Even a casual, first-time reader quickly notices that the Fourth Gospel, or the Gospel of John, is different than the other New Testament gospels. From the first verse, the metaphorical language tells readers that this is more than a historical rehearsal; it is scripture written to persuade men that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Redeemer of Israel.
Jesus’ Second Temple period Jewish audience would have had expectations of what the Messiah would be like and what he would do. Depending on their religious community and sect, these hopes would likely represent exaggerations of various Old Testament prophecies. Some of the Jewish leadership had willingly altered the concept of the Messiah, but other characteristics became distorted through time.
The fourth evangelist likely wrote his gospel to a group of Jewish-Christian believers in the late part of the first century after Christ’s death. He meant his message to inspire Jews to re-examine their expectations and assumptions regarding the Messiah. The writer deliberately presents contrasting interpretations of messianic prophecy to emphasize how misguided expectations that hampered a belief in Christ.
In this episode of Latter-day Saints Perspectives podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews biblical scholar Joshua Matson about why many first century Jews failed to see Jesus as the Messiah. Matson identifies the biblical texts that speak of the Messiah and those that interpret those prophecies in the Apocrypha. Many of these scriptures spoke of a warrior king who would reunite a divided Israelite kingdom and deliver Israel from bondage.
Jesus addressed these concerns during his ministry, and the fourth evangelist fashions the account to teach current Jews how to recognize the Messiah. His message to a first-century audience is just as applicable and beautiful to seekers today as it was two millenia ago. Tune in as Joshua Matson describes the messianic message of the Gospel of John.
About Our Guest:
Joshua Matson is a PhD candidate in religions of western antiquity at Florida State University, a teacher at the Tallahassee Institute of Religion, and currently is living in Israel as a research associate with the Scripta Qumranica Electronica Project at the University of Haifa. Josh received a BA in ancient Near Eastern studies from BYU, and a master’s in biblical studies from Trinity Western University.
Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast
Episode 102: John’s Messianic Message with Joshua Matson
Released February 6, 2019
This is not a verbatim transcript.
Some wording has been modified for clarity, and timestamps are approximate.
Laura Harris Hales: 00:01 This is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with Joshua Matson to talk about the Gospel of John. Joshua Matson is a PhD candidate in religions of western antiquity at Florida State University, a teacher at the Tallahassee Institute of Religion, and currently is living in Israel as a research associate with the Scripta Qumranica Electronica project at the University of Haifa. Josh received a BA in ancient Near East studies from BYU and a master’s in biblical studies from Trinity Western University. Our discussion today is based on the address “The Fourth Gospel and Expectations of the Jewish Messiah” given at the 2018 Sperry Symposium at BYU.
Hello, Josh. Since we last talked, you moved from being a PhD student to a PhD candidate. I bet that feels good. What’s the topic of your dissertation?
Joshua Matson: 01:07 For my dissertation, I am writing on the textual history and the reception history of the Hebrew Bible minor prophets in the Second Temple period, trying to answer the question of whether or not the minor prophets circulated as one single scroll among Jewish communities during that time.
Laura Harris Hales: 01:45 The topic of your address is “The Fourth Gospel and Expectations of the Jewish Messiah.” I’m curious why you refer to it as the Fourth Gospel instead of the Gospel of John in your paper.
Joshua Matson: 02:00 A big part of this is one of my teaching styles. I tell my students that there are three major ways to study religious texts. We study what the text says; we study what scholars and historians have said about a text; and then we study what religious communities say about a text. The Gospel of John itself never references an author. Now, this isn’t peculiar, given the fact that neither do Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Oftentimes, scholars will refer to the Fourth Gospel in this way because the text itself is silent as to who the author of the text is. Now, the Gospel of John is unique in the fact that the last few verses of Chapter 21 identify a disciple as the person who wrote it. It states specifically that it’s the disciple whom Jesus loved, and also the disciple who leaned on His breast at supper. Of all the Gospels, what may be most telling is that we have an attribution to this disciple. It’s not until post-apostolic writings by church fathers like Clement and Irenaeus that we get the attribution directly to John. A big portion of scholars will refer to it as the Fourth Gospel simply because all of the Gospels are anonymous.
Laura Harris Hales: 03:24 That authorship then is plausible or probable, but not definite. Is that what you’re telling me?
Joshua Matson: 03:32 Yeah, especially with those first two prongs of what I teach. The text itself is silent, and historians generally will lean towards the safety of saying it’s silent about it. Now, as Latter-day Saints, we have other scripture that we have to bring in. Both the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants refer to the author of this gospel as John. As Latter-day Saints, when we move into that third section of, “What do religions say about this text?” we state fairly definitely that John is the author.
