0. It is
often said that there are no parables in the fourth gospel. But in the past
thirty years many Johannine scholars, following Dodd, have stressed the
parabolic character of several Johannine sayings and traced these to oral
tradition antedating the composition of the fourth gospel./1/
problem with claims that these are genuine Jesus sayings that circulated
independently is the absence of echoes or parallels outside Johannine
tradition. John 12:24 is the prime exception. Though itself verbally and
logically simple, its similarity to other ancient souces is so complex that
one would be foolish to dismiss it out of hand as a Johannine invention.
1. Context and Construction. John introduces the grain metaphor as the
second in a series of four sayings which are otherwise unrelated to
agricultural imagery. While all have obvious Johannine characteristics,
each has parallels to sayings found scattered in synoptic tradition./2/
The individal sayings are superficially independent of each other and are knit
together by a train of logic that is only loosely related to the narrative
context./3/ And unlike the long thematically focused monologues,
characteristic Johannine elements are more evident at the fringes than at
the center of these sayings. In particular, 12:25 preserves the structure
of a Jesus saying, which Mark and Q also present with characteristic performancial and hermeneutical variations./4/
12:24 also has striking
parallels to sayings found in the synoptics and elsewhere. There is no
word-link internal to these two sayings but rather an abstract logical
pairing of sayings relating death to life.
are common elements also on the deeper structural level. Both are based on
antithetical parallelism and their combination reinforces the same pattern,
making superficially unrelated statements synonymous:
die = stay alone / die = bear fruit
12:25 love life = lose life / hate life = keep life
Since at least the logical structure of the radical antithesis in 12:25
is traceable to Jesus, it is a priori possible that that in 12:24 is
too./5/ And as 12:24 is even less Johannine in wording than 12:25, it is
less plausibly passed off as a creation of the fourth evangelist.
2. Verbal parallels. For comparison with other sources 12:24 needs
to be parsed as follows:
A. Amen, Amen, I tell you:
C. the kernel of wheat
falling into the ground
E. it remains solitary.
B.** but if it
F. it bears much fruit.
A: Common introductory formula of which only the reduplication of Amen
can be ascribed to John.
B + B* + B**: Conditional antithesis ("if __ not dies / but if __ dies), a
pattern that is not exclusively or even characteristically Johannine. John
is particularly fond of pronouncements introduced by ἐὰν, but has only a few
beginning ἐὰν μὴ and only one other (16:7) followed by ἐὰν δὲ./6/
conditional statements, antithetical parallelism is rather common in Jesus
sayings, genuine or not.
More significant is the fact
that the first half of this condition is found verbatim in a statement with
a similar meaning in 1 Cor 15:36c:
"What you sow does not come to life unless it dies."
Yet Paul focuses on "sowing" (15:37); John does not mention it. And John's
antithetically paired construction (ἐὰν μὴ... ἐὰν δὲ) is both logically and
grammatically tighter than 1 Cor 15:36-37. Thus, direct Pauline influence
upon the fourth gospel here is improbable. It remains possible, however,
that a common saying lies behind both passages, as may be seen from C.
ὁ κόκκος τοῦ σίτου:
1 Cor 15:37 is the only other place in the NT where a
seed is specified as "wheat". But while John's "kernel" is definitely "of
wheat," Paul's is tentative (εἰ τύχοι).
Paul's qualification "if it should
happen (to be) of wheat or of one of the rest" is an aside, which digresses
from his point; John's gives his saying concrete focus. So it is less
likely that John 12:24 is abstracted from a passage in Paul than that 1 Cor
15:36-37 contains a fuzzy allusion to one or more seed sayings./7/
Paul may be cited as independent evidence of a saying that included both "a
kernel of wheat" and "unless it dies". The fact that John's version is
simpler in form than Paul's gives it at least logical priority.
