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Paschal Imagery in the Gospel of John:

A Narrative and Symbolic Reading"
Dorothy Lee
Abstract: Passover imagery is central to the narrative structure and
theological content of the Fourth Gospel. The imagery begins in the
testimony of John the Baptist, declaring Jesus to be the "Lamb of God".
The narrator expands the paschal overtones of this title to incorporate
other Old Testament insights associated particularly with temple and
cult. The feast of Passover develops into its own metaphorical field,
pushing the narrative towards the cross as the climatic moment of
revelation. On the way, paschal imagery incorporates not only the lamb
but also the shepherd who lays down and takes up his life on behalf of
the sheep. Passover becomes a major symbol in the Fourth Gospel,
capturing vital, christological aspects of John's understanding of the
CULTIC AND FESTAL SYMBOLISM plays a major role in the narrative of
the Fourth Gospel. In different ways, the text plays with imagery
associated with festival and temple to convey a theological under-
standing of the significance of the crucifixion in the Gospel of John.
This imagery revolves particularly around Passover and the paschal
lamb. Throughout the Gospel, the Johannine Jesus gathers up the
symbols and rites associated with the old, transforming them into his
own person and the new community of God's people. This article
explores paschal and pastoral imagery as it develops in the Gospel of
John, arguing that it expands in significance through the narrative to
incorporate other elements, thus becoming a key [ohannine symbol. In
the Fourth Gospel, the imagery is re-interpreted christologically, the
symbolism functioning to validate the new while locating it firmly
within the structures of the old.
We need to prefix this discussion with a brief observation on the
way religious symbolism works. In theological terms, symbolism is not
" This article was originally given as a paper at the SNTS Conference in Vienna,
August 2009.
decoration to beautify the message or a sweetener to sweeten its
content. On the contrary, core symbols possess cognitive content.! and
have a religious rationale that can in one sense be translated, albeit
inadequately.2 Symbol and metaphor (the latter as the linguistic
manifestation of the formers) create meaning in bringing together two
disparate elements to create something theologically new: sometimes
in tension, sometimes in opposition, sometimes with a previously
unperceived consonance. Symbolism is not easily located in singular
meaning but opens itself, by definition, to a "surplus of meaning" that
exceeds intentionality or design.s In a religious context, it brings
meaning into being, becoming the bridge between divine and human.
In this sense, we might say that, while symbolism cannot easily be
grasped, it can be approached.
Many of the symbols of the Fourth Gospel, along with Jesus'
metaphorical utterances - particularly the predicative "I-am" sayingse
- are self-evident in images such as water, wine, marriage, birth, wind,
bread, shepherds, vines, paths." Yet there are other elements of the
[ohannine narrative that also function symbolically, and these include
the feasts that dominate the Cospel.s The Old Testament festivals -
Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles, Dedication - provide the symbolic
framework from which meaning emerges, the new from the old, along
with their concomitant imagery, creating sometimes a metaphorical
network or thread of relations. In this regard, John's perspective is not
1. D. Lee, Flesh and Glory: Symbol, Genderand Theology in the Gospel of John (New York:
Crossroad, 2002), 16-20.
2. J. Zumstein argues that there is no division between pictorial language and
argumentation in the Fourth Gospel ("Bildersprache und Relecture am Beispiel von [oh
15,1-17", in J. Frey. J. G. van der Watt, and R. Zimmermann [eds.], Imagery in the Gospel of
John [Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006]139-56).
3. See L. P. Jones, The Symbol of Water in the Gospel of John (JSNTSS 145; Sheffield:
JSOT, 1997), 14-19; Lee, Flesh and Glory, 19-20; also S. Petersen, "Ich-bin-Worte als
Metaphern am Beispiel der Lichtrnetaphorik", in Frey, van der Watt and Zimmermann
(eds.), Imagery, 121-38, see pp. 124-25.
4. P. Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth:
Texas Christian University, 1976). On the multiplicity of meanings used in the Gospel,
see J. Zumstein, "Intratextuality and Intertextuality in the Gospel of John" in T. Thatcher
and S. D. Moore (eds.), Anatomies of Narrative Criticism. The Past, Present, and Futures of the
Fourth Gospel as Literature(Atlanta GA: SBL, 2008), 121-135, see pp. 127-28.
5. R. Hirsch-Luipold, "Klartext in Bildern: KTA. rrcporui, rrappTJUla.
als Signalworter fur eine bildhafte Darstellungsform im Iohannesevangelium"
in Frey, van der Watt and Zimmermann (eds.), Imagery, 61-102, see P: 66.
6. See the tabular ordering of Petersen, "Ich-bin-Worte" 122-23, in which the
predicates are generally soteriological statements.
7. Further on [ohannine symbols, see, e.g., R. A. Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth
Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 180-202; CR. Koester, Symbolismin the Fourth Gospel:
Meaning, Mystery, Community (2
ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 1-32; Lee, Flesh and
Glory, 9-28; and R. Zimmermann, "Imagery in John: Opening up Paths into the Tangled
Thicket of John's Figurative World" in Frey, van der Watt and Zimmermann (eds.),
Imagery, 1-43.
8. See D. Lee, The Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and
Meaning (JSNTSS 95; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 137-60, 227-28.
dismissive of Judaism, with its wealth of rite and ritual, as if the old
were discarded with the advent of Iesus.? In literary terms, such a
theological reading would be the equivalent of mining rhetorical form
for meaning, tossing aside the former once the latter is grasped. But
symbol and metaphor do not work that way. Having cognitive
character, and being involved in the making of meaning, their form is
precisely the way in which their substance displays itself, the one
impossible to comprehend without the other.
