Moving to a new Web address

Readers have been complaining about the excessive number and disruptive nature of the ads WordPress runs on this blog, so I’m transferring to Blogger. Future posts will be at https://narrowdesert.blogspot.com/, and when I get around to it, I’ll post copies of the existing posts at this site there as well. There’s nothing at the new site yet, but go ahead and update your bookmarks.

Notes on John 2

giotto

Giotto, Casting Out the Money Changers

There’s glory for you!

— Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass

I continue my notes on the Fourth Gospel, following for convenience the traditional practice of referring to it and its author as “John.” The text is in purple; everything else is my notes.

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The marriage in Cana

[1] And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there:

Different translations interpret “the third day” differently — as “on Tuesday,” “three days later,” and “two days later.” The last reading is the correct one. John 1 has already established the narrative pattern of saying “the next day,” so the “on Tuesday” reading is extremely unlikely; and it is my understanding that for NT writers “on the third day” means what we would call two days later, the day from which we are counting being considered the first. (For example, Jesus died on Friday and rose “on the third day,” on Sunday.)

Here’s the chronology of events so far:

  • Day 1: John meets with a delegation of priests and Levites and tells them he is not the Messiah.
  • Day 2: John announces that he has seen the Spirit descend and abide on Jesus, and that Jesus is the Lamb of God.
  • Day 3: John again hails Jesus as the Lamb of God, and Andrew and another disciple follow him. Later Simon Peter joins them.
  • Day 4: Jesus plans to go to Galilee, and calls Philip to follow him there. They are joined by Nathanael. They must start their journey to Galilee on this day as well.
  • Day 5: Nothing is reported. Presumably they spend the whole day en route to Galilee.
  • Day 6: Jesus and his disciples attend the marriage in Cana.

The journey back to Galilee would have been about 90 miles, so covering it in two days would really be pushing it! An adult in good physical shape can cover 20 miles a day with normal breaks, or 30 miles under forced-march conditions. One rather imagines Jesus and his disciples going at a leisurely pace and conversing along the way; the idea of their covering 45 miles a day, as if they were Maasai warriors or something, stretches plausibility.

Perhaps we are to understand that they went to Galilee (spending an unspecified number of days on the road) and found Nathanael there, and then attended the wedding two days after meeting him. Or perhaps we shouldn’t take this writer’s “the next day” connectors too literally; perhaps he is simply stringing together several important scenes from Christ’s ministry without being too exact about the timescale.

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[2] And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.

It has been suggested that the marriage in Cana was Jesus’ own wedding, but if so the fact has been deliberately disguised. The text we have portrays him as a guest, invited along with his mother and his disciples. There is no mention of Jesus’ father, suggesting that he may already have died by this point.

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[3] And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. [4] Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. [5] His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.

This reads as if Jesus’ mother were hosting the wedding party. She is in a position to give orders to the servants, and she says “They have no wine” — not we — suggesting that she is not just another of the wedding guests.

If Jesus’ mother is indeed the hostess, why does the wedding take place in Cana rather than in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth? If I correct in inferring that Jesus’ father had already died, it is possible that his mother either moved back to her parents’ hometown or else remarried someone from Cana.

“Woman,” I am told, is a normal and respectful form of address in this context, and some translations go with “dear lady” or something along those lines.

“What have I to do with thee?” is perhaps better translated as “What is that to you and me?” (“Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, ” literally “What to-me and to-you”) — that is, “What concern is that of ours?” He is not asking the bizarre question of what he has to do with his own mother, as if he were disowning her, but rather what the two of them have to do with providing wine for the party. So perhaps his mother is not the hostess after all.

It certainly sounds as if Jesus is refusing to do anything about the wine problem, since it is not his concern and his time (to perform public miracles?) has not yet come. His mother, however, blithely ignores this refusal, proceeds just as if he had agreed to help, and tells the servants to do what he says! Say what you will about this, I think it’s a pretty realistic portrayal of family dynamics — which are apparently not so different even if your son happens to be the Son of God.

Jesus’ mother seems to take it for granted that he will be able to conjure up some wine, so, despite the characterization of this episode as his “beginning of miracles,” it is  apparent that has already manifested paranormal abilities.

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[6] And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. [7] Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. [8] And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it.

John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible explains, citing various ancient Jewish authorities:

At a wedding were set vessels of various sizes to wash hands and feet in; there was one vessel called משׁיכלא, which the gloss says was a large pitcher, or basin, out of which the whole company washed their hands and their feet; and there was another called משׁיכלתא , which was a lesser and beautiful basin, which was set alone for the more honourable persons, as for the bride, and for any gentlewoman; and such might be these six stone jars, or pots.

Although the KJV makes it sound as if each pot already contained two or three firkins of water, the word rendered “containing” is more correctly translated as “having space for”; we are being told the capacity of the pots, not their contents. (The word translated “firkin” most probably represents about nine gallons, though there is some uncertainty about this.)

If Gill is right, though, the pots did probably already have some water in them — and not clean water, either, but the water in which all the wedding guests had washed their hands and feet! (The miracle takes place while the party is in progress; the guests would already have made their ablutions before entering.) Jesus has the servants top them up with water and then turns it into wine. The pots must be located outside the room where the party is taking place, which is why the governor of the feast has no knowledge of what Jesus has had the servants do.

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[9] When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, [10] And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.

It’s hard not to see an element of comic irony in this, with the servants laughing up their sleeves and whispering, “They think this is fine wine. They don’t realize it was actually made from their dirty bath water!” If the governor and the guests knew where the wine came from, they would likely be as much disgusted and offended as amazed. (“Moab is my washpot,” says the Psalmist, clearly meaning by the expression to convey his utter contempt for that country.)

But the real joke here is that there’s no joke. Jesus isn’t tricking them into drinking filthy water. After he works his magic on it, it really is fine wine, and never mind what it was before. We might see this as a symbolic announcement of his intention to use publicans and sinners and other such riffraff as the raw materials from which to create saints and, ultimately, Gods.

Or perhaps the symbolism runs deeper. Washing one’s hands and feet preparatory to participating in a wedding feast symbolizes repenting before entering the kingdom of God — but even the dust and dirt that has been washed off is not discarded, but rather transformed into the wine for the feast. Vice and sin are not destroyed but transfigured, as in the C. S. Lewis story (I forget which) where a man crushes the reptile that represents his besetting sin, only to see it transform into a fine horse.

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The Gospel gives no information as to how the miracle was carried out. We are not told when or how the water became wine, just that it had already become so by the time the governor tasted it. If Jesus said or did anything observable to effect the transformation, we are not told of it. The pivotal event, the working of the miracle itself, takes place “off camera” (as, in Chapter 1, does the similarly pivotal event of Jesus’ baptism by John). We are left to speculate as to how it was done. My assumption would be that, since Jesus now fully embodies the creative Word, the water was transformed into wine through that Word, in the same way that the primordial chaos was transformed into a cosmos — that is, through the power of Primary Thinking. If the miracle was accomplished by thought alone, without any of the usual shuffle-duffle-muzzle-muff one associates with a magical “working,” that could explain why the act itself is not described: there simply was no observable act. All the observers could see was that there had been water, and then somewhere along the line it had become wine instead.

It may seem too obvious a question to ask, but why and how was Jesus able to do this, and what is the significance of this ability? Obviously, ordinary people lack the ability to transform water into wine simply by willing it to be so.  John, like the other Gospel writers, places great emphasis on Jesus’ paranormal powers and presents them as a legitimate reason for believing in him and his message.

One very common view is that human beings as such do not and never can have the powers Jesus exhibited, that they properly belong to angels and to God himself, both of which are thought of as being fundamentally different from man. Any miracle apparently performed by a human being is actually performed by a superhuman being (God or an angel) and is evidence of that the human wonder-worker is in communion with that being and receives its support and authorization. Since (for reasons that are not clear to me) superhuman beings are assumed to be sharply divided into Good and Evil camps, with none of the shades-of-gray we find among humans, a human who exhibits “miraculous” powers must be in league with the one camp or the other — must be, that is, either a saint or a witch.

I don’t think this line of reasoning is applicable to Jesus as described in the Fourth Gospel. His miracles are not performed for him by superhuman beings as a sign that he enjoys their favor; rather, they are performed by a human being: Jesus himself. He is a man who has come to embody the creative Word — who has become divine — and the powers he manifests are human powers — fully realized in Jesus, but potentially available to human beings as such. When William W. Phelps wrote that Jesus came to earth “to walk upon his footstool and be like man, almost,” he was missing the point: Jesus was a man; a man may be God; to be human is to be potentially divine.

The question, then, is in what this divinity consists. What was it about Jesus that made him so different from an ordinary human being that he was able to work miracles? If he was actually a superhuman being disguised as a man, that would be an easy way of explaining the difference, but John does not leave that option open to us. Nor can we imagine that his powers were a matter of technology or of techniques mastered through long practice, as if Jesus were a particularly advanced yogi. The difference must be something altogether simpler and deeper.

So far, the closest this Gospel has come to explaining what made Jesus the Son of God is the brief description of how others may become sons of God: “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). This idea of being “born” again in some metaphorical sense will be a major theme of Chapter 3, and I will defer a fuller discussion to my notes on that chapter. At this point, I just want to emphasize that miracle stories show Jesus to be very different from ordinary men and invite us to try to understand how and why.

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In the previous chapter, the author has just been contrasting Moses and Jesus, and perhaps this story is a continuation of that. Moses’ first miracle was turning the water of the Nile into blood. The Exodus account even mentions that there was “blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood, and in vessels of stone” and that “the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river” (Exodus 7:19, 21). Wine is superficially similar to blood (“the blood of grapes,” Genesis 49:11), but the two miracles are opposites in terms of their effects, one being a curse and the other a blessing.

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The governor of the feast assumes that the bridegroom is the one responsible for providing wine, choosing which wine to serve first, and so on (though I would have thought it would be the governor’s own responsibility; in what does the “governing” of the feast consist if not in dealing with such things?). In fact, Jesus has dealt with that. The early Mormon apostle Orson Hyde considered this proof that Jesus is himself the bridegroom at this wedding, but I don’t find this a very defensible reading. If Jesus were the bridegroom, and as such responsible for providing wine, why would he say “What concern is that of ours?” when informed that the guests have no wine? And why would the servants have to be told by his mother to follow his instructions? In fact, it seems plausible that “mine hour is not yet come” means simply, “I’m not the one getting married here; my time to host a wedding feast will come later.”

Assuming then, that Jesus is not the bridegroom, we can only imagine how the bridegroom reacted to this confusing information about the wine he was supposedly providing — or what happened when he finally discovered that his servants had been ladling wine out of wash basins. If, as I assume, these basins were situated just outside the entrance to the feast venue, the guests probably would have seen them again on their way out and realized where their wine had come from — a pretty embarrassing situation for the bridegroom! There’s probably a very interesting untold story here.

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[11] This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.

“Signs” would be a more strictly accurate translation than “miracles.” The emphasis is not on that fact that this is an extremely unusual sort of occurrence, contrary to the commonly observed course of nature, but rather that it is an indication of Jesus’ identity and nature.

I was a bit surprised to discover that the word translated “glory” is δόξα — a word which even someone with little Greek might recognize as a key term in Platonic philosophy: one generally translated as opinion, as contrasted with knowledge (ἐπιστήμη). It is an etymological component of such words as orthodox (“having right opinions”) and paradox (“what is contrary to common opinion”). How do we get from that to “glory”? Thayer identifies three primary senses of word as used in the New Testament; I quote here only the basic definitions, omitting his very extensive notes and references.

I. opinion, judgment, view: in this sense very often in secular writ; but in the Bible only in 4 Macc 5:17

II. opinion, estimate, whether good or bad, concerning some one; but (like the Latin existimatio) in secular writings generally, in the sacred writings always, good opinion concerning one, and as resulting from that, praise, honor, glory

III. As a translation of the Hebrew כָּבוד, in a use foreign to Greek writing, splendor, brightness

How are we to interpret the word in this passage? Thayer says that the first sense does not occur in the New Testament, but I am not prepared to take his word for that or to assume that all NT writers used the Greek language in the same anomalous way. It is certainly true that the miracle is, among other things, an expression of Jesus’ opinions or views. For example, it shows a positive, or at least a tolerant, view of the use of alcohol (Jesus was not an ascetic like John the Baptist), as well as a complete disregard for rules and what-is-done.

In the second sense, “his glory” would mean “the esteem in which he is held by others” — and while a miracle could obviously elicit such esteem, it seems strange to describe it as manifesting it. I suppose the episode does indicate the high esteem in which he is held by his own mother (seen in her confident assumption that he would be able to conjure up some wine). If the miracle is accomplished by giving a command which is literally obeyed by the elements, it would also show that he is held in high esteem by the elemental intelligences. Or perhaps we are to assume a slight semantic shift, and understand that what he manifested his worthiness to be held in high esteem — his greatness — rather than that esteem itself.

As for the third sense, as bizarre as it might seem to someone whose exposure to Greek has been primarily non-biblical, δόξα is undeniably used in the NT (and, apparently, the Septuagint) in the sense of “brightness.” When the angels appear to the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story, we are told that “the δόξα of the Lord shone round about them” (Luke 2:9). In the present context, this sense could be used only metaphorically, meaning something like “greatness” or “majesty.”

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Who believed in Jesus based on this miracle? Only those who were already his disciples. As discussed above, the circumstances of this particular miracle were not conducive to winning over the wedding guests.

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[12] After this he went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples: and they continued there not many days.

Nothing is said about why they went to Capernaum (on the Sea of Galilee, not far from Nazareth or Cana) or what they did there. Since his mother and brothers accompanied him we might infer that they were paying a visit to relatives.

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The cleansing of the Temple

[13] And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

“The Jews’ passover” is redundant in English, but not in Greek, where the same word (πάσχα) can refer either to the Jewish feast of Passover or to the Christian feast of Easter. We can infer that the observance of Easter was already well established by the time this Gospel was written.

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[14] And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: [15] And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; [16] And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.

In the Synoptics, Jesus is dead within a week of this outrage. In John, it occurs at the beginning of his ministry and he appears to suffer no consequences. John’s version is, at least at first glance, less believable. (I do not take seriously the inerrantist assumption that the Synoptics and John are describing two different events, that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice.)

What exactly is Jesus objecting to? People came to the Jerusalem Temple from all over the Jewish world to offer animal sacrifice, so it seems reasonable that the Temple should offer animals for the purpose, and that people should pay for them. (Offering free livestock to worshipers, besides likely being economically impracticable, would destroy the ritual slaughter’s character as a sacrifice.) Most of the animals would have been bought by travelers from abroad (since locals could just bring their own), so offering currency exchange services also seems reasonable and necessary. The Synoptic version of this episode has Jesus accuse the merchants and money-changers of turning the Temple into a “den of thieves” — implying that they were charging dishonest prices or otherwise cheating their customers — but there is no hint of this in John.

