The Wind and the Dove Descend upon Jesus:
Multiple Meanings in John 1:32
From the new edition to be published in the second week of March 2014 of The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, Volume II as published by Editores Volcán Barú
This verse is loaded with multiple meanings. The Greek word πνευμα means “wind”, “breath”, and “spirit” as do the Hebrew and Aramaic words behind it. The verb καταβαινω (“to descend”) appears here significantly for the second of three times in the opening episodes, clearly to bring back to mind the opening Prologue (3:13) and to anticipate Jesus’s concluding statement to Nathanael (1:51). The word ουρανος means both the physical “sky” and “heaven” (in the spiritual sense) as is the case in every language I know except English. Thus John is talking at the same time about a wind out of the sky, God’s breath exhaled down from heaven, and God’s Spirit descending from heaven.
The verb θεαομαι (theaomai) is related to our modern word “theater”; it is more specific than the English verb “to see”, more exactly meaning to observe something intensely but passively, as a spectator watches a performance on stage. In classical literature it carries the strong suggestion of being deeply affected by what one is observing. This verb anticipates a point introduced in the next paragraph, that in this gospel John never actually administers to Jesus his immersion ceremony. If he had, the text here would say, “As I was immersing him…”, or, “As I was about to immerse him…” One gains the sense from the phrasing here that John was not close to Jesus as this miraculous event occurred; he may not even have been in the Jordan but still on dry land watching this profoundly moving drama with helpless awe.
Unlike the self-administered mikvah, John’s immersion ceremony was one that he had to execute himself. Hints of may survive in the ceremony done in John’s name to this day by the Mandæans of southern Iraq (cf. Sabian Mandaean the Secret Root of Christianity, by Salim Berenjie). Rabbi Ben Abrahamson says the Sabian Mandæans were originally Notzrim, a group John and Jesus both appear closely associated with, but changed their designation in the face of rejection by orthodox Christians “to continue to live under the protection Allah SWT gives to the ‘people of the book’”.
John’s declaration does not say he actually performed the immersion ceremony for Jesus. Scholars usually say the author left it understood that it was done. But I ask: How he could have performed it if he felt unworthy even to untie Jesus’s sandals (1:27)? I think it was not done, because a miraculous event superseded it, and John was frozen into immobility. That event is bound up in a close reading of the verse. The word περιστερα (peristera, “dove”) that we find in the text is virtually identical in pronunciation to another word, πρηστηρ (prēstēr, “whirlwind”), especially as declined in this verse, περιστεραν/πρηστηρον (peristeran/prēstēran) – the consonants are exactly the same, which would jump right out at Lazarus and John the Presbyter, whose first languages were Hebrew and Aramaic, which at the time were written with only consonants. It is possible
that this is a scribal error on the part of the amanuensis or else extremely early in the subsequent history of the gospel text, since the words for “dove” and “whirlwind” are quite unlike in Hebrew and Aramaic. But I reject this possibility, and also the possibility that this was a “correction” by the much later redactor to make this gospel conform to the three Synoptic gospels, since as is argued below both words would be very appropriate here.
This verse has always been understood to be saying one thing came down: a wind in the form of a dove. But I believe two things happened at about the same time – that both a whirlwind and a “dove” descended on and remained with Jesus, as I shall now explore.
Any first-century Jew reading this text would not need to be reminded of Elijah’s whirlwind as a spiritual father of this event, but the dove connection would not have been quite so clearly evident; I think this is why the Presbyter added a phrase saying that just the wind came down, so also did a dove. John testifies that he saw the πνευμα come down out of the sky/heaven. The word πνευμα can mean “wind”, “breath”, or “spirit” depending on context, and the context here, that it came down from the sky, tells us the intended main meaning is “wind”. (Still, to remind the reader of these other meanings, the translation retains all three.)
We know from experience that a wind out of the sky sometimes does take the form of a whirlwind; the text clearly makes sense with that reading. The usual reading, that a wind came out of the sky/heaven in the form of a dove, makes little sense. A wind can no more take the form of a dove than it can take the form of a barn or a banana or the Beatles. However a wind can take the form of a whirlwind. Besides being nothing like a mighty gale, a fragile dove would not be able to withstand a whirlwind out of the sky, let alone safely alight on Jesus and manage to stay on his shoulder, without getting blown away. In any case, the very next verse, 33, seals the matter by expressly saying the πνευμα, the wind (and not a dove), descended onto Jesus.
