The Aquatic Gospel

The Aquatic Gospel August 7, 2017

I have been discussing the story of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, and particularly why it occupies the very strange position it does in that text. By all probability, the event must be associated with Jesus’s last days and his final visit to Jerusalem, but in the gospel as we have it, it is placed near the start of the work, and of Jesus’s ministry. The answer to that quandary lies in the story’s relationship to another tale that presently stands very nearby, that of the Samaritan woman at the well. (Roughly, the story of Nicodemus takes up most of John’s chapter three, with the Samaritan woman as chapter four).

Surely, there could be no greater contrast between the two events? Jesus meets a great religious leader in Jerusalem; Jesus chats with a poor woman at a Samarian well. And then you look more closely, and realize just how very similar the two accounts actually are. Or rather, how they follow the same thread, but with so many crucial points totally inverted.

Far from being an innovative Jenkins Theory, this idea has often been explored in scholarly and popular literature on John. But I do want to stress one central element that does not normally get enough attention, and I mean an element, namely water.

Compare the two stories. Both depend on the listener fundamentally misunderstanding something Jesus says, allowing him to enter into a full exposition. In both cases, the misunderstanding concerns water.

In Nicodemus, a sympathetic inquirer hears a key idea from Jesus, that of baptism, but brindles at it because he misunderstands a word. Must he be born again? What an absurd idea! But look again at the word anothen, which can mean both “again” and “from above” (the English phrase “from the top” gives some sense of that double meaning). Once the idea is clarified, we have the basis for a powerful exposition, or sermon. For the evangelist’s use of the word, we can also look at John 19.11, where Jesus tells Pilate that he would have no power unless it was given anothen, from above.

That description of the Nicodemus passage pretty closely fits the dialogue with the Samaritan woman, except in her case, the confusion concerns the living water that Jesus promises. Once that misunderstanding is clarified, Jesus can expound his point. As in the Nicodemus passage, that point concerns living water, and presumably baptism.

In both cases, Jesus meets an individual who is grounded in a particular tradition, and subverts their ideas so that they come to accept his message and mission.

Also, when you read the pair of stories, you are struck by the number of verbal resemblances, and the use of parallel concepts. (As so often, these parallels really only emerge in the Greek). In fact, it would be an interesting test to quote several verses from the two texts, and to try to attribute them correctly. It would be very easy indeed to make a mistake. What about “unless one is born of water and the Spirit (ex hydatos kai pneumatos) he cannot enter the kingdom of God”? Or how about “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (en pneumati kai aletheia)”? The first sentence is from the Nicodemus dialogue, John 3.5; the second is from the Samaritan woman, John 4.24. They are not identical, but they clearly draw on a common world-view and vocabulary. I won’t compare the passages exhaustively, but there are many such echoes.

An obvious riposte to those comments is that of course all those words are consistent in themes and vocabulary, because they all came from the mouth, and mind, of Jesus himself. Perhaps they did, but the Jesus of these Johannine texts sounds very different indeed from the person we meet in the Synoptics. If this was Jesus’s normal manner of speech and thought, it is curious that it so rarely appears in those other gospels.

After undertaking a comparison, now contrast the stories, and note all the binaries, all the inversions. The first features a man, a powerful man, a Jew, who is met in darkness, and (presumably) in the city. The second concerns a woman, of humble station (she is carrying water), a Samaritan, who is met in daylight, and in the countryside. One is a night story (nuktos); the other is of the sunlit daytime (“the sixth hour,” or noon). Scholar John Ashton lists the binaries: “Pharisee/Samaritan, named/unnamed, man/woman, night/day, secret/open, indoors/outdoors.” (John Ashton, “John and the Johannine literature: The woman at the well,” in John Barton, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 259-275, at 262). There is no suggestion that either “half” is superior or inferior to the other, that one represents the forces of Light and the other Darkness. If one of the two is “in darkness,” it is the elite Jew rather than the poor Samaritan. They are complementaries.

