A Better Reading of John 18:11b

44238I have heard unbelieving scholars, like Bart Ehrman, claim that the evolution of Christ from mere prophet to God-Man is evidenced in his attitude when facing the task of going to the cross. The argument is that whereas Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke) wrestles with the very real angst of undergoing punishment for the sins of his elect people, in John Jesus does not do this. Instead, they argue, Jesus boldly declares: “Should I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11b)

Problematically, however, such an interpretation treats the question of Jesus as a rhetorical question. In his book The Questions of Jesus in John, Doug Estes proposes a much better reading that pays attention to syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Estes:

Jesus’ question in John 18:11b is more complicated than readers assume. Critics almost always read the question as either a confident declarative or a ‘rhetorical’ question, though it is neither. There are several factors about the question that catch our attention. First, the root of the question is “Should I not drink?”. . . meaning Jesus asks the question in first person – a less common way of asking questions. Instead of asking with someone else, he asks himself even if it is in the midst of conversation with Peter. Second, the main verb . . . is subjunctive; these two clues are enough to signal to the reader that this is in fact a deliberative question. Third, Jesus forms the question as a polar question, emphasizing the call for decision. Fourth, the question contains [a rare Greek negation], probably meant as a sign or emphasis. Fifth, the question comes mid-dialogue, or more accurately, at the end of  scene, leaving a little bit of an edge for the reader. The question has minimal informational quality, and a strong rhetorical quality.

Far from the ‘cool, confident’ Jesus who resolutely marches to glory, Jesus’ use of a deliberative question is precisely to show himself as conflicted about his fate. Jesus does not enter into glory lightly. Jesus asks a deliberative question in order to reveal his internal struggle, and to persuade an audience of the reality of that struggle. Occasionally, critics argue Jesus’ use [the rare Greek negation] in the question points to a strong rejection of uncertainty and is tantamount to a positive declaration of his calling. However, this view misreads the syntax; Jesus asks a question, not states a declarative.

[. . .]

The fact that Jesus moves toward positive resolution and acceptance of the Father’s plan only underscores the anguish within Jesus’ soul. Such an interpretation may seem odd in the Fourth Gospel, a narrative where the humanity of Jesus often feels minimized (compared to the Synoptic Gospels), but this is one of those moments where – perhaps subdued – the humanity of the Johannine Jesus punches through.

Here’s where it gets interesting: The standard line among commentators is that John’s depiction of ths part of the arrest sequence is at variance both in content and style from the Synoptics’ version [. . .] Not only does John omit the prayer at Gethsemane, John rejects the Synoptics’ portrayal of Jesus’ deep struggle. Quite the contrary – John’s account substantiates the Synoptics’ account. What John does is omit the Gethsemane story, not by rejecting it, but by truncating it into a classical move of tragedy, the deliberative question. Jesus’ deliberation over going to the cross seems limited in John only because modern readers can compare it to the longer, more drawn-out version in the Synoptics. John, in his simple powerful prose, reduces the Synoptic experience to one question –  a tragic question devised to portray the very real struggle Jesus faces. John does not omit the struggle, he refashions the struggle to fit Johannine style. The end of dialogue and move to the mechanics of the arrest leaves the reader persuaded Jesus has deliberated his drinking of the cup, and only then would choose to follow the Father’s plan to go to the cross.

[p.126-127]

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2 thoughts on “A Better Reading of John 18:11b

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