Sunday, April 25, 2021

Fascinating fish and intriguing repetitions in John 21

No, this post is not a further post in a recent series looking at the resurrection narratives plural and raising questions concerning their differences (here and here).

But it is still the Season of Easter and John 21 is a wonderful chapter of the New Testament to dig into at any time of the year but especially at Eastertide.

No doubt nothing I am about to write is original in its insights but a few things have fascinated and intrigued me, especially working on the Greek text, and why not share them with you?

Fascinating fish

In 21:11 the tally of fish caught is one hundred and fifty-three (hekaton pentekonta trion). It is well-known that 153 is a triangular number, the sum of the first 17 integers, i.e. 153 = 1+2+3+ ... +15+16+17. Augustine argued that 17 equates to grace (seven gifts of the Spirit) and law (ten commandments). See further on such interpretations and other fascinating features of the number 153 (e.g. it also equals 1 cubed plus 5 cubed plus 3 cubed) in a Wikipedia article.

Here is another theory, and it is a bit closer to John's Gospel itself.

In John 6 we have another story of feeding (and, as it happens, succeeded by a story of happenings at sea), taking place in the same location as John 21 (the Sea of Galilee which is the Sea of Tiberias).

In the feeding story, 5000 (pentakiskilioi) men (and likely an unknown number of women and children) are fed, with five (pente) barley loaves and two fishes. Afterwards twelve baskets of fragments from the five barley loaves are collected.

Obviously in this story the bread does the heavy lifting in the feeding of the crowd and the fish play an incidental role.

By contrast, in John 21 the story there focuses on the fish and the bread mentioned plays an incidental role (except that, see further below, in the feeding of the disciples at breakfast time, they are given bread and then fish).

In both John 6 and John 21 the physical feeding of the crowd and of the disciples respectively leads into Jesus making a point about feeding the spiritual life of God's people. 

In John 6 the point is a long discourse about (most of us think) the eucharist, about Jesus himself feeding us with his body and his blood: I am the bread of life. 

In John 21 the point is a sharp exchange between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus asks three times whether Peter loves him and when Peter each time answers affirmatively, Jesus instructs him to feed God's people (imaged as lambs/sheep).

Now, numberswise the two stories have a "pente" or "five" connection: 5000, 5, 153.

And, as we saw above, 153 is the sum of the first 17 integers. What does 17 equal? It equals 12 plus 5. 

In John 6 there are 12 baskets of fragments collected from the 5 barley loaves. Of course there is a lot more bread than that in the John 6 story because the great crowd is fed from the bread (and from the fish) but numberswise, the bread in John 6 generates two numbers, 5 and 12 and the fish in John 21 generates the number 153.

Is John making subtle reference back to the John 6 feeding story when he gives us the tally of the fish in John 21? In both stories there is a miracle in the way a large amount of food is provided unexpectedly and the food generates teaching about spiritual feeding of God's people. But the bread emphasis in John 6 is connected to Jesus himself feeding his disciples and the fish emphasis in John 21 is connected to the disciples feeding other disciples. Only Jesus is the Bread of Life.

(To calculate thus is NOT to rule out other considerations re "153", for instance that 17 also = 10 + 7 and 10 and 7 can be considered numbers of completion, and thus 153 represents the completion of the harvest of people for the kingdom. And so forth.)

In fact we have a further reason to think that John does want us to connect the two bread/fish stories closely.

In John 6:11 we read,

"Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated, so also the fish, as much as they wanted."

In John 21:13 we read,

Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them and did the same with the fish.

Using bold I have highlighted words which in the Greek are the same root word (1. took, distributed = gave, 2. bread (singular) versus bread (plural)), and the same words but slightly different in order (3. so also the fish = the same with the fish).

Intriguing repetitions

In John 21 there are three moments of recognition that the person on the shore engaging with them in the boat is the risen Lord Jesus, but English translation don't quite bring out the precise, thrice repeated phrase we find in the Greek (though e.g. the REB comes closer than e.g. the NRSV).