In terms of John's
theology, the invisible substance of God is made visible and manifest
symbolically; indeed, only in symbol can the Johannine God be This methodological asseveration is as pertinent for
the feasts as it is for the more everyday imagery of the Fourth Gospel.
The shape of the overall [ohannine narrative is characterised by its
chronological division of the Gospel into three Passovers. The first is
the context for the Cleansing of the Temple (2:13-22), Jesus' first
journey to Jerusalem. The second Passover provides the setting as well
as core symbolism for the Feeding narrative (6:1-71) which, though set
in Galilee, is encompassed on either side by incidents in Jerusalem
(Sabbath controversy, 5:1-47; Tabernacles Discourse, 7:1-8:59). The
third Passover is introduced after the plot to kill Jesus (11:55), is
reiterated through the next eight chapters of the Gospel, and reaches a
climax in the trial and crucifixion narratives (12:1; 13:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14,
31, 42). These three paschal contexts "provide annual intervals within
which the rest of the narrative is structured".1
The Passover allusions are preceded in the opening chapter of the
Gospel by the momentous declaration of John the Baptist: "Behold the
Lamb of God" (1:29,35).13 "Lamb of God" is widely recognised as one
9. W. Carter argues along these lines, suggesting that, in the case of the feasts, while
there is disagreement over Jesus, "the practices themselves are not attacked" (John and
Empire; Initial Explorations [New York/London: T & T Clark, 2008], 37); see M. M. Pazdan,
"Jesus, Disciples, and Jewish Feasts in John", BToday 2 (1998), 79-85.
10. Lee, Symbolic Narratives, 23-35.
11. See Hirsch-Luipold, "Klartext in Bildern", 66, who relates this model to the
religious milieu of Middle Platonism, with its relationship between the ontic and the
perceptible. Thus the "signs" of the Old Testament make visible the "I am" of the Gospel
12. Culpepper, Anatomy, 72. Culpepper has calculated the uneven way time moves in
the three intervals of John's Gospel: 116 verses for the first year (about two weeks), 295
for the second (around a month), and chapters 12 to the end for the third year (a two-
week period, with chapters 13-19 covering only twenty-four hours). See also A.J.
Saldarini, "Passover in the Gospel of John", BToday 36 (1998), 86-91.
13. According to K.B. Larsen, John 1.29-34 functions chiasticalIy as a "recognition
scene" in which John the Baptist explains how he has come to recognise Jesus as both
"Lamb of God" and "Son of God" on the basis of the Spirit's revelation: John is thus the
ideal observer / recognizer and ideal informant / witness (Recognizing the Stranger:
Recognition Scenes in the Gospel ofJohn [BIS93; Leiden: Brill, 2008]96-112).
of the most ambiguous titles in the Gospel of Iohn.i- In the Old
Testament, the use of "lamb" mostly occurs in relation to Passover,
which is generally regarded as the primary referent of the Johannine
metaphor.t> The meaning is made more complicated by the addition of
the participial clause, "who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29), a
description not repeated in the Baptist's second attestation of Jesus as
"Lamb of God" (1:35). Its absence, if anything, underlines the paschal
In the Old Testament, Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread
are distinctive in ritual and meaning (Lev 23:4-8; Exod 12:1-50; 23:14-
18; 34:18-26),16 but the Fourth Gospel will transform their significance.
Allusion to Passover begins with the utterance of John the Baptist at
the same time as the metaphorical field expands.I? The reference to
taking away sin, which seems otherwise bewildering, suggests not
Passover but temple, both manifestations of The major
concern of the cult is with the forgiveness of sins (which mayor may
not include the sacrifice of a lamb). The parallel is particularly notable
in the case of the sin offering (for sins of ignorance) and the guilt
offering (involving restitution, Lev 4:1-6:7). One striking aspect of the
cult is the scapegoat (azazel) on the Day of Atonement, which literally
"takes away" the sins of the people into the wilderness (Lev 16) - a
rather different conception of "sacrifice" from the slaughter of animals
in the temple, and carrying its own metaphorical import. In each case,
the ritual regulations convey a sense of sin taken seriously, along with
the means for dealing with it. Both associations - the cult system
14. For the range of possible meanings, see, e.g., R. E. Brown, The Gospel of John (New
York: Doubleday, 1966), 1.58-63 and C. W. Skinner, "Another Look at 'the Lamb of
God"', Bibliotheca Sacra 161 (2004), 89-104; also J. T. Nielsen, "The Lamb of God: The
Cognitive Structure of a [ohannine Metaphor", in Frey, van der Watt and Zimmermann
(eds.), Imagery, 217-56, see pp. 225-226.
15. See, e.g., R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St John (ET: Tunbridge Wells:
Bums & Oates, 1968), 1.299-300; C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St John: An
Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (2
ed.; London: SPCK, 1978),
176-177; G. R. Beasley-Murray, John (WBC 36; Waco TX: Word Books, 1987), 24-25; F. J.
Moloney, The Gospel of John (SP 4; Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 1998), 58-59; U.
Schnelle, Das Evangelium nach Johannes (THNT 4; Leipzig: Evangelische Verlasanstalt.
1999), 49-50; C. S. Keener, The Gospel of John:A Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003),
1.454; and A. T. Lincoln, The Gospel According to St John (BNTC; London: Continuum,
16. On Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread as a single feast in origin and
practice, see the summary in L. Maluf, "The Passover Festival in the Book of Leviticus",
BToday 36 (1998), 19-21. On the keeping of Passover in the Old Testament, see also Num
9:1-14; Deut 16:1-8; 2 Kgs 23:21-23; 2 Chron 30:1-19; Ezra 6:19-22,1 Esdr 1:1-22, 7:10-14.