This provisional reconstruction of the author’s original intent also makes contextual sense. Immediately before this episode is the Prologue, which contains significant references to the Breath/Wind/Spirit of God that moved across the surface of the waters in Creation (Genesis 1:2) and that was breathed into Adam’s nostrils (Genesis 2:7). The conversation with Nicodemus, which picks up this theme, comes soon hereafter. And this passage forms an inclusio (that is to say, it is in A-B-A symmetry) with 19:30, in which Jesus breathes out the wind/breath/spirit within him for the last time as he dies, and 20:22, in which Jesus exhales on the disciples and says “Receive the πνευμα άγιον” (the sacred breath/spirit/wind – equivalent in Greek to [ רוּחַ Ruach], the Breath/Soul of Life); by exhaling he proves he is alive, but also with that breath he heals them, he blesses them, and he fills them with the Name and Spirit of God.
I wonder if John the Presbyter’s focus here on the whirlwind, πρηστηρ, led to the Mediæval Prester John legend.
YHWH was clearly conceived of anciently as a storm god, as imaged in Psalm 2l, especially verse 3, in which the roar of YHWH’s voice is over the waters just as was the YHWH’s breath in Genesis 1:2, and as is the whirlwind here. The Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and, on the third day, there is darkness and storm (Exodus 19:16), and Moses comes down the mountain to deliver the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). Those three days parallel the three day revolving around John the Immerser in chapter 1, with this day being dark and stormy. Again, obviously, an association is being drawn with Moses.
Any first-century Jew reading this account of a whirlwind hovering about Jesus would instantly think not only of Genesis, Exodus, and the Psalm, but also of Isaiah 11:1-2, which says the wind/breath/spirit of God will rest upon the expected Messiah. And a whirlwind resting on a prophet at the Jordan River (1:28) would also immediately call to the mind of that reader, as it clearly did the delegation that came to ask John questions (see the commentary above to John 1:20-21), the story of Elijah, also at the Jordan, transferring his prophetic power to Elisha (II Kings 2). Elijah strikes the river with his rolled-up mantle and the waters part, echoing the story of Moses, to whom this gospel often compares Jesus, likewise parting the waters. After Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, a chariot and horses of fire appear, and Elijah is taken into heaven in a whirlwind. Except for the mantle and the chariot and horses of fire, everything matches up. An older prophet (Elijah/John) nearing the close of his ministry ordains the beginning of the ministry of a younger prophet (Elisha/Jesus) who has a double portion of the older one’s spirit; the River Jordan is passed through or entered into; and a whirlwind comes from heaven. One pertinent difference is that the whirlwind takes one waning prophet, Elijah, to heaven, but not John, since he is to die at Herod’s hand; rather, the whirlwind comes down to anoint Jesus, evidently conferring on him something of the nature and spirit of Elijah as it did Elisha. This whirlwind is the presence of God, the voice of God, the breath of God, which Moses only saw after it had passed by and it was safe to leave the cave where he was hidden.
This whirlwind is ֶאְהֶיה ֲאֶשר ֶאְהֶיה (“I Am and Will Be What I Am and Will Be”), it is God’s name. Occasionally God confers the rare honor of being “taken up into heaven”; II Kings 2 aside, Genesis 5:24 is also interpreted to say the same of Enoch, and it is generally believed that Moses too was taken up into heaven, though there is nothing to say so in the Torah. This gospel suggests this was going to happen with Jesus too (cf. 6:62 and 20:17); certainly, in the theology of Jesus as presented in this gospel this would further validate his status as Messiah. (Much later, the Ascension of Jesus would become church doctrine, but with an entirely different import; it is fancifully described in Luke-Acts and in a late addition to Mark.) The Talmud often speaks of the spirit/wind/breath descending from the sky/heaven to anoint the Messiah (e.g., Test. Levi 18, Test. Judah 24:2). The storm here returns as an inclusio during the crucifixion, as discussed on page 915. All in all, the gospel is drawing a strong comparison between Jesus and both Elijah and Moses, clearly telling us the gospel is directed at least at a Jewish audience.
