On the fourth Sundays of each Easter Season, the gospel reading is from John 10, where Jesus describes himself as a good shepherd. Scholar Jerome Neyrey, S.J., who is now retired Professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame, in 2001 published an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, "The 'Noble' Shepherd in John 10: Cultural and Rhetorical Background." (JBL 120 (2001): 267-91) Father Neyrey puts "Noble" in quotes and puts the word "Rhetorical'' in his title for very convincing reasons. To understand, let's first remember two things about our religion's origins and early documents
- We came from the Jews, but not from a rigid and exclusive version of Judaism (if such a version ever really existed). No, we were born of a Judaism that was already engaged with the world and its diverse theologies and philosophies. For example, about 2 centuries before the writing of John, a Jewish sage living in cosmopolitan Alexandria wrote the Book of Wisdom, to bolster the faith of his friends and demonstrate his people's wisdom to the Greeks. Issues of commerce, diplomacy and imperialism also brought Jews and Gentiles into close contact. Judea had been occupied by Greeks before the Romans took over. So Christianity emerged from lively incubators.
- Of the canonical gospels, John's is the latest in composition, the least interested in the chronology of Jesus' work, the least concerned about precise memories of Jesus' words, and the most daring in its theology (which, as we observed last week, is a unique "high christology.").
Neyrey asserts that "noble" is a better translation than "good" of the Greek adjective used to describe the shepherd, καλός (kalos). There's another Greek word for good, ἀγαθός (agathos) that John would have used if that's all he meant to convey. (I had a high-school classmate whose surname came from that root. Had we known his name meant "good," we would have teased him badly.)
More interestingly, Neyrey shows that the rhetorical standards and practices honed for Greek elites, and especially for their funeral orations, are directly expressed in the description of Jesus as the Noble Shepherd in John 10.
So, about those Greeks, especially the ones in the city that became their capital. We call Athens the cradle of democracy, at least for free males. But it wasn't always democratic or free. Democracy emerged from long, fierce struggles with tyrants and bullies, warlords and strong men, as well as with passive men who didn't care much. Democratic self-rule, as liberating as it may have been, was tenuous and needed deep public engagement and constant, vigilant defense. (Greek has an adjective, ίδιος, that means "same, self-same, proper, self," which they applied to the inactive "citizens" who didn't care about the democratic republic, but only about their private concerns. Their word ίδιος becomes "idiot" when transliterated into English. I've always thought that was rich.)
The Highly Valued Art of Rhetoric
The Greeks realized they had to reward with high honors those who struggled to promote democratic governance. They also knew they had to argue with skill, both to prevail in democratic debate and to persuade others to keep the whole democratic endeavor afloat. If you don't want to rule by force or be ruled by force, you can only rule by, and only tolerate being ruled by, persuasion. So the rhetoric of public discourse in pursuit of good governance was among the most esteemed arts. It was taught intensely to Greek youth, and to youth wherever Greek culture had a foothold. The rhetoric lessons included how to praise past contributors to the noble democracy. We saw in this message-series recently that there was a kind of formula for praising a man who could answer a challenging question with an even smarter challenge, and how Jesus was celebrated for being very adept at that.
Democracy sometimes called on soldiers to lay down their lives for its defense. So there emerged a protocol for giving a fallen soldier a hero's eulogy. A proper funeral oration in ancient democratic Greece, or a speech at an annual remembrance of many dead soldiers, had these properties, which I paraphrase from Father Neyrey's article:
- The soldier's death had to be a good death in the sense that manner of death did not shame the deceased.
- It had to be noble. For example, courage to fight and die brought honor, while cowardly flight brought shame.
- The death had to benefit the city.
- The deceased are praised for displaying "justice" for the city, which is to say the deceased fulfilled his duty to the city.
- The soldier's death had to be voluntary (anything smacking of servitude was repulsive to the Greeks).
- Sometimes an orator would describe a soldier's death as a victory over his enemy, which makes sense if we construe the fatal fight as a battle between honor and shame.
Then Neyrey asks, "Did the Greek tradition of noble death become part of the rhetorical world of Israelite literature written in Greek? Did Jerusalem learn anything from Athens besides its alphabet?" He finds an affirmative answer in the books of Maccabees (the first two of which you can find in Catholic editions of the Hebrew scriptures, at the end of the historicals.)
Ironically, the Maccabees were Jewish rebels against Greek imperial dominance in the 2nd century before Jesus. But that doesn't keep Greek-style praise of martial courage out of their literature.
Finally, the payoff
. What makes John's account of Jesus as shepherd seem like a Greek hero's eulogy, and how does the account transform its foreign origins into something uniquely Christian?
First, the shepherd's death benefits
the flock. This shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, defending them from the thief and the wolf.
This shepherd's death is accepted as a duty
; he lays down his life in obedience to his Father's command.
But he's also doing it voluntarily
; he says "No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own."
This shepherd behaves nobly
, defending his flock, unlike the shamed hireling who flees in fear.
(There's a tradition that equates the wolf with Satan, the so-called ruler of the world. And there's this statement of Jesus in John 12:31-33: "Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” To the extent that Jesus takes on the ruler of this world, his struggle is all the more noble.)
But one variation that distinguishes Jesus from all who have lived and died, however nobly, is his statement, "I have power to lay it [my life] down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.” Elsewhere Neyrey says John's teaching is that Jesus has unique eschatological power and unique creative power. The former is the authority to judge the world's people; the latter is the power to give life, not just to his sheep, but to himself. That is the power to take up his life again. (There's that high christology
again. To the Jews in John's gospel, it's blasphemous and the main source of their fury at Jesus. Low christologies say God raised Jesus from the dead and Jewish leaders hated his embarrassing critique of the religious system they had developed.)
(To read Father Neyrey's article, click here
. There you can sign in or choose "Alternate access options / For independent researchers" which nets you 100 free articles a month.)
Our communities, engaging and transcending nobly
It should be no surprise
that the community of John the Evangelist could handle Greek rhetoric in its gospel. Nor should it surprise that John's community interpreted the world in ways that were unique and innovative and quite incompatible with Greek or Jewish thought.
(The Greeks hated servitude; compare that to what Jesus said about washing each other's feet.) One thing that is surprising and disappointing is when a Christian community retreats in fear from the communities around it. Even more scandalous is when a community just surrenders to the values of the culture around it.
Is your community in danger of cowardly retreat or of complacent assimilation? We hope not, of course. But we shouldn't be afraid to talk about it. It could be a noble conversation.