Book Review (part 17: How the Gospel of John Contributed to the Parting of the Ways) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

In the seventeenth post regarding my recap/review of James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek  I will draw out a particularly fascinating discussion on how the Fourth Gospel contributed (and in what sense) to the ‘Parting of the Ways’ between Judaism and Christianity (section 46).

The-Breakup_0Dunn outlines this chapter by first discussing how the terms ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity are unhelpful terms because they are not defined and distinguished entities during this period of inquiry. He moves on to note some of the early strains between the followers of Jesus and their Jewish counterparts, such as the death of the Messiah, the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, and the lynching of Stephen in Acts 7. Furthermore, Rome’s involvement certainly caused ripples between the two groups with the destruction of the temple (70 CE), the fiscus Judaicus, and the revolts in 115-117 and 132-135 CE. During this time Judaism was being refined with the slow emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and the fading away of other sects (Essenes, Sadducees, etc.).  Four NT documents (Matthew, Acts, John, and Hebrews) are likewise examined to see in what sense do they depict the conflicts between Jews and early Christians. Finally, Dunn notes the writings of the second century Apologists, Church Fathers, and others to observe how the tone has changed during their time periods. This entire chapter is a gold mine of excellent historical data and should be required reading for Church History students (who rarely get exposed to the developments between the first and second centuries CE).

I will now move to interacting with Dunn’s section on how the Gospel of John contributed to the ‘Parting of the Ways’ between what eventually came to be known as Judaism and Christianity. The section (46.5c) notes how the GJohn apparently goes out of its way to argue how traditional Jewish icons are now passé in light of the coming of Christ (temple to body, purification water into wine, Jacob’s well into living water, manna from heaven to bread of life, etc.). These themes seem to indicate that GJohn invites its readers (especially the Jews of its time) to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and visions.

It is in GJohn that ‘the Jews’ are the designated antagonists, regularly hostile to Jesus. In John 8:39-44 Jesus defines them as “children of the devil” rather than children of Abraham. This sharply distinguishes ‘the Jews’ from Jesus and his followers (who are also Jewish). It seems, after a closer examination, that ‘the Jews’ most likely refers to the Jewish authorities, in contrast to even the neutral crowds and common folk observing the dialogues of Jesus and his opponents.

IMG_1352Of particular interest is the phrase coined by GJohn aposynagogos, “expelled from the synagogue.” In John 9:22 the parents of the blind man refuse to stand up for their own son in fear of ‘the Jews’ who threatened to put out of the synagogue anyone who confessed Jesus as Messiah. The next reference is in 12:42 where many of the rulers believed in Jesus, but did not publicly confess him for fear of the Pharisees, lest they be put out of the synagogue. The third and final reference is in 16:2 where Jesus warns that his disciples should expect to be kicked out of the synagogue. It has been common in Gospel of John scholarship to suggest that the blessing against the heretics (known as the birat ha-minim) had already been pronounced by the post-70 rabbinical authorities and that this pronouncement in synagogues explains the social situation exhibited in John 9:22; 12:42; and 16:2. Dunn argues that this suggestion is problematic and unable to be sustained historically principally because the reference to the Christians within this blessing  was likely a later addition. Dunn concludes, nevertheless, that the three references to synagogue-expulsion indicate that the pressures towards the parting of the ways was instigated on the side of Judaism rather than Christians.

The other relevant feature in GJohn is the objection on the side of Judaism that claims being made of Jesus by his followers were a threat to God’s unity. Dunn cites John 5:18 (‘the Jews’ seek to kill Jesus because he was calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God) and 10:30-31 (‘the Jews’ pick up stones to stone Jesus in response to the statement, “I and the Father are one”). In the Synoptic Gospels there appears to be no fierce reaction from the Jewish authorities quite like John 5:18 and 10:31. Dunn notes that the question of why these claims about Jesus were not made prior to the year 70 CE has not been sufficiently asked. The solution seems to be that John’s understanding of Jesus is best explained through the lens of God sending an authorized agent who bears the name and privileges of God himself.  Or, in the words of Dunn,

…much of John’s christology can be best seen in the context of late Second Temple Jewish reflection on divine epiphanies and divine agency.

