2010-12-28

How the Gospel of John created a Jesus from Wisdom Literature

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by Neil Godfrey

Personification of wisdom (in Greek, "Σοφ...

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Earlier I outlined Spong’s discussions of the way the Gospel of Matthew mined the Hebrew scriptures to portray Jesus as a new Moses, and the way Luke’s Gospel found in the same Jewish scriptures ways to present him as a greater Elijah. This post repackages Spong’s discussion of how the author(s) of the Gospel of John turned to the same Scriptures, but added to them from the Wisdom literature of late Judaism in order to create a Jesus who was the embodiment of the Wisdom found there.

Before looking at the Wisdom literature from which John drew, Spong covers some of John’s cuts from the Old Testament that he used to build his Jesus. (I have expanded Spong’s Wisdom and Biblical citations into tabular form, with quotes and/or links.)

By the time the Gospels were written, the Old Testament had been culled again and again, looking for treasures of interpretation and hints that might prefigure the Christ. A common body of material had emerged. .  . .

John 7:42  

Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?

Micah 5:2  

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

 

John 19:24  

They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.

Psalm 22:18  

they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

*Note John avoids using Psalm 22:1 (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). It will be seen John’s Jesus suffers no such abandonment or sense of powerlessness at any time. John’s Jesus is God and in total control throughout.


Johh 19:18, 38ff  

Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.

And after this Joseph of Arimathaea . . . He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.

And there came also Nicodemus . . . and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. . . .

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.

There laid they Jesus . . .

 

Isaiah 53:9  

And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death

John 19:34, 37  

But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. . . .

For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.

And again another scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they pierced.

 

Psalm 34:20  

He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken.

Zech 12:10

and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced

John 19:28  

Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst.


Psalm 69:21  

and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

.

Less obvious references to the Jewish scriptures that also significantly filled and structured John’s narrative:

Abraham John 8:31-59 (and the question of the seed of Abraham to inherit the promises)
Isaac John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . .)
Jacob John 4:5ff (Seeking a bride by asking for water at the well)
Moses and Exodus John 6:30-63 (Jesus gives spiritual manna and drink; compare other passages in John where Jesus gives living water as Moses gave life-saving water from a rock.)John 1:17 (Law from Moses; grace and truth from Jesus) 

John 5:46 (If you believed Moses you would believe Jesus)

Moses and Numbers John 3:14-15 (Moses’ saving bronze serpent prefigures Christ crucified)
Moses and Deuteronomy There are those who see parallels in the speeches of Moses in Deuteronomy and the composition of the Johannine discourses of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Both took traditional material and reworked it into the format of a discourse.” (p. 196)

Role of Wisdom Literature

The most decisive influence on both the form and style of the Fourth Gospel came from the wisdom literature tradition of late Judaism . . . (p. 196)

By Wisdom Literature Spong says he is referring to “such canonical books of the Bible as Proverbs and such apocryphal books as

  • Ecclesiastucus (Sirach),
  • the Wisdom of Solomon,
  • Baruch,
  • and the Book of Enoch.”

(There may be some debate among scholars as to what constitutes “Wisdom literature” proper, but I am rolling with Spong’s category here.)

In the wisdom tradition was found the primary place where the thought forms of Greek philosophy had entered Judaism and the Jewish Bible. Lady Wisdom (in Hebrew wisdom was always a feminine) was with God before there was an earth or a creation (Prov. 8.22, 23; Sir. 24:9; Wisd. 6:22). It came from God in divine emanations.

These concepts provided the analogy by which John understood Jesus as “the Word.” (p. 197)

Proverbs 8:22-23 

The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.

I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.

Sirach 24:9

He created me from the beginning before the world, and I shall never fail.

Wisdom 6:22

As for wisdom, what she is, and how she came up, I will tell you, and will not hide mysteries from you: but will seek her out from the beginning of her nativity, and bring the knowledge of her into light, and will not pass over the truth.

 

John 1:1-2 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The same was in the beginning with God.

John 8:58

Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

Wisdom was a pure pouring forth of the glory of the Almighty . . . 

Wisdom 7:25

For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her.

Jesus possessed the Father’s glory, which he made manifest . . . 

John 1:14

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 8:50

I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge.

John 11:4

When he heard this, Jesus said,”This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”

John 17:5, 22, 24

And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

 

Wisdom was a reflection of the everlasting light of God and was to be preferred to any natural light . . . 

