who voices objection to this action is identified as Judas Iscariot (vv. 4ff); compare Mk 14:4-5 and Matt 26:8-9.
    • The beautiful image in v. 3b of the smell of the perfume filling the house is unique to John’s account.

Each of these will be discussed briefly, in turn.

1. Six days— “Then six days before the Pesah {Passover}, Yeshua came into Beth-Ananyah {Bethany}…” The context in Mk 14:1 par indicates that the Anointing took place two days before Passover. More significantly, John clearly sets the Anointing before Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem (12:12ff), while in the Synoptics (Mk/Matt) it takes place after. Which chronology is correct, or more accurately reflects the original historical event (and tradition)? On the one hand, the Synoptic version may have relocated it, setting it within the Passion narrative, in order to bring out the association with Jesus’ death and burial (Mk 14:8-9 par; Jn 12:7). On the other hand, it is possible that John has intentionally placed it earlier in the narrative, in order to bring out the association with Lazarus and Mary in chapter 11. The traditional commemoration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, one week prior to Easter, is based on the chronology in John.

2. Mary—John is unique among the Gospels in identifying the woman with Mary, sister of Lazarus (v. 3). The episode follows immediately after the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11, in which both Mary and her sister Martha play significant roles in the narrative (vv. 5, 19-27, 31-33, 45). All three siblings appear at the dinner in chapter 12 (vv. 2-3), which may have taken place in the family’s house. Outside of John 11-12, Martha and Mary appear in Lk 10:38-42, but without any mention of Bethany or Lazarus. The identification of the woman with Mary is likely a secondary development, in line with the early Christian (and Jewish) tendency of identifying unnamed figures in the Scriptures with specific persons. Almost certainly, Mark reflects an earlier version of the tradition in this regard.

3. Judas Iscariot—Similarly, John identifies the person objecting to the anointing as Judas Iscariot (v. 4). Here, we can actually trace the development:

    • Persons present at the dinner, otherwise unidentified (Mk 14:4)

Interestingly, Matthew’s identification of the people with Jesus’ disciples is presumably meant to be positive—they object to the extravagant ‘waste’ of costly perfume which could otherwise have been put to the more practical use of caring for the poor. However, in John, the identification with Judas turns this around and is decidedly negative—Judas was a ‘thief’ and did not really have any concern for the poor. Here we must separate out for consideration two specific details (or traditions) which John includes:

    1. The person voicing objection was Judas (v. 4)
    2. Judas was a thief and did not care for the poor (v. 6)

The first of these fits with the information in Matt 26:8, that Jesus’ disciples were the ones objecting to the waste of perfume. The second is more difficult. Many scholars are naturally suspicious of such a detail since it seems to follow the early Christian tendency to vilify Judas and depict him in an increasingly negative and hostile light. This will be discussed further in an upcoming note on the traditions surrounding Judas in the Passion Narrative.

4. The feet of Jesus—In the Synoptic version, the woman anoints Jesus’ head (Mk 14:3 par), however, in John’s account, somewhat strangely, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume (12:3). Traditional-conservative commentators might be inclined to harmonize here, and say that she anointed both the head and feet, but the Markan account would seem to rule this out. In Mk 14:3 it is stated that the women shattered the alabaster jar—the implication being that she poured all the perfume over Jesus’ head. This helps to explain the objection to the “waste” —she used it all up in one extravagant action. More to the point, in each of the versions, the woman anoints either Jesus’ head (Mk/Matt) or his feet (Jn), but never both. Curiously, in Luke’s version of the Anointing, the woman’s action matches that of Mary’s in Jn 12:3:

“and standing behind (him) alongside his feet (and) weeping, she began to wet his feet with (her) tears and she wiped (them) out with the hairs of her head, and she ‘kissed’ his feet and anointed (them) with the myrrh-ointment” (Lk 7:38)

John’s description of the action is simpler (indicated by the words in bold above), but appears to follow the same basic tradition:

“Then Maryam…anointed the feet of Yeshua and wiped out [i.e. off] his feet with her hair…” (v. 3)

Some critical commentators feel that this represents the original tradition—i.e. anointing Jesus’ feet—and that, in the Synoptic version, it has been modified to the more understandable act of anointing Jesus’ head. The latter, of course, is more fitting for Jesus’ identity and dignity as the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) and King. However, the anointing of the feet is actually more appropriate, in some ways, for the symbolic embalming of a dead body (Mk 14:8-9 par; Jn 12:7).

