The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.
—The Gospel According to Saint John, 4.xix-xxii
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Symbol of St John the Evangelist from the Book of Kells, ca. 800
The Gospel of John is remarkably elegant. Its style isn’t typical of Greek, but it’s beautiful, and its structure is subtly intricate; I’m convinced there’s not a word in the book that was put there without thought. In my last semester of college, one of my courses was an independent study of John, and in 6.9, at the feeding of the five thousand, the passing mention of the loaves being made of barley establishes it as coming from a poorer family—the well-to-do preferred wheat bread. The detail is just phenomenal.
I’ve been going over the Gospel again, with an eye to the specifically Jewish content and significance of its material.1 In particular, I’ve been reading up a bit on the practices of the various feasts, and I think I’m seeing them thematically reflected throughout the book. The basic structure of John is twofold: the first twelve chapters form what’s sometimes called the Book of Signs, while the next eight form the Book of Glory, with a prologue (1.1-18) and an epilogue (all of 21) rounding out the book. Vague mentions of a feast of the Jews are made in a couple of places; festivals mentioned by name include Passover (2.13, 6.4, 11.55), Sukkot (7.2), and Chanukkah (10.22). I think the whole structure of the Book of Signs is built around several of these feasts.
First there is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. At the time of Christ’s ministry, this was the one day of the year when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant had been kept,2 and sprinkled sacrificial blood before the presence of God to obtain forgiveness for the sins of Israel. Now, we are not told what time of year it was when Jesus was baptized, so this is pure conjecture; but the Baptist uses the address Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world only here; and the fact that a wedding (2.1-11) follows so quickly afterward may reflect the custom of holding weddings shortly after Yom Kippur, a custom which seems to be at least as old as the Mishnah.3 If my guess is correct, that these motifs are meant to evoke the Day of Atonement, then this—like the cleansing of the Temple that immediately follows (2.13-22), which took place just before the Crucifixion—thematically situates Christ’s whole activity in the priestly sacrifice of the Cross. And in John, the Passion and the Resurrection are treated almost as a single event: one of the refrains of the Gospel is the Son of Man must be lifted up, which suggests the elevation of the Cross, the rising from the dead, and the Ascension all in one. It is a three-in-one act, the Exaltation.
After this there comes an explicit reference to Passover, and Jesus is shown cleansing the Temple (anachronistically, because John freely arranges his material for its significance, rather like Matthew) and having a private conversation with Nicodemus, the famous ‘born again’ discourse. Here a new theme comes in, that of the water of life; obviously John the Baptist’s ministry of penitential washing has already been touched upon,4 but the association of water with new life begins here in 3.5, where the Lord insists that Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. He then goes in a slightly different direction, alluding to the Exaltation. But after this, he and his disciples leave Jerusalem and perform baptisms, and the Baptist again bears witness to him; and after that, the theme of water comes out still more strongly in Christ’s address to the Samaritan at the well in Sychar.
But in that discourse I think we see a shift, gathering themes around a new feast. An unspecified festival is noted in 5.1, for which Jesus went to Jerusalem: only three festivals were standard occasions for pilgrimage, those of Passover, Shavuot (or Pentecost), and Sukkot, and I think this one is Shavuot. Liturgically, it commemorated the giving of the Torah at Sinai; culturally, it marked the wheat harvest.
Hints at these themes are given in chapters 4 and 5. First, the Samaritan woman asks Jesus about the controversy over whether to worship on Mount Zion or Mount Gerizim, and he replies (among other things) that Ye worship ye know not what: we know what worship: for salvation is of the Jews; second, he makes an extensive analogy about the harvest in speaking to the Apostles (4.35-38); and thirdly, throughout 5, allusions are made to the preëminence and authority of the Torah—the dispute begins because of works done on the Sabbath (vv. 10-18), the legal requirements for witnesses are discussed (vv. 30-37), and finally direct reference is made to the Scriptures and to Moses and to the Jews’ diligence in studying them (vv. 39, 45-47). All of this is consistent with the unnamed feast of the Jews in 5.1 being Shavuot.
In chapter 6 we return to Passover.5 Here the theme Jesus picks up is that of the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness; as the first Passover in chapters 2 and 3 touched on themes of new life given in baptism, so this touches on new life given in the Eucharist, and the next is immediately preceded by the resurrection of Lazarus. The increasing identity of Christ with life in the context of Passover—you must be born from above as I am from above; I am the bread of life; I am life—makes the Resurrection of chapter 20 artistically inevitable.
The next feast mentioned is Sukkot, which in Hebrew means tabernacles or booths, so named for the tents in which they dwelt while in the wilderness. (They ritually dwell in similar tents during Sukkot to this day, as the Torah commands.) The teaching of Jesus in chapters 7 and 86 takes the form almost of a cross-examination: Jesus, the people, and the priests alternate assertions and jabs and questions with each other, with Jesus testifying on his own behalf, the people quarreling over the meaning and credibility of his testimony like a hung jury, and the priests making accusations and a foiled attempt at an arrest.7
In the course of this teaching, the Lord identifies himself with the inner meaning of the feast. One of the most joyous rituals in the whole Jewish year was the pouring of water on the altar in the Temple (water drawn from the pool of Siloam, the same place that Jesus sends the blind man to be cured at in chapter 9), performed every morning during Sukkot; the Mishnah3 states that ‘He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life.’ And on the last day of the festival, he says, He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water: the believer is identified with the altar, and the cryptically foretold Paraclete with the joy of Sukkot.