As presaged above, there are at least two obvious conclusions. One is that the amanuensis meant to write the Greek word for “whirlwind” as he was taking down the Beloved Disciple’s spoken reminiscences, but accidentally wrote the similar Greek word for “dove”. The other is that this was a deliberate change effected later by the redactor of this gospel, to bring it into conformity with the by-then-published Synoptic gospels. Those three gospels all feature (rightly or wrongly) a dove; since Matthew and Luke based their tellings on the version in Mark, we can conclude – if in reality it was a whirlwind that visited itself upon Jesus at his immersion – that the scribal error occurred in the early stages of composition of Mark’s text, and Matthew and Luke simply repeated the mistake, and then John was edited to conform to the other three.
A third, less obvious conclusion requires us to put aside two thousand years of assumptions about this text and read it afresh. The Greek adverb ως (hōs) has in this text always been taken to mean “like”, to say there is one thing, the wind, which takes on the form of another thing, a dove; but ως, as noted in standard references like Strong’s, can also mean “just as”, “in the same manner as”, which here would say there are two things that have something in common – that the wind and the dove both came down to Jesus and remained on/with him. The Aramaic adverb ( ܐܝܟ, hayk) in the Curetonian Gospels text, usually translated in this verse as “like” as is ως, also can take this latter sense, as noted in standard dictionaries such as Jastrow’s.
The double entendre of πρηστηρ/περιστερα, typical of the Presbyter’s style, is only possible in Greek, since the Aramaic words for “dove” and “wind” are considerably different, but the latter text still can be clearly read as saying both the wind and dove came down to Jesus.
Since this reading clears up the issue of how wind can take on the totally unlike appearance of a dove, my translation presents these two meanings, such that both the whirlwind and dove come down and remain with him. This double entendre analogy is well-rooted in the Tanakh, in passages that would have occurred to any first-century Jew. The Talmud and Dead Sea Scrolls both offer an analogy that conjoins both parts of the double entendre, comparing the ruach of God that moved over the surface of the waters in Genesis 1:2 to a female dove: Shimon ben Zoma in the Babylonian Talmud Chagigah 15a, for instance, says that the ruach hovered over the waters in the way a mother bird hovers over her young without touching them (though he was criticized for this analogy, whereupon he was so mortified that he instantly dropped dead). John Milton, who took much of his material from the Talmud, put it thus (Paradise Lost, I, 17-22):
… Thou O Spirit …
… Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant …
In many other passages the common thread is their portrayal of the dove as seeking out a sanctuary from one’s enemies in the wilderness, a theme common to John, Jesus, and this gospel. In Genesis 8, the dove guides Noah out of the torment of water and wind to dry land, as, so I will suggest below, Mary does here. Psalm 55:6-8 refers to a dove flying away to safety, out of the dangerous whirlwind. Jeremiah 48:28 urges one to imitate the dove, living in safety among the inaccessible crags. Psalm 11:1,3 similarly has the psalmist upbraid his advisors: “How (can you) say to my soul, ‘Flee (as) a bird to your mountain’? … If the foundations are torn down, what do the righteous do?”, which for Jesus would be a salient question: How can Mary flee back to the Samaritan community at Mount Gerizim for safety if that place is in danger? In 2:19 he will speak of the foundations of the Jerusalem Temple being pulled down.
And the most significant reference to a dove: the Shulammite, the beautiful woman in the Song of Songs, which this gospel associates with Mary by way of frequent paraphrases from that work, is often compared in the Song to a dove. In Song 2:14 the man asks the woman, whom he calls his dove, to show herself in the concealed place along the steep way – the landscape described in that verse is one that the eyewitness and amanuensis would have agreed describes accurately this rock-strewn, craggy countryside where John was immersing people, which Gulielmus Tyrius described as also abounding in what the locals called dragons, which he defined as “hidden passages and windings underground”. Visitors to the region today will find it continues to be full of concealed places along steep ways. This verse in the Song of Songs suggests the possibility that the whirlwind and the dove could both have been present at the immersion – that would be the case if the dove, the beloved, “showed herself in the concealed place” in the form of Mary, called the Magdalene in the Synoptics. This famous cognomen may indeed refer to doves, as is discussed in the essay on page 406. Every time she appears in this gospel the text includes references to the beloved woman, the “dove” of the Song of Songs.