Dunn goes on to note some of the particular christological points in GJohn. Of interest are these bullet points:

  • The Wisdom/Logos christology of John 1:1-18 is essentially a part of the Wisdom theology of Lady Wisdom traditions exhibited in Prov. 8; Sirach 24; and Baruch 3-4. Philo’s Logos theology is also influential;
  • John 3:13 seems to be a direct rebuttal of other Jewish claims to heavenly journeys and apocalyptic visions (only Jesus is the designated revealer of God);
  • The Son of Man ascending/descending in 3:13 and 6:62 is an extension of reflection on Dan. 7:13-14, a reflection in which 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra also were taking part;
  • The motif of Jesus as the one whom God “sent” sounds like the theme of God sending a prophet, but transcends both the prophet and the kingly figures;
  • The “I am” statements and other claims like John 8:58 “would not ring oddly to anyone familiar with the ‘I’ claims of Wisdom.”

John’s christology was not foreign to the Judaism of the period, argues Dunn. It seems that it was the claim that Jesus was God’s authorized agent, likened to God’s Wisdom, which was the factor provoking the post-70 CE rabbis to regard these Christ-followers as heretics (the minim). Dunn notes that the Gospel of John did not finalize this split, pointing to the second-century christological controversies which continued to bring definition to Christianity and Judaism which were both attempting to define each other over and against the other.

In sum, the Gospel of John indicates that the rabbis expelling Christians from the synagogue in a disagreement as to whether Jesus really was God’s authorized and empowered Messiah, and that the Johannine community indicates that this schism was well under way at the end of the first century CE.

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Defining Jewish Preexistence – 2 Baruch 4:1-6

templeThis is another installment of my continuing study regarding how Jews understood the concept of ‘preexistence.’ In today’s post we will be examining a passage within the pseudepigraphal document known as 2 Baruch. This work was penned after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the year 70 CE, with one of its key themes being an attempt to wrestle with the problem of why God allowed for the Romans to triumph over the Jewish house of worship. Scholars are fairly unanimous in dating this document to either the end of the 1st century or the beginning of the second century CE.

In the fourth chapter the unknown author describes a dialogue between God and Baruch. It is necessary that I quote the passage in full (verses are given in parentheses):

(1) And the Lord said to me: “This city will be delivered up for a time, and the people will be chastened for a time, and the world will not be forgotten.”

(2) Or do you think that this is the city of which I said: “On the palms of my hands I have carved you?”

(3) It is not this building that is in your midst now; it is that which will be revealed, with me, that was already prepared from the moment that I decided to create Paradise. And I showed it to Adam before he sinned. But when he transgressed the commandment, it was taken away from him–as also Paradise.

(4) After these things I showed  it to my servant Abraham in the night between the portions of the victims.

(5) And again I showed it also to Moses on Mount Sinai when I showed him the likeness of the tabernacle and all its vessels.

(6) Behold, now it is preserved with me–as also Paradise.

There are a lot of interesting things which I could say about this passage. However, since my inquiry regards Jewish preexistence, I will limit myself to the points which shed light on the study at hand.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the Jewish temple was “already prepared (4:3)” from the time when God created Paradise (i.e., from the foundation of the world). I have noted in previous installments of this study that the temple was often spoken of as having preexisted within God’s plans and purposes (Gen. Rabbah 1:4; b.Pes. 54a; b.Ned. 39b). In those studies it was concluded that this manner of preexistence was not literal, that is, where the temple structure physically existed in space and time up in heaven. Rather, those texts described this magnificent building, which is of no small importance to Jewish theology, as already planned within God’s mind. The author of 2 Baruch seems to be saying the same thing here. In 4:5 the author additionally notes that this building was shown to Moses along with the the “likeness” of the tabernacle and the accompanying vessels (which were eventually crafted and built later). It should also be noted that 2 Baruch predates both Genesis Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud references.

Secondly, the language used the prepared temple is that of it being “with me,” used twice in this passage (4:3; 6). This is extremely fascinating, especially in light of the Prologue of John’s Gospel where the personified Logos is spoken of having been “with God” in the beginning (John 1:1b). Since the temple seems to only be preexisting as a concept rather than as a literal structure, the meaning of it being “with God” further suggests that it is a part of God’s plans and purposes. Similar uses of such concepts being “with God” can be observed in Job 10:13; 23:14; 27:11; Prov. 2:1; Wis. 9:9; Sirach 1:1. I suggest that the close proximity of the dating of John’s Gospel with the dating of 2 Baruch strongly allows for the interpretive overlap of these themes.

In sum, it seems that the document of 2 Baruch demonstrates that Jews spoke of the important things of Jewish theology as having been prepared beforehand in God’s purposes, even going so far as to say that they were with him. This further contributes to my working hypothesis that ‘preexistence’ within Jewish modes of discourse was conceptual and ideal, rather than literal.

