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‘Night’ and ‘Day’ in John 9.4–5: A Reassessment*

  • Hugo Mendez (a1)

This article argues that John 9.4–5 should be reanalysed as an appeal parallel to 12.35–6, so that the ‘night … when no one can work’ of 9.4 corresponds to the avoidable ‘darkness’ of 12.35. Viewed in this manner, ‘night’ represents the condemned state of the unbelieving after the departure of Jesus. Jesus urges his disciples to ‘work the works’ of God so that, at the historical onset of ‘night’, the Paraclete may mediate a continuing, covert experience of ‘day’ within them. That onset, then, marks a critical phase in the eschatological separation of the ‘children of light’ from ‘the world’.

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I would like to extend my gratitude to the interdisciplinary Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University for generously financing this research, as well as to Wayne Coppins and Dale Martin for their helpful remarks on the manuscript prior to its publication.

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1 ‘Die Werke Gottes werden durch das Folgende eindeutig definiert: Sie bestehen hier in der Heilung, die an dem Kranken geschieht’ (C. Dietzfelbinger, Das Evangelium des Johannes (2 vols.; ZBKNT 4; Zürich: TVZ, 2004) i.277); see discussions of τὰ ἔϱγα in ch. 9 in: J. Reidl, Das Heilswerk Jesu nach Johannes (Freiburg/Basle/Vienna: Herder, 1973) 292–306; P. W. Ensor, Jesus and his ‘Works’ (WUNT 2/85; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996) 98–128, especially at 116.

2 Studies endorsing this possibility include G. Delling, ‘νύξ’, TDNT iv.1123–6, at 1125; C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963) 186; C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John (Philadelphia: Westminster, 19782) 357; E. Haenchen, Das Johannesevangelium: Ein Kommentar (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1980) 377–8; C. R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, and Community (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 20032) 162; K. Wengst, Das Johannesevangelium (2 vols.; ThKNT 4/1; Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 2004) i.355–6; J. R. Michaels, The Gospel of John (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 301 (but note the ambivalence in n. 28).

3 Certain studies affirm both possibilities, often within a two-level framework. See R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St John, vol. ii (New York: Crossroads, 1990) 242; H. N. Ridderbos, Het Evangelie naar Johannes: Proeve van een theologische Exegese (2 vols.; Kampen, the Netherlands: Uitgeversmaatschappij J. H. Kok, 1987) i.386–7; O. Schwankl, ‘Die Metaphorik von Licht und Finsternis im johanneischen Schrifttum’, Metaphorik und Mythos im Neuen Testament (QD 126; ed. K. Kertelge; Freiburg: Herder, 1990) 135–67, at 154–5; id., Licht und Finsternis: Ein metaphorisches Paradigma in den johanneischen Schriften (HBS 5; Freiburg: Herder, 1995) 223–34; Ensor, ‘Works’, 115.

Others affirm only the second, including R. E. Brown The Gospel according to John (2 vols.; AB 29; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966) i.217; O. Cullmann, ‘Sabbat und Sonntag nach dem Johannesevangelium: ἕως ἄϱτι (Joh 5, 17)’, In memoriam E. Lohmeyer (Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1953) 127–31; L. Morris, The Gospel according to John (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) 426; O. Böcher, ‘Das Verhältnis der Apokalypse des Johannes zum Evangelium des Johannes’, L'Apocalypse johannique et l'Apocalyptique dans le Nouveau Testament (ed. J. Lambrecht; Gembloux: Duculot, 1980) 298–301; Dietzfelbinger, Johannes, i.277. See also H. Thyen, who posits several visits of the ‘light’ (Das Johannesevangelium (HNT 6; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005) 457–8).

4 See discussion in Dodd, Tradition, 186. Compare also Ps 104.23.

5 Schnackenburg, John, ii.242. In this reading then, ‘day’ stands for the normal span of human activity on earth, and ‘night’ for its cessation’ (Dodd, Tradition, 186).

6 In his discussion of Jesus' departure, M. C. de Boer argues that the image of Jesus' departure was ‘in the first instance … an image of his resurrection/ascension’ (conceived jointly following Brown, John, 1012–15) though this language was secondarily transferred to the crucifixion (‘Jesus’ Departure to the Father in John: Death or Resurrection?’, Theology and Christology in the Fourth Gospel: Essays by Members of the SNTS Johannine Writings Seminar (ed. G. Van Belle, J. G. van der Watt, P. Maritz; BETL 184; Leuven: Leuven University Press/Peeters, 2005) 18–19). According to the Gospel, the ‘hour’ for Jesus ‘to depart the world and go to the Father’ begins on the night of his betrayal (13.1).

7 ‘The reader can also be expected to sense that torches and lanterns (18:3) are a pathetic substitute for the light of the world. And a charcoal fire (18:18) is a miserable alternative on a cold dark night …. It is appropriate that Mary Magdalene goes to the empty tomb in darkness (20:1) and that the disciples find the fishing at night to be futile but enclose an astonishing catch when it is morning’ (R. A. Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983) 192).

8 H. Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1929) 311–12.

9 Odeberg, Fourth Gospel, 311–12.

10 J. L. Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (NTL; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 20033) 39.

