Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Book Write-Up: Moses in the Fourth Gospel

T. Francis Glasson.  Moses in the Fourth Gospel.  London: SCM Press, 1963.

I read about this book in another book that I was reading and thought that it looked interesting.  I checked it out on Amazon and saw that Dove was offering it for a low price, so I bought it.  It’s a short book—-it has 110 pages—-but it is valuable because of its references to rabbinic, patristic, and other interpretive sources.  Glasson even refers to an old Russian text of Josephus, which depicts Jews affirming that Jesus was Moses risen from the dead!

Glasson essentially argues that Moses is a significant figure in the Gospel of John, and also elsewhere in the New Testament.  According to Glasson, Jesus in John’s Gospel was the prophet like Moses who would speak God’s words (Deuteronomy 18:15-19).  Like Moses, Jesus brought bread to the people and changed water into another substance (blood, for Moses, and wine, for Jesus).  When Jesus said in John 8:12 that he was the light of the world and that those who follow him will walk in light rather than darkness, he was not likening himself to the sun, Glasson contends, for who follows the sun?  According to Glasson, Jesus was likening himself to the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites to the Promised Land.  John 1:14 affirms that Jesus tabernacled among us, and Glasson reads that in light of God dwelling in a Tabernacle with the Israelites on the wilderness journey.  For Glasson, a message of John is that Christians are on a wilderness journey, and Jesus is like a new Moses (and other phenomena of the Exodus and wilderness journey), guiding them towards their destination.

Yet, Glasson argues that the Gospel of John maintained that Jesus was superior to Moses.  Whereas rabbinic literature depicts the Torah as the wisdom that was present at creation, for example, the Gospel of John depicts the Word who became Jesus Christ as the one who was with God at that time.  John 1:17 states that the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Glasson refers to rabbinic, patristic, and other interpretive literature to make the parallels between John’s Jesus and Moses more explicit.  He mentions examples in Jewish literature of Moses becoming a celestial figure or interceding for Israel even after he died, and that resembles how John depicts Jesus.  John 19:34 states that blood and water came out of Jesus’ side at the crucifixion after a Roman soldier pierced him with a spear, and Glasson refers to a rabbinic text in which water and blood comes from the rock that Moses struck to provide the Israelites with nourishment.  Glasson realizes that detractors will say that he should not use rabbinic and patristic literature in talking about the Gospel of John, for rabbinic and patristic literature came later.  But Glasson responds that rabbinic literature can have older traditions.  One page 12, he refers to D. Daube, who noted that the phrase “Moses’ seat” does not occur in rabbinic literature until long after the time of the New Testament, and yet Matthew 23:2 still uses that expression.  Glasson states that the expression “was in use among first-century Jews and the lack of earlier attestation is a mere accident.”
Glasson also notes verbal parallels between the Septuagint and the Gospel of John, especially regarding the final exhortations of Jesus and Moses in Deuteronomy, and Moses’ commissioning of Joshua.

I agree with Glasson’s thesis that Moses plays a significant role in the New Testament.  There are plenty of explicit examples of that in the New Testament itself, even if one chooses to ignore rabbinic and patristic literature.  As far as Glasson’s appeal to rabbinic and patristic literature is concerned, it is certainly what made the book interesting!  But I would recommend caution in appealing to later literature to understand the Gospel of John.  For one, just because a rabbinic source says that an earlier authority made a point, that does not mean that the point really came from that earlier authority.  It could have come later, and it was put into the mouth of that earlier authority.  Jacob Neusner has discussed criteria on how to determine what is earlier and later in rabbinic literature.  Second, there may be cases in which rabbinic literature is responding to the Gospel of John or early Christianity.  It could be taking what early Christianity says about Jesus and applying it to the Torah or to Moses, in order to argue that the Torah and Moses are superior to Jesus.  In such a situation, to think that John has these sorts of statements in mind in writing his own Gospel would be mistaken.  I do not think that this is always the case in Glasson’s examples, but it should be kept in mind as a possibility.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, James. Whether or not I actually track down his book in a local library, the ideas you mention in this post should serve as good research ideas for me.

    John

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