Monthly Archives: October 2005

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Abducting John III

Just one quick post to finish this line of thought off for now. There is a dialectic between interpreting John and registering John’s resistance to interpretation – you might say, a dialectic between theological interpretation and historical-critical interpretation. And this dialectic can be seen as a way of paying homage to the two sides of the idea that John’s true identity is ‘hid with Christ in God’ – the theological interpretation witnessing to the ‘in Christ with God’ side, the historical-critical to the ‘hid’.

I think I want to say slightly more than that, though. On the one hand, I can say that John’s true identity is hid with Christ in God only because I trust that the God who addresses the world (and John) in Christ has no ‘interests’ – that this God is not bending John to some personal need, and distorting him in the process. It is only in relation to such a God that there is any freedom, any true identity – only such a God can tell us who we are without distortion. On the other hand, I hesitate to say that John’s true identity is hid with Christ in God because I know that the Christians who say this certainly do have interests, in fact are never free of interests, and are quite capable of bending John to some personal need.

To the dialectic of interpretation and registering resistance, then, I want to add a third element: such a hermeneutical trajectory can only be pursued with integrity in the context of interpreters, interpreting communities, that are pursuing the purification of their interests – that are pursuing holiness. It can only be pursued with integrity by individuals and communities that are discovering their true identities, hid with Christ in God.

When we’re talking about John the Baptist, that point may sound somewhat abstract – or, worse, like a bit of rather demonstrative breast-beating. If we start thinking about the topic that’s been (not very far) in the background through this discussion: interpretation of the Hebrew Bible – well; I think the point becomes rather more urgent and important. To read the Hebrew Bible as Old Testament – that seems to me to involve a dialectic between theological interpretation, and registering the resistance of the text to theological interpretation (by means of historical criticism, certainly, but also I think by reading alongside Jewish readers) – and can only be done with integrity by individuals and community in pursuit of holiness – and that must include especially holiness in dealings with the people of this book.

Hmmm. I’m not sure I’ve quite convinced myself with all this – but it will do for now.

Abducting John II

Paternity leave is over, so it’s back to the abduction of John. The story so far:

  • As an indirect way of thinking about how Christians, including Mark, have used and abused the Hebrew Bible, I’m looking at how they have adopted or abducted John the Baptist;
  • I’ve suggested that the independent, pre-abduction identity of John (or at least the fact that he had such an identity) is still dimly visible through the cracks of the Gospel text;
  • I’ve suggested that to take Mark’s Gospel seriously is to take seriously the claim that John’s identity as fore-runner, as messenger of Christ, is his real identity, his true identity – perhaps despite his own intentions and self-perceptions;
  • I’ve suggested that part of the answer is that John did in fact make way for Christ (my ‘John as theotokos’ point – his ministry provided the matrix for the birth of Jesus’ ministry), and that it makes sense to claim that he did so because he was obedient to God;
  • but I’ve left hanging the question about how John himself might have treated the claim that he was nothing more or less than Jesus’ forerunner.

I’m going down this route because it seems to me that asking about the Gospel’s use of a person raises questions of supersessionism (abduction) even more sharply than asking about the Gospel’s use of a text. Of course, in the process, I am myself using John – but I think I can live with the irony.

The next point that struck me as I thought about this was a potential theological get-out-of-jail free card – quickly followed by the realisation that the card was not actually going to solve my problems.

  1. To say that John’s true identity is given in his relation to Christ is no more than I would want to say about Mark, or about myself: our identities are ‘hid with Christ in God’. I too am being abducted, and my truth is not in myself but in Christ. This is the get-out-of-jail free card: ‘Yes, there is supersessionism here, but only because we’re all, in a sense, superceded.
  2. If we play this card, we declare that the abduction of John does not consist in the claim that I (or Mark) possess John’s truth just as we possess our own – but that none of us possess our own truth. For all of us our ‘truth’ will be found only in relation to Christ.
  3. The dangerous point comes if we go on to claim that, as it were, Mark and I know the one who possesses our truth in a way that John the Baptist may not have done. And some claim at least that strong does seem to be implied if we go along with Mark’s willingness to depict John as forerunner – i.e., to depict who John is in relation to Christ. The Gospel does not say of John, ‘Who he is is a mystery hid with Christ in God’, it says, ‘This is who he is.’

With this in mind, I find myself being drawn towards a kind of answer that has attracted me in other contexts. Perhaps we are simply left with a tension between the Christologically-grounded desire to say, ‘This is what John means; this is simply who he really was’ and the countervailing desire to say, ‘No, that does not exhaust who John was: we can still glimpse John’s unassimilated identity through the gaps in our theological construction’. Perhaps, that is, we are simply left with a tension between interpreting John theologically and registering John’s resistance to this theological interpertation. And perhaps, as a Christian interpreter, I have to abide with this tension not because I give up on the claim that John’s identity too is truly hid with Christ in God, but because I have to step back from converting that claim into the further claim that his identity is therefore given into my possession.

Hmmm. I still don’t think this is enough – but I only dimly perceive where to go next. To put it gnomically: I think more needs to be said about the kind of ‘abduction’ we’re talking about – more about the nature of the God who is doing the abducting, and the reasons why this abduction cannot (must not) be understood as a form of violence.

To be continued…


Apologies for the long gap. I’m on paternity leave at the moment, Tom having joined the family last week – and the week before that having been disrupted by preparations for his arrival. More soon…