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[XTalk] historicity of saying in John 5:17

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  • Michael Burer
    In light of the recent discussions on the Gospel of John, it seemed reasonable to me to suggest a test case for authenticity of one of the aphoristic sayings
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 31, 1999
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      In light of the recent discussions on the Gospel of John, it seemed
      reasonable to me to suggest a test case for authenticity of one of the
      aphoristic sayings in that Gospel. Below is an excerpt (slightly edited)
      from a paper I wrote on the controversy in John 5. I certainly am not an
      expert on HJ or other historical issues, so please consider this an
      invitation to dialogue on this issue and an opportunity for me to learn. My
      apologies also for the length, but it seemed appropriate to include all of
      this material. Here is the excerpt:

      "The saying ("My Father is working until now, and I too am working") has
      four things to commend it as a saying which reach backs to the historical
      Jesus. First, it is set up within the narrative as a disconnected saying,
      not as a saying which is absolutely tied to its context. In 5:16 we read,
      "Because of these things, then, the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he
      was doing these things on the Sabbath." This verse is given as a general
      statement. DIA TOUTO ("these things") is plural and seems to refer to more
      than just the one event detailed in 5:1-15. The main verb in 5:16, EDIWKON,
      is imperfect; this is best seen as either an ingressive imperfect, meaning
      that because of this controversy the Jews began their persecution of Jesus,
      or a customary imperfect, meaning that the action of persecuting Jesus
      occurred continually in the past. The verb in the hOTI clause is also
      imperfect and is best taken as customary as well; this would show that the
      healing in John 5:1-9 was meant to be representative of many other things
      Jesus did on the Sabbath which the author did not record. In either case, it
      is seen as a summary statement which in effect brings a minor stop to the
      events of the narrative. The same thing happens on the back end of the
      saying. John 5:18 shows the Jews reactions to Jesus' defense which involves
      The inclusion of the adverb MALLON gives good reason to regard the imperfect
      verb EZHTOUN as customary. The action of seeking to kill Jesus did not begin
      with his claim; it simply intensified. So the author intends John 5:18 to be
      a general statement about how the Jews were reacting to and treating Jesus;
      it should not be construed as a continuation of the narrative in strict
      chronological order. Therefore, there is disjunction between 5:17 and its
      context; there is not enough to posit a total lack of connection, but there
      is enough to see 5:17 as a more general statement about Jesus' work on the
      Sabbath which the author connected to this specific healing and continued
      persecution at the hand of the Jews. How does this impact the historicity of
      the saying? It shows that the saying found its way into the tradition as a
      disconnected unit, not as part of the larger narrative. It must have been
      preserved then as a single unit, and as such it fits the profile of a
      unique, powerful saying preserved in the oral tradition.

      Second, this saying is constructed in a witty, memorable manner. It is
      short, only eight words in Greek. It uses two different forms of the same
      root word, ERGAZETAI and ERGAZOMAI for mental and aural consonance. It
      begins with the action of the Father and concludes with the action of the
      Son. One can easily imagine this saying being remembered during Jesus'
      lifetime as an explanation and justification for the controversy stirred up
      by Jesus' actions on the Sabbath as well as during the formation of the
      early church as a defense during the controversies between the church and
      the synagogue over Sabbath observance. Such characteristics of the saying
      point to longevity and a deep historical reach, most likely to Jesus

      Third, the introduction of the saying uses APEKRINATO, the middle form of
      the verb APOKRINOMAI. This verb form has legal overtones implying a formal
      legal context. This verb form is regularly attested in legal documents as
      well. Occurring in John only here and in 5:19, this verb form is unusual
      enough that the author must have used it for a specific reason. It is likely
      that he used the term to recall the saying's initial context of legal
      defense; it is not hard to imagine a context in the life of Jesus other than
      the trial before the Sanhedrin which would have legal overtones or
      implications. It is highly unlikely given the specific nature of the term
      that the author simply used the term unknowingly. This term then indicates
      that the saying was lifted out of an event in Jesus' life in which he was
      legally charged, and this is right in line with everything that is known
      about how Jesus interacted with the Jewish authorities and how they
      responded to him.

      Fourth, this saying fits the profile of Jesus as a laconic sage. Based upon
      the prior point of the legal context, the case can be made that Jesus did
      not offer this saying unprovoked. Most likely he was challenged or
      confronted in some way and made this as a response. This is what a sage
      would do: respond and challenge his listeners. It is also a cryptic and
      enigmatic saying, just like that a sage or cynic would offer. It subverts
      the worldview of the listeners and challenges them to think in fresh ways.
      It fits a profile of Jesus which was certainly a part of his ministry, but
      certainly not the sum total of his ministry. Since it coheres to the
      proverbial aspects of Jesus' discourse, it is reasonable to see this saying
      as historical and going back to Jesus."

      Best regards to all,
      Michael Burer
      Ph.D. Student
      Dallas Theological Seminary
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