So, taking four popular translations (NRSV, REB, NIV, GNB), we have two of the moments in verse 7 and one in verse 12:

Verse 7:

That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, ... NRSV

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," ... REB = NIV

The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, ... GNB

Verse 12

Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. NRSV

None of the disciples dared to ask "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. REB

None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. NIV

None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. GNB

On the face of it, in English the two verses do not reveal three exactly the same recognitions. We need the Greek for that: three times, twice in verse 7 and once in verse 12 we read: ho kurios estin = It is the Lord.

John composes his narrative so that a core significance of the story, that the risen Lord Jesus is recognisably, physically present with the disciples, is underscored and underlined by a threefold repetition of "It is the Lord."

In doing this in chapter 21, John is mirroring a narrative device in John 20 where three times there is reference to "seeing the Lord" (though in this instance, in John 20, the Greek is not a neat set of repetitions as in John 21: heoraka ton kurion, hidontes ton kurion, heorakamen ton kurion).

"I have seen the Lord" (Mary Magdalene to the disciples, 20:18)

"they saw the Lord" (In full, "the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord," 20:20).

"We have seen the Lord" (The disciples report to Thomas, 20:25).

John seems to place significance on the value of three repeats because he describes the encounter on the Tiberias beach as "the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead" (21:14).

Strictly speaking this is true (the third time Jesus appeared to the disciples plural) but also strictly speaking this is Jesus' fourth appearance according to John's resurrection narratives since his first recorded appearance is to Mary Magdalene and occurs before the three appearances to the disciples.

There is likely a lot more to be made about these repetitions than I am making here. Comments?

A final reflection from me. In my view the key to understanding the difference in style/substance between John's Gospel and the Synoptics Gospels is the identification between John who writes the Gospel and the risen Jesus. There may also be factors such as John who writes is the Beloved Disciple who was "Jerusalem-based" rather than "Galilee-based" and so forth, but none of those factors themselves explain the significant difference between the first three Gospels and the fourth Gospel.

John's Gospel, therefore, is the Gospel of insight in which the writer of the Gospel speaks the words of Jesus and the interpretation of the words of Jesus with the authority of the risen Lord.

Why would John so dare to assume such authority?

John 21 is a clue: the risen Jesus can be present in ordinary moments of life, taking ordinary but familiar things (such as the bread of the eucharist) and continuing to teach his disciples.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Barth on PSA

I am a very slow reader of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. I tend to read a few pages when on holiday at a favourite holiday location and it must be getting on for twenty years since I started and I am only a little way over a halfway through volume II.1. Very slow.

Of course the actual act of reading those few pages at a time is "slow reading" as far as words per minute and pages per hour go, because Barth cannot be read fast. Well, I cannot read Barth fast. And even when reading slowly I cannot often say that I understand him well. There is also the matter of beginning to feel sleepy when he takes a long time to say something, which seems quite often.

But there is much to appreciate in Barth - taking a long time to say something, for instance, is also to be painstakingly thorough, to meet and to head off all possible objections. Along the way there are his famous excursi (because in smaller typeface, because often long and interesting essays in their own right) and often these are thorough surveys of the whole of Scripture on the matter at hand. I happen to also like the way in which he draws the best - as he sees it - out of both Luther and Calvin.

Anyhow, this past week, while on a break I read through the first two parts of chapter 30 in II.1, The Perfections of the Divine Loving (pp. 351-406, in the edition edited by Bromily and Torrance), with part 1 on The Grace and Holiness of God and part 2 on The Mercy and Righteousness of God.

What particularly fascinated me in these pages is the way in which Barth is bold and unembarrassed to speak of the wrath of God, the substitution of Christ for ourselves as the object of that wrath and the making of ourselves righteous before God. Barth doesn't use the words "penal substitutionary atonement" in one phrase at any point but he does expound the doctrine albeit (and this is very important) always and everywhere on these pages in terms of God's mercy-and-righteousness. Never one without the other, never one before the other.

Over the years on this blog, especially around Holy Week, some of my interest in "the wrath of God" has been around the controversial line in the popular recent hymn, In Christ Alone, which we sing:

The wrath of God was satisfied.

In this line is an expression of the teaching known as "penal subsitutionary atonement." 

