John, The Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith: Part 4-More on Community-Feasts-Doctrine and Covenants 7.

[Part 3 is here. Part 5 is here.]

You can find the whole series here.

Another unfortunate thing about this divorce between John’s group and the synagogue: they lose a powerful and fulfilling tradition. The feasts, celebrations, and cultural links with the past that acted as a continuing force of discipline, values, and stability drifted away, their meaning diminishing over time. You lose your own identity when something like this happens in some respects. That seems represented in the Gospel.

After chapter 5, Jesus is consistently encountered at the feasts, and this is pretty remarkable. There’s Passover, Feast of Tabernacles, Hanukkah (Festival of Lights, Dedication), and John has Jesus teaching things about himself that capture something about the occasion. Tabernacles was a feast in the fall and it became associated with the climate, a time to pray for rain. The dry season typically began from May and there was no rain until the fall. If no rain came then, crops might be lost at the peril of famine. So it became a time of supplication for rain, and there were rituals that developed, bringing water from a well and pouring it over the temple altar, praying to the Lord for rain. And John has Jesus stand up in the feast and say that he is the source of “living” water. At the Hanukkah, the temple was illuminated at night, and there was a feast of lights and dedication. Jesus teaches on the occasion that he is the “light of the world.” At Dedication, the feast that commemorated the rededication of the temple altar (after its pollution by the Seleucids and its reconstruction in the 2nd century BC) Jesus remarks that he is the one consecrated by the Father and sent into the world. John has a high Christology, everything sacred centers in Jesus, and of course he is divine by the preexistence in the Prologue. The whole is deeply connected to Mormonism’s “fall upward” theology of the Garden of Eden–it was necessary to fall to experience the joy of salvation (like it or not, we weren’t the first to think of it this way: Augustine’s “felix culpa” preceded us by more than an millennium and a half). Outside of John, Luke for example continues the importance of feast days. In Acts, the fifty days, Pentecost, had a Daniel-like tradition that arose probably about the same time as the book of Daniel and the Maccabee story, and Luke shows the legend is respected (“in heaven as it is on earth”) with the appearance of the cloven tongues of fire.[5]

John’s community, probably expelled by Jews in epoch 2, certainly resented it, whatever John put down in the Gospel. Christian self-image, even the Johannine group, still read as the restoration of the true Israel, David or no. Being told that you don’t belong to your mythic group creates a barrier of bitterness and the parent Jews of John’s community seem to cease using Jewish self-identifiers. And the Samaritan converts weren’t Jews in the first place, so it was difficult, a deadly family squabble on several fronts, and it had hard consequence down the road. John’s “The Jews” is a term of alienation. John writes that Jesus speaks to the Jews in language like this: “your Law”. It’s as though John’s polemic makes Jesus into some kind of Gentile, he’s not a Jew anymore. And later this evolves into Christians being the only true Israelites, and Jews were never true Israelites. That’s the endpoint (see note 4 here).

John is therefore not writing for Jews of the synagogue. He’s writing for people who believe in Jesus, and to convince people that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing, have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Does that sound familiar?

John’s Gospel is probably aware of the sort of traditions that founded the other Gospels, but they are not a source for him (though there is a bit of the infancy in John 7:42). Mark is used by Matthew and Luke, the latter written independently of each other, and that suggests that Mark represents at least a part of the early preaching tradition among Christians. (You think church is repetitious? Feel for early Christians on that score.) Paul says that he heard the story of the Last Supper and the blessing of the bread and wine by Jesus, and surely John was aware of that idea, but he places the whole matter of the Lord’s Supper elsewhere (John 6) and instead has the washing of the feet (granting another powerful allusion for Mormonism on several levels). John has a foundational tradition, but right from the beginning he is looking below the surface of such narratives. And maybe this explains a part of his powerful influence on Joseph Smith’s work, another prophetic voice who “sees” below the surface of things (think of Smith’s creative reflection of John 5 back on God and the reflection of Christ onto Mankind—it’s an impress of metaphor on metaphysics). John is the guy who stops you in his sacrament meeting talk and asks you, do you really understand what you’re doing in the sacrament? He’s the guy who wants you to probe your understanding of the temple, the meaning of God’s intervention in humanity—get below the surface to the background realities. It is irony I suppose that we do the same to John the Evangelist’s work.

Joseph Smith uses John as revealer, always an allusion to Revelation (think of Smith’s persistent register of spirit of prophecy as testimony of Jesus). But he doesn’t say much about John and church—and I think he didn’t have much source material there. His use of John is sacramental (and out of John 14, 17), not ecclesial–though Joseph does merge the sacramental with the ecclesial in the foundations of polygamy. John is a background for Joseph Smith’s entrance into antinomian-like sealings, temple priesthood as it works in sense of “family,” but it’s God’s family. One important exception may be the strange revelation we now have as Doctrine and Covenants section 7, a kind of midrash on John 21, itself an addendum to the Gospel.[6] This requires its own discussion I think, but it really doesn’t paint John as church leader so much as Saint who ministers to those in need in some sense (I’ll come back to this in another installment).

