Your Lying Eyes

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14 April 2006

Of Two Gospels

You've all heard about the recently uncovered "Gospel of Judas"? It's been getting some silly press, as if it represents something significant beyond its value as a curiousity of antiquity. The New Yorker has a good piece on it by Adam Gopnik titled Jesus Laughed. (See also Ross Douthat's comments). "It certainly makes for odd bedside reading," says Gopnik:
One of the unnerving things about the new Gospel is that Jesus, who never laughs in the canonic Gospels, is constantly laughing in this one, and it’s obviously one of those sardonic, significant, how-little-you-know laughs, like the laugh of the ruler of a dubious planet on “Star Trek.”
No, there's not a lot of laughter in the four Gospels - but there is some light moments - if not outright humor - to be found, particularly in the 4th Gospel. There, Jesus - and the author of John - display a dry sense of humor that sounds rather - well, Jewish.

Towards the end of John 1, when Jesus is gathering his first disciples, Philip tells Nathanael about the new Messiah, who hails from Nazareth. Nathanael replies incredulously: "Could anything good come from Nazareth?" Jesus then gets to have a bit of fun with Nathanael, tweaking him just a bit, in a little playful payback.
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these."
In his exchange with Nicodemus early in John 3, amidst some of the most influential lines of prose in all of human history, Jesus' frustration with the faithful though muleheaded Pharisee takes a sarcastic twist: Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

The theologically critical encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is leavened by the repartee between this gentle Jew and the rough hewn Samaritan as Jesus tries to explain his divine nature using the metaphor of a single drink of water that woud quench her thirst forever. Though separated from this encounter by two thousand years and three languages, we sense her gritty, unsophisticated ways while detecting the good-natured soul within. Then, after finally succeeding in getting through to her that he's not talking about literal thirst but spiritual thirst, his disciples arrive and prove themselves no wiser. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" You half expect his response to be 'Doh!'

In John, the assaults on the legalism of the day verge on satire. In John 5, Jesus heals a man paralyzed for 38 years, telling him "Stand up, take your mat, and walk." The man is immediately accused of breaking the sabbath by carrying his mat! In John 9, when he cures a man born blind by making some mud and rubbing it on his eyes, he's accused of breaking the sabbath by working with clay.

Then this episode soon turns almost Capraesque as the healed man is brought before the Pharisees and this simple man makes fools of the supposed wise men, deflecting their conniving questions with some straight talk. They said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."

Jesus's confrontation with Pilate may not be light-hearted but it is tense and mesmerizing. We sense immediately the foreignness of Pilate - he clearly does not belong to the world we've been reading about up to now. He sounds different from Jesus or the disciples or Caiaphas or anyone else. His words are bold, direct, unadorned - he sounds intelligent yet cautious - exactly how we expect a Roman official to sound. Despite his power, he is clearly no match for the machinations going on around him, and the last minute reprieve is not to be.

So your Good Friday assignment - read the Gospel of John, whatever your faith, whether heathen, apostate, or agnostic. It's a quick and rewarding read, one that will re-affirm or perhaps establish your faith - if not in Jesus, then certainly in the sound literary judgement of the early church fathers who compiled the New Testament.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for a wonderful post on Good Friday.

Can you tell me how you became familiar with the Bible? Was it self taught, or a more formal/organized effort?

April 14, 2006 12:36 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Thanks - I'm self taught. I'm not really that well versed beyond the Gospels, but to the average person I'm probably pretty knowledgeable.

I read what I can about the Bible - John Dominic Crossan's Historical Jesus stuff is good. "God: A Biography" by Jack Miles was quite good on the old testament. Reynolds Price's "Three Gospels" was a good read - he provides his own translations of Mark and John as well as extensive commentary, and his own version of the Gospel which only serves to strengthen Mark and John by contrast. There's lots of other stuff I can't remember - I find it all very interesting (though I'm sure I will go to my grave never having read or seen the DaVinci Code).

April 14, 2006 1:27 PM  
Blogger Dennis Dale said...

Excellent post. As the world's most lapsed Catholic I had forgotten what day it was.
To this day I still refuse to even familiarize myself with the DaVinci code's premise.
Now as for the literary accomplishments of the "Left Behind" series...

April 14, 2006 3:35 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

Thanks. Considering the short half-life of humor -- very little of Shakespeare's humor is funny anymore, and even Lenny Bruce is pretty painful today -- it's not surprising that the humor in the Gospels is easily overlooked. Thanks for pointing it out.

April 14, 2006 4:06 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

I had forgotten what day it was - you're right, that's pretty lapsed!

But you inspired me to think of a joke -
Q. What do you call a fallen Catholic?
A. A lapsed Catholic

Q. What do you call a fallen Jew?
A. A Non-observant Jew

Q. What do you call a fallen Protestant?
A. A Protestant.

Q. What do you call a fallen Moslem?
A. Dead.

April 14, 2006 4:35 PM  
Blogger C. Van Carter said...

Jesus once said "No prophet is welcome in his home town". That cracks me up.

You should check out a little book called "The Logia of Yeshua".

April 14, 2006 5:04 PM  
Blogger Dennis Dale said...

Would it be too sacrilegious of me to suggest, on this Good Friday, that Jesus was the first stand-up?

April 14, 2006 5:55 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

The first stand-up? Don't think so - the humor is more ad-lib/situational.

April 14, 2006 6:38 PM  
Blogger Glaivester said...

Some of Shakespeare's humor is funny if you understand and translate it. For example, "I bite my thumb, but not at you, sir," (Romeo and Juliet) is hilarious if you translate the gesture in your head to a modern similar gesture - "No, sir, I'm not flipping the bird at you, I am just holding up my middle finger in your general direction as you walk by."

Or Juliet's "I wish to wreak the love for my cousin [whom Romeo killed] on Romeo's body" is funny if you understand her as saying "Romeo! I'd like to get my hands on him!"

April 14, 2006 7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Raymond Brown and N.T. Wright are more worthwhile than John Dominic Crossan.

April 15, 2006 4:23 PM  

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