Wisdom 7:26

For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness.

Jesus, who came forth from God, was the light of the world . . . 

John 8:12

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life

 

Wisdom descended from heaven to dwell with the human family . . . 

Wisdom 9:10

O send her out of thy holy heavens, and from the throne of thy glory, that being present she may labour with me, that I may know what is pleasing unto thee.

Baruch 3:37

Afterward she appeared upon earth and lived among men

Sirach 24:8

So the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and he that made me caused my tabernacle to rest, and said, Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thine inheritance in Israel.

Proverbs 8:31

I was there when he set the heavens in place . . . rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.

Jesus was . . . the Son of Man who had descended from heaven to earth . . . 

John 1:14

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [“tabernacled”] among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 3:31

The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.

John 6:38

For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.

John 16:28

I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”

The ultimate return of wisdom to heaven offered John a parallel for understanding the exaltation of Jesus to his heavenly throne, which John called both his glorification and his ascension . . .

John 17:1

After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.

17:22

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one

17:24

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

20:17

Jesus said, do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.

 

The function of wisdom was to teach the things that are above . . . 

Wisdom 9:16-18

And hardly do we guess aright at things that are upon earth, and with labour do we find the things that are before us: but the things that are in heaven who hath searched out?

And thy counsel who hath known, except thou give wisdom, and send thy Holy Spirit from above?

For so the ways of them which lived on the earth were reformed, and men were taught the things that are pleasing unto thee, and were saved through wisdom.

 

. . . the function of Jesus was to reveal divine truth . . . 

John 17:6ff

I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word.

Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you.

For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.

Wisdom roamed the streets seeking a dwelling place in human life and specifically in the human heart . . . 

Wisdom 6:16

For she goeth about seeking such as are worthy of her, sheweth herself favourably unto them in the ways, and meeteth them in every thought.

Proverbs 1:20-21

Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
she raises her voice in the public square;
on top of the wall she cries out,
at the city gate she makes her speech:

Proverbs 8:1-4

Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:
to you, O people, I call out;
I raise my voice to all mankind.

 

Jesus . . . walked alone encountering those who would follow him . . . and crying out his message in public places . . . 

John 5:14

Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”

John 9:35-36

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, Do you believe in the Son of Man?

Who is he, sir? the man asked. Tell me so that I may believe in him.

John 7:28, 37

Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, . . . .

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.

John 12:44

Then Jesus cried out, Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.

Wisdom instructed disciples who were called her children . . . 

Sirach 4:11; 6:18

Wisdom exalteth her children, and layeth hold of them that seek her.

My son, gather instruction from thy youth up: so shalt thou find wisdom till thine old age.

Proverbs 8:32-33

“Now then, my children, listen to me;
blessed are those who keep my ways.
Listen to my instruction and be wise;
do not disregard it.

 

John called the disciples of Jesus his children . . . 

John 13:33; 21:5

“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No.

Wisdom, like the Johannine Christ, tested her disciples and formed them until they loved her and thus became the friends of God. 

Wisdom 6:17-18

For the very true beginning of her is the desire of discipline; and the care of discipline is love;

And love is the keeping of her laws; and the giving heed unto her laws is the assurance of incorruption;

Sirach 6:20-26

She is very unpleasant to the unlearned: he that is without understanding will not remain with her.
She will lie upon him as a mighty stone of trial; and he will cast her from him ere it be long.
For wisdom is according to her name, and she is not manifest unto many.
Give ear, my son, receive my advice, and refuse not my counsel,
And put thy feet into her fetters, and thy neck into her chain.

Bow down thy shoulder, and bear her, and be not grieved with her bonds.
Come unto her with thy whole heart, and keep her ways with all thy power.

Proverbs 8:17

I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me.

Verses omitted by Spong, probably unintentionally

Wisdom 7:14, 27

For she is a treasure unto men that never faileth: which they that use become the friends of God . . .

she maketh all things new: and in all ages entering into holy souls, she maketh them friends of God

Wisdom 8:18

And great pleasure it is to have her friendship;

 

Peter was the striking Johannine figure who after being tested and failing was confronted three times with the question, “Do you love me?” 

John 21:15-17

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.

He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.

Jesus also informed his disciples that they had become, after being purified and sanctified, his beloved friends . . .

John 15:15

Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

John 16:27

For the Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God.

Those who encountered wisdom were forced to make a decision. Some would seek and find, others would not, and when they changed their minds, it would be too late . . . 

