“Out of Galilee Ariseth No Prophet”

Let’s begin, not in Galilee, but in River City, Iowa, the setting of Meredith Wilson’s classic musical, The Music Man, where Professor Harold Hill is trying to convince the Widow Paroo to buy a cornet and a fancy uniform for a band that, he knows, will never play a note. (see clip here)

HAROLD: Mrs. Paroo do you realize you have the facial characteristics of a cornet virtuoso?

MRS. PAROO: I don’t know if I understand you entirely, Professor.

HAROLD: If your boy has that same firm chin, and those splendid cheek muscles – By George! Not that he could ever be really great, you understand, but –

MRS. PAROO: Oh, is that so. And in the name of St. Bridget, why not?

HAROLD: Well – you see all the really great Cornet players were Irish – O’Clark, O’Mendez, O’Klein –

MRS. PAROO: But Professor, we are Irish!

HAROLD” No! No! Really! That clinches it! Sign here, Mrs. Paroo. Your boy was born to play the Cornet!

This is not only one of the funniest moments in 20th century musical theatre; it is also a master class in effective persuasion. Hill knows perfectly well that Herbert L. Clarke, Mannie Klein, and Rafael Mendez (all musicians that Wilson knew and had worked with) were not Irish. And the audience figures this out as soon as they hear the misplaced “O” at the beginning of decidedly un-Irish names like Klein and Mendez. But the Widow, predictably, thinks that Hill is wrong and that she can set him straight. “We are Irish,” she says, in the distinctive brogue that has already telegraphed this fact clearly to both the professor and the audience.

In the act of appearing to win an argument, the Widow Paroo becomes invested in the outcome. Harold Hill creates the illusion that he was defeated by superior knowledge and, in the process, seals the deal.

Something very similar happens twice in the seventh Chapter of John. First, when people are claiming that Jesus must be a prophet, or even the Messiah (the Christ), some in the crowd argue that Jesus cannot be the Christ because the Christ had to have been born in Bethlehem.

Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was? So there was a division among the people because of him. (John 7: 40-43)

Anyone reading the Gospel of John as part of a canon that includes Matthew and Luke will have the same reaction to this passage that Widow Paroo has when told that all really great Cornet players were Irish. “But Professor,” we think, “Jesus WAS born in Bethlehem. Kids have been dressing up to tell this story for two thousand years.” How could John not know this?

It is possible, of course, that John was not aware of the tradition that Matthew and Luke mentioned setting Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem during an imperial census. John could even have been identifying a gap in the Messianic argument that the other two evangelists were filling. But the chronology doesn’t really work. John was the last gospel written, and the author was clearly part of the Christian community. It is extremely unlikely that he was not at least aware of the traditions surrounding Jesus’s birth.

It is much more likely, I think, that John was engaging in Harold Hill-style persuasion and setting the objection in the mouths of Christ’s Jewish interlocutors who did not know what John’s readers knew. Their argument against Jesus’s Messiahship is actually an argument in favor of it, and John feels no need to point this out because he knows that we will connect the dots and become more invested when we do.

This is such a neat trick that John tries it again. Not only do Messiahs have to come from Bethlehem, not Galilee. No prophet’s come from Galilee, they say. It just doesn’t happen:

Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed. Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth? They answered and said unto him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet. (John 7: 47-52)

Once again, anyone reading this passage in a context that includes the Hebrew scriptures should recognize this as an incoherent objection. For one thing, there were indeed prophets who came from Galilee. Both Jonah and Micah came from regions within Galilee, and Elijah and Elisha probably did too. But, more importantly, there is nothing in the Old Testament that even suggests that there are limits to where prophets can come from. Most of them just sort of appear, and we don’t know anything about their background. That is kind of the point of prophets.

John, of course, knew all of this. And so did the people he was attributing these statements to. His purpose was rhetorical, not historical. He wanted us to participate in the debate so that, by participating, we would convince ourselves that Jesus was both a prophet and the prophecied Messiah.

But let’s keep something else in mind too: in creating a rhetorically compelling argument for Jesus’s messiahship, John turns the Jews of Christ’s day into cartoon villains. This is especially true in the final passage, in which the Pharisees criticize Jesus’s followers for not knowing the law while, at the same time, demonstrating their own ignorance of the scriptures by claiming that prophets cannot come from a place where several prophets were known to have come from.

This passage, and the passage in the following chapter that suggests that the Jews were “children of the devil” (John 8:44), are part of a long and ugly anti-Semitic tradition that holds the Jews responsible for not knowing their own scriptures well enough to realize that Jesus was the Messiah.

We can avoid falling into this anti-semitic trap by understanding John’s rhetorical flourishes as rhetorical flourishes. His point is to convince us that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of prophecy. To do this, he creates an argument that we can enter into and participate in with the knowledge that we have from reading other parts of the Bible. This is an excellent persuasive strategy. But by employing it, John is not giving us an accurate picture of Second Temple Judaism any more than Meredith Wilson is teaching us about those great Irish cornet players O’Clark, O’Mendez, and O’Klein.


  1. Raymond Winn says:

    Nice parallelism; thx for posting this.

  2. stephenchardy says:

    It always makes my day to see that you have posted something. You always provide a new way to understand the contexts and meanings of our scriptures. Thank you.

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