Laura Harris Hales: 04:04 Before we proceed talking about the Fourth Gospel, which may have been written by John, let’s review the term Second Temple because you use it a bit in your paper. What time period does it cover?
Joshua Matson: 04:19 The Second Temple period is where my expertise lies, and so it does seem to come out quite frequently in my writing. It is traditionally dated between the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon and the beginning of the building of the Temple of Zerubbabel around 530 BC and then goes until the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70 CE.
Laura Harris Hales: 04:45 Do we know the audience for the Fourth Gospel?
Joshua Matson: 04:48 We don’t. A lot of scholars will look at the text and at what historians have said about the gospel to try and figure out what’s going on. The author himself states that he’s writing to a group that needs to be persuaded to believe in Jesus as the Christ. And so, while most scholars, including in the Latter-day Saint tradition, like to say that this is written to a group of already believing Christians, the text itself states that these things were written to persuade people to believe that Jesus is the Christ. Therefore, most scholars will propose that the audience was a Jewish–Christian community, one that was still rooted in Jewish customs and beliefs, while at the same time debating the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. However, some scholars have also suggested that the gospel was written to appeal to educated pagan readers, almost as a means of being able to look at the intellectual elite, and have them look into what’s being said. The LDS Bible Dictionary suggests that the group was people who had already had basic information about who Jesus was, and that is why John differs so much from the synoptic gospels. That’s something that a noted biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, has followed, stating that the audience was already deeply rooted in the faith of Jesus Christ. So, we have this tension of the audience between those who are already believing and accepting Jesus, but the text itself states that it was written so that people would believe that Jesus was the Christ.
Laura Harris Hales: 06:30 How does the author of the gospel go about showing that Jesus was the Christ?
Joshua Matson: 06:38 From my reading, I see that the gospel actively seeks to present an elevated portrait of the attributes, nature, and character of Jesus through its high Christology that connects Jesus with Messianic prophecies. In other words, Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is divine at all times and in all things that He does. The author is emphasizing that divine nature of Jesus Christ. I’ve also found that the stated purpose of the gospel, as we just mentioned, to believe that Jesus is the Christ, is also tied to the three principles emphasized by the “Lectures on Faith” that emphasize that faith comes only when one has a correct understanding of the attributes, character, and perfections of God. It looks as though the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, is emphasizing time and again these correct attributes of Jesus Christ.
Laura Harris Hales: 07:34 John is trying to convince the reader that Christ is the Messiah. We tend to think Second Temple Jews had one concept of the promised Messiah. In what way does the Gospel of John address that view?
Joshua Matson: 07:50 Well, one thing that the Gospel of John does is it takes those major ideas about Messianic expectations and diverts them, unlike, let’s say, the Gospel of Matthew where we’re right away presented with a genealogy that says, “Here’s our proof that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham, of David, of Judah.” Instead, the Gospel of John doesn’t get into things like Christology or referencing “as it is written” in the text. John takes a particular approach to the promised Messiah, and instead of presenting a laundry list, it presents conversations between people and Jesus. Oftentimes, these discussions turn to, “Well, isn’t the Messiah supposed to be ‘X’?” John seems to show that Jesus says, “Well, not really. This is the Messiah. Jesus is the Messiah. Those texts are pointing to Him, but your interpretation is wrong.”
Joshua Matson: 09:00 I love what the New Revised Standard Version of John says in John 7:41 where some Jews at the Feast of the Tabernacles state, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does He?” It asks this question, and it engages the audience in this conversation of, “Well, don’t our beliefs in the Messiah and our interpretation of the Messianic prophecies state that this is what He’s going to do?” John tries to portray with what people are saying to Jesus that, “Well, do we really understand what our prophecies are?” He instead says, “No, this is what Jesus’s character and attributes are.”
There appears to be a specific approach in the Gospel of John to bring up the accepted traditions of the promised Messiah and complicate them in their interpretation through conversation. The example given of Galilee is pivotal in my study, as the conversation continues to discuss the lineage from David and a birth in Bethlehem, two points that the author of John seems to not really be encumbered by. It references them in the voice of the people, but the author doesn’t go on to say, “Oh, you’re right. He was born in Bethlehem,” or, “Oh, yeah. He is from David.” Instead, he accepts those as minor points of fact and moves on for just the character and attributes of Jesus as He is.