5. The house was filled—It is likely that this beautiful and evocative detail in v. 3b is meant to symbolize the faith and devotion of Mary (and disciples/believers like her). In some ways this is parallel to the scene with Martha in the Lazarus narrative (11:20-27, especially her declarations in v. 21 and 27). R. E. Brown (The Gospel According to John [AB vol. 29], p. 453) notes a (later) Jewish parallel from the Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:1: “The fragrance of a good perfume spreads from the bedroom to the dining room; so does a good name spread from one end of the world to the other” (translation his). This quotation also seems to suggest a relationship between v. 3 and the declaration by Jesus in Mk 14:9 par.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 1 (Lk 7:36-50)

Episode 1: The Anointing of Jesus

Luke 7:36-50

In the first part of this study, I examined the Anointing of Jesus in Mark and Matthew, in which it is set as the first episode in the (Synoptic) Passion Narrative. Luke likewise includes an Anointing scene, but one with a very different setting—earlier in the Galilean ministry period (7:36-50)—and with considerable differences in detail as well. These points of difference would normally be sufficient to mark the episode as deriving from an entirely separate (historical) tradition. However, at least two facts would argue against this:

    1. This is the only such Anointing scene in Luke; he does not include anything similar at a point corresponding to Mk 14:3-9 par. This might suggest that Luke felt that the episode properly belonged at a different point in the narrative. John’s version provides confirmation for an earlier setting of the episode, prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
    2. Luke’s account includes specific details common to the Synoptic (Markan) version:
      (a) The name of the host (Simon)—Mk 14:3 par; Lk 7:40.
      (b) The unnamed woman with an alabaster jar of perfume—Mk 14:3 par; Lk 7:37
      (c) As we shall see, the description of the woman’s action (v. 38) is nearly identical with that in John’s version (12:3), which otherwise is quite close overall to the Markan episode.

How are we to explain the relationship between the Lukan and Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) version? There are several possibilities:

    • They simply record entirely separate (historical) events, and the similarities between them are coincidental. This would probably be the normal traditional-conservative view, yet the points noted above seem to speak against it.
    • Luke has combined two distinct historical traditions:
      (1) that involving a “sinful” woman who wets Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair; the episode is set earlier in Jesus’ ministry, at the house of a Pharisee.
      (2) that of the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany; i.e. the Synoptic tradition, set close to the time of Jesus’ Passion in Jerusalem.
      This would tend to be the more common critical view—that Luke has added details from the Synoptic version (which he has otherwise omitted) to the other scene.
    • They record the same underlying historical tradition (and event), but that Luke has brought out very different details and points of emphasis, through the specific tradition he has inherited.

Unfortunately, each of these three views has its own problems, and none is entirely satisfactory as an explanation of both the differences and similarities between the versions. The situation is complicated still further when one compares these two versions of the Anointing scene with the third (in John). Insofar as Luke has developed the core (Synoptic) tradition, we must consider this from several different perspectives.

1. If Luke has otherwise made use of Mark (or a similar Synoptic narrative), why did he omit the Bethany Anointing scene of Mk 14:3-9? Different possibilities have been suggested, but, in my view, the most convincing is that his purpose was to emphasize more clearly two primary thematic elements of the narrative—(1) the Passover setting, and (2) the Betrayal by Judas. Eliminating the Anointing episode at this point serves to join immediately the narrative introduction (22:1-6) with the Last Supper scene (vv. 7ff), in which both of these elements are prominent. Luke has further enhanced the narrative introduction by weaving into it the tradition of Judas’ betrayal (compare vv. 3-6 with Mk 14:1b-2).