Such a saying would be pre-synoptic and even pre-Pauline. But
the indirectness of Paul's allusion, leaves both the original conclusion and
source uncertain. The use of a kernel of wheat as an illustration of life
after death is also found in rabbinic tradition. A legendary interchange
between a pagan and the third generation tanna Meir of Tiberias (ca.
150 c.e.) is recounted as follows [b Sanhedrin 90b]:
Queen Cleopatra said to R. Meir:
"I know that the dead will live for it is written [Ps 72:16]:
'And like the grass of the ground they will sprout from the
But when they rise, will they rise up naked or in their
He said to her (arguing) qal wahomer from a kernel
"And what of a kernel of wheat, which is buried bare?
It rises up in so many garments.
How much more the righteous, who are buried in their
The queen's question is designed to embarass a Jew. For the sake of
argument the possibility of resurrection of the dead is granted. But the
possibility of clothing being restored is not. So the rabbi is challenged
to admit that the doctrine of resurrection endorses nudity. This would
delight a Hellenist but not a religious Jew. Meir's response was memorable
because it reconciled resurrection with traditional Semitic views on
While Meir lived in Galilee a century after Paul and the account of his
words comes to us from Iraq centuries later, there are several noteworthy
parallels between the apostle and the aggadist:
(a) Both were heirs to Pharisaic views on resurrection.
(b) Both respond to Gentiles who ridicule Jewish teaching.
(c) Both volunteer the example of a bare kernel of wheat./8/
(d) Neither cites a source for the metaphor.
It is even less probable that Meir is dependent on Paul than is John. So
the best explanation of these parallels is that a bare kernel of wheat
was a metaphor used in both Jewish and Christian circles to explain
resurrection and hence was based on earlier tradition. If the Talmud is
correct in ascribing this reply to Meir, then one could even trace the use
of a wheat kernel as metaphor for the human body to Galilean Judaism, which
creates a link to the milieu that gave rise to the sayings of Jesus. Like
Jesus a century earlier, Meir was known for his parables. But it is hardly
likely that he took his cue from a saying of Jesus any more than Paul. This
leads to these conclusions:
(a) The metaphorical association of a kernel of wheat with life after
death was not invented by Jesus and was known in Jewish
and Jewish Christian circles apart from ascription to him.
(b) The nucleus of a saying, "unless the kernel of wheat dies.../ but
if it dies..." comes from a Jewish and possibly Galilean source.
(c) This saying antedates the anti-Jewish or anti-Pharisaic levels
of the fourth gospel and possibly was known to Paul.
Since elements BC in John 12:24 are traceable to Jesus' general time and
environment, ascription to him is not implausible. But other elements
distinguishing it from something that any Jewish follower of Jesus could
have said to explain resurrection are needed to prove John's ascription
D + F: The image of a seed falling into the ground and bearing much fruit
is structurally identical with the conclusion of the parable of the sower
[Mark 4:8//Matt 13:8//Luke 13:8//Thom 9]. But the fourth gospel's direct
dependence on this parable is doubtful since it lacks any reference to the
character of the soil or the quantity of produce that is stressed in all
versions of the sower. It might be a remote abstraction of synoptic
tradition. But it could equally represent the logical core out of which the
synoptic seed parables grew.
In support of the latter one may cite 1 Clement 24:5, which unfolds as
a. The sower went forth and cast
each of the seeds
into the ground
d. and they fall
e. onto the ground
and suffer decay;
i. then from their decay
the greatness of the providence of the Master
raises them up,
l. and from one
and bring forth fruit.
Because of its opening (a), this passage may be dismissed as a loose
paraphrase of the parable of the sower. But in fact it is a complex collage
of only a few of its phrases (a-f) with even more elements parallel to 1 Cor
15 (b,g-k,m) or John 12 (cd,hi,l-o). And beyond (a), there is no sustained
sequence of words that is identical with any version of the sower. Moreover,
Clement makes no mention of any detail that distinguishes the sower from
other seed parables.
