April 21, 2013
All Hands on Deck
There are a whole lot of mentions of hands in this passage. There is the hand of Jesus (10:28), the hand of the Father (10:29), the hands of the religious leaders filled with stones to stone Jesus (10:31) and the same hands from which Jesus escaped (10:39). Then there are the hands imagined but not mentioned: the hands of the destroyers of the temple in days past, those who rebuilt and rededicated it, and those who follow the Good Shepherd who use their hands to serve and save rather than to stone.
In this passage in John 10, Jesus is walking through the Temple at a particular season of the year at a particular time. It was, as John tells us, in a rather rare seasonal detail, winter. It was the time of the festival of Dedication. It was a time when the people celebrated the leaders whose hands had freed them and their ancestors who had a hand in a victory over enemies and a rededication of the Temple. It was during the time of Hanukkah, the festivalthat commemorated the freeing of Jerusalem from its Syrian oppressor Antiochus Epiphanes in the Maccabean Revolt over a century and a half earlier (165 B.C.E.) and the subsequent dedication of the temple and altar. In 163 B.C.E. the hands of Antiochus' lackeys had defiled the temple by setting up an altar to his own gods. After the hands of the Maccabees and their followers had freed Jerusalem and organized a cleansing and rededication of the temple, it was decreed that an eight-day annual festival would be held during the month of Chislev. (Hanukkah occurs sometime between late November and late December in the Gregorian calendar.)
Hands Up: A History of Surrender and Celebration
So it was winter as Jesus walked. The text specifies where in the Temple Jesus was walking—the portico of Solomon, an area at the southeast end of the outer court that would have provided the most protection from the weather. (Lincoln 304) Perhaps his hands pulled his garments around him a bit more tightly against the chill in the air. Perhaps he walked with his head slightly tilted, as if listening to voices from the past in the present. Anyone with a knowledge of the nation's past and a functioning imagination might have discerned voices from the past providing the soundtrack for a stroll through the temple. But I would imagine that Jesus, listening with his usual keenness, heard more than most: cries of anger and anguish, of intruder and violated as the Syrian conquerors marched in, cries of vindication and victory as the city was freed by the Maccabees, and the people's prayers of celebration as the temple and altar were rededicated. Perhaps he pictured hands up, hands raised in violence, self-defense and, finally, lifted high in celebratory worship. The Good Shepherd, as he walked, perhaps reflected on those scattered by the hands of the oppressors and re-gathered by the hand of God. As he strolled, perhaps his mind dwelled on those lost and isolated to whom he would reach out a saving hand. The Good Shepherd had his people on his mind.
The Works of His Hands
The religious leaders had Messiah on their minds. The timing of Jesus' portico perambulation is tied to the Messianic theme of this passage. This is the time when Israel was celebrating the nation's deliverance. The leaders had Messiah on their minds, but this was not the man they had in mind for the job. And so they gathered around him in a threatening manner, looking for something to do with their hands. In a strange twist on Jesus' words in 10:27 ("My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me"), they know him and gather around him, but to fell him, not to follow him. They ask a question and demand an answer they seem already to know and to fear. "If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly" (10:24). His miracles and teachings, the works of his hands, had already answered that question for them. They just wanted his confirmation. In verse 25, I understand Jesus to be saying, "My works are your answer but you don't want to see what is right in front of your eyes."
Hands Filled with Stones
The leaders are angered by these Messianic implications, but that is not what whips them into near murderous rage, with their hands picking up stones to stone him. What enrages them in John's gospel is Jesus' claim to be one with the Father (10:30). That's the point at which I picture their hands picking up the stones.
It takes a while for a whole crowd to get ready for a stoning. Everybody has to survey the available stones and choose the one that best fits their hand. They have to decide how many to pick up at one time.
Verses 22-29 are a build-up to the act of picking up stones. According to New Testament scholar John Ashton, there was no inherent blasphemy in claiming to be the Messiah. There were other messianic pretenders roughly contemporaneous with Jesus, and none of them was accused of blasphemy (241). The blasphemy charge would not have come from the Messianic claims as much as from the claim of identity with God. The title Son of God, while it appears in the synoptic gospels where it is related to the title Messiah, in John comes to constitute a claim to divinity. This is the claim that was blasphemous to the parent Jewish community (241). This scene may well reflect the synagogue's response to Johannine Christians' insistence on Jesus' divine status. (Asthon 242)