2. The author (trad. Luke) may also have wished to give greater prominence to the earlier Anointing scene, set in Galilee. Whether or not he has included details, otherwise found in the Bethany scene, within this episode (cf. above), there is tremendous power and beauty to the narrative in 7:36-50. The Anointing episode outline (on this, cf. the previous note) is essentially represented by vv. 36-40, the first part of the narrative. The second part (vv. 41-50) involves a parable (vv. 41-47) similar to others found in Luke’s Gospel (see esp. 10:25-37, of the “Good Samaritan”). The three-fold emphasis on repentance, forgiveness, and love, reflects important Lukan themes, such as we see, for example, in the parable of the Prodigal (15:11-24ff).

All of these elements, of course, are unique to Luke’s tradition, and are not found in the Synoptic Anointing episode. Yet, as noted above, there is some indication that the author may have seen the two traditions as reflecting the same episode. In particular, the reference to the host Pharisee as “Simon” (v. 40) could suggest a conscious harmonization with Mk 14:3ff.

3. The similarity between Lk 7:38 and Jn 12:3 raises the possibility that Luke inherited a form of the (Bethany) Anointing tradition closer to Jn 12:1-8 than Mk 14:3-9. This should be seriously considered, especially since there is some evidence that, in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, Luke and John are drawing from a common tradition separate from the Synoptic (i.e. not found in Mark/Matthew). John’s account of the Anointing will be discussed in the third part of this study.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 1 (Mk 14:3-9 par)

Episode 1: The Anointing of Jesus

As indicated in the introduction to this series of studies, the scene of the Anointing of Jesus (by a woman) is the first episode in the Synoptic Passion Narrative, as represented by the Gospel of Mark (14:3-9). Actually there is a similar Anointing episode in all four Gospels. The version in Matthew (26:6-13) follows Mark closely, while those in Luke (7:36-50) and John (12:1-8) contain significant differences. This has caused commentators to question whether we are dealing with one, two, or even three distinct historical traditions (and events). Only the scene in Mark/Matthew is part of the Passion Narrative proper, though John’s version still evinces a connection with the death/burial of Jesus that must have been part of the tradition from an early point.

The many points of difference between Luke’s account and the Synoptic scene in Mark/Matthew, may seem to leave little doubt that at least two separate historical traditions are involved. However, the Anointing Scene in all four Gospels follows the same basic narrative outline:

    • Jesus is dining (as a guest) in a particular house, and he is reclining at the table
    • A women enters, or is present, who anoints Jesus with perfume
    • Others who are present react negatively to this
    • Jesus rebukes them for this reaction, and
    • He speaks on behalf of the woman, in support of her, etc

This common outline has convinced a number of scholars that ultimately we are dealing with multiple versions of the same historical tradition. It may be worth recalling that there have are similar questions related to the Miraculous Feeding episode(s), as well as the scene of Jesus at Nazareth.

I begin this study with the episode as it is found in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 14:3-9

This episode, the first in the Passion Narrative, follows the narrative introduction in vv. 1-2. As discussed in the Introduction, this brief notice contains two primary elements which run thematically through the narrative: (1) the Passover setting, and (2) the plans to arrest Jesus and put him to death. Mark sets the second element within the first, enveloping it:

    • “It was the festival of Pesah (Passover) and the Unleavened Bread after [i.e. in] two days”
      —”The chief sacred officials [i.e. Priests] and writers [i.e. Scribes] searched (out) how, grabbing hold of him in a (cunning) trap (right away), they might kill him off”
    • “For they said, ‘Not on the festival (day), (so) there will not be any clamor of [i.e. from] the people'”

The idea clearly is that the religious authorities wish to arrest and deal with Jesus prior to the day of Passover itself.

