The Gospel Ring (2)

John’s gospel is set up with at least eleven pairs of mirror-like bookends. Some of these chiastic reflections involve numbers,  most involve identical names (though not always identical people) and all involve similar thematic episodes.

Of these episodes, the most dramatic pair held up for comparison and contrast is Jesus’ resurrection coupled with Jesus casting the money changers out of the Temple. The emptying of the tomb and the emptying of the Temple, as it were.

Because the incident where Jesus made a whip to cast out the merchants and moneychangers occurs right at the beginning of this gospel and at the end of the gospel of Matthew, many commentators believe there were two similar events. One occurring at the start of Jesus’ ministry and one occurring in the week before His death on the cross.

I don’t think that’s a necessary conclusion. John marks off the days very carefully from the moment John the Baptist is asked by the leaders and priests who he is.  ‘The next day…’ (John 1:29), ‘The next day…’ (John 1:35), ‘The next day…’ (John 1:46), ‘Three days later…’ (John 2:1). Altogether six days between John being asked about his identity and the threshold event of Jesus’ first miracle.

Another huge parallel here—though not within this gospel. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus asks Peter what people are saying about His identity, then six days later takes him, along with James and John, up a mountain for the threshold event of the Transfiguration. In fact, the six-day interval in both cases, along with specific words spoken at each event, suggest these pairs of incidents were exactly two (perhaps three) years apart.  

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The Gospel Ring (1)

It’s been quite some time since my last post. Perhaps I should apologise but it wouldn’t be entirely sincere. I’ve been enjoying myself far too much to even begin to be sorry.

The fun started when I forgot a significant item of information I wanted for my next book. I could remember reading somewhere that John the apostle identifies himself as the author of the fourth gospel by using a unique placement. His signoff as ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ mirrors the testimony of John the Baptist at the beginning. This bookending identifies the writer as John.

Well, being unable to remember where I’d read this, I tried googling it. No joy. I remembered the technical name for this mirror technique was chiasmus and tried that as well. Lots of different examples of mirror episodes in John’s gospel turned up but not the particular matter I wanted. After quite a bit of searching, I began to realise that the lists of chiastic scenes were rarely the same. So I created my own list by putting together the ones I’d found. And that’s when I noticed something fascinating: the names almost always match.

It’s not just the testimony of John the apostle mirroring that of John the Baptist.

It’s a scene involving Mary the mother of Jesus mirroring one with Mary Magdalene.

It’s a scene with Nicodemus matching another with the same Nicodemus.

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Seventeens in Scripture (12)

The first epistle of John is often said to have a comparatively impoverished vocabulary compared to the gospel. It is also said to have ‘worked to death’ a very few select themes.

In a blog-length letter—a little under 2200 words—John used ‘eido’, to know the truth, seventeen times. Of course ensuring such an important word appears this exact number of times in such a comparatively short letter virtually guarantees this theme will appear to be over-emphasised.

  1. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 1 John 2:20 NIV
  2. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth… 1 John 2:21 NIV
  3. …but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 1 John 2:21 NIV
  4. If you know that he is righteous… 1 John 2:29 NIV
  5. …you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him. 1 John 2:29 NIV
  6. How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that… 1 John 3:1 NIV
  7. …it did not know him. 1 John 3:1 NIV

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Reflect or Reshape?

When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, he was keen to investigate both conventional and alternative medicine. As a consequence, he sent me off on his behalf to a course in ‘German New Medicine’.

The brainchild of oncologist, Dr Geerd Hamer, it looks upon cancer as a ‘disease of the soul’—and thus not only physical in nature but also psychological and spiritual.

The physical aspect looks back at a moment of trauma, usually a year or two in the past. The psychological component is about the words the person speaks over themselves at that moment of trauma. And the spiritual component of it looks at why those particular words were chosen and at long–term issues of forgiveness.

Ever since I did the course, I’ve got phonecalls from various people who know I attended, asking what the handbook suggests were the words that could initiate a particular disease. I’ve yet to have anyone disagree with what I’ve uncovered; in fact, mostly a dozen lightbulbs have gone on all at once for anyone who has asked.


According to Geerd Hamer, who looked at over 40 000 patients to formulate his theory, the words we speak over ourselves at a moment of trauma have immense power.

There is nothing new in the idea that words have power. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth by the power of the spoken word.

