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The most Obscure Gospel

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  • Kenneth Litwak
    I ve been studying John s Gospel lately and for he first time, I ve been struck at just how large a proportion of the content is not only less than clear but
    Message 1 of 9 , Apr 13, 2002
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      I've been studying John's Gospel lately and for he first time, I've
      been struck at just how large a proportion of the content is not only
      less than clear but it seems that Jesus goes out of his way to be
      obscure. I'm trying to figure out why John's Gospel, written in such
      simple Greek, would at the same time, have been composed with almost it
      seems the goal of not being understood. For example, in John 6, without
      going into what Jesus means by "eat my flesh and drink my blood," the
      narrative offers no real attempt to remove this metaphor and replace it
      with something clearer that the audience might understand. In John 8,
      all that talk by Jesus about the Jews being of their father the devil
      and about bearing witness to himself, when he had previously said that
      was not valid, the strange statement by the disciples in :2 in which
      they seem to imply that a Jew could sin before birth and be punished
      with blindness, and so on.

      This is not the same as, say, JOhn 1. John 1 is profound, but I don't
      find it particularly obscure. There aren't metaphors that seem past
      unraveling. In John 6, however, I read Jesus' discourse and he seems
      like he's trying o leave his audience so perplexed hat they won't follow
      him anymore. The same seems true in John 8. Or, that bit about being
      born again at the start of John 3. If modern scholars struggle over
      what these texts might be about (not to imply that we are smarter but
      that there's a lot more energy being focused on interpreting these texts
      than in, say 90 AD)), what did JOhn's initial audiences make of them?
      If we are to take the end of John 20 seriously, that John's Gospel is
      written to help those who beleive/being unbelievers to faith, how are we
      to make sense of these other features? Thanks.

      Ken Litwak
    • Bob MacDonald
      Dear Ken Who would dare reply to this? What is believe in Jn 20 that we should know we have done it? The starkness of the metaphor is there to turn us away
      Message 2 of 9 , Apr 13, 2002
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        Dear Ken

        Who would dare reply to this? What is 'believe' in Jn 20 that we should know
        we have done it?

        The starkness of the metaphor is there to turn us away from our dependence
        on abstraction in relationship and to force us to turn to him only, so that
        we might know him and be known by him.

        Once the knowledge is there, there is no saying it - it cannot be written.
        The 'many signs that Jesus did' are of no further help _on paper_.

        Story, parable, and stark metaphor invite us into a reality that is
        unspeakable.

        I think the first century audience has as difficult and as similar a time
        with the word as we do. I think the followers who wrote the gospels or the
        letters (which reason from the abstraction of the law towards a greater
        reality for which it has kept us and to which it also points) knew they
        could not express a formula for faith - they could only point - and that
        using the same terms as Tanach e.g. Habakkuk - but bolstered by the 'these
        days he has spoken to us through a son'. This also is metaphorical.

        God incarnates metaphor - so the 'my flesh and my blood' become a reality
        for us that is true but unprovable (reflecting Godel's incompleteness
        theorem). Our language is no match for God, (our axioms no match for even
        the natural numbers) yet we are told that it points there (yet we are told
        that we can depend on the numbers). We can be satisfied with no person less
        (We must be satisfied that there is no closed system of abstractions in
        which all known true theorems are provable from the axioms.)

        The statement (without proof) 'my flesh and my blood' is true - i.e. above
        logical and normal and apparently natural thought.

        Poetry written from faith shows this feature: here is a description

        Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
        and stand with fear and trembling,
        And lift itself above all earthly thought.

        For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God,
        cometh forth to be our oblation,
        and to be giv'n for Food to the faithful.

        Before Him come the choirs of angels,
        with ev'ry principality and pow'r;
        the Cherubim with many eyes, and winged Seraphim,
        who veil their faces as they shout exultingly the hymn.

        Alleluia.

        Here is an example from T.S.Eliot's journey of the Magi with its reflecting
        of John's 'Es ist volbracht'.

        But there was no information, and so we continued
        And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
        Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

        Full poem worth a read: http://lucien.blight.com/~sparkle/poems/magi.html

        Be 'no longer at ease'

        yet - let me eat and drink him who knows me...

        Bob

        mailto::BobMacDonald@...
        + + + Victoria, B.C., Canada + + +

        Catch the foxes for us,
        the little foxes that make havoc of the vineyards,
        for our vineyards are in flower. (Song 2.15)
        http://bobmacdonald.gx.ca
      • jamesfrankmcgrath@yahoo.com
        I think there is certainly truth in saying that John is at times intentionally obscure . Wayne Meeks makes much of this in his famous article The Man from
        Message 3 of 9 , Apr 13, 2002
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          I think there is certainly truth in saying that John is at times
          intentionally 'obscure'. Wayne Meeks makes much of this in his famous
          article 'The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism'. The Jesus of the
          Fourth Gospel speaks of spiritual realities, and those who take his words
          at face value misunderstand. Misunderstanding is a key Johannine theme,
          and I think there has been a lengthy previous discussion of the topic on
          the list a while back.

