Saturday, October 31, 2009

What John doesn't say

A good friend of mine has explored the Fourth Evangelist's conception of memory in an interesting essay called, "Why John Wrote a Gospel: Memory and History in an Early Christian Community" (Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity [A. Kirk and T. Thatcher, eds.; Atlanta: SBL, 2005], 79–97), which he later expanded into Why John WROTE a Gospel: Jesus—Memory—History (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006). In the essay he addresses the Fourth Evangelist's conception of "memory," especially given the somewhat unusual passages in John 2.21 and 12.16:
Then, when Jesus was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered [ἐμνήσθησαν; emnēsthēsan] that he said this, and they believed the scripture as well as the word Jesus had spoken. (John 2.21)

His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus had been glorified, then they remembered [ἐμνήσθησαν; emnēsthēsan] that these things were written about him, and that they did these things to him. (John 12.16)

Of course, the reference to the disciples later remembering what Jesus had said/done in John 2 comes at the end of John's account of the Temple incident, and especially Jesus' answer to "the Jews," "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it" (2.19). In John 12 the events that were later remembered concerned Jesus' entry into Jerusalem amidst acclaims of blessing as the one who comes in the name of the Lord. These are clearly pivotal events in the Fourth Gospel's account of Jesus' life, and the evangelist explicitly acknowledges that, beyond actually witnessing Jesus' ministry, "remembering" Jesus' life from a perspective informed by (i) the resurrection and (ii) the Paraclete [= Holy Spirit] are crucial for anyone wanting to properly understand Jesus.

As I was reading Craig Koester's The Word of Life: A Theology of John's Gospel (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008), a question stuck in my head. First, the passage from Koester responsible for making me think:
Jesus speaks of dying as the act of giving his flesh. He tells the crowd that what "I give for the life of the world is my flesh" (6:51). In what follows, Jesus speaks of those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, using disturbingly graphic terms to underscore the reality of his death (6:53–56). . . . [Many] recognize that the primary level of meaning concerns crucifixion, which is the way Jesus' flesh is given and his blood is shed." (84)

In John's gospel, Jesus says a lot of difficult things, whether about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, as here, or about living water flowing out of people, or those who oppose him being the children of the devil, and so on. What surprises me, however, is that the evangelist doesn't add more comments that later, after Jesus had appeared to his followers raised from the dead, that then they understood his comment about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. How appropriate it would have been, in my opinion, for the narrator to have added the words in bold:
Then Jesus said to them, "Verily, verily I tell you: Unless you eat the Son of Man's flesh and drink his blood, you do not have life among you. But whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood does have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them." His disciples had no clue what Jesus was talking about, but later, when he had been raised from the dead and had explained the Law and the prophets to them, they remembered his words and rejoiced. (John 6.53–56, and then some)

But John doesn't say that, and I'm a little intrigued why not. There are no answers to this question, of course; John also never tells us if Jesus ever got indigestion or if he ever sneezed so hard it hurt his back. But from where I sit, Jesus' words in John 6 are much more difficult to "remember" than his statement in the Temple or his acclamation on the road into Jerusalem. But I think one point is fairly clear: In order to read the whole gospel properly, the evangelist intends us to remember every pericope, every paragraph, even every word, with the enhanced memory informed by Jesus' resurrection and the guidance of the Counselor who comes in Jesus' absence (John 15.26–27).


clk said...

Thanks for this, as it is very interesting. If I could add to the intrigue, I've recently become interested in the way that Luke goes about the same kind of acknowledgment (not exactly, but very very similar) that John does. In Luke 24.6-9, it's the women who make this statement about "remembering" Jesus' words. But, in common with the Johannine narrator, it shares this post-resurrection perspective on pre-ressurection events. It also has the theme of faith in the process of memory (the women's and the disciple's lack thereof in 24.11). Luke, however, adds the elements of witness of the empty tomb (the women and Peter, 24.8, 12) and omits any reference to the spirit...of course because it won't come until Pentecost. Eventually, Luke gets around to Jesus' post-resurrection enabling of Scripture-interpretation, too (24.45).

Perhaps there's a SBL paper or article in here somewhere that I should follow up, but I'm intrigued by the way that Luke handles this phenomenon differently from John. I can't remember Tom treating this specifically in the article or the work, but will check. Any thoughts?

Rafael said...


Better late than never, right?

I'm not sure I'd say Luke "adds" elements of witness or "omits" reference to the spirit, if only because I'm wary of implying Luke's narrative is an edition of another gospel. But certainly Luke and John have different emphases, and these differences may help illuminate the different functions and processes of early Christian memorial practices across space (and maybe time?).

My first SBL paper focused on the Markan editorial aside at 7.19b, and I think that's relevant here, as well. I'm interested in the ways that the "memory" of Jesus' words, in John 2.21, Luke 24.8, and Mark 7, attain new significance by virtue of being remembered in new contexts without necessarily being inauthenticated. We too easily think that remembering Jesus in the changing contexts of Roman imperial society through the first century meant creating (or inventing) Jesus tradition rather than reconfiguring tradition.

What do you think?

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