Category Archives: Bible

Brown – The Gospel According to John (pt 4)

In Chapter 7 of John, Jesus goes to the Feast of Tabernacles, and once again, Brown’s attention to exegetical detail illuminates the scene.

According to Brown, the Feast of Tabernacles at the time of Jesus was the greatest of the celebrations that Jews held. It was considered a pilgrimage feast, and all able-bodies males were expected to make the trip. (At first, Jesus refuses to go, but later sneaks in and amazes the crowd with his teaching – see pt 3 of this series for the “hidden” messiah John portrays.)

The focus of the celebration was twofold. First, it was a celebration of the Jews as the chosen people of God – of the people alone who had the tabernacle in which God dwelt. Within the celebration itself was much pomp and tradition that was reminiscent of the exodus from Egypt. Second, it was a agricultural feast in which the men of Israel entreated God (who dwelt in the Temple) to bless their land and their crops with bountiful rain so that they might have a good harvest. As the tradition goes, it was thought that when the Messiah came God would cause the very stones of the temple to gush forth water, which would supply the land to overflowing with water for their crops. Then, the excess water would cascade out of Jerusalem in great rivers that would reach the gentile nations. The gentiles, curious as to whence this issue of water came, would follow the rivers back to the Temple, and worship the one true God there.

Keeping in mind the idea behind the Feast of Tabernacles, many things within Chapter 7 make more sense. For instance, when the Jews wonder why the authorities are not arresting or killing Jesus in vs 25-27, they wonder if the authorities have perhaps concluded that Jesus is the messiah. Such speculation is absurd, unless John is “priming the pump” for the reader to remember the Messiah imagery within the feast. Then, when the Jesus states in vs 33-34 that he will go to where no one can find him, the Jews wonder if he will go to the Greeks (i.e., gentiles) and teach them. Again, an image taken from the mythology behind the Feast of Tabernacles.

Then, in vs 37-38, on the greatest day of the Feast, Jesus declares that any who believe in him will have rivers of living water flow within them. Once again, powerful imagery from the Feast being usurped by Jesus to describe himself. And when you remember that in Chapter 2 Jesus called himself the temple – the very  thing from which waters of life are supposed to flow – the imagery becomes overpowering. Jesus is not only the temple, but the messiah, and the God who tabernacled with men who causes rivers of life to flow. And since the Feast of Tabernacles is a pilgrimage feast, all the Jews will journey home to far away lands, tell of their experience with Jesus, and thereby bring others to worship God, too.

Fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles has come, hidden in the person of Jesus.

So, here’s the question I struggle with – was the author of the book of John really crafty enough to weave all this together? Or are we perhaps seeing what we want to see – imagery that isn’t really there? What do you think?

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Brown – The Gospel According to John (pt 3)

One of the best points that Brown makes in his commentary is that the author of John portrays Jesus as a “hidden messiah”, who only erratically and confusingly presents himself.

To make this claim, Brown first points to God, who is very much hidden – no eye can see him, no ear can hear him. Jesus claims to do only what he sees God doing, meaning that his actions will be mysterious, too.

Next, Brown points to Jesus himself, who was born to a working-class family, grew up in a backwater community, and had stinky fishermen for disciples, all of which are not messiah-like.  Only through interactions with people like John the Baptist does Jesus start to become un-hidden as the messiah. Even when Jesus performs miraculous signs, people misunderstand the point of the signs, and he remains hidden as the messiah.

Lastly, Brown points to the ways in which Jesus purposefully does “hidden” or “confusing” things. He turns the water into wine, and no one but his disciples and the servants at the wedding know about it. He clears the temple and says that if the temple is destroyed, he can rebuild it in three days, which confuses the people. He tells Nicodemus he must be “born again”, which clearly confuses him. He hides from the crowd after he feeds the 5000. He sneaks into Jerusalem for the feast of tabernacles, and on and on.

Even at the end, he appears to his followers in a “hidden” way, before he goes into heaven and is “hidden” in the clouds, taking on the hiddeness of God.

If you are like me, you were always taught that Jesus is plain and clear, and that people don’t come to him because they love their sin. Never once was I taught about the “hiddeness” of the messiah.

What were you taught about Jesus – was he the obvious messiah, or a hidden one?

Does the idea of a “hidden messiah” make Jesus make more or less sense?

Brown – The Gospel According to John (pt 2)

Since we will be following Brown’s commentary as I read, we’ll skip over the first 4 chapters of John (which I have already read), and jump right into Chapter 5, specifically, John 5:31-47.

This passage, however, deserves some background. John, like all good writers, is building into his main themes in the previous chapters. The theme of life, of the hidden messiah, and of the “prophet like Moses” are woven into chapters 1 through 4. In Chapter 5, they finally come to a head, because the Jews begin to persecute Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.