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Threshold Thursday

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about whom I’m writing for. Is it me? Well, of course it is, at least in the first instance. I’m very much of CS Lewis’ philosophy when it comes to writing: I write the sort of things I would have wanted to read or know as a kid or younger adult.

However, there’s an aspect of my writing that is not me. At the end of the day I want to communicate to the widest possible audience. So I make sacrifices to achieve that goal.

Lately, as I’ve struggled to communicate the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ to many writers who reject the idea, I’ve looked more deeply at the way Scripture writers told their stories. I’ve tried to see how they responded to the taste of their age and the target audience of the day.

So because today is the Thursday before Easter, I’d like to take a specific look at the story of Jesus in front of Annas and Caiaphas as told one of my heroes: a man who used numerical literary technique so exquisitely he raised it to an artform, an author who fused number and word design in ways that bubble with humour. But he also faced a complex problem that I’m glad I don’t: he wrote in Greek to communicate a Hebrew understanding of the world. Writing to Gentiles in their own language, he nonetheless wanted to convey to the Jews of the time the message that Jesus really is the Messiah.

John, the son of Zebedee, was clearly presented with a unique challenge.  How he responded is quite surprising: to me, it’s clear he selected his information so that the story of Jesus’ trial was told with specific reference to doors. 

Yes, doors.

Possibly you’ve never noticed them. So I’m going to point them out. In fact, John was so focussed on doors and words related to them that he occasionally offered us some really awkward constructions. Check out the words in bold: Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. (John 18:15-16)

It would be so much simpler if we had a name instead of ‘the other disciple, who was known to the high priest’. Many commentators believe the ‘other disciple’ was John himself and this is his rather inelegant attempt at humility. However, I don’t believe that needs to be the case at all. The disciple could have been anyone, male or female, close or distant. In my view, John simply didn’t want to mix his metaphors by mentioning a disciple whose name was not about a doorway.

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Noli me tángere

‘Do not touch me.’

After his resurrection, Jesus said to Mary Magdalene: ‘Do not touch me…

John recorded the incident in his gospel and the phrase was rendered in Latin as ‘Noli me tángere.’ In Greek, its meaning is closer to ‘stop holding on to me’.

The Latin may not be a perfect translation but its sense is valid: it harks back to a Jewish tradition surrounding the Day of Atonement. The high priest, as he completed the annual sacrifice and came out from behind the curtain separating the Holy of Holies, would say: ‘Do not touch me.’

Behind the phrase is a sense of one who is consecrated, set apart, dedicated, in some way special.

This sense persists even outside the religious sphere. There is a story by the fourth century grammarian, Solinus, that three hundred years after the death of Caesar white stags were found with collars inscribed: ‘Noli me tángere. Caesaris sum — Do not touch me. I am Caesar’s.’

The picture is one of dedication, separation and inviolability.

At the risk of turning from the sublime to the trivial, I’d like to explore the concept of noli me tángere within young adult literature. Recently I have had a number of young adult manuscripts to appraise. Several of them are romances based on similar ideas to series like Twilight or The Fallen.

Some of the authors have taken exception to my remark that a romance novel has to end with a marriage. It can end with the removal of the final impediment to marriage and its promise in the near future but basically the star-crossed lovers must be together.

Twilight, so these writers point out, is a romance that takes three books to achieve that end. Now this is where I take exception: Twilight is not a romance, it is part of a genre I class as ‘menarche fantasy’. Its target is young teenage girls and, while it has romance elements as all menarche fantasies do, its plot is driven by a conflict which can be characterised by noli me tángere.

‘Do not touch me, do not come near me… even though I really really want you to.’

The conflict appeals to a significant section of the young teenage girl population because they are at an age when they are starting to be seriously interested in boys but they are not yet sure about the boundaries they want to install. They want to touch and be touched while they simultaneously do not want to touch or be touched.

They want an ideal boy who is in some sense godlike in integrity, passionate but master of his passions, both untouchable and touchable. In the end, he’s got to be human in his desires but it’s quite in order to take three books to break down his defences. It’s a different genre entirely to romance, with different canons and different rules. To write it as if it is primarily romance is to miss the mark in every way and, instead of creating a deeply satisfying story, it will just be a mix-up that doesn’t quite work.

I first came across menarche fantasy many years ago in Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

I looked at the concept carefully, tried to understand it and used its basic ideas as a model for the romance between Tamarlane and Thuric in Many-Coloured Realm. There the noli me tángere conflict revolves around an unbreakable vow. But there are many other reasons for such a conflict: vampire, fallen angel, monk, to name just a few.