Laura Harris Hales: Isn’t there a criticism out there that the other gospels contort the story in order to fit different ideas of who the Messiah is? They put Him in the City of David at birth. They, like you said, give the lineage just to prove that he comes from the house of David. And John is saying, “I’m not going to worry about that,” or the author of the Fourth Gospel does.
Joshua Matson: 10:57 And that’s one thing I love about John. Its high Christology shows Jesus is divine. It’s as if John, or the author of the Fourth Gospel, is saying, “You know what? This stuff doesn’t matter. Jesus is the Christ, and I’m going to show that in this way.”
Your point is well-taken. The minor prophets are oftentimes the ones who are referenced in those gospel points of fact, but they’re referenced anonymously. In Luke, we get a reference to Malachi, for example, but Malachi’s not referenced by name. It just says, “as the prophet states.” We also get the famous prophecy with Christ riding in on a donkey that comes from the minor prophets. But again, it’s referenced anonymously. There’s this tension that exists in those earlier gospels, the synoptics, to conform themselves to these prophecies. John says, “I’m not going to worry about that. I’m going to just present Jesus as the Messiah.”
Laura Harris Hales: 12:07 This is the last gospel that was written. Do we know why it was necessary to make this distinction at this time in the Christian community?
Joshua Matson: 12:18 You make an interesting point of the Fourth Gospel being written last. That’s what historians and scholars have traditionally said. From internal evidence, it’s hard to get to that late dating. We don’t have any reference to the destruction of the temple. We don’t have any reference to the synoptic gospels that would’ve been written earlier, and we don’t see any dependence upon those earlier texts. A minority of scholars have even suggested that John may have been written before 70 AD or CE, making it contemporaneous with Mark because of those internal markers that we don’t see.
It appears that John is concerned with dispelling incorrect beliefs about the Messiah and is focused on helping readers exercise belief in Jesus Christ, as he states, “Until life in salvation.” This is done by the author by presenting the correct ideas of the character and attributes of Jesus Christ and suggesting that timing and why this would need to be brought forth as you’re now dealing with a group of people who didn’t have interactions with Jesus, who didn’t know Jesus personally, but instead a group that is a generation 30 or 35, 40-plus years removed from Jesus.
Joshua Matson: 13:39 You have a group that didn’t know Jesus, and so there’s a need to be able to reconnect with Him. We see this especially in the statement that’s made with Thomas in Chapter 20 of John. There’s this interesting phrase of, “blessed are thou, Thomas, for thou hast seen and believed, but more blessed are they who shall believe and have not seen.” It’s almost one of these markers in the text that suggests that we’re dealing with a new generation of Christians who have an idea, may be born into Christianity, but they haven’t had a rooted experience in which they actually believe and are rooted into that faith.
Laura Harris Hales: 14:26 Do we know why the author thinks that these Messianic expectations have affected Jews’ reception of Christ?
Joshua Matson: 14:35 One of the things that I emphasized in my symposium paper is that my detailed study of the utilization of the Greek term Christos, which is commonly translated as Christ or Anointed One, which appears 21 times in the Gospel of John, shows the author is deliberately presenting contrasting interpretations of Messianic prophecy to emphasize how misguided the Messianic expectations were in accepting and believing Jesus as the Messiah. Put a different way, the Gospel of John seems to show that one needed to view Jesus’s life through a divine lens to see who he really was. These expectations and interpretations became hindrances to people because they were more caught up on the interpretation and who that interpretation came from rather than viewing the facts as it were of who the Messiah was going to be.
Laura Harris Hales: 15:34 You mentioned the minor prophets had been referenced in one view of the Messiah. What other texts serve to inform the various views?
Joshua Matson: 15:45 There are two groups of texts that we can look at that have Messianic expectations. We have the biblical texts or the texts that are in what we believe were canonized in the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible, and then we have other texts that are from different texts that may have been accepted as authoritative in Second Temple Judaism. Some of the texts that are of particular emphasis in studying Messianic expectations include Genesis 49:8–12, which is Judah’s patriarchal blessing that emphasizes this idea of a scepter being given to the tribe of Judah. Numbers 24:15–19 is another one. This is Balaam’s oracle on the star and the scepter of Israel, which will come to conquer all the surrounding nations. This text is particularly important because it talks about conquering, as we’ll likely talk about it in a little bit. Deuteronomy 18:18–19 talks about a prophet like unto Moses. These all come from the Pentateuch or the Torah.
