Bailie on John 2

Notes on Lectures of the Florilegia Institute by Gil Bailie
Series: “The Gospel of John”
Tape #2; Re: John 2

  1. Opening remarks
    1. Andrew McKenna speaks of the biblical literature as texts that understand us better than we understand ourselves. Our challenge is to approach these texts in such a way as to close the gap.
    2. There are two main themes.
  2. The Wedding at Cana (2:1-12)
    1. Jesus responds to his mother’s request in what appears to be a cold an aloof way. His hour has not come. Nevertheless, the stewards are instructed to what he asks them.
    2. The six stone jars used for the Jewish rites of purification are of a size more suitable to the temple than for a home in Cana. In any event, they refer to a very prominent part of Jewish life in the first century. They were pre-occupied with the problem of impurity.
    3. This story, then, is really about the collision between the ministry of Jesus and the conventional religion of his time. We could say, lest we think this has something to do with the Jewishness of this religion, that there is always a collision between the ministry of Jesus, or the spirit of the Paraclete that Jesus left us, and the conventional religions of the time. This is paradigmatic collision.
    4. The stone jars are not for wine, but for ritual washing. And note they need filling; they are depleted. Jesus is not rejecting the jars and what they stood for; he is filling them. You could say that he is filling the rituals with meaning and then transforming them.
    5. Three notes in passing:
      1. the gentleness of this transition from one dispensation to another. Not a rejection, but filling it and transforming it. A continuity and a discontinuity at the same time.
      2. The devout Jews of the time were habituated to these rituals and clung to them, not only because they order life but also because it gave them an identity. So when Jesus begins to offer an alternative, he runs into the fundamental human phenomenon of our clinging to such rituals.
      3. This all takes place in furtherance of a marriage. That is to say, the daring boldness of permanent, life-long commitment. The root of the word “troth” is the root of the word “truth.” We discover truth in troth.
  3. The Cleansing of the Temple (2:13-25)
    1. John places this story at the beginning; the synoptics place it just before the Passion story, where it triggers the opposition. John wants to start out in the clearest and starkest terms that Jesus and his ministry represent a challenge to the Temple. Jesus presents himself as the new Temple.
    2. Reads vs. 13-18. Comment on John’s use of “the Jews”:
      1. John uses it at least three different ways:
        1. Most often, he uses it to refer to the Jewish authorities, the opposition to Jesus.
        2. Sometimes, he uses it to mean the Judeans, as opposed to the Galileans.
        3. Sometimes, he uses it in a general way, meaning the people.
      2. There was some invective in John’s use of it; there was a tension between the Jews and Christians of John’s time.
      3. But because of this, this gospel has been used to justify anti-Semitism, and it is very important for us to understand that and to break with that. We all stand under the judgment of the cross, and not just some of us. If only some of us stand under the judgment of the cross, then it is not what it claims to be.
    3. Dialogue with Jews in vs. 18-21
      1. They ask for a sign, and Jesus has just performed this incredible, prophetic sign, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. But they didn’t get it.
      2. Jesus tends to answer things not on the level in which they’re asked; hence, his answer about destroying the Temple…
    4. Verse 22: the disciples remembered later that he had said this. Remembering for the Fourth evangelist is very important doesn’t mean recalling historical detail. It means deeper understanding. The task of the Paraclete is to continually deepen our understanding of the Christ event. Here’s an instance.
  4. The significance of these stories: an archaeology of the Temple
    1. It begins by recalling the essence of the Temple as a sacrificial shrine.
      1. Blood sacrifice was at its center. At the festivals, pilgrims would come from all over, each with the obligation to offer blood sacrifices, changing money and buying animals as they’re going in. These things that evoked Jesus’ ire were not irrelevant to the Temple operation; without it, it wouldn’t function.
      2. When the festival begins, people are in long lines with their animals, and the slaughter begins in haste, so that the sacrificial knife is falling with great rapidity. The priest are knee-deep in blood. The temple was constructed with an elaborate drainage system that channeled the blood into a nearby valley.
      3. If the Jesus of John’s gospel challenges the Temple and replaces it, then we have to ask ourselves, “What is it that he replaces? And how is it that it could be replaced? And what did it do for us before he came to replace it? In other words, do we run some risk?” The Temple represents the entire anthropology of animal sacrifice, which is to say, all of primitive religion. And animal sacrifice represent versions that were originally human sacrifice.
    2. The synoptic version of this is having temple curtain torn in two at the death of Jesus.
    3. 2:16: He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The Johannine Jesus has a special relationship with the heavenly Father. He knows that his Father’s house is not of this world. He is not just condemning the market activities. What was at the center of the temple shrine was an exchange program between orthodox religionists and their god, always on the verge of a fit of rage. The sacrifice itself was a bartering, and so Jesus’ condemnation is going to the center of it. The whole process has been turned into an exchange. And Jesus wants to turn that relationship into one of love, not one of fear and intimidation. That’s why it is the wine of joy, not the scrupulosity of ritual washing.