          But I think John expected Christian readers in his community to
          understand where the interlocutors in the Gospel fail to understand - and
          that includes even John 6, where it is not just 'the Jews' but followers
          of Jesus who turn back from following him because of these sayings that
          are 'too much to take' (or in a metaphor closer to that of John 6, 'hard
          to swallow'). To my mind, the first key to unlocking the passage is 6:59,
          where the author of the Gospel specifies what the genre of the preceding
          discourse is: a synagogue homily. Although it is obviously well nigh
          impossible to imagine the historical Jesus preaching this sermon in the
          synagogue in Capernaum, this still tells us about the genre of the
          discourse. If it is a synagogue sermon, we'd expect two scriptural
          quotations (or paraphrases), and we are not disappointed. Exodus 16 (v4
          is paraphrased in John 6:31), and the whole manna story is alluded to
          throughout the chapter) provides the reading from the Law; some section
          of Isa 54-55 provides the text from the Prophets (54:13 is quoted in John
          6:45). The chapter is thus not primarily eucharistic (although
          eucharistic imagery is used), but is a christological interpretation of
          these two passages, linking the Word that comes down from heaven and the
          food offered by God in Isaiah 55, and linking it to the manna tradition
          in Exodus.

          Barnabas Lindars suggests John 6 is inserted here to illustrate the point
          made in John 5:46, namely that Moses wrote about Jesus. Even more
          important for the original readers was probably the question of why their
          Jewish contemporaries so frequently refused to accept Jesus as the
          Messiah and complained about Christians claims and practices. John's
          answer: 'the Jews' are grumbling at the bread God has given from heaven
          now, just as their forefathers always 'grumbled' (that is the word used
          in LXX in the manna story) when God gave them bread from heaven. If one
          takes the statement of purpose in John 20:31 to mean that what is written
          is to encourage Christians to continue believing, then presumably this
          would have helped them.

          Is the imagery intentionally difficult? Certainly, on one level at least.
          For John and his community, no concession is to be made for unbelief. But
          I'm not sure that this language, however difficult it might be for us,
          would have been particularly hard for members of John's own community to
          understand. For a presentation of Jesus' sayings that intentionally tries
          to make them as hard as possible to understand, perhaps one should look
          at the Gospel of Thomas!

          Best wishes,

          James McGrath



          On Sat, 13 Apr 2002 15:42:53 -0700 Kenneth Litwak
          <kdlitwak@...> writes:
          > I've been studying John's Gospel lately and for he first time,
          > I've been struck at just how large a proportion of the content is not
          > only less than clear but it seems that Jesus goes out of his way to be
          > obscure. I'm trying to figure out why John's Gospel, written in
          > such simple Greek, would at the same time, have been composed with
          almost
          > it seems the goal of not being understood. For example, in John 6,
          > without going into what Jesus means by "eat my flesh and drink my
          blood,"
          > the narrative offers no real attempt to remove this metaphor and
          replace
          > it with something clearer that the audience might understand. In John
          > 8, all that talk by Jesus about the Jews being of their father the
          > devil and about bearing witness to himself, when he had previously said

          > that was not valid, the strange statement by the disciples in :2 in
          > which they seem to imply that a Jew could sin before birth and be
          > punished with blindness, and so on.
          >
          > This is not the same as, say, JOhn 1. John 1 is profound, but I
          > don't find it particularly obscure. There aren't metaphors that seem
          > past unraveling. In John 6, however, I read Jesus' discourse and he
          > seems like he's trying o leave his audience so perplexed hat they won't

          > follow him anymore. The same seems true in John 8. Or, that bit about

          > being born again at the start of John 3. If modern scholars struggle
          > over what these texts might be about (not to imply that we are smarter
          > but that there's a lot more energy being focused on interpreting these
          > texts than in, say 90 AD)), what did JOhn's initial audiences make of
          > them? If we are to take the end of John 20 seriously, that John's
          Gospel
          > is written to help those who beleive/being unbelievers to faith, how
          > are we to make sense of these other features? Thanks.
          >
          > Ken Litwak
          >
          >

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        • Horace Jeffery Hodges
          I had an analogous but somewhat differing reaction to the Johannine language that you mention when I began re-reading the fourth gospel as an adult. What you
          Message 4 of 9 , Apr 14, 2002
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            I had an analogous but somewhat differing reaction to
            the Johannine language that you mention when I began
            re-reading the fourth gospel as an adult.

            What you found obscure, I found offensive.