For the sake of argument, then, let us assume that this interpretation is correct, and that the two stories are here presented as a near doublet, a parallel study in day and night, light and shade. In artistic terms, the effect is one of chiaroscuro. For those who remember such technologies, it is as if one story is a photographic negative of the other.

What does that all tell us?

The first lesson concerns how the author or editor compiled John’s Gospel. He was not acting as a conventional biographer and had next to no interest in chronology. The Nicodemus story is in the position it is because it makes a point the author wishes to emphasize, and then follows it with a reinforcing tale. We are certainly not meant to understand an actual historical sequence here – say, that Jesus met Nicodemus in April of 28 AD, and then bumped into the Samaritan woman in May.

Second, that emphasis on unifying themes highlights the core ideas that the author used to organize his material, and which he wanted his readers to understand. As I remarked, the opening sections of the gospel look very mixed in terms of what they include, and it is not immediately obvious why some passages are here rather than elsewhere. For convenience, I list those sections here:

The great theological prologue (1.1-18)

John the Baptist, and Jesus’s Baptism (1.19-34)

Jesus calls his first disciples (John 1.34-51)

The wedding at Cana (2.1-12)

Jesus expels the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple (2.13-25)

Nicodemus (3.1-21)

More interactions between Jesus and John the Baptist (3.22-36)

The Samaritan woman at the well (4.1-42).

But following on from the twin passages I have discussed here, a few critical themes easily emerge, namely Power from Above, and Baptism, with water imagery very marked. Taking together the water themes in the Nicodemus and Samaritan woman passage, together with all the baptism and Baptist emphasis, this looks like a very aquatic gospel indeed. (I suggest no linkage here with the so-called Aquarian Gospel, an early twentieth century New Age tract!)

And the pattern continues. John 5 follows with the healing at the Pool of Bethesda, where an angel came down to trouble the water. In John 6, the disciples see Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. In John 7, he promises his followers streams of living water. Obviously, the chapter divisions are not ancient, but they do give a sense of the sequence.

John begins with a baptism at a river, and ends with a Resurrection appearance by a lake.

We can put some solid figures on this theme by using a standard concordance to count New Testament occurrences of the Greek word hudor, water, in its various forms. There are eighty in all, divided as follows:

Matthew                      8

Mark                            5

Luke                            6

John                             24

Acts                             7

Ephesians                    1

Hebrews                      2

James                           1

1 Peter                         1

2 Peter                         3

1 John                          4

Revelation                   18

That does not include other water-related words, such as river, sea, Jordan, water-pots, and so on – not to mention baptize and baptism themselves.

The abundance of hudor references in John’s gospel is obvious, and we also note the four usages in 1 John, which is commonly attributed at least to the same school of thought, if not necessarily the same author. If you find a “water” reference in the gospels, other than in the context of Jesus’s own baptism, it is very likely to come from the Gospel of John.

(I won’t touch here on the large number of water and sea references in Revelation).

Actually, the concentration of themes in John’s Gospel is even higher than this figure might suggest, because the usage pattern is so heavy in particular early chapters of that text. Let me illustrate that by counting usages of the word within chapters:


1                      3

2                      3

3                      2

4                      9

5                      4

7                      1

13                    1

19                    1

I am not the first person to say this, nor the thousandth, but the baptismal theme in the Gospel of John is pervasive and overwhelming.

The sequence of themes is not perfect, in that we can’t see that water/baptism idea in the Purification of the Temple. Unless of course the author included that passage because it was already so strongly linked to the following Nicodemus discussion, and served as an essential foundation or prelude for that encounter. The medieval division of the material into chapters rather prevents us seeing such a linkage. As it appears now, the appearance of Nicodemus at the start of chapter three makes that event look like a wholly new topic in the gospel, and breaks any sense of continuity from the previous events in the Temple. As originally intended, then, the Purification might have been imagined as the lead-in to the Nicodemus exchange.

This sense of themes and motifs also helps us understand one of the passages mentioned here, which at first glance really does not fit into the sequence, namely the Marriage at Cana. Oddly though, not only does the Marriage story fit extremely well, but it has to be understood in that larger sequence.

I will discuss that next time.

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