The most conservative reading would be that Jesus’ only objection was to where these business transactions were taking place. People should buy their shekels and their livestock elsewhere in Jerusalem, not in the Temple complex itself. His concern was with maintaining the distinction between sacred and profane spaces, hence his injunction to “take these things hence” and sell them somewhere else. Against this interpretation, there is the episode at Jacob’s well in Chapter 4, where Jesus seems to de-emphasize the importance of the Temple as a place of worship.

More radically, he may have been objecting to the whole idea that religious worship should have anything to do with commerce, that the activities in the Temple should be a source of income for anyone. As I have said above, I do not consider this a reasonable objection. Any religion that revolves around animal sacrifice is inevitably going to have its economic aspect.

Which brings us to the most radical possibility of all — that what Jesus objected to was the whole system of worship by animal sacrifice, precisely because it was economic in nature and thus tended to turn God’s house into a house of merchandise. This may seem extreme, but it was not without precedent; prophets and priests seem often to have been at odds, and it is not hard to find in the Old Testament prophetic polemics against the Temple cult. I do not believe there is any reference in the Gospels to Jesus directly participating in or condoning an animal sacrifice. Even when he supposedly keeps the Passover with his disciples (the Last Supper), the only things on the menu appear to be bread and wine. Pope Benedict XVI had the following to say about Christ’s apparently lamb-less Passover.

In the evangelists’ accounts of [the Last Supper] there seems to be a contradiction between the version as told by John and those of Mathew, Mark and Luke. According to John, Christ died on the cross at the exact moment when in the temples nearby, the lambs were being slaughtered for the Paschal feast. His death coincides with the sacrifice of the lambs. That however means that he died on the eve of Passover and therefore could not personally celebrate the Paschal feast – this at least is what seems to be. According to the other three evangelists Our Lord’s last supper was a traditional Paschal feast into which he inserted the novelty of the gift of His body and blood. Until very recently this contradiction seemed irresolvable. Most of the exegetes were of the opinion that John did not want to give us the exact, historic date of Christ’s death, but had instead chosen a symbolic date to highlight the one profound truth: Jesus is the true Lamb of God who shed his blood for us.

In the meantime the discovery of the Qumran writings has led us to a possible and convincing solution that, while not accepted by all, possesses a great degree of probability. We are now able to say that John’s account of the passion is historically precise. Christ really did shed his blood on the eve of the Passover at the hour of the slaughter of the lambs. However he celebrated Passover with his disciples according to the Qumran calendar, therefore at least one day earlier — he celebrated it without the lamb, as according to the traditions of the Qumran community, which did not recognize Herod’s temple and was waiting for a new temple. Christ therefore celebrated Passover without the lamb — no, not without the lamb: in place of the lamb he gifted his body and blood. (source)

According to Benedict, Jesus celebrated Passover without a lamb because the lambs had to be slaughtered in the Temple, and he did not recognize Herod’s Temple as a true temple — which is hardly consistent with his calling Herod’s Temple “my Father’s house” in the passage now under discussion. While Benedict’s explanation of why there was no lamb thus leaves something to be desired, his recognition that there was no lamb is significant. There are, it seems, very good reasons for believing that Jesus never once participated in the priestly cult of animal sacrifice, not even at Passover.

Certainly animal sacrifice has never been a feature of Christian worship. The standard explanation for this is that Jesus was the great and last sacrifice, making further animal sacrifice unnecessary. But from a Christian point of view, animal sacrifice never was necessary, never had the power to save, never was anything but a symbolic anticipation of the Passion, and there’s no obvious reason why it could not have continued after Christ as a commemoration of his sacrifice, playing the same role that Communion has in fact played in historical Christianity. Is it possible that the real reason for the cessation of animal sacrifice was that Jesus was against it from the beginning, even before his Passion?

This is not to suggest that Jesus was a vegetarian or was opposed to the slaughter of animals. We are told that he ate fish at least, and there is no reason to suppose he ate anything other than a normal diet for the culture in which he lived. In his cleansing of the Temple he never said anything like, “Make not my Father’s house an house of bloodshed.” His objection was apparently to the economic aspect of the Temple cult, and its way of introducing Mammon into the house of God.

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I wonder if there is any significance to the fact that he apparently treated the dove-sellers differently from the others. He drove away the sheep and oxen and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, but to the dove-sellers he did no violence but only spoke: “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.” Could this possibly have anything to do with the recent appearance of the dove as the sign of the Spirit of God? I suspect that, in Greek as in English, “make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise” is ambiguous as to which is the object and which the object complement, allowing for this reading: “Take these doves, which represent the Spirit, somewhere else. This building is obviously a house of merchandise now; don’t try to make it a house of God.” Not a very likely reading, all things considered, but intriguing enough that I thought it worth noting.

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[17] And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.

The reference is to Psalm 69.

[7] Because for thy sake I have borne reproach;
shame hath covered my face.
[8] I am become a stranger unto my brethren,
and an alien unto my mother’s children.
[9] For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up;
and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.

The disciples apparently read this prophetically, with David (the “I” of the psalm) speaking in the voice of the future Messiah. If “thine house” means the Temple, it would make sense to read it as a prophecy, since David himself lived and died before the Temple was built. (I suppose it could be read as a reference to David’s unrealized desire to build a temple, as described in 2 Samuel 7.)

Given the immediate context, in which the Psalmist describes being alienated from his biological family, I think there is a strong case for reading house in the sense of family or household. In essence, the Psalm is saying, “I have become a stranger to my own family. God is my family now, and who insults God, insults me.”

Of course this and the Temple reading are not mutually exclusive, and Jesus’ reaction to commerce in the Temple seems to encompass both: “Make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.” He took a perceived desecration of God’s Temple personally because he saw God as family.

Again we are faced with the question of how to understand these “fulfilled prophecies.” I find it very hard to believe that David foresaw Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and wrote a conscious prophecy of it into his psalm. Possibly he subconsciously “picked something up” as he was writing about his own feelings; more likely, Jesus “fulfilled” the psalm in a more general way: the Messiah was supposed to be a second David, and Jesus, by expressing the feelings expressed in the Psalms, was showing himself to be a man after David’s own heart.

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[18] Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?

I find it surprising that the immediate reaction of “the Jews” was not to have Jesus arrested but to ask for a sign. Certainly his actions in the Temple constituted a moderately serious property crime and could have been punished as such.

There is in the Old Testament a tradition of what might be called “prophetic theater,” where the prophet underscores his message by performing symbolic actions, some of them quite unusual and involved.  Granted that was long time before Jesus’ time, and granted many of the prophets involved got stoned, sawn in half, or cast into miry dungeons for their labors — but perhaps the Jews were tentatively willing to countenance Jesus’ actions in the Temple as prophetic theater, provided he could prove he was a legitimate prophet by giving a sign that he enjoyed God’s favor. If the Jews were not thinking along these lines, I find it difficult to make sense of their reaction.

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[19] Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. [20] Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? [21] But he spake of the temple of his body. [22] When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.

According to Josephus, construction on Herod’s Temple commenced in 22 BC and continued until it was destroyed in AD 70. The 46-year figure suggests that this episode took place around AD 24, a bit earlier than commonly accepted dates for Christ’s ministry.

This is a sarcastic non-answer to the request for a sign. Obviously his listeners were not prepared to put him to the test by destroying the Temple or (if we grant that “he spake of the temple of his body”) by murdering him. Jesus has just turned water into wine in Cana as a “beginning of signs,” and we are told that “when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did” (v. 23), so why did he refuse to perform a miracle in this case? And what did he hope to communicate by proposing the particular sign that he did?

John’s interpretation is that “this temple” meant Jesus’ body, and that he was announcing — some two years before the event — his intention to rise from the dead on the “third” (meaning the second) day following his execution. No one interpreted his statement in this way until after his resurrection, nor could they possibly have been expected to do so. Sometimes Jesus’ listeners seem to be obtusely literal-minded in their understanding of what he says, but in this case their interpretation seems perfectly natural. If you say “this temple” while standing in an actual temple, any normal person is going to assume that you are making some reference, whether literal or metaphorical, to the building in which you are standing — not to your own body.

I’m willing to accept that Jesus was leaving “Easter eggs” (so to speak) for his disciples to discover after the fact, but not that that’s all he was doing — not that he spoke without the slightest intention of communicating anything understandable to the people to whom he was speaking. If Jesus was a charitable person, we must assume that the Easter-egg value of his words was secondary and that his reply to his questioners was a good-faith attempt to communicate something which, with a little thought and sincerity, they could reasonably be expected to understand.

Could he have meant “Abandon your priests-and-rabbis religion of ritual and law, and I will make you a new religion”? Probably not. Elsewhere in this and the other Gospels, Jesus stresses the continuity of his message with Judaism — he is the promised Messiah, Moses wrote of him, he came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. Besides, “in three days I will raise it up” implies restoring the original edifice, not replacing it with something new. (Mark 14:58 does have someone say of Jesus, “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands” — but the statement is attributed to a “false witness.”) Perhaps, alternatively, he meant “Corrupt and destroy your ancestral religion as much as you will, but I will purify it and restore it.”

More likely, I think, Jesus’ completely unreasonable demand that they destroy the Temple was meant simply to convey that he considered their demand for a sign equally unreasonable. As discussed in my notes on John 1, the kingdom of God cometh not with observation. No conceivable empirical evidence could be sufficient to establish that Jesus is divine, so the insistence on a sign is misguided. Perhaps Jesus’ reply was meant to trigger the following imagined dialogue in his listeners’ minds.

Jesus: If you want a sign, destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.

Skeptic: Raise up in three days what it took 46 years to build? That’s impossible!

Jesus: Precisely. Doing something impossible would constitute a miraculous sign, would it not?

Skeptic: But how could we dare destroy the Temple of God?

Jesus: Don’t worry. If I am who I say I am, I have both the authority to make the request and the power to bring the Temple back after you destroy it. You will not have displeased God, and you will still have your Temple.

Skeptic: But we do not know whether you are who you say you are. That is what the sign is supposed to establish. And suppose we destroyed God’s own Temple only to find that you had lied to us! The Temple would be in ruins, and we would be guilty of a terrible sacrilege.

Jesus: Yes, there’s always that risk.

Skeptic: The risk is unacceptable. We decline to destroy the Temple, and we reject your message.

Jesus: And why do you consider that the safer course of action?

Skeptic: Because we do not know who you are or what authority or power you may have, but we do know that the Temple of God is holy.

Jesus: Because its holiness has been proved to you by a miraculous sign?

I do think that the response “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?” shows the insincerity of Jesus’ questioners. They ask him to do something miraculous (i.e., seemingly impossible) and then object that the feat he proposes is impossible.

*

[23] Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. [24] But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, [25] And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.

We are not told what specific miracles he did in Jerusalem. The seven miracles that are described in full in this Gospel were apparently chosen for a reason, because the author considered them especially significant. He is not simply relating every miracle he has seen or heard about.

Just after that discussion of why miraculous signs could never really prove Jesus’ divinity, we read that many people did in fact believe in Jesus based on his miracles — but Jesus seems not to have had a very high opinion of such belief. The word commit is better translated as entrust and is the same Greek word translated as believed in v. 23. Essentially, many people believed in Jesus, but for his part he didn’t believe in them at all. He did not accept these people as his disciples, because their belief was built on sand.

Zarathustra’s roundelay

I have never found an English translation I liked, so I thought I’d give it a go myself. Here is Nietzsche’s original.

O Mensch! Gib acht!
Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?
»Ich schlief, ich schlief—,
Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht:—
Die Welt ist tief,
Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.
Tief ist ihr Weh—,
Lust—tiefer noch als Herzeleid:
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit—,
—will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!«

And here is my attempt at an English version.

O man, give ear!
Deep midnight speaketh; canst thou hear?
“From sleep, from sleep,
From dreaming deep I woke and rose;
The world is deep,
More deep than day would e’er suppose.
How deep her woe!
Joy—deeper still than heartache, she.
Though woe cry, ‘Go!’
All joys long for eternity—
For deep on deep eternity!”

Nietzsche, too, was deeper than he knew, and wrote things infinitely deeper than the philosophy he consciously espoused.

Notes on John 1

john1

Geschrieben steht: »Im Anfang war das Wort!«
Hier stock’ ich schon! Wer hilft mir weiter fort?

— Goethe’s Faust

“In the beginning was the Word,” I read.
Already stymied! How can I proceed?

— my translation

I’ve always found the Fourth Gospel to be the least accessible of the four — feeling, with Faust, my understanding blocked from the very first sentence. However, as the only one of the Gospels which even claims to be an eyewitness account, it is obviously the most important text in the Bible and must be confronted sooner or later. Recently I have been going through it very slowly, transcribing it by hand in a notebook and brooding as I go. So far I have to admit that, to coin a phrase, “the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.” Nevertheless I am publishing here my notes, such as they are, in the hope that my thoughts will be clarified by the writing process, as they so often are, and that the post might attract helpful comments from those whose understanding is deeper than my own.

For convenience, I shall refer to the Fourth Gospel and its author by the conventional name “John,” though I do not think it there are any very good reasons for identifying its anonymous author (known only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”) with the apostle called John in the Synoptics or with the author of the Apocalypse.

The text of John 1 is in purple; everything else is my notes.

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The Prologue

The authority of the Fourth Gospel lies in the fact (or claim, anyway) that the author’s reports of the sayings and doings of Jesus Christ are those of an eyewitness — and of a particularly valuable eyewitness: one who was present when most of the other disciples were not (at the crucifixion, for instance) and who, as one of those who was closest to Jesus (“whom Jesus loved”), would be more likely than others to have understood Jesus and reported his teachings with a minimum of distortion.

The prologue to John, constituting the first 18 verses, is theology presented in the author’s own voice rather than a report of the teachings of Christ. The author’s credentials as an eyewitness are thus not directly relevant to this passage, which should therefore be considered somewhat less authoritative than the rest of the Gospel. It represents the author’s own understanding of who Jesus was and what he was about — and, as I have said, the author likely understood Jesus as well as anybody.

[1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] The same was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

This seems needlessly repetitive. The second verse adds nothing to the first, and the second clause of v. 3 simply rephrases the first clause. I suppose that what we are reading here is poetry, and specifically poetry in the classical Hebrew style (though of course it is written in Greek). The poetic technique of parallelism, where each line is followed by a slight rewording of the same underlying thought, will be familiar to readers of Isaiah and some of the other Hebrew prophets. This suggests to me that the author (no matter how “Greek” he sometimes seems!) was likely an educated, Bible-reading Jew. This is consistent with the Gospel’s internal claim that its author was one of Jesus’ original disciples (i.e., a Jew) and that he “was known unto the high priest” (John 18:16) and thus presumably of the upper class and perhaps a priest himself. It is not terribly consistent with the traditional identification of the author as an illiterate Galilean fisherman.