17. On the "image-fields" of the Fourth Gospel (Bildfelder), see U. Busse, "Metaphorik
und Rhetorik im JohannesevangeIium: Das Bildfeld vom Konig", in Frey, van der Watt
and Zimmermann (eds.), Imagery, 279-317, which particularly discusses the image of the
18. Note that the paschal interpretation refers to the evangelist's editorial work. Even if
John the Baptist's words are historical, they need not have carried Iohannine meaning;
see Skinner, "Lamb of God", 97, 102-104.
concerned with sin, and the scapegoat - make sense of the Johannine
description of the lamb, enlarging the meaning beyond that of
Alongside paschal imagery, the image of the Suffering Servant of
Isaiah 53:7 is a likely dimension of the symbolism, with its overtones of
suffering on behalf of Israel, an association shared with the paschal
The simile of the slaughtered animal who "absorbs imperial
violence and delivers God's people",21 suggests not only deliverance
from oppression, as does the paschal lamb, but also vicarious suffering
and sacrifice for the sheep who have "gone astray" and whose sins are
atoned for by the Servant (Isa 53:6, 10).22 If this consonance is correct,
we find the [ohannine text augmenting the primary symbolic meaning
of Passover with ideas of sacrifice and atonement.2
A further possibility along these lines is the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen
22:1-14), where Abraham's obedient intent to give up his son is an act
of sacrifice on his part, especially in light of the divine promise (Gen
15:1-6; 22:15-18). As the two trudge up the mountain together, the son's
innocent question and his father's ambiguous reply point to God as the
giver of the lamb for the sacrifice (Gen 22:7-8). Here again, as part of
the metaphorical field, the Johannine text augments the symbolism of
the paschal lamb with sacrificial overtones from another quarter. The
apocalyptic lamb represents another possible trajectory in this
metaphorical range (Test/os 19:8; 1 Enoch90:38; Rev 5-6; 17:14), injecting
the paschal and sacrificial symbolism with possible images of triumph
over death. None of these associations is particularly new; as
elsewhere in this Gospel, the symbolism is not easily delimited.
If such elements fall within the orbit of the Baptist's confession,
according to John, they need to be justified on the basis of their
19. A further point of connection is that ritual cleansing is associated with both the cult
and the keeping of Passover (e.g. Lev 12, 14-15; 2 Chron 30:17, 35:6).
20. Nielsen, "Lamb of God", 227-256, concludes that this title holds within it potential
for meaning but that, for John, the blending of Passover associations with the lamb of
Isaiah 53 encapsulates the metaphor. Nielsen denies any atoning significance to the title,
though he concedes that such a trajectory arises in later exegetical history.
21. Carter, john and Empire, 172.
22. J. M. Soskice distinguishes between similes that are illustrative and those
possessing the character of metaphor, which are thus "incremental" (Metaphor and
Religious Language [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987] 58-60); the image of the lamb
belongs in the latter category.
23. The tradition of interpretation which sees the lamb as linked, not just to Passover
and the Suffering Servant, but also to the atonement of sins, goes back to the Patristic
period (see, e.g., the catena in J. C. Elowsky [ed.] john 1-10 [ACCS IVa; Downers Grove
IL: InterVarsity, 2006] 66-79). According to Keener, the paschal lamb is already
understood within Judaism to have a sacrificial function (Gospel of john, 1.452-54), though
the evidence for this view is minimal. Schnackenburg (St john, 1.297-301), who sees the
title bringing together the paschal lamb with the Suffering Servant, regards the latter as
atoning: "it cannot be doubted that the vicarious expiation of Jesus' death is meant" (298;
cf 1 John 2:1-2; 3:5, 16; 4:10). On the significance of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament,
see C. A. Eberhart, "Characteristics of Sacrificial Metaphors in Hebrews", in G. Gelardini
(ed.), Hebrews: Contemporary Methods - New Insights (BIS; Leiden: Brill, 2005), 39-50.
consonance with wider Johannine themes and symbols.s- For example,
there are cultic parallels in the portrait of Jesus as the one who deals
authoritatively and definitively with sin, an authority bequeathed to
the apostolic community (20:22-23). The Suffering Servant coheres with
the Son who drinks the cup of suffering (18:11), and allows himself to
be seized by his enemies, precisely in fulfilment of the Scriptures. It
may be that the story of the sacrifice of Isaac influences not just the
Baptist's designation of Jesus but also the Gospel's dominant Father-
Son imagery. Note that the two titles by which John the Baptist
acclaims Jesus, set within close proximity, are "Son of God" and
"Lamb of GOd",25 the former encased within the latter (1:29, 34, 35),
giving a striking parallel with the Aqedah. Perhaps the apocalyptic
lamb seems least likely because of John's particular eschatological
focus. Yet John interprets the cross as the place of eschatological
triumph, the defeat of sin and death (12:31; 16:11; 19:30), and the image
of the lamb arrayed in triumph is hardly alien to John's soteriology.2
These secondary associations, moreover, need not be represented in
their fullness. Some of the objections to possible Old Testament
referents are based on the assertion of difference - for example, that the
cult uses animals other than lambs, that the azazel is an adult goat, that
the animal of the Aqedah turns out to be a ram, or that Abraham is
prevented from sacrificing his son. But if paschal imagery has primacy,
then other associations or connotations need not be ruled out, nor
should we expect every detail to conform, especially the further we
move from the centre of the symbolismP Metaphors by definition
diminish some elements in order to accentuate others: "Only certain
aspects of the total potential of the imageries are utilised and it is
important to identify those.... The author of John does not intend his
imageries to be open, but rather restricts them to certain aspects he
wants to utilise in the communication of his message."28 If the core
imagery is paschal, then aspects of other meanings may well take their
place within the same network, even if they are not central, though
where the network ends is a moot point. The important issue here is
24. P. N. Anderson warns of the danger of assuming a symbolic meaning in every
aspect of the Fourth Gospel ("Gradations of Symbolization in the Johannine Passion
Narrative", in Frey, van der Watt and Zimmermann [eds.], Imagery, 157-194); he himself
perceives political rather than theological import in the references to Passover (163-164).