    4. John 2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Have subsequent Christians failed to remember this as well as the disciples? The passage is from Psalm 69, one of the most amazing of the psalms.
  5. Psalm 69: What can we remember when we hear this passage?
    1. Last week (tape #1): Agamemnon and the sacrifice that restores order. The voice of the victim must be extinguished if its going to be successful. If the voice of the victim is heard, chaos can occur.
    2. In the Hebrew Bible, we get a lot of sacrificial violence, with a lot of mythologizing that attributes the violence to God. Clearly, its human violence. The mythologizing never quite works, however. There comes up out of this people an empathy for the victim which cannot be suppressed. Up out of this Grand Canyon of the OT comes the voice of the victim. Anthropologically, it’s a thrilling experience to go from one psalm, for example, that cries out for vengeance and turn the page to hear the voice of the victim in a most incredible way. Psalm 69 is an example.
    3. (Psalms 69:1-2) “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” So far there’s no hint yet that this is a social phenomenon. This could be like a depression.
    4. (Psalms 69:3-4) “I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?” Now, we have the voice coming out which says that their hostility is arbitrary. And that arbitrariness of selecting the victim is the main thing we must remain oblivious to. If we realize it’s arbitrary, the game is up.
    5. (Psalms 69:7-9, 12) “It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me… I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.” The gossip and drunken songs are the seeds of the myth.
    6. (Psalms 69:14-15) “rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.” We return to the image of the water rising. There’s something implacable about this. It’s as though it doesn’t have anything to do with human volition. Something is set in motion which has the implacability of a natural disaster. It’s not somebody making a decision and making this thing happen. It’s a phenomenon of social contagion that operates autonomously. The deep water is those who hate him. The Pit closing on him is the myth becoming reality. The myth is that God wanted him out of there, etc. He prays, do not let that happen.
    7. It’s remarkable that this is quoted in conjunction with the challenge to the temple and that Jesus’ disciples remember this line from Psalm 69. Whose zeal are we talking about? It’s not Jesus’ zeal to reform the temple like some latter-day Josiah. No, it’s the zeal of Jesus’ opponents, allied with the temple, who will devour him. It is their zeal which devours.
    8. The image of rising water.
      1. The Bible is an anthropological encyclopedia. The story it tells it that of we humans trying to awaken from primitive religion and to come to know the God of Love. But it tells us the whole thing. We see the journey we have been on, slowly extricating ourselves from primitive religion, one step forward and two steps back, often times. We get the voice of the victim in Psalm 69.
      2. But in Ezekiel 47 we get something else: we get the temple functioning from the point of view from those who are its religious and social beneficiaries.
        1. Reads from Ez 47:1-12, of the river from the temple getting deeper and deeper, climaxing with: “On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
        2. We know that what flowed out from the sanctuary was blood. But here we have it in terms of its social benefits. It bestowed social harmony and made possible a kind of peace. If we don’t understand this, then we don’t understand the boldness of the challenge to it.
      3. Ezekiel 47 sees that rising water from the point of view of what it does for the community, and the psalmist sees it from the point of view of its victim. What makes the Bible great is that it presents both.
    9. The question is: how could the temple bestow these kinds of benefits?
      1. Leviticus 9: Aaron’s first liturgy. (Leviticus 9:22-24) “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down after sacrificing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. Moses and Aaron entered the tent of meeting, and then came out and blessed the people; and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.”
      2. Catharsis. The power of religious catharsis. It realigns all the metal filings of our emotions. It’s like an electric shock that dispels all these mimetic animosities. We are a people again. This is what sacrificial ritual does, particularly with a human victim.
      3. The Jewish people move away from human sacrifice on moral grounds. But they have to make up for the lost catharsis gained from human sacrifice. They must enhance, surcharge their liturgy.
      4. But shortly after this, during a similar liturgy, something goes haywire, and we are told that the fire leaped out and consumed Aaron’s two sons: Lev. 10:1-2. These liturgies were frenzied events that were on the border between actual events and controlled events that involved violence that could easily involve human violence.
      5. Another example: 1 Kings 18, Elijah’s liturgical showdown with the 450 priests of Baal. The liturgical showdowns and the military showdowns amount to the same thing in the Hebrew Scriptures. The question is who is going to be able to claim that their god did it. (1 Kings 18:24) “Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” That is the quintessential principal of sacrificial religion; fire here being a synonym for human violence. (Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. A long essay on fire and the crowd.) Elijah wins the showdown and then slaughters all the priests of Baal. It’s a mob lynching and liturgy at the same time. (end side 1)
      6. Hereclitis: “Violence is the father and king of all things. It makes some gods and some mortals, some masters and some slaves.” The logos of violence creates the fundamental distinction between the sacred and profane. The sacred is always transfigured violence, which is why it must never be touched by the profane. If it is, the results is violence. It also creates, as Hereclitis says, the social distinctions.