There is an obvious allusion to the opening of Genesis here — again, implying that the author knew the Hebrew Bible well.

[1] In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. [2] And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. [3] And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. [4] And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:1-4).

The parallels are even clearer if the original Greek is compared with the Greek (Septuagint) version of Genesis. “In the beginning” is the same (ἐν ἀρχῇ) in both passages, and “all things were made by him” (πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο) uses the same Greek verb as “there was light” (ἐγένετο φῶς) — literally, “all things came into being through it/him [the word]” and “light came into being.”

The key word λόγος (“word”) does not occur in the Genesis passage, but the idea that all things came into being through God’s word is clearly there. Light comes into being because God says, “Let there be light,” and the same is true of the other things he creates. This Mosaic idea of creating-by-speaking is perhaps so familiar that we take it for granted, but it’s actually fairly unique. In most creation myths, the gods create either by pro-creating (as in Hesiod) or by physically doing things. It can be instructive to compare Genesis 1 with its most important predecessor, the Babylonian Enûma Eliš, in this regard. For example, in the latter text, Marduk physically slices the sea (Tiamat) in two “like a dried fish”  and stretches half out as the heavens — whereas the corresponding point in Moses’ version of the story has God simply say, “Let there be a firmament, and let it divide the waters from the waters,” and it is so.

What did Moses (and John) mean by having God create through his word? One possible interpretation — presupposing an animistic universe in which even the elements are possessed of some measure of intelligence and free will — is that God is literally commanding the heretofore chaotically arranged particles to assume particular ordered configurations and that they — out of love, or respect for his authority, or the simple tendency of weaker wills to bend to a stronger — obey him. Jesus’ power over nature is described in similar terms in the Synoptic Gospels: “he commandeth even the winds and water, and they obey him” (Luke 8:25). This reading presupposes that creation was preceded by chaos rather than by absolute nothingness and thus runs afoul of what is called “classical” (i.e., Hellenized) theology, but I do not consider that to be any great point against it.

It is also possible to interpret God’s “saying” as thinking rather than commanding. The same Hebrew verb (אָמַר) is used in both “God said, Let there be light” and “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God,” showing that biblical “saying” can refer to internal thought as well as to communication. (The Greek λόγος can of course also refer to thought as well as to its verbal expression.) God thinks the world into being, because thinking in its purest form just is creative.

I find the latter interpretation more likely, at least as far as John is concerned, because of the assertion that “the Word was God.” That God’s thoughts constitute God himself, that God just is his thoughts — surely that is more intelligible than identifying God’s commands to the elements with God himself.

This leads us into the difficult but essential concept of Primary Thinking, as formulated by Bruce Charlton. (Part of my correspondence with Bruce on this topic can be read online here.) I shall take the liberty of quoting myself rather extensively.

If primary thinking is certainly true (not just hypothesis), and if it is free, then it seems to follow that it is literally creative. If it is free, it need not conform itself to the world; but if it is true, then there is nevertheless a correspondence between what is thought and what actually exists. There can be no necessary correspondence without some sort of causal relationship, and if primary thinking is not caused by external facts, then the inescapable conclusion (if, given what I have just said about the freedom of thought, I may be permitted the phrase) is that the causation runs the other way: external facts conform themselves to thoughts. Primary thinking creates the world.

My first thought was to call that a reductio ad absurdum and reject the whole “primary thinking” model, but on second thought I think it has to be accepted. After all, theism requires some such concept in order to make sense of God’s role as creator. We can hardly imagine that God created the world by physically moving matter around with some kind of construction equipment; rather, he created everything by his “word” or logos. And what is possible for God is possible in a general sense — and, if we are his children, possible for us.

[In Mormon doctrine, it is said] that Adam helped create the earth, but that when he entered mortality he forgot that fact. And when Adam fell, the earth fell with him. Did God deliberately wreck his own creation as a way of punishing Adam — or was the world in some way directly dependent on Adam’s thoughts, Adam’s state of mind? The knowledge of evil came first, and the existence of evil followed. And of course Adam, the prototypical man whose name simply means “Man,” represents all of us.

(Is “faith” primary thinking? It, too, is supposed to be both free and true. In the New Testament, faith can make you whole, enable you to walk on water, and cast mountains into the sea — in other words, the external world changes to conform itself to true faith.)

One problem with this idea is that it threatens to destroy the re-ality (“thingishness”) of the world by making it wholly dependent on thought — a hallucination, essentially. Without something that exists independently of our own thoughts there is, it seems, no world. Another problem is the question of how the thoughts of potentially billions of different primary-thinkers interact to create the one world we presumably share — and what it is about God’s thoughts that make them uniquely powerful, making him “the” creator. But I suppose the second problem offers a solution to the first. The reality of the world comes from its being the production of many minds, and not of mine alone.

[. . . ]

I lean toward thinking of the world of raw, meaningless phenomena as being an effect, rather than a precondition, of primary thinking. The “raw” world may be meaningless in the same sense that a hundred different voices speaking simultaneously produce a meaningless cacophony. The unintended interaction of various meaningful primary thoughts may yield a meaningless hodgepodge. Forging this into a harmony (not a unison!) is the work of creation.

If, as I assume above, creative Primary Thinking is something all thinking beings are potentially capable of, and if beings other than God therefore participated in the creation of the world, that suggests a possible interpretation of “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (The word translated as “with” here is πρὸς, which most literally means “toward.”) The creative Word is the combined Primary Thinking of God himself and of all those who think in harmony with him.

*

[4] In him was life; and the life was the light of men. [5] And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Moses’ creation story opens with darkness, and with God’s word creating light; and the newly created light is separated from the darkness, which continues to exist. Likewise, John has the Word produce a light which shines in the darkness without eliminating it or being comprehended (or, as it may also be translated, overpowered, absorbed, or appropriated) by it.

Light as the first creation is an intriguing concept. Light is, literally and metaphorically, what allows us to see (perceive, know) everything else. It illuminates the world and makes it knowable. But when God says, “Let there be light,” there is nothing to illuminate, nothing to see, nothing to know. What light can be shed, in any meaningful sense, on pure chaos, on the primordial tohu wa-bohu? When you turn on the light in a completely featureless space, what do you see? How is it any different for being illuminated? Moses tells us what God saw: simply the light itself. “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” Even after light had been created, it took a separate divine act to divide it from darkness, the difference between the two not being immediately obvious in the absence of anything to illuminate.

Joseph Smith in his Book of Abraham has an interesting variant on Moses’ text: “And they (the Gods) comprehended the light, for it was bright; and they divided the light, or caused it to be divided, from the darkness” — interesting here because its use of the verb comprehend constitutes an implicit reference to John as well as to Genesis. The darkness does not comprehend the light, but the Gods do. (“The Gods” = the Word that was with God, and was God.)

As mentioned in the discussion of Primary Thinking above, in the story of the Fall, Adam comes to know evil while he is still in paradise — that is, before there is any evil for him to know. In much the same way, God creates light by which to see the world before there is any world to see. This is because, at the deepest level, thought gives rise to the world rather than the other way round. To shine a light on chaos — to think about it — is to begin the process of transforming it into a cosmos.

When Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am,” he meant “therefore” in the epistemic sense: the premise “I think” entails the conclusion “I am.” In the Primary Thinking model, though, it is true in the causative sense: I think, and as a result I exist. We each think ourselves into being and collectively think the cosmos into being. Thinking which is both free and true (i.e., Primary Thinking) is by its nature an uncaused cause. As Joseph Smith put it, “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence” (D&C 93:29-30).

What does the first thinker think of, before any objects for thought exist? On what is the light of the first day shed? On itself, and on the implied possibility of that which is not-itself. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:4).

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John identifies the light with life: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” The same connection is made again later in the same Gospel: “I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).

What does it mean to say that the life of God’s Word is the light of men? If life is left out of the equation, “God’s word is the light of men” is clear enough: Men are enlightened by communications from God, by revelation. But John emphasizes what it is about the Word that allows it to serve as a light to men: “In [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men.” It is those who “have the light of life” that “shall not walk in darkness.”

The implication is that those who walk in darkness are lacking in life. Not that they are dead exactly (else how could they walk at all?), but that they are sleepwalking — that they are robots, zombies, on autopilot. Light and life represent consciousness, will, action. Walking in darkness represents habit, automatism, mere happening. Christ, as the supreme example of conscious will, is able to awaken the same in others — to serve as “the light of men.”

But not of all men — of very few, in fact. For the most part, the light shines on the uncomprehending darkness of blind habit. To spiritual sleepwalkers (typified by the Pharisees and Sadducees), trapped in their Plato’s-cave of laws and traditions and what-is-done, Christ is simply incomprehensible. He can be seen only as a disruptive force — as annoying as bright lights generally are to sleepers — that must be neutralized.

*

Serendipity saw to it that just after writing the above notes I read two quite different works: the Shakespeare play Pericles, Prince of Tyre and Frank Herbert’s novel The Godmakers.

In Pericles, Thaisa describes the arms of the various knights who are competing in a tournament for her hand in marriage. The first is a knight from Sparta,

And the device he bears upon his shield
Is a black Ethiop reaching at the sun;
The word: Lux tua vita mihi (2.2.19-21).

The Latin motto, meaning “Thy light is my life” (presumably spoken by the Ethiopian to the sun) is the reverse of John’s “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” — and reminds us that the Johannine version (which would have men saying to the divine Word, “Vita tua lux nobis”) is a somewhat counterintuitive reversal of the more natural metaphor. God’s Word, like the light of the sun, gives us life; “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live” (Deuteronomy 8:3). John’s is not this natural metaphor of a life-giving light, but rather that of a light-giving life.

In Herbert’s novel I read the following.

Life, as we understand it, represents a bridge between Order and Chaos. We define Chaos as raw energy, untamed, available to anything that can subdue it and bring it into some form of Order. In this sense, Life becomes stored Chaos. [. . .] To restate the situation, Life feeds on Chaos, but must exist within Order. Chaos represents a background against which Life knows itself (p. 138-139).

This fits very nicely with the role of the Word, characterized by life, in the creation of the cosmos from chaos — and with the continued existence of darkness/chaos even after creation.

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[6] There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. [7] The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

John’s role is “to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.” The implication is that John’s endorsement would lead people to believe in Christ who might not otherwise have believed.  The Synoptics tell us that “all men” (excepting the chief priests, scribes, and elders) regarded John as a prophet, so when John said something people would have sat up and taken notice. Still, it’s a little unclear why this should have been necessary.  John clearly came from outside the established religious hierarchy, and indeed was rejected by that hierarchy, so whatever authority he had in the eyes of the people would have been charismatic in nature. But precisely the same was true of Jesus himself. It scarcely seems that those who would have rejected Christ himself without John’s endorsement would have been inclined to believe in John in the first place. In fact, Christ’s self-validating charismatic authority must surely have been stronger than John’s. The whole idea that someone needs to “bear witness” to a light “that lighteneth every man” is a strange one. If the sun is shining, you scarcely need someone to point it out to you; if you can’t see the sun itself, what can you see?

Perhaps John’s witness was important and effective because his message was less revolutionary than Jesus’, representing less of a break with Judaism as his contemporaries knew it. This is speculation, since the Fourth Gospel gives little indication of the content of John’s preaching (apart from his endorsement of Jesus), but it is generally held that he was more-or-less a prophet in the Old Testament mold. He was apparently unorthodox enough to be unacceptable to the chief priests and elders, yet still conventional enough to be universally accepted by the people as a whole. Fewer people would have been able to hear and accept Jesus without accepting John as an intermediary step.

This passage also introduces what will become a persistent theme in this gospel: the idea that what Christ wants above all is for people to believe in him — an idea which has since been rendered familiar by Christianity but is nevertheless rather strange. Naturally, anyone with a message to deliver wants people to believe that message, so that they may act accordingly, but in the Fourth Gospel belief itself often seems to be the whole point. “What shall we do,” Jesus is later asked, “that we may work the works of God?” His answer: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:28-29).

Forms of the word believe occur (in the King James Version) 11 times in Matthew, 17 times in Mark, and 11 times in Luke — but 102 times in John. No other book in the Bible reaches even half that figure. In fact, the Fourth Gospel accounts for nearly one-third of all occurrences of believe in the entire Bible.

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[8] He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

The author apparently thinks his readers might have thought that John the Baptist was himself the Light of God’s Word, suggesting that he is writing for disciples of John. (However, elsewhere in the Gospel he seems to assume that his readers have little familiarity with Judaism, since he feels the need to supply glosses for such basic terms as rabbi and Messiah.)

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[9] That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

There’s some syntactic ambiguity here in the Greek. In the King James reading, the relative clause “that cometh into the world” clearly modifies “man,” but the majority of modern translations (qv) read it as modifying “Light.” A typical example is the New Revised Standard Version: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” However, several versions do follow the KJV interpretation, or at least mention it in footnotes, so I gather that both are defensible readings of the Greek.

The difference makes a difference. In the KJV reading, every man that comes into the world — including, implicitly, those who lived and died before the coming of Christ — is enlightened by the true Light. (This reading has been codified in Mormon doctrine, where the “light of Christ” essentially refers to each person’s conscience or intuition, considered as a universal gift originating in Christ.) In the NRSV reading, something new is coming into the world, presumably to enlighten those who had not theretofore been so enlightened. All in all, I lean toward the latter reading.

*

[10] He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. [11] He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

I’m not sure whether to read “his own” broadly or narrowly here. The immediate context suggests that “coming unto his own” means coming into the world he himself had created, among human beings, God’s children, his spiritual conspecifics. The narrower, and more traditional, reading is that he came specifically to the Jews — who, this reading implies, were “his own” people in a special sense even prior to his incarnation as one of them.

My uncertainty as to how to read John here reflects an underlying uncertainty regarding the purported uniqueness of the Hebrews. Did Christ choose to incarnate among them because they, alone among all the peoples of the earth, had the one true religion and worshiped the one true God? Certainly he was seen by his followers as being the Jewish Messiah, the successor to Moses and the prophets, and the son of Judaism’s one true God. On the other hand, there seems to be little in Christ’s message that was specifically Jewish. He deemphasized — and often deliberately broke — the Law of Moses which is at the heart of that religion, and his claim to be God’s fully divine Son is hardly consistent with Mosaic monotheism. Nor, except in a vague metaphorical sense, did he do what the Messiah was expected to do. Paul would later say that the Law of Moses “was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” — but as Christianity spread among the gentiles, and indeed became much more successful among them than it ever had been among the Jews, it became clear that other schoolmasters, most notably Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, could do that job just as well.