See also Zimmermann's discussion of what makes symbolism in the Fourth Gospel
compelling, using the example of the garden motif ("Symbolic Communication" in
Thatcher and Moore [eds.], Anatomies of Narrative Criticism, esp. 226-34).
25. Larsen, Recognizing the Stranger, 98.
26. B. Witherington, John's Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox, 1995),66; see Skinner, "Another Look", 100-104.
27. This is the problem with the assessments of each option given, e.g., by Skinner,
"The Lamb of God", 90-102, who seems to assume that unless there is perfect fit, no
association exists.
28. J. G. van der Watt, "Ethics Alive in Imagery", in Frey, van der Watt and
Zimmermann (eds.), Imagery, 446.
that John is capable of re-working and augmenting images that have
come down to him in the tradition. In this case, it is perfectly possible
that he has enlarged Passover to include aspects other than the paschal
lamb, giving the symbolism a richer and more comprehensive
meaning. It is precisely the clause "who takes away the sin of the
world" that opens the door to sacrificial referents within the Old
Testament. This rhetorical process parallels the similar way in which
"Logos" opens itself to other christological images in the Gospel - in
particular that of Son (1:1-2, 14, 18),29 but also other titles: Messiah,
King of Israel, Son of Man (to name only those in the opening
narrative, 1:29-51).3
The image of the lamb is not repeated in the narrative of Jesus'
ministry but becomes visible in the Johannine depiction of the cross,
which is replete with paschal symbolism, creating a narrative frame for
the Gospel, an indusia. From this perspective, the Baptist's confession
is proleptic of the crucifixion where the elimination of sin occurs:
"[p]recisely at the place where the [ohannine Jesus first comes into
view, he appears as the Crucified" .31 Yet its early position in the
Gospel, pointing forward to the crucifixion at the end, gives the title
palpable status also within the ministry as a whole. Not only is "Lamb
of God" the first title outside the Prologue, it also leads directly to the
gathering of the first disciples (1:35-51), the declaratory utterance so
influencing two of the Baptist's disciples that they leave behind one
"teacher" for another.3
If so, we may well ask whether the title,
though not explicit in the ministry narrative, is not actually implied in
a number of subsequent contexts before the crucifixion.
There are literary reasons for arguing that, within the shape of the
[ohannine narrative, it is temple, as well as Passover, imagery that
carries the iconography of the lamb. The Fourth Gospel has already
indicated its temple Christology at 1:14 in the tabernacle language that
describes the incarnation. The Cleansing of the Temple furthers these
indications, as well as forming a link with the cultic overtones of
"Lamb of God". John's perspective on Jesus as the locus of divine glory
(daxa), symbolised in the temple and its rites, is made explicit in the
Cleansing, where John moves beyond any parallelism with the
29. See D. Lee, "The Gospel of John: Symbol and Prologue", Conversations 2 (2, 2008), / conversations.
30. Schnelle, Das Euangelium nach Johannes, 50.
31. Udo Schnelle, "Cross and Resurrection in the Gospel of John", in C. R. Koester and
R. Bieringer (eds.), The Resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of John (WUNT 222; Tiibingen:
Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 135. Schnelle connects the theme of taking away sin to the fact that,
in this Gospel, Jesus carries his own cross (19:17).
32. As Moloney notes, the noun theou ("of God", whether objective or subjective
genitive) is striking - not just any lamb, but God's (Gospel of John, 58-59).
Synoptic accounts in the earlier verses (2:14-17; Mark 12:15-18/parr.),
to an explicit identification of Jesus with the temple in the latter part of
the scene (2:18-22). There is a certain irony in the fact that it is Jesus, the
Lamb of God, who drives out the animals for sacrifice: "within this
pericope dealing with the expulsion of the sacrificial animals from the
Temple.. .is an intimation that Jesus himself will become a sacrifice."33
Later in the Gospel, the passion narrative will disclose Jesus as the "re-
built" temple of God whose death and resurrection are incandescent
with divine glory. In the meantime, cultic overtones are implied in the
"sign" which the Jerusalem authorities demand after Jesus has
"cleansed" the temple (2:18 - and which they will ironically effect). As
well as divine indwelling, all that the cult embodies in its prayerful
and sacrificial rites comes to fruition in the [ohannine Jesus. His unity
with the one he refers to magisterially as "my Father" (tou patros mou,
2:16), as well as his sacrificial death on the cross, fulfils Israel's cultic
vocation in the forgiveness of sins and the maintaining of covenant
unity with God.
The theme carries over from the Wedding at Cana
and the way in which the wine fulfils the purificatory rituals of
Judaism in water and stone jars (2:1-11), now embodied in the flesh of
the Logos. John begins to unfold in these opening scenes the theme of
Jesus as the Lamb of God whose death and resurrection fulfil all that is
prefigured in the sacrificial cult, the animals no longer needed within
the precincts of the sanctuary.35
Temple imagery once more comes to the fore in the central section
of the Samaritan dialogue (4:15-26), in which Jesus reveals himself to
the woman as the locale of true worship36 - the fulfilment not of
Samaritan worship but of what is embedded in Judaism. The Jerusalem
temple, with its rites and festivals, and its manifestation of divine
abiding, is archetypal in John's Christology. But this encounter also
unfolds the universalism inherent in the Baptist's central testimony:
"Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The
climactic acclamation, "Saviour of the world" (4:42), recalls that earlier
declaration, although the title itself is absent. Nonetheless, the saving
33. A.R. Kerr, The Temple of Jesus' Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John (JSNTSS
220; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 85. Also on temple imagery in John, see
M. L. Coloe, God Dwells With Us: Temple Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville:
Liturgical Press, 2001), esp. 65-84.