Joshua Matson: 16:58 In 2 Samuel 7, we have verses 12 to 17, which are a prophecy about the Divided Kingdom being established forever. Isaiah 11:1–9 talks about the stem of Jesse and that this individual has perfect attributes and establishes an Edenic state within Israel. Psalm 89:36–38 talks about an unbroken and fully established line of David that would exist and rule and reign. Amos 9:11–15, talking about the minor prophets, is a reference to the restoring of the fallen Divided Kingdom. Now, Amos is living in the middle of the 8th century, which is right around the time of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. The prophecy gives us this emphasis of the restoration of the kingdoms together. And then, a final one from the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament is Jeremiah 23:5–8 or Jeremiah 33:15–18. If you’re reading through Jeremiah, you feel like he’s repeating here. He talks about the righteous branch of David that will restore the Divided Kingdom and land. All of these texts serve as the foundation of Messianic expectations later on in the Second Temple Jewish period.
Laura Harris Hales: 18:20 Do these texts share a central theme?
Joshua Matson: 18:23 They do, as may have become apparent through my brief synopsis of each of those. Each of the texts seems to emphasize a focus on divided kingship and a divided kingdom. The individuals who would hold or rule over that kingdom had a power to rule that was above the common power that one would have. It was an enhanced power to be able to ensure the stability and the beauty of the Divided Kingdom. In the Hebrew Bible, that becomes the focus—this ruler who’s going to rule and reign over a restored Israel.
Laura Harris Hales: 19:07 Many times we’ve heard the question, “How could the Jews not recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah?” The scholar Amy-Jill Levine has written quite a bit on this topic. How did these texts instruct us on what the actual expectations of the Jews were regarding the Messiah?
Joshua Matson: 19:30 I think this is an instructive part of why texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls and non-canonical texts are so important to our study of not only the Old Testament and the Jewish beliefs of the era prior to the coming of Christ but also to the New Testament. This is the unique perspective that I hope to bring to the field of New Testament studies and biblical studies: “How do we really steep these texts in their Second Temple milieu?” One of the things that we see within the text like the Dead Sea Scrolls is that we find that Jewish expectations were more rooted in interpretation than text. Most of us have read through a lot of those texts that I just mentioned, but when we read through them, we sometimes go quickly, or we don’t think there’s much to it. And when you look at the texts themselves, they’re fairly plain, bare-based.
Joshua Matson: 20:41 But when we look at how Jewish communities during the intertestamental period are trying to get a grip of what these things are saying, we gain some insight. What does it mean to have a scepter? What does it mean to be a star? These keywords. They make these extravagant interpretations of what the Messiah was going to be, so much so that in one secondary or noncanonical text we hear of the words of the Messiah being able to consume the enemies that might come to fight against this restored kingdom. You start to get these exaggerated expectations. It’s important to recognize that we have this trajectory of, “Here’s the prophecies of a Messiah,” but the interpretation of those prophecies becomes grander than what the prophecy may have originally been intended to state. It’s important to see how these communities are focusing or changing to fit their own kind of focus.
Laura Harris Hales: 22:03 Some of us might be tempted to think of a monolithic, first-century Jew when that is really a misconception, right? You’re saying the Jew on the street is informed by his local rabbi and how he interprets the scriptures. Plus, there are different sects, and they have different views of what the Messiah is going to be and what He’s going to do.
Joshua Matson: 22:29 That’s one thing that I love about studying Second Temple Judaism. As Latter-day Saints, we sometimes get the misconception that all religions are like ours. All of them are hierarchical in some way, and they’ve got a point in which everybody refers back to. There’s a central leader. They’re saying the same things. There’s an organization that is making sure everybody believes the same thing. That’s not what’s happening. We have communities where you could have people who live right next to each other that are part of two separate synagogues or two different communities that are going to hold two different beliefs.
Joshua Matson: 23:09 One of my favorite parts of visiting the Holy Land and visiting synagogues is that you can be in one block in Jerusalem, and you can visit next-door synagogues, and they will be completely different in their discussion and their interpretation of the text. That’s what we see even on a grander scale when we look at the Second Temple period because we’ve got groups that are so upset that people are misinterpreting things that they’ll get up all their things, and they’ll move out to a middle of the barren desert, like the Dead Sea Scrolls community does, to make sure that their beliefs and their closely-held interpretations of holy writ are adhered to and followed to in exact point.
Laura Harris Hales: 23:56 What are all these interpretations attempting to do for the Israelite people?
