Quotations from the Gospel of John in the Letters of Paul
James David Audlin
Adapted and abridged from The Gospel of John, copyright © 2013, 2014, 2015 by James David Audlin, and The Writings of John, copyright © 2014, 2015 by James David Audlin, published by Editores Volcán Barú. All worldwide rights reserved.
Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Editores Volcán Barú.
The later gospels of Luke and Matthew could not have used the Gospel of John, yet unpublished, as a textual source, but they may have been influenced at least indirectly by John the Presbyter as an oral source. Paul N. Anderson (The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus) convinces me that Luke dozens of times follows the oral Johannine tradition rather than Mark.
Anderson also brilliantly argues (in Bible and Interpretation, September 2010) that Acts 4:20 could be a genuine oral statement by John, echoed later in his written work, such as at I John 1:3 and John 3:32. If so, this puts the Presbyter among the eyewitness apostles and has him at least orally preaching about Jesus decades before Luke-Acts was released in the 90s.
In addition to Anderson seeing evidences of quotations in Matthew and Luke-Acts from John as an oral source, there are structural similarities. Luke and Matthew put an equal focus on Jesus’s words and deeds, like John and unlike “sayings gospels” like Thomas, and also unlike Paul’s letters and the pseudo-Pauline letters, which put the focus neither on Jesus’s message (nearly nothing of what Jesus said is recounted) nor on his deeds (likewise hardly mentioned). But these two gospels recount Jesus’s words and deeds mainly to support what Paul does emphasize: his radical reinterpretation of Jesus as being divine and his resurrection as with a spiritual, non-mortal body that his followers too will be given. And in their un-Pauline attention to Jesus’s words and deeds Luke and Matthew could have emulated not only oral John, as might be construed from Anderson, but Mark and perhaps the Gospel of Peter. In this sense they take a median position between the Johannine and Pauline views.
Anderson’s excellent hypotheses regarding quotations of John as an oral source in Luke-Acts raises the question whether there are other such references in the New Testament. And it is my conclusion that there are – specifically, in the letters of Paul.
We begin by noting that there is obviously a verb missing in John 20:11 in Greek: παρεκυψεν εις το μνημειον, “…crouched down [__] into the tomb”. One cannot crouch down into a tomb, since the feet do not change position in the act of crouching down; crouching is a vertical action and “into the tomb” requires a horizontal motion, unless the entrance were a most untraditional aperture in the tomb ceiling, but in that case she wouldn’t crouch into the tomb but drop in. But one can crouch down to look into a tomb or to enter into a tomb. That is the exact succession of verbs in 20:5-6 – in verse 5 Lazarus crouches down (the same verb in Greek) to look, but, the text adds immediately, he does not enter; then in verses 6-8 Simon and he do enter the tomb. In another early gospel, Mark 16:5, Mary and the other women are said to enter the tomb, as apparently also did Marcion’s Gospel of the Master (cf. Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:43:6). In the pre-dawn darkness, looking into the tomb from outside would have been futile, since unlike the women and the two disciples, Mary did not have a lamp and her body crouched at the small entrance would have blocked what little sunlight there was. It is harder to see into a dark chamber from an even slightly brighter outside, since one’s eyes will not be sufficiently dilated to see the particulars within.
All of this raises the likelihood that “to enter” or “to look about” is the missing verb here. The verb in my reconstruction of the original text in 20:11 is εμβατευω (embateuō), which means “entered in” and also “scrutinized carefully”. Ironically, it is Paul who confirms this verb; he uses it in Colossians 2:18, which as I will discuss shortly, is Paul criticizing John for relying on Mary’s witness about seeing angels in the tomb. This verb conforms with the Aramaic text as found in the Syriac Sinaiticus and Peshitta of 20:11. They both say she ܐܰܕ݂ܺܝܩܰܬ݂, “inspected” or “looked about” the tomb, which presumes that she has entered into it in order to do just this. The same Aramaic verb appears in verse 5 to say Lazarus looked about the interior, but it is qualified, stating clearly that he did not go in – a qualification missing in verse 11, which in its absence in verse 11 confirms that Mary did go in, especially after the intervening verse 6, in which Simon goes in. Further, in verses 1-11 the Aramaic always says ܩܒܘܪܐ (bēt qbūrā), literally “the house of the body-niche(s)”, meaning the tomb as a whole, but in 11a it says she was standing in front of the ܩܒܪܐ (qbūrā), the body-niche itself, and in 11b, while weeping, she looked about the bēt qbūrā. This can only mean she was by then in the tomb. And verse 12, in which Mary sees angels above the body-niche, further suggests she had entered the tomb, since such details would be impossible to discern from outside, given the viewing angle and lack of light.