34. On the importance of covenant imagery in John, see R. M. Chennattu, "The
Covenant Motif: A Key to the Interpretation of John 15-16", in R. M. Chennattu and M. L.
Coloe (eds.), Transcending Boundaries: Contemporary Readings of the New Testament. Essays
in Honor of F. J. Moloney (Roma: LAS, 2005). 141-159.
35. Clearly some level of "replacement" is envisaged here, the Lamb of God replacing
the Iambs (and other animals) of the cult. Yet - even apart from the historical reality of
the destruction of the Temple by the time of the Fourth Gospel - the Old Testament
symbolic framework remains, so that the cultic practice, while no longer extant, drives
John's meaning; without its Jewish grounding, [ohannine Christology is inconceivable.
36. Further on the theme of worship, see D. Lee, ""In the Spirit of Truth": Worship and
Prayer in the Gospel of John and the Early Fathers", VigiliaeChristianae 58 (2004), 277-97.
function of the paschal lamb coheres with the theme of the passage,
underscoring its universalism.V The lamb, like the serpent in the
wilderness (3:14-15), is a type of the salvation represented in the
[ohannine Saviour; not only for Israel, but for the world (d. 6:33).38
The second Passover is located in the following section, from
chapters 5 to 10, usually entitled "the feasts of the Jews" - although
there is hardly a scene in the Gospel that does not envisage a feast
somewhere in the background.
This time Passover is located, not in
Jerusalem, unlike its surrounding narratives (Sabbath, John 5;
Tabernacles, John 7-9; Dedication, John 10), but in Galilee. Quite apart
from the narrative awkwardness associated with his journeying, Jesus'
presence is puzzling, given his attendance in Jerusalem at the other
two Passovers - not to mention his intention, whatever he tells his
brothers, of visiting Jerusalem for Tabernacles (7:3-10). Yet the feeding
saga works well for John's purposes. Passover and exodus symbolism
abounds in this narrative, from the following of the crowds, to the
bread and its associations with the manna, the figure of the Moses, the
crossing of the sea and overcoming of its violence and dangers, the
wilderness setting, Torah, and covenant - all these are consonant with
the exodus, and work well in a context outside Jerusalem.
The dialogue progresses, the crowd at first moving towards faith
and then - after the central revelation of Jesus as the Bread of Life
(6:35) - increasingly in the opposite direction; at the same time, "the
Jews" become alienated, divided among themselves, and finally
scandalised at Jesus' self-revelation (6:41, 62, 60). But the last straw,
from their point of view, is the third and last re-statement of the "1 am"
saying, to which everything thus far has been leading, and which
explicitly picks up the feeding story from the beginning: "the bread
which I give for the life of the world is my flesh" (6:51)... "unless you
eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood" (6:53). Several
things happen in these verses. In the first place, the "giving" of the
bread is seen to occur in and through the death of Jesus, symbolically
portrayed in eucharistic terms. Secondly, in the context of Passover
and the feast of Unleavened Bread, both the flesh and the blood are
represented as salvific ("the one who eats my flesh and drinks my
blood has eternal life", 6:54; d. 1 Cor 5:7). The language is covenantal
and sacrificial, as well as pointing centrally to faith. Just as the flesh of
37. Carter argues that the liberation theme is current for Johannine believers, the
Passover representing the call to exodus from the Artemis cult in Ephesus; thus the
Cleansing of the Temple has, for him, political overtones (John and Empire, 159-61; also
38. The point is stressed by Schnelle, Johannes, 50. The same transformation of Old
Testament imagery is present in the reference to sin in the singular (hamartia); see X.
Leon-Dufour, Lecture de l'Evangile selon Jean, Tome 1 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1987), 169.
Further, on sin in John, see Lee, Flesh and Glory, 166-96.
39. Dom G. Murray, "Jesus and the Feasts of the Jews", Downside Review 109 (1991),
the slaughtered lamb is eaten and its blood sprinkled on the lintels of
the door, giving protection from death and sustenance for the journey,
so the flesh of Jesus the paschal lamb is to be "eaten" and his blood, not
sprinkled this time but, in line with the eucharistic associations,
"drunk" to bring about eternal life.
The feeding story, so redolent
with Passover and exodus imagery, finds its true meaning in the death
and resurrection of Jesus, the Lamb of God whose own self is the
means of salvation.
At this stage of the dialogue, the "eating" moves
beyond the bread to "flesh", the shift indicating the Passover lamb
whose "flesh and blood" have such symbolic and theological import.
Explicitly paschal imagery will not emerge again until after the
raising of Lazarus (11:1-12:11). Yet sacrificial elements are present
throughout the final three chapters that bring to a climax the first half
of the Gospel. In the intermingling of images, John presents Jesus also
as shepherd of the sheep (10:1-18)/43 although the festal context is that
of Dedication rather than Passover (10:22).44 The imagery is evident in
the shepherd's knowledge of and care for the sheep; but it is most
startlingly apparent at the point where the imagery begins to break
down - where the shepherd will "lay down my life in order that I may
take it up again" (10:17).45 The Good Shepherd exercises kingly
authority, not only over the flock in its diversity but over life itself,
including his own (vno-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of
myself', 10:18).46 Paradoxically, Jesus is depicted as sovereign and as
innocent victim. The [ohannine Jesus is, in other words, Shepherd and
40. J. Ashton argues that a Passover, rather than eucharistic, context makes sense here
(Understanding the Fourth Gospel [2
ed.; Oxford/New York: Oxford University, 2007), 96;
also G. W. Ashby, "Body and Blood in John 6.41-65", Neotestamentica 36 (2002), 57-61.
