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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

 

True, true, I tell you:
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
     it remains a single grain;
but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

   ---Gospel of John 12:24

 

 

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/  The primary 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.

But there 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:

12:24  not 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:
        B.                 Unless
        C.                             the kernel of wheat
        D.                                                               falling into the ground
        B.*                                                                                                      dies,
        E.                              it remains solitary.
        B.**              but if it                                                                          dies,
        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/ Apart from 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.

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/  If so, 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 city.'
            But when they rise, will they rise up naked or in their garments?"
            He said to her (arguing) qal wahomer from a kernel of wheat:
           "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 garments!"

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 modesty.

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 genuine.

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 follows:

a. The sower went forth and cast
b.                                                   each of the seeds
c.                                                                               into the ground
d. and they fall
e.                      onto the ground
f.                                                 parched
g.                                                             and bare
h.                                                                           and suffer decay;
i. then from their decay
j.                            the greatness of the providence of the Master
k.                                                                                          raises them up,
l. and from one
m.                    kernel
n.                               more grow
o.                                                 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

 

 

/1/ For John 12:24 as a parable see C.H. Dodd, Historical Tradition, 366-368; A.M. Hunter According to John, 83-84; R.E. Brown, John 472-473; B. Lindars, John, 428-429. R. Schnackenburg describes it as a parable but questions a pre-Johannine origin (John, 383-384). Others still draw a sharp contrast between synoptic "parables" and John's "allegories" (e.g. D.M. Smith, John, 4; R. Kysar, Maverick Gospel, 8).

/2/ The "son of Adam" is viewed as glorified not only in John 12:23 but Mark 8:38b, 13:26 and many Matthean sayings. John 12:25 reflects the lose/preserve antithesis of Mark 8:35 and Luke 17:33//Matt 10:39 (Q). John 12:26 combines a "follow me" theme (stressed more in the synoptics than John) with a diakonos Christou motif that is found elsewhere only in Paul.

/3/ John 12:20-22 elaborately introduces "Greeks" who go through a chain of disciples to "see" Jesus.  12:23's proclamation that this is the hour of the son of Adam's glorification is an appropriate reaction for the Johannine Jesus.  But 12:24-26 is a digression from the        dramatic context. For John, Jesus' "glory" = death, but explanation of the need to die (12:24) is hardly relevant here.  A warning against loving life in the world (12:25) is less so.  And for Jesus to assure followers of companionship and divine favor is to ignore the outsiders' request completely.  Only in 12:27-28 is there a return to the Johannine theme of the hour of glory (12:23).  And one never learns whether the Greeks saw Jesus or not.

/4/ See Crossan, In Fragments, 88-94.

/5/ See Jesus seminar voting for Sonoma 89.  Luke 17:33 was seen to be freer of hermeneutical modification than the other versions and was voted pink.  Only Mark 8:35 was recognized as revised enough to be printed black.  All other versions including John's were seen to reflect enough of Jesus' thought to be printed gray.

/6/ ἐὰν μὴ is absent from Johannine narrative and commentary.  John's Jesus initiates six other pronouncements with it (3:3, 3:5, 4:48, 6:53, 15:6, 16:7), half of which are introduced by the Amen formula [italics].  Matthew also has two Jesus sayings beginning with ἐὰν μὴ preceded by λέγω ὑμῖν (5:20, 18:3), the latter introduced by Amen. Even Thomas credited Jesus with a pronouncement opened by a negative condition (27). And the pairing of a negative ἐὰν statement with a positive one is no more frequent in John (12:24, 15:5-7, 16:7) than in Matthew (6:14-15, 18:16, 10:12-13 [//Luke 10:6]). The major difference is in emphasis: in the synoptics the positive regularly is given first, in John last.

/7/ Elsewhere κόκκος ("kernel") is used to characterize mustard seed in both Mark and Q's versions of what is generally recognized as a genuine parable of Jesus (Mark 4:31; Matt 13:31; Luke 13:19).  Since this κόκκος is "sown" (in both Markan and Q variants) like the unspecified seeds in other parables, it is just possible that Paul's vague identification of "what you sow" as τινος τῶν λοιπῶν refers to the mustard and related parables.

/8/ Compare Paul's γυμνὸν κόκκον (1 Cor 15:37) with Meir's response above.

/9/ Only the specification "of wheat" and the antithetical condition "if not...but if" are absent from Clement.

/10/ See 1 Clement 25:1-4 (SP 1).

/11/ So Dodd, Historical Tradition, 367-368.

/12/ Compare Clement's contrast between one kernel and more fruit above (elements l-o).

 

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  • This paper was presented in March 1990 at the spring session of the Jesus Seminar at Sonoma CA.

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