The following sermon was preached by Dr Ann Conway-Jones who is a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews a scholar in the Jewish - Christian Relations as well as an Associate Tutor in Biblical Studies at Queen's. It was delevered at a service of Word & Table at the end of a Weekend on the Jewish - Christians Relations for Ordinands
‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’
Such was the Christian claim: that the scriptures, from Moses in the law to the prophets, wrote of Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. And in our first series of readings (see Appendix) we heard some of the verses that those who made that claim may well have had in mind. We heard Deut 18:15–18, in which God tells Moses that he will raise up another prophet for the people of Israel of comparative stature. The prologue to John’s gospel, however, aims to show that there is more to the link between Jesus and the Torah than that: It begins with a riff on Genesis and Proverbs, talking of the Word, the Wisdom, which was there in the beginning, and though whom God created the world, and continues by implying, thanks to the Greek word it uses for the verb ‘to dwell’, that this Word,
soon to be revealed as Jesus, became the successor to the tabernacle in the wilderness –
the presence of the divine glory on earth.
We also heard verses from the Psalms, Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah and Daniel all of which are quoted or alluded to at various points in John’s gospel. In all the gospels, the way in which the story of Jesus is retold is shaped by the Christian reading of the scriptures. Jesus was seen as the fulfilment of all the biblical references to the prophet, the Messiah, the King of Israel, the Son of God, the Son of Man.
In today’s passage, the person doing the telling, making the claim is Philip. Philip is a Greek name. I think we can safely presume that Philip was Jewish, but a bilingual Jew, who spoke both Greek and Aramaic. In John 12:20–22 some Greeks ask to see Jesus, and it is Philip they approach to act as translator, because Jesus, as far as we know, did not speak Greek. In this story, Philip finds Nathanael. Now Nathanael is a good Hebrew name: ‘God gives’, and Jesus characterises him as ‘truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ – He is the real deal. There may be an implicit contrast here with the original Israel: Jacob, whose name was changed because he strove with God and prevailed, but in whom there was plenty of deceit. Anyway, in response to Philip’s claim, Nathanael expresses doubt about Jesus’ presence in the scriptures: Where does it say anything about Nazareth?
This was a sore point.
We know that because it crops up again later in John’s gospel: John 7:40–42: ‘ ... some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?”’
Search as they might, the first Christians could not find a proof text predicting that the Messiah would come from Nazareth. I imagine that people who were getting fed up of being pestered by followers of Jesus trying to prove that he fulfilled the scriptures would say to one another: ‘Ask them about Nazareth – that should shut them up.’
Luke ensures that Jesus is born, if not raised, in the right place by moving Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for a census. Matthew has the family living in Bethlehem – the wise men visit them in their house (Mt 2:11). They only move to Galilee on coming back from Egypt, on advice Joseph receives in a dream. And in the absence of a proof text, Matthew makes one up.
Matthew 2:23 reads: ‘There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”’
There is no such saying in the prophets!
Matthew’s move shows us how desperately it was needed!
Anyway, back to today’s gospel. Nathanael expresses the typical Israelite objection to claims that Jesus was foretold in the scriptures, but as the story progresses, we see his doubts dissolve.
He is sceptical about Philip’s testimony, but a meeting with Jesus changes him.
The significance of the fig tree now eludes us. It must be a characterisation of Israel, because that is what Nathanael represents, but is it a symbol of abundance, the place where one studies Torah, a reference to the Garden of Eden, or to the eschaton? Whatever it is, Israel was there before the Greeks arrived. And Nathanael sees the light: he acknowledges Jesus as Rabbi – a master, an authority, and more than that, as Son of God and King of Israel.
The quotation we heard from Psalm 2 shows how closely those two titles were linked: the King of Israel, ruling from Zion, was envisaged as the adopted Son of God. The titles Messiah, King of Israel, Son of God, are all the titles of an anointed earthly ruler, a new King David, who will restore the fortunes of Israel. But there is more, says Jesus, like your ancestor Jacob, in his dream at Bethel,
you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending. And this time, the ladder will be the Son of Man – that enigmatic rider on the clouds described in Daniel 7, to whom will be given an everlasting dominion. That figure, although of human form, is not a human being,
but a second, younger, divinity. And so, paradoxically, Son of Man is a higher Christological title than Son of God.
The Son of God is the earthly King of Israel, the Son of Man sits on a throne in heaven next to the Ancient of Days.
That is why John chapter 1 begins with the Word and ends with the Son of Man: Jesus – the Messiah, the King of Israel, the Son of God, is more than an anointed earthly ruler; he was with God in the beginning, before creation, and he will be with God at the end, when all peoples, nations, and languages, will serve him. Such is the Christian claim, a claim expressed entirely in the language of the scriptures. A claim that Nathanael, the true Israelite, comes to accept, according to John’s gospel.