However, given the breadth of Johannine symbolism, Passover and Eucharist need not be
regarded as alternatives.
41. B. W. Longenecker connects the unbroken body to the absence of reference to Jesus
breaking the bread in the Feeding story, unlike the Synoptics (Iohn 6:11; Mark 6:41/ parr.;
8:6/par.); he connects the theme of "unbrokenness" to that of unity in the Fourth Gospel
("The Unbroken Messiah: A Johannine Feature and its Social Functions", NTS 41 [2005]
42. On the maternal overtones of the symbolism, see Lee, Flesh and Glory, 148-49.
43. For a discussion of this passage as metaphor, see R. Kysar, Voyages with John.
Charting the Fourth Gospel (Waco TX: Baylor University, 2005), 161-82.
44. On the Fourth Gospel's dialectic Christology, see P. N. Anderson, "On Guessing
Points and Naming Stars: Epistemological Origins of John's Christological Tensions", in
R. Bauckham and C. Mosser (eds.), The Gospel of John and Christian Theology (Grand
Rapids MN: Eerdmans, 2008), 311-45.
45. J. Briend sees the heart of Passover in the Old Testament as the "passage from
death to life", which in the New Testament is inextricably linked to the death and
resurrection of Jesus ("La Paque: passage de la mort ala vie", La Maison-Dieu 240 [2004]
46. J. H. Neyrey (The Gospel of John [NCBC; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007]
296-297), sees parallels between John 10:1-18 and John 18:1-27, with Jesus as the "noble
shepherd"; he discusses the meaning of the passion in light of the shepherd-sheep theme
(312). On shepherd imagery used of God in the Old Testament, see, e.g., Gen 49:24, Num
27:17, 1 Kgs 22:17, 2 Chron 18:16, Ps 23:1, 28:9, 80:1, Isa 40:11, [er 31:10, Ezek 34:8, 12, 15,
Mic 7:14.
sacrificial Lamb, and it is only in both roles that his identity is
unfurled: the blameless quarry who suffers death, and the wielder of
dominion over life and death. In the end, though the Lamb is
slaughtered by an unholy alliance of his enemies, that death is
divinely-ordained and divinely-authorised - Jesus surrenders his own
spirit on the cross/ rather than having it taken from him ("and bowing
his head he handedover his spirit, 19:30).47 Not high priest and victim, in
[ohn's symbolic reckoning, but shepherd and lamb, giver of life for the
sheep and helpless sufferer amid the flock. The shepherd imagery is
thus drawn into the same metaphorical field, helping to construct a
rich and paradoxical Christology.s''
Three times in the next two pivotal chapters, John again makes
reference to Passover. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the last "sign" in
his public ministry, which will lead directly to the passion, is to
sacrifice his own life for that of Lazarus. The narrative emphasises the
danger of Jesus/ presence so close to the lair of his enemies: in Thomas'
lugubrious but insightful exhortation that the disciples "go and die
with him" (11:16)/ and in the sisters' caution in meeting Jesus (11:20/
28-29).49 The aftermath makes this explicit. The large numbers drawn
to Jesus by his self-revelation in restoring Lazarus to life give rise to the
plot to kill Jesus, at its centre being the ironical testimony of the high
priest to Jesus/ act of self-sacrifice: he must die"on behalfof the people"
(11:50). The anointing at Bethany likewise continues the stress on Jesus/
life-giving self-sacrifice: Mary's costly and sacrificial gesture, its sweet
savour counteracting the stench of death, mirrors that of Jesus
- the
cost of his life, the inevitability of his death, the love which motivates it
(12:1-8). Immediately following the plot, John emphasises, first, the
need of people for purification in order to eat the Passover (11:55) and,
secondly, the danger in Jesus/ attending the festival, given the
murderous intention of his enemies (11:56-57). The anointing is set "six
days before" the Passover (12:1)/ giving the reader the sense of time
now galloping forward towards the passion.
The third reference to Passover in this section is the scene in which
"the Greeks" indirectly approach Jesus (12:20). It is significant that the
desire of the Greeks, who have corne to Jerusalem to celebrate
Passover, to "see Jesus" (12:21)/ is not fulfilled at this juncture. But very
soon Jesus will be "seen" on the cross as the embodiment of Passover,
47. This point does not invalidate the possibility that John refers elliptically to the
donation of the Spirit-Paraclete; see Schnelle Johannes, 290-91.
48. Note the parallel with Rev 7:17: "for the lamb which is in the midst of the throne
will shepherd them and guide them to springs of the waters of life".
49. On the interweaving of this story with the death and resurrection of Jesus, see B.
Byrne, Lazarus. A Contemporary Reading of John 11.1-46 (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press,
1991),57-60, and Lee, Symbolic Narratives, 188-226.
50. On the contrast between the two savours, see Lee, Symbolic Narratives, 222, and
Flesh and Glory, 205-206; G. R. O'Day, "John", in C. A. Newsom and S. H. Ringe (eds.), The
Women's Bible Commentary (2nd ed.; London: SCM, 1998), 299.
for both judgement and salvation (19:37). These Gentiles represent "the
world" going after Jesus (12:19b), an indication of the universalism
which the title "Lamb of God" (and "Saviour") carries in the Johannine
narrative. Jesus' language in these verses, in response to those outside
Israel who seek him, indicates his omniscience, his preparedness for
his sacrificial death in the advent of "the hour", his mutual
glorification of the Father, and the giving of his flesh for the salvation
of the world (12:23-33).
