The Gospel According To John’s Rabbi Jesus -- By: Bruce Chilton

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 25:1 (NA 2015)
Article: The Gospel According To John’s Rabbi Jesus
Author: Bruce Chilton


The Gospel According To John’s Rabbi Jesus

Bruce Chilton

Bard College

The Fourth Gospel follows the Synoptics in the consistent address of Jesus as “rabbi,” utilizing the Aramaic term in transliteration. Although the Johannine range of usage is comparable to that of the Synoptic Gospels, John develops a more systematic presentation; the meaning of the reference to Jesus as “rabbi” for both insiders and outsiders is refined.

The Johannine pedagogy, focused on what the term means contextually, enables hearers or readers of the Gospel to frame a socially sensitive definition of “rabbi.” Within its cultural setting the term in general involves a teacher known for one or more of the following accomplishments: attracting students, demonstrating unusual insight and knowledge, performing signs, defining a distinctive style of purity, interpreting tradition as well as Scripture, and entering into controversy. Each of these categorical aspects of activity is instanced within Judaic literature in respect of figures also known as rabbis.

But the Fourth Gospel is unusual in bringing these characteristics together in order to concentrate on a single figure. The Johannine focus on Jesus as rabbi enables the Gospel to coordinate different activities as all expressive of one identity. In every case, the activity introduced as that of Jesus in his role as rabbi develops into a major thematic statement within the Gospel. At the same time, elements within those presentations involve unexpected assertions that sometimes amount to apories. The most discussed aporia (John 3:22, 26; 4:1) is the statement that Jesus baptized more successfully than John the Baptist did, followed by the assertion that Jesus did not baptize (John 4:2). But that proves to be just one example of a profound pattern.

Aporetic presentation in John is by no means limited to cases in which Jesus appears as rabbi, but it remains striking that apories are consistently involved when Jesus is so addressed. Two explanations of that phenomenon emerge: (1) that the source traditions connected with Rabbi Jesus present him in ways no longer current when the Gospel was produced and (2) that John developed apories as a sign of mystery, so that the use of rabbi became an invitation to other identifications of Jesus. These two explanations may on occasion prove valid at the same time, and Johannine presentation often defies the clear distinction of one from the other.

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