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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
J. Pilch is a biblcal scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published
fourteen books by Pilch exploring the
“cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to
find out more.
Copyright © 1997 by The Order of St.
Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The
Liturgical Press, Collegeville,
The complete text of the
above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1997. pp. 67-69.
Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the
Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced
only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For
more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/