Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jesus or the evangelist?

As we've been working through the the Fourth Gospel in one of my seminars, one interesting "seam" that I can see between maybe what was originally the words of Jesus and the works of a later author and/or redactor is the switching between singular to plural verbs at points when it doesn't seem to make sense. For instance, John 3 begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, at which point they discuss the issues of being born again (or above? another topic which I wanted to blog about later). The chapter begins with Jesus and Nicodemus talking back and forth (all singular verbs mostly, though I guess the "we know" of v.2 is an exception) from vv. 1-6. At verse 7, Jesus says: "do not marvel that I said to you (singular), it is necessary for you (plural) to be born from above/again." And again at verse 11: "Amen amen I say to you (sg.) that what we know, we speak and what we have seen, we bear witness, and you (pl.) have not received our testimony." Then it goes further with various uses of plural verbs to make his point.

While it may be possible to say that Nicodemus did not come alone (hence, the "we know" of 3:2) so that's why Jesus could address the "you" as plural, it still doesn't make sense that Jesus all of a sudden begins to say "what we know" or "what we have seen", etc. In my view, it seems that there is something of a blurring (accidental or intentional is another issue that I would like to study further) of lines between what Jesus has spoken and what the evangelist now wants to convey as a collective witness to the truth in their contemporary period. Another interesting aspect can be seen when we bring in some ancient translations of the GJohn, for instance the NT Peshitta. In John 9:4, again Jesus uses the plural and says: "we must work the works of the one who sent me." The Syriac says: (apologies if the font doesn't show, I'm using a font called 'Serto Jerusalem' which is supposed to be unicode but I'm not sure how it functions really in blog posts):

ܠܺܝ ܘܳܠܶܐ ܠܡܶܥܒ݁ܰܕ݂ ܥܒ݂ܳܕ݂ܶܐ ܕ݁ܡܰܢ ܕ݁ܫܰܕ݁ܪܰܢܝ

It can be translated as something like, "to me it is necessary to work the work of/from the one who sent me." For the Syriac translators, they found it necessary to flatten the plural statements into singular. I thought they would be compelled to do likewise in John 3, but in the examples above, the Syriac also has the switching of singular to plural forms (darn these inconsistencies!). Nevertheless, I think in some ways the translators into Syriac may have felt uncomfortable just as we do in our close readings of the text with the awkwardness of the whole singular to plural and back to singular forms of verbs/nouns in Jesus' discourses.

Is this an indication of the work of the evangelist? I'm not sure at this point, but I'm going to look into the Syriac some more to see if there's evidences elsewhere of flattening them all into singular verbs/nouns.

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