Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Heavens Opened

jacob Only one module Reflection remains from my whole time at HTC.  This is the double-module assigned to the Honours Year Dissertation: 10,000 words on a subject of your choice.  The title of my work: The Heavens Opened: Intertextuality and Meaning in John 1:51.

For a long time I've suspected that common interpretations of this verse owe more to later Western projections onto the text than they do to approaches that arise from the text and its historical setting.  Such interpretations include the widespread view that Jesus portrays himself as the Way to Heaven using the imagery of Jacob's Ladder (or Stairway) in Genesis 28.  I wonder whether folk who hold this view stop to think of the imagery going through the minds of the disciples in response to Jesus’ words.  If this interpretation is correct, then it is necessary to believe that when Jesus spoke the words ‘you will see the heavens opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man,’ the disciples immediately imagined the Son of Man akin to a huge colossus with his feet on the earth and his head in the clouds, angels traversing the divide by means of his colossal body.  If you think that sounds a likely scenario for Galilean Jews in the Second Temple period, then I’m not sure how to respond!

I’ve pondered this question for some time and posted on it early in 2007.  In my dissertation I attempted to explore this in more detail and to try to tease out the implications of how we interpret John 1:51 in terms of how it fits contextually within the opening to the Gospel.

The Hebrew text of Gen 28:12 can be read as portraying the angels ascending and descending towards Jacob.  The targums demonstrate that such readings were likely to be extant during the first century.  I think it far more likely that the disciples imagined, not a huge colossus, but the scene portrayed in Genesis 28, but with angels ascending and descending over Jesus, in the place of Jacob.  If that is true, then where do we go with the interpretation of the verse?  Of course, the Son of Man motif there is critical, and I propose, using the recent work by Casey along the way, that the title The Son of Man is used by Jesus as a unique self-designatory title.  The conjunction of Jacob and The Son of Man can then be explored.  And it is, I believe, a fruitful avenue.

Here’s a summary of the dissertation:

John 1:51 presents unique interpretational challenges within the Fourth Gospel. Approaches tend to focus on either the background to the Son of Man motif in the verse, or the intertextual reference to Jacob's encounter with Yahweh at Bethel, recorded in Genesis 28. In this dissertation, intertextuality with both the Bethel narrative and 'son of man' material is examined in the light of recent developments in the Son of Man debate. A consideration of the literary context of the verse is also brought to bear. As a consequence of this approach, a meaning is identified for the verse which is consistent with its historical and literary context and which connects the Son of Man motif and the Bethel narrative. A Jacob-Jesus nexus is proposed as the interpretational key which unlocks the meaning of John 1:51. This nexus gives a strongly representative emphasis to the Fourth Gospel's first Son of Man saying. In this regard, links can be detected between Jesus as Messiah, Suffering Servant and The Son of Man. The promissory content of the Bethel narrative is fundamental to Jesus' description of a symbolic recapitulation of Jacob's encounter with Yahweh. As Jacob inherits the Abrahamic promises as the representative of Israel, so the Son of Man inherits them as the representative of a redeemed humanity. Thus, the title The Son of Man here conveys Jesus' self-understanding as the locus of that new humanity. The 'greater things' of John 1:51 are the signs of the Johannine Signs Source, designating Jesus as the inheritor of these promises. These signs constitute the opened heavens, the apocalyptic revelation of Jesus as The Son of Man. Thus, the narrative location of John 1:51 immediately prior to the 'beginning of the signs' at Cana assumes significance. Implications for other interpretations of the verse are briefly explored.