11 Compare Augustine, In Joannis Evangelium, Tractatus 44.5: Putamus eum, fratres, fuisse hic tunc, et modo non hic esse? Si ergo hoc putamus, iam ergo post ascensum Domini facta est nox ista metuenda, ubi nemo possit operari: si post ascensum Domini facta est nox ista, unde Apostoli tanta operati sunt? …. ipse discipulis dixerat, ‘Majora horum facietis’ (PL 35.4715).

One attempt to salvage this interpretation suggests that the ‘night’ of 9.4 corresponds only to ‘the darkness of the period when Jesus is first taken from his disciples’, and not to ‘what prevails after Jesus is glorified and has poured out his Spirit (9:37–39)’ (D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 363). In this view, the period of the church's ministry represents a new ‘day’ (cf. Brown, John, ii.579; T. Knöppler, Die theologia crucis des Johannesevangelium (WMANT 69; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1994) 178–9). However, the absence of darkness imagery in the crucifixion account suggests that ‘Jesus illuminated the world from his cross, and according to 20:17 (“I have not yet ascended to the Father”) … remained in the world at least till Easter Sunday morning’ so that one cannot yet speak fully of ‘night’ in this period (R. H. Gundry, ‘New Wine in Old Wineskins: Bursting Traditional Interpretations in John's Gospel (Part Two)’, BBR 17.2 (2007) 285–96, at 288). Furthermore, as indicated in n. 3, the darkness imagery characteristic of the second half of the Gospel grows only more intense in the post-resurrection accounts. In ch. 20, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene ‘while it was still dark’ (20.1) and again to his disciples, ‘when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week’, at which time he imparts the Paraclete (20.19). Even the final episode of the Gospel begins in a night setting (20.3). These indications hardly demonstrate the dawn of a new ‘day’ for the world with the coming of the Paraclete, though the use of light imagery in 21.4 could indicate a new, covert ‘day’ limited to the experience of the disciples.

12 For the semantic equivalency of ἕως ἄϱτι (‘until now’) and ἀεί in certain contexts, including 9.5, see R. Bultmann, Das Evangelium des Johannes (KEK 2; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 198521) 183; Maurer, C., ‘Steckt hinter Joh. 5,17 ein Übersetzungsfehler?’, Wort und Dienst 5 (1957) 130–40; cf. G. Stählin, ‘νῦν (ἄϱτι)’, TDNT iv.1106–23, at 1111.

13 Odeberg's conclusions have been most recently endorsed in D. A. Lee, The Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning (JSNT 95; Sheffield: JSOT, 1994) 166.

14 Odeberg, Fourth Gospel, 312; see also L. Morris, ‘The Relation of the Signs and the Discourses in John’, The New Testament Age: Essays in Honor of Bo Reicke (ed. W. C. Weinrich; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984) 368.

15 In his rebuttal to Odeberg, Morris concedes that this alignment better suits ‘John's use of ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ elsewhere’ (Morris, John, 426). See also Gundry, ‘Traditional Interpretations’, 288–9.

16 Odeberg, Fourth Gospel, 312.

17 Viewed in this light, ‘the purpose of Jesus’ coming in the Gospel of John is not so much “conversion” as “revelation” of who belongs to God and who does not’ (Michaels, John, 207; id., ‘Baptism and Conversion in John: A Particular Baptist Reading’, Baptism, the New Testament and the Church: Historical and Contemporary Studies in Honour in R. E. O. White (JSNTSup 171; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999) 145–8).

18 Odeberg, John, 147 (cf. C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1953) 357–8). Jörg Frey describes 3.19–21 as ‘a locus classicus of Johannine present eschatology’. Although the text can be taken to mean ‘that the final judgment has already been finished in relation to both, the believers and the non-believers’, Frey believes that this present judgment does not exclude that a ‘sentence will be uttered “on the last day”’, as suggested in 3.36; 12.47 (‘Eschatology in the Johannine Circle’, Theology and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (ed. G. van Belle, J. G. van der Warr, P. Maritz; BETL 184; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2005) 75). For a more extensive analysis of this passage, especially within the issue of Johannine present eschatology, see id., Die johanneische Eschatologie, vol iii: Die eschatologische Verkündigung in den johanneischen Texten (WUNT 117; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000) 242–321.

19 Odeberg, Fourth Gospel, 312.

20 Odeberg, Fourth Gospel, 312. Notably, Augustine pursues a similar interpretation of οὐδεὶς in In Joannis Evangelium, Tractatus 44.6, albeit with reference to a future eschatological judgement: quid igitur? quid dicemus de nocte ista? quando erit, quando nemo poterit operari? nox ista impiorum erit: nox ista eorum erit quibus in fine dicetur, ‘ite in ignem aeternum, qui paratus est diabolo et angelis eius’ (PL 35.4715–16). Robert Gundry defends a nearly identical view in ‘Traditional Interpretations’, 285–9, albeit with no apparent knowledge of Augustine's scheme.