Joshua Matson: 24:02 I think at the end of the day, all of these are trying to give the Israelite people hope in times of despair. Each community has a different need that it addresses. These expectations and these interpretations of a Messiah are giving them hope in a future. One of the things that I’ve thought of frequently in preparation for our discussion today has been how much Jewish expectations of the Messiah mirror our own expectations of a Second Coming. If we look at the texts that discuss the Second Coming, they’re fairly bare, foundational, but it’s in the interpretation that they are fleshed-out and sometimes exaggerated. We can use that example to transport ourselves back two millennia to be able to say this is what Jews were believing in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. They wanted to have the clear picture. They wanted to know exactly what was going to happen and what the Messiah was going to eat on the 370th day from the beginning of His ministry. They wanted those specifics. And the hope in those specifics was that we will recognize that Messiah and be able to follow that individual to the end that we believe, which is the restoration of our kingdom and the return to an Edenic state.
Laura Harris Hales: 25:31 Earlier, you identified the source material for Messianic expectations in the Hebrew Bible. Where do we find the interpretations?
Joshua Matson: 25:41 We find a number of interpretations in non-biblical texts. Some of those texts include the Psalms of Solomon, particularly in Chapter 17 and 18, where we read of a Messianic figure that’s going to be all-wise and powerful rule over the Earth, and who is chosen by God. In 4 Ezra 13, we read of a dream of an all-powerful figure with the ability to consume those who stand in opposition to Him. In 2 Baruch 72 and 73, we read of a Messiah who will call all nations together and judge them. We also find some texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the fifth column of the War Scroll, we read of the Prince of the Congregation who will stand at the head of the army of the Sons of Light to lead them in battle against the Sons of Darkness. And so, you get a militaristic view in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Another text that we have is 4Q175, which is one of the texts we found in the Cave 4 of Qumran. It’s a commentary on Messianic passages, particularly those in Numbers and Deuteronomy. And so, we have a text from this community where they’re trying to interpret and say, “Okay. This is what is meant by Balaam’s prophecy,” or, “This is what’s meant by the one who’s great like unto Moses.” It attempts to be able to further identify how those texts and those individuals will be recognized by the community.
Laura Harris Hales: 27:17 What groups does the Gospel of John or the Fourth Gospel use to highlight the varying ideas regarding the Messiah?
Joshua Matson: 27:26 The primary groups that John uses are the Jews themselves, which consist of not just of the Jewish people in general, but oftentimes Jewish groups. We also have the Samaritans. We have the followers of John the Baptist. So, we’ve got these three groups that seem to have Messianic expectations and then Messianic realizations when they have encounters with Jesus.
Laura Harris Hales: 27:55 How can the Fourth Gospel be seen as anti-Jewish?
Joshua Matson: 27:59 Well, a lot of it comes down to how we interpret a Greek phrase. So here, this phrase, which is oftentimes translated in our King James Version or most versions of the Bible as “the Jews” appears frequently in the text, often in a negative light. When we read the Gospel of John on the surface, one can easily conclude that John is being anti-Jewish. The Jews are doing all these things negatively. However, a close reading of the Fourth Gospel reveals that the vast majority of these references are to the Jewish leadership, a group that always engages with Jesus cynically in the Gospel of John. Additionally, these people appear to be rooted in their interpretation of scripture. They appear to distance themselves from Jesus in discussions and critiques. They seem to only want to speak of Him among those in their own group or within their own intellectual boundaries. A second reading that we might have of this group in the Gospel of John is that this is the intellectual elite among the Jews who are unwilling to change their ideas or their mindset about a Messiah and about the interpretation of any other scripture. Particular for my study is that this group seems to be portrayed this way because of their reluctance to accept any of the aspects of Jesus as the Messiah.
Laura Harris Hales: 29:32 What was one of the stumbling blocks to Jews accepting Christ as the Messiah?
Joshua Matson: 29:38 From a close reading of the Gospel of John, it appears that one of the primary stumbling blocks, and one of the primary stepping stones, is a believing heart. Perhaps this is why the author of the Gospel of John chose to include the story of Thomas near the end of his narrative. In John 20:29, the text states, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.” A believing heart that the Messiah would truly come, and could be different than the way that individuals had interpreted he would come, seems to be one of these key components within the text. As a Latter-day Saint, I think this is an important point, especially in our current climate of trying to navigate scripture, doctrine, and history. That point can be even more emphasized by the gifts of the spirit that are referenced in Doctrine and Covenants section 46 and how they differ from the gits of the spirit, let’s say, in 1 Corinthians 12. One of the gifts that is expanded upon in Doctrine and Covenants 46 is found in verse 14 where it says that believing on the words of those who know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is one of the gifts of the spirit. This is interesting to me when viewed with the stated purpose of the Gospel of John—that believing in Jesus Christ is the means by which we gain life and salvation. He emphasizes believing. Not knowing Jesus, not witnessing Jesus, but believing in Jesus Christ is this way to gain life and salvation.