In the tomb, according to the Greek text of John 20:12, Mary saw δυο αγγελους εν λευκοις, “two messengers in light”. The word λευκοις (leukois), usually translated “white”, means more an effulgence or radiance, flickering and shimmering, composed of light itself. And, notwithstanding the usual translation, the word εν does not mean here “in” light in the English sense better expressed as “of” light. If they were made of light, the word would be λευκόινος. This is to say, the shapes were not composed of light, but were within light, that is, outlined by, surrounded by, a faint, shimmering light, etched out on the far wall of the tomb above the body-niche by the first rays of morning shining through the tomb opening. The word λευκοις could be another example of John’s homonymic doubles entendres, this one evoking εἰκόνες (eikones), “images” or “phantoms”, especially phantoms of the mind – which instantly brings to mind this word’s appearance in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which the Presbyter is clearly referencing in this passage. The Aramaic supports this dual interpretation of the Greek: the word in the Peshitta and Syriac Sinaiticus is ܚܰܘܪܳܐ (ḥiwwār), though it can mean “white”, it can also mean (in II Timothy 1:13, for example) “form”, “outline”, or “pattern” – and the Aramaic prefix ܒ݁ means “in” in exactly the same sense of “within”, not of “of”. In conclusion, then, these shape are shadows, silhouettes, limned out by the dawn light.
Confirmation of this reading comes again from Paul. In II Corinthians 11:14, in the midst of one of his diatribes against John the Presbyter, he suggests that John has been preaching about “an angel in light” (αγγελον φωτος), and avers that the manifestation was really Satan disguising his appearance as its own opposite (μετασχηματίζεται); that is, the demon of shadow taking on a cloak of light, thus with the outer seeming of an angel, but still a shadow within. Scholars have never been able to point to any such reference in the Tanakh, or even in what was to become the New Testament. But does not the phrase sharply evoke the image of δυο αγγελους εν λευκοις in John 20:12, the “two angels in shimmering light”, the two shadows etched out by light?
These apparent connections between John 20 and comments in two of Paul’s letters call for further examination of the latter.
Colossians 2:18 reads thus:
μηδεις υμας καταβραβευετω θελων εν ταπεινοφροσυνη και θρησκεια των αγγελων α εορακεν εμβατευων εικη φυσιουμενος υπο του νοος της σαρκος αυτου
Let no one disqualify you who brags about his humility, nor one who venerates angels whom she saw while entering in / inspecting carefully, vainly hyperventilating over the thought of his body.
In the first phrase Paul uses a sports term, καταβραβευω (katabrabeuō, referring to when an umpire declares a play to be out of bounds or ejects a player from the game), to say John, simply because he knew Jesus, thinks he gets to judge the actions of others. No doubt Paul was still rankling over being judged by the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Three men, Simon Peter, James, and John, spoke against Paul, which tells us that this trial was deemed a capital case requiring a minimum of two or three credible witnesses, conducted in accordance with Jewish law (Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15).
