Sunday, March 27, 2016

Only connect the prose and the passion III: For Easter

I first wrote the post that I am, to some extent, recycling back in 2011. It's here. And the second post by the same name is here. And an accessible version of the music video with Vestal Goodman in that second post, which has now become unavailable from the U.S., is here.

If you had been there on that first Easter morn, you could have photographed the risen Jesus of Nazareth. He didn't live within people's hearts then. He was walking around. His resurrected feet printed the sod. If you had been with the disciples when he came to them in the upper room, you could have touched his hands and his feet; you could have seen the scar from the spear in his side. You could have handed him a piece of fish and felt his hand touch yours as he took it.

There is only one religion that connects the prose and the passion, and that is Christianity. Christianity offers mankind all the scope the imagination and the heart could desire--God become man as a baby with a virgin mother, sin taken away mysteriously by means of the God-man's shameful death, His vindication by a glorious resurrection, the possibility of new life for each of us and the remission of sin, the final promise that all shall be made new.

For this very reason, too many Christians have played into the hands of the skeptics, fearful that the prose might cancel the poetry, separating the "Christ of history" from the "Christ of faith" and assuring the faithful that they can have the latter in whom to rest their hearts and on whom to feed their imaginations even if the former is...a bit lacking.

But this is not Christianity. For Christianity affirms, "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, He descended into hell, and the third day He rose again from the dead." There is no separation between the great truths of the Gospel and the prosaic truths of history, between the massive miracle of Jesus risen and the all-too-human, bureaucratic hand-washing of a harassed Roman official two thousand years ago.

Some writers are offended by the "physicality" of the resurrection accounts and attribute them to later additions. But there is nothing in the accounts themselves that suggests that. Indeed, the confidence of Peter on the day of Pentecost is best explained by precisely such physically grounded appearances as those recounted in the gospels--a resurrected Lord who eats and even cooks on a fire of coals for others to eat, who is tangible and invites his disciples to touch him and who, says the first chapter of Acts, shows himself to them repeatedly over forty days by many infallible proofs.

John 21, one of the longest accounts of Jesus' interactions with his disciples after his resurrection, throws in the irrelevant detail that the disciples caught 153 fish that morning. Attempts to give this detail heavy theological or allegorical meaning are laughable. The detail is there because that's how fishermen think. In this particular case, John was also struck by the fact that the net didn't break.

Here, in these truths, you can indeed rest, and upon them you can stake your lives, because they are not cloudy truths. Christianity has its mysticism and its mystics. Indeed, St. John may well have been one of them. Yet it is in John that we see most of all that mysticism and empirical hard-headedness are not at odds but rather go hand in hand. John who tells us, "He that feareth is not made perfect in love," which I, for one, feel is far beyond me, who tells us, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," is the same author who tells us that there were 153 fish and that the net didn't break, that the fire on which Jesus cooked was made of coals (not wood?), and, oh, by the way, the servant whose ear Peter cut off was named Malchus. John the mystic is John the man of detail, the man with something akin to a photographic memory, the man who remembers, when Judas opened the door and went out to betray the Lord, "And it was night."

Well might he say, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which our hands have handled, of the word of life. For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us." 

It is all one to John. The Logos who was from the beginning and the man who cooked and ate the fish. In the mind of John there is no division between the prose and the passion.

So, on this basis, I invite you to rejoice and be glad, for our Lord is risen indeed!


Lydia McGrew said...

My apologies to commenter Gyan. I disagree with his comment but intended to click "publish" and apparently accidentally clicked "reject." The content is still in my e-mail, so here it is:

Gyan says:

Do fishermen count hundreds of fishes?
This is what I have read on the significance of the number 153:
53. It is quite a peculiar number because in Hebrew that is the number of the Passover HaPesach that is composed by the letters chet samekh peh heh, doubling as numbers:

8 + 80 + 60 + 5 = 153

153 is also equal to the sum of the cubes of its components:

13+53+33 =153

and it also the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 17:


then 17 in Hebrew means tov that is “good” or “goodness,” contrary to the Italian superstition that considers that number la disgrazia (misfortune) and a very unlucky number because it is associated even from Roman times with death and the completion of life. Even that superstition carries a grain of truth in it because the end of life must come before the resurrection. Curiously enough Our Lord was resurrected on the 17 of Nisan.

Lydia McGrew said...

Gyan, yes, I think fishermen might well count 153 fish (which is not "hundreds" anyway). They have to take the fish out of the net and clean the net anyway, and all of that has to be done by hand. Tedious, but part of being fishermen. I don't think they did it before eating breakfast, of course, but the number would have been reported at the point in the story where they were caught even if they didn't count until later.

The numerological "explanation" you have read about the "significance" of the number is, like virtually all such numerological explanations, highly contrived. Numerology is a wax nose. One can make it say anything. (I seem to recall that the so-called "Bible codes" are based on the same approach.) When one is creative and knows the code being used (the number-letter connection), one can make all sorts of such "patterns." I think it enormously implausible that John the evangelist made up the number of fish for any such reason.