Joshua Matson: 31:19 One of the things that John seems to be saying is that the Jews lack belief. At least that Jewish leadership that we’re talking about. In my article, I tried to emphasize that there was a section of the Jewish community who was unyielding in their understanding of what it meant to be a Jewish Messiah. John is trying to say, “You have to be believing.” Those are what ultimately become the condemning words to Thomas. To a certain extent, the author of the Gospel of John may be saying that to us, the audience 2,000 years from the time he wrote it. “Are you going to believe that these things actually happened?”
Laura Harris Hales: 31:59 We have talked about these expectations, this need to show these first-century Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. How does this gospel go about doing that?
Joshua Matson: 32:11 The literary presentation of the Jewish leadership in the Gospel of John suggests that one comes to know Jesus by doing things differently than the Jewish leadership does them. One must have an open mind regarding the interpretation of scriptures. One must spend time with Jesus and His disciples, and one must speak not only with his opponents but also with those who believe in him. The Gospel of John seems to play this literary role in which it presents discussions that show how individuals will either engage with Jesus or disengage with Jesus. That’s one of the reasons why I side with those who don’t believe the Gospel of John is anti-Jewish because it’s focused on this leadership—this leadership that doesn’t want to change the way in which they think about the Messiah and do not accept Jesus. John uses that to his advantage as he’s trying to persuade people to believe in Jesus. Here are the arguments. Here’s what the leadership of the Jews are saying. Here is what Jesus is saying. Now, make your own decision. And literarily, that seems to be how each of these conversations or confrontations is presented.
Laura Harris Hales: 33:28 Though the Palestinian Jews largely rejected Christ, how did they set the stage for others to accept Christianity?
Joshua Matson: 33:37 One thing that I love about the Gospel of John is that the author allows readers to hear arguments on both sides concerning Jesus and to decide for themselves where they fit in regards to those arguments. By hearing what the leadership shows or those who reject Christ show and then seeing the response by Jesus and His disciples, readers, both in antiquity and in modern day, can seek to gain their own witness of Jesus’s Messiahship and state for themselves that, “I believe that Jesus is the Messiah because of X, Y, and Z, even though I’m aware of the contrasting argument that’s Z, Y, and X.”
Laura Harris Hales: 34:26 The author clearly wants Jews to alter their Messianic expectations. How does he go about convincing them to do that?
Joshua Matson: 34:35 I find that in the text, the author shows specific examples from the life of Jesus where individuals put aside their previously held beliefs and choose instead to accept the truth or the true interpretation of the Messiah. This can be seen with the temple patrons of the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7 where some proclaim Jesus is the Messiah after He was confronted by the Jewish leadership. This also happens with the Samaritan woman at the well who believes that Jesus is the Christ after having a conversation in which she presents her own Messianic views. In this way, the author of the Gospel of John shows that those in the past have put aside their long-held Messianic beliefs, and so can anyone else who reads the text. By altering the expectations, the literary approach by which we can read the Fourth Gospel allows us to be able to see how people can be convinced of the true Messiahship of Jesus.
Laura Harris Hales: 35:42 In essence, isn’t he saying, “You cannot get here through a checklist”?
Joshua Matson: 35:49 Yeah. And this may be where it stands in stark contrast to the synoptics. Another way in which I really enjoy the Gospel of John is, “Here’s the presentation of Jesus.” If we believe this is John, which as Latter-day Saints is a common thread, then here is an eyewitness to everything that Jesus did. And so he’s saying, “I witnessed it. This is what Jesus did. He was the Messiah. Now it’s up to you to make your own decision on what you believe He is.”
Laura Harris Hales: 36:25 One interesting part of your article is where you discuss how the Samaritan expectation of the Messiah differs from the Jewish. I did not realize how much they were sister nationalities and how much they shared in common. Do you want to speak to that?