Everything in the following five chapters of the Gospel, the final
meal and farewell discourse, is set within an explicitly paschal context
(13:1-17:26). Cultic imagery is also present, especially in the
footwashing which, in its primary symbolism, is about cleansing in
Jesus' death and thus union with him ("unless I wash you, you have no
part/ share, meros, with me", 13:8).51 While the significance of the
footwashing reaches to the life of the community and its love-relations
(13:12-17), the primary import is that of sharing in Jesus' sacrificial and
cleansing death. Here again, by implication, Jesus is depicted as the
one who "takes away the sin of the world", the paschal-sacrificial lamb
in whom salvation (liberation and forgiveness, the radical erasure of
sin) is attained. The image of the vine also includes a reference to
"cleansing" in the pruning of the unfruitful branches ("every branch
bearing fruit he cleanses [prunes] so that it may bear more fruit", 15:2).
Though not always explicit, John winds paschal and cultic imagery
into a number of core symbols, creating overlapping metaphorical
fields, so that the reader never loses sight of what the impending
passion (and departure of Jesus) signifies.
Paschal imagery, as is generally noted, is explicit throughout the
passion narrative. The piety of the Jerusalem authorities - their need
for ritual purification in order to celebrate Passover - creates the
dynamics of the central trial narrative, in which Pilate shuttles between
the ritually clean authorities outside the preetorium, who will slaughter
the Lamb of God (in alliance with Rome), and Jesus within, the Lamb
of God in whom all that Passover and cult signify reach fulfilment
(18:28-19:16a). It is of some consequence that here, as elsewhere, much
of the lamb representation is associated with John's characteristic
irony. "Behold the Man" (19:5), which parallels "behold the Lamb",
points to the one who will die "on behalf of the people" (11:50); it is the
authorities who will "destroy this sanctuary", who will maintain ritual
purity while engaging in an act of moral turpitude, who will be blind
to the one standing before them while engaging in paschal ritual that
finds its true (Johannine) meaning only, and ultimately, in him.
51. See J. C. Thomas, Footwashing in John 13 and the [ohannine Community aSNTSS 61;
Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 89-95, 186-189.
52. Carter questions the widespread view that Pilate is weak and manipulable in the
face of crafty Jewish authorities, seeing the scene as political, with the oppressive
character of Pilate representing the Roman Empire (John and Empire, 289-314).
same irony extends to the Romans. Pilate represents justice, yet is
responsible for a knowing act of injustice - whether malicious or in
self-defence. One of his soldiers releases the flood of blood and water
from the crucified Jesus which displays the divine, incarnate glory,
seals the covenant, and offers to the faithful eternal life. In both cases,
whether Jewish or Roman, the "world" ironically exposes its true
nature and spells its own condemnation in its attempt to quell the
The prolepsis of the Baptist's initial christological declaration is here
fulfilled, since what we see on the cross is none other than the Lamb of
God. For this, as have seen, the narrator has prepared us throughout
the Iohannine narrative. John makes the identification of Jesus with the
Lamb patent in the events surrounding the crucifixion. First and
foremost, the authorities' obsessive concern for their own ritual
purification is profoundly ironical, with the evangelist setting their
seeming piety over against their failure to perceive that the meaning of
Passover is fulfilled and brought to completion in the johannine Jesus.
The irony is intensified in that the "paschal lamb" whom they, in
effect, slaughter on the cross is none other than God's own Lamb. Their
simultaneous slaughter of the paschal lambs for their own celebration
of the feast now wears the signs of an intolerable distortion. Moreover,
their stringent observance of ritual purity in their refusal to enter the
praetorium contrasts with the cleansing effected by Jesus' death, from
which they exclude themselves.
Secondly, as is immediately apparent, John's dating of the
crucifixion differs significantly from that of the Synoptics. Whereas in
Mark's Gospel the Passover is celebrated at the Last Supper (Mark
14:12-26/ pars), in conjunction with the institution of the Christian
eucharist, in John's Gospel Passover takes place on the following day,
the day of crucifixion, and Jesus is crucified at the hour of slaughter of
the paschal lambs. The "sacramental" event enacted at the Last Supper
is, instead, the Footwashing (13:1-30), which is concerned with ritual
purity and symbolic of Jesus' act of self-sacrifice and humble service on
the cross. Both John and Synoptics tie the Passion narrative to
Passover, but they do so in very different ways. Both imply Jesus as the
paschal Lamb, but that implication is more intense and dramatic in the
Fourth Gospel.
Thirdly, John draws out paschal symbolism in describing the use of
hyssop for the sponge of vinegar (19:29; Exod 12:22), and in Jesus'
unbroken bones and the fulfilment of Scripture (19:31-36; Exod 12:10;
Num 9:12).53 The hyssop makes little sense at the literal sense, the plant
being soft and pliant, unable to support the weight of heavy flow. Its
53. It is also possible that the citation at 19:36 refers, not to the paschal lamb, but to the
suffering psalmist, whom God will protect (Ps 34:21). Most likely, both meanings are
present. See R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah. From Gethsemane to Grave (2 vols.; New
York: Doubleday, 1994),2.1185-86.
significance is clearly other, and most likely metaphorical for Passover.
The unbroken bones again emphasis that the icon on the cross is the
Lamb of God, his body whole and complete, as appropriate not only
for the paschal lamb but also for the animals used for sacrifice in the
cult. Similarly, the flow of blood and water - arguably the climax of the
Johannine Passion narrative - indicates that in the [ohannine Jesus the
typological role of the paschal and cultic lamb has been effected, whose
shed/ sprinkled blood affords protection and salvation, bringing the
covenant to birth. Only the gaze of faith permits such an insight (d.