The process of separation between Christians and Jews, a process which took longer than you might think, involved fierce disagreements over the interpretation of scripture.
The first followers of Jesus were Jews, and therefore they expected all the answers to their questions about Jesus to be found in the scriptures, and so they scoured them for clues. Luke depicts Jesus telling the disciples on the road to Emmaus to do just that. Their memories of Jesus became fused with their reinterpretations of scripture, they retold his life in terms of his fulfilment of the prophecies. That is indeed what scriptures were thought to be for, and not just by Jews and Christians; for ancient Greeks too, the search for truth was an exegetical exercise – it involved the interpretation of authoritative texts, such as Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates. But as ancient interpreters knew very well, the answer you get depends on the question you ask, and there is always more than one possible interpretation.
We know from our own experience that debates over controversial issues are almost never solved by the killer blow of a quote from scripture. The exchange of contradictory proof texts rarely leads to consensus. The first Christians turned to the scriptures to ask questions about Jesus, and so they got answers about Jesus. They creatively remoulded ancient traditions into new theologies. Jews who were not interested in Jesus turned to the scriptures with a different set of questions, and, naturally enough, received a different set of answers.
There has been a long history of Christians trying to persuade Jews that they are 'blind' as regards their own scriptures.
St Augustine described Jews as custodians of books they didn’t understand, and therefore as unwitting servants of the church (to be fair, this means that he said they should be protected, in contrast to other Christian voices of his time). Then there were the infamous medieval public disputations, which Jews couldn’t afford to win. And just the other day I picked up this leaflet in the CLC bookshop in town: Jewish Fulfillment: Quick Reference Counseling Keys:
‘How to share Jesus with a Jewish Friend. ... Point to the Jewish Scriptures. Your friend will be surprised at the Messianic nature of the Old Testament. The Old Testament says much about Jesus. ... Plan to share fulfilled prophecy about the Messiah. (Isaiah chapter 53)’
Jews and Christians share common roots and common scriptures, but they have developed completely different frameworks for interpreting those scriptures, and gone their separate ways.
We need to recognise that we stand within a particular interpretative tradition, a tradition of great beauty and power, one which shapes our lives, but that is not unique. Jews too can do biblical gymnastics, and produce an equally virtuosic display, albeit in a different style. So how are we to treat those who interpret scripture differently, and do not see Jesus reflected in its pages?
The New Testament reflects a time when Christians were beginning to define themselves over against other Jews. Battle lines were being drawn. Today’s gospel passage is not a nice personal story about a guy called Nathanael who went through a conversion experience. It is polemic – a story which claims that Nathanael, who recognised Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel, represents the true Israelite, as opposed to all those Jews who persisted in asking awkward questions about Nazareth. Jews at this point are a minority in the Roman Empire, but a recognised, established minority,
with ancient, authoritative texts. Christians are nobodies, and they need the authority of those texts to prove that they are not following some new-fangled superstition. They are well aware that they are taking Jewish tradition in a new direction, and so, like rebellious teenagers, or any small sect,
they argue vociferously with their ‘parent’ body.
But now, today, the context of Jewish-Christian relations has changed completely. Christians turned from being weird non-entities to ruling the Roman Empire. And ever since Christians have had more political power than Jews, and have often used it to enforce their prejudices, sometimes violently.
Is NT polemic, therefore, still the language we want to use?
Or can we develop a new kind of relationship, in which we acknowledge the right to be different?
We can still follow Nathanael and John’s gospel in acknowledging Jesus as Son of God,
and we can continue to find inspiration in the scriptures as we try to make sense of who Jesus is for us, but we don’t need to indulge in competitive proof-texting, or try to batter Jews over the head with scripture, because we recognise that they inhabit an equally rich tradition of interpretation.
Nathanael was surprised to discover that something good could come from Nazareth,
we might be surprised to discover that people previously considered enemies could become friends,
if only we have the humility to recognise that the scriptures are richer, deeper, and more fertile than our particular Christian interpretation.
Appendix: Old Testament Lesson, Sunday 18th January
This requires 6 readers. Could each one please stand up in their seat, announce the biblical reference, read the verse(s), and sit down.
Moses said to all Israel: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.”
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
The Lord says: “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
 See Daniel Boyarin, ‘Logos, a Jewish Word: John's Prologue as Midrash’, in Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (eds), The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 546-9.
 ‘And the Word became flesh and lived (ἐσκήνωσεν) among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). In the LXX, the word for ‘tabernacle’ is σκηνή.
 See Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels:The Story of Jesus Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012), 25–70.
 See Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 290–352.
 For a fascinating account of a contemporary Jewish scholar engaging with John’s gospel, see Adele Reinhartz, Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (New York: Continuum, 2001).