This post is a continuation of last week’s interview with Dr. James McGrath. You can read the first installment here.
Dustin: Thanks for all of that. I would like to take a stab at John 17:5 if you don’t mind. It is in this passage where Jesus says, “Glorify me with the glory which I had with you before the world was.” Later in that very chapter, Jesus says [John 17:22], “The glory which you have given to me, I have given to them,” i.e., the people he is praying for, the disciples. From the standpoint of the narrative in John, this bestowing of the glory onto the disciples has not, in fact, happened yet. However, I am aware that in Jewish theology that everything that is really important was in the mind of God from the beginning. You can see this in Genesis Rabbah where Wisdom preexists, along with the name of the Messiah, the Torah, Moses, etc. Even in the biblical book of Genesis, God speaks to Abraham in 15:18, “this land I have already given to your descendants.” The verb “have given” is in the qal perfect form, and Abraham doesn’t even have any children yet! Yet God can be so focused on his promises that he can speak of things as having already happened, as if they are true and valid. So I want to take seriously the difficulty of John 17:5 but while doing so I also want to take seriously the rest of the passage, particularly 17:22, which seems to offer an explanation. I think this is called the prophetic perfect of prophesy.
JM: Yes, the prophetic perfect. It is like “it has happened.”
Dustin: I see independent strand, such as in 1 Peter 1:20 where the Messiah was foreknown, προεγνωσμένου, before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last days. And then in Rev. 13:8 where John talks about the Lamb which has been crucified from the foundation of the world. Not literally, but within these independent traditions, such as the Petrine tradition and the…well, I don’t think the Fourth Gospel was written by the same person named John who penned the Apocalypse, but you get the idea. Independent strands within the first century which talk about the preexistence of the Messiah in the mind of God, but not literally. These statements are comfortable within the tradition, but readers don’t seem to make an issue out of those, so why John 17:5? I wonder.
JM: But then when you have this picture of the Messiah talking as though he remembered things from a heavenly existence [I assume he means John 6:62]. Is this preexistence in the mind of God or is this something more tangible? There is a really interesting doctoral dissertation published after my own books, but it looks at the different ways in which the different views of how the divine comes to be manifest in the world, both in Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. It basically looks at things like a theophany where you might have divine beings appearing as a human being, but it is actually an allusion, for the benefit of the one seeing it. But there is also possession where the divine take a hold of the person.
Dustin: Like Ezekiel?
JM: Yeah. Prophesy is all about those sort of experiences. It is worth asking which of those describes what is happening in the Gospel of John, if any. Since the author of John doesn’t explicitly say, “I am going to give you a whole new way that this could happen,” then asking about his assumptions may be appropriate. And I think the author of that book basically suggests that the ‘possession’ model is closer to what you see with Jesus in John.
It is interesting, another thing I would like to do is look at the Gospel of John through a mystical lens. There was a mystic named Mansur Al-Hallaj who said “Ana’l Haqq,” “I am the Truth” (i.e. God). However, when he said this, he thought nothing of himself but only of God. (Now I don’t think that a mystical reading could be used to interpret the Gospel, but it would be an interesting.) Could it be at times when we are hearing the voice that seamlessly moves between a Jesus who is fully human and a voice which is aware of preexistent realities? Perhaps a mystical reading could help with that. Maybe we are trying to tie up loose ends which John simply really didn’t tie up, maybe we are trying to impose consistency upon the text. Maybe this is a human being speaking as a human being, and yet also speaking the divine revelation.
Dustin: Maybe there is a dissertation right there.
JM: Maybe there is more than one. If someone wants to take this and run with it, I’ll look forward to reading it. I will not be at all resentful that I was not the one who wrote it.
Dustin: You just want to read it, ha.
JM: (smiles) I want to read it! In fact it would be a lot easier for someone else to write it and just let me read it. Better let someone else do it, haha.
Stay tuned for further installments of this interview.