Rather, like Paul and John he focuses on the general pattern of seeds
transcending their descent into the earth. Here the focus is not on the
type of soil or the amount of produce, but on the biological necessity of
seed being planted in order to grow, which is precisely the point of John
12:24. And like John's Jesus, Clement's emphasis is on the ability of a
single kernel (see E) to produce much grain.
In fact, one can reconstruct almost all of John 12:24 from minimal
modification of some elements in Clement's statement (mdchlino)./9/ It is
unclear from the context, however, whether Clement has a specific Jesus
saying in mind or even if he is reminded of "crops" by thought of Jesus or
resurrection in general./10/ So, while he must be counted as a witness to
the content of John 12:24, he does not help resolve the question of whether
this is a genuine Jesus saying.
E: μόνος μένει
are the only words internal to the fourth gospel's wheat
parable that might be dismissed as Johannine./11/
But neither is peculiar
to this evangelist's vocabulary. And their combination here is logically
contrasted to πολὺν φέρει./12/
The latter is presented as a desirable
consequence, the former is not. In fact, this contrast is the focus of the
logical core of this saying: to live = to be alone, to die = to produce
much. One can accomplish much only if one is prepared to fall to the
ground! Far from being a defense of resurrection, John 12:24 is a call to
martyrdom, and so is an apt preface to 12:25. And it is more likely to be a
genuine Jesus saying than is the call to pick up the cross [Mark 8:34//Matt
16:24//Luke 9:23], which precedes the synoptic parallels to John 12:25.
3. Conclusions. Those who would deny to Jesus any intimation of
mortality or motivation of others to accept the supreme sacrifice might
instinctively wish to blackball this saying. But I urge a brighter response
in view of the following:
(a). At the logical if not at the grammatical level, John 12:24c is
structurally identical with Mark 4:8, which presents the primary focus of
the parable of the sower. The latter has been published as pink (with many
voting red). Since the seminar agreed to vote on the structure rather than
the precise phrasing of sayings, logic demands that the vote on John 12:24
vary no more than one shade (in either direction) from one's estimate of the
sower. This would require those who voted red or pink for the sower
consider this verse no less than gray. Otherwise, our votes could be
deemed subject to prejudice or inconsistency.
(b). John 12:24bc is structurally parallel to 12:25 and hence Luke
17:33. The Lukan version of the latter saying will appear as pink; the
Johannine gray, primarily because of its obvious introduction of wording
favored by this evangelist. But since 12:24 is (a) composed of phrases from
primitive tradition not otherwise used in the fourth gospel and (b) its
sense is similar to Luke 17:33, it should be given a vote no lower than that
cast for the latter.
(c). By itself John 12:24 gives no indication of being composed after
Jesus' death. Indeed, focus on Jesus in particular is evident only in the
evangelist's obviously secondary insertion of 12:24-25 into its present
narrative context. Dialectically it represents a digression in the
Johannine discourse. Abstracted from the text 12:24 is simply a
metaphorical way of stating the general principle that there are no results
without self sacrifice. The promise of "eternal life" as the reward is
found only in 12:25, and this may indeed come from John rather than Jesus.
12:24 promises the one who falls to the ground only "much fruit." The job
will get done even if the individual does not survive! As current
events make abundantly clear, this is the type of aphoristic wisdom that is
able to inspire many to dedicate themselves to a cause whatever the cost.
Putting oneself in harm's way may sometimes be the only way to achieve a
goal. The risk can be worth it, if one is assured that the sacrifice will
not be in vain.
If one thinks that the historical Jesus was a reckless dreamer who
inadvertently got crushed by the course of events that he did not
anticipate, then one might still be inclined towards a black vote in spite
of the above. But if one sees Jesus as totally dedicated to a cause and
consciously inspiring others to join him in subordinating personal comfort
to his vision of a basileia that challenges the current
socio-political order, then let your vote reflect that commitment and be the
color of blood.
Recommendation: John 12:24a gray
John 12:24bc red