While we should obviously assume that Christ chose the most suitable time, place, and religious milieu in which to incarnate, I tend toward the view that Judaism, while quantitatively the most suitable foundation on which to build Christianity, was not absolutely superior to other schools of religion and philosophy — was not the “one true religion” until Christ retroactively made it so. In its standard Chinese translation, the Fourth Gospel begins with “In the beginning was the Tao” and refers to God as Shangdi. I suspect that Christ could have incarnated in China, incorporated the local religious vocabulary and concepts, quoted that country’s inspired writers instead of the Hebrew prophets, and established Christianity without the benefit of the Old Testament. The Chinese would then in retrospect seem to have had the one true religion all along. Of course I cannot be sure to what extent what I have just written is true, but I do think we tend to overestimate the essential Jewishness of Christ and his message.

If “his own” does mean the Jews, then the author is implicitly saying that Christ’s message was received primarily by the gentiles rather than the Jews, which implies he is writing at a late enough date to have observed that happen.

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[12] But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

Jesus is not — or at least may not always be — the only son of God. Those who receive him have the power to become the sons of God as well. It also implies that one is not born a son of God but becomes one — which presumably applies to Jesus himself as much as to those who receive him. The Fourth Gospel has no story of a virgin birth, and Jesus is twice referred to as the “son of Joseph” without anything corresponding to the parenthetical “as was supposed” added by Luke (3:23).

I have already mentioned the Fourth Gospel’s emphasis on believing. Believing on Jesus’ name is an even more characteristically Johannine concept, occurring three times in the Fourth Gospel, three times in the First Epistle of John, and nowhere else in the entire Bible. What exactly does it mean? The fact that the actual name “Jesus” is not even mentioned in this passage suggests that John is not literally proposing some Hare-Krishna-style focus on the name itself. Is it just a figure of speech, with “his name” simply meaning “him”? If so, it perhaps serves to emphasize that, for the Fourth Gospel, believing in Jesus as a person is more important than assenting to any particular doctrinal propositions that he taught.

Another possibility is that name is being used in the sense of “reputation” — the point being that even those who never met Jesus in person can still believe in him through secondhand reports (such as the Gospel itself) and thereby become sons of God. The Gospel itself states that it was “written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:31).

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[13] Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

I suppose that being “born . . . of blood” signifies ordinary biological procreation and heredity (as we speak of bloodlines, blood relatives, etc.). The sons of God are not his literal biological sons (obviously, else how could those who receive Christ become sons of God?). The “will of the flesh” presumably refers to sexual desire and is thus making the same point: that the sonship in question has nothing to do with sexual reproduction. The “will of man” could be synonymous with the “will of the flesh,” or it could mean that divine sonship is not something that can be achieved deliberately, by making an effort.

The expression translated “born . . . of God” is “ἐκ Θεοῦ ἐγεννήθησαν.” Thayer’s lexicon says that this verb is properly used “of men begetting children . . . followed by ἐκ with the genitive of the mother” — but John has ἐκ with the genitive of “God”; in other words, the Greek does literally say “born of God,” as if God were the mother, not “begotten by God” as father. This usage is, according to Thayer, peculiar to the Gospel and First Epistle of John and not to be found elsewhere.

(Already the textual evidence seems quite strong that the First Epistle of John was indeed written by the same author as the Gospel.)

*

[14] And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

If, as I have proposed above, the Word indicated “the combined Primary Thinking of God himself and of all those who think in harmony with him,” then presumably what is meant by Jesus’ being “the Word made flesh” is that his thoughts were entirely in harmony with those of God and thus embodied the creative Word.

The use of “only begotten” here (rather than, say “firstborn”) seems to imply, contra v. 12, that Jesus is unique in his divine sonship. On the other hand, it does say that his glory was as that of the only begotten, not that he actually was the only begotten.

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[15] John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.

“He was before me” implies that, while Jesus “was in the beginning with God,” John the Baptist was not — contradicting my assumption that all thinking beings are coeternal with God. Or perhaps he means something else. After all, merely being older than John hardly seems sufficient grounds for being preferred before him.

*

[16] And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.

This is no longer John the Baptist speaking, but the author.

“Of his fulness” means “from his fullness.” We have not received his fullness, but what we have received comes from that fullness.

“Grace for grace” (χάριν ἀντί χάριτος) is probably meant in the sense of “grace taking the place of grace” — i.e., one grace succeeding upon another, one grace after another.

Does “all we” mean “all we Christians” or “all we human beings”? I assume the latter, and that this is a reference to the “light that lighteneth every man”

*

[17] For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

Finally Jesus Christ is mentioned by name.

We have already been told that Christ was “full of grace and truth.” Here the author adds (or very strongly implies) that neither grace nor truth were provided by Moses or the Mosaic law.

“Grace” (χάρις), according to Thayer, is “properly, that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness”; and secondarily “good-will, loving-kindness, favor,” particularly “kindness which bestows upon one what he has not deserved.” That grace, in the sense of undeserved favor, came not through the law is a commonplace. If God’s favor is dependent upon obedience to law — if he bestows it on those who follow his checklist of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots and withholds it from those who do not — then it is not grace in the fullest sense. (Nor, I might add, pace the Psalmist, is it easy to imagine the harsh and persnickety law of Moses having been a source of “joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness.”) All this is so familiar as to be almost trite.

It is a bit more surprising to see it implied that Moses did not even give the people truth — that (what else can it mean?) the Torah is not true! Obviously this can be understood in several different ways, and just as obviously it does not amount to a complete rejection of Moses and his message, which Jesus appears to endorse elsewhere in the Gospel: “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?” (John 5:46-47). The Mosaic writings are here presented as fit objects of belief — as, in a word, true. So truth did come by Moses. We must assume, then, that while Moses brought some truth, a partial truth, Jesus brought more truth, the full truth. But what additional truth did he bring? As I recall from past readings of John (and I may later modify this impression as I continue this project of going through it with a fine-tooth comb), the Johannine Jesus is not much of a propounder of truths and indeed scarcely seems to preach any doctrine at all, beyond his own identity and the importance of love.

My own understanding is that Mosaic “truth” was limited by its character as a set of laws — that is, generalizations derived by abstraction and implemented by ignoring most of the specific details of any given situation. Laws as such can only aspire to be rough approximations of the truth, which is ultimately individual, specific, personal. Christ — at least the Johannine Christ — brought both grace and truth by transcending law. The Christ of the Synoptics added lots of new laws (“Ye have heard it said, thou shalt not do such-and-such, but I say unto you, thou shalt not do lots of other things as well”), but there is nothing corresponding to this in John.

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In what certainly seems like an ironical commentary by the synchronicity fairies, just minutes after writing the above paragraph about Christ transcending law, I happened to read the following passage.

For the wise man, there are no such things as laws. Since all laws are subject to errors or exceptions, it is for the wise man to judge for himself whether he shall obey them or break them.

The irony is that I read it in Colin Wilson’s Criminal History of Mankind, and it is a quotation from a letter written from death row by the 19th-century French murderer known as Prado. Wilson adds, “His comments about the ‘wise man’ make him sound like a criminal Marcus Aurelius; we have to remind ourselves that he is in court merely for slitting the throat of a prostitute.”

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[18] No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

This is a surprisingly categorical statement, given that the Old Testament mentions several people having seen God. It is doubly surprising given that John has identified Jesus (who was seen by innumerable people) as the incarnate Word, which is God, and identified him as God again in this very verse. (The original Greek has μονογενὴς Θεὸς, “the only begotten God.”) But John does not even say that God has been seen in the person of his fully divine Son; only that the Son hath declared him.

Moses is not mentioned by name in this verse, but he is the most obvious counterexample of someone who is said to have seen God, and perhaps this verse should be seen as a continuation of the Moses-Jesus contrast begun in v. 17. Moses brought the law, but Jesus brought grace and truth; Moses “saw God” (but didn’t really see him, since no one has), but Jesus explained God.

Here’s what I think this means. God as such cannot be seen even in principle, because divinity has nothing whatever to do with being a physical object that produces or reflects light. Even those who saw Jesus Christ face to face saw just that: his face, and other parts of his physical body. That is, they may have seen directly that he was a man, but they could not have seen, in the same direct sense, that he was God. That in him which made him God could not be seen. Even those who saw him work miracles saw only that: a man with paranormal powers, which is not at all the same thing as God.

The same goes for God the Father, even if we assume (as Mormons do) that he has a physical body which can be, and has been, seen. To see a body, no matter whose, is not to see God. To see one sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, his train filling the temple and six-winged seraphim flying above him crying “Holy, holy, holy” is not to see God. No conceivable sort of empirical observation could ever, even in principle, amount to an observation of God qua God. The kingdom of God cometh not with observation, and the same can be said of God himself.

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John’s ministry before meeting Christ

[19] And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? [20] And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.

Levites were assistant priests, descended from Levi but not from Aaron. (Moses and Aaron were descendants of Levi.)

When John is asked “Who art thou?” he apparently takes it to mean “Are you the Messiah?” The author also wants to make it clear that John was not a false Messiah — that, in fact, he never even claimed to be the Messiah. Clearly there was widespread speculation that John was the Messiah.

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[21] And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.

Matthew 11:14 has Jesus say that John the Baptist is Elias. To harmonize these conflicting statements, I’ve seen it proposed that John was the reincarnation of Elijah but did not know it, so that he answered the question honestly but not correctly — the idea being that, after all, most people have little or no memory of any past lives they may have lived. Elijah is a bit of a special case, though, since he ascended to heaven bodily instead of dying; his return would thus not have been a reincarnation in the usual sense and would presumably not be accompanied by a loss of memory. Other possibilities are that John was Elijah only metaphorically, or that (as so often) Matthew’s report is unreliable.

I assume that “that prophet” refers to the prophet like unto Moses, whose coming is prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15.  Christians later came to believe that Jesus was both the Messiah and the Prophet (and the Son of Man to boot), but his contemporaries assumed these would be separate figures.

The fact that John’s questioners were unsure as to which of these prophesied figures (Messiah, Elijah, Prophet) he was supposed to be suggests that the evangelist is correct in saying that John never claimed to be any of them. People, then, must have just assumed that John was Something Big on the strength of his personal charisma, air of authority, etc.

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[22] Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? [23] He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.

The quotation is from Isaiah 40.

[3] The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. [4] Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: [5] And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

Based on the normal patterns of Hebrew poetic parallelism, I think John (and the KJV translators) have parsed Isaiah incorrectly. It should be “The voice of him that crieth, In the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The wilderness is where the way is to be prepared, not where the voice is crying. Perhaps the Hebrew is legitimately ambiguous and John’s reading is possible (I don’t know enough Hebrew grammar to pass judgment on that), but it is surely not the reading Isaiah intended.

John the Baptist, unlike the author of this Gospel, is not an educated, Bible-reading Jew. He is misquoting from memory something he has heard read aloud in the synagogue.

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The Fourth Gospel does not focus on the supposed fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies to the extent that some of the others (most notably Matthew) do, but there are still a few passages like this, forcing us to deal  with the question of how to understand the relationship between Old Testament writings and New Testament events.

At the one extreme is the idea that OT prophets consciously foresaw many specific details surrounding the ministry of Jesus Christ and recorded that precognitive information in their writings — that, for example, Isaiah knew that God would come in the person of Jesus Christ, knew all about John the Baptist and the role he would play in paving the way for Jesus, and had John specifically in mind when he wrote the verses quoted above. I find this very unlikely. Although of course I can’t prove that it’s not true, it’s certainly not the impression I get when I read Isaiah.

An intermediate possibility is that precognitive information about John did play a role in Isaiah’s writings, but that Isaiah did not consciously know that. This is how I would tend to interpret some of Nostradamus’s more impressive prophecies, such as that of the death of Henry II. I don’t think he saw the future clearly and then deliberately scrambled the message by dressing it up in cryptic verses; I think he wrote in a trance state, in which he more or less unconsciously “picked up” free-floating words and images without understanding their meaning or context in any detail. This would be more or less the sort of garbled, not-consciously-understood precognition seen in the experiments of J. W. Dunne. If Isaiah also prophesied in a trance state (as we know prophets in Saul’s time did), it would be surprising if this sort of thing (I think of it as the “Edgar Cayce effect”) did not happen.

At the other extreme, we could assume that Isaiah’s writings have nothing specifically to do with Jesus or John, but that John quoted lines which just happened to fit him and his situation — just as we might quote the Bible or Shakespeare or Monty Python apropos of our own situations, with no idea of implying that what we are quoting was written with us in mind. In this particular case, I find that quite plausible. John doesn’t say anything like “I am he of whom Isaiah spake . . . .” He just quotes Isaiah (loosely) and cites his source. In just the same way, I might say, “I’m the kind of guy who reads poetry for the grammar, as one of Iris Murdoch’s characters puts it” — obviously not meaning to suggest that I was the intended subject of the Murdoch quip.

Less charitably, we could assume that Isaiah never wrote about John, but that John (delusionally) thought he had, in much the same way that Charles Manson thought all the Beatles’ lyrics were about him. I don’t see any reason to interpret this passage in that way, though.

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[24] And they which were sent were of the Pharisees. [25] And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet? [26] John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; [27] He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.

The author has not mentioned until now that John was baptizing people. Obviously he takes it for granted that his readers pretty much know who John was and what he was doing. Also omitted, though obviously implied in what comes later (and by “I baptize with water“), is John’s statement that the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Ghost.

It’s not clear why they associated baptizing with prophesied figures such as the Messiah, Elijah, and the Prophet. I can’t think of any Old Testament prophecy that makes such a connection. Then again, they were Pharisees and as such believed in the “oral Torah” of tradition as well as the Bible proper.

John doesn’t answer the question “Why baptizest thou?” but the answer he does give implies that his questioners are right to associate baptism with the Messiah or some similar figure. In essence, he says, “Yes, you’re right that real baptism is the prerogative of the Messiah. My baptism in mere water is just a prelude to the real thing.”

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Update: Googling “Why did the Pharisees think the Messiah would baptize?” led me to a post by one James Duncan, a Presbyterian Sunday school teacher,  called “What the Pharisees taught me about baptism.” He finds several references to sprinkling in various Old Testament passages generally understood to be Messianic prophecies. These apparently slipped under my radar because of my unexamined assumption that biblical baptism was by immersion (that being the normal meaning of the Greek word). The following references are all from Mr. Duncan.

We are told of Isaiah’s suffering servant (often identified with the Messiah), “So shall he sprinkle many nations” (Isaiah 52:15).

A passage in Ezekiel 36 is perhaps especially relevant because it provides a possible connection between water baptism (or sprinkling, anyway) and the Holy Ghost.

[25] Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. [26] A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. [27] And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.

The “I” in the Ezekiel passage is the Lord himself, so putting the Christian perspective aside, I’m not sure the Pharisees would have read it as a prophecy of the Messiah (whom they understood to be a human king, not the Lord incarnate).

As for the Elijah connection, in Malachi 3:1-3 we are told that the Lord’s messenger (later, in Malachi 4:5, identified as Elijah) “shall purify the sons of Levi.” In Numbers 8, the rite for purifying the sons of Levi is described.