The narrative of the Anointing scene is generally simple and straightforward; it may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction/setting—the action of the woman (v. 3)
    • The reaction of those present (vv. 4-5)
    • Jesus’ response (vv. 6-9), including a climactic saying

This basic outline is common to many traditional narratives in the Synoptics, especially those which depict Jesus in dispute/conflict with religious authorities (on questions of Law and other beliefs)—cf. Mark 2:1-3:6 par, etc. It is worth noting that neither the woman nor those who respond negatively to her are identified. In this respect, Mark most likely preserves the earlier form of the tradition (compared with Matthew [cf. below] and John). Jesus’ response is comprised of four sayings or parts:

    • V. 6— “Leave her (alone)! (for) what [i.e. why] do you hold [i.e. bring] along trouble for her? It is a fine work she has worked on me.”
    • V. 7— “The poor you have with you always…but you do not always have me.”
    • V. 8— “She did that which she held (in her to do)—she took (the opportunity) before(hand) to apply ointment (to) my body, unto [i.e. for] the placing (of it) in the grave.”
    • V. 9— “Amen, I say to you, (that) wherever the good message is proclaimed, into the whole world, even th(at) which this (woman) did will be spoken unto her memorial [i.e. as a memorial for her].”

These may be divided into two groups, reflecting two aspects of the narrative:

    • The costliness of the anointing—Christian ideals of poverty and humility (represented by the onlookers’ objection) required that some explanation of this “waste” be given. The answer comes in vv. 6-7, especially Jesus’ saying regarding the poor in v. 7.
    • The connection with the death of Jesus—it is doubtless this aspect in vv. 8-9 which caused the episode to be set within the context of the Passion narrative. As we shall see, there is some indication that the original tradition/event may have originally occurred at an earlier point in the Gospel narrative.
Matthew 26:6-13

Matthew follows the Markan account rather closely. The Gospel writer has, in other respects, expanded the Passion Narrative considerably, such as can be seen in the narrative introduction (compare vv. 1-5 with Mk 14:1-2). The main difference is found in vv. 1-2, which contain a transitional statement (v. 1) and a declaration by Jesus (v. 2) which echoes the earlier Passion predictions (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19 par). However, the Anointing scene itself shows relatively little development. Typically, Matthew’s version is smoother and simpler, lacking some of the specific detail and color of Mark’s account. It also contains certain details not found in Mark:

    • Those who object to the woman’s action are identified as Jesus’ disciples (v. 8). This is a significant development; John’s version is even more specific.
    • In v. 10a there is the possible indication that Jesus is aware of the disciples’ thoughts/hearts (cf. 9:4, etc).
    • The woman’s action (v. 12) is described by Jesus through a somewhat different formulation: “For this (woman), casting [i.e. pouring] the myrrh-ointment upon my body, did (this) toward [i.e. for] my being placed in the grave.” Matthew’s version emphasizes the allusion to the process of embalming, prior to burial.

Two of the four sayings by Jesus here—the second and the last (vv. 11, 13 / Mk 14:7, 9)—seem to be especially fixed in the tradition, with little variation:

    • Mk 14:7 / Matt 26:11—in the saying regarding the poor, Matthew’s version is shorter (an abridgment?), but otherwise the wording is very close.
    • Mk 14:9 / Matt 26:13—the authenticity of the closing statement regarding the woman would seem to be confirmed (on objective grounds), by: (a) the nearly identical wording, and (b) the formula “Amen, I say to you…” (am¢¡n légœ hymín), which is most distinctive and a sign of an early Jesus tradition. The solemnity of the saying was certainly influential in the preservation of the episode within the Gospel tradition.

There is more variation (between Matthew and Mark) in the other two sayings, especially that in Mk 14:8 par which associates the woman’s action with Jesus’ burial. This fluidity would suggest that the saying was not as well established in the tradition. As indicated above, Matthew’s version enhances the association between the anointing and the (symbolic) embalming of Jesus after death.

In the next part of this study, I will examine the quite different Anointing scene recorded by Luke (7:36-50).