Year A, B, C
April 15, 2022
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A personal aside to begin with ...
I have stopped using this text for Good Friday as the history of anti-Jew sentiment which generations of Christians have read into/from the text means that the only acceptable reflection on the text is the bitter irony that the story of "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" has been used by the Christian Church to legitimate the sin of the world - scapegoating, brutalizing and killing Jews.
Click here to read my comments on Mark's text for Good Friday, Mark 15:1-47
Malina and Rohrbaugh ("M&R" in notes below), Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, provide the best background that I know of to understand this text as John meant it, and as his first readers would have understood it - within their social / cultural context. And, how we misread it from our own times. The following comments are totally based on their book. I highly recommend it.
A couple of key interpretive points to begin ...
M&R fault modern translators for translating the Greek word for "Judeans" as "Jews." "Judeans" were the residents of the area of Judah in which the capital city Jerusalem was located. The Romans made no distinction between the different groups of Israelites - referring to everyone as "Judean" (which later was shortened to "Jew"). But Judeans, Galileans and Pereans were definitely aware of their differences - and particularly of their different social standing / honour status. Galileans were the hillbillies of their day, and were looked down upon by the big city Judeans who lived in the capital, the power centre, Jerusalem. So in this text, elite Judeans hand over a hillbilly Galilean to the Roman Pilate, who either deliberately - or most likely - unwittingly, insults them by constantly referring to the country bumpkin as their King, Jesus of Galilee, King of the Judeans! Outrageous!
So. Before using this text, get out your black indelible ink pens, and go through it and cross out every reference to "Jews," and write in "JUDEANS." Or even better - "JUDEAN AUTHORITIES."
However, the most crucial interpretative point is to know that John is NOT simply reporting the facts and nothing but the facts. In fact (pun fully intended), John wants only one thing for his intended readers:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
John 20:30-31 NRSV (Emphasis added.)
Note the author's direct, personal, address to the reader - "you." John wants YOU to believe. And as Malina and Rohrbaugh emphasize, not just "believe," as in, "have an opinion about," But "believe into," become bonded with Jesus, become his disciple, become a loyal, trusting and trustworthy follower of Jesus. And not just that even. John wants YOU to have the life that is in Jesus. (John 15, "I am the vine, you are the branches," is a beautiful expression of what John wants for you.)
So in Chapters 18 and 19, John is speaking directly to YOU, urging you to bond with Jesus and thereby have the life that is being revealed through the brutal degradation, torture and execution of Jesus.
Let me repeat that:
John wants you to have the life that is revealed through the brutal degradation, torture and execution of Jesus.
Gee, thanks John.
Throughout his Gospel, John uses ambiguity and double meanings to both confuse and to clarify. Confuse outsiders who don't get Jesus' true meaning. Clarify what only those who truly bond with Jesus can "get:" light, life, truth, joy, spirit, freedom, being from above, love. Chapters 18 and 19 are not exceptions to this pattern.
That is, what looks like a straight-forward narrative of Jesus' arrest, trial and execution, is riddled with double-meanings that are intended by John to confuse outsiders, but demonstrate to YOU that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
So. Whereas outsiders will read these Chapters as the Judean and Roman authorities properly asserting their honour / power and maintaining order by laying criminal charges and then humiliating and killing the ridiculous upstart hillbilly Jesus from Galilee. Insiders will see that the so-called "authorities" of this age have no true authority. Because in their blindness, they unwittingly, repeatedly, proclaim a truth they do not see: Jesus IS the King of the Judeans, Jesus IS the Son of God, Jesus IS the Messiah. They mistakenly think these are criminal charges and not holy truths.
You'll have to buy their book to see their detailed analysis (did I mention already that I highly recommend their work?), but M&R suggest that Chapter 19 - through ironic reversal - presents all the features of a Hellenistic consecration of a King (pages 249ff). This ritual would be well known to John's readers, and would be a lens through which they would easily see Jesus being "lifted up;" easily see God's glory / honour being revealed.
That is why John is telling us this "sign." So that we will SEE Jesus, and believe into him, trust and bond with Jesus, so that we might have the life that is in him.
A couple of minor interpretative points to conclude ...
M&R say that we need to be aware that the "trial" is not a modern day trial where evidence is entered and guilt or innocence is determined. A low class person like Jesus would not be brought before a higher-class person like the Chief Priest or Pilate unless it was presumed they were guilty. The purpose of the trial is to determine the punishment - and punishment is always about re-asserting the honour / power of the elites by degrading / humiliating / shaming the accused.
The interaction between Pilate and the religious authorities and their crowd is actually a series of mutual insults. Pilate constantly refers to the hillbilly Galilean as the "King of the Judeans." The Judean elites are NOT rejecting "one of their own." They are remembering the peasant revolt that happened a few decades previously when the bumpkins did invade Jerusalem and did appoint one of their own as chief priest, and they are saying a definite, "No way," to that happening again.
The mocking of Jesus, stripping him, spitting on him, whipping, and executing him by hanging him naked on a cross to die of suffocation - usually a 2 or 3 day ordeal - are all intended not simply to kill Jesus. This brutal public humiliation and degradation is also intended to kill the Jesus' movement by publicly discrediting him in the eyes of the merely curious, and making an example of him to his committed followers. The sign that was posted on the cross may as well have said, "See what we did to him. Imagine what we'll do to you!"
However, M&R encourage us to read the passage as insiders and particularly lift up 19:28-30 as the culmination of Jesus' work. Indeed, far from being a mere aside - as shown in the NRSV parentheses - these verses are the fulfillment of Scripture.
When Jesus says, "I thirst," think back to other "thirstings" in John:
- John 2:1-12 - the wedding in Cana and turning water into wine;
- John 4:1-42 - the Samaritan woman at the well;
- John 6:35 - "whoever comes to me will never thirst."
- John 7:37-39 - "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me."
Malina and Rohrbaugh comment (page 271):
the real thirst quencher offered by Jesus is the Spirit - the entity that interprets and applies what Jesus reveals, that explains and clarifies the truth that Jesus brings and is.
So. After declaring that, "It is finished," (And note that Jesus is NOT saying, "*I* am finished," but rather, "My work here is finished."), Jesus bows his head and hands over his Spirit.
Notice the sequence of the actions: first the head is bowed, then the Spirit is handed over. Normally when a person dies, they breathe their last, and then their head bows. This reversal suggests, not simply that Jesus is tired and near death, but rather that this is the action of a King giving his royal approval - this nod is a regal acknowledgement.
And notice that John does NOT say that Jesus dies, or breathes his last. The NRSV translation, "gave up his spirit," would be better stated as, "handed over his Spirit."
To outsiders, a battered and broken Jesus could no longer hold his head up and died in humiliation and defeat. But to those who believe into him, a true Son of God has completed his great work, and with a royal nod (and maybe a mischievous wink?) has passed on his Spirit so that we too might have life - the life that was in Jesus.
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, pages 249-277; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See link below.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.