Was[hy] Irony: "Witness" in John (part 1)
- Dear Kym and John_Lit:
[Note:I have decided to post a work-in-progress, a first of many drafts I
fear, of a piece I appear to be writing. Your forbearance is appreciated as
your critiques are solicited. Forgive the awkwardness of a first draft and my
inability to commit to "evangelist," "narrator," "text," "narrative," etc.]
Kym Smith has suggested a clarity of "witness" in the Fourth Gospel [FG] in
support of an interesting thesis. In response to KS's contention that the FG
is a finely woven fabric of witnessed words and deeds, I have suggested that
the evangelist's interrogation of the concept of witness challenges such
clarity; the text of the FG is something other than a neatly cleaned and
pressed, washed and ironed garment, packaged for carefree wear and
consumption. In the FG, "witness" is more than being there; it also includes
a kind of being in and engaging the moment, with an eye toward horizons of
Two pericopes will suffice to illustrate the problem of "witness" in the FG,
the narratives of the cure of the man born blind and the empty tomb. For
convenience I will provide
the translation in the NAB.
As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that
he was born blind?"
Jesus answered, "Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works
of God might be made visible through him.
We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is
coming when no one can work.
While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva,
and smeared the clay on his eyes,
and said to him, "Go wash 3 in the Pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). So he
went and washed, and came back able to see.
His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, "Isn't
this the one who used to sit and beg?"
Some said, "It is," but others said, "No, he just looks like him." He said,
So they said to him, "(So) how were your eyes opened?"
He replied, "The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me,
'Go to Siloam and wash.' So I went there and washed and was able to see."
And they said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I don't know."
They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees.
Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath.
So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them,
"He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see."
So some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, because he does not
keep the sabbath." (But) others said, "How can a sinful man do such signs?"
And there was a division among them.
So they said to the blind man again, "What do you have to say about him,
since he opened your eyes?" He said, "He is a prophet."
Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight
until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight.
They asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he
His parents answered and said, "We know that this is our son and that he was
We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him,
he is of age; he can speak for him self."
His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had
already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Messiah, he would be
expelled from the synagogue.
For this reason his parents said, "He is of age; question him."
So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, "G
ive God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner."
He replied, "If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I
was blind and now I see."
So they said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?"
He answered them, "I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want
to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?"
They ridiculed him and said, "You are that man's disciple; we are disciples
We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from."
The man answered and said to them, "This is what is so amazing, that you do
not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.
We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does
his will, he listens to him.
It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.
If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything."
They answered and said to him, "You were born totally in sin, and are you
trying to teach us?" Then they threw him out.
When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, "Do you
believe in the Son of Man?"
He answered and said, "Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?"
Jesus said to him, "You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he."
He said, "I do believe, Lord," and he worshiped him.
Then Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do
not see might see, and those who do see might become blind."
Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, "Surely
we are not also blind, are we?"
Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you
are saying, 'We see,' so your sin remains.
This pericope depicts the conflict between the status quo (the Pharisee's
conceptual space) and Jesus' message, which seeks to subvert it. The
evangelist delights in his special brand of irony here, turning the status
quo inside out as the Pharisees seek witness (seemingly any witness) to the
truth. The disciples, still participating in the old episteme, ask Jesus who
had sinned to cause this man to be born blind. Jesus replies with a
resounding paradigm shift: the man was born blind that the world might see
the work of God. The sign Jesus performs punctuates the shift from not seeing
to seeing. The cured man has no footing in the status quo, ( its discourse
cannot conceive and therefore cannot permit of an ex-blind man) which cannot
account for this change. The Pharisees know all too well how the man's
blindness-as-result of sin plays out for their power structure, and Jesus'
action subverts this power structure and therefore undermines their raison
d'etre. The narrative contributes to the subversion as it inscribes the
reasonable doubt of the double witness: the real witness and the look-alike
witness. Only the witness who can answer the question of "how" eyes open is
the actual witness.
In their mad dash for the truth, the Pharisees turn to those condemned by
the status quo to witness, most unreliable witnesses in this moribund
episteme; for they are the sinners (according to the system set up by the
current discourse) who have caused their child to be born blind. The irony
here is comical and (at least) twofold: the perfectly reasonable witness of
the ex-blind man is inadequate for the Pharisee's foiled machinations--- he
offers the plain truth, but the Pharisees want a truth far more baroque. They
swallow their entire belief system and turn to the parents for their
testimony. They ask a two part question, and the parents answer plainly: they
verify that the man is their child and that he was born blind; queried about
how he is no longer blind, they defer to the better witness, their son. The
narrator distracts the reader with information that may or may not be
extraneous (the parents were afraid of persecution for witnessing to
Jesus-as-Messiah), but the characters are not distracted at all. The parents
go off unscathed and the Pharisees once again seek the witness of the
Something remarkable has happened to this witness in the interim-he speaks
the language of Jesus and the evangelist---his diction is high and he answers
with a suspiciously Jesus-like and evangelical tone. In this marvelous
intersubjective repartee of "we" and "you," the ex-blind man holds his own
court, and lectures the Pharisees on where his healer might hail from. He
invites them to become disciples, and points out their blindness, their
inability and unwillingness to see just where this healer is from. The
Pharisees resoundingly reject the man's invitation to sight and discipleship,
declaring their discipleship to Moses. The irony is heightened here, as the
Pharisee accuse the man of being a disciple of Jesus (he will be a disciple
very soon), and relinquish their role as teaching authority to the man: they
even acknowledge this deferral of authority by recognizing the dialogue as
pedagogical, albeit to deride the man for "teaching" them.
Jeff Staler has already commented on this kind of irony ( specifically in
John 4) that plays against character and reader. In his "The Sabbath Trick,"
Thomas Thatcher, taking Print's First Kiss as his point of departure, carries
JS's analysis a step further by noting that the evangelist's irony is
"unstable," as it disadvantages the reader as often as it disadvantages some
characters in the narrative. The narrative's ungrammaticality that usurps
Jesus' voice by placing such authoritative language on the lips of the
ex-blind man resolves as Jesus gets the final word, bringing the man's
critique of the Pharisees to its conclusion: "if you were blind, you would
have no sin; but now you are saying 'we see' your sin remains." The reader,
perhaps distracted by the authority and elevation diction of the ex-blind
man, recognizes she has been had at the moment she realizes Jesus finishes
what the man had begun a moment earlier; the man's restored sight is ratified
by his faith's new eyes, as he has "seen" his healer. This contiguity of
ex-blind man and Jesus underscores the play between witness and event in the
pericope of the empty tomb. The manner of witness is further refined in this
story of the discovery of the missing Jesus.
Joe C. [continued]
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