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21st Century Cosmology and the Gospel of John: Part VI – Fire and Water

John 7:1-52; 8:12-59

With chapter 7 the anti-Semitism that has haunted Christianity for centuries seems to become unavoidable.  Perhaps that is why only two verses are ever read by followers of The Revised Common Lectionary, and even those are considered alternative choices for Pentecost in Year A (when the emphasis is on Matthew’s Gospel):  “On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and shouted out, ‘Anyone who’s thirsty must come to me and drink.  The one who believes in me – as scripture puts it – will be the source of rivers of life-giving water.’ (He was talking about the spirit that those who believed in him were about to receive.  You realize, of course, that there was no spirit as yet, since Jesus hadn’t been glorified.)”  John 7:37-39; the parenthesis is in the text.  When these verses are plucked out of the context of John’s impassioned proof that Jesus was the Messiah, preachers can do whatever they want with them.  For example, pair those verses with Isaiah 55, and you have the ingredients for a beautiful liturgy:  The fires of transforming spirit and the waters of baptismal grace.

When the Revised Common Lectionary is used to determine the weekly scripture readings in many (if not most) churches, not only is the drama that occurs in chapter 7 ignored.  The iconic scene with the woman caught in adultery is also left out of all suggested RCL readings for the entire three-year cycle.  Seminarians already know (or should know) that the incident known as “the woman caught in adultery” (KJV: the “adulterous woman”) at the beginning of Chapter 8 is not considered to have been part of John’s original.  (For a classic commentary on John, see The Gospel and Epistles of John by Ramond E. Brown.) While most modern translations put it there, some put it after John 21:25, and others place it after Luke 21:38.  The Westar Scholars put it in a section of The Complete Gospels titled “Orphan Sayings and Stories.”  According to the Scholars,

The sayings and anecdotes . . . are all fragments, which, over the course of the transmission and production of early gospel manuscripts, were introduced by various scribes into particular known copies of the canonical gospels.  Their poor attestation . . . indicates that they do not belong to the original text of the gospels in which they are found in the odd manuscript . . . For this reason, most scholars disregard them in the study of the canonical gospels . . . . The exceptions would be the story of the woman caught in adultery . . . and the traditional Longer Ending of Mark (16:9-20), which, for traditional or sentimental reasons, are often retained (p. 457).

Regarding “the adulteress episode – 7:53-8:11,” Raymond Brown writes,

This story is missing from the best Greek manuscripts.  While for Catholics it is canonical and inspired, almost certainly it is out of context [at the end of chapter 7]. . . . The Greek style is closer to Luke than to John.  We may have here an old story about Jesus preserved by a hand other than that which gave us the rest of the Gospel.  The Gospel and Epistles of John, p. 51.

When the incident is left out, the dramatic tension in John’s narrative proof of who Jesus was comes into its own.

After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and Jesus’ discourse on being the bread of life, John reminds his listeners (or readers) that Jesus moved around Galilee, and did not go into Judea “because the Judeans were looking for a chance to kill him.”  John has written this assertion and others about the “fear of the Judeans” back into the story of Jesus from the time when John was in a fight for his spiritual life with the local synagoguge; it would have been common ideology among the members of John’s community who accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  Perhaps part of the reason for skipping chapter 7 may be the blatant anti-Semitism that has come from misunderstanding and mistranslating what John wrote.

John sets this episode in the fall season of Sukkoth.  Everyone who’s been to Sunday School knows about the festival of “booths” (Tabernacles).  What we never learn is what the festival was all about.  Raymond Brown sets the scene:

The discourse at Tabernacles takes on added overtones if we are familiar with the ceremonies of this week-long feast . . . celebrated in September/October at the fall harvest in order to pray for early rain in the winter season. . . . (a) the people lived in huts or bowers to recall their ancestors’ sojourn in the desert; (b) to symbolize the need for rain, there was a daily procession from the pool of Siloam bringing water as a libation to the Temple; (c) the court of the women in the Temple was lighted by immense torches (Gospel and Epistles pp. 48-49).

