11 October 2022

The First and Last Gospel

Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the Flesh, nor of the will of Man, but of God. So the Johannine prologue, the Christmas Gospel in the Missa in Die, the wonderful pericope which we read day after day at the end of Mass, describes those who have 'received' Him. By Baptism, we have that New Birth which is of God and not of human begetting.

But there is a very early variant reading in some witnesses to the text of S John: Who was born .... In other words, the sentence is made to refer to the Lord Himself and to His Virginal Conception. It fits rather well, doesn't it?

The scholarly consensus has always been that the text as usually translated is the correct one. Frankly, I've never been completely sure about that. (My old mentor in the science art of Textual Criticism, the immortal Professor G D Kilpatrick, was once prepared to accept the reading of a single Armenian ms contra mundum, so determined was his 'eclecticism'.) The old 'Westcott and Hort' Victorian certainty, the superstition of 'the best manuscript' -  the idea that if only we had sufficient evidence ('O God, please give us some fantastic First Century Papyri!') we would be able to reconstruct the authorial original that came hot from the pen of S John -  represents an attitude to Textual Criticism which among Classicists has either been abandoned or qualified.

But, assuming that the Textus Receptus is indeed to be followed, it nevertheless remains true that S John is here deftly alluding to the Lord's Virginal Conception; and that the Fathers and scribes who produced the variant reading accurately picked up and made explicit an implication which the Evangelist intended to be perceived. He is saying 'Nudge nudge, of course we know that the Lord was born of a Virgin; but I want you to realise that your own New Birth, in Him, is just as Virginal as his temporal Conception'. That's the sort of way the Fourth Evangelist works. (He doesn't, for example, describe the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, but he does give us his Chapter 6.) Could the Disciplina arcani have something to do with this? We remember the words of S Ignatius of Antioch that the Virginity of Mary and her Childbearing and the Death of the Lord  were Three Mysteries of a Cry [krauges] which were hidden from the Devil, wrought in the stillness of God (Ad Ephesios XIX 1 et vide egennethe in v. sup.).

Incorporated into Him, we are made sharers in His Divine, unfleshly, Birth "from above" (gennethentes anothen), just as we also share His Death and His Resurrection.

So we are Sons of the Father, Corde nati ex Parentis, and Enfants de Marie, just as the Lord himself was.


Moritz Gruber said...

Thank you for further insight into this text.

In any case, my own, less erudite especially in textcrit but, I think, not incorrect reading was this:

1. St. John [the Baptist] came as a witness for the Light, but was not Light Itself (V.6-8).

2. But Light Itself did come. That means interaction of God with Abraham, Isaac, the Chosen people; all the prophets, all the inspiration of other Scripture, all the pre-New-Testament grace (that would later be earned by Christ on the cross and given by God who is above Time, but that aside), all the worship in the Temple of Jerusalem, and so forth including probably a lot of things we have not been told of. Which, of course, also does include the words of St. John, if you just don't make them for yet more than they are. (V9)

3. The World has a tendency to reject its own Creator; but some people have received him. And to these, think: Abraham and so forth, "he gave the power to become sons of God", but that is of course not something they could have even remotely achieved in their own nature, they had to be born of God for that purpose.

4. Topping that, the Word Itself became flesh and dwelt among us.

(Which might lead to the effect that, now God has played as it were His nuclear option - in the biological sense of the term "nucleus", to not disregard the pun - that the situation "God came into His own, but His own received him not" changes a bit Will Dives's brothers convert, now two men actually have risen from the dead as he requested, or is Abraham right who doubts it? We have had our Christendom-shaped societies. However, a simple look into the world will make clear that the possibility of God being rejected when He comes into His own is, at the very least, still dreadfully realistic.)

5. And just for clarification, "noone hath ever seen God", that is, not in this sense: not Abraham, not Moses (whom upon closer look the book of Exodus reports as seeing God's backside), not even Isaias, including the year of the death of King Uzziah. (From Scripture only, I would say "with the possible exception of prelapsarian Adam", because despite being "somebody" and thus litterally excluded here, to exclude him was with high probability not the intention of the Evangelist. We do know from theology, though, that the narrowly literal sense of the words is here the correct one: if Adam had seen God, that is in this sense, he could not possibly have sinned, just as the saints in Heaven who see God cannot sin.)

Of course, though I wouldn't have spotted it, it is quite the neat allusion that St. John describes the adopted sons of God as "born not of the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God" when precisely that is true about the natural Son of God.

As an aside, "by the will of flesh" sounds to me a bit like "conceived when a man and a woman gave in to their lust for each other", and "by the will of man" sounds a bit like "conceived in rape". People who fall into neither category are, in a sense, "born of God": born in the love-ful act (including carnal pleasure but in its due place) of a marriage that would later be sacramental, and at that stage is certainly natural and blessed by God. However, this can (though this is a suggestion from the outside of the text), however, only be a comparison: we know that all children however conceived can come to God and noone except the Son of God* is guaranteed to succeed just because of how he was conceived.

[* Not even, I believe, the Blessed Virgin: she was conceived without original sin, but could have sinned like Eve did. She may have had more graces so as to render this less probable, but not, I believe, impossible: she did not have the Beatific Vision in her lifetime.]

Moritz Gruber said...

By the way, why mention St. John the Baptist? Is it because the forerunner is so important and he is going to point to the Lamb of God? Yes. But I when St. John when saying "John[, the other one, ] bare witness of Him", I cannot imagine him without chuckling to himself "and so does this John here". What a nice way to introduce himself, especially since he is going to hide behind the pseudonym TDWJL - The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved - consistently.

"That's how the fourth Evangelist works" indeed.

See also the I believe only place where the word Bethlehem appears in his Gospel: "Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem? As I write, I chuckle mightylee. That is where Christ cometh from forsooth." (Of course he does not write down the latter two sentences.)

And Our Lord, who loves a good laugh apparently, seems to have helped him: He knew that he or his pupils alone would write down his encounter with St. Peter after the post-resurrectional fishing. For he adresses him as "Simon, son of John". St. Peter's father was called Jonas, as the Synoptics have it, but he was the spiritual son of St. John the Baptist (the reverse would make no sense). Our Lord did St. John the favor of calling him by his spiritual rather than biological father in order that St. John, who would begin his Gospel with the name John, could also end it with the name John, despite never calling himself by his name John in any tiny sentence.

Albertus said...

I have for many years known of this alternate reading, which, only God knows, might be the original. Everytime that i celebrate Mass i think of the Maiden Birth of our Lord at the words "qui non ex voluntate viri neque ex voluntate carnis, sed ex Deo nati sunt" and in my thoughts change these words to "ex Deo natus est".

William said...

But it is the minority, variant reading with which almost all Mass-goers, in England at least, will be familiar, as that is the reading followed by the Jerusalem Bible (which has a regular tendency to go for variant readings or non-standard interpretations over those hallowed and authorised by the Church). It bugs me every time I have to proclaim it on Christmas Morning. Whatever the arguments in favour of the alternative reading, or suppositions as to the intent of the Evangelist, it is not the text as the people should be hearing it in the liturgy, where the deliberation of such subtleties is not appropriate (and especially on a day when one might actually be getting a once-a-year opportunity to engage with the otherwise unchurched).