What struck me reading Barth this past week is that his starting point in respect of God's wrath is not God's wrath but God's righteousness. And his primary concern about God's wrath is not that God's wrath is satisfied but that the problem of our unrighteousness is resolved. And - noting that Barth is very keen on holding lots of things together so "and" is critical to his theology - the problem of our unrighteousness is very deep and very dark, so the death of Christ in our place is a forsakenness beyond words, beyond (in my reading) a short sentence such as "the wrath of God was satisfied" neatly and succinctly describing the forsakenness. And yet "the wrath of God was satisfied" is, within the Barthian narrative of our plight and God's rescue, true, though Barth doesn't come near to saying those words (as far as I noticed ... though I may have gotten a little sleepy.) Rather he says something which I think would be summed up differently than in the line of that hymn.

But first, so what does Barth say? There are lots of words, so I am picking out something of a representative set of passages:

"The meaning of the death of Jesus Christ is that there God's condemning and punishing righteousness broke out, really smiting and piercing human sin, man as sinner, and sinful Israel. It did really fall on the sin of Israel, our sin and us sinners. It did so in such a way that in what happened there (not to Israel, or to us, but to Jesus Christ) the righteousness of God which we have offended was really revealed and satisfied. Yet it did so in such a way that it did not happen to Israel or to us, but for Israel, for us. What was suffered there on Israel's account and ours, was suffered for Israel and for us.

The wrath of God which we had merited, by which we must have been annihilated and would long since have been annihilated, was now in our place borne and suffered as though it had smitten us and yet in such a way that it did not smite us and can no more smite us. The reason why the No spoken on Good Friday is so terrible, but why there is already concealed in it the Eastertide Yes of God's righteousness, is that He who on the cross took upon Himself and suffered the wrath of God was no other than God's own Son, and therefore the eternal God Himself in the unity with human nature which He freely accepted in his transcendent mercy." [pp. 396-97]

"The fact that it was God's Son, that it was God Himself, who took our place on Golgotha and thereby freed us from the divien anger and judgement, reveals first the full implication of the wrath of God, of His condemning and punishing justice. It shows us what a consuming fire burns against sin. It thus discloses too the full impliation of sin, what it means to resist God, to be God's enemy, which is the guilty determination of our human existence." [p. 398]

In a passage which engages with Romans 3:5, "Is God not unjust to exercise His wrath?", Barth writes movingly of both God's love for us and of the love which substitutes Himself for us (with my paragraphing):

"And - necessarily almost - the question arises in regard to the Old and New Testaments, whether God's reaction of wrath as it is attested to us in the Bible really stands in intelligible relation to man's opposition to God, to man's sin and guilt? And how natural it is to propose this question especially when we find or feel ourselves affected gy God's token judgments! "Is God not unjust to exercise his wrath?" (Rom. 3.5). Have we really deserved it? Are we really as guilty as all that, that we should have to suffer it? 

This murmuring, this question of Job's, is silenced - but only really silenced - when we remember how it is that God judges the world (Rom. 3.6), that is, His relentlessness against Himself as we have described it, His allowing Himself so to feel the pain of our sin that He spared not His only Son, but delivered Him up for us all. What do we know of God's righteousness, of what is worthy of Him, and therefore of what, when He confronts us as our Creator and Lord, He necessarily and rightfully has against us? 

It is here, where He guarantees - but in His love for us and therefore utterly on His own initiative - that he is not against us but for us (Rom. 8.31), that we have to learn what is His righteousness and our unrighteousness. And it is from this point of view, as a token of the righteousness of God manifested here, that we have to appraise and interpret the righteousness of the Law, of the threats and judgments of the Old Testament, and of those of world history and of our own life. 

It is here that we come to know of what we are accused and guilty, what our trespass is and means. It consists in an alienation from God, a rebellion against Him, which ought to be punished in a way which involves our total destruction, and which apart from our annihilation can be punished only by God Himself taking our place, and in His Son taking to Himself and bearing and suffering the punishment. ... Our position is such that we can be rescued from eternal death and translated into life only by total and unceasing substitution, the substitution which God Himself undertakes on our behalf." [p. 399]

That is, I think Barth's preference to "The wrath of God was satisfied" would be:

"The righteousness of God was satisfied."

On the matter of "penal substitionary atonement", the passages above (or otherwise in this chapter but not cited here) never use the phrase but Barth is very clear that our sin deserves punishment, that God in Christ substituted himself for us on the cross and our being made right with God is through the substitutionary action of the righteous-and-merciful God in Christ in receiving what we deserve.