John is mentioned by Paul in Galatians 2:9 as participating in this trial. He is not mentioned by name in Acts 15, just in 15:5 as a Pharisee. He was indeed a priest and no doubt a Pharisee too; according to a letter written by Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, paraphrased by Eusebius, John, he “who sleeps [was buried] in Ephesus”, τὸ πέταλον πεφορεκὼς (“wore the petalon”, the breastplate of the high priest). Since there is no record of a high priest in this time named John this would be that he substituted for the high priest when the latter was sick or travelling. So it is John who insisted (Acts 15:5) and argued strongly (verse 7) that Paul’s gentile converts be circumcised, but he was overruled by Simon and James, who gave conciliatory speeches in Acts while John sat silent. (Since John is never again mentioned in Acts, this disagreement may be part of why he moves to Ephesus.) Paul’s gentile converts were accepted (Deuteronomy 10:17-19); though John’s insistence on circumcision was rejected, the compromise did require Paul to hold his converts to “remember the poor” and to obey the so-called Noahide laws, including not eating food containing blood, food offered to idols, or food that came from strangled animals; and refraining from ritual sexual impropriety, such as the ceremonial sexuality practiced at both the Jerusalem and Samaritan Temples at various times. Given Paul’s astonishing success at evangelizing, he couldn’t be harnessed and the three leaders knew it; their only leverage was the imprimatur of their good will.
Paul says in Galatians that the circumcision issue was brought up by “false brothers” (ψευδαδελφους) secretly invited (παρεισάκτους) to appear unexpectedly (παρεισῆλθον) before Paul: this would be the mentioned Pharisee, John. Paul makes it all sound very positive and chummy (Galatians 2:9); still, one hears the hissing sarcasm in Galatians 2:6, where Paul describes the leaders, mainly the just-mentioned Pharisee, as
…των δοκουντων ειναι τι οποιοι ποτε ησαν ουδεν μοι διαφερει προσωπον ο θεος ανθρωπου ου λαμβανει εμοι γαρ οι δοκουντες ουδεν προσανεθεντο
… those esteemed (by others) to be something – whatever they used to be makes no difference to me (since) God does not accept a man’s outward seeming – these esteemed had, indeed, nothing to add.
Note that the adjective δοκουντων, dokountōn, has a barb in its tail. In this quotation it appears to suggest the meaning of “esteemed” or “held in high opinion”. However in his next phrase Paul suggests that the people hold these three in such high esteem because of their former-but-no-more achievements (that once upon a time they were Jesus’s disciples, or that John was a high priest, for instance) and so they have been taken in by their claims to fame, the show that they give the world; literally, the “face” that they show the world. At any rate, Paul is in no position to make such insinuations, considering his own rather despicable past deeds, though at least to his credit he often mentions them. But God is not so taken in, he goes on, adding with arch piety that though their followers are fooled God is not, and so God’s one faithful follower Paul is likewise not fooled. Yet that he alludes to their past greatness at all implies it does make a difference to him, and he sounds both envious and gossipy simply for hinting at it.
Paul uses the adjective δοκουντων again in verse 9 to modify the noun στυλοι (styloi), which usually means “pillars”, hence “esteemed pillars”, in the modern sense of “pillars of the church”. But the latter word was also used to refer to writing styluses (in fact the English word is descended from it), and δοκουντων can also mean “opinionated” or even “judgemental”. Thus, no doubt intentionally, Paul intends this phrase to carry a second meaning: “judgemental styluses”; by implication, “judgemental writers”; the equivalent in modern English would be “poison pens”. (Paul might have had in mind the עט שקר (“deceitful styluses”) of Jeremiah 8:8.) And immediately after this taunt, Paul drives it home by relating the story about Simon being hypocritical about demanding Paul to keep kosher when Simon himself does not.
If as suggested above this trial was conducted in accordance with Jewish law (Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15), for Paul to ignore the verdict, as he did, was not only to break relations with these three men but moreover with Jewish law and the Jewish faith. No wonder his subsequent letters say faith in Jesus eradicates any need to obey the Torah. Paul now had little choice but to seek respect among the gentiles.
So James, John, and Simon broke off relations with Paul, never again to communicate except for one last council described in Acts 21. Paul for his part refused to travel and preach any longer with either Barnabas or John Mark, whom he replaced with another young man of an apparently more amenable disposition, named Silas. After pushing Barnabas and John Mark aside (despite one being the man who had given Saul his start in the movement and the other being the son of the Messiah he claimed to represent!) he redoubled his efforts alone, as missionary to the Roman Empire, at least according to the book of Acts, but there is little reason to doubt this, since the sheer numbers of converts racked up by Paul conferred on him considerable power, if not authority, in the early years of this spiritual movement.
