Sunday, December 10, 2017

Witness Under Fire

Below is a rough translation and a particular perspective on John 1: 6-8, 19-28, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 3rd Sunday of Advent. The usual way of reading this text is that John the gospel writer is demonstrating that John the baptizer is subordinate to Jesus. While John the baptizer does indeed subordinate himself, and John the writer makes that clear enough in v.8, I think there is a stronger dynamic at play in verses 19-28. I see John as being interrogated by the temple representatives. Therefore, I will be choosing some of the more powerful options (like ‘interrogated’ over simply ‘questioned’) in order to explore whether that is a promising way to read this encounter. One certainly could argue otherwise and make the discussion merely a genuine inquiry, but my last comment (v.28 n.1) will show why I think this has bearing on the rest of the gospel.

6  Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης:
A man came into being who was sent from God, his name John;
ἐγένετο: AMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen 
ἀπεσταλμένος: PPPart nms, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  
1. The verb γίνομαι is a challenge for translators. This is the word that the KJV often translates as “It came to pass” (not here, however.) It indicates something coming to be, so in v.3 it is translated “made” (NIV, ESV, KJV) or “happen” (YLT) or “came into being” (NRSV). In v.3, γίνομαι seems to point to the grandness of all created things. Here, γίνομαι  is used here to introduce an individual person, John the baptizer. Translators tone down γίνομαι into “there was” (KJV, NIV, ESV, NRSV), while YLT goes with “there came.” I am trying – in this rough stage of translation – to keep consistent language – using “came into being” – but it seems flourish-y here when applied to one person.
2. John gets the additional modifier, “who was sent from God.”

7οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰς μαρτυρίαν, ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός, ἵνα πάντες 
πιστεύσωσιν δι' αὐτοῦ. 
This one came to a witness, in order that he might witness concerning the light, in order that all might believe through him. 
ἦλθεν  AAI 3s ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons  1a1) to come from one place to another, and used both of  persons arriving and of those returning 
μαρτυρήσῃ: AASubj 3s, μαρτυρέω, 1) to be a witness, to bear witness, i.e. to affirm that one has  seen or heard or experienced something, or that he knows it  because taught by divine revelation or inspiration
πιστεύσωσιν: AASubj 3p, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place  confidence in
1. The related use of the noun μαρτυρίαν and the verb μαρτυρήσῃ is lost when translators use “witness” then “testify” as the translations. I think the English “witness” works best because it, too, functions as a noun and a verb.
2. The double use of ἵνα is interesting. I’ve always found that asking “to what end?” allows me to dig down below the surface to the root purpose of something. That is how I hear this succession moving.
3. “that all might believe” - Throughout John’s gospel, to “believe” is keenly significant, whether one thinks of the ever-popular John 3:16 or the “Doubting Thomas” story. Elaine Pagels, in Beyond Belief, argues that the selection of the Gospel of John as the companion gospel to the synoptics – as opposed to or as in addition to the Gospel of Thomas – was part of the church’s evolution from a charismatic movement to an orthodox religion. (I hope I said that well enough.) However one feels about Pagel’s argument, the point in this verse is that “believe” is the end game, which I would say is consistent throughout the gospel. The next question for me would be whether “believe” is a static adherence to a set of propositions or whether to “believe” in one – who is described as the Logos of creation, or the Resurrection and the Life, etc. – is a different kind of “believing.” 
4. Another question arises over who is the precedent implied by the pronoun of the last phrase δι' αὐτοῦ (“through him”). Is it John? Or, it is the light? Did God send John so that, through John, all might believe what John testifies about the light?  Or, did God send John in order to witness to the light, so that all might believe through the light?

8οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸ φῶς, ἀλλ' ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός. 
He himself was not the light, but in order to witness concerning the light. 
μαρτυρήσῃ: AASubj 3s, μαρτυρέω, 1) to be a witness, to bear witness,
1. What is the point of this clarification?  The flow of the text itself does not seem to require it. The context of John’s audience might need the clarification, given the enormous popularity of John and implications elsewhere in the Scriptures that some thought perhaps John was the Coming One.