The whirlwind could literally have come down from heaven and remained on Jesus, and the “dove”, Mary, could also have come down from the shore and helped Jesus, likely a bit disoriented by the frigid currents and fierce wind, out of the water, and “remained” with him – remained forever, as his wife. This helping Jesus from the death- waters is an inclusio-reversal of Jesus guiding Mary out of the darkness of his tomb into the dawn light at the resurrection. As at the resurrection, Simon and Lazarus, at present John’s disciples, are here but ineffective. Everyone else watches helplessly as the whirlwind descends on Jesus in the frigid turbulent current, thinking that they about to see a man swept away to his death. But she knows what to do; she enters the water – and the whirlwind ceases and she guides him to shore, just as the wind ceases when Jesus enters the boat in 6:21 and he guides the disciples to shore. In her first appearance in this gospel Mary is portrayed as a κοινωνος, a co-Messiah with Jesus.
The presence of the Breath/Wind/Spirit tells us that God is in this scene in the aspect called in the Tanakh YHWH (the proper pronunciation of this name being an exhalation). The Prologue, as we have seen, evokes from its first words the creation stories that begin Genesis, and that theme continues here. Where Elohim created the first human in Elohim’s own image, as a hermaphrodite, comprising as one both masculine and feminine (Genesis 1:27), it was YHWH who then split this first human into two, a man and a woman (Genesis 2:21-22). Here, however, the whirlwind-presence of YHWH begins the process of reversing that separation, driving together this new Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary, such that, by the end of this gospel they will be again completely one flesh (Genesis 2:24) in Elohim’s image. Strengthening the view that Mary is present in this scene is the clear inclusio between John, the first to declare publicly Jesus as Messiah after his symbolic death-and- resurrection in the Jordan (1:43), and Mary, the first to declare publicly Jesus as Messiah during his ministry (4:29; John only discusses Jesus as Messiah with certain religious officials, and the disciples only privately, in chapter 1); she is also the first to declare him Messiah after his literal death-and-resurrection (20:18). Moreover, there is an inclusio inasmuch as here Mary watches while Jesus enters the water, and again when he dies on the cross (19:25), and as here she runs to help him from the river waters, and again runs to him at the resurrection. There is another inclusio: Jesus is reunited with Mary in a garden after arising from the dead in chapter 20, just as he will be reunited soon after this immersion scene with this woman, at a gardenlike spring in chapter 4. And the whirlwind here is mirrored by suggestions discussed below of a wind and storm at the time of the crucifixion. With so many clear correspondences being drawn between John and Mary, the possibility that Mary was present at Jesus’s immersion must be considered.
It will be established below that Lazarus was Mary’s son and at this time a disciple of John. If so, then Mary could have come from Shechem to visit her son, who at the time of the immersion would have been there to witness it. Mary may even have come to be herself immersed by John, to recollect her Jewish heritage after serving as a Samaritan priestess, to make herself Jewish-kosher, to have her past “washed away” through the immersion. If so, then not only Jesus but Mary too would have been naked for the immersion, as was customary. Logion 107 in the Gospel of Philip says we are to undress before we “go down into the water” such that we may be “clothed with the Living Water”). So too does the Diataxis [Ordinances] of the Holy Apostles (more commonly called “The Apostolic Tradition” or the Anaphora of Hippolytus of Rome), at 21:1-5, which in recording the baptism rite of the early 300s in the Eastern Church, very likely the practice in John’s Asian churches as well:
At the hour when the cock crows, they shall make prayer over the water. The water shall be flowing through the baptismal enclosure, or pour into it from above where there is abundant water; if water is not abundant, use whatever water is available. They shall then remove all of their clothing. The children shall be immersed first. If they can speak for themselves, they should do so; otherwise, their parents or other relatives should speak for them. Then the men are immersed and, last, the women, after they have first unbound their hair and put aside their gold and silver ornaments that they are wearing. Let no one take any foreign object with him down into the water.
