10 minutes with … James Charlesworth

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(RNS) Snakes have had a bad reputation as old as time itself. It started with the Garden of Eden, when a crafty serpent lured Eve, and then Adam, into eating fruit from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Serpents slither in and out of passages throughout the Bible, often misconstrued as […]

  • Eden garden sex?
    The lyrics stink.
    But the scandal’s about evidence.
    So forget about lyrics that stink.

  • Tom Acemoglu

    I have seen Prof Charlesworth’s book but unfortunately I not read it yet. Undoubtedly he draws the parallel that John’s Gospel draws with regards to to the bronze serpent constructed by Moses in the wilderness as an antidote to to heal the Israelites (Numbers 21:8-9).

    And I agree that the focal point is to draw a comparison of this image to the cross. The symbol that God instructs Moses to construct is mysterious and I’m sure that Prof Charlesworth study illuminates this mysterious passage. Why would God command the construction of an image of a snake when the agents of His wrath in verse 6 are snakes? Would it be a graven image? Is it meant to be ironic? Is it in itself a “sign of contradiction”? And what does this symbolism contribution to John’s theology of the cross?

    However, I am unconvinced of the idea that the symbolism of snake in itself – with all of it’s varied historical antecedents – is at the center of the interpretation of this passage. Undoubtedly that writer of John’s Gospel would have been aware of this symbolism, but it seems of more concern to him to interpret Jesus’ words in light of Moses’ actions in Numbers. After all, he provides the context. If the reference to Numbers is meant to be midrash, than it should be interpreted in the same trajectory of already established allusions to the serpent in the Jewish interpretive tradition.

    This misrash of the Numbers passage contributes to a potent image of the cross: it is a sign of apparent contradictions, of a death not only leading to life but being the way to life, of death and exaltation. It seems that the SITUATION and the ACTION that precipitated the construction of the Bronze Serpent and its implementation is far more important to John than the symbolism of the serpent itself. Charlesworth’s insights add an interpretive layer that are insightful and add to the interpretive tradition to the text, but I am unconvinced that that this episode was alluded to solely on the basis of the serpent.

    We have a similar situation in the midrash of the “sign of Jonah”, where we are presented with a potent image from the Hebrew Bible that yields 2 different interpretations within the Gospels. One interpretation points to the death and resurrection of Jesus and the other to the participation of Gentiles in the worship of God (though the latter, being a “sign” to the Ninevites, does not exclude the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus).

    While much of the imagery used by the Gospels from the Hebrew Bible are clear in their intention, others are more mysterious. It seems that the passage from John 3:14 falls into the latter category. Prof Charlesworth’s insights are valid, and while they plumb the depths of the possibility of this passage, I don’t think he has found the Gospel writer’s intention. Prof Charlesworth is a scholar of note and I both respect his work and have learned much from it. I’m just not convinced of aspects of this interpretation.

  • Child of the Voting Rights Act,1965

    Caught your article paraphrased in the Birmingham News by Kimberlee Hauss, of the Religion News Service. She failed to share the last question with the readers in Alabama. So what do we make of that? The answer to that question and the paragraph that follows, clearly shares what is truly the lesson Jesus was sent to live among us to teach us.