Trends in the reception history of the royal official in John 4:43–54

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Abstract

In this article the royal official portrayed in John 4:43–54 is discussed. The purpose is not to offer my own interpretation of this character (this has already been done, in a paper read at a conference of the Colloquium Ioanneum in August 2017; to be published later), but rather to discuss some of the ways in which this character has been understood through the centuries, in order to enrich our own interpretation of the official. Before this is done, the ambiguity of the text is first discussed. In particular, it is shown that the choice one makes with regard to the following issues determines one’s understanding of the official to a large extent: (1) the relationship between this text and the narratives in Matthew 8:5–13 and Luke 7:1–10; (2) the meaning of vv. 43–45 (in particular of the words γάρ and πατρίς) and its relevance for understanding the official; (3) the most important characteristics to be associated with the concept βασιλικός; (4) the implication of Jesus’ reaction in v. 48; and (5) the twofold reference to the faith of the official. This is followed by a detailed discussion of the way in which exegetes interpret the official. This may be summarised briefly as follows:

Origen’s interpretation of the text was aimed at refuting Gnostic exegesis of his time and at showing how allegorical exegesis may be used in an appropriate way. Accordingly, he spends relatively little time on the literal meaning of the text and, instead, concentrates on the deeper meaning of the text in various ways: Firstly, the “father” is regarded as a symbol for Abraham and the “son” as a symbol for the Jewish nation that had become spiritually weak; secondly, the “son” is interpreted as a symbol for believers who had become spiritually weary; and thirdly, the fact that the “father” approached Jesus for help is viewed as a symbol for the idea that the spiritual powers were so impressed by Christ’s power that they even started praying for people under their control.

John Chrysostom places much emphasis on the official’s weak faith in order to encourage his readers to fare better in their own spiritual lives. He also argues that the narrative shows us that miracles are actually not meant for believers; rather, it is Jesus’ teaching that should be regarded as important by us.

Augustine’s interpretation of the text is dominated by the notion that the Galileans did not believe in Jesus (vv. 44–45); accordingly, he also emphasises the official’s weak faith, and even when the official comes to faith this is interpreted in a negative sense: unlike the Samaritans he needed a sign to believe in Jesus. Augustine also regards the negative way in which the Galileans responded to Jesus as a prodigium for his own time, referring to the masses of Jews in his days who did not believe in Christ.

Cyril of Alexandria’s interpretation of the text is dominated by theological notions that he held. For example, he regards the official’s faith mentioned in v. 49 as insufficient, due to the fact the he did not yet believe that Jesus was God by nature. On the other hand, Cyril also emphasises the fact that Christ condones the official’s weak faith. This notion is then appropriated for his own time: since Jesus is God, he is kind even to those who stumble spiritually.

Thomas Aquinas reads the narrative within its broader context: having shown how non-Jews (the Samaritans) came to faith on account of Jesus’ words, John now shows how they came to faith on account of a sign. After a very careful literal reading of the text he then appropriates it in various ways: allegorically, morally and mystically. Allegorically, the “official” represents Abraham, and his “son” the Jewish nation, sickened by the wrong doctrine. Morally, the “king” that is served by the official represents human reason; if one’s reason becomes obscured one becomes a mere “official”; and the “son” who is “ill” represents one’s human affections deviating from what is good since one’s reason is no longer in charge. Mystically, the “official” represents one’s reason and his “slaves” one’s good deeds, since such deeds prove that one is in charge of one’s actions and feelings. Aquinas even appropriates details in the text for his own time, e.g. the official’s response to Jesus’ statement is interpreted as the first of four steps that are necessary for justification, and the fact that the official and his household believe in Jesus is interpreted in terms of the three phases of faith outlined by Bede.

According to Desiderius Erasmus the official is non-Jewish and this choice determines Erasmus’s interpretation of the text, as he believes that John recounts this narrative in order to reproach the Jews for not having faith in Jesus: even a non-Jew in service of the emperor came to faith in Jesus. Accordingly, Erasmus also interprets Jesus’ statement in v. 48 as directed at the Jews. A further characteristic of Erasmus’s exegesis is the extra details he adds to the narrative in order to explain events logically, for example, that the official loved his son very much, and that he could not take his son to Jesus because his son was too ill to travel.

The most striking feature of John Calvin’s reading of the text is the way in which he systematically appropriates everything that the official experiences in the narrative for his own audience. For example, Jesus’ rebuke in v. 48 is applied to contemporaries who are interested only in miracles, but not in his teaching, and the fact that Jesus heals the official’s son in spite of a weak faith is interpreted as an indication that Christ corrects the errors in our prayers.

Cornelius a Lapide reads the narrative in a very careful way, among others by using the Greek and Syriac versions. This reading is then used as a basis for determining the deeper sense of the text. Like Theophylact he interprets it tropologically: The official (= “little king”) represents every human, since humans have power over everything; the “son” represents the human reason whose “illness” is caused by evil desires. That Christ “went down” refers to his compassionate turning towards humanity, and his instruction to the official to “go” refers to the fact that one should continually make progress in good things so that one’s “son” should live. Furthermore, like Origen, he also interprets the “seventh hour” as symbolically indicating the notion of rest, and then also adds his own symbolic interpretation, namely that it refers to the Holy Spirit.

Keywords: Augustine; characterisation; Cornelius a Lapide; Cyril of Alexandria; Desiderius Erasmus; exegesis; history of interpretation; John 4:43–54; John Calvin; John Chrysostom; Origin; Royal official; Thomas Aquinas

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Tendense in die uitleggeskiedenis van die koninklike amptenaar in Johannes 4:43–54

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