It is unlikely that Jesus gave the speech we find in Chapter 5 every time he was questioned. Instead, most scholars believe that the author of John (who might not be John!) compiled Jesus’ answers into this speech in order to reinforce the themes from the first 4 chapters.

In the last part of chapter 5, Brown points out how Jesus really unloads on his detractors.  As I read his commentary, I felt Jesus’ words sting me, too. In what ways do you see Jesus’ rebuke applying to Christians today?

In verses 31-35, Jesus points out that his testimony about himself is not enough. In Jewish law, a single testimony was not considered valid – testimony had to be corroborated by someone else to be valid. And, the more people, the more valid. So, Jesus points out that John the Baptist is his “second witness”, if you will. Jesus also points out that he has a third witness, God himself.

This is where Brown’s excellent exegetical work pays off. The Jews thought it was them alone who had ever seen God – through the experience that Moses had with God at Mt. Sinai. So, when Jesus points out in vs 37-38 that the Jews have in fact never seen God, it was greatly offensive. Any good Jew, Brown points out, would then retreat to the Torah, the law, to show how they have seen God and know him. It is the scriptures, the Jews would argue, that give them life before the whithering glance of God.

Jesus again counters – You Jews study the scriptures because you think that by them you can posses life, but these scriptures talk about me, and only by coming to me can you have life.

Interesting here that Jesus distinguishes between the scripture, which he obviously valued, and what it takes to have life. Do you think Christians retreat to the scriptures too often to show how they have life, rather than retreating to an experience of “coming to” Christ?

Ending the chapter, Jesus turns again to Moses. Brown points out that there is a lot of evidence that Jews believed that Moses went into heaven to constantly argue for their place as God’s chosen people. Without Moses’ intervention, it was thought, God would have destroyed them long ago. In this passage, Jesus boldly states that Moses is now switching roles to be their accuser – they have no double witness to confirm their testimony about themselves. The only retreat, then, is Christ.

Brown’s work here intrigues me, because it calls to mind the book of Hebrews, in which Christ now argues our place before God, taking the place of Moses. I’m left to wonder, though, two things. First, remember that two witnesses are needed to confirm a testimony. The thought was that an individual can lie, but truth can be discerned through the testminony of many. However, why should this apply to God? Why would God need an additional witness to discern truth? Second, I wonder about the role of scripture. If Moses was willing to abandon the Jews because they didn’t believe this stranger called Jesus, but clung instead to scripture which testified about Christ, what makes Christ less likely to do so when we cling to scripture as the rule of our faith? What is our alternative?

Raymond Brown – The Gospel According to John (pt 1)

brown_johnFor the past several weeks, I’ve been going through Raymond Brown’s commentary on the Gospel of John. Even though it is almost 40 years old, this commentary is widely regarded as the best English commentary on John.  It should be, because it is huge – over 1300 pages in 2 volumes. In going through this commentary, it is obvious that Brown really did his homework. Not only are Qumran materials (i.e., the Dead Sea Scrolls) dealt with in a robust way, but Jewish material (especially the Midrash), other commentators, and the synoptics are dealt with in an amazingly smart way.

For the next several weeks, I’ll be going through some of the more interesting points of Brown’s commentary, and asking questions about the interpretation of John.

To start, Brown deals with how the Gospel of John came to be in its current form. I found his hypothesis interesting. What do you think about the formation of the Gospels? How does that view impact your view of both inspiration and inerrancy?

Brown believes that the Gospel came to be in its current form over the course of at least 40 years in 5 main stages.

Stage 1:  Some material existed (probably both written and oral) that contained some of the words and deeds of Jesus, but that was independent of the material used for the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

Stage 2: Reworking of the material in stage 1 into the author’s primary concerns and themes. This stage probably occurred through oral preaching and teaching. Some of the material in stage 1 may have been exaggerated or left out to accomplish the author’s goals.

Stage 3: Organization of the lessons and sermons into a consecutive, written gospel. This would have been the first edition of the Gospel as a unified work. Some of the material from stage 2 would have to have been either merged with other material, or left out completely.

Stage 4: Second edition of the gospel to work out the kinks, as it were, with the first edition. This would have included changing material to answer certain questions or criticisms, and possibly adding material to address new problems in the world. This second edition would have been done by the author.

Stage 5: Final revision by an editor or editors other than the main author. Brown thinks this was probably a close friend or the disciples of the author, who took the opportunity to insert all the remaining material from stage 2 into the gospel. This would have been done after the author’s death, in an attempt to preserve all of his teachings for posterity. Since the final editor(s) would not have wanted to modify the material generated by the author himself, they simply inserted duplicate material, often side-by-side with the earlier material (e.g., 5:51-58 and 5:35-50).

What is your initial reaction to Brown’s proposal? For instance, does the idea of multiple editions or writers specifically bother you? Why or why not? What do you think of the proposal that the author may have exaggerated some stories, or combined stories to make a point?