            Indeed, it seemed to me that the fourth evangelist was
            being intentionally offensive in his rendering of the
            Jesus story, and I found it annoying.

            I still think that he was being deliberately
            offensive, but the interesting questions (for me) are:

            1) Why?

            and

            2) How?

            Answers to the the former could range from
            characteristics of sectarianism to reaction at
            expulsion from larger religious community to
            proto-Gnosticizing world denigration.

            Answers to the latter would require determining what
            Christological views the evangelist's opponents would
            find offensive, learning what sorts of rhetorical
            techniques available to the evangelist could be used
            for offending, and analyzing the fourth evangelist's
            use of such views and techniques.

            Incidently, has much work been done concerning what we
            could call "The Johannine Offense"? (Not a football
            gameplan even if it might sound like one.)

            Jeffery Hodges

            =====
            Assistant Professor Horace Jeffery Hodges
            Hanshin University (Korean Theological University)
            447-791 Kyunggido Osan-City
            Yangsandong 411
            South Korea

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          • ProfRam@aol.com
            In a message dated 4/14/2002 8:00:36 PM Eastern Daylight Time, jefferyhodges@yahoo.com writes:
            Message 5 of 9 , Apr 14, 2002
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              In a message dated 4/14/2002 8:00:36 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
              jefferyhodges@... writes:

              << Indeed, it seemed to me that the fourth evangelist was
              being intentionally offensive in his rendering of the
              Jesus story, and I found it annoying. >>

              Apparently, it worked.


              Ramsey Michaels
            • Thomas W Butler
              Dear Ken, The Fourth Gospel is intentionally written on two levels of meaning. It can be and usually is read on a level equivalent to the Synoptics, as a
              Message 6 of 9 , Apr 14, 2002
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                Dear Ken,
                The Fourth Gospel is intentionally written on two levels of
                meaning. It can be and usually is read on a level equivalent
                to the Synoptics, as a gospel that tells the Jesus tradition. It
                is rarely, but can be read as a book of signs that must be
                interpreted by persons alert to the story line of the signs and
                very familiar with the Mosaic oracles in the Pentateuch from
                which those signs were taken. One clue to the fact that at
                least the first thirteen chapters of the Gospel are written as
                a book of signs is that the language appears to be strained
                in some passages, apparently to accommodate the use of a
                particular Greek word, even though a different Greek term
                would seem to have been a better choice. I believe that this
                was done intentionally, because the purpose behind the
                writing of the text was to use the Mosaic sign language. It
                is on that level of meaning that the text makes the most sense.

                Yours in Christ's service,
                Tom Butler

                On Sat, 13 Apr 2002 15:42:53 -0700 Kenneth Litwak
                <kdlitwak@...> writes:
                > I've been studying John's Gospel lately and for he first time,
                > I've
                > been struck at just how large a proportion of the content is not
                > only
                > less than clear but it seems that Jesus goes out of his way to be
                > obscure. I'm trying to figure out why John's Gospel, written in
                > such
                > simple Greek, would at the same time, have been composed with almost
                > it
                > seems the goal of not being understood. For example, in John 6,
                > without
                > going into what Jesus means by "eat my flesh and drink my blood,"
                > the
                > narrative offers no real attempt to remove this metaphor and replace
                > it
                > with something clearer that the audience might understand. In John
                > 8,
                > all that talk by Jesus about the Jews being of their father the
                > devil
                > and about bearing witness to himself, when he had previously said
                > that
                > was not valid, the strange statement by the disciples in :2 in
                > which
                > they seem to imply that a Jew could sin before birth and be
                > punished
                > with blindness, and so on.
                >
                > This is not the same as, say, JOhn 1. John 1 is profound, but I
                > don't
                > find it particularly obscure. There aren't metaphors that seem
                > past
                > unraveling. In John 6, however, I read Jesus' discourse and he
                > seems
                > like he's trying o leave his audience so perplexed hat they won't
                > follow
                > him anymore. The same seems true in John 8. Or, that bit about
                > being
                > born again at the start of John 3. If modern scholars struggle
                > over
                > what these texts might be about (not to imply that we are smarter
                > but
                > that there's a lot more energy being focused on interpreting these
                > texts
                > than in, say 90 AD)), what did JOhn's initial audiences make of
                > them?
                > If we are to take the end of John 20 seriously, that John's Gospel
                > is
                > written to help those who beleive/being unbelievers to faith, how
                > are we
                > to make sense of these other features? Thanks.
                >
                > Ken Litwak
                >
                >
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              • Maluflen@aol.com
                In a message dated 4/14/2002 8:00:31 PM Eastern Daylight Time, jefferyhodges@yahoo.com writes:
                Message 7 of 9 , Apr 15, 2002
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                  In a message dated 4/14/2002 8:00:31 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
                  jefferyhodges@... writes:

                  << I had an analogous but somewhat differing reaction to
                  the Johannine language that you mention when I began
                  re-reading the fourth gospel as an adult.