Monday, April 12, 2021

An annual reflection on the resurrection accounts

Lots going down. Hans Kung has died. Prince Philip has died. (Incidentally, careful reading of some obituaries will yield the nugget of information that Prince Philip was a theologically informed believer.) This book may be useful for working out what it means to be an Orthodox Anglican. Try this blog also :).

It's early days in the Season of Easter so it is also okay to think a little about the resurrection narratives, which have been discussed here before (last year), and are also discussed at Psephizo (a recent updating of a previous foray into the subject).

1. The importance of the resurrection narratives are underscored by comments made by Bowman Walton to the previous post, themselves building on that critical and distinctive part of Romans - chapters 6-8 - where Paul develops the idea that a Christian is someone who has identified with Christ both in his crucifixion and in his resurrection. That is, the very nature of our life in Christ is connected by Paul to the resurrection as "event" and not as (say) a subjective experience in the minds of some of his followers who somehow attained the convction that Christ was no longer dead.

2. For Paul himself, according to 1 Corinthians 15, the evidence that Christ was raised from death was a series of appearances of the risen Christ to his followers (including, eventually, Paul himself).

3. In each of the four canonical gospels, the evidence is also that the tomb was empty (with Matthew 28 notably asserting that this was not because the body of Jesus was stolen). Three gospels include appearances of Jesus (Matthew, Luke, John) and Mark anticipates an appearance.

4. Unfortunately the gospel appearances do not tally neatly with Paul's list (which list is likely a circulating list among the churches, so not Paul's invention).

5. Also there are real or apparent contradictions between the gospels (perhaps most strikingly is Luke's persistent refusal to entertain that Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee, when each of the other gospels either anticipates or records such an appearance).

6. It is difficult (as I read the NT) to see how the many things said about resurrection could have arisen unless something like Paul's 1 Corinthians 15 list of appearances actually happened: that is, that both the leading disciples (apostles) and other disciples had encounters with Jesus after his death which convinced the whole Jesus' movement that Jesus was truly and victoriously alive and exalted to God's side.

7. The 1 Corinthians 15 list then means that there were multiple appearances of the risen Jesus Christ to individuals and to groups, and thus the gospel writers had some choice when selecting which appearances to focus on as each reported on the resurrection while also bringing their whole account of Jesus' life to a conclusion. (Obviously the appearances recounted by the gospel writers mean that appearances of Jesus other than those listed in 1 Corinthians 15 took place, notably those in which Jesus appeared to women who are unfortunately missing from the 1 Corinthians 15 list. For a full list of appearances according to the New Testament, see here.)

8. Note that Matthew narrates two appearances, Mark anticipates one appearance in Galilee, Luke narrates three or four appearances in Luke 24 and reports many appearances in Acts 1, though only narrates one encounter in detail, and John provides accounts of four appearances.

9. Just as each of the gospel writers selects events from the life of Jesus before his death and narrates them in ways which fit their respective overall purposes in telling the history of Jesus, so the gospel writers select appearances from the life of Jesus after his death and narrate them in ways which fit their overall purposes in telling the history of Jesus.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The resurrection and Alice Roberts' reminder

Rather than write a separate resurrection blogpost, I may as well share this sermon which I preached at our Transitional Cathedral on Sunday 4 April 2021. Next week I hope to come back to the "wrath of God" theme from last week ... seeking to relate "cancel culture" to "total depravity" ...

Easter Sermon at the Transitional Cathedral 04 April 2021

Readings: Acts 10:34-43    1 Corinthians 15:1-11   John 20:1-18 Psalm 118:1 – 2,16 – 17,22 – 23

Professor Alice Roberts, a University of Birmingham scientist, is President of the charity Humanists UK, an organisation which campaigns for state secularism and for "a tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail".

 On Good Friday she Tweeted,    “Just a little reminder today. Dead people – don’t come back to life.”

That Tweet sparked lots and lots of responses, many of which chastised her for being unkind to Christians. Some responses were quite smart and witty along the lines of “well, one did come back to life and that’s why we make quite a fuss about him.”

