Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Gospel of John and the New Prophesies

So far we have looked at the treatment of certain prophesies in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Next, we will review the same prophesies in the gospel of John. The gospel of John is widely regarded as the last of the four canonical gospels to be written. There is near-unanimous agreement that it was written after the fall of Jerusalem. In this respect John is unique: even the ancient traditional view proclaims a relatively late date for this gospel, holding that John was one of the last few surviving disciples of Jesus at the time it was written.

If the gospel of John were similar to Luke in the way that Luke is similar to Mark, the comparisons would be relatively simple. However, John is also markedly different from the other three gospels in its choice and treatment of material. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a large amount of material on Jesus' sayings and actions; John records much unique material. Even when we see events recorded both in John and in the other gospels, we often see John with a fresh perspective on the same events. While we expect from reading Luke that the author used Mark's gospel as source material while writing, we have no such expectation from reading John. This makes comparisons between John and the other gospels more problematic; when we see differences in how prophesies are handled, we cannot be quite certain whether it was because of the later date or because of the author's independent voice and viewpoint on the life of Jesus. Still, thoroughness demands that we look at this gospel also, even if our conclusions may be more tentative.

Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial
Simon Peter asked him, "Lord, where are you going?"

Jesus replied, "Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later."

Peter asked, "Lord, why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you."

Then Jesus answered, "Will you truly lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." (John 13:36-38)
John records information on the prophesy of Peter's denial which is not found in the other gospels, but the prediction of a denial is recognizably the same. John also records the fulfillment:
As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, "You are not one of his disciples, are you?"

He denied it, saying, "I am not."

One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?" Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow. (John 18:25-27)
John's record of this event again has details not found in the other gospels, but is a recognizable fulfillment of the prophesy. John omits that at this point Peter remembered the prophesy and began to cry, while all of the other canonical gospels had mentioned that. It is difficult to say whether John considered that to be unnecessary to his point, or unkind to Peter to mention that -- perhaps some sort of respect for the dead not to rehash Peter's failings more than necessary. However, John's account as a whole is too independent of the others to put much weight on this slight a difference.

Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection

The gospel of John records more instances of Jesus referring to his upcoming death and resurrection than Matthew, Mark, or Luke. The prophesies recorded by John are at times less clearly worded than those in the other gospels. Take, for instance, two passages typically understood as a prediction that his death would be by crucifixion:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. (John 3:14)
or again,
"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. (John 12:32-33)
There are a number of prophesies recorded (see also, for instance, John 2:19-22, 5:25, 8:28, 10:11-18, 12:23, 16:16-22), and John records that the disciples did not always understand what Jesus meant (16:17-18, see also 20:9 in a similar vein). The resurrection is prophesied along with the execution in some passages such as the good shepherd passage:
"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me -- just as the Father knows me and I know the Father -- and I lay down my life for the sheep. ... The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life -- only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father." (John 10:14-15, 17-18)
As for the fulfillment of these prophesies, John records Jesus' death and resurrection at length and in detail, but again with an entirely different perspective than found in the other gospels. Here we see no "told you" or "remembrance" passages after the resurrection, simply the record of Jesus' death and resurrection. The closest we have to a remembrance passage is one recorded very early in John's narrative, before the record of the death and resurrection, back at John 2:22. Again it is difficult to attribute a specific cause to these particular differences between John and the others since the accounts are not that closely parallel.

Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple

If there were noticeable differences between John and the others on how these previous prophesies were handled, they are still relatively small differences compared to how John addresses the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple. Mark records this prophesy at length; it takes all of what we now have as chapter 13. In Matthew also, this is a particularly extensive prophesy that takes all of what we now have as chapter 24. In Luke, this prophesy takes the majority of our chapter 21. What does John have to say about Jesus' prophesy of these events? John likewise places the prophesy very close to the cleansing of the Temple and the leaders asking what authority Jesus had to do such a thing:
Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?"

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."

The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said." (John 2:18-22)
That is all John says on the topic. After the climactic build-ups of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we find that John barely gives it a mention.