1:14); for the [ohannine implied reader, this is truly the Lamb of God.
The taking away of sin is thereby achieved in the glorification of
God and the eschatological casting out of "the ruler of this world"
(12:32), since that eschatological "now" (nun) simultaneously spells the
end of sin and death. Here, as the Baptist has foretold, the "sin of the
world" is definitively dealt with: removed, defeated, overcome. For
this reason, on Easter Sunday the risen Christ in the Johannine Easter
narrative can give the gathered disciples authority to release and retain
sins (20:23), because the root cause has been destroyed in an atoning
sacrifice that makes full forgiveness possible. The barrier inhibiting"all
people" (or possibly "all things") has been dismantled, giving access to
the divine embrace, figuratively represented in the Gospel by the
raised arms of Jesus on the cross (12:32), and by the life-giving stream
that issues from his side.w
Given this brief overview of the narrative significance of the feast,
how then does the paschal and sacrificial language operate
symbolically within the text? In the Gospel of John, Passover - the
greatest of all the feasts in its iteration throughout the narrative - is
essential for understanding the Johannine Jesus.
Substance emerges
at the point where Passover and its accompanying images meet the
figure of Jesus, since metaphor is the merging of two distinct entities to
form a new reality. Through this example, we perceive that the concept
of "the [ohannine Jesus" emerges precisely in the fusing of a significant
number of Old Testament images, figures (Moses, Jacob, Abraham,
Isaiah), Torah and Wisdom, cultic rites and practice, all bringing into
54. When Jesus appears to the disciples, and later to Thomas, his wounds are still
visible. The expression "thrust your finger here" (20:27) suggests that the wound is
symbolically still open.
55. "Embodied in the incarnate Son of God the reader finds the perfection of what was
done in the Jewish Temple in signs and shadows ... There is no attempt to denigrate the
established and cherished ways of remembering and rendering present God's saving
action among his people. The account of Jesus' presence at the great feasts of Israel...
affirms that the former order has been perfected, not destroyed" (F. J. Moloney, Signs and
Shadows. Reading John 5-12 [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996]152).
being something fresh and unprecedented - not even to be confused
with the Jesus of the Synoptics, despite the significant points of
overlap. The rhetorical issue in this Gospel is that to see the one is to
see reflected, as in a mirror, the image of the other: to perceive these
Old Testament figures is to perceive the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel,
and vice versa. By the end of the Gospel, within its imaginative
framework, the Jewish Passover and Jesus merge into one. That is why
"salvation is of the Jews" (4:22). Judaism, and Judaism alone, in the
context particularly of Torah, provides the symbolic framework out of
which the [ohannine Jesus is formed - of which there is no better
example than Passover. The implied reader sees the face of Jesus in the
rituals of Passover, and sees Passover in the face of Jesus, especially as
that blending displays itself on the cross.
Yet it is not just the face, as it were, of the Johannine Jesus which
comes into focus through the metaphorical association. The rites of
Passover are rich and complex in meaning, especially when extended
to include other Old Testament features of cult, sacrifice and suffering.
The lamb implies a death and a consuming, a protection and a
redemption. Imagery of flesh and blood, as we have already seen in
the Fourth Gospel, lends itself to paschal imagery: cleansing, eating,
drinking, believing. The cross becomes the place where Passover (in its
extended sense) and the character of Jesus most fully and radically
cohere: in the crucifixion at the hour of slaughter, in the (ironically)
purificatory intentions of the authorities, in the wholeness of the bones,
in the aqueous flow - in the whole act of self-immolation.56 There is a
giving, in this event, an offering, a sacrifice, in which paschal and cultic
symbolism are indispensable for the unveiling of Jesus in this Gospel.
John's paschal Christology has important implications for the
believing community. The same giving in death - the self-giving of
God's Lamb - implies also a sacramental giving. 57 The one who "gives
his flesh for the life of the world" does so not only in his atoning death,
but also in the sacramental apprehension of that death. For the implied
reader to participate in this death, the fulfilment of Passover, there is
involved an "eating and drinking", just as there is in the original
Passover. The new comes into being in and through the structures of
the old. In the symbolic merging which takes place, in the widening of
the metaphorical field, the flesh of the [ohannine Jesus, assimilated by
faith in eucharistic participation, is the true, inner meaning of
Passover, to which - in John's theology - the old has pointed
56. On Passover imagery in the crucifixion, in relation to the scriptural quotations, see
M. Cornwell, "Behold the Lamb of God", Emmanuel 112 (2006), 139-143, 152-156.
57. For a brief history of debate on [ohannine sacramentality, see Koester, Symbolism,
257-262 (on John 6, see 94-100).
symbolically. Incarnation, crucifixion, sacrifice, eucharist: these unfold
as the true significance of Passover and cult, the symbolic framework
in which the new emerges from the chrysalis of the old.
The Fourth Gospel has its own way of employing overlapping
imagery associated with temple and cult. Here there is expansion, a
looping together of images not usually associated, in order to create
something symbolically and theologically new. Working as symbol
and metaphor, the imagery opens the world of the text to the informed
reader, creating an intricate metaphorical field that intersects with
other metaphorical fields in the Gospel. In its enlargement of Passover,
the Fourth Gospel draws on several Old Testament motifs to shape its
christological understanding of the death of Jesus. Paschal symbolism,
in its extended meaning, represents Jesus as the realisation of Passover
and cult, the Suffering Servant and victor over death. He is Shepherd
as well as sacrificial Lamb, hence injecting not just expansion but also
paradox within the metaphorical field. The distinctive nature of John's
symbolism has the capacity to carry this complex of referent and
meaning, supplying figurative form to the message of the [ohannine