……………

19 Καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μαρτυρία τοῦ Ἰωάννου, ὅτε ἀπέστειλαν [πρὸς αὐτὸν] οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἐξ Ἱεροσολύμων ἱερεῖς καὶ Λευίτας ἵνα ἐρωτήσωσιν αὐτόν, Σὺ τίς εἶ;
And this is the witness of John, when the Judeans out of Jerusalem sent [to him] priests and Levites in order that they may interrogate him, “Who are you?
ἐστὶν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἀπέστειλαν: AAI 3p, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  2) to send away, dismiss 
ἐρωτήσωσιν: AASubj 3p, ἐρωτάω, 1) to question  2) to ask  2a) to request, entreat, beg, beseech
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. I think the translation of ἐρωτάω as “ask” (NRSV, NIV, ESV, KJV) is too soft. This term is used often in times of despair or challenge. Since the term μαρτυρία (“witness” or “testimony”) evokes courtroom language, I think “interrogate” is the preferred interpretation for ἐρωτάω, to keep this a kind of ‘courtroom trial’ slant. In that sense, it might be worth comparing this story to the High Priest interrogating Jesus and the disciples in John 19:19, where the verb ἐρωτάω is used also. In my mind, “interrogate” has more of a feel for the dynamics of power, or the dynamics of assumed power, of who is in charge. See John 9 (vv. 2, 15, 19, 21, 23), in the aftermath of the man born blind, to see this dynamic in use. It describes both the initial question of the disciples (which is noteworthy in itself) and the prosecutorial questions of the religious leaders. 
My choice of this word will shape the way the next few verses play out. There is a huge difference in asking, sincerely and with hope, “Are you the Christ?” or “Are you Elijah?” It’s another thing to ask that question as a challenge, to put the witness on the defensive.

20 καὶ ὡμολόγησεν καὶ οὐκ ἠρνήσατο, καὶ ὡμολόγησεν ὅτι Ἐγὼ οὐκ εἰμὶ ὁ Χριστός.
And he confessed and did not deny, and confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
ὡμολόγησεν: AAI 3s, ὁμολογέω, 1) to say the same thing as another, i.e. to agree with, assent  2) to concede  2a) not to refuse, to promise  2b) not to deny  2b1) to confess 
ἠρνήσατο: AMI 3s, ἀρνέομαι, 1) to deny 
ὡμολόγησεν: AAI 3s, ὁμολογέω, 1) to say the same thing as another, i.e. to agree with, assent  2) to concede  2a) not to refuse, to promise  2b) not to deny  2b1) to confess 
εἰμὶ: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The repetition of the verbs “confessed and did not deny and confessed” are not necessary to make the point of the sentence. Their repetition may imply the firmness of John’s answer to the persistence of the interrogators.
2. While ὡμολόγησεν can mean “to promise” (Acts 7:17) “to profess” (Acts 23:8) etc., I think here it is best to keep the interrogation language going. John’s uses of this term in 9:22 and 12:42 indicate that one’s status in the temple/community rides on how they might make a “confession.” I think that is a part of confessing the faith that is often lost when it becomes a liturgical practice. 

21 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτόν, Τί οὖν; Σύ Ἠλίας εἶ; καὶ λέγει, Οὐκ εἰμί. Ὁ προφήτης εἶ σύ; καὶ ἀπεκρίθη, Οὔ.
And they interrogated him, “Who then? Are you Elijah?” and he says, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” and he answered, “No.”
ἠρώτησαν: AAI 3p, ἐρωτάω, 1) to question  2) to ask  2a) to request, entreat, beg, beseech
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
εἰμί: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
1. I suspect they had John in a metal ladder-back chair with his hands tied behind his back and a strong light shining on his face. If only the “good cop, bad cop” routine had been invented back then, they might have broken him.
2. I’m not quite sure who “the prophet” is, if it is not Elijah. Maybe they are repeating the same question in different words.

22 εἶπαν οὖν αὐτῷ, Τίς εἶ; ἵνα ἀπόκρισιν δῶμεν τοῖς πέμψασιν ἡμᾶς: τί λέγεις περὶ σεαυτοῦ;
Then they said to him, “Who are you? In order that we may give an answer to the ones who sent us; What do you say about yourself?”
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
δῶμεν: AASubj 1p, δίδωμι, 1) to give
πέμψασιν: AAPart dpm, πέμπω, 1) to send 
λέγεις: λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
1. It is a familiar tactic of interrogators to try to get the ‘witness’ to sympathize with their need to answer to their superiors.

23 ἔφη, Ἐγὼ φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, Εὐθύνατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, καθὼς εἶπεν Ἠσαΐας ὁ προφήτης.
He was declaring “I a voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the lord,’ just as Isaiah the prophet said.”
ἔφη: IAI 3s, φημί, 1) to make known one's thoughts, to declare
βοῶντος: PAPart gsm, βοάω, 1) to raise a cry, of joy pain etc.  2) to cry, speak with a high, strong voice 3) to cry to one for help, to implore his aid 
Εὐθύνατε: εὐθύνω, 1) to make straight, level, plain
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
1. The verb for “declare” φημί is in the imperfect tense, not the aorist. That could imply that this was John’s repeated insistence, as opposed to a final answer that he got to after all of the other denials and confessions. If it were what John is saying repeatedly, then maybe it was not deemed sufficient by his interrogators.

24 Καὶ ἀπεσταλμένοι ἦσαν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων.
And the ones having been sent were out of the Pharisees.
ἀπεσταλμένοι: PerfPPart npm, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed 
ἦσαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. This statement clarifies who the Jews/Judeans are in the less specific opening statement of v.19.
2. I’m not entirely sure whether this means that the priests and Levites themselves were Pharisees or whether the sending agents were the Pharisees. The phrase “out of the Pharisees” seems to be able to imply either one.