    10. A modern story of a lynching in India (from the Los Angeles Times of April, 1991) of two young lovers from two separate castes. (Reads portions.) The anthropological law of gravity is sacrificial. The audacity of challenging the temple and rendering it defunct presents the most incredible challenge, because it means we must find a way to do what the temple did–namely, keep us reasonably sane and civil. If we think we can just walk away from it, we’ll take a long detour and come right back into a grimmer version of it, just like the people in this little Indian village did. Either the people in this Indian village are mad, insane, or so morally inferior to us that we can dismiss them (which means dismissing all our ancestors as well). Or what they did, however morally problematic, was not irrational. Let’s be clear: we have to stop doing that. But we have to understand why it was done. If we’re going to stop doing it, we have to do what it did some other way. It made us sane and civil at the expense of the victim. It gave coherence, it created social order, at the expense of the victim. We should say to the gospel, “If you’re going to shutdown the sacrificial system, you either give us a way to live civilly and sanely without it, or get out of here. Do you show us a way to live without this or not?” Is just some nice little thing: “Oh, we’ll try to be better, be nice”? It has to be something structural, that doesn’t just appeal to our good intentions. It has to be something fundamental, because these are not things that happen at the level of the cerebellum. Next week, when we talk about being born again, we realize at the level at which we are talking about this process.
    11. Summary: The temple is a concrete symbol for the sacrificial system and the social and psychological stability it is able to foster in those societies where it has not been impaired by the empathy for its victims awakened by the Hebrew prophets and the Christian gospel. What did the temple do? It provided the catharsis that would override the social passions born of mimetic desire, i.e., imitative desire, rivalry, resentment, covetousness, jealousy, envy. It’s overridden by this other kind of contagion. The social passions of mimetic desire build toward the fire of human violence, and the sacrificial fire arrests the process and restore order at the expense of the victim. What happens when it is compromised by the Judeo-Christian message? The Bible tells this story of what happens.
    12. Homer, near the beginning of the Iliad. The anger of Achilles. The story of wrath born of desire, even in the etymology of the Greek words for wrath and desire. Response to a plague visited upon them by Apollo. The plague is blamed on the failure of the sacrificial system.
    13. Remember, Hereclitus says that the logos of violence creates social differentiation. It disinclines mimetic rivalry across the barriers of hierarchy. I can rival to some extent with those who are my equals; equality creates the condition for rivalry.
    14. Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida treats this same crisis in his drama about the Trojan War. (See Girard’s treatment in A Theater of Envy.) Shakespeare’s key term: “degree.” Key speech, Ulysses speech about loss of degree, a string untuned into dischord. (Reading from that speech.)
    15. Who has untuned the string? Christ. The Christian revelation shows us that all of these social differentiations are merely circumstantial. They need not be despised because of that. If we dispise them because they’re merely circumstantial, we become scandalized, and we fall into this pit. Maybe we need to remove them; maybe some of them we can tolerate; maybe they are morally problematic. But they are merely circumstantial. “Untune that string, and hark what dischord follows.” We might add that the dischord follows if we continue behaving the same way before the string’s untuned. If our sense of who we are is still derived from the same anthropology that made it necessary to invent the temple. (More from Ulysses’ speech: “an envious fever of pale and bloodless emulation.”)
    16. St. Paul says we no longer have sacrifice (Gr: thyo, “murder”), so we must do everything we can to avoid rage (thymos); to avoid rage, we must foreswear desire (epithymia). In Genesis, the snake is the mediator of desire, a mimetic desire, and then there’s rivalry with God. The people who have been laughing at Paul are the same ones who have been suffering from the exact craziness that Paul writes about in his letters.
      1. Example: NRS Galatians 5:13 “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” You might be free of conventional religion only to fall into the things that conventional religion are designed to ward off.
      2. Paul isn’t analyzing the problem at the level of morality. The moral defects he names are all symptoms of a psychological disintegration, the self deconstructing under the abrasive pressure of the mimetic passions, losing a sense of self. The disintegration of subjectivity is no news to Paul.
      3. Moral evil is the result of the lack of being, and its motive force is resentment towards others born of that lack. It’s the sense that someone has it, namely, being, and I don’t. Evil is ontologically, morally, and intellectually empty, but it has a semblance of moral coherence as long as the resentment that gives rise to it has a clear object on which to focus.
      4. NRS Ephesians 4:22 “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness… 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil… 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Commentary.
    17. Conclusion: This is where the gospels are so much more serious than we realize. Jesus didn’t come and say, ‘The temple is finished. Thank you and goodbye.’ He said, ‘The temple is finished, and I will take its place.’ And we have to ask ourselves: how can that be so? That’s an outrageous claim. Jesus says, ‘You have used the sacrificial system up to this moment to stay sane and civil. I’m now going to take it away from you. You’re now going to have trouble staying sane and civil. I’m going to give you another way, and that is to fall in love with me, to follow me.’ Not out of some piety, or ‘wouldn’t it be nice,’ or ‘isn’t he a lovely guy,’ or even ‘he’s God’s incarnation.’ No, it’s the alternative to the anthropology that we humans have lived with since the beginning of culture.
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