Lydia McGrew said...

I note, too, that the evangelist emphasizes a _literal_ detail in relation to the number--namely, that the net didn't tear. The attempt to relate the number to some esoteric or symbolic meaning does not fit well with the clear emphasis in the narrative which is connected to the *actual number of fish*. This is not to say that if there had been 154 instead of 153 the net would have torn. The point, though, is that it looks like they tried to make a count of the fish, more or less accurate, that John records the count, and that this count makes all the more remarkable the fact that the net did not tear. I note that the first draught of fishes in which the net did tear is not described in John--an interesting coincidence. John is clearly thinking of the earlier miracle even though it isn't included in his own gospel.

Gyan said...

Numerical codes feel contrived to us but did they to the ancient world as well?

That the net did not break could just refer to guarantee that the Church would not fail.

Lydia McGrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia McGrew said...

My use of the term "contrived" was meant to refer to an objective property of the theories and hence not to how it "seems," which would then be different from culture to culture. As I said, you can make numerology "say" anything. Moreover, a numerological "explanation" is much more complex and hence less justifiable than the simple explanation that this is how it happened.

If you are now going to give an allegorical "explanation" for the statement that the net did not break as well, you are adding to your problems. For example, this is pretty clearly a contrast with the first miracle of the fish, recounted in the synoptics. So did that net literally start to break or not? Is that miracle a non-occurrence but an allegory? If so, do we have to make up some "meaning" for the statement there that the net did break?

If the number of the fish *and* the statement that the net didn't break are both numerological and/or allegorical, does this mean they didn't happen? (That definitely seems to be what you're pushing on the matter of the number of fish.) Then why should we think the meeting itself happened? Did Jesus or didn't he eat fish with the disciples?

All of these non-literal interpretations are in quite a bit of tension with the historical interpretation of the passage overall. It is arbitrary to hold that the evangelist recorded a real meeting with Jesus after his resurrection, including a real miracle of the fish that actually happened, but *made up* just *some* of the details out of whole cloth and stuck them in there for allegorical purposes. This admixture of fact and fiction is a pointlessly complicated hypothesis the only purpose of which seems to be the employment of the imaginations of modern critics and the appearance of sophistication. Heaven forbid we should be so naive as to think that this stuff is in the gospel because it happened!

Gyan said...

It is not claimed that the event did not happen. The event could be both literal and admitting of an allegorical interpretation.
I should have expected that this--multiple meanings-of scripture-is pretty standard.

Lydia McGrew said...

So were there 153 fish (more or less), or not? And did the net not break, or did it break? And did they know how many fish there were for the mundane reason that they counted the fish and reported truly, or did John make up the number for a numerological reason? If all of this really happened, then why are you apparently disagreeing with the point I am making? You seem to be presenting your allegorical and numerological ideas as an _alternative_ to my explanation of reportage.

Or is it just the "naivete" of taking the _number_ to be literal that offends your sense of sophistication? Do you want to take the event to have happened but the number to be made-up numerological-mystical "stuff" rather than taking it that they actually had a fairly good idea of how many fish they caught? If so, I call arbitrariness. And if you acknowledge that the net literally didn't break, then whatever allegorical interp. you want to put on it, my point stands about the passage's _explicit_ connection between that offensively particular number and a literal fact.

John said...

Great post, Lydia--spoken like a true evidentialist!

In John 21:15, Jesus asks Peter: "Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these?" Has anyone heard the interpretation that takes "these" as a reference to the 153 fish? Now don't scoff; that's getting right to the heart of a fisherman's priorities!!! And Jesus would thus be seen gently converting fisherman into shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-2).

Lydia McGrew said...

Ha! You may be right about fishermen in general and priorities. :-)

However, I'd say in this case it's not a contrast between two different possible objects of the verb "love." Funny you should bring up the question. Someone asked me about this in the Q & A on my talk last night, and I did a little looking into the Greek. (Bible Hub's "Greek Text Analysis" tool rocks, especially for someone like me who is not a Greek specialist.) It looks like the verb used in that verse, agape, takes the accusative for its objects. That's very normal. In "Do you love me..." the word "me" is, quite normally, in the accusative as the object. But the pronoun "these" is not in the accusative as one would expect if it were an alternative direct object: "Do you love me more than [you love] these?" Instead, surprisingly enough, it's in the genitive case, and there is no separate word for "than." Genitive is sometimes translated "of _______." Also, the word translated "more" is in fact an adjective ("greater"), not an adverb, as the English grammar of the translation would suggest.

So a really woodenly literal translation would be

"Do you love me greater than of these?"

That's clearly idiomatic and hence scarcely meaningful in English, but what it does not (to my mind) support is taking "these" to refer to some object which he might love more than he loves Jesus. If that were the case, the demonstrative pronoun should be in a parallel case to "me."

