Historical Cultural Context
One can only admire the cleverness of the architects of the Lectionary who assigned this same Gospel reading for Easter Sunday morning in all three cycles of the liturgical year. The evangelist reports the reactions of Mary Magdalene (“the body was stolen,” Jn 20:2), John (“he saw and believed,” Jn 20:8), and Peter (he observed everything, said nothing, and went home with the others, Jn 20:6-7, 10).
Commentators have long puzzled over the evangelist’s parenthetical comment: “Remember that as yet they did not understand the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (Jn 20:9). What could this mean if John “saw and believed”? Perhaps “they” should refer only to Mary Magdalene and Peter?
Students of the gospels know that they contain at least three layers of tradition, and John’s Gospel sometimes contains more. There is no doubt that this story reflects the evangelist’s conflation of a number of traditions, which is responsible for some of the difficulty in understanding it.
In these present reflections, we turn for fresh insight to the book, Biblical Social Values and their Meaning (Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), in which biblical scholar Bruce Malina explains that in the ancient Mediterranean world “faith” primarily describes loyalty and commitment to another person.
A faithful person is a reliable person, one who manifests enduring personal loyalty or personal faithfulness “no matter what.” In other words, faith can be viewed as a social glue that binds people together in this world.
It seems clear that this is the meaning John the evangelist intends too.
His community was deeply concerned about loyalty, solidarity, and cohesiveness in the face of a hostile world. The need for such enduring loyalty to Jesus is evident in the frequency with which the evangelist uses the words “faith” and “to believe.”
Indeed, he uses a wide array of synonyms to make the same point: “to come to,” “to abide in,” “to follow after,” “to love,” “to keep the words of,” “to receive,” “to have,” “to see.”
Thus, the Beloved Disciple who came to the empty tomb and “saw and believed” had a different response to the experience than did Mary Magdalene (who suspected theft) and Peter (who apparently didn’t conclude anything).
John saw troubling things (an empty tomb, no corpse, abandoned wrappings), but remained “loyal, no matter what” (= believed). If one accepts this cultural interpretation, the parenthetical remark about not yet understanding the Scripture can apply even to the disciple who believed.
American “believers” will find this explanation very challenging. Because American culture in particular and Western culture in general is so rational, the word “faith” takes on the further nuance of requiring a word of authority, particularly when the evidence is lacking or weak.
The fact that there is no heavenly messenger or anyone else in today’s scene to deliver such an authoritative word makes the Beloved Disciple’s normal Mediterranean response very puzzling to an American reader.
This rational (and non-Mediterranean) dimension of faith is so central in American medicine, for instance, that a placebo is invariably effective: the person receiving it believes that the person administering it (even if an impostor or an actor) is an authority who is qualified and deserving of trust.
The contrast between the Mediterranean understanding of faith and that of the modern Western believer is particularly challenging on Easter Sunday, the central feast of the Christian calendar.
The Beloved Disciple sees troubling evidence but remains committed to Jesus “no matter what.” In contrast, Americans speak of “rats jumping off a sinking ship,” describing a common experience of opportunist friends and allies who abandon a wounded or weakened friend in difficult times.
Today’s Gospel provides a splendid opportunity for American believers to reconsider their occasionally excessively rational approach to life and the impediment that might pose to “real faith” or loyalty.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University