Wednesday, November 03, 2010

"messiah" in John

I'm continuing to read Cornelis Bennema's character study of the Fourth Gospel, Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009). In his chapter on Nathanael, subtitled, "The Genuine Israelite" (64–68), Bennema makes the following, typical statement about the messianism of first-century CE Judaism:
In first-century Judaism, many Jews expected a royal-political messiah who would liberate Palestine from the Roman oppressors and establish a new age of peace and justice. John, however, presents Jesus primarily as a Teacher-Messiah who liberates people from the spiritual oppression of sin and the devil through his Spirit-imbued teaching. (67; original emphasis)

I'm automatically a little suspicious of any historical claims that assert anything of "many Jews." That this assertion is so typical of late-Second Temple era Judaisms gives me additional pause. Apart from its accuracy, this statement strikes me as simply too blunt to be of much help for either exegesis or historical reconstruction.

But I suspect Bennema here makes a good point about John's portrayal of Jesus' messianic status, that he is a "teacher-messiah" who offers liberation through his teaching. Given my relative inexpertise with the Fourth Gospel, I thought I would solicit the help of those of you more familiar with John's gospel. Is this, in your view, a helpful way of thinking about John's presentation of Jesus' status as "messiah"? I suspect it is, largely because in the Fourth Gospel Jesus opposes his spiritual enemy—the devil [διάβολος; diabolos]—by teaching the truth he has heard from God (see 8.42–47). Contrast that with the synoptic gospels, in which Jesus opposes the devil directly (Mark 1.12–13 parr.) and defeats him repeatedly in his exorcisms (Matt. 12.22–30 parr., passim). Indeed, in John's gospel Jesus doesn't perform a single exorcism, except metaphorically (perhaps) in 12.31, though even here Jesus pronounces a "casting out" rather than performs it.

You Johannine scholars out there: Any thoughts?


Jaime said...

i have a lot to say...i'll send it via fb.

Anonymous said...

This is a good example of the double standard used by NT scholars when reading Jewish texts vs "Christian" texts. When we see political Messiah language in Jewish texts we take it in as crassly political a way as possible. When we see (basically identical) political Messiah language in NT, we spiritualize it. Why? Because we already know that Christianity is "inner"/"spiritual" while Judaism is "outer"/"political."

All of this discourse depends upon a bifurcation of roles/concepts held together without tension in early Messianism. Teacher, prophet, sage, king, Spirit-anointed leader, binder of Satan, "worship leader," etc. are all present in both ancient Israelite royal ideology and in Second Temple sources (1QS, PsSol 17, etc).

I think Warren Carter provides some helpful readings of John that get past the false (and anachronistic) dichotomies of spiritual vs. political, etc.

Rafael said...

My friend Jamie (who left the first comment) sent the following on FB and has given me permission to post her response here.

your post caught my eye since i just taught my students about Nathanael, the true Israelite. here's what i've been thinking about him (new stuff and over the years):

1. Jesus calls Nate a true Israelite. of course, he's Jewish, but maybe Jesus was referring to the fact that he truly wrestled with God.
2. Jesus said he saw him under the fig tree. In my research, and i don't know how accurate it is, i found that fig trees were places where devout Jews would go to meditate and pray. maybe this is a reaffirmation of what Jesus said about Nate "wrestling"
3. Jesus tells Nate "you will see angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." this calls to mind Jacob's dream of "angels of God ascending and descending on the stairway."

so I think Jesus was already starting to teach Nathanael. he wants him to recall knowledge that he already knows and assimilate (is that the right word?) it. from the very beginning, he was challenging Nathanael to think.

he wants Nathanael to about Jacob's story and start relating to it. twice, in two different ways, Jesus brings Jacob into this short conversation with Nate.

maybe he just wants Nathanael to continue wrestling through the Scriptures, searching them for truth, and finding that Jesus is that stairway.

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