[5] And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them. [7] And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purifying upon them . . .

Interestingly, the Gospel has priests and Levites (priests being a subset of Levites) coming to ask John who he is. Perhaps the implied thrust of their questions was, “Are you the one coming to purify us Levites? Do we need to be sprinkled by you?”

The one who originally purified the sons of Levi was Moses himself — so here we have biblical links between baptism-by-sprinkling and all three of the figures the Pharisees asked about: the Messiah, Elijah, and (the Prophet like unto) Moses. Pretty impressive! Almost thou persuadest me that John was a Sprinkler rather than a Baptist properly so called.

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[28] These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Some manuscripts of this Gospel have John baptizing in Bethany instead of Bethabara. If “Bethany” is the correct reading, it would have to be a different place from the Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived. The Bethany of Lazarus was about two miles from Jerusalem (John 11:18), but John was baptizing “beyond” (i.e., east of) the Jordan.

Again we have some attachment ambiguity here, at least in English. I have read “where John was baptizing” as modifying “Bethabara/Bethany beyond Jordan,” but it could also be read as modifying “Jordan” alone.

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John identifies the Lamb of God

[29] The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

This Gospel does not mention the actual event of Jesus’ baptism by John (again, he obviously assumed his readers knew the story), so it is not clear whether John said this before or after Jesus’ baptism. “John seeth Jesus coming unto him” suggests that this is Jesus coming to be baptized, and that John identified him as the Lamb of God before he was baptized and before he saw the Spirit descending on him like a dove. In that case, the baptism presumably takes place between verses 31 and 32.

The other possibility is that Jesus’ baptism took place before v. 29, and that it was the sign of the dove that convinced John that Jesus was the Lamb of God.

This verse is the first indication in the Fourth Gospel that Jesus’ role is analogous to that of a sacrificial animal slaughtered for the expiation of sins. According to the regulations laid out in Leviticus 4 for sin offerings (presumably what is being alluded to), a bullock is offered if a priest or the whole congregation has sinned; a male kid if the ruler has sinner; and a female kid or lamb if a commoner has sinned. In no case is a male lamb offered as a sin offering, and even a female lamb seems to be a sort of second option if a kid is not available. Why then did John choose a lamb? Why did he not call Jesus the Bullock of God (the closest fit for taking away the sins of the world) or the Kid of God?

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[30] This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. [31] And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.

“I knew him not” seems to contradict the Lukan story that Jesus and John were first cousins and that John recognized Jesus and leaped for joy while they were both still in the womb!

It’s interesting that John says the whole purpose of his baptizing was to identify the Messiah. I wonder if he stopped baptizing after finding Jesus.

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[32] And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. [33] And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. [34] And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.

Bruce Charlton has this interpretation:

John the Baptist is saying that before he met Jesus he was ‘merely’ baptising with water – so during baptism the spirit would descend and touch – then leave the baptised person; which only affected this life: the spirit affected them but did not make them divine. But when John baptised Jesus, the spirit abode on him, that is – Jesus became divine. John cannot make anyone divine, but Jesus can.

Because Jesus is now divine, he can ‘baptise’ Men with the Holy Ghost – can make Men divine. But we are told elsewhere in this Gospel that Jesus did not literally baptise anyone (by immersion in water, only his disciples did this), so the implication is that when Jesus ‘baptises’ it means something not-literal. What it means is that Jesus transforms us to become divine by our own death and resurrection (born again); as Jesus was thus transformed at the baptism by John.

The suggestion is that Jesus became fully divine at his baptism, when the Spirit of God entered him permanently. In the Synoptic version, the descent of the Spirit is accompanied by a voice from heaven saying “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). This seems to me to echo Psalm 2:7: “the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee” (i.e., you were not my Son in the full sense before), and indeed this line is quoted elsewhere in the New Testament, in Acts and Hebrews, and applied to Jesus.

The idea that Jesus was not born the fully divine Son of God, but became such at his baptism, can also be found in the Mormon scriptures, in Section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

[12] And I, John [the Baptist], saw that he [Jesus] received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; [13] And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; [14] And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first.

[15] And I, John, bear record, and lo, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove, and sat upon him, and there came a voice out of heaven saying: This is my beloved Son. [16] And I, John, bear record that he received a fulness of the glory of the Father; [17] And he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him.

I find this interpretation compelling, at least within the context of the Fourth Gospel. Matthew and Luke have (two completely different) nativity stories in which Jesus is the Son of God in something like the literal sense, having been born without a mortal father, but John has nothing like that. Instead it introduces John the Baptist almost immediately and implies by juxtaposition that he had an important role in the process of the Word becoming flesh.

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Why is the Spirit represented as, or compared to, a dove? I mentioned in my post on the Rider-Waite Magician that it is probably an antitype of two different biblical scenes: that of the spirit of God hovering over the primordial waters of Tiamat at the beginning of the Creation, and that of the dove of Noah flying out over the Flood waters and finally, after failing a few times and having to return to the ark, finding a place to land (just as, in Bruce’s interpretation, the Spirit descended from heaven and returned again several times before finally coming to rest on Jesus). The Flood was a symbolic baptism of the earth (a metaphor which works regardless of the mode of baptism, since a flood caused by rainfall involves both sprinkling and immersion). If, as discussed above, Jesus’ baptism was the moment when the Word became flesh, when the true light that lighteth every man came into the world, that moment is also typified by the opening of the Genesis story: the spirit of God hovering over the water, and then, “Let there be light.”

(As a side note, Noah’s dove is preceded by a raven — the bird of Elijah. Coincidence?)

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When John says, “he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me . . . ,” I wonder if he is describing a direct communication from God himself, or John had some human master or teacher out in the desert, lost to history, who gave him these instructions.

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John’s disciples follow Jesus

[35] Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; [36] And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! [37] And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. [38] Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou? [39] He saith unto them, Come and see. They came and saw where he dwelt, and abode with him that day: for it was about the tenth hour. [40] One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.

Only one of these two disciples, Andrew, is named, inviting the inference that the other, the anonymous one, is none other than our anonymous author.

Apparently “they followed Jesus” is meant entirely literally here — not that they became his followers or disciples, but that they actually started following him, shadowing him, apparently hoping to find out where he lived. Some time later he turned around, noticed them, and asked them what they wanted.

This strikes me as very strange behavior on the part of the two disciples. Why would they just start following him silently, rather than approaching him and speaking to him? To me, this only makes sense if Jesus was not alone, but was already surrounded by a sizable group of followers, such that unobtrusively falling in with the group would have been easier than approaching him directly. They presumably had no prior knowledge of Jesus and yet called him rabbi (“teacher”), again suggesting that he already had a group of students. If Andrew and his fellow disciple were not Jesus’ first followers, why are they the first mentioned? Perhaps because the author would have had only limited information about Jesus’ circle before he himself had joined it.

Against these inferences is that fact that this all seems to take place just one day after the baptism that marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry — scarcely enough time to have acquired many disciples, I would have thought!

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[41] He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. [42] And he brought him to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.

I don’t know why the King James translators call Simon’s father Jona. In Greek it is precisely the same name that is translated as “John” when it refers to the Baptist (compare “ὁ υἱὸς Ἰωάννου,” KJV “the son of Jona,” and “ἡ μαρτυρία τοῦ Ἰωάννου,” KJV “the record of John”).

Cephas is Aramaic (כֵּיפָא, with the Greek -s ending added, as in Messias); and Πέτρος (translated as “a stone” here and as “Peter” hereafter) is Greek, both refering to a rock. Reference works seem to be divided on the question of whether the Greek refers most properly to a small stone or a large one, with suggested translations ranging from “pebble” to “boulder,” but they are more or less agreed that it refers to a rock — an isolated piece of stone — rather than the rock face of a cliff or mountain. As for the significance of the nickname, Thayer says it is “used metaphorically of a soul hard and unyielding, and so resembling a rock” and cites Sophocles and Euripides in his support.

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The calling of Philip and Nathanael

[43] The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me. [44] Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.

Bethsaida is on the Sea of Galilee, very far from the area where John was baptizing. Andrew had traveled quite some distance to follow his master. Apparently Andrew went and found Peter while they were still in the Bethabara area, before Jesus went to Galilee, so we might infer that Peter had also been a disciple of John.

Perhaps the same is true of Philip. When it says “Jesus would [i.e., wanted to] go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me,” I think the most natural reading is that Jesus found Philip while they were still in the Bethabara area, and Jesus said something like, “We’re going back to Galilee. Want to come with us?”

Simon (Simeon) is a Hebrew name, but Andrew and Philip are both Greek. Galilee was only partly Jewish — cf. “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15). It’s a bit surprising that even in one family, one brother would have a Hebrew name and another a Greek one. It suggests a level of cultural mixing almost comparable to that of modern America.

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[45] Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

It’s not clear if he found Nathanael in Judaea, or in Galilee after they went back. (We read in John 21:2 that Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine.)

Philip is here identifying Jesus as both the Prophet whose coming was predicted in the Torah (in Deuteronomy) and the Messiah written of in the prophetic books.

Jesus is described, even by someone who believes he is the Messiah, as the son of Joseph — with no suggestion of a virgin birth.

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[46] And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.

Did Nazareth have such a bad reputation? Or does Nathanael just mean that there are no prophecies about the Messiah or the Prophet coming from Nazareth. Matthew claims that it “was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23), but it’s hard to imagine which prophecy he has in mind.

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[47] Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! [48] Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. [49] Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. [50] Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.

This whole episode is pretty obscure! Why on earth would he accept Jesus as the Messiah on the strength of his having seen him under a fig tree? There must be some untold story behind this; something must have happened under that fig tree which only Nathanael and God could have known about — perhaps something related to his being “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.” (Did people still call themselves Israelites in Jesus’ time? The term strikes me as an archaism even the first century. Weren’t they all Samaritans and Jews by then?)

Why would John have recorded this story, then, if only Nathanael himself could understand its meaning? Perhaps something has been lost from the text.

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[51] And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

“The angels of God ascending and descending” certainly sounds like a reference to Jacob’s dream — “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12) — with the Son of man playing the role of the ladder.

Could this possibly be related to “an Israelite indeed” (i.e., a true descendant of Jacob) “in whom is no guile”? Jacob was notorious for his guile.

After Jacob awoke from his dream, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Genesis 28:16). The angels of God had been there all along, but he had been unaware of it until his dream opened heaven to him. Perhaps Nathanael is being promised that he, too, will be enabled to see what was there all along. Is it because of his guilelessness? (Jacob could only see the angels when his habitual guile had been silenced by sleep.) Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

 

Did Lazarus write the Fourth Gospel?

Readers of Bruce Charlton’s Notions (and I think my readers are pretty much a subset of his) will be familiar with his rather unorthodox beliefs about some of the key figures in the Fourth Gospel (“John”). Briefly, Bruce maintains that the unnamed “beloved disciple” who wrote the Fourth Gospel is Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raised from the dead, and that Lazarus’s sister Mary of Bethany is the same person as Mary Magdalene. He also believes that this Mary was Jesus’ wife, and that the marriage at Cana (at which Jesus turned water into wine) was in fact Jesus and Mary’s own wedding. Later they had a second, “mystical,” wedding, and Mary’s anointing of Jesus with spikenard ointment was part of this second ceremony. All the details are available in Bruce’s online mini-book Lazarus Writes.

In this post I will outline some of the textual evidence for and against Bruce’s theory. Of course Bruce himself would be the first to admit that he cannot prove his ideas, that it is rather a matter of making assumptions. My purpose in examining the evidence is to determine how plausible an assumption it is, and, supposing it is made, what special problems it raises that have to be dealt with.

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Lazarus as the beloved disciple

The first thing to establish is that Lazarus and the beloved disciple have never been seen in the same room together, so to speak, and could therefore conceivably be the same person. And as a matter of fact, we find Lazarus mentioned only in Chapters 11 and 12, while the beloved disciple appears in Chapters 13, 19, 20, and 21. In other words, the beloved disciple appears in the narrative only after Lazarus has been raised from the dead and the chief priests have begun plotting to put him to death. So far, so plausible.

Another point in favor of identifying Lazarus as the beloved disciple is that the Gospel makes a point of saying that Lazarus was particularly beloved of the Lord. When Lazarus falls ill, his sisters inform Jesus that “he whom thou lovest is sick” (John 11:3), and the Evangelist adds, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus” (John 11:5). When Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus, the Jews say, “Behold how he loved him!” (John 11:36). Aside from Lazarus and his two sisters (and, of course, the anonymous beloved disciple), no other individual is singled out by the Gospels as being specially beloved of Jesus.

If the beloved disciple is Lazarus, light is also shed on the ending of the Fourth Gospel (John 21:19-23). Jesus has just spoken to Peter about his (Peter’s) future death.

This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.

Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?

Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?

Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.

Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?

If the beloved disciple had already died once and been restored to life, it makes perfect sense that Peter would ask what was going to happen to him. Would he die a second time, this time permanently? Would he live forever? Jesus’ answer (“If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”) implies that the possibility of the beloved disciple’s living forever was something that had already occurred to Peter — which, again, makes sense if the beloved disciple was already known to be someone whose status with regard to death was unique and therefore uncertain. I find this point very convincing.

Bruce interprets the “Follow me” in this passage as meaning not “Be my disciple” (which Peter already was) but “Follow me through death into life eternal.” This makes sense coming right after the reference to Peter’s death, and it makes sense that Peter would reply with “And what shall this man do?” (Will he follow you through death as well?)

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the disciple’s tarrying “till I come” — i.e., till the second coming of Christ — was interpreted as meaning that he would not die. This implies that even at this early date it was understood that the second coming was a long way off in the future, so long that no ordinary mortal could be expected to live to see it. If a prophet I trusted told me that I would live to see the second coming, I would naturally interpret it to mean that the second coming would be relatively soon, within my natural lifetime. That Peter and the other disciples did not so interpret Christ’s comment implies that they clearly understood that they did not live in the “last days.” This contradicts the Synoptic Gospels and the epistles of Paul, where early Christians (and sometimes Jesus himself) are portrayed as thinking of their own time as the last days and expecting Christ to return very soon. This is, in my judgment, a point against the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel and for the view of mainstream “scholars” that it is a late and unreliable work. It’s easy to imagine that early Christians originally expected Christ to return very soon and then, when he didn’t, revised their expectations and placed the second coming in the distant future, and that the author of the Fourth Gospel retroactively (and either ignorantly or dishonestly) attributed this revised expectation to Peter and the other original disciples. It’s much less plausible that the original disciples knew the second coming was a long way off but that this view was very quickly replaced with the expectation that he would return almost immediately.

Assuming the validity of the Fourth Gospel, one possible explanation is that Christ’s comment about the beloved disciple was itself what gave rise to the idea that the second coming would be soon. As the story was told and retold, the fact that it had to do with the resurrected Lazarus was forgotten, and it became a general rumor to the effect that “Jesus told some of his disciples that they would live to see him come again.” It would then be these rumors that made their way into the Synoptics in the form of Jesus’ alleged statement, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1; see also Matthew 16:28, Luke 9:27).