In the second phrase of Colossians 2:18 Paul turns his invective on Mary. It is she, according to John 20:11-12, who entered into the tomb and inspected it (the verb εμβατευω) the interior of Jesus’s tomb and saw two angels (John 20:11-12; the Greek word means “messengers”); Paul accuses her of worshipping (θρησκεια) the angels. And Paul increases the outrage: Mary’s testimony is untrustworthy, he avers, because, as John himself concedes in the gospel, she was sexually aroused at the resurrection, “vainly hyperventilating over the thought of his body.” (Note that The Gospel of John studies at considerable length the strong erotic implications of John 20, particularly through isolating quotations from the Song of Songs, Sappho, and Homer.) Thus, Paul concludes, using his sports imagery, Umpire John did not see the event in question, relying on the questionable testimony of Mary, and is therefore a hypocrite for saying he is an eyewitness of the risen Jesus. It was Mary, not John, who professed she saw these messengers and Jesus, Paul points out, and her testimony is worthless because of her sexual desire. On the other hand, Paul often vigorously claims to have really seen the risen Christ, albeit in visions.
The “hyperventilating” comment points clearly to Mary. The second-century Greek philosopher Celsus wrote a book giving his logical arguments against Christianity. Picking up on Paul’s accusation, he insisted we cannot take seriously the witness of a frenzied female that Jesus rose from the dead; she may have only had a wish-fulfillment fantasy or deliberately pretended to a vision. He says the solitary resurrection witness (Mary, according to John 20), was
… εί τις άλλος των έκ της αύτης γοητειας, ήτοι κατα τινα διαθεσιν όνειρωξας και κατα την αύτου βουλησιν δοξη πεπλανημενη φαντασιωθεις, όπερ ήδη μυριοις σθμβεβηκεν, ή, όπερ μαλλον άπο γε τουτων, οίς άπαγορευει πειθεσθαι Μωωσης ή Μωυσεα εξ ών έτεροθς περι σημειων και τερατων διεβαλε
… perhaps one of those engaged in that kind of magic, who had either undergone a dream of this, having been willing to let her mind wander causing images to form in it, as many people have done; or, more likely, one who desired to impress others with this sign, and by such a falsehood to furnish support for other impostors like herself.
Apparently these matters were still widely known in the second century, to be known even by a critic, and have since been forgotten, deliberately so by the institutional religion.
Paul’s view is that Mary was in vain “hyperventilating over the thought of his [Jesus’s] body” because, so Paul believed, Jesus didn’t have a normal human body of flesh but rather a spiritual body, one without sexual desire, without sin. Thus it was not just in vain for Mary to “hyperventilate” over such a body, but a sin against God to want to sin with a body made of heavenly material.
So Paul here calls John a false apostle for basing his apostolic claim on not his own witness of the resurrected Jesus but that of a crazy woman, and further calls him a servant of Satan since, so Paul alleges, it was Satan who appeared in the tomb to Mary as an angel in light.
Still rankling some years later, and never at a loss for words to express his views, Paul lets loose again in his second surviving letter to his community of followers in Corinth (II Corinthians 11:12-15):
ο δε ποιω και ποιησω ινα εκκοψω την αφορμην των θελοντων αφορμην ινα εν ω καυχωνται ευρεθωσιν καθως και ημεις οι γαρ τοιουτοι ψευδαποστολοι εργαται δολιοι μετασχηματιζομενοι εις αποστολους χριστου και ου θαυμα αυτος γαρ ο σατανας μετασχηματιζεται εις αγγελον φωτος ου μεγα ουν ει και οι διακονοι αυτου μετασχηματιζονται ως διακονοι δικαιοσυνης ων το τελος εσται κατα τα εργα αυτων
So what I am doing I will keep on doing in order to cut off the opportunity for those who seek one, to be taken in their boasting as equal to us. For such are pseudo-apostles, workers of deceit, turning themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder; Satan himself transforms his appearance into an angel in light! So it is no surprise if his servants also masquerade as servants of justice, whose end will be in accordance with their deeds.