I would say that the best filling-out is something like

"Do you love me [with a devotion] greater than [the devotion] of these others?"

This also seems to be the consensus of commentators, for what that is worth.

Gyan said...

"Do you want to take the event to have happened but the number to be made-up numerological-mystical "stuff" rather than taking it that they actually had a fairly good idea of how many fish they caught?"

Again, it is nowise claimed or implied that anything was made-up. An event happened that was susceptible to an allegorical interpretation. That's why the event was reported and included in the text.

Gyan said...

My comment was on this passage:
"John 21, one of the longest accounts of Jesus' interactions with his disciples after his resurrection, throws in the irrelevant detail that the disciples caught 153 fish that morning. Attempts to give this detail heavy theological or allegorical meaning are laughable. The detail is there because that's how fishermen think. In this particular case, John was also struck by the fact that the net didn't break."

While not pretending to know how fishermen think, I do not think the allegorical meanings that have been put forward as to 153 fishes to be laughable. If the fact that Hebrew alphabet has a numerical code that was current in John's day, then it is not improbable that John was struck by the numerical coincidence and that's why the detail got reported.

Lydia McGrew said...

Gyan, well, I do still think they are laughable, and generally they are put forward as an alternative to the reason of reportage.

I can't help noting that your _very_ first comment was the apparently incredulous, "Do fishermen count hundreds of fish?"

I'm sorry if I've misunderstood you, but I think you can see that that gives the impression that you are questioning the naive reportage interpretation of the way that the number 153 got into the text.

John said...

Great work on the Greek, Lydia (I'll have to check out Bible Hub).

In an expression, "to love X more than Y", we would expect to find X in the accusative (and we do in 21:15 where Jesus refers to himself as "me", accusative case). And in the "more than" part of the expression, Y is commonly genitive (BDF grammar has it as a "genitive of comparison"). And you are correct that "than" is elided after the comparative for "more". A different construction is found in Matt. 10:37 (and see Gen. 29:30).

All of that said, the grammar offers no help in finding the referent of "these." It is interesting that Jesus finds Peter fishing and calls him from that activity (Mk. 1:16ff. and pars.; and esp. see Lk. 5:1ff.). And now that the Crucifixion, clad for Peter in the three-fold denial, is past, he reverts to fishing as if he considers the whole experiment as a throw-away. And so he goes back to what he otherwise knows best; he gets naked and casts a net. Then, after this first interrogative, Jesus has to cajole him further on the quality or even existence of his love.

Curiously, taking "more than these" to query whether Peter's love surpasses that of the other disciples brings us from a peculiar angle to the Catholic/Protestant divide over the status of Peter. And, if the relation of Peter to the others is in view, notice that the threefold exhortation of Jesus after Peter's affirmations of love is to call Peter to be attentive to Jesus' lambs/sheep (=disciples).

Really the only other datum we have for making this interpretive decision on how to understand "these" is everything that precedes in the Fourth Gospel. And here, Peter is not called from fishing, his brother Andrew draws Peter to Jesus.

The issues are, to me, fairly evenly balanced. If pressed, I would lean toward seeing "these" as the other disciples with a view toward whether, or not, Peter loves Jesus more than they do. In the present narrative, it is not at all clear that he does.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks for the heads up on the genitive of comparison. You make a good point. I also think that your finding concerning the different construction in Matt. 10:37 is relevant. As are these:

Matt. 6:25, John 14:28, and Matt. 10:31. In all of these the word after the genitive of comparison goes with the verb. That is to say, "You are of more value than many sparrows are," and so forth.

In any event, at the risk of sounding dogmatic, I would say that it seems fairly obvious to me that Christ is "ostending" the other disciples and means to ask if Peter loves him more than they do. There is, aside from anything else, the coincidence with Peter's boast that he _is_ more devoted than they are (found in the synoptics), a boast that has proven false. I think Jesus is asking him to renounce his pride before the other disciples. This is itself an undesigned coincidence between this passage and the synoptics. Peter has learned his lesson and humbly does not claim to love Jesus more than they do--only to love him.

Lydia McGrew said...

In general, I don't think Peter's return to fishing was seen as a bad thing by Jesus. In studying the gospels lately I've come to realize that Peter actually kept access to his fishing boat all along and that, in fact, Jesus probably found this useful and did not ask him to give it up. There are occasions where Jesus assumes that a boat is available around the Galilee. Also, harmonizing John and the synoptics leads to the fascinating conclusion that the famous "come, follow me" scene in the synoptic Gospels actually took place _after_ Peter, Andrew, James, and John had been disciples of Jesus for several months, recorded in the early chapters of John. So the "calling" of those disciples was actually not the beginning of their relationship with Jesus as his disciples, and it must have been okay for them to return to their fishing for a time after having already been his disciples. John makes it clear that they _originally_ began following Jesus in Judea, not in Galilee, after he was pointed out by John the Baptist.