And, needless to say, this is also still today the practice in the mikvah. The mikvah, like this early Christian baptism, was intentionally celebrated as a birth ritual and we are all born naked (Job 1:21). Jesus’s nakedness in this scene forms an inclusio with his being nearly so to wash the disciples’ feet (13:3-12a), and his complete nakedness on the cross (19:23-24) and at the resurrection (20:6-7), when he was spiritually reborn and spiritually remarried to Mary. She would probably have been nigh naked herself at the crucifixion, and certainly at the resurrection, since the tradition then was for a grieving person to rend his or her clothes into pieces. That increases the sense of an implicit eroticism to this scene of a man and a woman naked together in the water, which parallels the implicit eroticism at the spring in Samaria and forms an inclusio with the clear eroticism at the resurrection (see the references under “eroticism” in the final index).
It is possible that Mary was assisting John in the immersion rites; as a former Temple priestess this would be a familiar role for her, and John would be known to her if, as I think, her sister Martha was the wife of his son Simon the Rock. Thus, she may have helped Jesus and others there for the ritual to undress, and to untie his sandals, the very act that John felt he could not do himself (1:27), and to throw around him a fresh white linen robe afterwards. Thus too she was quick to respond, going to Jesus in the wild current and wind to rescue him when everyone else was frozen. If, as suggested above, John’s immersion ritual was preëmpted by a miracle, a whirlwind descending on Jesus, then John may never even have entered the Jordan to do the rite! – and a second miracle, a dove, Mary, descended on Jesus in the Jordan to bring him to shore. If Mary undressed and reclothed him in this scene, there is an inclusio with her coming to the tomb (20:1) to undertake the wifely responsibility of tohorah, the ritual purification of a body by undressing it, washing it (equivalent to the immersion here), and then reclothing it in a fresh white takhrikhin (linen wrapping). And if the great preacher John felt unworthy of unlacing Jesus’s sandals and helping him to undress, and these tasks fell instead to Mary, then Mary must already have been in a very special capacity on behalf of John. The Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim had had a dove image for veneration, and though the Temple was destroyed it or a replacement may still have been on display in Mary’s time, as suggested by the Talmud (Hul. 6a) – in fact, the dove image originally worshipped there was reportedly the idol buried by Jacob under the oak here at Shechem (Genesis 35:4; Tosafot Ḥul. 6a); it could be that it was found and put back on display. Also, while as noted above the Aramaic words for “dove” and “wind” are quite unlike, the Aramaic word for “dove”, ( ܝܘܢܐ, yawna), is so similar to John’s name in Aramaic, ( ܝܘܚܢܢ yawhnn) that it could have been as a feminine variant of the name; though no such variant has been found in early writings, that does not exclude the possibility. The two words are not quite as close in Hebrew, in which “dove” is ( יֺוָנה, yonah; also the name “Jonah”; no surprise, the tale of Jonah is yet another dove-resurrection connection) and John is ( יוָֹחָנן, yochanan). The meaning of John’s name, “God has been gracious”, has nothing to do with doves, though note that the etymology of yawna is unknown, so the possibility of its being related to yawhnn cannot be firmly ruled out. Still, Lazarus and/or John the Presbyter could have noted the phonetic similarity as they worked out the double entendre they adopted in their original Greek text – or, possibly, Mary was called yawna because of her putative role as John’s assistant; indeed, this might be the root of her Synoptic cognomen “Magdalene”; cf. pages 409-10. Doves were often used as government, commercial, or military messengers, and, writes Rabbi Ben Abrahamson, as a means of divination of the “word from heaven” for the Notzrim, a religious sect embracing the Essenes, with whom John and Jesus may have been aligned.