25 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Τί οὖν βαπτίζεις εἰ σὺ οὐκ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς οὐδὲ Ἠλίας οὐδὲ ὁ προφήτης;
And they interrogated him and said to him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ nor Elijah nor the prophet?”
ἠρώτησαν: AAI 3p, ἐρωτάω, 1) to question  2) to ask  2a) to request, entreat, beg, beseech
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
βαπτίζεις: PAI 2s, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Whenever I read about John’s baptism, I’m fairly sure I don’t understand the depth of what it meant to his time and place. It seems different than Paul’s description of baptism as ‘dying and rising with Christ,’ since John baptized even before Jesus’ ministry became public. This question implies that only the Christ, Elijah, the prophet, or perhaps only the Pharisees have any business baptizing. (I am not aware of any source that suggests that the Pharisees baptized). This question seems to make baptism more than people’s way of publicly professing their repentance and readiness to participate in the reign of God. The baptized seem to be making a public allegiance that is either opposed to or perceive as risky by the religious leadership. It also seems to imply that the baptizer has some standing – which can either be brought into line with the authority of the temple leadership in Jerusalem or which will be an alternative, perhaps even a threat to them.

26 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰωάννης λέγων, Ἐγὼ βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι: μέσος ὑμῶν ἕστηκεν ὃν ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε,
John answered to them saying, “I baptize in water; among you has stood one whom you have not known,
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
βαπτίζω: PAI 1s, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge
ἕστηκεν: PerfAI 3s, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set  1a) to bid to stand by, [set up]  1a1) in the presence of others
οἴδατε: PerfAI 2p, εἴδω/ἴδω, an obsolete form of the present tense, the place of which is supplied by ὁράω. The tenses come from εἴδω and are retained by usage from two families, of which one signifies to see, the other to know.

27 [ὁ] ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ [ἐγὼ] ἄξιος ἵνα λύσω αὐτοῦ τὸν ἱμάντα τοῦ ὑποδήματος.
who comes after me, for whom I [indeed] am not worthy in order to loosen for him the laces of the sandals.”
ἐρχόμενος: PMPart nsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
εἰμὶ: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
λύσω: AASubj 1s, λύω, 1) to loose any person (or thing) tied or fastened 
1. There is a slight textual variation of whether the ὁ begins this verse or not. That may account for why some translations are comfortable making v.27 a stand alone sentence (with ‘he’ as the subject) instead of a clause connected to v.26.
2. This answer from John is quite the response to the interrogation. I hear it as, “If you think I am a threat to your presumptions of power, think about this: There is someone among you whom you do not know who is far greater than I.”
3. This is the verse that the KJV (with which I grew up) says “unloose.” Then, as a young teenager I got an NIV that said “untie.” The cognitive dissonance between unloosing and untying kept me awake at nights.

28 Ταῦτα ἐν Βηθανίᾳ ἐγένετο πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, ὅπου ἦν ὁ Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων.
These things happened in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
ἐγένετο: AMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
βαπτίζων: PAPart nsm, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge
1. This may simply be a statement about location, but I think it serves to show that this interrogation happened off the grid. It was a conflict that started and was provoked by the temple leadership, far apart from Jerusalem, even before Jesus emerged on the scene. Why would this be significant? Because in c.2, Jesus goes to the temple and demonstrably expresses his zeal for it by overturning tables and challenging the practices there. Many commentators – and I felt this way before viewing our text as an interrogation – say that Jesus is the provocateur in John’s gospel, challenging the temple leadership right off the bat. If my “courtroom” perspective on this text is correct, then Jesus is not the provocateur. He is responding in defense of John and John’s ministry, as well as his own ministry to which John pointed. The provocation begins in c.1, not in c.2.


5 comments:

  1. Mark, this is one of my favorite rabbit holes in the gospel of John. I wonder if Jesus was a Pharisee? (I am leaving aside the historical questions of the gospel to get at the words of the Baptizer.) If this were the only authentic historical "fact" in all the gospels, would it not explain a lot? This is why I rarely preach on the gospel of John. Peace.

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    1. I might be persuaded that Jesus was a Pharisee, or an ascetic, or both. I'm kind of gullible that way.
      I have a friend whose profession of faith is, "I am a markan Christian." I think he would share your feelings about the gospel of John.

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  2. Thank you, Mark for your thoughtful translation and comments. I, too have been struggling with what the baptism that John is performing "means," and have not been able to find in research on the historical significance of baptism before Jesus. I look forward to seeing what you say each week.

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    1. Thanks, my unknown friend. It's encouraging to hear you say that. Blessings on your ministry. MD

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  3. Thanks for all the little tidbits to ponder. I like the sense that witness resembles martyr(dom). I think the questions you bring up in point 4 in verse 7 are the tough ones we need to chew through. Perhaps since the custom of baptism during this time seems to have been an individual thing, the presence of an actual baptizer warranted further speculation of a divine hand. Good stuff as always. Cheers.

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