Here Paul says he himself is an apostle, and that John is not – an astonishing statement, when in fact it was the other way around –and that John et al. who judged Paul in Jerusalem will be judged in the end. In the early usage, an apostle was someone who had heard and seen Jesus, and whose life had been changed by Jesus, and who then dedicated his life to spreading his first-hand accounts of Jesus’s teachings. Paul never witnessed Jesus in the flesh (be that flesh physical or spiritual) as the Presbyter did, and Paul’s demand to be accepted as a full apostle therefore grated on the real apostles, especially Jesus’s closest friends and family in the leadership community based in Jerusalem until its destruction in 70 C.E. Much of John’s surviving correspondence include defenses of John’s claim to apostleship as genuine (especially I John 1) and a condemnation of Paul’s false claim to apostleship, such as this warning in Paul in II John 7,9:
οτι πολλοι πλανοι εξηλθον εις τον κοσμον οι μη ομολογουντες ιησουν χριστον ερχομενον εν σαρκι ουτος εστιν ο πλανος και ο αντιχριστος … πας ο προαγων και μη μενων εν τη διδαχη του χριστου θεον ουκ εχει ο μενων εν τη διδαχη ουτος και τον πατερα και τον υιον εχει
For many misleaders have gone off into the cosmos, those who do not say as we do that Jesus the Anointed One came in flesh. … Anyone who leads (others) outside of, who does not abide within, the teaching of God, does not have God.
and John’s praise of his own congregation in Ephesus in Revelation 2:2:
οιδα τα εργα σου και τον κοπον και την υπομονην σου και οτι ου δυνη βαστασαι κακους και επειρασας τους λεγοντας εαυτους αποστολους και ουκ εισιν και ευρες αυτους ψευδεις
I know your [the synagogue’s] works and your labor and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evildoers, and that you tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and that you found them to be liars.
In II Corinthians 11 Paul goes further with his allegation made in Colossians 2:18. The latter verse simply accuses John and Mary of “venerating angels”, but here he says in actuality those supposed angels were Satan having transformed (μετασχηματίζεται, metaschēmatizetai) his appearance into “an angel in light” (αγγελον φωτος, angelon phōtos). The verb μετασχηματίζεται here suggests that Satan is disguising himself (Josephus so uses this word in Antiquities 8:11:1) by turning his outer appearance into its exact opposite: the demon of shadow takes on a cloak of light: it is still a shadow within, but with the outer seeming of an angel. As noted, scholars have never been able to point to any such reference in the Tanakh, or even in what was to become the New Testament, but I think the phrase echoes δυο αγγελους εν λευκοις in John 20:12, the “two angels in shimmering light” (λευκοις, leukois, is a poetic synonym for φωτος).
It is entirely possible that Paul or one of his acolytes attended a sermon by John and heard him talking about what Mary had told him about the resurrection of Jesus. (Spying on competitors seems to have been common; cf. e.g., Galatians 2:4.)
John, of course, would have emphasized that the hierogamy of Jesus and Mary beside the tomb, their total union physical and spiritual, sexual and mystical, shows us how to heal the spiritual wound caused by Elohim’s separation of the first human into Adam and Eve, the aloneness and emptiness in every human individual, and that it opens the way to the Æon. But Paul, who was not only rather misogynistic but strongly disgusted by the very idea of sexuality, found it most offensive that John was preaching Jesus in an erotic embrace with Mary at his resurrection, and outright heretical that John suggested Jesus showed the way to heaven in (to borrow Blake’s lovely phrase) “the lineaments of gratified Desire”.
Thus Paul paints John as a charlatan who, despite claiming to be an eyewitness, relies on hearsay. And, even if John was an eyewitness disciple of Jesus, Paul says he is better than John (and Peter and James, for that matter) because they falsely claim to be Jesus’s disciples when he, Paul, is the only true and best disciple of Jesus because, by way of his vaunted visions, Paul claims he still is in close contact with Jesus. Thus Paul, with his usual skill at debating, seeks to turn his biggest deficit – that he never even met Jesus – into a strength. As always, Paul judges others to be judgemental and vindicates himself as unjudgemental; he brags about his lack of braggadocio, he is loudly proud of his humility. Paul indulges in self-effacement with all the illogic of the famous paradox about the chronic liar who says, “I am lying.”