The Gospel of Philip may provide support for this possible involved presence of Mary at Jesus’s immersion. This noncanonical gospel, more of a reflection on Jesus’s life and teaching than a narrative gospel, was apparently written by Philip the Evangelist, not to be confused with the apostle; he was known to John the Presbyter, and like him one of the larger group of disciples who followed Jesus. Often wrongly labelled Gnostic, the gospel is theologically and imagistically not far from the Gospel of John. At logion 82 it closely associates immersion, resurrection, and marriage in terms of the reconciliation of male with female in the image of Elohim – a theme that will come up several times in this work: [This website will not reproduce the Coptic original text.] “The immersion has the resurrection [with] the reconciliation coming into the bridal chamber; yet, the bridal chamber is more exalted than these. … One will never find its like.” And it may be speaking of John (as the friend of the bridegroom; cf. John 3:29) and the disciples (as the sons of the bridegroom; Jesus often addresses them as his children; at least some were in their actual childhood) when it says the nakedness of the bride may only be seen by her parents, the friend of the groom (here, the Immerser) and the groom’s sons (here, the disciples) (logion 131). Note also that Mary’s mother Salome was among the women at the tomb according to Mark 16:1. [This website will not reproduce the Coptic original text.] “Let her [the bride] come forth and be revealed only to her father and mother with her, before the friend of the bridegroom, [and] before the sons of the bridegroom.”
In the much-debated fragment from the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Jesus not only calls Mary “my wife” (tahime), but says “As for me, I dwell/exist/live with her in order to […] an image […]”. The verb [Coptic] suggests “I live with her” in three senses: the ordinary sense of cohabitation, the higher sense of spiritual union, and the highest sense, of the vitality in all things that vivifies life. Thus, Jesus is probably saying his marriage to Mary is part of the Messianic image he hopes to convey; applied to the immersion, their meeting at his symbolic death-and-resurrection in the river is perfectly matched by their meeting anew after his very real death and resurrection.
Doves in this part of the world are not white, as in European paintings. More properly called turtledoves, they are buff on the breast, with gold-grey-brown wings. They are migratory, coming to this land from Africa in early spring (Song of Songs 2:11-12) and returning thither in August; curiously, Mary only appears in this gospel in Acts One and Four, which take place in the spring, and not in Acts Two or Three, which take place in October and December. Their coming from Africa is also reminiscent of the possibility (discussed on pages 408-09 and elsewhere) that Mary may have been a priestess in Egypt. The turtledove’s arrival coincides with the fierce spring wind best known in the West by its Arabic name, ( خمسين khamsin, written as חמסין in modern Hebrew), which in Biblical times was called (רוחַקדים ruach qadīm, “east wind”). This dual arrival of the dove and the wind could in fact have suggested the metaphor of πρηστηρ (wind) and περιστερα (dove) at the immersion.
Why the dove imagery? Because it tells the informed reader that Mary is there with Jesus: in this first episode of the gospel this is the first appearance of the divine couple, the Messiah and the Priestess, the whirlwind and the dove, the Spirit and the Bride (Revelation 22:17). Dove imagery was at the time universal in the spiritual traditions of the eastern Mediterranean, and it vividly supports the identification of Mary with a dove. James A. Montgomery (in The Samaritans: The Earliest Jewish Sect) discusses the oft-cited belief that the then considerably eclectic Samaritans worshipped a dove on Mount Gerizim, where Mary was a priestess. He eventually dismisses it, mistakenly, since indeed John Hyrcanus’s stated pretext for destroying the Samaritan Temple in 110 B.C.E. was its dove imagery, but yet he speaks approvingly of other scholars (Selden and Ronzevalle) who associate the dove cult with the goddess Semiramis and the Ashima mentioned in II Kings 17:30. Donald A. MacKenzie (in Myths of Babylonia and Assyria) discusses the close connections between Semiramis and doves in the myths about her. Her Assyrian name, Sammu-rammat, derived from Summat (“Dove”), signifies “The Dove Goddess Loves Her”. In the most ancient form of the myth, says MacKenzie, she was turned into a dove and took flight into heaven in that form. He adds that Robertson Smith demonstrated that the dove was of great sanctity among the Semitic nations, often closely associated with love, also symbolizing innocence, gentleness, and holiness. The Greek Aphrodite was also associated with doves, signifying love. Like περιστερα (“dove”) and πρηστηρ (“whirlwind”) in Greek, amenu, “dove” in Egyptian and Amen, the Egyptian god of wind, are near homonyms. And the dove Mary’s name comes from Mari-Amen, “Beloved Amen”, the original name of Moses’s sister Miriam, who watched as he was drawn, sacredly reborn, out of the Nile by the pharaoh’s daughter as she ritually bathed, no doubt naked: as Mary, also surely naked, here draws Jesus sacredly reborn from the Jordan. The mother of this pharaoh’s daughter was Ahmes (“Daughter of Amon”). In being reborn from the river, Moses is renamed as a god’s son and Jesus is anointed as God’s son/Messiah. So ultimately in the doubles entendres of πρηστηρ and περιστερα, amenu and Amen, we have as one the two aspects of Elohim, God and Goddess, arriving to anoint this the first encounter of Jesus and Mary.