John records the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of his gospel, while the others have it towards the end as part of the confrontations leading up to Jesus' arrest and execution. The author's commentary also relates this material to Jesus' arrest and execution.

One striking difference in the handling of this particular prophesy is that the destruction of the temple is no longer seen as significant in its own right; it is a relatively minor detail compared to Jesus' own death and resurrection. In John, there is no indication from the text that the author sees the prophesy as serving a prophetic function in declaring what is to come. There is also no indication from the text that the author sees the prophesy as serving to validate Jesus' foreknowledge of the future, as might be the case with the prediction of Peter's denial. In fact, it is not certain that the author sees Jesus as referring primarily to the actual Jerusalem temple building, though his hearers clearly understand it that way; there is some room for dispute about how much we can consider this to be a prediction of the temple's destruction. The purpose it serves in the narrative is less about the temple and more about Jesus: the readers are to understand that, in light of Jesus' death and resurrection, the temple itself has become irrelevant. The implication is that there is no further need for a special place to offer sacrifices or a particular building to house God's presence or a special place to direct prayers after Jesus' death and resurrection; the implications the author draws are less historical than they are theological.

The article which spurred me to undertake a more thorough review of prophesy was one which held close to scholarly conventions: that the prophesy of the destruction of Jerusalem would not be recorded in such detail and at such length as found in Mark and the others unless the authors were certain of the fulfillment: i.e., if the authors recorded the prophesy, the fulfillment must have been past. Here, however, we find that the only gospel for which we are certain of a post-destruction dating finds the prophesy of destruction nearly irrelevant, and of current significance only indirectly. It is possible that the destruction of the temple was too much "yesterday's news" to be of interest at the date this gospel was written. Then again, it is possible that the original readers of this gospel -- a more Gentile audience than the others -- may have been less interested in the fate of Jerusalem and its temple.

The Gospel of John and the future from a writer's-eye view

Given that John has no prophesy of Jerusalem's destruction and a bare half-mention of the prophesy of the destruction of the temple, is the Gospel of John completely devoid of any of the forward-looking urgency of the other gospels? No, not at all; but now the forward-looking open element of the narrative has been transferred off of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"

Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" (John 21:20-23)
The open element at the end of the narrative here is not the destruction of the temple or the sack of Jerusalem. It is the question whether the author, believed to be one of the younger disciples, would live to see Jesus return. John's approach of leaving the future open, along with his marked lack of interest in the sack of Jerusalem now that it was past, strengthens the possibility that the other gospel writers may have emphasized the destruction of Jerusalem not because it was past, but because it was future. The unfulfilled prophesy left an urgency and an anticipation in the reader. It gave the gospels an open edge with an encompassing sense of uniting the past, present, and future in a great narrative centered on Jesus.

To what extent were the authors of the gospel of John familiar with the other gospels? To what extent did they see the function of the destruction prophesies there as a part of the forward-leaning vividness of those texts? To what extent did the fall of Jerusalem create a need for them to discuss a different topic to fulfill that same function and show that same forward-leaning historical scope that they thought was fitting? Or was it just that the authors had such an independent perspective on Jesus that these questions do not lead where they would otherwise seem to lead?



I began this series with a thought to review new prophesies and how they were handled by the gospel authors. I wanted to size up how likely it was that the destruction of Jerusalem would be handled the way it was if it were already in the past when Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written. To this end, I compared that prophesy with two other prophesies definitely known to be fulfilled at the time the gospels were written. As much as the passages examined so far are suggestive, and the different treatments given over time may also be suggestive, they are not a complete review of the material. To that end, I intend to extend this series just slightly longer to do a comprehensive review of new prophesies -- not just the ones that had been selected for a quick "compare and contrast" function, but all the new prophesies in the gospel texts along with how they are handled by the gospel authors. Rather than the slow-moving text-and-commentary on each prophesy as done with the review of just a few prophesies, the comprehensive review will show tables summing up the findings. Once we have the results of the more comprehensive review, we will see what patterns emerge and determine whether we are in a position to suggest dates for the gospels based on their handling of prophesies, and especially dates relative to the fall of Jerusalem.

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