But the best reply, I think, was from Tom Holland, the historian (not Spiderman) and author of Dominion,

Tom Holland makes the point that Alice Roberts may not be a Christian but she thinks and acts like a Christian: she wants to convert people from what she thinks is darkness to what she thinks is the light of truth.

 But perhaps we should also say, on this day, Easter, the Day of the Resurrection of our Lord, that Alice Roberts is not making an accurate claim about Jesus.

What she Tweeted could apply to Lazarus – a dead man whom Jesus brought back to life.

But the resurrection of Jesus was not God bringing Jesus back to life.

The resurrection of Jesus was God bringing Jesus forward to life in a new realm – life in a new body,

-          to be sure with marks of the old body (the nail marks in his hands and feet)

-          and the ability to eat and drink,

-          but no longer constrained by the usual constraints of space and time (see how in the resurrection stories, Jesus comes and goes from his friends at will).

The raised to life Jesus was – in language Paul uses later in 1 Cor – the first fruits of the resurrection of all baptised.

And those of us looking forward to that resurrection are not looking forward to being resuscitated after we die.

No, we are looking forward to a new resurrection body and life in a new world, in which we worship God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – eternally.

In other words, when we talk about the raising of Jesus from the dead, we are talking about much, much more than what Alice Roberts denies, that a man can be brought back to life.

We are talking about our Christian conviction that because God raised Jesus from the dead we dare to hope that Jesus’ death was transformative for our relationship with God – that through Jesus’ death we who believe in him might have peace with God – a reconciled, healed relationship with God.

Let’s go back to Friday. What happened on the cross? Michael Bird, an Australian Anglican theologian sums up the whole understanding of the New Testament when he says:

“On the cross, Jesus is the Passover lamb, the Levitical scapegoat, the suffering servant, the mercy seat, for on him God unloads the sins of the world, he bears the transgression of others, and the judgment of God against our wickedness falls upon him.”

Why would we think that? The plain fact of the matter is that if Jesus died on the cross and that was the end of his life, the end of his mission and the end of his movement, we would have heard no more about him.

If his death had some kind of eternal, universal significance, we would never have known it.

But something happened on that first Sunday after Jesus died and was buried. Our Psalm gives a hint, for instance,

 Psalm 118: 17: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 15 offers a list of appearances of Jesus to his followers.

John 20, in common with the three other gospels, tell us of an empty tomb and of an appearance of Jesus – a resurrected Jesus who has left the tomb.

When Mary goes to tell the other disciples that she has seen the Lord, as the apostle to the apostles, she sets in motion the possibility that the meaning of the death of Jesus will not be lost to the world but will be proclaimed to the world.

Acts 10 makes a very interesting point – let’s hear verses 39-42 again:

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.”

That interesting point is that God permitted appearances of Jesus to those who would share his message with the world. The resurrection appearances would embolden and encourage those who would share the significance of Jesus’ death.

 Paul – in later verses in 1 Corinthians 15 – leaves us in no doubt as to the importance of Christ’s resurrection:

1 Corinthians 15:14: “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.

1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

We are not still in our sins because of what Jesus achieved on the cross; we know what Jesus achieved on the cross because his death was not his end: God raised him from the dead and so – especially according to Luke’s Gospel – the risen Jesus was able to explain the meaning of his death.

Alice Roberts is right, normally dead people don’t come back to life. That’s why what happened to Jesus, what Mary and Peter and the other disciple saw – the empty tomb, the burial clothes without a body in them, and then, later, along with many others, an appearance or three of the raised Jesus – is extraordinary. It shouldn’t have happened.

The Christian faith should have died, according to Alice Roberts, stillborn on the cross. It didn’t. Mary told the disciples. They saw and believed. They told many others throughout their world who believed and they have told others through successive generations.

As Ian Paul, a British biblical scholar says,

 Seeing and believing are the foundations of apostolic faith, but believing without seeing, based on apostolic testimony, will be the reality for successive generations. The new reality, that God is Father not only to Jesus but to all who believe, so that we are together brothers and sisters of Jesus, is established here but made real by the Spirit (Romans 8.15).

The resurrection is about you and me: through belief, will we enter into the new reality of God’s love made real for us on Good Friday and revealed to us on Easter Day?