Next time: no footnotes, but there’s stuff about church hierarchy.

[5] Hebrew tradition has something similar with the wandering in the wilderness. Without it, there would have been no joy in the promised land. And in Mormonism, the early pioneer experience, especially the handcart disaster narratives are always tempered in devotional works with the accounts of survivors saying how it changed them, how they met God on the trails in their extremis—a paradoxical reconciliation. The Jesus of John is radically different from the Jesus of Mark, and the difference is surely connected to the purpose and circumstance of the authors. In Mark, everyone is a failure. Even Jesus is shocked by the realities that face him in the end and can’t finish it out without angelic assistance. John has none of this. Jesus is always in complete control of his destiny, always poised, always the master of fate. Failing to see such differences typically creates a confusing discursive tradition that makes a rationale for belief one that can’t withstand anything that delves below the surface of artificially constructed narratives. The fifty days travel of Pentecost terminated with the fire on Sinai, and the logic of the commandments worked on the Rabbis just as the logic of baptism worked on Joseph Smith. What about those who could not, did not hear the mighty voice of Jehovah? The fire on the mountain became tongues that reached out to every nation. It was a preaching motif, not by Israel, but by God himself.[5a] The exclusivity of Israel is broken at Pentecost (at least Luke knows this from his perspective in time–it’s also represented in the rending of the veil of the temple—the sanctuary is destroyed, in effect), everyone hears in their own language. The mission work of Pentecost was an actualization of the tradition, much like Nauvoo was an actualization of Kirtland. The point is, tradition may be used by God, and that, to me, is what John, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon is all about as a collage. I’ll keep bringing this back in other ways.

[5a] The celebratory feasts seem to begin as markings of beginnings and endings: tabernacles—marked the harvest in the vineyards and orchards when huts (tabernacles) were built near the harvest sites, and families lived on site to protect the harvest and reduce travel. Similar things evolved for other celebrations. Later, the feasts became associated with religious memories. For example passover/unleavened bread is really a combination with the water migration at the end of the rains in April. The flocks had to follow the water. There was a natural association with Exodus stories and the feast acquired a religious meaning. There was still a pilgrimage aspect: you had to go to the main shrine (temple) to make an offering. For Tabernacles, it was the 40 years of wandering. But for Pentecost—it started as a mark of the main grain harvest—but no visible salvation narrative was attached to it in the New Testament. Later on, after New Testament times, it was known that Rabbis counted the number of days between the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival at Sinai. They came up with 50 days after some calculation. Pentecost (50th) became the feast marking the arrival at Sinai and the giving of the Law and Covenant to Israel. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it became apparent that this Rabbinical calculation and the attached meaning was in fact known in Jesus’ time, and it was the main feast for the people of the scrolls. And to join the community, you had to renew the covenant: and that took place on Pentecost. And you can see why Luke attached importance to the day in Acts. And Rabbis reasoned that God’s voice on Sinai was transmitted to all people. Israel was the only people who accepted. Philo relates the tongues of fire going out to the world to preach the covenant and Law. [Some reading: see Sejin Park, Pentecost and Sinai: The Festival of Weeks as a Celebration of the Sinai Event (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), also, Roger T. Beckwith, Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian (Leiden: Brill, 2001), also Brown, Introduction to the New Testament.]

[6] Doc. and Cov. 7 came in two versions, an early and a late text (and see part 7 to come). The early (1829) text is possibly more useful for the discussion. It reads (See Jensen, Woodford, and Harper, Manuscript Revelation Books, (Church Historian’s Press), 13:

A Revelation to Joseph & Oliver concerning John the Beloved Deciple who leaned on his Saveiours breast given in Harmony Susquehannah County Pennsylvania

And the Lord said unto me. John my Beloved what desire dst thou & I said Lord give unto me power that I may bring souls unto thee & the Lord said unto me Verily Verily I say unto thee because thou desiredst this thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory & for this cause the Lord said unto Peter if I will that he tarry till I come what is that to thee

Note the preamble identifies John as the beloved disciple, but I think it is possible to see this as assumption based on the common apprehension of the day. The phrase, “bring souls unto thee” does not need to refer to a public ministry, and in fact it clearly did not mean that in a long term sense. At the landmark June 1831 conference, John Whitmer wrote that Joseph Smith stated John the Revelator (again the identification of all the Johns is an assumptive tradition I think) was among the Ten Tribes, preparing them for a fabled return to Palestine (and this return appears again in apocalyptic Doc. and Cov. 133). I see this speech as culturally mediated Millennial metaphor for future growth of a modern Davidic kingdom, always identified with Israel, but that isn’t necessary to what we are about here. Joseph Smith identified all the Johns of the corpus, but that is I believe, not important. What is important is his reformulation of the corpus in the image of restoration. One of the best examples is Joseph Smith’s wide-ranging theology reemphasized only days before his death: “John was one of the men & the apostles declare they were made Kings and Priests unto God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . Paul says there are Gods many & Lords many–I want to set it in a plain simple manner”. From a second-order manuscript of Joseph’s sermon of June 16, 1844. Joseph was one with the New Testament writers, not always with their text, but with their method.