This certainly has consequences for the interpretation of such ‘preexistence’ passages as John 1:1; 8:58; and 17:5.


Defining Jewish Preexistence – part 3

This is the third post in my series concerning how Jews understood and articulated the concept of ‘preexistence.’ I have already surveyed texts in both Genesis Rabba and in the Targum on Zechariah.

moses&joshuaToday’s post will look at a noteworthy passage within the Testament of Moses. This document is located in modern editions of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, a collection which, among other fascinating works, contains a group of Jewish documents called  ‘testaments.’ Testaments are writings which place the final farewells and instructions into the mouth of a famous figure from Israelite history. Today scholars have identified and categorized testaments written about such figures as Abraham, Job, and each of the twelve sons of Jacob. The Testament of Moses was likely composed in the first century CE, making it very relevant for NT studies. It details Moses’ final instructions to his successor Joshua before he enters into the promised land. Since the figure of Moses was highly regarded within Jewish circles, surely his final will and testament would contain valuable words and exhortations (which readers of the Testament of Moses were to surely cherish).

The first chapter of T. Moses is fragmentary, likely beginning with the year of Moses’ life in which he gives this testament. Moses summons Joshua unto him and begins speaking about God and the purposes of creation. In the midst of this speech, Moses says something striking about himself:

“But He did design and devise me, and He prepared me from the beginning of the world to be mediator of His covenant.” (T. Moses 1:14)

In this statement Moses recounts how God “designed” him and “devised” him. Additionally, Moses was “prepared by God.” When did these designs and preparations take place, one might ask? Moses says that it occurred “from the beginning of the world.” However, these plans of God were for an intended purpose, namely that Moses would be the mediator of the covenant.

It seems that noteworthy figures such as Moses could be described as ‘preexisting’ by second temple Jews. However, this sort of preexistence was within God’s designs, devises, and preparations. This, I contend, is notional preexistence, a preexistence which is in God’s mind and plans. This is not saying that Moses literally existed with God in heaven before the world. Rather, he is such a prominent person in God’s purposes for Israel (mediator of the holy covenant) that he was divinely planned long ago.

I again wish to speculate how this sort of preexistence, being in God’s plans for a particular purpose, would influence readings of, say, John 8:58.

Review of Bart Ehrman’s ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 3 – John 8:58)

This is the third installment of my attempts to interact with Bart Ehrman’s newest contribution to christology. I will now turn to the third chapter which addresses whether or not Jesus claimed to be God, in any sense. Before we get started, I should say that my own interpretation of whether or not Jesus claimed to (or even be) Yahweh is in line with scholars like James D.G. Dunn, John A.T. Robinson, Anthony Buzzard, Dale Tuggy, and James McGrath. These scholars, I feel, persuasively argue that there is no literal preexistence of Jesus in the New Testament.

gospel-of-johnThis puts me in an interesting position because Ehrman seems to be arguing against the Evangelical position which sees literal preexistence and claims of Jesus being “God” in all four Gospel accounts. Ehrman sees a low christology in the Synoptics but sees Jesus claiming to be God in the Fourth Gospel. I peronally don’t think Jesus claimed to be Yahweh in any of the four Gospels. Jesus is presented, I argue, as the human Messiah who is God’s authoritative agent.

On page 124 Ehrman discusses his view of John 8:58, which is rendered by most translations as, “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Ehrman argues the typical Evangelical reading of this passage by pointing to Exodus 3:14 where Yahweh says (according to Ehrman) that His name is “I am.” Ehrman goes on to say that Jesus’ “Jewish opponents know exactly what he is saying” (p. 124). But is this really the best reading of the evidence?

I want to object on three important points in Ehrman’s argument. First, I think that his connection with Exodus 3:14 does not hold up to closer scrutiny. Second, I do not think Jesus (in John 8:58) is claiming to take upon himself the name offered in Exodus 3:14. Lastly, I don’t think that the Fourth Gospel portrays the Jewish opponents as truly understanding what Jesus is saying to them. I will take up these objections in order.