The main argument against Lazarus being the beloved disciple is that the Fourth Gospel seems to make a point of never mentioning the beloved disciple by name, but Lazarus is mentioned by name. In fact Lazarus, like the beloved disciple, is mentioned only in the Fourth Gospel. What we would more naturally expect would be that the beloved disciple would never be mentioned by name in his own gospel but might appear as a prominent disciple in the other gospels. The mainstream view that the beloved disciple is John the son of Zebedee fits this expectation. John and his brother James appear in the Synoptics as part of Jesus’ inner circle, but neither is mentioned by name in the Fourth Gospel (though there is one reference to unnamed “sons of Zebedee,” in John 21:2). James was executed by Herod Agrippa around AD 44, too early for him to have written the Fourth Gospel; therefore (so the conventional reasoning goes) the beloved disciple must be John.

The theory that John is the beloved disciple will be discussed in due course. Here I am concerned only with the expectation that something like that must be true — that the beloved disciple should be a prominent disciple of Jesus who (presumably out of modesty) is not mentioned by name in his own gospel. Supposing the beloved disciple is indeed Lazarus, is there any reason why he should be openly referred to by name in Chapters 11-12 and then suddenly become an anonymous “beloved disciple” thereafter? We know that after Lazarus was raised from the dead, “the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus” (John 12:10-11), so perhaps he had to go incognito after his resurrection for his own protection. We know that Jesus was not immediately recognizable after his resurrection, not even by his own disciples, so we can infer that Lazarus, too, looked somehow different after being raised from the dead. No disguise would have been necessary, nor would he have had to go into hiding. He simply stopped using the name Lazarus, and his true identity became a carefully guarded secret known only to Jesus’ inner circle.

If Lazarus is the beloved disciple — presented in the Fourth Gospel as Jesus’ closest friend and one of his most important disciples — why is he not mentioned at all outside that gospel? The epistles know nothing of him, and neither do the Synoptic Gospels. (Mary and Martha appear in Luke 10, but their brother is not mentioned.) It seems incredible that so central a figure could be completely omitted from the gospel narrative, and thus attempts have been made to solve this problem by identifying the beloved disciple with John the son of Zebedee.

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John as the beloved disciple

There are no very strong reasons for identifying the beloved disciple as John. It is assumed that he must be one of the Twelve, since he was present at the Last Supper, and John seems the most likely choice.

The biggest problem with the John identification is that John in the Synoptics is virtually inseparable from his elder brother James. (Someone has even made the case that the author of Mark patterned these two “Sons of Thunder” after Castor and Pollux!) Except for two passages in Luke (9:49 and 22:8), he is never mentioned without his brother. There is no indication in the Fourth Gospel that the beloved disciple even has a brother.

Could the beloved disciple be both Lazarus and John — having perhaps changed his name after his resurrection, for security reasons or because he was a “new man”? This seems highly unlikely, mainly because John worked as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, while Lazarus lived in Bethany.

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A map showing how far Bethany is from the Sea of Galilee (and from Magdala, as will be discussed below)

As the map above shows, Bethany is located just outside Jerusalem, a long way from the Sea of Galilee. The nearest body of water is the Dead Sea — so called because it has no fish or any other macroscopic life in it. It just doesn’t make any sense for a fisherman to live in Bethany.

If the beloved disciple was Lazarus, he was not John. If he was John, he was not Lazarus. All things considered, I find the Lazarus identification more compelling.

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An excursus for Mormons

Those who accept the revelations of Joseph Smith will want to take into account two passages in Mormon scripture that identify the beloved disciple as John. In 3 Nephi, Jesus promises three of his Nephite disciples the same thing that John was given:

And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me. Therefore, . . . ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven (3 Nephi 28:6-7).

Besides identifying the beloved as John, this passage also implies that he will live until the second coming because he asked Christ for that specific gift, not because such immortality was natural to him as a resurrected being. This is confirmed in Doctrine & Covenants 7, which purports to be translation of a lost record written by John himself.

And the Lord said unto me: John, my beloved, what desirest thou? For if you shall ask what you will, it shall be granted unto you.

And I said unto him: Lord, give unto me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee.

And the Lord said unto me: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, because thou desirest this thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory, and shalt prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues and people (D&C 7:1-3).

The content of D&C 7, which was written before the Book of Mormon was published, closely parallels that of 3 Nephi 28, so much so that it invites the skeptical theory that the Three Nephites incident was based more on Smith’s recent speculations regarding the beloved disciple than on anything written on the golden plates. Be that as it may, those who take Smith seriously will have to deal with these passages before accepting the Lazarus theory.

The use of the name John does not necessarily mean that the beloved disciple was Zebedee’s son of that name. Perhaps the incognito Lazarus also used the name John, which was a common enough name in first-century Palestine, or perhaps Smith’s less-than-literal translations use the name John as shorthand for “the author of the book commonly known as the Gospel According to St. John” — much as we might use the name Homer, for example, to refer to whichever person or persons wrote the Homeric epics.

Still, though, Smith’s revelations would seem to weigh in the scale against the Lazarus theory. “Lord give me power over death, that I may live” is not the sort of request we would expect from a man who had been resurrected and thus already possessed the power in question. (Bruce’s position is that Lazarus was resurrected in the fullest sense, not merely restored to mortal life.) However, it is interesting to note that at least one of the Nephite disciples may also have been a resurrected being. The list of disciples in 3 Nephi 19:4 begins with “Nephi and his brother whom he had raised from the dead, whose name was Timothy.”

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Mary of Bethany as Mary Magdalene

The identity of Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene is not an unusual theory. A 1910 article by Hugh Pope in the Catholic Encyclopedia, makes the case as follows.

But an examination of St. John’s Gospel makes it almost impossible to deny the identity of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen. From St. John we learn the name of the “woman” who anointed Christ’s feet previous to the last supper. [. . .] At that supper, then, Mary received the glorious encomium, “she hath wrought a good work upon Me . . . in pouring this ointment upon My body she hath done it for My burial . . . wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached . . . that also which she hath done shall be told for a memory of her.” Is it credible, in view of all this, that this Mary should have no place at the foot of the cross, nor at the tomb of Christ? Yet it is Mary Magdalen who, according to all the Evangelists, stood at the foot of the cross and assisted at the entombment and was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection. And while St. John calls her “Mary Magdalen” in 19:25, 20:1, and 20:18, he calls her simply “Mary” in 20:11 and 20:16.

Against this identification we have the geographic incompatibility of the two titles. As can be seen on the map above, Magdala is on the Sea of Galilee, very far from Bethany. How, then, could Mary Magdalene (meaning “Mary of Magdala”) be the same person as Mary of Bethany?

But perhaps this is not a very serious objection. After all, we know that Helen of Sparta is the same person as Helen of Troy, despite the great distance between those two cities. If Mary originally came from Bethany (as seems to have been the case, since her brother and sister lived there) but later married someone from Magdala and moved there, it would be natural to refer to her as Mary Magdalene.

Of course, Bruce’s position is that the man Mary married was Jesus, which presumably should have made her Mary of Nazareth, since Jesus himself is never described as being from or living in Magdala. The purpose of the surname, though, would have been to distinguish her from other Marys in Jesus’ circle — including his mother, also from Nazareth. Could Jesus, though originally from Nazareth, have made his home in nearby Magdala after his marriage? It’s possible, though the Gospels suggest no such thing. Then again, the Gospels give no indication that Jesus was married at all, to Mary or to anyone else, which is the next issue to discuss.

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Mary as the wife of Jesus

There is no direct evidence that Jesus was married, so the case for Mary’s being his wife is a circumstantial one.

First, we have the episode in which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with spikenard ointment and wipes them with her hair (John 12:3-8), suggesting a degree of intimacy appropriate only to a married couple. And while Judas objected to the waste of money, he didn’t say anything about the inappropriateness of a woman touching Jesus in that way.

Second, there is the scene during the crucifixion when Jesus tells his mother to consider the beloved disciple her son.

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home (John 19:26-27).

If the beloved disciple was Lazarus, Jesus’ brother-in-law, and thus already family, this would make more sense.

Third, there is Jesus’ appearance to Mary after his resurrection. She is the first person he appears to, and he says, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). Since just a few verses later he is inviting Thomas to touch his crucifixion wounds, we might infer that “Touch me not” refers to some more intimate form of touching, such as would be appropriate to husband and wife. Bruce also interprets “my Father, and your Father” as suggesting that God was Mary’s Father in a special sense — because, as Jesus’ wife, she was God’s daughter-in-law. This is not a tenable reading, though, since “your” is plural (as it always is in King James English) and thus refers to the “brethren” or disciples as a group, not specifically to Mary.

Against this, we have John 11:5, which reads, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” This seems like a very strange way of wording things if Martha’s sister (Mary) was Jesus’ own wife!

Bruce also maintains that the marriage at Cana was Jesus and Mary’s own marriage. Here is how the Gospel introduces this event: “And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage” (John 2:1-2). This is, it must be admitted, a very un-Gricean way of saying “Jesus got married,” if that is indeed what it means! However, when there is no wine, it is Jesus who is informed of the problem, and he tells the servants what to do, his mother telling them, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” (John 2:5). Afterwards, “the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now” (John 2:9-10). From this it appears that Mary had authority over the servants at the wedding, suggesting that it was hosted by her own family; and the governor of the feast assumes that it is the bridegroom who makes decisions regarding wine, when in fact this responsibility was given to Jesus. The early Mormon apostle Orson Hyde (who held that Jesus was married to both Mary and Martha, and perhaps others as well), considered these points conclusive:

Gentlemen, that is as plain as the translators, or different councils over this Scripture, dare allow it to go to the world, but the thing is there; it is told; Jesus was the bridegroom at the marriage of Cana of Galilee, and he told them what to do.

Now there was actually a marriage; and if Jesus was not the bridegroom on that occasion, please tell who was. If any man can show this, and prove that it was not the Savior of the world, then I will acknowledge I am in error. We say it was Jesus Christ who was married, to be brought into the relation whereby he could see his seed, before he was crucified (“The Marriage Relations,” Journal of Discourses 2:82).

(I’m sure the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would appreciate my noting that Orson Hyde’s opinions were his own and that the Church has never had any official position regarding the question of Jesus’ marital status.)

All I can say is that if this is indeed a record of Jesus’ own marriage, it must be a deliberately obscure one. Someone, whether the beloved disciple himself or (as Hyde implies) others through whose hands his book has passed on its way down to us, has tried to disguise the true character of this event, dropping only hints for those with ears to hear. Why this should have been thought necessary is unclear. No one thinks it scandalous or embarrassing that Abraham and Moses and St. Peter were married.

As for the spikenard ointment incident being a second, “mystical,” marriage, there is certainly nothing to suggest this in the scriptural account. Jesus’ own comment on the incident connects it with his coming burial, not his marriage.

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Conclusions

All in all, I find the Lazarus theory fairly compelling. If the beloved disciple is to be identified with any named biblical figure, Lazarus seems much the best candidate. However, I am also sympathetic to the theories that the beloved disciple is strictly anonymous (i.e., never named anywhere in the Bible and not to be identified with anyone who is) and that he is a fictional character. Only further engagement with the Gospel in question can resolve this issue for me.

Regarding the Magdalene-Bethany theory,  I see no very strong evidence on either side. Perhaps they were one woman, perhaps two. It partly depends on how we judge the evidence of her/their having been married to Jesus, since some of that evidence comes from Bethany passages and some from Magdalene ones — supposing we are not prepared to go as far as Orson Hyde and make Christ a polygamist.

I would tend to assume that Christ was married, barring any special evidence that he wasn’t. Most people do get married, including most religious founders, and Jesus apparently lived a normal life until the age of 30. And if he was married, and if his wife is one of the people mentioned by name in the Bible, then Mary (Magdalene, originally of Bethany) seems the likeliest possibility.

As for the wedding at Cana and the anointing incident, I am so far not at all convinced that they have anything to do with Jesus’ own marriage. He is clearly a guest at the wedding at Cana, invited along with others, and there is no indication that the anointing has anything to do with marriage at all. I am inclined to think that if Jesus was in fact married, to Mary or anyone else, the event itself is not recorded in the Bible.

I may of course end up revising some or all of these judgments after having spent more time reading and thinking about the Fourth Gospel.

The Throne and the World

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The World card from the Tarot de Marseille (Jodorowsky-Camoin version)

The card known as Le Monde (The World) is surely one of the most enigmatic in the Tarot de Marseille. It’s certainly not the sort of image most people would come up with if asked to “draw a picture of the world.” A naked woman, holding a small bottle and a wand, dances in the center of an elliptical wreath, surrounded by the four creatures known collectively as the Tetramorph.

I am indebted to Whitley Strieber for drawing my attention to similarities between the World card and an 11th-century sculpture in the ambulatory of the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse. Strieber erroneously referred to the latter as a sculpture “of the 21st card in the Major Arcana, known as the World. . . . complete in every detail . . . not an ‘early’ card, but a fully evolved image” (The Key, p. 21). It certainly is not that, as it differs from the Tarot card in some very important ways, but the connection between the two is undeniable, and following up the lead has proved fruitful. My current understanding of the “genealogy” of the World card is as follows:

  1. Ezekiel’s visions of the Merkabah and the cherubim
  2. John’s vision of the divine throne
  3. The traditional “Maiestas Domini” motif in Christian iconography
  4. The specific Maiestas Domini sculpture found in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse
  5. The World card of the Tarot de Marseille

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An overview of the image’s development

1. The Book of Ezekiel opens (Chapters 1-3) with a vision of four “living creatures,” each with four faces: those of a man, an eagle, a lion, and an ox. The creatures have four wings each and are accompanied by enormous wheels that are “full of eyes.” The creatures are “like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps . . . and out of the fire went forth lightning.” Above their heads is a “firmament” resembling “the terrible crystal,” above which is a man seated on a throne. Both the man and the throne resemble gemstones, and they are surrounded by rainbow-like radiance identified as “the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” The man on the throne (who apparently represents the Lord himself) gives Ezekiel a “roll of a book . . . written within and without,” unrolls it, and has him eat it. Chapter 10 of Ezekiel repeats much of this material, describing again the throne, the firmament, the wheels, and the four creatures, which are here identified as “cherubim.” Because of the combination of throne and wheels, these visions are generally referred to by the Hebrew term Merkabah, meaning “chariot.”