True to the cynical assertion that no prophet is respected in his home country (Mark 6:3-4), Jesus’ brothers apparently don’t believe he really can work miracles.  They want him to go to Judea to really put Jesus to the test.  Jesus says he’s not going to the festival because “my time has not yet arrived.”  Then he goes in secret.  So Jesus is now back in Judea, where he healed the lame man on the Sabbath.  So far there have been four signs in Galilee vs. one in Judea (Jerusalem).  John keeps implying that Jesus’ home was Judea (Bethlehem), but “everybody knew” Jesus was from Galilee (Nazareth).  Jesus’ secrecy plays into the idea that no one will know who the Anointed One is, or where he comes from.  The “crowds” at the festival also are conflicted about who Jesus is because they know who his family is.

John quickly gets down to business, as Jesus confronts the representatives of Jewish law:  “Anyone who sets out to do what God wants knows well enough whether his teaching originates with God . . . All who speak on their own are out for their own glory . . . for the one who speaks for God, ‘there is nothing dishonest about him.’”  In John’s opinion, the Judeans not only don’t believe the law, they are determined to break it by killing Jesus.  Then on the last and most important day of the festival, presumably when the procession from the pool of Siloam brought water into the Temple, John’s Jesus (perhaps with some audacity) says that the one who believes in him will be the source of rivers of life-giving water.  John suggests parenthetically that Jesus is talking about the spirit that would be received after Jesus’ death.  Jesus seems to be foretelling his own death and the gift of the spirit, which will destroy the legitimacy of festival rituals for rain.

This is in-your-face polemic on the part of John.  But it gets worse.

Debate continues among the people about whether or not Jesus is the One.  Is he from Galilee or Judea?  Which is more important, the miracles (signs) or the teachings?  The temple police are called to arrest Jesus, but they don’t because “no one ever talked like that before!”  The Pharisees are disgusted with this, but then Nicodemus appears and argues that if they kill Jesus without allowing him to speak for himself, they will be breaking their own law.  This allows Jesus to testify on his own behalf, and he once again disses the festival – this time inferring that the torches may be lighting the women’s court, but “I am the light of the world!” The Pharisees declare his evidence is invalid, and the sparring continues.

In John 3:20-21, the narrator (or Jesus) says everyone who does evil things hates the light; “whoever lives the truth comes to the light so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”  Here, Jesus claims that God himself will offer evidence on his behalf.  That evidence, John’s community knew, was Jesus’ resurrection.  The Pharisees attempt to trap him in language about human versus heavenly “fathers”; they take him literally when he talks about the Pharisees being “at home in this world [while] I’m not at home in this world”; and how “If you don’t believe that I am (what I say I am) you will die in your sins.”  This is an infuriating, outrageous, and dangerous claim.  Jesus has invoked the name of God (“I Am”) in reference to himself.

Finally, as the heated dialogue with the religious leaders escalates, the claim that they are children of Abraham is invoked, and John’s Jesus goes over the top.  When taken out of context, even in this latest translation, these verses are among the most insidious in terms of what became Christian libel against Jews.  John’s Jesus says,

“Why don’t you understand what I’m saying?  It’s because you can’t hear my message.  You are your father’s children, all right – children of the devil.  And you are bent on satisfying your father’s cravings.  He was a murderer from the start; he is far from truth.  In fact, there’s no truth in him at all.  When he tells his lies, he is expressing his nature, because he is a liar and breeds lying.  But since I tell the truth, you don’t (want to) believe me.  Who can charge me with sin?  If I speak truthfully, why don’t you believe me?  Everyone who belongs to God can hear God’s words. That’s why you don’t listen; you don’t belong to God.”

The Judeans are speechless.  All they can do is accuse Jesus of either being an enemy Samaritan, or demon-possessed.  Jesus says not only is he not demon-possessed, but “Abraham [himself] would have been overjoyed to see my day; in fact he did see it and it made him happy.”  The Judeans scoff at this, but Jesus finishes with an astounding blasphemy: “Before there was an Abraham, I Am.”  They pick up stones to throw at him, “but Jesus disappeared from the temple area.”

With this powerful sequence, John’s case against “the Judeans” for Jesus’ death begins to gather strength.  Perhaps this section of John’s Gospel (without the orphan story in 8:1-12) is left out of the lectionary readings for this reason.  But if John’s Gospel can be reclaimed for the 21st century, the solution is not to cherry-pick metaphors that translate easily into 21st century cosmology, or phrases that support Christian belief.  Nor is the solution to throw out the entire Gospel.  Instead, it should first be read and understood on its own terms.

Review & Commentary