                  What you found obscure, I found offensive.

                  Indeed, it seemed to me that the fourth evangelist was
                  being intentionally offensive in his rendering of the
                  Jesus story, and I found it annoying.

                  I still think that he was being deliberately
                  offensive [...]:>>

                  I must confess to being a bit surprised by this reaction. At the very least,
                  I would want to ask, when you say John's Gospel comes off as being offensive:
                  offensive to whom? I don't see how this Gospel offends one who believes in
                  Jesus as the authentic Messiah of Judaism and needs only to have this faith
                  in Jesus as the Christ confirmed (Jn 20:31). And its offense to those who
                  oppose this faith, it seems to me, consists only in the strength with which
                  the "true confession" is affirmed and explicated in the face of opposition.
                  In other words, it is the truth itself which offends the powerful when it is
                  undeterred by their agenda and their threats. I do not see an edge of
                  offensiveness in John above and beyond what is contained in the truth that is
                  implied in the common faith of all Christians. Perhaps it is our modern
                  oversensitized conditioning in the buzz-concepts of pluralism and tolerance
                  that could make some take offense at a little red-blooded polemic on behalf
                  of this truth.

                  Leonard Maluf
                • ProfRam@aol.com
                  In a message dated 4/15/2002 10:40:08 AM Eastern Daylight Time, Maluflen@aol.com writes:
                  Message 8 of 9 , Apr 15, 2002
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                    In a message dated 4/15/2002 10:40:08 AM Eastern Daylight Time,
                    Maluflen@... writes:

                    << I must confess to being a bit surprised by this reaction. At the very
                    least,
                    I would want to ask, when you say John's Gospel comes off as being
                    offensive:
                    offensive to whom? I don't see how this Gospel offends one who believes in
                    Jesus as the authentic Messiah of Judaism and needs only to have this faith
                    in Jesus as the Christ confirmed (Jn 20:31). And its offense to those who
                    oppose this faith, it seems to me, consists only in the strength with which
                    the "true confession" is affirmed and explicated in the face of opposition.
                    In other words, it is the truth itself which offends the powerful when it is
                    undeterred by their agenda and their threats. I do not see an edge of
                    offensiveness in John above and beyond what is contained in the truth that
                    is
                    implied in the common faith of all Christians. Perhaps it is our modern
                    oversensitized conditioning in the buzz-concepts of pluralism and tolerance
                    that could make some take offense at a little red-blooded polemic on behalf
                    of this truth.

                    Leonard Maluf

                    >>

                    Amen, and Amen!

                    Ramsey Michaels
                  • Yuri Kuchinsky
                    ... Jeffery, Here s my 2 cents worth on this. a) obscure This obscurity in numerous passages is the result of late editorial interference. The obscurity could
                    Message 9 of 9 , Apr 15, 2002
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                      On Sun, 14 Apr 2002, Horace Jeffery Hodges wrote in reply to Ken:

                      > I had an analogous but somewhat differing reaction to
                      > the Johannine language that you mention when I began
                      > re-reading the fourth gospel as an adult.
                      >
                      > What you found obscure, I found offensive.
                      >
                      > Indeed, it seemed to me that the fourth evangelist was
                      > being intentionally offensive in his rendering of the
                      > Jesus story, and I found it annoying.

                      Jeffery,

                      Here's my 2 cents worth on this.

                      a) obscure

                      This obscurity in numerous passages is the result of late editorial
                      interference. The obscurity could have come about both unintentionally,
                      because of careless or hasty last-minute editing, and even intentionally.
                      The latter could have been motivated by the desire to complicate some
                      previously simple stories, for example, because, in a later period, they
                      may have been seen as too simple and perhaps even homespun.

                      So, I suppose this would argue against a too rigid application of the Text
                      Critical maxim "lectio difficilior potior" (the more difficult reading is
                      the more probable reading). While this maxim is indeed justified in some
                      cases, it's not in others, IMHO, in so far as it neglects the desire of
                      later editors to present their Christian audience with some impressive
                      "mystical sayings", that would really give them something to ponder about.

                      b) offensive

                      A variety of passages can be cited here, and the reasons for each being
                      what it is could be different. But, again, these also may represent late
                      editorial interference. In my view, some anti-Judaic passages could have
                      well been added as late as post-135 CE, which is, of course, the time of
                      officially sanctioned Roman antisemitism.

                      Best wishes,

                      Yuri.

                      Yuri Kuchinsky -=O=- http://www.trends.ca/~yuku

                      Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority,
                      it is time to reform -=O=- Mark Twain
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