Joshua Matson: 36:43 The Samaritans are another area that I have an interest in because we read about this group that the Jews wouldn’t associate with. What was it that separated them? We find in history that a big reason behind this separation may have been those elites who were taken into exile in Babylon. The low-life peasants had stayed in Israel and their beliefs morphed. How much did the Babylonian exile influence Jewish thought after 530 BC? I like to look at the Samaritan trajectory and say, “Well, perhaps the Samaritan beliefs are beliefs that didn’t undergo some minor changes during the exile in Babylon.” When the Jews come back from exile, and they see this different group who didn’t go into exile, who didn’t experience what it was like to be under the rule of the Babylonians, there’s this friction that builds, and for 500 years it builds to the point of what we see in the New Testament, where people won’t even walk through Samaritans lands.
Joshua Matson: 37:56 One of the things that is interesting for me is how they viewed the Messiah. They had some of these same texts. Now, the Samaritans primarily believe in the Pentateuch. Some people will even include the record of Joshua and create a Hexateuch to be able to say this is what the Samaritans had as a written text and everything else was tradition. Now, the hard part about this is most of these traditions weren’t written down until the 2nd or 3rd century, or later, AD. We have to tread cautiously with some of these interpretations, but I think there are things that we can say for certain. One of the things that we find is that these traditions of the Samaritans is that they look forward to the coming of a Messianic figure that they named Tahev, a descendant of Jacob and a great prophet and teacher. It’s really interesting to see that the emphasis in the Samaritan ideas of a Messiah is a prophet and teacher rather than a king and warrior, as we see in some of those Jewish texts.
Laura Harris Hales: 39:04 You mentioned earlier how these Messianic expectations were fueled a little bit from fear, from being carried into captivity. If these groups split at the time of the captivity, the Samaritans wouldn’t even have access to a lot of those Second Temple books, like the Prophets, written after that time.
Joshua Matson: 39:31 Or we see that those writings were in direct opposition to persuade people not to believe what the Samaritans were saying.
Laura Harris Hales: 39:39 Oh, there you go.
Joshua Matson: 39:40 We see that maybe some of the fear in those texts is like “Don’t deal with the Samaritans because their interpretation is wrong.” Again, fueling that fear. A lot of what the Samaritans focus on with their Messianic figure instead is restoration to how things should’ve been. One of the things that is apparent in this is that the Samaritans believed that the Messiah would come to Mount Gerizim, which in Samaritan belief is the mountain of God in the land of Israel, where an altar was to be erected when the Israelites came into the land. It’s interesting how much of the Samaritan Messiah is rooted in stories of the Old Testament. He is to prove Himself as the Messiah by bringing the staff of Aaron with Him, by producing manna again for the people to partake of, by returning the tabernacle to Mount Gerizim. Again, one of these other interesting points, the Pentateuch doesn’t reference any holy sight except the tabernacle. They’re not dealing with temple or other sites that way. And then the last thing is that this Messiah is going to aid in making Hebrew the universal language; all people would speak Hebrew because of the works of that Messiah.
Laura Harris Hales: 41:04.953 Oh, that’s interesting.
Joshua Matson: 41:06.441 So this Messiah, in the Samaritan ideology, is much more of a teacher, much more of one who’s going to come and teach correct principles. Another interesting divergence is that the Samaritans believed that this Messiah would die, and that this Messiah would die and be buried with Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. You can see that there’s a number of differences that may be boiled down to the difference between the Jewish political and military Messiah and the Samaritan Messiah who is much more interested in teaching and prophesying for the people.
Laura Harris Hales: 41:43 Do we see these traditions in the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well?
Joshua Matson: 41:50 I think we do. We see some of the key points. The Samaritan woman references the role of Jesus’s prophet in John 4:19. She also makes this reference to worshiping on Mount Gerizim. Well, where would one worship? They would worship at the tabernacle. Sometimes we think really broadly as Latter-day Saints and as readers of the New Testament and say, “Oh, they’re just talking about worshipping on Mount Gerizim.” Well, they would need a place to perform their worship and that would’ve been the tabernacle. This veiled reference to worshipping on Mount Gerizim in John 4:20 appears to me to be one of these references to this expected prophet-teacher who’s going to restore the tabernacle onto that same mountain.
The last thing that the Samaritan woman emphasizes is the role of the Messiah in teaching all things to the people. The Samaritan woman, at least in the text, recognizes Jesus as the fulfillment of two of these traits, as a great prophet and as a teacher who can teach these things to the people. And then, Jesus refutes her statement about Mount Gerizim by stating that we should worship the Father in spirit and in truth, not in a physical location. And so again, we see this kind of altered expectation even of the Samaritan belief by John where he says, “Yes, Jesus is a great prophet. Yes, Jesus is a great teacher. And you can throw away that expectation of establishing the tabernacle because once Jesus is crucified, you don’t need a single physical location to worship the Father.” John manipulates the literary discussion between the Samaritan woman and Jesus to show how this works.
