Johannine insights #4 — senses and faith

If you’re ready for a deep, sustained study of a New Testament text, may I suggest John?  And may I suggest printing the words below for reference as you work through the first twelve chapters?  Or, just put this in your “gospels” or “John” or “faith” or “Jesus” file for later reference.  Or maybe buy Robert Kysar’s and/or Raymond Brown’s books!  (Here is a blogger’s recommendation of Kysar’s book.)

I have gained a caboodle of insights into John’s gospel through readings in Raymond Brown’s commentary work in the Anchor Bible series.  Additional insights via Robert Kysar, John: The Maverick Gospel have proven helpful, as well as observations made in live classes by Dr. Paul Pollard and Dr. Tom Alexander.

Kysar may or may not be an ethnically Jewish name, but I suspect he has some personal, historical reasons for going over the top in expressing antitheses to anti-Semitism in John.  (I tend to pass over material that seems to be reading 20th- and 21st-century concerns into a 1st-century gospel narrative.  Worry about anti-Semitism might be more of a publisher’s political or economic concern.  Anti-Semitism is a thing of the 19th and 20th centuries, really.)  However, on the upside . . . I’d like to share worthwhile excerpts from Kysar’s book on the topics of the development of faith as connected withseeing and hearing.

~ ~ ~

In even a cursory reading of John’s gospel, one perceives a great deal of material about “the Jews” and various groups and individuals who develop, or don’t develop, faith.  In connection with faith development, John pays special attention to a seemingly intentional group of miraculous signs.  Below is Kysar on signs, faith and believing, seeing, and hearing.

The signs (semeion) are works of God, wonders, or expressions of the power of God that produce faith. This is true of each of the seven or eight major signs performed by Christ in the gospel.

[John’s] is a startling use of the term [semeion.]  When [the synoptic] gospels employed the term in relationship to Jesus’ marvelous acts, it is most often given a negative connotation. . . . The interest in seeing a sign as a basis for faith is condemned as an expression of distrust and suspicion.  Strange, then, that [John] uses it in a positive way.

[In John,] the signs performed by Jesus seem to have an ambiguous role in relation to believing in the revelation offered by Christ.

    1. Changing the water into wine (ch 2)
    2. Healing the nobleman’s son (ch 4)
    3. Healing the man who had been crippled for 30 years (ch 5)
    4. Feeding a multitude (ch 6)
    5. Walking on the water and the miraculous landing (ch 6)
    6. Healing of the man born blind (ch 9)
    7. Raising of Lazarus (ch 11)
    8. Catching a miraculous number of fish (ch 21)

These incidents are told in such a way as to suggest that they lead to faith. . . .  The implication is that these signs are offered as evidence that Jesus really is the
Messiah.

However, the evangelist seems to draw a line between believing in Jesus for the sake of his wondrous acts and “seeing signs.” . . . To follow Jesus simply for the sake of his gifts or benefits is not enough. . . . To “see the sign” involved something more than benefiting from this person who can supply your needs.

And what then is meant by “seeing signs”? . . . It seems that seeing wonderful acts of Jesus is more than a visual perception of what Jesus does or the experience of benefiting from those acts.  It is an insight into the identity of the performer of the sign. . . .

. . .

In [some] cases, the signs are regarded as a positive means of provoking faith in people.  Elsewhere the fourth gospel has much more serious reservations about the effectiveness of signs in producing genuine faith.  They seem powerless to arouse faith in some who experienced them. . . . It pictures Jesus speaking in such a way as to cast doubt on the whole faith grounded in the experience of the signs. Read once again the healing of the son of the officer in royal service (4:48-53). Jesus did the healing only after complaining about belief based on signs and wonderful acts. Is first 48 of the story a mild rebuke . . .? Or is it a repudiation of all signs-based faith? Is Jesus saying that faith founded upon wondrous acts has no value at all? Or . . . are we to infer from these words that faith based on signs is inferior . . .?

. . .

The Greek words for seeing are used in the fourth gospel interchangeably for a sensory perception and a faith perception. Examples of the difference between these two are 1:47 and 14:8. . . .  (Two different words are used in these verses. -bc)

John has a profound understanding of the relationship between these two types of perception. . . .

[John’s] understanding of how experience lends itself to faith is also reflected in other ways.  The obviously metaphorical use of “see” in 9:39 makes sense now.  Surely, Jesus’ mission is to accomplish some healing — the bestowal of physical capacities for sight and hearing — but [John] means something more.  Jesus grants the gift of perceiving the truth about life and existence. . . .

Much the same thing is true when we turn to [John’s] use of the words meaning “to hear” or “to listen. . . .”

Hearing may be a purely sensory act, as in 6:60, where the words of Jesus are heard but there is no real perception of their meaning.  It may also be the experience from which faith is born (5:24).  In the latter case, a discernment of Jesus’ true identity begins with normal hearing but goes beyond it.

For additional posts on John’s gospel, click here.

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