The episodes at the Samaritan well, in Cana, and of the resurrection will continue this theme of joining together humanity, originally severed into male and female in Eden, to create the united male-female being, Jesus and Mary, that reflects the image and likeness of Elohim. The meticulously constructed inclusio nature of this gospel just about requires the presence of Mary at the immersion: symbolic spiritual rebirth was for Jesus (at least as presented in this gospel) was all about undoing the sin of our first forebears in Eden, such that male and female can be rejoined. This major theme of the gospel, discussed at length in the commentaries on the resurrection, forms an inclusio with this symbolic spiritual rebirth, though that one is not symbolic but literally a rebirth from death; Mary was present at his death and resurrection, and so for literary reasons the author must want us to conclude that she was present at this immersion too: his spiritual rebirth in both places is the rejoining of Eve with Adam, so Mary can be joined with him in both places.
If the theory that Mary was actively present at the immersion is true, then why was it not clearly stated in the gospel? It may be the redactor found it unacceptable (for the clear suggestion that Jesus was involved with this woman) and excised it; I reject this possibility because the redactor let stand other similarly “romantic” passages with but minimal changes. It may be that the amanuensis meant to make her presence more specific in the telling of the immersion, but never got to it; we know that the original version of the gospel was never completed. The compositional problem might have been that the author put the description of the immersion in the mouth of John (even though Lazarus the eyewitness was certainly there), and either an expansion would have to be still in the first person or else a new narrative strand based on Lazarus’s memories would need to be inserted. And it may simply be that the gospel author decided what he had written was clue enough for the intelligent reader to recognize and interpret correctly what transpired – and it is only we modern gentiles who miss the clue that would have been instantly clear to any reasonably literate first-century Jew, since we do not share the necessary symbolic Weltansicht, and since the lenses of our comprehension are clouded by two thousand years of errant dogma.
Should this hypothesis of Mary at the immersion be correct, it is not hard to theorize how it would have been recounted in this gospel. As discussed in the Introduction, many scenes in the gospel appear to be sketches that were going to be expanded later, but, alas, there was no opportunity to do so probably because of the Roman decimation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. John’s narration of what happened (1:31-33) is complete as it stands, but it could have been slightly extended, to say that after the whirlwind churned up the water in a miniature inundating storm of water (a parallel to the Flood [Genesis 7:17-23], in which everything died, just as this immersion was a symbol of death, and after which a wind descended from heaven [Genesis 8:1, the Hebrew wording of which is close to Genesis 1:2]), the dove came down to the waters in the person of Mary, to guide Jesus to dry land (Genesis 8:8-12), to draw him forth from the waters (Exodus 2:5). If Mary was there to be immersed herself, and/or to assist John, then likely Jesus took notice of Mary, whom Lazarus would have told his new teacher was his mother, and/or whom Simon the Rock (Peter) said was the sister of his wife Martha. This would have led to the arranging of their meeting at the spring in Shechem, the next episode. This is of course speculative, but it would connect this scene closely with the next, at Jacob’s Spring, and explain why this scene is followed immediately by that one, and then the wedding. It would also help explain the disciples’ surprise in 4:27; she is not entirely unfamiliar to them!
Les Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, a late 1300s “book of hours” illuminated manuscript, provides a fascinating footnote discussed by Ariadne Green in her book Jesus Mary Joseph. It includes two very similar depictions of this immersion scene, however in one there is no descending dove overhead, but rather a lamb putting its forepaws on John’s arm. This may be a reference to John calling Jesus “the lamb of God” (1:36/29), and it may record an old tradition that Mary was at the immersion: the Aramaic word for “lamb”, ܐܵܡܪܐ, amara) is close to her name in Aramaic.