"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 10 New Life Foreshadowed (Jn 11.1-57))
10.2 Aftermath: The Conspiracy Against Jesus (Jn 11.47-57)
COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES
See the comments to Jn 7.32 for a discussion of the chief priests.
This Council is likely the Sanhedrin, a council that represented the various “power centres” in the life of Judaea, especially Jerusalem, in the first century CE. It contained prominent wealthy laymen (such as Jewish historian Josephus or some of those referred to in John 7), some of whom might be of the Pharisaic party, as well as priests who would likely be Saducees. Some members were rabbis like Nicodemus. But there was a range of political and religious opinion represented. We aren’t sure how many members there were, although there is a tradition that it was made up of seventy members, plus the high priest.
Such councils were a feature of Roman rule in many provinces, and usually they advised the Roman governor. Here they advised the high priest, who exercised some limited legal and administrative authority under the Roman governor. (See Bauckham 2007 ch7 (pp137-172) and Keener 2003 2 pp 1073-6 for further discussion.)
Notice how their worries about Jesus have shifted from blasphemy or Sabbath keeping, concerns we saw earlier in John, to the “many signs” he is working and Rome’s potential reaction.
We see clearly from this verse that the Sanhedrin, or at least those present at this meeting, feared that Rome would interpret a miracle-working Jesus as a potential threat, a politcal Messiah who might at any time become a revolutionary. Given the events of the time, it was not an unreasonable fear. For instance, Josephus tells us there were many fanatics who led groups against the Romans, and specifically mentions two: Theudas (Antiquitites 20.97-8) and the Egyptian prophet (Antiquities 20.169-171). If the Romans thought Jesus fit that mould, their reaction might well have been violent and relentless.
There are two possibilities for the meaning of the phrase “our (holy) place” in this verse. It could refer to the Temple or possibly to Jerusalem itself as the Holy City bearing the Lord’s name. I have followed the lead of the NRSV in translating the phrase as “our holy place” with a textual footnote.
Why is Caiaphas referred to as “high priest this year”? The Romans had successfully asserted the right to depose living high priests and replace them with others drawn from the high priestly family, but they had not made it an annual office. If there is any truth to the claims that the “other disciple” of Jn 18.5 who was known to the high priest is the Beloved Disciple, and that the Beloved Disciple was the Evangelist, then John must have been aware of such a basic political reality. Brown points out that there is another sense that the Greek phrase could bear: it doesn’t indicate this year as opposed to last year or next year, but in this fateful year, this significant year (see Brown 1966 pp 439-40).
We can dismiss Caiaphas’ advice as political cynicism, but the evangelist does not do so; instead he takes it with deep seriousness. Although the evangelist portrayed the high priest as scorning what he sees as a almost criminal failure to understand how serious the situation is, he shows only respect for the high priest’s conclusion: it is better for the Council, and indeed for the people of whom they have charge, “for one man to die on the people’s behalf and for the whole nation not to to be destroyed”. This, John stated, was true prophecy, spoken by the high priest by virtue of his office even though he didn’t understand it fully himself. The phrasing of Caiaphas’ high priestly prophecy is important: “not only for the nation but so that he might assemble the dispersed children of God into one”. This wording harkens back to the expression of the purpose of Jesus’ being lifted up in chapters 3 and 8 and also to the picture of the Real Shepherd in chapter 10. By being lifted up Jesus will draw all people to himself, and as God’s Real Shepherd he will gather all his sheep into one flock, with one shepherd. Further, the phrase ‘children of God’ (ta tekna tou theou) in v52 also hearkens back to the Prologue (Jn 1.12).
Previously, various factions among the authorities in Jerusalem wanted to kill Jesus because of his perceived failure to honour the Sabbath or because of what they understood as blasphemy. Now the Council have decided to kill him out of what at first appears to be expediency, because of the threat they think he poses to the continued existence of the Temple and the people. But it is revealed through the words of Caiaphas that this apparent act of expediency will be the fulfilment of prophecy. So Jesus’ hour must now be near, because the Council is no longer acting out of human motives alone but in fulfilment of prophecy.
The exact location of Ephraim has been a puzzle to scholars. A place by that name is referred to in 2 Sam 13.23 to help localise Baal-Hazor (“Baal-Hazor, which is near Ephraim”). Josephus in the Jewish War (4.9.9) says that when Vespasian was making an expedition through the mountainous country of Judah, he took the towns of Bethel and Ephraim and garrisoned them before continuing to Jerusalem. This appears to place it squarely in the so-called hill country of Judaea, north and west of Jerusalem.
Eusebius identifies the Ephraim of this verse (Jn 11.54) with the towns of Mt Ephron mentioned in Joshua 15.9 as part of the description of the boundaries of the tribe of Judah. He also said that in his time Ephraim was a large town north of Jerusalem by the twentieth milestone. So apparently in Eusebius’ time (early 300s CE) Ephraim was round about 20 Roman miles from Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Eusebius’ indications of distance are far from precise since he appears to measure only along the nearest major road, and not the distance that might need to be covered on secondary roads.
Most archaeologists have placed Ephraim at the modern village of et-Tayibeh, north of Jerusalem, but a recent article in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly (Keinan et al 2015) makes a very strong case for Khirbet Marjameh. This site was first suggested nearly a century ago by W.F. Albright. It is “on the north-eastern slopes of Mount Ba‘al-Hazor in the Ephraim hills near the water source of Ein Samiyeh. It is located 450m above sea level in the narrow semi-arid zone that separates the Jordan Valley from the spine of the Ephraim hills.” (p 221) Its position 16km northeast of modern Ramallah puts it about 30km from Jerusalem, a good distance for Jesus’ purposes.
Josephus also testifies (in Jewish War 1.11.6) that it was customary for people from the countryside to go up to Jerusalem early so that they could purify themselves for the feast. Many aspects of daily life (especially in communities that included both Gentiles and Jews) and the process of travelling might result in a person inadvertently compromising the ritual purity needed to properly celebrate this festival in Jerusalem. By coming to town early, they could undertake the purification rites and be assured of remaining ritually pure for the duration of the feast.
See the comments to Jn 7.32 for a discussion of the chief priests.
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