Laura Harris Hales: 43:40 You used this lofty term in your article—incarnation Christology. What does that mean and what is the incarnation Christology of the Fourth Gospel?
Joshua Matson: 43:52 According to Father Raymond Brown, incarnation Christology is the human conception that the Son of God did not come into existence, rather He was a previously existing agent in the divine sphere who took on flesh in the womb of Mary. The incarnation Christology is that Jesus existed prior to His birth and then took on the flesh when He was born. This is made very apparent in the Gospel of John from the very opening lines of the gospel when John states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I think even more so in verse 3 where he says, “All things were made by Him and without Him was nothing made that was made.”
You have this emphasis from verse 1 that Jesus has always existed. The incarnation Christology is apparent from there. There are also some hints to this in the words of individuals like John the Baptist, Andrew, and Martha in the text of the Gospel of John who all claim that Jesus is the Messiah that should come; he is One whom they believed already existed and at some time would come to be among them. The text emphasizes this idea that Jesus existed as Messiah in a premortal state and then became incarnate or had taken on flesh when He was born.
Laura Harris Hales: 45:24 The Fourth Gospel is different than the synoptics in literary style and in argumentative methods. How do the people of the Fourth Gospel accept Jesus?
Joshua Matson: 45:37 It appears the main way in which people accept Jesus in the Gospel of John is through interactions with Him. This is different from the other Gospel accounts where the intent of the author appears to lean towards one aspect or another. For example, in the Gospel of Mark, it is the apostolic proclamation of Christ that is pronounced after his atoning sacrifice that Jesus is the Messiah. We have the Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark: “Don’t tell anybody who I am until after I’m gone.” In Mark, the Messianic presentation is, “Here’s everything Jesus did, but now we’re proclaiming it with the apostolic authority that Jesus has given us.” In Matthew, it appears that the Messiahship is emphasized through the fulfillment of scripture, “And this is to fulfill what the scripture saith that . . .” is a phrase we see a lot or “as the prophet said” or “that the scripture may be fulfilled.” These are all phrases we see frequently throughout the Gospel of Matthew, which seems to say, “Jesus is Messiah because scripture told us so.” And then, in Luke, we get this idea of, “Jesus is the Messiah through Jesus’s works. Jesus works these mighty miracles.” We get the most explicit description of Jesus in Gethsemane in Luke and a little bit more of the emphasis of the physicality of what Jesus did. For Luke, it’s almost the miracles and the works of Jesus that prove that Jesus is the Messiah. While this is painting very broad strokes of the ideas of Messiahship in each of the four gospels, it appears that the Gospel of John is more centered on interaction. We have to interact with Jesus to know that He is the Messiah; it’s through that interaction that we come to believe in Him.
Laura Harris Hales: 47:39 That’s really interesting. In a prior podcast, we talked to Nick Frederick about intertextuality in the New Testament. He mentioned that it’s the Gospel of John that we see coming through in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, which makes sense because in the church we emphasize personal revelation and personal communion. The Gospel of John is kind of a gateway to learning further about how we can strengthen our relationship with Christ now, right?
Joshua Matson: 48:14 It shows a very personal Jesus. John is the gospel where we get the great scripture, “Jesus wept.” I remember sitting in a class where a professor emphasized that Jesus in the Gospel of John in essence says, “My glory is less than your affliction. Because you are afflicted, I will set my glory aside, and I will weep with you. I will be with you. I’ll walk alongside you.” The great intercessory prayer, so focused on the need of individuals. Jesus in the Gospel of John is very apparent. And I think we see that in the interactions in the Book of Mormon, of statements of, “I’ve seen the Christ,” by a number of the prophets. Also, we see it in the interactions with Jesus and the people in Bountiful after His resurrection. In the Doctrine and Covenants, a lot of those revelations are personal one-on-one references from the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith. I think this is a big part of why Latter-day Saints and most Christians gravitate to the Gospel of John. This is the gospel intended for saints. This is the gospel intended for those who don’t need the basic understanding or acceptance of Jesus but who want to move on from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus personally.
Laura Harris Hales: 49:37 Thanks so much, Josh. I appreciated talking to you.
Joshua Matson: 49:40 Thank you.
Disclaimer: LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.