21 Odeberg, Fourth Gospel, 311.

22 Odeberg, Fourth Gospel, 312.

23 On this basis, one can also dismiss John C. Poirier's alternative punctuation of 9.3–4, which requires that one ‘treat v. 5 as the beginning of a new paragraph’ – or in fact, an island unto itself, seeing as v. 6 describes the miracle – ‘whose symbolism does not answer to the language of the preceding verses’ (”Day and Night” and the Sabbath Controversy of John 9’, Filología Neotestamentaria 19 (2006) 113–19, at 118; cf. id., Day and Night and the Punctuation of John 9,3’, NTS 42 (1996), 288–94).

24 On this basis, certain studies assign these three texts to a common underlying source or stage of redaction, e.g. Bultmann, Johannes, 304 n. 1; U. C. von Wahlde, The Gospel and Letters of John (3 vols.; ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) ii.429, 492, 552.

25 Schwankl, Licht und Finsternis, 240–3; Koester, Symbolism, 162–3; Michaels, John, 619–20.

26 In turn, this ‘darkness’ can also be connected to the darkness in 3.19–21. Important parallels unite that text and 12.31–6 (see J. H. Neyrey, The Gospel of John (NCBC; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 223).

27 Even in this reading, 9.4 may presuppose an older proverb not unlike that of R. S. b. Eleazar: ‘perform [deeds of righteousness] so long as you can’ (B. Shabbath, 151b). However, juxtaposed with the implicit departure motifs of 9.5, and integrated into the symbolic vocabulary of the entire Gospel, the meaning of that saying has been dramatically altered.

28 Reidl, Heilswerk, 298–306.

29 Odeberg, by contrast, is able to identify the ‘works’ of 9.4 with belief, citing 6.29 (Odeberg, Fourth Gospel, 312).

30 So e.g. Schnackenburg, John, 241: the ‘disciples are perhaps included in the saying about working because they are one day to become witnesses and announcers of his work (15:27) who will perform works like his (14:12)’.

31 Michaels, John, 541. On the equivalency of ‘the works of God’ (9.3) and works ‘done in God’ (3.21), see 10.37–8; 14.11. Early signs of the working of God in the man's life are evident in his sympathy to Jesus, his identification of Jesus as ‘the prophet’ (9.17; cf. 1.21; 4.19, 44; 6.14; 7.40), and his deduction that Jesus must have come ‘from God’ (9.17, 31–3). The conventional interpretation is articulated by Bultmann: ‘Damit ist auf das Heilungswunder vorausgewiesen; denn der, welcher „Gottes Werke” wirkt, ist ja Jesus, dem der Vater gegeben hat, sie zu wirken (5,36)’ (Bultmann, Johannes, 251; cf. Brown, John, 371–2).

32 Michaels, John, 541.

33 Michaels, John, 541.

34 In fact, at the end of the chapter, Jesus will expressly designate those called to belief as ‘those who do not see’, that is the blind (9.39), providing an explanation for why the man's blindness creates the possibility of the manifestation of the works of God in him.

35 In this, one recalls the ‘epistemological crisis’ described by Martyn. While the world can presently see ‘only one level of the drama’, namely, ‘the einmalig tradition about Jesus of Nazareth, a figure from the past’, the disciple perceives both that einmalig tradition and Jesus’ continued presence through the Paraclete (Martyn, Fourth Gospel, 142).

36 Barnabas Lindars sees an intromissive conception of sight here: ‘A man is safe in the daylight because he sees the light of this world, i.e., the daylight enters into him through his eyes’ (B. Lindars, The Gospel of John (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) 390). Compare, however, the extramissive conception of sight underlying Matt 6.22–3 (Allison, D. C. Jr, ‘The Eye is the Lamp of the Body (Matthew 6.22–23 = Luke 11.34–36)’, NTS 33 (1987) 6183).

37 These facts should only lend support to Wayne Meeks’ characterisation of the Gospel as ‘an etiology of the Johannine group’, which ‘defines and vindicates the existence of the community that evidently sees itself as unique, alien from its world’ (Meeks, W. A., ‘The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism’, JBL 91 (1972) 6970).

38 I suspect this idea reflects an apologetic response to the problem of Jesus’ departure.

39 Elsewhere in the Gospel, the image of stumbling is applied to those disciples who, having followed Jesus for a time, doubt, repudiate and desert Jesus (6.61, 64). Thus, for Judas, ‘night’ is indeed a time of ‘stumbling’. Note also that in 13.27, 30, Judas is the one who ‘walks in darkness’ par excellence.

40 One should, then, contextualise references to motion within the Gospel's broader discourse on ‘work’. Those who cannot move also cannot work. Thus, Jesus' reversal of the blind man's paralysis permits him to violate the Sabbath by carrying his mat (5.1–18).

41 These select few will include some from later generations who, though born into the world's ‘night’ and having no way to see the light, will also be led into belief ‘through their word’ (17.20): ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (20.29). For these individuals, the covert illumination of baptism in ‘water and Spirit’ (3.5), prefigured in the washing of 9.7, is crucial.

* I would like to extend my gratitude to the interdisciplinary Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University for generously financing this research, as well as to Wayne Coppins and Dale Martin for their helpful remarks on the manuscript prior to its publication.

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New Testament Studies
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