A Book of Signs

A Book of Signs August 18, 2017

I have been posting about the early chapters of John’s Gospel, and how an author/editor incorporated older materials that worked for his argument. (For convenience, let us call him John). One incident – the Marriage at Cana – shows clearly how John drew widely on earlier sources about Jesus and fitted them into his narrative, paying next to no attention to the chronology or sequence of those sources.

The Marriage story originated as a miracle story in an older free standing source, which John has appropriated and modified to accommodate his particular concerns with baptism and water-related images. In so doing, he left an odd trace of that earlier source. Changing water into wine, we read, was “the beginning of [Jesus’s] signs” (archen ton semeion). According to most scholars of the gospel, John has here preserved a part of an older hypothetical narrative of Jesus called the Gospel of Signs, an idea originally proposed by Rudolf Bultmann. That Book or Gospel of Signs would have included seven (possibly eight) mighty deeds or miracles. The lost proto-gospel only survives because it was partly incorporated into John’s gospel as we have it.

The concept of signs runs through John’s gospel, setting it apart from the Synoptics, where the word is treated with far less enthusiasm. Nor does John make much use of the language of miracles.

Although the idea of a “Signs” source is widely accepted, its specific contents are controversial. Some scholars confidently identify a series of miracles as the relevant “signs:” for convenience, see the list at the Wikipedia entry on John’s Gospel. “The seven signs consist of Jesus’ miracle at the wedding at Cana, his healing the royal official’s son, his healing the paralytic at Bethesda, his feeding the 5,000, his walking on water, his healing the man born blind, and his raising Lazarus from the dead.”

But there is room for argument about the exact contents of the list. Judging by the Cana story, each of the signs would likely have featured a phrase such as “This was the nth of Jesus’s signs,” which would have served much like modern bullet points. After the Cana story itself, “the beginning of the signs,” though, such words are infrequent in the text as we have it. In chapter four, Jesus heals the son of an official, and “This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee” (4.54). After the feeding of the five thousand, “the people saw the sign which he had done” (6.14). When Jesus raises Lazarus, the crowd seeks him out “because he had done this sign” (12.18).

But here is the problem. Although John’s Jesus performs plenty of other miracles, only these four are specifically described as “signs,” with the appropriate formula. Some scholars wonder if we should also include Jesus’s appearance to the disciples at the lake and the draught of fishes, a story that presently is located after his resurrection. As it stands, the story concludes with the line “This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead” (21.14). But that sentence structure recalls the phraseology used elsewhere to denote “signs,” and conceivably, we have here the ghost of an earlier comment that would have read something like “This was now the third sign that Jesus did.” In that case, the story would have been linked to a “walking on the water” miracle, rather than a Resurrection appearance.

So here is a hypothesis. “John” knew the Signs Gospel, and borrowed from it as he found appropriate, taking passages that fitted the argument and message that he wished to make. He particularly grasped the Cana story because its “water” references allowed him to fit it into his sequence of passages concerning water and baptism. Other passages from “Signs,” though, he ignored or re-edited. John played fast and loose with his supposed source, adding and subtracting text, and largely ignoring the original framing mechanism, the “bullet points.” He happened to keep the “bullet” for the Cana story, but not for most others.

If nothing else, that conclusion should make us skeptical about the possibilities of retrieving or reconstructing the sources that lie behind the gospels as we have them.

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