This transitions—a little oddly, to modern sensibilities—into Chanukkah, hinted at in chapters 8 and 9 and mentioned directly in chapter 10. I say ‘a little oddly’ because, in modern Judaism, Chanukkah is not that big a deal. A pleasant enough feast, but a minor one. I get the impression that it was a bigger deal in Christ’s day; the Temple was still standing, so the festival of its dedication was probably more enjoyable, and it may have had nationalistic and irredentist associations too, since the Jews were unhappy with both Roman domination and the Herodian dynasty, and Chanukkah recalled the glory of the Maccabees’ rebellion. Regardless, the symbolism of light becomes pronounced in chapter 9 with the cure of the blind man. I am the light of the world in 8.12 adumbrates the new theme, as well as recalling the prologue’s dramatic the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in darkness; the dictum is repeated in 9.5, followed by a cross-examination of the healed blind man (echoing the cross-examinations of the Baptist in the first chapter and of Jesus in the previous two), and then by an allusion to the Festival of Lights in 10.22, one of the very few times when John gives us a specific date. Christ has already associated himself with the Temple in 2.19. Here, in making himself the light, he again links his own person to the Temple, and indeed to a rebuilt and rededicated Temple, purified of unclean influences.
After the extended and increasingly tense conflict of chapters 7 through 10, we come to chapter 11, whose chief events (as we know from v. 55) took place not too long before Passover. We have again come full circle, and the life which is the light is again at the forefront. The raising of Lazarus from the dead provokes the plan to have Jesus killed, so that, in addition to being the seventh of the great miracles of the Book of Signs, it forms a magnificent foreshadowing of how the Book of Glory is going to proceed. And although Passover is famous for the death of all the firstborn in Egypt—and Christ, the firstborn over creation and firstborn of the dead, as St Paul has it, is not exempted—Passover is here made the means of life, for life as such cannot be killed, and when you try it just comes back. The Lord has already warned the Sanhedrin that as the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself. Jesus’ identity as Life has been one of the main themes of the Gospel from the very beginning, increasingly so with each Passover, and at this one, the identification becomes complete.
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1A lot of critics regard John as anti-Semitic; I don’t think he is, but it’s understandable: he regularly identifies Jesus’ opponents simply as the Jews, rather than the Pharisees or the chief priests that the Synoptics tend to use. On the other hand, he shows as much insight into Judaism as Matthew does, and he omits Matthew’s His blood be upon us and our children, while being the only evangelist to record Jesus saying (to a Samaritan no less) Salvation is from the Jews. It’s speculated that John’s Gospel was written after the decisive break between the church and the synagogue, and that his usage reflects that strife.
2The Ark was lost at the time the Temple of Solomon was destroyed (around 586 BCE). Ezekiel 10-11 describes the glory of the Lord departing from that Temple, which may or may not also be a coded commemoration of the Ark being removed by the prophets before Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem; II Maccabees 2.4-8 records that Jeremiah concealed the Ark in an unknown place.
3The Mishnah is the first part of the Talmud, which for Orthodox Jews is the authoritative compilation of interpretation and commentary on the Scriptures. The Mishnah was compiled around the beginning of the third century CE, but it’s derived from older rabbinic sources, at least some of which may well date back to the life of Christ.
4And echoed, in the account of the miracle at Cana. A large quantity of water was changed into wine, something like a hundred and fifty gallons, but the evangelist also notes the reason they had all that water around in the first place: not just because, duh, it’s an arid climate and you need a lot of water anyway, but specifically for Jewish purification rituals.
5The exact dates of Jesus’ life are not known. However, according to one theory (which places Herod the Great’s death in 1 BCE, instead of the formerly accepted date of 4 BCE), Jesus could have begun his ministry around 30 CE and been crucified in the year 33, so that the old conventional date happened to be right after all. If this theory is correct, then—allowing for John’s willingness to arrange by theme instead of chronologically—it’s possible to get a rough idea of when most of these festivals were specifically, e.g., the Passover before which the miraculous feeding happened would’ve been our 14th April of the year 32, the miracle itself presumably happening in late March. But do remember, fun though it is to guess about this stuff, this is guesswork. Do not build convictions on it.
6Note, however, that John 7.53-8.11, the pericope adulteræ or ‘passage about the adulteress,’ is (almost) certainly misplaced. The oldest manuscripts do not have it, it interrupts the flow of the Gospel, its style is atypical of John, and it is sometimes found in other places, such as appended to the end of John, or occasionally even in Luke. The passage is generally accepted by scholars and is quoted by several early Church Fathers, but it probably its right place is elsewhere. (My guess is that it properly belongs to Luke. Why the misplacement happened is uncertain, though the inconsistency of the manuscript traditions was noted even in antiquity, and some of the Fathers conjectured that certain teachers had excised the passage for being ‘soft’ on adultery; it may also have gone astray due to arrangements of early lectionaries.)
7Although I don’t say much about it in this post, another prominent motif in the Gospel of John is that of a court. Witness and judgment are frequent terms in the gospel, and, by evoking the trials of Holy Week almost from the beginning (by referring to St John the Baptist as a witness and by relating the cleansing of the Temple early on, instead of in sequential order after the Triumphal Entry), the author of John turns the whole work into something like the minutes of a trial. But it is, also, a sort of reënactment of Jesus’ trial, inviting, and challenging, the reader of the gospel to make a judgment of faith.