1. In Exodus chapter three there is a dialogue with Moses and God. God commissions Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (3:10). Moses responds to God by asking about his own worthiness to accomplish such a task (3:11). God answers Moses by saying, “Certainly I will be with you” (3:12). The Hebrew text has the verb hiya in the imperfect (אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה). Moses asks about the name of God in 3:13. God responds in 3:14 by taking the promise from 3:12 (“I will be with you”) and makes this His name for Moses, “I will be who I will be” (Hebrew: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה). God continues by saying that Moses is to tell the Israelites that “I will be” has sent him. Most modern English translations translate the verb “to be” in the present tense. The Hebrew, however, is the same as was given in the promise found in 3:12, in the imperfect tense. In short, God is not making His name out to be “I am,” but rather, “I will be,” as a tie in with the promises to deliver His people from bondage.

The LXX translator(s) of Exodus rendered the imperfect forms of hiya with the present tense ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν (“I am the one who is”). However, at the point in 3:14 where God gives his name to Moses, the LXX does not have ἐγώ εἰμι (“I am”) but rather ὁ ὤν (“the one who is”).

This is absolutely significant. Jesus said in John 8:58 that before Abraham was, ἐγώ εἰμι. God’s name in Exodus 3:14 LXX is not ἐγώ εἰμι, but ὁ ὤν. C.K. Barret, in his commentary on John, says that “there is no allusion here to Exod. 3.14” (The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd ed. 352) In short, Jesus is not quoting Exodus 3:14 as Ehrman claims.


2. Now we need to turn our attention to the words of Jesus. He indeed says the words ἐγώ εἰμι in 8:58. The question comes down to what he meant by these words. An important grammatical point must be mentioned. When the verb “to be” is used without a predicate, one must be supplied. Therefore, a better translation for 8:58 would make Jesus saying, “Before Abraham was, I am he.” Jesus is claiming to be someone specific, but if not the name of God in Exodus 3:14, then who? The very first time ἐγώ εἰμι is introduced on the lips of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is located in the dialogue with the Samaritan woman (4:7-26). The conversation moves in lots of different directions but eventually gets to the identity of Jesus. In John 4:25 the woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming, the one who is called Christ.” The next verse offers Jesus’ response, “The one speaking to you, I am he.” The Greek here is ἐγώ εἰμι. What does ἐγώ εἰμι mean here? It means that Jesus is the Messiah to whom the Samaritan woman is referring (it would be very strange for Jesus to answer her statement by claiming to be God).

Flash forward to the eighth chapter of John. In 8:28 Jesus says, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he (ἐγώ εἰμι) and I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak these things just as the Father taught me.” What does ἐγώ εἰμι mean in 8:28? It clearly refers to the Son of Man, a messianic title.

So in 8:58, it seems that Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah with his usage of the words ἐγώ εἰμι. Yet Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah from a time prior to Abraham. What might he mean with such words? It was common in Judaism to speak of the things important in God’s plan for the world to preexist in His mind. The New Testament itself testifies to this feature. Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20) just as Christian were foreknown (1 Peter 1:2). The Lamb was crucified, in God’s plan, from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Jesus was handed over and betrayed according to the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). The first century CE Jewish works which scholars have titled the Prayer of Joseph and the Testament of Moses both speak rather casually about the preexistence of such important figures as Abraham, Isaac, and Moses (P.Jos 1:2; T.Mos 1:14). None of these examples depict literal preexistence, but rather notional preexistence. This is a critical difference. The human Messiah, who was indeed born (John 1:14; 3:16, 18; 18:37), was the preordained agent of God’s redemptive purposes.


3. Do the Jews, in fact, understand what Jesus is saying? One of the most obvious themes in John’s Gospel is the motif of ‘misunderstanding.’ The flow of the arguments typically go like this:

a. Jesus says something provocative

b. His audience takes his words literally

c. Jesus meant his statements figuratively

This motif is readily admitted by scholars. Warren Carter, in his book John: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist describes this motif nicely:

words with multiple levels of meaning, what we call polyvalent language, are numerous instances of misunderstanding. (p. 114)

The late Raymond Brown, in his Introduction to the Gospel of John, lists 8:56-58 and warns about the nature of these characteristic misunderstandings:

In any case, whether John narrates the misunderstandings of outsiders or the nonunderstanding of the disciples, readers of the Gospel can find themselves confused by Jesus. (p. 288-9)

To this end, I contend, is what Ehrman has fallen prey. He has taken the literal line of Jesus which basically agrees with the interpretation of the Jews. If the reader finds that their interpretation is the same thing that the Jews concluded, they perhaps need to look again. In short, I don’t think that the Jews understood what Jesus was saying. In fact, the Gospel repeatedly remarks at how they misunderstand his words.

I look forward to an interview with Dr. Dale Tuggy and Ehrman which will take place later today where the issue of the Fourth Gospel will surely come up.