2. In Chapters 4-5 of Revelation, John recounts his own vision of the divine throne, drawing heavily on Ezekiel’s imagery. Again we have the jewel-like man seated on his throne, surrounded by four “beasts” obviously patterned after Ezekiel’s cherubim. They have the same four faces (though they have only face each) and have many wings (six each rather than four, due to the influence of Isaiah). Ezekiel’s wheels do not put in an appearance, so the beasts themselves are “full of eyes.” There are “lamps of fire” and lightning. Ezekiel’s crystalline firmament is there (“a sea of glass like unto crystal”), as is his rainbow. The man on the throne also has a scroll or “book, written within and on the backside.” Elsewhere in Revelation, John is even given a book to eat, as Ezekiel was, but this book is not that book. The book held by the man on the throne is sealed with the famous seven seals, and no one can open them but “the lamb that was slain,” who later appears before the throne to do just that.

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The Four and Twenty Elders Casting Their Crowns before the Divine Throne, William Blake’s picture of the scene described in Revelation 4-5.

3. One of the very oldest themes in Christian art, supposed to be older even than the crucifix, is the one known as Maiestas Domini, Christ in Majesty, or Christ in Glory. It portrays Jesus Christ, usually with a cruciform halo, sitting on a throne and holding a book in one hand. He is surrounded by what is called a mandorla or “almond”-shaped halo (like the central section of a two-set Venn diagram), around which are arranged John’s four living creatures, usually with wings (one pair each) and halos, often holding books of their own. Although it has been simplified considerably (fewer eyes and flaming lamps and so on), this iconic image is obviously based on Revelation 4-5 — this despite the fact that in John’s vision Christ is represented by the lamb that was slain, not by the one seated on the throne.

codex bruchsal

A typical example of the “Maiestas Domini,” from the 13th-century Codex Bruchsal

4. One Maiestas Domini of particular interest to us is the one found in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse. While it is a typical example of the genre in most respects, the fact that it portrays a beardless (and thus potentially sexually ambiguous) Christ, and that it had been on display in Occitania for some four centuries when the first Tarot de Marseille appeared, makes it a possible “missing link” between the traditional Maiestas Domini and the female figure portrayed on the World card.

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11th-century Romanesque marble sculpture of Christ in Glory, attributed to Bernardus Geluduinus, from the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse

5. With the World card of the Tarot de Marseille, the image has been changed radically. What was once a portrayal of the Lord on his throne now includes neither Lord nor throne, a naked dancer having taken their place. However, the frame — mandorla and tetramorph — remains essentially unchanged, leaving little room for doubt that the World image is a direct descendant of Christ in Glory.

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The four living creatures

Commentators on the Tarot almost invariably speak of the four living creatures as being the four constituent animals of the Sphinx, but the fact is that, while we may find two or three of the four creatures combined in such mythical creatures as the sphinx, the griffin, and the lamassu, the complete tetramorph is to be found only in Ezekiel and those influenced by him.  What might that particular combination of creatures have meant to the prophet? For starters, it very like symbolizes, by means of four representative members, both the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve signs of the zodiac. (Ezekiel, as an Israelite living in Babylon, would have been familiar with both.)

As described in Numbers 2-3, the 12 tribes of Israel were arranged around the Tabernacle in four camps, each named for one of its constituent tribes: Ephraim in the west, Reuben in the south, Judah in the east, and Dan in the north. As for Ezekiel’s creatures, “they four had the face of a man [in the front], and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle [in the back]” (Ezekiel 1:10; the words in brackets are implied by the Hebrew and are included in many modern translations). Given that Judah and Ephraim are traditionally symbolized by the lion and the bull, respectively (see Genesis 49:9, Deuteronomy 33:17), we can map the creatures to the tribes as follows.

tribes

But why should Reuben and Dan be represented by a man and an eagle? To answer that, it is necessary to add a third foursome to the mapping: the so-called “fixed signs” of the zodiac, representing the four quarters of the sky: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. Taurus and Leo are self-explanatory. Aquarius (a man pouring water) corresponds to Reuben, of whom it was said, “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel” (Genesis 49:4).

Dan is a bit more complicated. Although the zodiac signs are named for constellations, each is actually a 30° section of the sky containing other constellations in addition to the one  for which it is named. Scorpio covers 210°–240° ecliptic longitude, which means that both Altair and Alpha Serpentis (the chief stars in the constellations of the Eagle and Serpent, respectively) fall within its purview. Thus, the eagle or the serpent can be made to stand in for the scorpion. Of Dan, it was said, “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path” (Genesis 49: 17); therefore Dan = serpent = Scorpio = eagle. The scorpion was apparently considered too obnoxious a creature to be represented among the cherubim, and the same may have been true of the serpent (although etymology suggests that the seraphim of Isaiah were winged serpents). Interestingly, just as Dan’s traditional symbol is excluded from the tetramorph, Dan is also the only tribe not included among the 144,000 sealed in Revelation 7:3-8.

The only problem with this proposed mapping is that, while the arrangement of the tribal camps around the Tabernacle matches the orientation of the cherubim’s faces, neither matches the layout of the zodiac, where Aquarius is opposite Leo and Taurus is opposite Scorpio. However, Revelation lists the creatures in an order consistent with the zodiac (counting clockwise from Leo), and the World card of the Tarot perfectly matches the conventional orientation of the zodiac.

lemondezodiac

Besides the tribes of Israel and the signs of the zodiac, Christian tradition decided pretty early on that the living creatures represented Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which is why Maiestas Domini art often portrays each creature holding a book representing its respective Gospel. (These books don’t appear on the World card, but they did somehow find their way onto the Rider-Waite version of the Wheel of Fortune!) Ezekiel’s original vision obviously had no reference to the authors of the New Testament, but that is no objection to this interpretation. As discussed in my post on the Magician, we are operating on the assumption that the oldest meaning of a symbol is not necessarily the truest, and that each step in a symbol’s development, including even apparent errors, is potentially meaningful. I myself have nothing very deep to say about the distinguishing characteristics of each Gospel and how they correspond to those of each living creature, but I certainly do not dismiss the idea out of hand.

Correspondences with other foursomes readily suggest themselves, though which mappings are “correct” is often a matter for debate. For example, Valentin Tomberg in his Meditations on the Tarot quotes Paul Carton as follows:

Ancient Wisdom drew from the enigma of the Sphinx [sic] the four fundamental rules of human conduct: to know with the intelligence of the human brain; to will with the strength of the lion; to dare or to elevate oneself with the audacious power of the wings of the eagle; to be silent with the massive and concentrated force of the bull.

However, in Tomberg’s own commentary on the four creatures, he differs from Carton in associating the lion with to dare and the eagle with to will, and both Carton and Tomberg contradict Eliphas Lévi — who was apparently the originator of this list of the “Four Powers of the Sphinx”! After thinking about it, I would propose a different mapping still.

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To be silent corresponds to the bull; on this point only I agree with Carton. And Tomberg is right that the lion symbolizes the courage implied by to dare in a way that the eagle simply cannot. (Can you imagine a “Richard Cœur d’Aigle”?) The remaining two rules lead to a quandary, since man is unique both in his power of reason or intelligence and in his free will. However, I think that the eagle, while not in fact a very intelligent animal, can at least symbolize knowledge — due to its “eagle eye”; its objective, detached “bird’s-eye view” of things; and the fact that its astrological alter ego is none other than the classical symbol of knowledge, wisdom, and cunning: the serpent. To will, then, is the power proper to man, a power for which no mere animal can be even an adequate allegory.

The bull and the eagle are situated opposite one another in the zodiac, and Lévi and Tomberg agree in seeing them as contrasting symbols of depth and height. “His the eagle’s wings, in order to scale the heights,” says Lévi, “his the bull’s flanks, in order to furrow the depths.” Tomberg says,

The Bull is the symbol of the instinct of productive concentration. It underlies the propensity to deep meditation. . . . It is the Bull in this sense which has given rise to the cult of the sacred Cow (the female aspect of the Bull) in India. The worship of the cow in India is simply a popular counterpart to the Hindu propensity for meditation.

Regarding to be silent, Tomberg has this to say:

The precept “to be silent” is not, as many authors interpret it, solely a rule of prudence, but it is moreover a practical method of transforming this narrowing and blinkering instinct into a propensity towards depth and, correspondingly, an aversion towards all that is of a superficial nature.

The meaning of the bull — silence, meditation, “furrowing the depths” — is aptly summarized in these lines from Robert Frost.

Build soil. Turn the farm in upon itself
Until it can contain itself no more,
But sweating-full, drips wine and oil a little.
I will go to my run-out social mind
And be as unsocial with it as I can.
The thought I have, and my first impulse is
To take to market I will turn it under.
The thought from that thought I will turn it under
And so on to the limit of my nature.

The four cardinal virtues, first listed in Plato’s Republic and later elaborated by later Stoic and Christian thinkers, can also be mapped to the living creatures. Fortitude or courage, the special virtue of the warrior class, corresponds to the lion. Prudence or wisdom, the virtue proper to the rulers, is represented by the eagle or serpent. (The eagle appears on the Empress and Emperor cards as a symbol of rule.) Temperance or self-control, of which being silent is an instance, belongs to the bull. Justice, as the virtue transcending and ruling the others, corresponds to the man.

Prolonged meditation on the four living creatures attracts the attention of the synchronicity fairies. While thus absorbed, I looked up and happened to notice something that familiarity had long since rendered effectively invisible: an Indian wall hanging depicting the god Shiva seated on a tiger pelt, the serpent king Vasuki draped around his neck, Nandi the bull standing behind him, and the Ganges issuing as a spout of water from the top of his head. Accepting the tiger as a reasonable proxy for the lion, and the serpent as the alter ego of the eagle (and further noting the connection between Vasuki and the eagle Garuda), are these not the four living creatures? Shiva himself appears not only as a man, but specifically as Aquarius: a man pouring forth a stream of water! And of course, one of the most familiar depictions of Shiva is as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer surrounded by a ring of flames, an image whose similarity to the World card should have been obvious, though I had not made the connection before.

shiva

Shiva as part of a tetramorph-like image, and as the cosmic dancer

Further meditation brought to mind the legend of the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, as told in the Book of Daniel. It was said of the king, “Let his heart be changed from man’s, and let a beast’s heart be given unto him” (Daniel 4:16), upon which he “was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, . . . till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws” (Daniel 4:33). A later vision by Daniel apparently represents the king’s subsequent return to sanity: “The first [beast I saw] was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it” (Daniel 7:4). Here again are the four living creatures. Immediately after checking these references in the Bible, I happened to open up Colin Wilson’s book The Occult, which I was reading for the first time, and found: “The Chaldeans were traditionally the founders of astronomy and astrology; Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar were Chaldean kings.” Any sort of reference to Nebuchadnezzar would have been an impressive enough coincidence, but here he is mentioned specifically in connection with the origins of the zodiac, the ultimate source of the tetramorph!

nebuchadnezzar

An illustration from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, depicting Nebuchadnezzar

Incidentally, Wilson mentions the Chaldeans by way of introducing the Epic of Gilgamesh — in which (though Wilson doesn’t mention it) we also find the four living creatures, combined in the person of the monster Humbaba (a humanoid giant with a lion’s face, bull’s horns, and vulture’s talons).

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The rainbow, the mandorla, and the wreath

In Ezekiel’s vision, he describes rainbow-like radiance around the enthroned figure.

And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 1:27-28).

In John’s vision, “there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald” (Revelation 4:3), a rather confusing description. The only way in which something could be specifically “like unto an emerald” (as opposed to any other precious stone) would be in its bright green color, so it must be “a rainbow” by virtue of its shape — not a spectrum, but an arc.

For the biblical significance of the rainbow, the obvious place to start is the story of Noah.

And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth (Genesis 9:8-13).

What immediately jumps out at me about this passage is that God establishes his covenant not only with Noah, but with four classes of creatures: men, birds, livestock, and wild beasts — precisely the four classes represented by the man, eagle, bull, and lion. Somehow I had never noticed this before, nor the arresting idea that birds, beasts, and livestock are capable of entering into a covenant with God! This is consistent with the anti-anthropocentric message implied by the tetramorph: man, special as he may be, is still but one living creature among others, all of which are known and loved by God. Joseph Smith commented on some parts of John’s Revelation in Doctrine & Covenants 77, the chapter heading of which summarizes his commentary on the four living creatures as follows: “Beasts have spirits and will dwell in eternal felicity.”

In Maiestas Domini iconography, the figure of Christ is surrounded by what is called a mandorla or “almond”-shaped halo, which I suggest is derived from the smaragdine “rainbow” of Revelation (although it could also be a nod to Ezekiel’s wheels, I suppose). The mandorla is the intersection of two circles — the central portion of a two-set Venn diagram — and one obvious interpretation is that it represents Christ as the intersection of the divine and human worlds. Its connection with the “Jesus fish,” another ancient Christian symbol, is also obvious. Many have also interpreted the mandorla as a yonic symbol, so Christ in a mandorla could represent his birth into the world — either his first or, more likely given the Apocalyptic context, second coming.

In the World card, we find the mandorla — a sharply defined geometric shape — replaced with a wreath of leaves of the same general shape. This wreath of vegetation is perhaps prefigured by the green rainbow of Revelation — though, in point of fact, traditional tarot decks rarely make the wreath green; it is typically azure, azure-and-gold, or red-yellow-and-blue (this last color scheme perhaps harking back to its original character as a rainbow).

(I perhaps have personal reasons for wanting to find an implicit rainbow in the World card. In my very early childhood my thinking was mostly visual, and abstract words generally each had a specific mental picture associated with them. I remember that I often used to pray “Thank you for the world,” and that the image that always accompanied the word world was a rainbow.)

The main difference between a wreath and a rainbow or mandorla is that a wreath is organic, alive — and indeed is a conventional symbol of eternal life. Wreaths are also traditional decorations associated with Advent and Christmas and so could, like the yonic mandorla, represent the birth of Christ — except that on the World card Christ is conspicuously absent, having been replaced by a naked woman! This brings us to the central question of the World card: What is to be made of the changing identity of the central figure?