Whatever it is, however, it must be intrinsic and integral to the character, not external. Otherwise, it simply fails to achieve the satisfying resolution the readers want.

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The prologue and epilogue to John’s gospel are clearly defined literary sections. The opening, sometimes called the Hymn to the Logos, is composed of 496 syllables while the ending is 496 words in length. So far we’ve looked at five reasons why John might have chosen to highlight this number in order to make a persuasive and compelling ‘numerical literary’ apologetic. It might not impress the average post-modern thinker who grew up in a world where arithmetic and language are completely different subjects. However, even two millennia after it was written, its word-number fusion still retains enough of the ‘wow!’ factor to stop more than a few skeptics in their tracks.

So far we’ve looked at five reasons why John might have chosen to feature 496:

(1)   It’s a ‘perfect’ number.

(2)   It’s a ‘triangular’ number.

(3)   The mathematical structure recalls that of the Immanuel prophecy.

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Traditionally the last words of John the beloved disciple were ‘Little children, love one another.’ It seems a likely story because, after all, he says just that so often in his epistles.

However, it’s worth remembering that Jesus gave him and his brother James the nickname Boanerges, usually translated Sons of Thunder, but perhaps more correctly rendered sons of rage.  So the story that he grabbed his clothes and fled the public baths when he realised the Gnostic teacher Cerinthus was in the same building, just in case God’s wrath was about the turn the place to a cinder, is not altogether far-fetched.

The gospel of John was, in the second century, of uncertain status. Helms points out that some Christians believed it had been written by the apostle as an anti-gnostic anti-Cerinthian work while others considered it had been written by Cerinthus himself!

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It’s not particularly difficult to write in numerical literary style. The last three posts in this series were about the significance of the number 496, so naturally they were all 496 words long. It’s as simple as that to make a start.

One day, I’d like to emulate my hero—the author of the fourteenth century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—but I’ve a very long way to go before I reach the exalted heights of numerical artifice he achieved.

Numerical literary style has its detractors. They come in various ilks. Some critics agree that some ancient texts show a mathematical architecture, but think the motive is numerological. Others simply deny outright that any premeditated arithmetic design exists, preferring to explain away structural details as scribal error. ‘Why would anyone,’ they scoff, ‘mix words and numbers?  Why would anyone restrict the creative impulse by confining themselves to a rigid mathematical framework?’

I’d like to try these questions on a Japanese master of haiku, the 17-syllable poem of three lines in a 5-7-5 pattern. Behind the blank inscrutable stare I’d get, I’m sure there’d be the incredulous thought: ‘Don’t you get it? A true craftsman doesn’t find strict form a restraint, but freedom.’

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Some people find it almost impossible to make the mental shift required to think of numbers and letters as marriage partners. The very idea of mathematical metaphor is a stretch too far, so they automatically assume numerology, not numeracy.

However numerical literary style is as far from numerology as astronomy is from astrology. Even Jesus makes a passing reference to it in a famous passage: ‘…till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled…’ Matthew 5:18 NKJ

It’s no coincidence that just one verse removed from this remark, He refers to the scribes, known in Hebrew as the Sopherim. A scribe’s three main tasks were:

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There’s a famous story about Karl Friedrich Gauss, one of the most distinguished mathematicians of all time.  His talent was evident from an early age. His teacher told the class to add up all the numbers from one to 100.  Moments later, Gauss appeared at his desk with the correct answer: 5050.  The boy later to be known as ‘The Prince of Mathematicians’ had figured out a short-cut. His cunning method of calculation actually works for all similar situations or for so-called ‘triangular’ numbers. Triangular numbers have this name because, if they are arranged in rows of dots on paper, they form perfect triangles. However, they can also be found by adding successive whole numbers together. For instance, 171 is the eighteenth triangular number because all the numbers from one to 18 add to 171 while 153 is the seventeenth triangular number because all the numbers from one to 17 add to 153.

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Mention the word ‘mathematics’ and most people tend to squirm.  But I love the subject and I delight in finding it in unexpected places. I’m always thrilled to discover a new spot where God has pulled out all stops in a virtuoso display of numeracy.

Most people don’t cope well on being told the Bible is full of mathematics. They think numeracy equals numerology. But they are as different as astronomy and astrology.

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