Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Were they really that dim?

I'm presently teaching through John's gospel at Bible college. Two well known characters in the early chapters are Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes to Jesus at night (chapter 3), and the woman of Samaria (chapter 4). Both of them has a personal meeting with Jesus - Nicodemus comes at night, and the woman meets him at Jacob's well.

Jesus engages each in conversation, and very early on, to each he makes a startling statement (perhaps something for us to try more often?):
To Nicodemus: "I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

To the Samaritan woman: "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."
Each then gives Jesus a correspondingly startled answer:
Nicodemus: "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"

The Samaritan woman: "Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?"
I have read and heard many modern sermons and commentaries on these two meetings. I cannot recall the exceptions to the below rule. Almost always, the preacher/commentator remarks that Nicodemus/the Samaritan woman completely misunderstood Jesus, and understood him in a crude and literal sense. Nicodemus thought Jesus meant he needed to come through the birth canal again! The woman though Jesus was talking about getting some really special water out of the ground somehow! What amusing misunderstandings! Thankfully, Jesus then goes on to explain that he meant it in a spiritual sense.

I want to question whether Nicodemus, a highly educated teacher of the law or the Samaritan woman, who shows a lot of familiarity about the religious controversies between the Jews and the Samaritans, were really that dim. I do not think their answers actually mean, "Really? You mean that literally?" Modern Western thought seems to be fairly impoverished when it comes to thinking in non-literal, symbolic terms, and this misunderstanding I think is one that we are all too ready to make. But I really doubt that ancient Jews were quite so quick.

I'd like to think this is a modern Western disease, but as I check Calvin on John I see that he also assumes, without question, that Nicodemus intended his objection literalistically. In the case of the woman though he says, "She understands quite well that Christ is speaking figuratively." Matthew Henry, on the other hand, takes both literally.

I am suggesting that in both cases, Nicodemus and the woman each well understood that Christ did not mean to be understood literally. They did not understand his teaching at all, of course, but this does not mean they misunderstood it. I propose that their responses are simply ways in which intelligent people say, "I do not understand this at all.... please tease it out for me." They state words which on the face of it seem hopeless misconstructions, but that it a common way of getting the conversation partner to spell out exactly what he does mean. They are not positively asserting the misconstructions; they are confessing their ignorance.

I could be wrong of course; I'm not be dogmatic about it. But I think in interpreting these passages we need to credit these people with more intelligence in following the thread of their conversations with Jesus. They were spiritually ignorant; but that does not mean that they were thick as well.

Similarly, I'd like to question whether in 4:19-20, the woman is really trying to divert Jesus with a question about the right place of worship, in order to divert the conversation away from her sin of adultery. I have not checked so much on this one, but this seems to be the common evangelical interpretation. I think rather than "Sir, I can see that you are a prophet" is an admission that Jesus' exposure of her adultery is true, and that she is not trying to hide from it. Her question about the true place of worship is rather the question of a seeking soul, who wants to be away from her sin and to worship God in truth - it is a genuine question, not a smokescreen. It was a controversial matter and with a newly stirred up desire to worship God, she was looking for the answer. But that's another argument!


Ned Kelly said...

An interesting discussion, and I have been trying without success to find a commentary I read some time back which resonates with your view. I am inclined to a similar understanding, particularly with respect to the conversation with Nicodemus. I have long suspected some level of snobbery in modern scholars who convey the view that the ancients were not as smart as we moderns are. It is indisputable that we have more scientific knowledge, and that we can disseminate knowledge more widely and quickly, but the other side of the coin is that we can similarly rapidly disseminate nonsense and misinformation. In my own specialty of information technology and business systems, I have observed an inverse relationship between the availability of instant communications, and the time spent on actually thinking through an issue before responding. Having to sit and write a response longhand gives one the opportunity to think in a disciplined and perhaps rigorous manner, responding instantly on a cell phone or Blackberry lulls the individual into simply reacting, and people have actually come to believe that their instinctive reactions represent truth even without training. In earlier times, people had adequate time to think through issues, developing a deeper understanding and thus wisdom. They were no less intelligent than moderns, they just knew less in some areas, but they were in all likelihood better and deeper thinkers. In the case of Nicodemus, I believe that he was responding to Jesus in the same manner as Jesus was speaking, allegorically. Nicodemus was no dummy, he was a highly educated man in his time, and would have been well versed in the art of communicating in an allegorical fashion with other Pharisees. I am somewhat bemused that scholars accept that Jesus spoke in this manner without considering whether this was a normal manner of speech for his time amongst those who spoke of matters theological. Jesus was a man of his time, he learned the Torah from Pharisees, spoke with them in the Temple, there is no reason to think that he invented his own manner of speech just because he also was God. When Nicodemus queried, “How can these things be?” he wasn’t questioning the literal meaning so beloved of some biblical scholars, he was trying to get his mind around this new understanding of salvation, and Jesus rebuked him for not properly understanding the Torah.

David Anderson said...

Thanks Ned, interesting as ever. I would question if Jesus learnt the Torah from the Pharisees. They were certainly the dominant party amongst the people - though the Sadducees held many positions of power particularly amongst the priesthood - but their HQ seems to have been very much in Jerusalem. When we find Pharisees coming to investigate Jesus or John, they come from Jerusalem. We know too their was a snobbish attitude to Galilee and Nazareth abroad (e.g. Nathaniel's words in John 1), and that the Pharisees shared it (John 7:52). So it seems reasonable to believe at the very least that their influence was less in that part of the country. Alongside and Pharisees and Sadducees there seems to have been a small remnant group of Messianic believers (e.g. Simeon and Anna, Zacharias and Elizabeth) - and these believers never give the impression of having a particular loyalty to the Pharisees. I think Simon, Andrew and other disciples were drawn from this group - in Mark 7 we see they didn't follow the traditions of the elders, significantly even though they did not have the full understanding; Jesus has to ask them why they are so slow.

I think it is a certainty that Mary and Joseph were drawn from this remnant group - perhaps their wider family had many members in it, as cousin Elizabeth and Zechariah were. So I'd think that Jesus learnt the Scriptures within the context of a family and wider group that stood apart from the Pharisees.