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Christ on his Father’s throne

In Ezekiel, it is strongly implied that the figure is the Lord (or, rather, represents the Lord; Ezekiel is careful to describe everything he sees as mere “likeness” and “appearance”). He is seated on a throne which is traditionally referred to as a chariot (merkabah) because it has wheels. He gives Ezekiel a “book” (scroll), but it is not clear that he actually holds it in his hand. (The enthroned figure says to Ezekiel, “Eat that I give thee,” and then Ezekiel reports “And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein.” This implies a disembodied hand “sent” by the Lord, not one of his own hands.) The enthroned figure unrolls the scroll, and “it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

In Revelation, the figure still sits on a throne, though there are no longer any wheels. The enthroned figure is definitely not Christ (because Christ later appears before the throne as a separate figure, “the lamb that was slain”) and so presumably represents the Father. He holds a “book” (still a scroll) in his right hand but does not unroll it because it is sealed. Much is made of the Lamb’s gradually unsealing the scroll, one seal at a time — but when the last seal is opened, we are never told that anyone unrolls the scroll or reads it, or what is written in it. Instead, the opening of each seal is accompanied by visions; if these visions represent the contents of the book, we can conclude that it, too, contains “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

In the Maiestas Domini, the enthroned figure is now Christ rather than the Father, and, unlike the figure in revelation, he invariably holds the book in his left hand and raises his right hand in benediction. The book is now a codex rather than a scroll, and it is most often shown open, with something written in it. What is written in the book varies, but it is no longer a message of woe. The book might read, for example, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” “I am the first and the last and he that liveth,” or simply the two letters alpha and omega — but perhaps the most relevant variant for our purposes is: “I am the light of the world.”

luxmundi

12th-century Maiestas Domini mural in Sant Climent de Taüll, Catalonia. Christ’s book reads “Ego sum lux mundi” — “I am the light of the world.” Note also that the mandorla here is pretty clearly a rainbow.

luxmundi2

Detail of a mural in the 12th-century Duomo di Monreale, Sicily. The left page reads, with lots of scribal abbreviations, “Ego sum lux mundi qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris” (“I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness”), and the right has the same text in the original Greek.

“I am the light of the world” — this is perhaps a hint as to how “the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel) came to develop into an image called simply “The World.”

The question remains: Why was this standard image of “Christ in Majesty” so closely based on John’s vision of God the Father — a vision in which Christ appears as a seven-eyed, seven-horned sacrificial lamb rather than as the one on the throne?

In Revelation 3:22, Christ says, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” The implication is that God’s throne is not the exclusive property of God himself. Christ overcame, and we see him seated there in majesty. Nor should we necessarily think it blasphemous to see other figures in the same position — a position open to all who “overcome.” While Christ did say “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), it is interesting to note that he is also on record as saying “Ye are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

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The beardless Christ

I have mentioned the beardless Christ portrayed in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse as a possible intermediary step in the evolution from the traditional Maiestas Domini to the World card of the Tarot. Caravaggio also portrayed a beardless Christ in the 1601 version of his Supper at Emmaus. In fact, mutatis mutandis, Caravaggio’s Christ looks almost exactly like the one in Toulouse. Even the position of his hands, while portrayed naturalistically, echoes the iconic mano pantea gesture of benediction.

sernin-emmaus

Christ as portrayed by Bernardus Geluduinus in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse (left) and by Caravaggio in the 1601 version of Supper at Emmaus (right).

Of course Caravaggio’s work is too late to have been an influence on the Tarot de Marseille, but his painting’s striking similarity to the Toulouse sculpture may give us a clue as to how to interpret the latter.

Supper at Emmaus represents a scene from Luke 24. After Christ’s resurrection, two of his disciples meet him on the road, “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him” (Luke 24:16). They walk along, discussing the scriptures, and invite him to stay for dinner. Finally, “as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:30-31). The two disciples immediately go to Jerusalem to report this manifestation to the eleven apostles. “And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you” (Luke 24:35-36).

“Peace be unto you” (“Pax vobis,” the phrase used in the Vulgate translation of Luke 24:36) is precisely what is written in the book held by Christ in the Toulouse sculpture. Having looked at dozens of different examples of the Maiestas Domini motif, I have not found any others that put that particular phrase in the book. It appears that in this, as in Christ’s beardlessness, the Toulouse sculpture is, if probably not unique, at least very unusual.

Other elements of the Luke 24 story also tie into the Maiestas Domini theme. On the road to Emmaus, Christ, still incognito, says to the two disciples, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). The standard French term for the Maiestas Domini is le Christ en gloire. Later, after appearing and saying “Peace be unto you,” “he lifted up his hands, and blessed them” (Luke 24:50), recalling the gesture of benediction seen in the Maiestas Domini.

Why did the disciples on the road to Emmaus not recognize their Master at once? Valentin Tomberg offers what strikes me as a plausible explanation.

But there is one thing, a specific feature, which the Gospel account mentions several times: that the risen Christ was difficult to recognise — that he hardly resembled the Master that the disciples and women knew so well. Thus, Mary Magdalena took him to be the gardener; the two disciples on the way to Emmaus only recognised him at the moment that he broke the bread; the disciples did not recognise his appearance by the sea of Tiberias — and it was only after he had spoken that John, initially alone, recognised him and said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” . . . Why was the risen Jesus Christ difficult to recognise? Because he was without age. . . . Just as he was transfigured on Mt. Tabor, where he conversed with Moses and Elijah, so was he transfigured at his resurrection. The resurrected One was not only the synthesis of life and death, but also the synthesis of youth and old age. For this reason it was difficult for those who knew him between the ages of thirty and thirty-three to recognise him: at one time he appeared older to them, at another time younger than when they had known him.

The Toulouse sculpture, like the Caravaggio painting, portrays the resurrected Christ. As Christ’s beard serves both to make him instantly recognizable and to mark him as a man of mature years, omitting it is an effective way of depicting the different-looking, ageless Christ described in the Gospels.

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From Christ to the World

Toulouse is not that far from Marseille, and it seems likely to me that the long-haired, beardless Christ displayed there had some influence on the development of the Tarot image, with its female figure in the place of Christ. It seems extremely unlikely that any medieval European could simply have mistaken it for a sculpture of a woman. It so obviously represents Christ, and no one could possibly be ignorant of the fact that Christ is male. But perhaps it stimulated the thought that, just as the resurrected Christ is ageless, “he” should perhaps be sexless as well. Had he not said that “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30)? Some Tarot de Marseille decks, such as that of Jean-Pierre Payen (Avignon, 1713), do show a sexually ambiguous figure, which may have evolved into the pretty clearly female one seen in most Marseille decks. (Sexual ambiguity would have been easier to maintain if the figure were not portrayed as naked, and possible meanings of this nudity will be discussed in due course.)

An interesting parallel case, in which a male religious figure evolved into a female one, can be seen in the case of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, an important Buddhist figure whom I first encountered in his original masculine form when I was studying Central Asian art.

avalokiteshvara

1st-century Afghan sculpture of a mustached Avalokiteshvara. He is more often depicted as clean-shaven.

My Buddhist education having been pretty much limited to that course in Central Asian art, I had no idea until I moved to Taiwan that this same Avalokiteshvara is widely revered in Chinese culture — where “he” is known as Guanyin (a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit name), the Goddess of Mercy, having been thought of as female since the 12th century or so. (The male version of Avalokiteshvara is still very much alive, supposedly incarnate in the Dalai Lama.) Guanyin is typically portrayed holding a willow branch (柳枝) and a vase of pure water (淨瓶).

guanyin

Chinese depiction of Guanyin with a willow branch and a vase of water

The willow wand and the vase are what really caught my attention, because they correspond so closely to the wand and phial held by the figure in the World card. They belong specifically to the female Guanyin; such objects never feature in masculine depictions of Avalokiteshvara. Similarly, the male Christ in Majesty invariably holds a book in one hand and raises the other in benediction; it is only his female relative in the Tarot that bears the wand and phial.

My attempts to discover the deeper meaning of Guanyin’s wand and vase have so far been less than satisfying. This site (in Chinese) offers the rather uninspiring explanation that they represent the tools early Buddhists used for brushing their teeth (!), attention to personal hygiene being one of things that set them apart from the adherents of various non-Buddhist ascetic movements. The imagination rebels at the idea of the Goddess of Mercy holding the equivalent of a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, but there it is. (As I have mentioned elsewhere, many of the symbols of the Tarot have similarly prosaic origins, having evolved only gradually into something deeper. The Tarot suit of wands evolved from the Mamluk suit of polo sticks, for example; is a toothbrush wand any worse?) A typical modern interpretation is that the vase contains the water of life, and that the willow branch is used for sprinkling it.

Direct Chinese Buddhist influence in medieval Occitania would seem to be out of the question, so the parallels between Gaunyin and the World figure can only be considered a remarkable case of convergent evolution or “reincarnation” (like that which led the rebirth among British magicians of the Chinese Wenchang pen, as described here). It is as if some occult force were causing such Eastern figures as Guanyin and Shiva Nataraja to “come through” into the Tarot without the conscious intention of the medieval Christians who designed the cards.

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But, to come back to the point, what exactly is to be made of a naked dancing woman taking the place traditionally occupied by God or Christ? One possibility is to see it as a blasphemy pure and simple, and the woman as the whore of Babylon, the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not. The image is called “The World” — a term which is often used in scripture in reference to human wickedness. “The world” hates Jesus, and its works are evil (John 7:7). Pure religion is to keep oneself “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4) The destruction of the wicked at Christ’s second coming is “the end of the world.”

I find this interpretation unlikely for several reasons. For one thing, the World card occurs in the Tarot immediately after the last judgment which is “the end of the world,” so it can hardly represent the world in that sense — or if it did, we would expect it to show its punishment or destruction. More importantly, though, the imagery of the card simply has nothing of the demonic about it. The woman, though naked, does not look at all whorish, and the living creatures around her appear genuinely angelic and not at all outraged by her presence. This is not some Satanic parody of the divine glory; it is the genuine article.

In John’s vision of the throne, the four living creatures have six wings (rather than four as in Ezekiel) and say, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” — a clear allusion to the seraphim of Isaiah, who also have six wings and stand before the throne of God, and who say “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). The World in Glory, then, would appear to be as legitimate a subject as Christ in Glory. Nor is this limited to the physical earth or Nature. Christ said, “God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17), with clear reference to the world of human beings. Elsewhere in the same Gospel, he says to his disciples, “Where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3), and I have already quoted the passage from Revelation to the effect that those who overcome may sit on God’s own throne just as Christ has done — may enter heaven not as subjects, but as kings, with the same glory that Christ himself enjoys.

Assuming, then, that the central figure of the World card may represent redeemed Nature, redeemed Man, or both, the questions remain: Why is she specifically represented as a naked woman, dancing, and holding a wand and phial?

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If the figure represents Nature or Earth, then the portrayal as female is conventional and needs no explanation. This thought led me to search for Classical depictions of Gaia to see whether or not she was conventionally portrayed in the nude, and serendipity threw this my way:

aion

3rd-century Roman floor mosaic from Sentinum, depicting Aion and Tellus, with children representing the four seasons

The reclining woman is indeed Gaia’s Roman counterpart Tellus, and she is indeed portrayed mostly nude — but what really caught my attention was the male figure, with the zodiac around him (in the form, apparently, of what we would now call a Möbius strip!). Aquarius and Scorpio are even in same positions here as in the World card, though the other signs are not.

(This is a very strange zodiac, in fact. On the left we can clearly see the sequence Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo (?), Virgo (?) — skipping Aries! On the right, only Scorpio is clearly identifiable, but it certainly looks like the sequence is Scorpio, Libra, Sagittarius, and then a second Leo. Scorpio should be between Libra and Sagittarius, of course. Presumably one of these 12 signs is meant to be Aries, but I can’t say which; all of the quadrupeds have long tails, so none of them looks like it might be a ram.)

This male figure represents, I am told, Aion — a deity summarized by Wikipedia thus:

Aion (Greek: Αἰών) is a Hellenistic deity associated with time, the orb or circle encompassing the universe, and the zodiac. The “time” represented by Aion is unbounded, in contrast to Chronos as empirical time divided into past, present, and future. He is thus a god of the ages, associated with mystery religions concerned with the afterlife, such as the mysteries of Cybele, Dionysus, Orpheus, and Mithras. In Latin the concept of the deity may appear as Aevum or Saeculum.

Of course, both αἰών and saeculum may represent the world or cosmos as well as eternity, as in the familiar translation of “in saecula saeculorum” as “world without end.” (The biblical phrase “the end of the world” also uses αἰών in the original, and modern translations often prefer “the end of the age”; even the English world is etymologically wer-old, “age of man.”) French Bibles translate αἰών sometimes as siècle (“world without end” is “aux siècles des siècles“) and sometimes as monde (as in “la fin du monde“). A nude figure, with a name that could be translated as “World,” standing in the center of the zodiac — this obviously bears some relation to our Tarot card.

The connection between God or Christ on his throne and a figure called Aion calls to mind the Ancient of Days described in Daniel 7 — a vision which, like Ezekiel’s, is much alluded to in John’s throne scene. The Ancient of Days is typically identified with God the Father, but he is identified as the Son in Eastern Orthodoxy and as Adam in Mormonism. Though it must surely be a “coincidence,” the Roman mosaic of Aion — featuring a naked man and woman, two trees, and a serpent — is also suggestive of Adam and Eve. Adam/Eve as “the World” suggests the Kabbalistic concept of Adam Kadmon.

Besides Aion, another possibly relevant Graeco-Roman deity is the Orphic god Phanes.

phanes.png

Phanes surrounded by the zodiac, a drawing, from A. B. Cook’s Zeus, of a 2nd-century Roman marble relief

The above representation of Phanes has the same basic layout as the World card: a central figure in an ellipse, with figures in the four corners. The ellipse is the zodiac with its 12 signs (represented in the World card by the tetramorph), and the four faces in the corners presumably represent the four winds. The central figure, Phanes, is male, but is nude like the World figure, and the serpent wrapped around his body suggests the flowing scarf worn by the World figure. He holds a staff in his left hand and a keraunos or stylized thunderbolt in his right — recalling the wand and phial of the World. Beyond this, there is a confusing congeries of attributes: wings, horns, cloven hooves, flames, an egg, and the heads of a goat, lion, and ram. What it all means is anyone’s guess — Orphism is a sealed book — but some connection with the World card seems likely.

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The World is one of three Tarot de Marseille cards to feature a figure with crossed legs, the other two being the Emperor and the Hanged Man.

crossed legs

The Emperor, Hanged Man (reversed) and World cards from the Tarot de Marseille (Grimaud version)

The Emperor sits on a throne, and as we have seen, the World image is closely related to images of God and Christ on their thrones. The Hanged Man, like Aion in the Roman mosaic, is between two trees. All three figures approximate with their bodies the alchemical symbol for sulfur (a triangle above a cross: 🜍), which is the active, masculine, solar principle in alchemy.

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Overall, I would say this idea of activity is what most distinguishes the World card from its throne-based predecessors. To sit on a throne is to be at rest, and I have commented elsewhere on the “sea of glass” in John’s throne vision as a symbol of perfect stasis and the cessation of all change. The figure in the World is not seated on a throne but dancing. One is reminded of the last verse of the old Christmas carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” (The one speaking in the song is Christ.)

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.

This alludes to Christ sitting down on his Father’s throne — but the purpose is “that man may come unto the general dance.” It is this final goal that is depicted on the World card.

As for the items in the dancer’s hands, the wand resembles that of the Magician — which, we have learned, is originally and most fundamentally a pen. Might not the phial, then, be a bottle of ink? God and Christ, seated on their thrones, hold books that have already been written — symbols of fate, of the unalterable. The Dancer of the World, representing redeemed Humanity, holds a pen and ink, ready to write her own destiny.