Wisdom 6:12

Wisdom is glorious, and never fadeth away: yea, she is easily seen of them that love her, and found of such as seek her.

Sirach 6:27

Search, and seek, and she shall be made known unto thee: and when thou hast got hold of her, let her not go.

Proverbs 8:17

I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me.

Jesus, said John, forced the same response. They must decide while they had the opportunity, for they could not come to where Jesus had gone once that chance was missed.  

John 7:34

Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come.

John 8:21

Then said Jesus again unto them, I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come.

John 13:33

Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you.

 

Finally, the power of wisdom was that she pervaded and penetrated all things. She was a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the divine glory . . .  

Wisdom 7:24-25

For wisdom is more moving than any motion: she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness.

For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her.

In the same fashion the Johannine Jesus inhabited those who believed in him, and the risen Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon his disciples. 

John 14:23

Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.

John 15:10

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.

John 17:8
For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me.

John 20:22

And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

 

What Moses was for Matthew and what Elijah was for Luke, wisdom was for John — a major interpretive clue. The linking of wisdom to the Word occurred, I believe, in the Johannine school long before the final version of the Gospel was written, and this analogy colored dramatically the meditations and prayers that marked that primary community, and it grew in influence as time passed. (p. 198)

One might wonder if there were not enough remarkable anecdotes of a real-life Jesus from oral tradition in which a Christian community might have found an abundance of material for meditation.

Spong next discusses the circumstances that he suspects led to the Gospel of John becoming one of the most anti-semitic of Gospels. Some believers may not feel comfortable with his view that even the famous I AM sayings of Jesus were part of an anti-semitic polemic. But that’s all a discussion for another post.

So I’ve covered Spong’s introductory notes on the way Matthew crafts a Jesus predominantly out of the Moses figure. (I think I overlooked in that discussion the conclusion of that Gospel with Jesus on the mountain top directing his followers to go out to the world as commissioned, just as Moses from the mountain top on the eve of his departure commissioned his people to go over Jordan to take the promised land.) Then there a look at Luke’s stripping John the Baptist from the Elijah image in order to build his Jesus out of Elijah’s trappings. And here are the key points he cites for John’s Jesus being created out of Wisdom.

That leaves one more. Still undecided how to approach that one.

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  • 2010-12-28 12:36:00 UTC - 12:36 | Permalink

    I wonder if there were any disciples of Philo in the Johnine school?

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    • jun
      2011-01-08 12:23:47 UTC - 12:23 | Permalink

      My response to Joel, since he will delete it from his blog I’m sure.

      “Of course, some cannot separate interpretation OF and creation FROM”

      Without some very good independent verification, why should we? We have nothing speaking of Jesus as a historical figure other than the gospels and things dependent on the gospels. Tacitus is dependent on the gospels, seeing he knows nothing except that a man named Christ started the sect. That’s not what he read in some official document of the crucifixion. He got his info from Christians on the street and they got theirs from the gospels. How do you know that you aren’t the one who has it backwards? That it is creation FROM and not interpretation OF?

      “I can see several prophetic hues in this section which, at least to me, places the Person of Wisdom as God’s prophet.”

      Really? You aren’t literate enough to see Personification of the concept of Wisdom? Wow. You might as well be a Muslim as be a Christian. I’m sure they see Mohammed here. But what of the necessity of the feminine gender? Is your prophet, whether Mohammed of Jesus, a woman? why is it female? especially when good king Paul says women are not allowed to teach!!!

      • 2011-01-08 12:58:47 UTC - 12:58 | Permalink

        Oh dear. Joel won’t know how to handle that so he’ll delete it or insult you or both.

        I have just finished listening to a sermon by Bishop Spong and he said that with some people conversation is not the way to go. It is very hard having a conversation with someone who knows he is right, he said.

        Joel is so sure he is right he has never found a need to actually argue a rational case for his beliefs.

        I wonder if he is aware yet that I have shown up his juvenile attempt to link back through a comma so no-one on his blog would see his link to my post.


        For the uninformed, this was Joel’s last comment to this blog and for which I put him on “spam”.

        blah blah blah.

        See, I don’t have a post-graduate degree, so I don’t have to waste time being nice.

        Pick a post, look at the comments section where either myself, irishanglican or Steph have attempted to interact with you and there is your answer.

        One can imagine what his prior “attempts at interaction” were like.


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